Hearing John K. Samson’s "Highway One West"
We have been reading John K. Samson’s Lyrics and Poems 1997-2012 in one of my current undergraduate classes. One of things I want to interrogate critically about this book is the nature of that “and” in its title: what can these texts tell us, as close readers and as attentive listeners, about the relationship between lyrics and lyric, between song and poem? I’m looking to describe a certain nascent melopoeia in John K. Samson’s conception of how words work, in his conception of the cultural work of both singing and saying, of performing. What, he seems to be asking in most of these pieces (repurposing a famous provocation from Rainer Maria Rilke), what can singers and singing be for in a destitute time such as ours?
I say nascent because, as you thumb through the book, you’ll see that most of the lyrics are printed as if they are prose, like brief essays or prose-poems. Spatially – at least, on the page – this visual arrangement in discrete typographical blocks echoes the cover design (which gestures, as well, at the cover for his 2012 album Provincial and at the graphic design of his webpage), a grid page from an old ledger, sections of which have been filled in with brown and blue hashmarks in pen. The effect, I think, is to gesture at an imaginary map of a parceled rural landscape, the Latin squares of prairie agricultural space. Hand-drawn lines – lines of ink but also lines of poetry – take on topographical resonances. These are songs preoccupied with articulating a human subject in space, with what amounts to placing oneself. In Canada, questions of who I am often become, following a lead from Northrop Frye, questions of where I am and where here is. But rather than fall back on mythopoeic cultural nationalisms – generalizing an Anglo-Canadian psyche as Frye might by locating and defining its (or our) territorial idiom – Samson queries that relationship, and tends to inhabit its inadequacies, and to create a pathos from and within that shortfall. In Vertical Man / Horizontal World, Laurie Ricou reframes the prairie psyche as nascent rather than determinate (and please pardon the gender bias here, which I think is symptomatic of the time at which Ricou’s study was published): “the landscape, and man’s relation to it, is the concrete situation with which the prairie artist initiates his re-creation of the human experience.” Ricou understands this particular landscape as initiating re-creation, as aesthetic disturbance, not as affirming a particular regional identity. The persona, the speaking or singing subject, of a Samson song is usually “left or leaving,” remaindered or else in the process of departure, “undefined” (as the lyric to “Left or Leaving” puts it), but always seeking a positional relation, for better or for worse, with a sense of home, tracking the “lines that you’re relying on to lead you home.” Those lines are also literally nascent, at least in their print form; reading the prose, you can hear metre and rhyme begin to realize themselves, as if lines were gently beginning to extricate themselves, audibly, from an undifferentiated (undefined?) verbal flow, a lineated poem emerging – although not quite emerged – from the prose. It’s not so much that the prose-poem aspires to the condition of song as it is that we experience a sort of hiatus, a space of what the lyrics for “Left and Leaving” might call “waiting,” between conception and realization, between text and song: a betweenity Samson thematizes as “and,” as an unclosed ampersand.
The printed lyrics to “Highway One West” realize this betweenity both typographically and compositionally. The poem begins and ends with nine single-word lines. (The exception is the first line, which adds an extra word, tellingly the first word of the poem, another “And . . . .”) Framed by these narrow plummets, between them, are five lines of what look like prose – although they’re not prosaic in any sense, but tend toward metaphorical density:
roll over the gravel shoulder, thump into the ditch,
engine cut, battery dying, the station metastasizing
tumours of evangelists and ads for vinyl siding,
the city some cheap EQ with the mids pushed up
in the one long note of wheat.
The 9 + 5 + 9 line-structure mimics a kind of overlapped sonnet. (“(manifest)” and “(past due)” from Reconstruction Site are both sonnets, in fact.) More than this ghostly resonance with literary form, however, the spatial disposition of the lines offers a visual analogue to the physiography in which the subject finds himself immersed. If you turn the page sideways, you can see the high-rise buildings of Winnipeg – or at least of “the city” – emerging in the centre of a flat prairie, the horizon created by a line of upended words. “Here,” the last word of the poem, is produced as a mimesis of distant surveillance, too far away to walk back to. The where of the poem is too far, moreover, from everywhere else; it is an elsewhere, alienated and alienating.
Notably, the song begins in performance with the looping repetition of the last segment (“Too far to walk . . .”), accompanied by a heavy, slow down-strum on the electric guitar, the repetition reinforcing the sense of resigned exhaustion, that “here” might be both everywhere and nowhere. The sounds coming over the car radio – not music but distant voices, a verbal garbage offering false promises of commercial or spiritual satisfaction – metastasizes into diseased noise, rough static. Sound technologies – both for recording and reproduction – offer another metaphorical (as opposed to metastasized) resonance to the geographical descriptors; that urban bump in the middle of the landscape mimics a graphic equalizer with the midrange sliders pushed up. The song gestures, in part, at the electronics used to produce it, and to reproduce it. But if, both visually and sonically, the lyrics and the recorded performance gesture at alienation and at loss, the text also frames and even recovers a degree of expressive potential – finds its voice – from within those horizontal margins, pulled over onto the shoulder of Highway One West, the Trans Canada. The page layout also mimics, coincidentally perhaps, a photograph of John K. Samson, used by The Globe and Mail, that looks like it was taken somewhere out on Highway One.
(I don’t know whom to credit for this photo.) The singer’s image, particularly with his back turned to the lens, echoes the middle section of the poem, while the highway and prairie skyline are picked up by the one-word horizontals. (Again, the page has to be turned sideways to see the mirroring.) What this accidental similarity suggests, for me, is a version of Ricou’s vertical man / horizontal world. The song itself has only a vestigial subjective presence: there is no “I” among the words, which are primarily objective and attenuated. But the voice, the speaking subject here, presents itself, ghosts itself into the song, as a hiatus, an opening in the mids and in the midst of this landscape. The singer pauses on the shoulder, at the left-hand margin of the road and of the page, to look out and, especially, to listen. The song models, I want to suggest, a late or “weak” practice of attention, an opening of the self to audibility – both heard and hearing, left and leaving – that positions the subject as initiating its own recreation, cobbling itself together from interpellative fragments that he tries to hear, see and identify with as maybe, elsewise, his own.