The first poem in Aritha van Herk’s new book, Stampede and the Westness of West, ends with something akin to a threat: “Stampede or else.” One can almost hear the film score of a gunfight in a dusty dead-end town, except in this case that showdown is the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth and the location is the west—an elusive setting in which van Herk explores the multiple meanings of the Calgary Stampede.
van Herk’s early fiction—including No Fixed Address and The Tent Peg—pulled apart myths by challenging traditional beliefs about concepts such as gender. Her more recent non-fiction books—Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta and Audacious and Adamant: The Story of Maverick Alberta—explore and create legends derived from her home province’s history. Stampede and the Westness of West does both. Her first collection of prose poems, it will likely be shelved as poetry, though it actually crosses genres from page to page and sometimes from line to line. The book might be more accurately described as a collection of explorations.
“Pancake banquet,” for example, opens as a set of descriptive instructions on how to make it through the “conga line” of a pancake breakfast to obtain “one sausage for reward.” But that’s just a jumping off point for an expansive work peppered with literary and cultural references—Pericles, Nathaniel Hawthorne—along with personal details such as van Herk’s own directions for making her Dutch pannenkoeken, and an evocation of the landscape, cultural as much as geographic: “Flat as a pancake.… The prairie is not flat, but rife with relief.”
The writing here can be unapologetically local. At times it riffs on the borders of Stampede cliché, as in the author’s recurring homages to the hangover and some people’s sexually transmitted infection-riddled sexcapades. But then cliché is an element of what she’s exploring. “Preserve the west. Stew it and can it and bottle it. Line it up on a shelf in the cold room, preserves shining with industry and frugality,” she writes in “Apology.”
In the final piece, “Shooting a saskatoon,” she contemplates the west’s true meaning: “The west is a virus, a night club, a chain letter. The west is a door and a window, neither and both, transparent but private.…” No surprise that van Herk ultimately declares the west “undefinable.”
As a whole, the book tells a multi-faceted, questioning story of the Stampede and the west, and it takes more than one read to put all the pieces together. Although it can be bumpy—like riding a bull in the arena or the Tilt-a-Whirl on the fair grounds—Stampede and the Westness of West is still fun for any reader willing to withstand a few rough spots for a thrill.
—Heather Setka is a creative non-fiction writer in Calgary. #