Aritha van Herk's "Pancake banquet"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

Stampede breakfast downtown Calgary, circa 1970-90. (Photo:  Calgary Public Library )

Stampede breakfast downtown Calgary, circa 1970-90. (Photo: Calgary Public Library)

“Stampede coming,” Aritha van Herk writes, “always in the seventh month, the off-centre pivot of the year.” van Herk immerses herself in the city’s signature event. Observer and participant, she writes a poetic primer on the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth. Infield and midway, princesses and parade, chuckwagons and hangovers. Through her poet’s eyes, Stampede is a prism through which to consider the city, and the westness of west. But first, breakfast. Pancakes served up on a street corner. A kind of Calgary communion.

 

The breakfast shuffle. A queue of weary clerks and landsmen waiting for

their servings of pancakes and bacon, some fat to fight the nausea, some

carbs to play it forward. A conga file, a column of supplicants salivating for

the hew of dough, the sweet melt of syrup and butter under the tyranny of

a plastic fork and knife, an inadequate napkin, the buckling paper plate.

One sausage for reward.

 

Aritha van Herk, Stampede and the Westness of West (Frontenac House, 2016)


Aritha van Herk's Restlessness

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

   Looking west to the Palliser Hotel, also known as the Castle by the Tracks, in what looks to be the 1950s. The old Calgary railway station is in the left foreground and Ninth Avenue is on the right. (Photo:  Calgary Public Library )

 

Looking west to the Palliser Hotel, also known as the Castle by the Tracks, in what looks to be the 1950s. The old Calgary railway station is in the left foreground and Ninth Avenue is on the right. (Photo: Calgary Public Library)

A Calgary woman who travels the globe wants to put an end to her restless life. She hires an assassin and meets him at the Palliser Hotel. They go for a walk, stepping into “Calgary’s sweet weather.” The wind “smells of sage, something green in the back of the chinook’s throat.” As they walk, she explains her hometown to the stranger and the way it has made her restless. She yearns to stay put, but “who lives in such an impossible city, brash, arrogant, indelibly new? Only a few misbegotten cowboys and singers. Oil executives and escape artists.” On this final night of her life, the chinook makes “the city turn wanton." She shows the stranger “the shoulders and flanks” of her city beneath the façade of glass, steel and new concrete. “There are warm spaces here,” she says, “if you know how to find them.” 

 

We cross under the tracks at Fifth, the traffic headlights against us, emerge to the intersection at Ninth. Through the door of Cowboys gusts a riff of guitar, the chortle of chairs and glasses and persistent drinkers. “That’s Calgary,” I gesture. “The assumed identity that becomes real. Be careful how you dress up [...] It’s why the east won’t take us seriously, because we dress up in cowboy clothes every Friday, like kids who’ve been given a set of cap guns. We’re brash, delighted with our own ability to break rules, to wear blue jeans to work, to ride horses into hotels. We always bounce back from down times, blossom at the oddest moments.”

 

Aritha van Herk, Restlessness (Red Deer College Press, 1998)


Aritha van Herk's Places Far From Ellesmere

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

Union Cemetery (Photo: City of Calgary)

Union Cemetery (Photo: City of Calgary)

“A place,” Aritha van Herk writes in Places Far From Ellesmere, “is counted for the people buried there.” She wanders the cemeteries of Calgary, her chosen place, a city with a turnstile history of arrivals and departures. But Calgary’s cemeteries are crowded with the people who stayed. “Graves elbowing each other awake, saying ‘move over.’” Why leave, she asks herself, "when everything is here?"

 

To dare to stay here to die, to dare to stay after death, to implant yourself firmly and say, “Here I stay, let those who would look for a record come here.” You want a death more exotic than it is, would choose repose in the arms of foreign grass, odd moles rather than gophers. But the lengths of darkness measured metre for metre are shorter here and the pinhole photography of death as immobilizing as east or west. The graveyards of Calgary are your grottos, and even ashes scattered and unburied settle here with the mosquitoes and the rippled gusts of wind off the foothills.

 

Aritha van Herk, Places Far From Ellesmere, (Red Deer College Press, 1990)

 


Aritha van Herk's Mavericks

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

Calgary Stampede bull rider (Photo: Chuck Szmurlo, Wikimedia Commons)

Calgary Stampede bull rider (Photo: Chuck Szmurlo, Wikimedia Commons)

On the first page of her popular history of Alberta, Aritha van Herk shows her cards: she is no historian. Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta will be idiosyncratic, a story born out of her life in Alberta and her life-long impatience with Central Canada’s clichéd notions about her home province. There are multiple lightning rods for the liberal Torontonians she is trying to educate; near the end of the book, she gets to the Calgary Stampede. There is no tiptoeing into the subject. Best to begin in the centre of things. Feel the heat of a July afternoon, taste the dirt in your mouth, watch a man riding a bull.

On a sweltering July afternoon, the grandstand at the Calgary Stampede groans under the weight of thousands of tourists and locals, intent and sweating in their costumes of blue jeans and cowboy hats. I’m there, bent toward the dust of the infield where a Brahma bull churns and fishhooks, horns swiping a parabola in the air, the man fastened to his back like a burr exercising some insane ritual that believes this ton of moving muscle can be subdued.

Aritha van Herk, Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta (Penguin Canada, 2001)