EXPLORING THE GREAT SAVANNAH OF OTTAWA

NOV 9-10, 2019 – Casi & Steven Cline

We have 24 hours to spend in Savannah, Georgia. Savannah, which is “the most haunted city in america”, if you believe the tourist literature. How one goes about measuring such things, we are not really sure, but we are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. We decide to structure our surrealist dérive around the idea of a search for ghosts. Furthermore, having recently heard mention of the old situationist technique of navigating one city with a map of a completely different city on a recent episode of the Weird Studies podcast, we decide to swap out Savannah with the city of Ottawa. We take a map of downtown Ottawa, and mark on it various well-known haunted Ottawa sites. Learning that Jason Abdelhadi of the Ottawa surrealist group also lives very near those sites, we add a stop on the map for him as well. Not content with a mere map switch, we also make a pact with each other to only refer to Savannah as “Ottawa” from here on out. We manage to keep this game going with a straight face for the duration of the 24 hours…

HIGHWAY SIGNS

Along the way, SC notices a tree surrounded by some kind of white offal. Has a great white bird been murdered at the foot of this tree? Or is it birthing out marshmallows? The image is gone by too quick for him to fully process. Strange black swampy areas stretch out between the two roads. A surrealist folding game played later in the trip reveals William Burroughs as the hidden ghost who haunts these swamps. A big bird swoops low. There would be many others.

A PORTAL TO ANOTHER WORLD

Our first stop is the square next to our hotel. A statue sits at its center. One of its panels shows a scene in which a ghostly face peaks out from under a flag. He is watching a dying man. We decide that this is “Confederation Park”, and that it will be our starting point for the map portion of our game, which will be played tomorrow morning. As for today, we will drift mapless. We stumble on an adorably rotund and fluffy cat. He rubs against a parked car, and looks back with his very best “come hither”. CC takes the bait, and follows him, getting a few strokes in before he walks away. We follow in his direction, and are soon gifted with an incredible alleyway. It is about a foot wide, littered with trash and dark as the night. We squeeze through it, eventually reaching the light on the other side. We both have an overwhelming feeling that we are now in a totally different city. That fat cat was our very own white rabbit, and we are now in Ottawa- Wonderland. This feeling is later confirmed by an overheard snippet of a conversation. A young blond comments to her friend that “…It’s all at the right time. I feel like Alice in wonderland, falling down the rabbit hole”.

FOLLOW THE WHITE WHALE

We pass a museum which promises a few nautical artifacts. CC can’t resist. Inside we are surprised to find the body of Ahab’s white whale. Ghost whale? This in turn brings to mind a line from Moby Dick, which we had heard recently quoted on the very same podcast episode mentioned earlier:

“It is not down on any map; true places never are.”

A rather nice slogan for surrealist walkers, we think.

At the next museum SC takes a mirror portrait of CC, which reveals a floating voyeur. He’s hiding there at the top right corner of the photograph—can you see him? Yes, he’s a grumpy old Artistole, a spirit best left avoided.

In other rooms we also notice wallpaper displaying an unknown canal, the Rideau Canal perhaps, and an old painting that showing a women releasing several white birds. SC wonders if this here is a portrayal of the event which had transpired underneath the roadside tree that he had noticed earlier. Had that highway flash been a holographic echo, a residue of some forgotten mythic event? A later conversation with Tori Lion reinforces Ottawa with additional mythic content, opening a fresh layer underneath her city-skins. Beneath the upper-Ottawa, Tori says, there is the under-Ottawa. This is a legendary place, a place where airborne whales and gazelles and hyenas and lions and early hominids rein. One day the gateway shall open, and all politicians shall all be devoured. With eager eye one may partake of this true subterranean. So make the twin eyes eager.

A CAMERA WITH A MIND OF ITS OWN

We leave the museum. Our stubborn cameras decide at this point to start taking photos of their own. They continue to do so for the remainder of the trip. We are never quite sure how this keeps happening. The photos are blurry, upside-down, hard to make out. The unknown limbs and abstracted shapes which they portray we can only conclude as obvious ghosties.

REVOLUTION AT THE RIVERSIDE

We reach the Ottawa river. We walk down a few suggestive back alleys, finding numerous ectoplasmic remains. A goofy tree spirit smiles down at us, and we smile back. He guards this place, we think, and has done so for quite a long time.

