The Pen may be mightier than the sword elsewhere, but, in St. John’s Newfoundland it is just a colloquialism for our dilapidated prison (Her Majesty’s Penitentiary) and paperwork trumps pen, sword and … fork. It came out this past week that Service NL (provincial food licensing and inspection for Newfoundland and Labrador) suggested that Mallard Cottage reclassify itself from “restaurant” to “other” due to it’s “obscure” food practices. These “obscure” methods of food preparation include buying and cutting up whole pigs instead of buying and cutting up pieces of pig, making pickles and curing meats and vegetables. In other words, preparing the food you serve makes you less of a restaurant. There is no threat of actions and no health standards have been violated. This is not big drama. It is small bureaucracy. And it is oh so very “Pigs is Pigs.”
This happens as St. John’s city council has received demolition requests for two prized historic buildings. One of which was maliciously neglected to circumvent a weakly written and unenforced agreement with the city to restore the property. That same developer had begun to strip the inside of the other property prior to its demolition order being filed, much less approved.
So what. So two rotten old houses may rot and more boxes may need ticking before the weekly pig roast. And all this in a very small city dwarfed by its offshore rigs and its icebergs. So this. Last night was a magically silly fundraiser for a local music festival (Lawnya Vawnya). It was the sixth annual “Fake Prom” and two costumed cover bands rocked the bar while folks from nineteen to well past mid-life danced in crinolines and boutonnieres well past mid-night. I had invited a filmmaker, visiting from Montreal, to come to the event and, as I was pointing out various band members, it hit me how integrated the artistic talent is in the town: “that guy with the nationally touring, award-winning band is a taxi driver; that woman nailling “Like a Prayer” is a famous singer-songwriter, helped start the local Girls Rock Camp and looks after toddlers by day; the one with the banter we all call “Captain Handsome” and he teaches Jr High. In St. John’s, half the folks in a given room downtown are likely to be both professional artists and the people making the neighborhood economies run. Old buildings and live talent are so much a part of tradition here they are are almost endangered. If we are “maggoty” with the arts, as locals might say, how are they endangered? Why preserve something so prevalent? Because it takes only a little time and the machinations of an incurious government for basic traditions to be deemed “obscure”.
What makes Mallard Cottage, what makes St. John’s, so mighty, so powerfully affecting to those who were born here and those from away, is the absolute normality of the extraordinary. Those guys painting your house? One’s photographs hang in the art banks of Hotel conglomerates and oil companies, the other is a poet so gifted that his 2011 book, Gifthorse, helped me save my life when I was sick enough to wish for death. This extraordinary art fills this city, this province, my heart. But sometimes a thing’s very prevalence, like old buildings we barely notice for the very length they’ve existed, leads to its devaluation. For the second half of my residency at Mallard Cottage, I will pay even closer attention, I will watch more of this town on my way there and back. I will celebrate the abundance of tradition around me, before it becomes a rarity to protect.
And I will start right now with some love for some poems by a poet who pulled out a chair for me at a bar on my second night in town and said, “Do I know your mother? No? Well, if you’ve come alone, sit with us anyway.”
Agnes Walsh reading her poem “Going Around with Bachelors”
And, you, reading Walsh’s, “The Laying Out, 1956”:
Wash the corpse, put on the habit,
put the pennies on the eyelids,
the prayer book under the jaw,
fold the arms with the rosary beads
entwined around the fingers,
stop the clock, turn the looking glass
to the wall, knock him on the forehead
With the hammer to make sure he’s dead.
[Photo of my walk to work ... which will now be soundtracked with poetry podcasts]
-- Emily Deming, Writer-in-Residence at Mallard Cottage