One Way Street: Alberni St. (Burrard to Thurlow)

after Walter Benjamin, sui generis of the poetic city

Hermes (755 Burrard St)

Regarding the virtue of lightness, Calvino says, “At certain moments I felt that the entire world was turning into stone: a slow petrification.” The stare of the Medusa, seemingly inescapable, escapes Perseus, who wears winged sandals. “To cut off Medusa’s head without being turned to stone, Perseus supports himself on the very lightest of things, the winds and the clouds, and fixes his gaze upon what can be revealed only by indirect vision, an image caught in the mirror.” Victoria Beckham once boasted of owning the most number of the most expensive handbags in the world: the Birkin bag. It was named after Jane Birkin, who, in 1983, was seated next to Hermes chief executive Jean-Louis Dumas. “Birkin had placed her straw bag in the overhead compartment of her seat, but the contents fell to the floor.” Dumas made her a black satchel, the first Birkin, to help with the weight of her belongings. Here there are no traces of Hermes, his movement or his lightness. Kim Kardashian, patron saint of shameless consumption, once made headlines for using a $50,000 Hermes Birkin as a diaper bag. “My Birkin carries all of my essentials,” she says. So the Medusa comes alive again.

 

Tiffany & Co. (723 Burrard St)

I once read that the mere sight of the colour “Tiffany blue” was enough to invoke feelings of affection, endearment, and tenderness in women who saw it. It was from a magazine of pop psychology, which despite its normative assumptions, made sense to a ten year old at the time. Tiffany blue, also known as robin’s egg blue and forget-me-not blue, was shortly patented through the Pantone institute, with the number 1837, the same number as the year the company was founded. Now it’s praised as a landmark in marketing, branding, design. When I was 13, I bought three colours of acrylic paint to mix for my reproduction of Tiffany blue: sea foam green, cobalt blue, and white. I painted a ring-sized cardboard box, stuffed a Hershey’s kiss in it, and gave it to my big sister, who still wouldn’t stop crying.

 

Jaeger-LeCoultre (1012 Alberni St)

An ordinary part of horology is the expectation of complications. Complications take a technical connotation here – it not only pertains to the difficulty that confronts horologists, but rather the intricacies of timepieces that desire to show features beyond mere date and time. The second most complicated wristwatch movement in the world belongs to a watch designed by Jaeger LeCoultre. The Hybris Mechanica Grande Sonnerie with 182 movements, 27 complications, and over 1300 parts. My mother once stepped on a less complicated watch as a punishment. It was a light pink Baby G one, and it belonged to me. After that it was clear to me that she valued time above watches.

 

Michael’s (1022 Alberni St)

Any one who pays full price for anything is a fool. Those were wise words from my old nanny, who made her living out of loving me. She would dust off the coloured chalk from my hands after I drew hopscotch boxes on the pavement. I want to find her, and tell her that in this street, they sell bundles of Chalk Markers at half price. In the city, there would be no need to hose down the pavement because the rain would do it for us.

 

Kobe Japanese Steakhouse (1042 Alberni St)

Where was the California roll created? The historical dispute between Vancouver and Los Angeles still remains. What is more interesting to me is that Tokyo doesn’t care.

 

Coast (1054 Alberni St)

The imperial ruins of fresh oysters: Kusshi (stellar bay) $3.75, Royal Miyaki (baynes sounds) $2.75, Gems (read island) $2.75, Okeover (okeover inlet) $2.75, Malpeque (pei) $3.95, Joyce Point (sawmill bay) $2.75.

Excerpts from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric

“Yes, and the body has memory. The physical carriage hauls more than its weight. The body is the threshold across which each objectionable call passes into consciousness—all the unintimidated, unblinking, and unflappable resilience does not erase the moments lived through, even as we are eternally stupid or everlastingly optimistic, so ready to be inside, among, a part of the games.”

Blue and Lead

On Mel Y. Chen’s Toxic Inanimacies in conversation with Maggie Nelson’s Bluets

1.

Lead, as a material representative of toxicity, teeters on both the sides of life and nonlife. It straddles “the literal bounds of bodies, in ways that introduce a certain complexity to the presumption of integrity of either lifely or deathly subjects” (Chen 279). I think about Mel’s consideration of toxicity the same way the poet Maggie Nelson considers the colour blue. In Bluets, Nelson animates blue in a similar way in which Mel animates lead. Nelson refracts life through blue, as Mel refracts life through toxicity. My associations between the two also come from their shared philosophical undertone, the use of poetic language, the autobiographical elements, and their decision to write about two subjects which share a diffuse and permeable characteristic – they are in things, they exist within things, but are barely considered in the meticulous, molecular way that Mel and Nelson do. I especially think about the future implications of considering life on the level of its foundations – what changes when we think of life through the atom.