As we walk down these ancient cobblestone paths, SC can’t help but suddenly invoke the ghost of May 68’, shouting “beneath the paving stones, the beach!”An anarchy symbol spray-painted on a wall soon confirms his thoughts. Before we leave we play a surrealist paper-folding game to find the identities of a few troublesome ghosts. One person writes the name, and the other, not seeing that name, writes the location of their haunt.

The ghost who strolls the water front is really Jason Abdelhadi
The ghost of the black swamp is really William Burroughs
The ghost of the shivering door is really Robert Desnos
The ghost who haunts the drifting shore is really the white bluebird

BACKTRACKING
Getting very tired now, we decide to break with our self-imposed limitations and look up the “real” direction towards our hotel. On the way back we spy an illusive ghost-building that is hiding in plain sight.

THE SPECTER OF SELFHOOD
We are back at the hotel, watching a distant house fire that is breaking out from the security of our 7th floor window. SC takes a picture of it, not realizing that his own reflection has also been captured. In this mirror image SC has big monster hands, and the burning houses’ smoke has formed the top of his tiny tiny head. We are back at that age-old old horror now, the horror of seeing one’s own reflection. Self is a specter.

Deciding to play the part of some anonymous Other’s ghost, we both stand dead still in front of the window, while CC very slowly lifts the curtain up and down. Later, getting in an ant-watching mood, we watch a pretentious art student circle the empty hotel pool with his camera. But what is he photographing? Just that bland, empty pool? Or is there something else down there, somekindof spirit-swimmers that only he can see? We decide to leave him to it, and begin on our night walk. On the way out, SC spies a sad little ghost huddled in the corner by the garbage chute.

SHADOW-OTTAWA SHOWS ITSELF
At dinner we look over a few victorian ectoplasm photographs. Quite beautiful, we think, though they don’t really help to build our appetite. SC decides to stuff a napkin in his pocket for later use. In the park outside, feeling very romantic, we take a few matching ectoplasm photographs.

A completely different atmosphere now dominates this city. This Shadow Ottawa is the true Ottawa, because Night is the breaker of all illusions. We drift around for awhile, eventually turning onto Ottawa’s noisy shop-n-booze district. The magical atmosphere recedes immediately. We escape this accursed street, going one block south. The atmosphere returns immediately. An empty park calls out to us, and we can’t resist. CC tests Jason Abdelhadi’s Theory of a Streetlight.

We move onwards, and are soon confronted with a strange geometric ghost. He is the spirit of rectangle, we think, the four-pointed dead. The hollow cry of some arctic Pythagoras.

Passing behind a convention center where some form of “Disney on Ice” seems to be playing, we find a large pile of snow has been dumped. We aren’t surprised. This is Canada, after all.

CRASHING THE GHOST TOUR
Somehow we end up at Lafayette Square. A large catholic church dominates the view here, her sides under spotlight and framed by spanish moss. It is all just so delightfully fucking gothic. A flickering green fountain lives at the center of Lafayette, and is covered with four identical statutes of some long-necked bird. So it’ll be birds again then, eh Ottawa?

We pause on a bench for awhile. A ghost tour shows up, and we can just barely make out the guide’s stories. A hotel on this square is haunted, she says, and mentions something about two children who thew bouncing balls. Something about two children who fell off a banister. And a murdered watchmen, too. A black hearse drives by, filled with gawkers. The logo on the side betrays it as just another rival ghost-tour. Guide & Co. eventually leave the square, and the silence returns. A man in a vintage brown suit struts through the park and disappears in the direction of the church. No doubt the ghost of the murdered man, we think, waiting for that ghost tour to leave before beginning on his nightly stroll. No doubt the dead hate all ghost tours.

This night is drawing to a close, so we walk back to our hotel. One last marvel. A man in a skeleton costume is seen leaving a pub, heading in the direction of Lafayette…

JOSEPHINE
CC has the feeling of a spirit in the room as she drifts off to sleep. She has the vague feeling that this spirit wants “story”. The next day, CC uses her pendulum and manages to reach the lingering hotel spirit. Her name is Josephine, and she would like us to read her a story. The closest thing we have is a collection of poems by Octavio Paz. SC opens the book to random page and begins to read the poem “The Spoken Word”.

