winter blues

By Nicolas Vergara

This story is about two people. Two adults, Vivian and Andres, and other adults whose names are on a badge. The first two adults were partners. The other adults were border officers. The story is about, in a way, North America in general.

Andres and Vivian were living in Toronto. Vivian was a Ph.D student. Andres was a successful writer and consultant who went to Canada for learning English. Why English? Because ten years ago, his favorite poets were English writers (or at least, people that were using English as a way of expression). He loves French and German poets too, especially the ones that were writing in the 1940-50s, but during that time —despite the technological advances—, Europe was looking so far away. 

After three years, they became common law. Before that, Vivian got a Ph.D in English literature, Andrés’s mother passed away and they traveled together to Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Patagonia, Chile and the United States. Officially, their home was in Canada, in a basement shared with a few bugs in summer, which probably disappeared in winter because of the cold. 

The bugs and the cold have names. The potato bug was named Ramiro. The centipede was called Frederic. Every family has its preferences and this was not an exception: the appearance of Ramiro was always celebrated but the reaction that Frederic provoked was controversial. Vivian says Frederic was gross, what happens if it climbs the bed. Andres agreed in part with her, elaborating an explanation about how centipedes don't like beds, but that was never satisfactory enough to Vivian. Frederic made Andres think of the kind of bugs that you can find under the soil. Could my mother be eaten by something like Frederic? He thought, but luckily those kinds of ideas disappear quickly from his mind.

Technically, the cold doesn't have a name. It has adjectives. The cold in a basement is kind of a strange animal that is always changing. One day you experience his gaze like a friendly pet, other days the cold is something threatening, which you feel lucky is in a cage. Sometimes, the cold is resting in one of the corners, and you can barely notice that it is there. You think it must be liberated, because Zoos aren’t good places for animals, no matter the sustainability or the noble aims that humans could have. The day that Vivian and Andres spoke about the immigration process, the cold was an animal that was walking from side to side, aimless. Although, the warmness of their bodies was a spring animal. 

The plan was the following: they will get the fiancé’s visa in the United States, break one of its conditions and then ask for a refugee’ visa in Canada. The fiancé’s visa says this: “you have 90 days to get married, otherwise you will be expelled from the country”.

To be continued…

Poet Nicolás Vergara (Santiago de Chile, 1981), lives and works in Toronto. 

AFRICAN COWS

By Nicolas Vergara

Have you ever gazed at a cow for more than five minutes? A friend asked me ten years ago, and since then I have been perplexed about those animals, that most people identify with black & white colours and a farm. They are slow, peaceful and pensive animals, I used to think, after my first encounter with African cows. What is an African Cow? It’s the kind of cow that can manage very well high temperatures and a lack of water. If cows could drive a car, these kinds of cows would be riding camels. How do these animals survive? That is a frequent question between camels and tourists.

I saw them for the first time in Costa Rica. At first, they captured my attention just in the way of my farmer’s interest (which I developed after years of observing cows), but besides the discovery of a new species in my mind, there wasn't anything new about them.  I was visiting Costa Rica as a snowbird, and my type of bird was a Robin and the snow was just the snow: too much snow. 

One morning, I was invited to do a hiking trip with a group of germans. The idea was to travel to a place well known for the chance to see animals. The place also had a few small and hidden beaches, where we were supposed to end our hiking. It sounds like a good Idea, I said to my partner, and she agreed. 

When we realized that we had been walking for more than 30 minutes, my partner and I had a little conversation about the aim of the trip. Germans love nature, we knew that, and we also knew that when Marc —my german brother-in-law— called a trip a “very easy one” or “not tiring at all” you should take his words as a statement from one that wakes up every day at four am for not losing the opportunity to ride his bike.  We were tired and thirsty watching how the group of germans were leaving us behind, when suddenly a group of cows started to gaze at us. They were in line, with their big ears framing their black deep eyes. This is weird for a cow, we thought, and we didn't give it more attention. I had to recognize that it is a little bit creepy walking through an aisle where on one side was a wall made by cows and the other side was a landscape where other cows were coming to us. 