2.

Through this method of thought, sharing pain becomes an act of generosity.

In Fragment 104, Nelson writes, “I do not feel my friend’s pain, but when I intentionally cause her pain I wince as if I hurt somewhere, and I do. […] She says, ‘if anyone knows this pain besides me, it is you.’ This is generous, for to be close to her pain has always felt like a privilege to me, even though pain could be defined as that which we typically aim to avoid. Perhaps this is because she remains so generous within hers.”

Does this operate within the same logic and affect as when Mel proposes “toxicity propels, not repels, queer loves” (Chen 281)? I understand the same surface level associations that people make with “toxicity as pain”, not “toxicity as gratitude.” But both writers invite new understandings of previously damned concepts. Toxicity propels, produces, gives birth to spaces in which queer loves are able to exist and thrive beyond normative understandings of love. These new understandings are harder to grasp, but are infinitely rewarding when done so.

Mel talks about having love for a couch. This couch, an inanimate body whose arms and back were responsible for the soothing and comforting that any other animate body could not have given in a particular toxic moment. In the throes of dizzying poisoning, Mel finds the needed stillness that the couch offered.

Pain operates in an analogous way. Nelson acknowledges the way in which her friend’s pain translates into a generosity previously articulated through different ways. Ever since her friend’s accident, her friend now embodies a new existence which is now inextricably bound with dependence – quadriparalysis requires a wheelchair and a caretaker. Though this dependence has given her a different aura ­­— one of an oracle, a figure upon which people come to willingly. Now, pain becomes a language upon which their ever-evolving friendship rests. In another book, The Argonauts, Nelson refers to Barthes’ description of how “the subject who utters the phrase ‘I love you’ is like the ‘Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name. Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase, ‘I love you,’ its meaning must be renewed by each use, as the ‘very task of love and language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.” In this sense, life has changed some aspects of sociality between Nelson and her friend. It now necessitates different forms of love that need to make sense within life as it is now.

This too extends to how Mel engages with toxicity as something that propels. Through an illustrative account of hypersensitivity and the shutting down of the body, Mel describes the ways in which the condition has forced Mel to find creative ways to survive, finding aid through objects that most people do not consider as solace. When one’s subjectivity is (dis)regarded through codes of normativity and intersecting forces of oppression, one begins to look for new ways to navigate life in a way that moves beyond undesired conditions – finding ways to replace the ship’s parts.

3.

Nelson writes: “159. A good many have figured God as light, but a good many have also figured him as darkness.  She recalls the idea of a “Divine Darkness,” which must be separated from other forms of darkness, such as the darkness of sin or the darkness of the soul. I relate this idea of Divine Darkness to previous articulations of both toxin and blue as having two contradictory forces within them – life and death. Both toxin and blue can be sources of profound hope, but also of uncertainty. I am thinking about the widespread use of “toxic” as a surrogate for “abusive.” Pop psychology is often guilty of this place-holding. It does speak to larger questions of love, which Mel aptly reminds us is worthy of theoretical consideration.

4.

How can someone love perfume aisles and find them pleasurable, therapeutic? How is it that so much of desire and attraction are inextricably bound to smell and consumption (luxury perfumes, aromatherapy, unique mixes of essential oils for “ultrasonic diffusers”) when it can have a mortal effect on many people? What changes when something that gives life[1] can also subject others to death?

In Fragment 181, Nelson writes, “Pharmakon means drug, but as Jacques Derrida and others have pointed out, the word in Greek famously refuses to designate whether poison or cure. It holds both in the bowl. In the dialogues, Plato uses the word to refer to everything from an illness, its cause, its cure, a recipe, a charm, a substance, a spell, artificial colour, and paint.” The same logic applies to the designation of toxicity as a doubly-voiced phenomenon, equally capable of propagating and inhabiting life in a way that’s purposefully vague. The implications of this are potentially threatening, especially beyond the realm of the personal. Structurally, we must understand that policies and rights are often blanketed under the same benevolent guise – “The law is there to protect us” or “Trans rights are human rights.” But suffice it to say that the polysemous nature of things can sharply change how one person experiences life, especially in relation to, or against, our own experiences of life which we may be reluctant to question. One possible way is to feel settled in ambiguity. To accept that certain phenomena – whether lead, or blue – are ultimately shaped through dominant discourses that give life to some and withhold it from others. If only on a personal level, to understand that things are not as they are according to what we know, and to feel comfortable in this and not betrayed.

 

 

[1] Or something that elevates life. After all, fragrance can be a treat for the senses, much like how eating good food directly speaks to pleasure, and by extension, hedonism.