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HOW TO APPROACH A POEM


By Elana Wolff
(reprinted from May, 2002 Surface & Symbol with permission)


LIFE IN FOREST HILL By John Oughton

Here at the confluence
of Forest and Hill
our Cadillac-driving neighbours never wave
in their flow to and from Bay St.
and below our crazed landlord
roars like a diesel bus at his brood:
"Today is tomorrow! I'll give you
something to remember!"
Overhead the sky thinks
dimly on the sun's elsewhereabouts
but the neon of the Noshery lights the way.

In vision at night
the bagel triumphant rises above
the sleeping streets like Ezekiel's wheel
and everyone dreams tomorrow to be
the same.

Life in Forest Hill is a poem that skillfully straddles the terrain of poetry and prose. It looks like poetry with uneven right margin and division into stanzas, and it contains a number of familiar poetic devices - the Biblical allusion to "Ezekiel's Wheel" to lend ascendance, and the simile "like a diesel bus" to give the landlord a louder-and-cruder-than-usual voice - to name two. Yet it reads like prose. That is, it comprises four sentences that follow standard syntactical pattern and it includes a direct quote in which ordinary language is used to introduce the focal idea.


John Oughton wastes no space in placing his setting: "Here at the confluence/ of Forest and Hill." The reader is promptly situated in the prestigious old-money neighbourhood of Forest Hill in mid-town Toronto where "Cadillac-driving neighbours never wave/ in their flow to and from Bay St." - the downtown financial district. In these four short lines, the poet excludes himself from the world of the unreachable rich whose "wave and flow" facilely pass him by. And in the next two lines he proceeds to distance himself - but only a little — from the "crazed landlord" in the apartment below. I say only a little because he and his landlord share the same abode, and though the poem may not ascribe to his landlord's blunt tone, he does intone his pivotal words: "Today is tomorrow! I'll give you something to remember!" It is the harsh oath of the uproarious paterfamilias that informs the poet's vision, and hence the main thrust of the poem, in the second stanza.


Beneath the humour of the landord's rant and the playfulness of Oughton's language - "elsewhereabouts"/ "neon of the Noshery"/ "bagel triumphant," "Life in Forest Hill" expresses pathos of resignation with "the way things are". The poet is the perennial outsider, even in the familiarity of his own neighbourhood. He's a visionary - but not one who envisions a better brighter tomorrow. His tomorrow is more of the same - one in which even the sky, anthropomorphized, "thinks dimly," and only the lights of the local Noshery restaurant light the way.



John Oughton's works copyright © to the author.


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