U Girl is a brand-new novel by Meredith Quartermain. A delight to read, U Girl is the meta-fictional, feminist story of Frances Nelson, a first-year university student who wants to write a novel. This nostalgic novel is set in Vancouver in the early 1970s, but its characters and conflicts ring just as true today.
One of the most memorable – and perhaps character-defining – scenes of the novel takes place in Chapter 6, when Frances attends a poetry reading with her friend Dagmar, who will be reading (for the first time). Read the scene below, taken from pages 87 through 95 of U Girl, with our compliments.
Dagmar showed up at my room one afternoon, out of the blue from her island, in town to read with a poet from San Francisco. You wouldn’t happen to have some hash I could score, she yelled across to Dwight hunched over a painting and filling the hall with his incessant Pink Floyd. Of course he did. I see you’re into Creeley and Ginsberg, she said, when they’d traded baggies and cash. Come along to the reading.
It was in Brock Hall among the caved-in couches of a student lounge. Al Boyd, Dagmar’s mod poetry prof, stuck a microphone on a stand and directed a student with folding chairs – a woman in beads and Bombay cotton I remembered from Nigel’s class. A cigarette burned on an ashtray balanced on one of the chairs, another dangled from the corner of his mouth. Surveying the setup, he reached into his jacket and pulled out a pack of Player’s, started to put one in his mouth, realized there was one already there, took the lit cigarette out of his mouth, stubbed it on the ashtray, and lit up a new one.
A woman with heavily mascaraed eyes and hennaed hair sat behind a row of books on a folding table. Several men stood around another table where a jolly plump woman in halter top and miniskirt sold cans of beer from a box she kept under the table and under her jacket. The men stood with folded arms, occupying space like large animals in a pasture I probably wanted to avoid. I was glad it was Dagmar who was reading with them, but there was no sign of her.
Al Boyd fiddled with a tape recorder, then called one of the beer men over to the mike, who said test test test, one-two-three-four, and Mary had a little lamb among whines and screeches. Feedback, one of the men said.
They stood in a circle swigging beer. One pinched a cigarette between thumb and finger, took a drag, and blew a cloud of smoke out his nose. Another kept his thumb in his pocket and held his eyelids barely open above a bushy black beard. He was a cat down in Texas, one of them said. Blackbeard shifted from foot to foot, looked at the mike. A man came in with a bag of books. Hey man, how’s it goin? When’s this show happenin?
Dwight, smelling like acrylic paint and engine grime, grabbed the chair next to me and said he felt like he was back in Chilliwack High. He asked me how to take notes and whether there’d be a test. I asked him if he’d cleaned up his room lately, and was Ginsberg his favourite poet? Bukowski’s better, he said, wanting to know whether that football huddle was the guys who were reading tonight and when my lady-poet friend was going to show up. He’d never heard a lady-poet read. Quit callin her lady-poet, I said. He ambled over to the beer woman, then looked at the books. A man in a Stetson came in, told his girlfriend to grab some seats while he said hello.
Dagmar strode up to Boyd, who carried on unrolling wire to the tape recorder as she talked. She waved to me in the back row, took some pamphlets out of her bag, and held one out to Boyd. He pointed at the book table and went back to his wiring. Maybe he wasn’t the friendly prof she always talked about, hip and open, into dope, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. Maybe he just wanted to be hip by hanging out with young people. But how could you be friends with someone completely bald except for a thin ponytail off the back of his head?
Landscapes. That was the title of Dagmar’s pamphlet. A friend on Hornby printed them. She signed one under the title, For my faithful friend Frances, then took me over to Boyd and introduced me, saying I was a novelist. So that was how you did it! You just walked up to people and said you were a novelist. You made up a story. You acted like it was true. But what happened to the real you?
Boyd put a limp hand in mine. He seemed to know that I wasn’t really a novelist, and if no one thought you were one, you weren’t one were you? He called to Dave to test again and rewound the tape to see if it had recorded. People drifted in. Someone hauled a lamp over close to the mike, but the cord wasn’t long enough so the mike and recording equipment had to be moved.