Before the cows started to make a circle, running around us, I thought that my partner could be feeling a little bit scared and I went closer to her. I was scared too, and we both started to analyze the situation, looking for a way to escape (the river, no, full of crocodiles; climbing a tree, no, full of poisonous snakes). When the cows started to make a circle around us, a german woman started to clap and move her arms. The result: the cows broke the circle and let us go.  The woman told us that she grew up in the countryside of Germany, and that was the reason that she knew how to manage cows. Have you ever gazed at a cow? She asked me, —No, I answered—, while I was thinking about the kind of people that came up with these kinds of questions. 

Poet Nicolás Vergara (Santiago de Chile, 1981), lives and works in Toronto. 

CANADA + SOMETHING

By Nicolas Vergara

There are many ways to escape from cold days: some mammals have long naps, others complain about weather, but there is a kind of special mammal that likes to invest its energies in going to the movies. I become the third kind of mammal when homes, books, bars and restaurants don't look appealing, or when my friends —first or second kinds of mammals— invite me to watch a movie. When these kinds of mammals get together having fun becomes an activity of complaining and criticizing that frequently ends in drinking. That ground is fertile for ideas and for the development of a friendship based on hate and resentment. 

A few weeks ago, I went to the movies to watch Manchester by the Sea. The movie was good for what we needed: an escape from a weird feeling caused by life itself, which is especially strong in winter time. The movie is about how randomly bad things could happen in our life, how hard —and sometimes impossible— it is to get over those things, and how love could be understood as a special attitude for interpreting life. If that were not enough, the way that the story was narrated didn't support the idea that behind life experiences you can find aims, budgets or indicators.

Something very Canadian happened during the movie: one of the characters was wearing a Canada Goose winter jacket. When I saw that, I thought that was the beginning of another Canadian brand conquering the world. Many people in the world just know Canada for its famous ginger ale. Maybe, I thought, if you want to be an international Canadian brand you should just call your product CANADA + SOMETHING, and success will settle over your business as a bird in a nest. 

Canada Goose just opened its first store in NYC (which makes the similarities between Toronto and The City even stronger). I read that many Hollywood stars are wearing the brand too, saying to the world, “I’m capable of being warm and comfy in the cruelest weather and also spending a thousand dollars doing that”. Or declaring: “Looking like a scientist measuring the ice melting in the arctic — it’s stylish” (other brands have built avenues for the fashionable idea that dressing for extreme weather conditions is cool, even though the most extreme weather experience of many people is deciding at what temperature to heat their houses).

In the movie, the protagonist is yelling at his stepson on one street in Manchester. One guy passes them on the sidewalk and gives his opinion about how the protagonist is raising his son. He says something like, “Nice way of being a father” or “You suck as a father”. The guy was the one that was wearing the Canada Goose Jacket, while the protagonist and his stepson were shivering in the cold. “He looks Canadian, but he is acting like an American”, one of my friends said. 

Poet Nicolás Vergara (Santiago de Chile, 1981), lives and works in Toronto. 

YOUNG VOICES MAGAZINE OF TEEN WRITING AND VISUAL ART

By Nicolás Vergara

There is a popular myth in poetry that says your best poems can´t be written after 19 years of age. This is because of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who decided to stop his production in order to explore other dimensions of life, and in doing that he became an icon in poetry (There are so many poems about Rimbaud’s decision).

At the end of 2016, Toronto Public Library published a collection of teen writing and visual arts called “The Young Voices 2016: magazine of teen artist and visual art.” I saw the publication when I was waiting for a friend outside of a washroom. I took it home, thinking there may be some information about a generation that it is still hard for me to understand. I wanted to understand what it means to be a poet when you are 16 years old, raised in Toronto and born in the 2000s.

When it comes to writing (the magazine has many drawings too) it seems that one of the things teenagers are concerned about is the digital age. Some of the essays reminded me of the enthusiasm of the Italian futurism and its profundity. This teenager generation is ready to defend their way of living, which includes snapchat, Facebook and smartphones, blended with the values and the Canadian History that they learned from school. 

