erasing clouds

Clive Holden, Trains of Winnipeg (Endearing)

reviewed by Dave heaton

"I am a train of Winnipeg, had no home til now," poet Clive Holden speaks at the beginning of his "poems and music" album Trains of Winnipeg, immediately introducing one of the album's chief themes, continual moving. The 13 poems that make up the album proper (there's also two bonus tracks) deal with that theme and a few other recurring ones, while painting vivid portraits of places, people and feelings. Backed by musicians Jason Tait, Christine Fellows and John K. Samson (the latter two are also in The Weakerthans), Holden delivers his poems with a calm beauty that hides a myriad of fears.

The mode of transportation depicted on the cover and in the title, railroad, shows up throughout the album, as does the general theme of travelling. "Nanaimo Station" and Condo" both tell the story of growing up in a family that was always on the move, in different ways. In the first poem, supported by stately, calm piano, it seems like an idyllic childhood, until you notice the ominous presence of the train station strung throughout, mimiced by equally ominous train noises in the background. By the end, it's clearly a romanticization driven by a sense of rootlessness: "I was born in Nanaimo, two blocks from the station/the steps to our house were covered in moss but our family was shining from moving and moving/we went to the station and didn't return." Those final words are the perfect segue into the next track, "Condo," where a warped guitar sound backs the story of eternal moving and of aging parents trying to settle in a home.

The people in Holden's poems travel to escape, but they also travel naturally, as a way of living. What brings the traveling to an end, then, is the realization of impending death. In "Condo," he tells of his parents' chosen final home. "My parents' condo is where they've moved to die," he says, "They'll never move again except in space, heaven, the eternal ether and the gracious ground wet and pungent with millenia of crushed bone and weeping piles of leaves." The materialty and earthiness of those words recur throughout Holden's poems, as do thoughts of death, of moving from life to whatever places come next. A few of the poems here are chilling potraits of the dead, tales of friends, acuqaintances and strangers lost to suicide, to accidents, or to old age. The lengthy, spooky "Eighteen Thousand Dead in Gordon Head" tells of witnessing death for the first time, while both "De'ath at Neepawa" and "Necropsy of Al Purdy" dwell on the ways that Holden was affected by the deaths of famous writers from whom he drew inspiration. "Babbette" is especially eerie and affecting, a message to a "jumper" friend filled with stark, honest recollections of good times and bad.

"Neighbors Walk Softly" shifts the emphasis to death in a bigger sense, touching on wars and envrironmental damage. He connects those large-scale deaths to more personal experiences with death, making the piece a caution to listeners that they should pay attention to how they live and act. "Where would the lines be drawn in the event of war?" he asks, "Well, the war against the weak wages in the air around us/hanging like my poor roomate in his bedroom cell/neighbor, walk softly." The sadness and inevitability of death permeates the entire album. There's also the fear of death, as encapsulated in the second of two bonus tracks, "Unbreakable." Dealing with the realization that his parents are about to die, Holden makes a wish that he could either conquer death or aid in the journey from life to death: "I love them, and I'd make wide and strong wings for them, if I knew how/with white, modeled feathers and unbreakable bones."

Backed by melody here, ambient mood there, Holden uses words to travel through the complexity of the universe, gently inquiring about life, death and nature. On Trains of Winnipeg, those musings are captured perfectly and augmented by superb musicians. The notation in the liner notes that the project was aided by a grant from the canada council for the arts may seem odd to those of us in the United States. An album on an indie-rock label getting a grant from the government may seem like an absurd dream to us, but this is the sort of creation that should be supported. It's what art is about, creating in order to understand, writing to reach into the mysteries of life and see what you can figure out.


[Note: go to the Trains of Winnipeg web site for all of the poems in printed form, plus other animated, film and video poems and an assortment of recordings, links and "general ephemera."]

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