The business of sports writing is most often full of who did what, when, where and how fast. Occasionally, a "why" is added when space allows. Very rarely will you find poetry in it. However, when I first read David Blaikie's articles on Al Howie, I was transfixed by his prose - the beauty and the dirt and the truth in his pieces. Now happily in retirement, he's published a book of poetry on his early years in Ottawa.
"My season was in Lowertown in the 1970s, one of the oldest districts of Ottawa, just east of Parliament Hill and the Chateau Laurie Hotel, where the Rideau Canal tumbles through ancient locks to the Ottawa River - the neighborhood where French and Irish immigrants drank and fought, and made the capital of Canada to rise from the northern wilderness."
On the heels of a divorce, Blaikie found a certain solace sharing his cups with strangers and living in a humble abode on Friel Street - "a worn-out place that felt about right." The neighborhood came alive at night, and memories were both sharpened and blunted. Thoughts of what had gone wrong, what he might have done different, and of the greater vicissitudes of making something of yourself. He delicately describes the life of escape many of us, all too sensitive to the trappings around us, feel as we try to understand who we are by plying away from those we know we aren't - "I wanted no one and nothing to find me."
His poetry is a detailed collection of vivid vignettes - pieces of a city - the smell of a stranger - sex as a fleeting sanctuary, a spell broken by the morning light. In his work, we also see the transformation of the city and country, a political wave set in movement by wars, Nixon, and free love. One can't help but feel a sense of loss or be reminded of Hunter Thompson's "high water mark" line from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: "So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” There's a loss of the dream in Blaikie's work as in Thompson's, a knowledge that things could have been different - if only we could have kept pushing, a sense that the loudest voice may have won the day and in their gluttony, overrun a bygone, simpler time.
Perhaps it is no coincidence then that Kerouac is such a prominent figure in this work. Having died at the tail end of the '60s, bursting his guts with drink, he looms large for those who grew up On The Road with his wild freedom and rambling style. Blaikie also battled with alcohol and opens up about it in flashes and visions in poems like "Melancholy" and "Quarts." But like Kerouac finds the beauty and poignance hidden in the everyday.
In this collection, we see Blaikie for the poet that he was, before there was running and pacing and timesheets. We see a writer who learned to report, not the other way round, a sensitive man, keenly aware of the world around him, who, like many before him, never forgot the small things - the taste of a cheap beer, the smell of the night air, the new feeling of being new and everything being uncertain and thrilling and alive. And in A Season in Lowertown, we see the poet that he has become, a wordsmith with a stout memory of "his season" in his part of the Capital and a gift for making it live again.
You can find his work on Amazon here.