You’ve gotta get to know people Dagmar said, dragging me over to the circle of men. What was she going to do, make me tell them I was a novelist too? But if I was going to be equal I had to act equal. We squeezed between Blackbeard and Hey Man. They went on talking about the San Francisco scene and City Lights bookstore. They’d published Ginsberg and others I’d never heard of – Rexroth, O’Hara, Duncan. They swigged beer, dragged on cigarettes, wondered whether they should go to the Cecil or the Yale after the reading, till someone said weren’t all the pubs closed on Sunday up here?
Hi, I’m Dagmar Lindegaard. She held out her hand to Blackbeard. John, he said, switching his beer to his left hand and touching hers for a moment, then going on with where they would drink afterwards, someone was staying with Dave so why not Dave’s house. Has anyone read Cavafy? Dagmar looked around the group, made herself taller, poking her head above John’s shoulder. So clean and classical, she went on, so droll. She held up the Selected Poems with its stern face of Cavafy printed in gold on the blue cover. We need a bootlegger, Hey Man said, maybe Allen’ll give us what’s left over. Cavafy, Bookbag said, Didn’t he die in … like … 1933? No one said anything.
Okay now we can start, Ross’s here. A short pudgy man with a mane of thick golden hair strolled up to the circle, and threw his arms around Smoke Nose, hey Ken, long time no see. Dave returned from mike-testing and stood with the others around the mass of hands clasping broad backs of Ken and Ross. Then Ross launched into a joke.
– I bet none of you’ve been to a bullfight and then gone by yourself into a restaurant afterwards and ordered dinner.
– Why’s that, Ross.
– Cuz if you had, you wouldn’t want to hear about a guy I know who did that.
– Is this the one where the guy eats bullshit?
– Okay I won’t tell … Why’s everyone looking at me like I just farted or something … Okay he went into a restaurant, it was after the bullfight, and he was hungry from getting all revved up watching the fight, he ordered their special, and they brought him a plate with two huge balls on it.
– Ha ha, very funny, Ross.
– Wait, there’s more, the next day he went to another bullfight and after that he was hungry again so he went to the same restaurant and ordered the daily special, and they brought him a plate with two humungous balls on it.
– And I bet, Hey Man smirked, that he did the same thing the next day too.
– How did you know, Ross asked. Seriously, how did you know? … Cuz that’s exactly what he did, and again they brought out a plate with balls on it, but they were tiny, so the guy said, what happened to your daily special, and the waiter said, the toreador doesn’t always triumph.
– Ha … uh ha … uh ha, Bookbag surveyed the room, waving to someone at the book table. John of the black beard shifted from foot to foot, folded his arms, unfolded them. Ken took another drag, blew smoke out of his nose, said nothing.
Boyd said we were ready to start. The circle broke up and meandered over to seats. Squinting at some notes in his hand, Boyd patted his jacket here and there till he found his glasses. John was an anchor man in the Vancouver scene, he said, he hardly needed introduction after his book Intrical, which the Georgia Straight called “a truly original voice,” Vancouver’s voice of the decade. Which decade, Ross shouted. More recent than yours, Blackbeard said, ambling up to the mike. The circle of friends laughed.
Anchor man. How did you get to be that? I pictured a Popeye John hurling a boat hook off a freighter.
John placed a bundle of papers and his beer on a chair, and flipped back and forth through his book – he’d been thinking about reading his mirror poem, but now he wasn’t sure, maybe he’d try his masturbation poem. The audience sniggered. He began reading in a high-pitched monotone, floating out the words on a perfectly flat plane ten feet above our heads, as though he were a priest intoning mass. Each line ended on the same sighing note with words like opening the faucet / soap on my rocks / bone for bathtub / for you / this waterway / cunt fingers. Someone in the circle wolf-whistled at the end. Others clapped. Dagmar rolled her eyes. Gawd, why didn’t they get someone like Bukowski, Dwight muttered. John rummaged through his bundle of papers, started reading something called “Thursday Night,” dropped the page, picked it up, shoved it into the others, decided not to read the poem, then incanted one about squashed animal guts on the highway, writing for you with blood-ink. Dagmar studied the pile of pages in her lap, moved a book mark to a different page of her pamphlet. Her turn after the next reader.
John ambled back to his seat, swigging beer. Boyd, threading the air with cigarette smoke, talked about how Ken had specially asked for Ross to read tonight and how we decided it was a pretty good idea. Ken rested his arms across the backs of neighbouring empty chairs and smiled like one of those giant ancient god statues in the National Geographic known for abundance and generosity.
