A mural featuring a rendition of the cover of America & other poems by acclaimed Canadian poet Jeff Bien, highlights what has been touted as a prophetic and enduring work. It is an homage of original art created by well known artists Steve Driscoll and Matt Bahen that articulates in a singular image, a theme of penance and decay, and captures the prosaic incantation and realpolitik of the title poem.
The site is a heritage-age building (circa 1880), at 382 College St (near Spadina), adjacent to the University of Toronto and the heart of Toronto’s arts and literary communities which has evolved in various incarnations, more recently the Windup Bird Cafe, a venue for readings and launches.
Through the auspices of the Ontario College of Art, these once promising young painters were selected, at the time, from a wide array of Canadian artists. The work was commissioned and the funds raised by individual donations from supporters of the poetry.
Rendered in 2000, ironically a year before September 11th, a first of its kind, it loomed as a ghostly landmark in the Canadian artistic community. It was for more than a decade an iconographic way station, showcasing a collection of apocalyptic verse. The book’s epigram previously appeared above the mural: “The new colossus is old/Everyone is tired and poor.”
“It was predicted to be a “landmark in the Canadian artistic community”, wrote the Grid, a weekly subsidiary of the Toronto Star. The mural at College and Borden, which depicts a disintegrating American flag, remains, fifteen years later, a relevant reminder of both the book, and it’s author’s visionary regale. “So the prediction that the site would become a landmark (from a press release issued by Bien’s publisher) has come true…” Bien now lives near Ottawa, writing and working in a rural enclave that, he says, “seems to complement the silences that birth the painting of the words.”
The mural has been photographed widely by amateur and professional photographers alike, and surfaced internationally on Channel four in Great Britain, as well as a myriad of websites internationally.
The book itself “America & other poems” originally published by Quarry Press, has received critical recognition both in Canada and abroad, and is to be re-released, with an additional prose piece, “Pax Americana”. The original title poem has been compared to Whitman, praised for its iconoclastic and prophetic voice and translated into several languages including Russian, Spanish, French and others.
Of the mural, the artists had this to say: “Jeff Bien’s poem ‘America’ is brutal and direct. It slammed us in the belly. This image is how our hands responded. The work is profoundly moving. To sum up his years of work in a painted image was a challenge. We approached the piece along the lines of a contemporary painting. The image’s stakes and directness allows it to be very specific and yet ambiguous at the same time. The work America is repeated as if it were a penance. It reinforces and exacerbates the meaning of the image and the flag’s dissolving. The simple redundancy of the text negates an ethos whose lens is mired in advertisement or television. The word is read by us phenomenologically rather than as purchase space in a magazine. The American flag dissolves into the apocalyptic voice of the poem itself: ‘America who hangs from its own memory like a drunken star’.” -Steven Driscoll and Matt Bahen