My commentaries are not fair with the content: it’s better to see an example: 

 

August Moon

one week in august,
when my sister hung our laundry on the line
with her two chapped hands,
she found a sliver of moon as thin as rice paper
crumpled neatly in the basket –
still soggy, she hung it up to dry
next to my red shirt,

where it dripped fat gobbets of silver
and sloughed off skin, shiny as pearl and cracked as eggshell

, that melted like butter in the hot, dead grass

Nelka Jankechova, age 14 

 

If you are interested in reading the complete magazine you can see it here.

Poet Nicolás Vergara (Santiago de Chile, 1981), lives and works in Toronto. 

PHILLIP K. DICK IS A PINK HAT

By Nicolás Vergara

There are many many ways to use literature; some people use it for avoiding eye contact on the subway, other people use it for making eye contact at libraries and the rest of the population uses other and even more sophisticated strategies for doing both, but there is a special way of using literature that just belongs to the media: the use of literature to compare reality with fiction, highlighting the figure of the writer as a seer. The logic behind this is the following: journalists need data. When there is no data they use the fact that once upon a time someone in our world was capable of imagining the present times: a writer.

Have you ever noticed that when Americans get in political trouble their media always start to speak about George Orwell? The future, then, has two choices: either we take the utopian way or the dystopian. Really? Since we were young, we have been hearing that it is foolish to see reality as black and white. Smart people know or at least make the effort to see how colourful life is, a nun said to me not so long ago.

Two weeks ago, I read something that could argue against this point of view: structuring the world in black and white works very well when action is necessary, like during a war or a game. This idea was in a book of psychology and it was referring to the different stages of growing up. Problems arise—the book said—when you apply the black-and-white strategy to situations like personal relationships, but if you must have a decision that implies action, it will be stupid to act analytically: it is always better to divide the world in good people and bad people (even though we, humans beings, are made with many many ambiguities, as the old Greeks told us through the voice of the Famous English Bard).

During the first 30 years of the 20th century, a series of manifestos were published across the Western world. They were published in Italy, France and England, and inspired the manifestos developed in the New World in many many ways. In general, each manifesto was an invitation to refuse the past and adopt a series of actions that will satisfy both the future and the ideas that a group of artists defended. They also divided reality into black and white terms.

Politics has always been important, but it has also become a trending topic these days. In many many ways, this is a time for action, manifestos and pink hats (and the colourful hats that are worn by those that don't know how to speak about themselves). Every time that I read something about George Orwell, I think in the dystopian world of Huxley, and how beautiful his books are about drugs as a way of expanding perception. He uses the word gold many many times, and it makes me think in things that I admire, like old metaphors, some rappers and a few hands. When I read what the media has done with the best, Phillip K. Dick, I value his absence as a way of resistance. 

Poet Nicolás Vergara (Santiago de Chile, 1981), lives and works in Toronto. 

RAINING CATS AND DOGS

By Nicolás Vergara

It was a rainy and dark day, a type of day where dogs and cats were making it impossible to even see a metre in front of you. 

It was a dangerous day for driving —it was raining cats and dogs. The chance of crashing into one or more cats and/or dogs and also the chance of stopping the eternal fight between cats and dogs over the sky for —everybody knows— sending us rain and agriculture, was real.  At that moment, there was also a man in his early 30s, thinking as If he were 44 years old and suffering as if he were 11 years old. He was trying to follow Joseph Brodsky´s advice —we should fight against boredom because this fight is preparation for the real fight (or something like that)— but he gave up and made a call, looking for someone who would lend an ear. 

On the other side of the phone, a friend said: Come here, we are watching the Jungle Book. Our character called a cab and travelled through the city. During that time, the cats and dogs were developing a civilization, writing epic poems, building epic buildings, killing each other in the name of God or democracy. When our character arrived at his friend’s place, the first words that he heard were: “Shut Up!” These words were sang by a chorus of kids between 10 and 15 years of age. He stared at his bottle of wine and compared its colour and content with the colourful candies and popcorn on the coffee table. He camouflaged the bottle behind the sofa and sat down. 

