Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

A halt, which is empty: 402 McLeod Street, Stewarton (part two)

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402 McLoed Street

By rob mclennan

Read part one of ?A halt, which is empty.?

Just east of us, the Museum of Nature, housed in the Victoria Memorial Museum building. It?s a museum I have visited since I was small, back to its days as the National Museum of Man. Over the years, I?d been with school trips, Boy Scouts and various family members. My daughter spent a night or two there with a group of Girl Guides, invited by her mother?s best friend, a Girl Guide leader. I?m sure there are more than a few poems composed around the building, on the site. Writer and editor Anita Dolman lived across the street for a while, in the apartment building at 201 McLeod from 2003 to 2005 and wrote a couple of neighbourhood references in her chapbook Scalpel, tea and shot glass (above/ground press, 2004), including references to her apartment view over Gladstone, the failing elevator and the Museum itself, almost directly across from her front lobby:


Castle water seeps, streaks
along unwashed walls, slides
into pools in the surface of stones
and clings — an ever-damp that nothing,
short of nuclear war, can evaporate. A history
of cracks wanders through once-well-furnished rooms
to a tower busily wearing its past to a nub.
I am envious, small fragility, of the stones and the shadows,
how long they?ll continue to defend their mortality
against the daily soldiers of dust and rain that come
to bury them alive, or carve this architecture down, like earth
by millennia of pushing water, until the tourists come
to teeter at the edge
of magnificent absence.

Her one-bedroom apartment on McLeod, which hosted at least one meeting for our writer?s group, accidentally naming both the group and the subsequent journal when I discovered two pillows in the lobby with the ?Peter F. Yacht Club? logo, emblazoned. The remains of a tenant?s possessions awaiting disposal, abandoned in a mound. To this day, we haven?t a clue where the pillows came from, or if a yacht club with that name existed. Repeated Google searches come up frustratingly cold, inevitably begin and end with me. A decade earlier, Rob Manery ran hole magazine and hole books with Louis Cabri from his apartment in the next building east to where Dolman lived, at the north-west corner at Elgin, a building where Cabri also resided, earlier. As Manery says, neither wrote any writing specific to the neighbourhood.

In 1912, the Museum of Nature, then known as the Victoria Memorial Museum, was officially opened, the same year construction completed the Chateau Laurier and attached Union Station. In her Ottawa: The Capital of Canada, Shirley E. Woods, Jr., writes:

The eight-acre site of the new museum, bounded by Argyle Avenue, Elgin, McLeod, and O?Connor streets, was purchased by the Canadian Government in 1902 for $73,000. This property had previously been the home of Catherine Stewart, who had lived in Appin Place, a large Gothic house surrounded by magnificent grounds, until her death in 1900. [?] The Appin Place property was chosen by the government because they envisaged the museum as the terminus of a stately avenue — Metcalfe Street — leading directly to the Parliament buildings. However, as a building site, it had one serious drawback: beneath the overburden of topsoil there was a 140-foot-thick layer of Leda clay. The government?s architects were made aware of this problem but insisted over the contractor?s protests that construction proceed. It was a long and exceedingly difficult task, which started in 1905 and was not completed until 1912. Three hundred stone masons were imported from Scotland to deal with the intricate stonework of the turreted design. Soon after the massive outer walls were erected, the building began to sink in the clay, and many of the labourers refused to work in the basement because of alarming shifts in the floor. Three years after the museum was completed, the tall central tower (which resembled a Victorian wedding cake) started to shear away from the main structure. Most of the tower was dismantled in 1916, and with it went the symmetry of the whole building.

Alberta poet Monty Reid moved from Drumheller, Alberta to Luskville, near Aylmer, Quebec in April, 1999, to be the new Director of Exhibitions at the Museum of Nature. After 17 years at the Royal Tyrell, he was originally brought in to help with the massive reconstruction project that saw the entire building gutted, reinforced and renovated. His recent sequence, Site Conditions, he says, was triggered from the extensive renovations he oversaw during his tenure there. I wrote my own Museum of Nature renovations poem, which appeared in my kate street (2010), a short sequence composed of salvaged parts. I used to joke, he moved from Badlands, Alberta to Badlands, Quebec. From 2004 to 2006 he lived at 35 Cartier Street, a short walk to work, where he composed a couple of Museum-specific pieces, including ?Moving the Dioramas,? that first appeared in Arc Poetry Magazine 56 (Summer 2006).

