Photo Essay

The Bardo of the Canadian Prairies: Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg (with a new translation by Jeffrey Stewart)

We are allowed five minutes exactly. We must not wander from the bus and we are told: "You may not cross the street because if you are hit by a car you will probably be injured and I will be fired."

By Mark Fenton
Published September 11, 2008

Police Captain Pat Murphy: Now listen, Mike. Listen carefully. I'm going to pronounce a few words. They're harmless words. Just a bunch of letters scrambled together. But their meaning is very important. Try to understand what they mean: "Manhattan Project, Los Alamos, Trinity."

Investigator Mike Hammer: (Incredulous) I...I didn't know...!

--Kiss Me, Deadly, directed by Robert Aldrich, 1955

Chapter 1: Saskatoon

This August I visited my parents who currently reside in a high rise condominium in Saskatoon. Day after day I stared out

at the building opposite my room

imaging dozens of similar parents each with a visiting adult son who publishes photo-essays, one in every cell, staring back at the building opposite them

imagining that each cell houses parents with a visiting adult son who writes photo essays. When I wasn't looking at the opposite building I was reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

If the information therein is correct, at the end of the Third Bardo (or, if you're new to this stuff, the third section of the intermediate state between death and rebirth) when a person has failed to move to the Clear Light of Nirvana (that, I'm pretty sure is going to be my situation for several lifetimes) the remaining option is reincarnation by entering the most favourable womb. So I could just as easily have been standing on one of these other balconies, had I chosen a different womb. Though I have no complaints about the one I chose.

Some people react to repetition with horror. Myself, from the time I was a child in Regina and my Father would take me to the mall to get my hair cut, I loved the vision of my head repeated endlessly in the facing mirrors (whose progression always curved towards infinity, as though space were a labyrinth): an endless train of my heads each thinking the same thoughts...Or ARE they thinking the same thoughts?

I like imagining the dramas going on within similar heads. All looking the same yet all different. That's perhaps what I respond to in Walker Evan's Penny Picture Display, Savannah (1936), depicting a grid of photo thumbnails in the window of a commercial portrait studio.


Walker Evans, Penny Picture Display

all of those lives reduced to a common light and camera angle and the cultural construction of the American smile, and yet all of infinite diversity, such that it is enough to move a sentimental person like myself almost to tears when I think that most of these people have lived, brought good or ill to the earth, and passed on to be forgotten. I urge those of you who were young enough when this accidental collage was assembled to gang together in a Survivors-of-a-Photographic-Touchstone support group!

If I enjoyed my view of the opposite building by day, I enjoyed it still more at night, as it was lit to reveal an open parkade

the cars illuminated as though being warmed as the rapid, insulated cells they become in order to move passengers over the bald prairie to exotic liaisons. The poverty of natural and built impediments on the prairies allows my imagination to go places it doesn't go in the dense landscape of Southern Ontario.

For instance, when I focused on those vertical windows down the top centre of the shot, I could watch people enter the elevator and then I could make bets with myself as to when they would re-emerge on the street. My camera is not sophisticated enough to shoot at night without camera-shake which, oddly, made the figures of Saskatoon's cognoscenti chatting together on a warm summer night seem even more like Playmobile figures arranged at my whim:

colour-coded, featureless, and hyper-real. Whatever age we are, we return childhood when we go home. And like a child I watched this adult world, night after night, men and women creating vague secrets, as though I was not yet old enough to conceive what those secrets might be. And when finally I turned the camera off and closed the blind it was like I'd made them lifeless plastic again and returned them to the torn cardboard box, not wanting their machinations to develop without me.

That occupied me for the first few days. Then, having grown weary of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, I started exploring my parent's bookshelves and discovered this hardbound reprint of a slender 1949 essay by E. B. White.

The cover photo of White in the late 1940s conjures a man immaculately groomed, sartorially flawless, and admirably schooled in every grace. The very picture of an urbane magazine editor.

I devoured it in one sitting. I won't delve too deeply into prescient quotes like this one:

The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions.

I'll take it as a given that in 2008 we understand this passage better than E.B White did when he wrote it. I would like to remark on what for me constitutes a more precise gift of observation, which captures the essence of New York's millions by contemplating their backdrop.

Nursing a drink, I stare through the west windows of the Manufacturers Trust Company and at the red brick fronts on the north side of Ninth Street, watching the red turning slowly to purple as the light dwindles. Brick building have a way of turning color at the end of the day, the way a red rose turns bluish as it wilts.