The Jungle Book is a beautiful movie that talks about Rousseau’s idea of freedom, which is basically humans escaping from being determined by nature. For that reason, we develop culture. That is Mowgli's lesson and the reason that he must abandon his life in the jungle

For a second, our character thought about what would be the right way to communicate this idea to the kids, without looking like an idiot. Fortunately, his sadness didn’t devastate completely his common sense, and he just ate more popcorn silently.

While the movie was playing, one of the kids was playing with a Rubik’s cube. At the end of the movie, the kid explained to our hero that there were basic rules to completing the cube. One of them is following the square in its center as the main clue.  Our character thought: what would happen if we took out that center cube? Could the Rubik Universe be destroyed? A Rubik’s cube, in some way, is similar to Borges’s Pascal's Sphere, he thought, then took a long sip of Fanta. 

Sometimes the will of thinking could be helped by the suppression of one element: if we were capable of making, for a while, the center of the Rubik’s cube disappear, its mechanism would be evident for us, our character thought, while his friend was doing an out-of-time visit to the washroom.

The two friends spoke about politics, people that had passed away and how weird is time when you measure it with the changes that kids go through. Hours later, the friend drove our character back to his place. Upon arrival, he opened the door and lit a cigarette. 

He petted the cats and dogs and went to sleep. 

Poet Nicolás Vergara (Santiago de Chile, 1981), lives and works in Toronto. 

DANGEROUS PROSTHESIS by Nicolás Vergara

The image of Stephen Hawking has always given me a strange feeling. I know he is a very accomplished physicist, but sometimes I wonder if his popularity is (at least a little) rooted in the fact of his paralysis, and how the media has contributed in emphasizing the idea of him as a Triumph of Reason, and in doing so, celebrating some odious ideas about modernity. Not many physicists have biographical movies while they are alive: in the image of Stephen Hawking, I think, there are a lot of our ideas about what it means to be successful as a self-made man.

One of the things that in my opinion contribute to the idea that societies have about people such as Stephen Hawking are nurtured by the field of physics itself. There are not too many sciences that could be easily associated with human and abstract feelings: medicine, for instance, is dramatic, and environmental science is aesthetic (or performative, as Gary Snyder calls it). Physics is romantic —the core of its thoughts are dedicated to the sky and its mysteries— and therefore, Platonic. Moreover, if you have a Ph.D. in physics you are smarter than a Ph.D. in literature, economy or philosophy (try to do your own quick hierarchy, and you will discover—as I did—that common sense loves pure mathematics). From another point of view: you can be a jerk, but if you have a Ph.D in physics you are still smart (a smart ass); if you are a jerk and you have your Ph.D. in literature, you are just a jerk. 

I haven’t fought against gravity without breaking a bone, and it is not a surprise for me to keep reading Stephen Hawking, despite the ideas that I have about his image. Not so long ago, I read an article in which he explains his fears about Artificial Intelligence. In the article, he said that we will be replaced by machines in a wide spectrum of jobs (again). He also said that we are currently developing a kind of machine that will be at least ten times smarter than us (being pessimistic, some people predict 10,000 times smarter than us), and we don't know what the consequences of that will be. We cannot imagine what kind of intelligence that is, and we cannot even imagine how persuasive and independent that kind of machine could be if it wants to survive, making us change our minds about unplugging it (I baptize this scenario the “Scarlett Johansson Theory of AI”). In the book “Our Final Invention” (James Barrat), I found another theory which said that AI had been discovered a long time ago, that the machines went out to conquer space looking for resources, and that we already have a peaceful relation with them (I baptize this scenario “The IV International Posadas Theory of AI”).