Moving the Dioramas

(for Christine Saumur)

We are dismantling the illusion of nature.
That much beloved thing that generations
have stared at through the glass.
We need to move it to a new location.

We could put it anywhere, as long as
we can crate it up properly and the bigger pieces
fit through the windows so the crane
can hook onto them.

Some people think they have made a great
discovery and announce there is nothing but illusion.
They should come and help us move the damn thing.

We?ll take the birds out one at a time
and do our best to conserve them. They?re
full of arsenic and god knows what else.
but no dermestids that live on soft tissue and irony.

When it comes to the moose, well, we?ll have to
put it in a sling and hoist it across the atrium.
We?ll make it fly.

No one ever said it was anything but an illusion.
People loved it just the same.
They loved the fact that it was an illusion and they bumped
their noses on the glass looking for the goslings
in the bottom corner.

You can see the streaks.

When the Parliament buildings suffered a devastating fire in 1916, the Victoria Memorial Museum building housed a temporarily relocated Parliament, during the five years the reconstruction required. The late Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier in state. There have even been rumours of a stretch of tunnels from the Parliament years heading north for security reasons, from sub-strata, basements. During the renovations, Reid claimed to even have found the traces of a north-facing door in one of the lowest levels. Whatever it might have led to long built over and erased.

Since he left the museum in January 2010, the grounds have lost a large tree on the north end of the grounds, and another patch of the park surrounding the building is being lost to asphalt. The result of current plans and planning, and a diminishing return on federal funding for the required underground parking that would have saved the space. The great irony, as Reid?s poem suggests, and now the Museum of Nature replaces parkland, one of the few green spaces in Centretown, with parking lot. The renovation project, the years it went through, and the building updated, even returning that column removed for its weight. Waiting a century to style with glass. In our new home on McLeod, I write out poems on the Museum of Nature site, on Catherine Stewart?s Appin Place:

How do you feel? We take the name. Connected to the word, default. Transcription. Sucker-punch. A sidewalk vertabrae, set once in place. Amazing Grace. As valuable as the book.

Telegraph, your perfect body. Worship, once was broken. Graft a tired genome.

Untarnished. Uselessness, of parliament. Insurgents sleeve, and kiss. Long syllable immediately followed. Glottal stop.

Despair, half-hearted wing.

Understanding, carves a castle, is. In the doorway framed, a new particular. Gateway, less consumed. Gash in the earth, where once a man, fell. Steel plates of glass.

Leda clay, a swan song-throttle. Sinks. Could not support the weight.

Over the past few years, I have been working very deliberately to carve myself a new space, altering the way I compose, so the writing I am doing can also be changed. Some of these changes are deliberate and others the results of deeper shifts. The poems that make up the growing manuscript, ?A halt, which is empty,? are various attempts at a series of sketches, in the classical sense, rough lines to map out a particular kind of landscape. Sketches, as a series of small studies, each focused on an idea, phrase or a place, whether Ottawa?s greenspace, the early history of Bytown, contemporary Bank Street construction, the War of 1812 or reflecting the recent move. What do we know of history, and what, if anything, does it have to do with the present?

Slightly west of the Museum, poet Robin Hannah lived in a small building on Argyle, just east of Bank Street, the intersection where crown attorney Patricia Allen was killed in broad daylight with a crossbow by her estranged husband in November 1991. Granddaughter of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, Hannah lived in Ottawa throughout the 1990s, where she quietly composed, crafting her poems. In near-secret, it seemed. The story she once told of one of the annual Christmas cards sent out from the Hill, a photograph of Prime Minister ?Mike,? with five-year-old Robin on his lap. Her poetry manuscript, ?Gift of Screws,? won the New Muse Award for 1996, and was published by Joe Blades? Broken Jaw Press in Fredericton a year later as her first, and so far only, trade collection. Her silence has long since moved to Toronto, where she and her mother sat quietly at the back of the CBC studio audience for ?Canada?s Greatest Canadian,? championing her maternal grandfather. Her gift of screws included this small piece, composed during her tenure on Argyle.

