Monday, February 23, 2009

The Metropolis: My Memory Palace -- Sheniz Janmohamed

_Metropolis_; Dunlop, Rishma

As a South Asian Canadian poet searching for literature that I could identify with, Rishma Dunlop was one of the only poets I had access to. When I discovered her poetry collection, The Body of My Garden, I was taken aback by the proximity of her voice and the richness of her tone. From my experience studying Canadian poetry, I expected something more “prairie” or “suburban” and not something so unapologetically vibrant.

After meeting with Professor Dunlop and discussing literature and life with her over a few cups of cappuccino, I felt more assured about my own sense of “aesthetic”. I was less reluctant to occupy the liminal space of my second-generation South Asian Canadian identity.

Two years later, I picked up Dunlop’s Metropolis, finished a latte and walked back to my dorm room to read it. Sitting on the floor, I read it cover to cover. The voice was sharper, less kind, more haunting. It had an unfathomable maturity, almost mimicking the growth in my own life. Metropolis clanked words on concrete, walked with a lone woman down crowded streets, archived the fragmented lives of city dwellers.

My final year as an undergrad was a practice in discipline. After ending a three-year relationship that summer, my fourth year was my first year of university “alone”. I spent my time studying, bookmarking poems, conversing with female friends and strolling the streets of Toronto. It was difficult to adjust to the silence of being unattached -- not calling a man to quiet my fears, not meeting him in the foyer of his apartment building, not celebrating silly monthly anniversaries. There were times where I couldn’t visit certain cafes, bookstores or street corners. Each was marked with moments from a relationship that no longer existed.

In Metropolis, Dunlop delves into Cicero’s “Memory Palace”, which discusses the concept of remembering through “loci” (paths). For example, to memorize a speech, one would associate parts of it with particular locations around a city. To remember a section of the speech, one simply remembers the place with which that section was associated. I could relate because Toronto became my “Memory Palace”. The city was a palimpsest of memories from my past, unravelling my personal history in its bends. It took me a while to visit those old haunts, but I eventually allowed myself to create new memories in old spaces. I would amble down Bloor St.West on sunny mornings, collect my thoughts and prepare myself for the rest of the day. The city walk became a private meditation, a ritual, a chance to observe the world by maneuvering through it. I learned to recognize shady characters, walk with some sort of grace in high heels and ignore whistling construction workers. The city moulded me into a stronger young woman. After these experiences, when I read Metropolis, the poetic voice instantly resonated with me:

When your eyes have unclouded,

You will see the shine rising off the

Edges of things. You will hear a human

Breathing, sense of something blue, alive,


Dunlop’s speaker is an observer, a woman who sits on the subway and watches the way people fold their hands, how they avoid eye contact. She alludes to the invisible gap of humanity in the cold horizon of steel towers, the sirens, the interactions between people:

The city is in the eye of the blackbird,

Fixed on skyscrapers, bus terminals,

Garbage dumps.

Witness to muffled emergencies

Someone’s heart about to stop

Someone’s about to be delivered

Someone’s seeking redemption between

A woman’s legs.

She knows she is alone even when she is standing in a crowd, that people brush past her. She does not feel them, however:

Some days in the city nothing really touches us.

Everything is transparent, black-curtained government cars

Cast their shadows along the avenues. . .

When I read these poems, the poet and I are hardly any different. We occupy the same concrete world, witness the same bruised horizons, even wipe off the same shade of lipstick staining the rims of our coffee cups. Dunlop brings my world onto a page, and magnifies it with details and ideas I have been unable to pen into existence. There is also gravity lacing her words, an emotional weight that lends itself to uncertainty:

Some things keep you safe. . .

Until the blasted church,

Machete massacres

Rush hour bombs on subways,

Carnage that is the failure of love.

As a twenty-something woman stepping out of undergrad life, waiting for an acceptance letter to an MFA program, watching the daily bombardment of Islamic culture on a television screen, I was deeply moved by these words. I was moved by the feeling that we are never sure. Although this lack of surety is uncomfortable, it is inevitable. Dunlop’s carefully crafted poetry allowed me to accept this fact with some measure of maturity and sense of humour.

In the first year of an MFA program, I commuted via subway to attend classes. I would often take books to read when I got tired of noting down quirks of fellow riders. One morning, I glanced at my bookshelf and eyed the slim volume of Metropolis. I thought, “Dunlop. Why not?” That day I took it with me and read it, cover to cover, from Bay Station to Kipling. I found a strange relevance in the text through reading lines that described my environment. On the subway trip back, I just observed, as Dunlop might. I revelled in the exiting and entering of passengers, the crisp smacking open of a newspaper, the announcer’s drowsy voice. There I was -- completely alone, but confident. I had no idea what the next stop was, and it didn’t matter. What mattered was that the city had become my own, a metropolis of my mind. I was no longer afraid to get lost, because there was hope I’d find directions along the way.


Rishma Dunlop

Mansfield Press


Sheniz Janmohamed is a freelance writer, poet and spoken word artist. She holds an Honours BA in English and Religion from the University of Toronto. Recently, she completed her MFA in Creative Writing (Guelph) under the mentorship of author Janice Kulyk Keefer. Her thesis is a collection of essays and poems reflecting her triune identity as a Canadian with Kenyan and South Asian roots. She has also completed a manuscript of ghazals in English, and is collaborating with international dub/electronica artists on numerous musical/spoken word projects. Her work has appeared in various magazines as well as columns and book reviews in “City Masala Magazine”. She has performed at various venues across Toronto, including the Strong Words Reading Series, Toronto Poets’ Saturday Night Love, and Majlis Arts’ Figure of Speech series. To learn more about her, visit her site:

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