Day ends, to be reborn. The essay ends to be reborn in someone reading it, long after the death of the author. If thirty pages can encapsulate New York, I've already spilled enough ink on Saskatoon.

Chapter 2: Regina

I traveled from Saskatoon to Regina by car, with my mother and younger daughter.

E. B. White's fear of aerial menace is on my mind as I look out of my hotel window in the Hotel Saskatchewan towards the twin towers that are, I guess, the epicenter of downtown Regina.

I am possessed with thoughts of an attack originating from central Asia. I imagine a conversation taking place in a cave.

Aerial Assassin 13: What is it about you and twin towers?

Osama: They reflect each other exactly. They speak of infinite multiplicity as opposed to oneness. I hate them. They mock all we believe! We must rid the planet of their mockery!

Aerial Assassin 29: For sure....but...just... my Mom said to ask you... aside from the virgins on the other side. What are we getting paid... exactly...?

Osama: Cretin! Rat! Do you scuttle under detritus for scraps in order feed only yourself?! Do you think nothing of the great drama in which you have been chosen from thousands to play a glorious role?!

Aerial Assassin 5: Where exactly is Regina again?

I am comforted that the Regina towers each have a chunk sliced diagonally out of a corner, as though leaning away from enemy planes. No doubt this creates an optical illusion, a false presence, tricking the planes like a matador's cape so that they wizz past and smash less malignly into one of Regina's many empty parks. That's what I'm hoping anyway.

Let's get one thing clear from the outset. I had been planning to do the Regina­-Winnipeg leg by Greyhound for some months and this passage was in no way some ghoulish desire to traverse the same route on the same carrier that Vince Weiguang Li took on July 30, 2008. I had choreographed all the movements of my prairie trip more than a month before that.

While I will admit to being curious about whether there would be a creepy energy on board, I certainly didn't research bus numbers; and I suspect anyway that the fatal one is being held in a police garage as evidence, or at the very least is down for a good cleaning. But if the more morbid readers want to check it out, a quick scroll through my memory stick and some zaprudering show that I recorded the bus number by accident

so go knock yourself out.

And during our stop at Portage La Prairie (the nearest city to the incident) I did nearly jump out of my skin when I turned on my cell phone for the first time that day and it immediately rang and was my elder daughter, and it was in fact the first time she'd tried to reach me and the merest luck that I'd turned it on for that few minutes!

If I believed in such things I would say that she was motivated by the terrible sadness that was palpable at this stop as dusk fell on Manitoba. But I don't believe such things. The event lay like a dead elephant on the bus that no one on board acknowledged for the entire trip.

No. I took the bus because it was convenient. You exit the Hotel Saskatchewan and walk a short block down an alley behind this building which carves the blue of the Regina sky like a putty knife removing a garish paint from an otherwise handsome antique.

(The Regina sky really IS such a pure, oversaturated blue. There's no brown in it at all! It's not normal.)

You reach the bus station in about 15 seconds.

Before leaving the hotel I purchased a pack of cards in the event that my daughter and I got bored during the trip. I was delighted to find ones with a map on the back that depicted the first half of our journey. My random photo of the cards suggests I've just been dealt a hand of Two Up, Three Down,

though that wasn't my intention. I was checking every last one for a Manitoba map.

Wouldn't it, I thought, make for an interesting memory game if all the provinces were depicted? You could narrow down your opponent's possible cards by what province was on the back! But they were all maps of Saskatchewan. And I simply experienced the meaningless repetition of the foolish man who passes parenthetically through a proposition in Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations:

(As if someone were to buy several copies of the morning paper to assure himself that what it said was true.)

Chapter 3: Interzone

I was pleased to discover that there were no metal detectors yet in place, no x-rays, and that I wasn't made to undo my belt and prove that what set off the beeper really WAS my belt buckle and not a box cutter concealed painfully in the groin area. However when it came time to load our bags into the luggage compartment our driver, a man with a stern expression and chiseled jawline told us that any carry-on too large for the overhead bins MUST be stowed in the luggage compartment.

This, followed by two seconds of pregnant silence which finally give birth to the ominous statement: "It's just like the airlines now" and his chiseled jaw-line became still more chiseled, and there was a collaborative look in his eye that said "we all know why this is and don't make me spell it out and I'll be damned if this bus is going down on MY watch."