But, accidentally skipping ahead 2 pages, SC ends the poem with the ending some other poem. Josephine says that she likes it.

A PRISON BY ANY OTHER NAME

Today is map day. We begin at our appointed haunted square, with CC as our trusty navigator. Our first stop is “The Ottawa Jail Hostel.” We follow our Ottawa map diligently, and soon behold our prey. The Ottawa Jail Hostel is actually a massive catholic church. And it is the very same church, in fact, that we had both gazed upon during the previous night here. Yes, It seems we are back in Lafayette again. SC suggests attempting to go inside the prison-church, but CC says “no— it fills me with fear and trembling”. The building’s architectural heights are magnificent, but down on the street level it’s all barred windows, barred gates. And watching camera-eyes. Not very welcoming. Do these bars keep the wolves out, we wonder, or do they keep the sheep in?

WE CALL ON AN OLD FRIEND
We decide to visit an old friend, the Ottawa surrealist Jason Abdelhadi. He lives over on Cumberland Street somewhere. On the way we find numerous bricks with the word “GRAVES”.

We pass by another mysterious square (so many here, in Ottawa!). There is a golden sculpture at its center. Four turtles carry an entire world, a world on which every sign of the zodiac is seen dancing. We get rather turned around after the square. SC hadn’t marked his exact location on the map, but he did have a house number. We try to find a match. Eventually we reach it, and it’s a black door covered in ivy. He doesn’t seem to be in today, though. Oh well. Another time perhaps.

ONE HOTEL IS AS GOOD AS ANY OTHER
Time for the Fairmont Château Laurier. The walk seems very long. Along the way we find a strange mail slot covered over with gray duck-tape A makeshift barrier against the spectral? We eventually reach the Fairmont Château Laurier. Oh. It’s the very hotel we’ve been staying at. At all just makes too much sense. Well, we already know that it’s haunted, don’t we? No need to investigate further.

THE BYTOWN MUSEUM TWIST
One stop left on our haunted itinerary—The Bytown Museum. We soon reach the back of the building. It’s an old one, built in 1928. Golden doors. Floral motif. We head towards the other side. It’s another hotel, we see, and goddammit—it’s facing that fucking Lafayette Square. All roads here lead to Lafayette. Lafayette is the true center of the universe. We don’t understand how it happened, but it all feels inevitable. The map game ends.

DREAM POETRY IN BONAVENTURE
One final excursion before we hit the road. The famous Bonaventure cemetery. No real goal in mind this time, just a vague idea of wandering around. Maybe we’ll do some rubbings there, or write some automatic poems? At the entrance SC spies a grave with the name Bessie, which reminds him of that Savannah-based dream-poetess Bessie A. Ficklen. Bessie, how could we forget! Our southern surrealist pre-cursor! Perhaps her gravestone is here, too? Pretty slim odds, but we do a search on our phones anyway. The internet says yes—but we can’t find a plot number. The grave database at the Bonaventure visitor’s center brings zero results. No Bessie Ficklens are listed, and no Bessie Alexanders. A final desperate search on our phones leads to a website with a plot number. We pinpoint it on the map, and head towards it, but we still aren’t really sure if she’s here. The internet site contradicts the official database. Our hope is minimal, but we soon we reach the section. It is at the far left corner of the cemetary, facing a wide blue river. Yes, it exists after all— Bessie A. Ficklen’s grave! Our dream-poetess! CC introduces us, and then brings out her pendulum. She puts a few questions to dear Bessie.

Are you there? Yes

Bessie, I have a short dream poem of my own i’d like to read you:

When the time comes
open the stars slowly

Are you doing well here? Yes

Are you dreaming right now? Yes

(a noisy segway tour rolls by)

Does that noise bother you? Yes
(CC says the primary feeling she gets here is “bemused”)

Would you like to tell us a poem? Yes

The winds talk wisely
to those who listen
and the sun shines brightly
on those who stop to see
the shadows are soft and warm
to those with open wings
there is no shadow to death
for those who stop to be
the raindrops whisper softly on my grave
and sing the pattering of poetry to me