Rouge by Adrian De Leon
Mawenzi House — 2018 — $19.95
Review by Ryan Fitzpatrick
In his recent book Frontier City: Toronto on the Verge of Greatness, flâneur and urban critic Shawn Micallef faces the outer cities of amalgamated Toronto to ask about the emergence of Ford Nation. At the same time, in his attempt to view the outer cities more positively, Micallef incidentally winds his way, sometimes critically, into frontier logics that view spaces like Scarborough as promising sites that just need to have their potential unlocked. “At some point,” Micallef suggests, “some lazy writer will say ‘Scarborough is the next Brooklyn,’ if they haven’t already, and the change will continue” (221). This moment seems to be approaching, at least culturally, as Scarborough finds itself framed as undergoing a creative resurgence. This is emblematized both in the recent Scarborough-sited offshoot of Nuit Blanche and in a constellation of acclaimed fiction set in Scarborough by David Chariandy, Catherine Hernandez, and Carrianne Leung.
With his debut poetry collection Rouge, Adrian De Leon emerges in the midst of this intensified attention to writing and art from and about Scarborough, but casts his critical eye on the rest of the city. In an article in The Discourse examining this recent attention to Scarborough as a cultural site, Aparita Bhandari situates De Leon as part of a small writers’ collective (including Natasha Ramoutar, Leanne Simpson, and Chelsea La Vecchia) that emerged from the creative writing program at the University of Toronto Scarborough. Bhandari frames De Leon’s and the rest of the collective’s work through this recent interest in Scarborough as “cultural destination”:
De Leon is uncomfortable with the way Scarborough is now being portrayed as a cultural destination, its social capital pre-curated by Google map searches and hipster Yelp reviews. Visitors might take pride in their cosmopolitan ventures to seemingly uncharted areas, marveling at their travel to Toronto’s east end and the three buses it took to get there. But De Leon was a regular on that route for years, navigating the neighbourhood’s significant transit challenges everyday just to get to class. It’s the subject of much of his new book of poetry.
In Rouge, De Leon takes on this cultural tourism by playing tourist. Rather than reflect on the past or paint a representational portrait of a city waiting for its potential to be tapped, Rouge carries Scarborough through the rest of Toronto to critically invert the direction of urban maps that feign surprise at Toronto’s geographic sprawl and spatial diversity post-amalgamation. But De Leon isn’t the dapper downtown urbanist strolling with amazement through Toronto’s far flung corners. Instead, he rumbles across the city, straining that sprawl through a Scarborough perspective. Rouge practices a critically minded joy that emerges from a clear love for his city, but a love cut through with a sharp critical eye aware of the ways the media represent that city as distant and crime-addled.
From its fire red cover (a what-if representation of the Rouge subway stop of the title), De Leon’s book traces the TTC lines moving through Toronto, from Kipling to Kennedy, from Downsview to Finch. Moving west to east, the book resolves itself at the end of the line in the unbuilt Rouge station, cutting that virtual ribbon to reflect on media responses to a 2012 mass shooting at a summer party at a housing development at Danzig and Morningside. The title poems tersely refract and recombine responses to the shooting, crosscutting media opinion, political speechmaking, and flashes of his own editorializing. The result is impressionistic and impressive – a refusal of the stock narratives defining Scarborough.
The rest of the book carries this refusal into the rest of the city, station by station. De Leon responds to each station through a variety of formal tactics that balance humour and sincerity to both goof on the ways we understand different areas of the city (particularly when we don’t live in those places), while also displaying a deep and critical love for Toronto. The result, at times, is maybe too eclectic, but the individual poems build onto one another, giving us a necessarily incomplete slice of a Toronto experienced in transit. Chester, Pape, and Donlands, running through Greektown, make up a three part Greek wedding poem. The stretch between Castle Frank and Broadview hopes for a cell phone signal as the train breaks into the open air. At Bayview, he overhears: “WHAT THE FUCK THERE’S NOTHING HERE.” The hook through the financial district gets “a little political” with talk about unionization. At Bathurst, he catches a glimpse of Scarborough (except it’s “Markham Street, not Markham Road” ) only to see it again at Lansdowne in “the graffiti-brick kissed brick walls across the road [that] are the revolutionary picket signs of reconstruction” (11). For De Leon, Toronto and Scarborough are cities filled with life and inexhaustible rhythm. They’re messy, complicated, boring, romantic, fun, dangerous, and, for better or worse, discoverable.
Bhandari, Aparita. “Scarborough’s vibrant culture has never been a secret to insiders.” The Discourse, 20 Nov 2018, www.thediscourse.ca/scarborough/scarborough-vibrant-culture
De Leon, Adrian. Rouge. Mawenzi House, 2018.
Micallef, Shawn. Frontier City: Toronto on the Verge of Greatness. Signal, 2016.