To my delight we're only required to keep our carry-ons in the overhead bins as the bus departs the station. Before the bus is even out of Regina, passengers who have been on the bus for days have pulled their bags down and are availing themselves of laptops and gaming devices and heaven knows what lethal instruments. Chiseled Jaw-line seems not to notice and proceeds to give a bunch more directives about scheduled smoke stops, meal stops, the necessity of being back to the bus on time because CJ will not, repeat WILL NOT wait for us and WILL NOT look for us.

He then represents on cell phone etiquette, the gist of which is that if you are speaking on your cell phone at a louder decibel level then you would to the person next to you on the bus then your phone is defective and I feel that if CJ is as close to burnout in this career as I'm beginning to be certain he is, he might consider work as a diagnostic technician for Telus.

Finally, speaking as though from distasteful personal experience he tells us that those who've been travelling on the bus for days, or even those who haven't been travelleing on the bus for days to PLEASE refrain from taking off shoes as this will be deeply unpleasant for the rest of us (I have never heard any such advisory from an Air Canada captain and surely there are passengers on legs which are departing Pearson International for Halifax, but whose journey originated in Osaka and this is the point where I realize that commercial bus culture and commercial airline culture are just plain different from each other.

CJ then tells us that he does not speak French. Before this becomes a non sequitor he delegates to any bilingual passenger the job of communicating what he's just said about the shoes to the French speakers seated at the back of the bus. I am puzzled by this. He has not asked that any of the other information be conveyed to them, just the stuff about shoes, and so I wonder if some base ethnic slight about foot odor is at play.

That and the eerie fact that the prairies have retained a tacit segregation of French speakers and English speakers on buses prevents me from taking on the job of translator, despite the fact that no one else wants to do it. I am a bit ashamed, since even my admittedly substandard spoken French could probably have just about handled the job.

CJ is nothing if not an impressive driver. Without exceeding the speed limit CJ reaches Sintaluta

five minutes early and offers us AN UNSCHEDULED REST STOP. We are allowed five minutes exactly. We must not wander from the bus and we are told: "You may not cross the street because if you are hit by a car you will probably be injured and I will be fired."

It is at this moment that I experience a blinding flash of the obvious: CJ WAS THE DRIVER DURING JULY 30 INCIDENT! And the LAST thing he needs is another unfortunate event on his shift. Hence his overzealous, proactive measures for safety and comfort. It is enough to move a person's heart. As I walk past him I bite my lip and refrain from placing a hand on his upper arm and saying "I understand." This is a journey CJ has to travel alone.

I photographed these people a few times, individually and as a couple.

You know them. They are on every bus trip you and I have ever been on. They are in love and embarking on a uncertain and impoverished journey and they don't care about tomorrow, or the length of the drive, because they are completely in the moment and erotically entwined throughout most of the trip and when you find yourself staring at them (because how really, in the sensory deprivation tank of a bus ride, can you not), and they notice you and say: 'take a picture, it'll last longer'.

So that's what I did this time. As I've often done in the past (with about 50% effectiveness) I used my daughter as an decoy, pretending to be taking a picture of her and shifting the angle of the camera at the last second, but you can see by the young man's head-on regard that I have failed miserably.

(The young woman has made me a second before the shot is taken, broken from his embrace, and hidden behind the tree. That's my daughter's hand in the bottom right corner for those of you who think I just make this stuff up about my photographic technique.)

The photos with the helicopter were taken further down the road, in Whitewood, and our couple was all over that thing. That's what's great about being madly in love: the most irrelevant objects are infused with the intensity of your relations, like essential props for a play in which you two are the leads. Perhaps this connectedness to random objects explains why lovers carve their initials in dead stumps and picnic tables. Anyway I thank them for allowing me to ride on their euphoria.

We stopped long enough in Whitewood to use the bathroom. Now I may have failed with the couple shots, but I feel pretty pleased with myself for having whipped off even this blurred shot without being noticed in a men's room in Eastern Saskatchewan packed with overtired and cranky passengers.

I have always been compelled by the artwork of these machines, which to me depict something similar to the scary monsters the Third Bardo of the Tibetan Book of the Dead (rather than something the ad is telling me I'd like to buy and experience.)

Particularly this option,

which speaks of a planet of beings close to what we call mammals but with differently formed genitals.

