The Children in Nathan Phillips Square
It would be better maybe if we could stop loving the children
and their delicate brawls, pelting across the square in tandem, deking
from cover to cover in raucous celebration and they are never
winded, bemusing us with the rites of our own
gone childhood; if only they stopped
mattering, the children, it might be possible, now
while the square lies stunned by noon.
What is real is fitful, and always the beautiful footholds
crumble the moment I set my mind aside, though the world does recur.
Better, I think, to avoid the scandal of being – the headlong
particulars, which as they lose their animal purchase
cease to endorse us, though the ignominious hankerings
go on; this induces the ache of things, and the lonesome ego
sets out once again dragging its lethal desires across the world,
which does not regard them. Perhaps we should
bless what doesn’t attach us, though I do not know
where we are to find nourishment.
So, in the square, it is a
blessed humdrum; the kids climb over the Archer, and
the pool reflects the sky, and the people passing by,
who doze, and gently from above the visible pollutants descend,
coating the towers’ sheath. Sometimes it
works but once in summer looking up I saw the noxious cloud suspended
taut above the city, clenched, as now everywhere it is the
imperial way of life that bestows its fall-out. And it did not
stay inert, but across the fabled horizon of Bay Street they
came riding the liberators, the deputies of Jesus, the Marines,
and had released bacterial missiles over the Golden Horseshoe
for love of all mankind,
and I saw my people streaming after calling welcome for the small change,
and I ran in my mind crying humiliation upon the country,
as now I do also for it is
hard to stay at the center when you’re
losing it one more time, though the pool
reflects the placid sky, and the people passing by, and daily
our acquiescence presses down on us from above and we have no room to be.
It is the children’s fault as they swarm for we cannot stop caring.
In a bad time, people, from an outpost of empire I write
bewildered, though on about living. It is to set down a nation’s
failure of nerve; I mean complicity, which is signified by the
gaseous stain above us. For a man who
fries the skin of kids with burning jelly is a
criminal. Even though he loves children he is a criminal. Even though his
money pumps your oil he is criminal, and though his
programs infest the air you breathe he is
criminal and though his honest quislings run your
government he is criminal and though you do not love his enemies
he is criminal and though you lose your job on his say-so he is criminal and
though your country will founder without him he is criminal and
though he has transformed the categories of your
refusal by the pressure of his media he is a criminal.
And the consenting citizens of a minor and docile colony
are cogs in a useful tool, though in no way
necessary and scarcely
criminal at all and their leaders are
honourable men, as for example Paul Martin.
In Germany, the civic square in many little towns is
hallowed for people. Laid out just so, with
flowers and fountains and during the war you could come and
relax for an hour, catch a parade or just
get away from the interminable racket of the trains,
clattering through the outskirts with their lousy expendable cargo.
Little cafes often, fronting the square. Beer and a chance to relax.
And except for the children it’s peaceful here
too, under the sun’s warm sedation.
The humiliations of imperial necessity
are an old story, though it does not
improve in the telling and no man
believes it of himself.
It is not Mr. Martin who sprays the poison mist on the fields of the Vietnamese, not in person nor fries civilians and if he
defends an indefensible war, making himself a
stooge, making his people accessories to genocide, he is no
worse a man than the other well intentioned sellouts of history —
the Britons who went over to the legionaries, sadly for the
sake of the larger peace,
the tired professors of Freiburg, Berlin, the statesmen at Munich, those
estimable men, and the lovers of peace, the brisk switchers who
told it in Budapest. Doesn’t the
service of quiet diplomacy require dirty hands?
(Does the sun in summer pour its warm light into the square
for us to ignore? We have our own commitments.)
And then if it doesn’t work one is finally
on the winning side though that is
unkind: Mr. Martin is an honourable man, as we are all
Canadians and honourable men.
And this is void, to participate in an
abomination larger than yourself. It is to fashion
other men’s napalm and know it, to be a
Canadian safe in the square and watch the children dance and
dance and smell the lissome burning
bodies to be born in
old necessity to breathe polluted air and
come of age in Canada with lies and vertical on earth no man has drawn a
breath that was not lethal to some brother it is
yank and chink and hogtown linked in
guilty genesis it is the sorry mortal
sellout burning kids by proxy acquiescent
still though still denying it is merely to be human.
Lee, Dennis. “The Children in Nathan Phillips Square.” The New Romans: Candid Canadian Opinions of the U.S. Ed. Al Purdy. Edmonton: Hurtig, 1968. 144–47. This poem is the third elegy in Lee’s Civil Elegies (Toronto: Anansi, 1968), and a revised version appears as the fifth elegy in Lee’s Civil Elegies and Other Poems (Toronto: Anansi, 1972). In neither book does the elegy have the title it bears in The New Romans.