Crossbow on Argyle

November colorless

hangs over the street, heel-clicking stark
and stone cold

autumn lies dead on the curb

She walks this morning, her breath
leaving clouds, like possibilities,
and forgets to be afraid

nearby hate is cocked
and he is waiting.

The encounter comes quick, he knows what he wants,
a finger released and he?s done

she leaves a stain
clotted cold across the pavement,

a poppy-smeared reminder of the day.

In the new west end City of Ottawa Archives building on Woodroffe Avenue, the Ottawa City Directories lead to listings of McLeod Street, which ?runs west from Rideau Canal first south of Ann? (1889-1890), ?west from Cartier to Concession, first south of Ann? (1890-1891), ?runs west from the Canal to Concession, first south of Gladstone av? (1900). Concession, which became Bronson; Ann, which became Gladstone. The lot itself, 402, first listed separately as ?vacant? in the 1892-1893 listing, a year later, attached to a name: Dewar John H.

John H. Dewar. Further searching reveals an insurance agent, listed only as ?ins 104 Sparks l 335 Wellington 1890-1? in the 1890-1891, a year later as ?City and District Agent, Manchester Fire Assurance Co, 128 1/2 Sparks h 385 Wellington,? and further, with the insurance company, ?Dewar & Bethune.? A company, by the way, that still exists. A quick phone message left on their west end telephone results in a message return, but no information. The people we bought it from bought it from someone else, I?m told. We know nothing of the man. Our landlord informs, this the company that insures the building. Is this normal, or the strangest of coincidences, over a century later?

I lived nearly a year in the mid-1990s with another partner, Tamara Fairchild, and her five-year-old twin daughters, at 586 McLeod Street. A third floor walk-up in a building made for three apartments, at the opposite end of the street, just three doors shy of Bronson. Sixteen years or so, from one end of the street to the other. And just what have I learned, in all that time? Slightly earlier, I shared an apartment in a ramshackle house on Flora Street, with infant daughter and her mother, my first girlfriend, just behind where Christine and I currently live. Converted poorly to apartments, this was the first we properly shared as a family unit, and where I started self-publishing, conceiving the beginnings of what would soon become above/ground press. Ann-Marie, baby Kate and I most likely moved in around fall 1991, relocating a year later to Pretoria Street, nearly at the Canal, where I ran our small daycare, much of which I haven?t given much thought to in years. The small structure on Flora Street, thankfully, has been long replaced with another, a larger apartment building that rides the whole stretch, from Flora up to McLeod.

Over the past few years, I?ve been interested in just what some of the options of the lyric sentence might be, ranging from explorations through the American journal sentence: the journal of the prose poem to the writing of Lisa Robertson, Rae Armantrout, Elizabeth Robinson, Elizabeth Willis, Anne Carson, Susan Howe and Lisa Jarnot. The lyric sentence, connecting disparate parts as far back, and as far ahead, as possible, proving the elasticity and even durability of the lyric. The lyric sentence writing out history. A lyric history, perhaps. The poetry manuscript, ?A halt, which is empty,? begun around the time we moved, is peppered with local geography, history and landmarks, from the Rideau Canal, this past summer?s Bank Street construction through the Glebe, the Museum of Nature, Appin Place and Stewarton. In many ways, it?s an Ottawa manuscript, and yet, more likely a Stewarton manuscript, centred here in this new space.

box-like, dole and ignorance; petaled, peal
of misshaped grass                     dowel
                    to a bowline, knot

embraced: orange-amber backhoes stretch, scrapes baritone
to bedrock, bass
                              , a charcoal undertone

Co-establishing a new apartment, I recommit my relationship to the City of Ottawa, city of my birth. I will be here a while longer.

Born in Ottawa, Canada?s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011) and kate street (Moira, 2011), and a second novel, missing persons (2009), as well as the travel volume, Ottawa: The Unknown City (2008). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics ( and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater ( He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at

Photo of rob mclennan by Stephen Brockwell

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