Ross strode up to the mike and stared out at the audience. He unclasped a leather case around his crisp typed pages. Gold-and-blue marbled paper (like I’d seen in old, hard-bound library books) flashed out from the leather covers. He said he’d start with a poem that was coming out in Underdog. He thought it would be out by December or maybe early in the new year and it was really funny because when he first sent it in the editor rejected it, so all you beginning poets out there, take note a rejection isn’t the end. He’d sent it back to the editor with five other poems in a whole series on Ladies and Escorts. Weird, that sign that they have on all the bars, Ladies and Escorts, because he didn’t feel like an escort, that was more like … like … someone like Prince Philip, oh my gawd, do you feel like Prince Philip when you take your old lady to a bar? He started to read the poem. Then, oh, the other thing I was thinking about when I wrote this was William Carlos Williams, you know the poem about the plums in the refrigerator where he writes it out like a list. This piece is written like that. He read a poem called “Lady No. 8,” stopping at length between each of its six words: why / doesn’t / she / go / to / hell. He looked over at Ken, basking in his spread-eagled pose, but Ken was watching the beer woman untie and retie her halter top.
So to be equal, I thought, I too will have to say I’d improved on novelists like D.H. Lawrence and John Fowles, I too will have to tell jokes about serving balls, and read stories of some you I either hate or want to fuck. I hoped that maybe novel writers didn’t have to do these readings, that you could just publish your book, let other people read it and talk about it. You could stay hidden behind its pages, let the book be the only way they knew you.
Dagmar thumbed through her pages and placed a different one on top. She got out a pen, crossed out a word, and wrote something between the lines while Ross talked about Rod McKuen, how he’d met up with Jacques Brel in France and started translating his songs – he was just a guy like you or me working on the railroad or ranching or logging till he went to France. Then Ross too went to France, hung out with Rod on the beach with some cool French chicks, so he wrote a poem for Rod McKuen – Lonesome Cities was such a great book. Sitting on the beach – at each pause, he stared out at the audience – with Rod McKuen / in France / watching a chick / with a red bikini / take off her bra / in the blue afternoon / I think / of bananas / of peeling bananas / and putting them / into her mouth … He smiled at Ken again, but this time Ken bent down to brush something off his boot …
And now we have a new voice here tonight, Boyd announced as the clapping subsided, This might even be her first poetry reading.
Did he have to say that, Dagmar muttered. She handed me her instamatic camera. A friend at the Georgia Straight wanted a picture. Take lots, she said.
Dagmar grabbed the mike stand, turned a knob, tried to pull the mike to the right height. I silently begged the mike to slide into place. It wouldn’t budge. People shuffled in their seats till Boyd fixed it. She gazed out at the audience. I liked that she didn’t smile, just looked hard at them, looked hard right into them, and said she’d be reading some poems about the coast.
I leaned this way and that snapping pictures, trying to get a shot without the mike blocking her face. I should go up to the front, I thought, crouch down, shoot from below, like you see in poster shots of rock stars, but I was too chicken.
One of her poems involved trees and Artemis. In the middle of it, Ross and John and Hey Man slid back their chairs and went outside to yak on the terrace. I hoped she hadn’t noticed, hoped she’d had her eyes on her poems, but how could she not notice the sudden row of empty chairs? Ignore them, I thought, my cheeks hot with shame.
She read a poem about words in the “Parthenon forest.” Then one about riding a killer whale like Pegasus. Her pages shook a little in her hand, her poems full of sand, kelp, woodstoves, moss, axes, fishnets, dock pilings, ferry crossings. She finished with the “Saturnina Sailors” poem:
in the Salish Sea
Canal de Nuestra
Señora Del Rosaria, they called it
passage to Hudson’s Bay.
Carrasco and Narváez.
Ruffles, lace, quills, and paper
to Malahat, Cowichan
and red-twigged buckthorn.
She stopped suddenly. No one clapped till Boyd brought his hands together in a single smack, which sparked a smattering of pats across the half-empty chairs, except for Dwight and me – we clapped as hard as we could. Ken, the beneficent ancient god, left his hands on the chair backs.