What kind of prosthesis is AI? I don't know and I am very perplexed. If we are not capable of imagining what is something that is 10,000 times smarter than us, it could be anything (for instance, it could be a TTC Driver, an angel, the √-1, the First Minster, a double double; anything). Leaving apart my fear and perplexity, there is one thing that I really like about this prosthesis: its potential to start a debate about what is being smart, and people that defend animal rights have a long tradition of philosophers thinking about those matters and also about an Ethics towards the non-human species. In 1975, Peter Singer published his famous book about animal rights: Animal Liberation, A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals and initiated a big movement about animal rights. If Stephen Hawking is right, who is going to write Human Liberation? A goodwill machine? Was Marx a goodwill machine? Are the religions good will machines? Should some prostheses be prohibited or at least regulated?

 

The sixth sense by Nicolas Vergara

1. At the end of 2015, J.M. Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz published a book of conversations around different matters in psychoanalysis. Coetzee did something similar before — he published private conversations that might throw light on his works and intellectual inquiries—but if that book of correspondences was characterized by a kind of asymmetrical relation between two writers (a relation supported mostly by Paul Auster), this new book of exchanges offsets the first one. In many ways Arabella Kurtz seems to say to Coetzee: relax man, this is not that serious, it’s just therapy. 

2 As many writers and artists, Coetzee is interested in psychoanalysis as a way of articulating stories—self-narratives—and through them, reaching some aspect of the true (subjective or social). One of the first things that struck me when I was reading this book happened when AK explains to JMC that not all the narratives that we have to explain ourselves are characterized by one specific structure. “Most of the patients come because they find unconnected zones of their memory”. A good example is when you have forgotten something important that has been traumatic, like the exact day of the death of one of your beloveds (compared to that experience, how easy it is to remember birthdays).

3. I have heard that when you have a prosthesis, you deal with it as if it were a ghost. If you have forgotten your prosthesis at home and then you try to do something that involves it, you will probably not notice that your prothesis was left behind. I wonder if the traumatic experiences described by AK could be analyzed in that way.  Connected by ghosts,  the memory keeps its own structure working. 

One of the closest relations that I have had with those kinds of ghosts are my glasses. I have been wearing glasses since I was in kinder-garden, and I am always surprised when my nephews draw me with them. When I draw myself (not very often luckily), I always forget to draw my glasses.

4. In their work about Freud’s “Wolf Man”, Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok develop the notion of criptonime, to show the system of partial synonyms that illustrate the impossibility of saying the traumatic word. The Crypt, for Abraham and Torok, would be the figure of paralysis that would keep grief in suspense.  In their theory, the incorporation of the traumatic object would be sheltered into the self as a foreign object, “invisible but omnipresent”. Because this object is resting to be incorporated, its manifestation will be cryptical. This kind of incorporation would build an intra-psychictomb that refuses the lost object, and the lost objet is buried alive. 

5. Zombies and ghosts have a special role within North American culture. In popular media, Mexicans have telelenovelas and Canadians and American have zombies. Three years ago, I was taking a walk with a friend on Spadina. He grew up in Europe and came to Canada when he was eight. We were discussing different formulas to transform Toronto into a combination of Yukon and Montreal, and when were in the queue at the LCBO, he said, “Toronto does not have any ghosts, and that is the problem with this city”. Right after that, we started to research ghosts and Haunted Houses in Ontario. We found very cheap tours,  and enough number of paranormal activities to satisfy the voracity of a tourist but not our ghost-hungry spirits. 

6. I don’t care if a house looks like a Haunted Condo or a ghost looks like french toast, whether the ghost looks like a prosthesis or an intra-psychic zombie. But what I am not able to negotiate is this: when I am in front of a ghost or when the ghosts are observing me, I expect to feel either very sad or nervous, and emotionally perturbed. 

I am not the kind of person who is sensitive enough to feel when horrific deaths or ghosts are around me, but my sister is. Whenever I went to places that are haunted, I always said to myself, “If my sister were here, she would be saying something painful has happened here. I wanna leave this place ASAP”.  As if she were taking control of my body and I were just an instrument or a way of communication between my sister and the great beyond.