Despite my hunger I chose not to purchase any of the mystery meat in the fridge.

I did, however, try on a few of these

but just got a taciturn shake of the head when I asked the clerk if there was a mirror I could see myself in. I will probably never be back in this particular rest stop.

In Brandon, CJ was replaced by a new driver. CJ's last directive was that if we wanted a HOT meal we'd better order it now so we'd be finished in time for the next departure.

CJ didn't say that his replacement might not be as easy going about stragglers as CJ himself, but I think it was implied.

I was stunned to see these machines in the restaurant booths.

I remember them from childhood, although I never got any satisfaction from them. The one time I was in a restaurant and my parents let me select--I think it was "The Night Chicago Died", or possibly "Seasons in the Sun"--I was so far down in the queue that we had to leave before it came on, and I was left sad and 25 cents poorer, heading out the door to the strains of "Ricky Don't Lose that Number," my selection wasted on affectedly bored twenty-somethings with leather bracelets and feathered bangs. It amazes me to see more or less contemporary

titles by Shania Twain and Sheryl Crowe interspersed with vintage songs in a machine I can't imagine anyone alive knowing how to service. It's like finding a crank start on an 08 BMW.

Despite having passengers who were starting their journey in Brandon, the driver who would take us through Portage La Prairie and into Winnipeg said nothing for the entire trip, aside from broadcasting each city name a few seconds before arrival.

This photo was taken as close to the unfortunate even as I can estimate.

I am reading Frost, the first novel of the Austrian author, Thomas Bernhard. The narrator is a student intern for a surgeon named Strauch. He is sent by Strauch to visit Struach's brother, a painter who is living a hermetic life in a hideous mining town in the mountains--a town whose citizens are, in the eyes of both Strauch and the narrator, a uniformly vulgar, gloomy, mendacious, lustful, and violent bunch.

The narrator's job is to make a psychiatric report of Strauch (the painter's) mental state and oh boy there's a lot to write about, since Strauch the painter on a good day is mean-spirited, paranoid, contemptuous of all human endeavor and suicidal.

Incidentally for those of you new to Bernhard and who want something life affirming, this is a good place to start as his later books, much as I love them, can be overly sardonic and negative. As I take this picture I have just read the following passage. (The words in quotes are spoken by Strauch the painter):

"If the walls could talk" he said "every room has seen its own atrocity. The war has soaked into these walls. I mean the room where you're staying"

It seemed like a good time to stop reading. We were just entering Portage La Prairie. The driver nodded to us, communicating that we could step outside for a moment, rather the way I imagine some bus driver in rural Poland might nod your attention to the sight of a particular atrocity of the Third Reich. I wondered why the station's brickwork seemed so eerie and realized it struck a chord with a witness account of the killing I'd watched, and which you can see on Youtube.

Mr. Canton is enacting the stabbing motions of Vince Li and at certain points in his narrative he attempts facial expressions which approximate what I imagine I'll see—or perhaps already have seen but don't remember—on the faces of the 42 Wrathful Deities of the Third Bardo.

This interview takes place probably within an hour of the killing so Mr. Canton is eager to bear witness while it is still fresh in his mind (though my suspicion is that it will stay fresh in his mind for a good time longer than he'd like.)

The lesson of the journey, perhaps even exacerbated by our collective silence about the killing as we ride the bus, is that places contain a residue of events, even if that residue is only in the minds of people who pass through them. This may explain why so many architectural submissions for a new World Trade Centre sought to build the new structure around the footprint of the original towers.

Chapter 4: Winnipeg

It was my first visit to Winnipeg and I only had 36 hours there, 16 of them asleep, so don't expect my portrait of the city to be comprehensive. The sleeping part wasn't good since I was repeatedly haunted by dreams of my rebirth. The "Bardo of Becoming" informs us that moments before reincarnation we see a man and a woman in a passionate embrace and these people are our parents, (i.e. the womb we are to enter).

In my dream the man and woman were the young couple from the bus and rather than allow me to be reincarnated as their child - probably a just response to my voyeurism - I kept being dumped back at the restaurant at Brandon whose jukebox was playing an endless loop of "Hotel California."

My awake time in Winnipeg was better.

First of all: the weather.

