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The UnderTOw: A Lonely Concrete Poem


Every now and then everyone needs a good wallow. Whether it's because of the loss of a job, the end of a relationship, or the loss of a loved one, sometimes the only thing for it is a good-old-fashioned spin on the self-pity train. As anyone who's ever wallowed knows, it's an important step in the healing process, although one that is dangerously easy to stay trapped in.

On a recent bout of my own wallowing, I found myself with a lot of free time and not much to fill it with. I hopped on my bike and rolled through the city looking for something to latch on to: some building or tree or unknown curiosity that would at least occupy my thoughts. What I found was a message, etched in stone, that shared my despair but also helped show me the way out of it. Hidden down an alley in The Annex, eight lonely lines of poetry wait those predisposed to aimless wandering, both emotional and physical.

Running between Huron and St. George Streets is bpNichol Lane, an alley that reaches from Sussex up to (almost) Bloor. As is the case with many of Toronto's laneways, the path is not just a shortcut or gateway to the backs of peoples houses: it's actually filled with the kind of hidden and out-of-sight surprises that make this city special.

The offices and presses of Coach House Books lie down the lane, and written into the very concrete of the laneway are the words "A Lake / A Lane / A Line / A Lone." The words, composed by the alley's namesake, are an example of concrete poetry: poetry that makes its physical form as much a part of the work as its content. This concrete poem, written into concrete itself, shows subtle shifts every other line, with one letter changing. Since bpNichol was an editor (and published poet) at Coach House, it's a fitting place for his writing.

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I read a few meanings into it: I thought it might go to show how quickly the mind can turn from something pleasant, like a lake, to something more painful: loneliness. I thought it might also show a person, perhaps swimming in a lake, reading a line of poetry, or wandering down a lane, can easily find him or herself feeling alone. But the poem could also be read backwards: maybe loneliness can be written down into lines, shed down lanes, and poured out, absorbed into lakes. Maybe the poem was meant to be a hopeful one.

Whether it was an overactive imagination or just the desire to clear my mind, I found this hidden poem a nice secret hidden down the city's streets. If nothing else, it might help would-be wallowers find their way out of introspection and back into the outside world.

Images by me.

The UnderTOw is a weekly column that asks the question, "How'd That Get There?" It explores the landmarks in Toronto's public spaces that act as metaphors in the city's story, running like a current beneath the urban landscape.


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