The men crowded back into the room as Ken got to the mike. It was good to be back in Vancouver, back in Can-ada (he sprawled out the a-a-a in Can), he hadn’t read here since ’69 with Gary Snyder. After the border, he thought he’d spotted a couple of our men on horseback – you folks still have those, don’t you? The redcoats with the dinner-plate hats. Mounted on their chestnut steeds? I thought so. He chuckled. Then read a poem about underwear: men wore it to keep things out of the way / women wore it to put things in the way / the president wore it / the pope wore it / Mao Zedong wore it / wild Indians wore it / even Lady Macbeth had a girdle. Now it was Ross’s turn to spread his arms across the backs of chairs, basking in Ken’s gaze beaming out over the audience, basking in Ken’s smooth shifts from poem to poem with little stories about taking acid or launching his tenth book. Poems about freeways and Nebraska, poems about the salt lake of Utah, poems about lightbulbs and candles and skyscrapers.
After the reading, Dwight told Dagmar he loved the Pegasus whale poem, and did she have some other ones about that. I told her I thought her poems were way more interesting than John’s and Ross’s – full of neat language like the Spanish and then the Indian names – and that I loved that it was about here. She looked at me like I was a goof and watched Ross rushing up to Ken with a copy of Ken’s book, San Francisco Nights. Five or six others bought books and followed Ross over to where Ken was standing by the mike. Boyd found a pen for him, and the beneficent god poured sunshine on his throng of admirers. Ross patted Ken on the back and hugged him. The other admirers waited. Ken nodded and smiled, began turning his attention to a young man with long hair and glasses. Then Ross shook Ken’s hand. Then Ken looked over at Glasses, until at last Ross left the crowd.
John and Ross bought another beer, eyeing their piles of books on the book table and the crowd around Ken. They talked to each other but they kept their eyes on the books. A big smile suddenly spread across John’s face when a woman in braids held out a book. He signed it and handed it back to her. Ross sat back on the beer table, the woman was packing up. He nudged the frayed edge of carpet with his foot, looked at the crowd around Ken, prodded the carpet again. John shook hands with his book buyer, seemed even to hold her hand for a bit longer, but she dropped her gaze to the floor and quickly left.
Dagmar shoved pages into her shoulder bag, and we sat in the rows of empty chairs. She should just get out of here, she said, looking over at her stack of pamphlets beside the thinner piles of books on the book table. Dwight wanted us all to go back and have a beer at “our place.” You mean my room, I said. Dagmar supposed she’d have to stay for a few minutes longer, in case anyone wanted a copy of Landscapes. No one would of course, she went on. That’s obvious. I’d like one, Dwight said. Should I buy it from her or buy it from you? Dagmar told him he’d better get it at the table. Do I get a signature too, he held out the pamphlet a moment later. What beautiful hands you have, he said, as she scrawled her name with a black-and-gold fountain pen she always carried for her notebook.
– What charming flattery you have.
She capped the pen, and Dwight assured her it was not flattery, that she had a writer’s hands, and she should be proud of her poems, they made a refreshing change from road guts and sex. Dagmar ignored him and gazed across the chairs at Ken and his fans and Boyd packing up the mike and tape recorder. Winding electric cord around his arm, Boyd thought it’d been pretty good for her first time, but she should slow down a bit and look up at the audience. Smile.
– Especially smile at the audience walking out, Dagmar scoffed.
– Drop by my office and listen to it on tape. You might be surprised.
– Or if you need something stronger, Dwight gave his crooked-toothed grin, I’ve got some pretty good hash.
Back in my room, Dwight rolled fat joints while Dagmar paced around, fuming about the reading – how narcissistic it was, how provincial, how completely banal. Words I’d heard but never used – how grand it was, I thought to hurl them out like whirling splattering mudballs coating everything in their path with disgusting brown goo.
– I mean, who the fuck cares about someone’s cum on his fingers? Or the roadkill in his underwear? Or his boring, facile love letters to his girlfriend?
I filed facile with banal and narcissistic under top insults. She yanked open the door to the balcony, saying she had to get away from Tiny Tim, couldn’t I find something better than that dufus to cover up these ghastly turquoise walls, but came back a moment later, wanting to know when the fuck Canada was going to grow up, get some real writers? She toked up, then spluttered out, these guys (waving her hand in the direction of Brock Hall), these guys … should wake up to the world out there, read the real poets: Cavafy, Lorca, Neruda – go somewhere besides their own navel.