It was warm and sunny when I awoke, not a cloud in the sky and it rose steadily to 28 C, and then subsided to a comfortable sleeping temperature. Unlike Saskatchewan, which had been wet with lots of bugs, it was dry with no bugs. What on earth is WRONG with people? Why isn't EVERYONE moving to Winnipeg? I forgot to ask if it's like this all year round, but how bad could it be the rest of the year? I can only assume the people of Winnipeg know what a great climate they have and are keeping it to themselves.

Also, one of the things you always hear about the prairies is how depressingly horizontal the experience is, making for jokes like "Winnipeg: a city where no man can leap to his death."

Well that's just not true. They've arranged it so you can. I was out at a place called The Forks, a market/cultural event place by the Red River and they've built this tower here and it's pretty intense. I didn't have the nerve to try it, but you take the glass elevator up four floors and I'm guessing you can see probably a hundred miles in every direction. And if you want to crank up the thrill, walk out onto the balcony like these people are doing.

If nothing else, it gives a spectacular view of the Red River.

That's not a quirk of digital colour. The river really looks like that--not so much red as the colour of a tasty lentil soup.

Note also the accidental capture of a moving train. Point your camera any direction in Winnipeg at any time, and you will photograph a moving train.

For any road trip add an extra twenty minutes for rail crossings. As I almost never see a train in any other Canadian city, these trains can't be carrying anything to other cities. They must shuffle back and forth and criss-cross the city in some marriage of conceptual art and dance choreography (everyone KNOWS that Winnipeg is famous for a vigorous arts community.) I was still growing to appreciate the lyricism of the lines and rhythms of trains when it was time to leave.

I don't pretend to have grasped the nuances of the city in a single day. Even The Forks has more to offer than I've shown, including an incredible Skateboard/BMX run

where if you're good you can get almost as much verticality as the glass elevator and easily as much risk of a painful death.

My daughter and I were fortunate enough to stay with Jeffrey Stewart (whose poetry has appeared in Raise the Hammer in the past and who has recently relocated in Winnipeg no doubt to enjoy the perfect weather, and who's to say he hasn't earned his Nirvana?) He has allowed me to include his recent translation of a lyric by Alexander Pushkin, the great Russian poet, which he describes to me as "Perhaps a timely imitation, considering what is going on between Russia and Georgia this month..."

Darkness falls upon the hills of Georgia,
Ahead, I hear the roar of the Aragva.
I'm so sad and light with my transparent grief,
My sorrow is composed solely of you, you,
And you alone...my melancholy
Remains untouched and is undisturbed.
Once again my heart is inflamed and loves
Because it cannot do otherwise.

I took this photo by accident, as Jeff was opening his door to show me his garden,

though I'm happier with it than I was of the pictures I took actually IN his garden. (What does THAT say, that when my finger accidentally trips the shutter I do better than when I think about composition?) The exposure is such that the door opens to a complete white-out. At first I found the photo a bit scary, since it emulates how the film goes all white in Robert Aldrich's 1955 film of Spillane's Kiss Me, Deadly when Mike Hammer has unknowingly opened "the great whatsit" (which we later learn is someone's idea of a nuclear bomb)

You can tell by the look in his eye he's seen what Pandora disguised as the American Government has gotten up to. Don't worry, he closes it real fast and the bad stuff all goes back in. But for a second there the whole screen just about went white.

But I chose to see my photo as something more positive, like the directive the Tibetan Book of the Dead gives us. That when we are in the Bardos we must always move towards the white light to escape the cycle of samsara. It's how I felt when I left the darkness of the bus and entered the white light of the bus station in Winnipeg.

And it's fitting for Jeff's house, since we are about to enter his garden, and as someone has said (someone incidentally whom no amount of net surfing has helped me identify):

We are closest to god in a garden.

Mark Fenton lives in Hamilton and works in transportation logistics. He is the author Pim, a children's book for all ages. The eponymous Pim tweets daily @PIMSLIM_. A physical copy of Pim will be published soon and in the meantime Pim is available as a Kindle e-book which you can buy. Mark maintains a website at www.markfenton.ca.

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By Reader (anonymous) | Posted September 12, 2008 at 14:25:03

Well done! Great connection between personal context and a random, inexplicable event.

And as a noir fan, I loved the Spillane reference. In fact, one of the best pieces of post-modern, noir writing I've seen.

More like this, please.

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By CRS (anonymous) | Posted July 21, 2010 at 20:35:54

Jeffery Stewart: We have priority one mail in our office for you. Please call:
1 877 881 8088

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