Contemplating the city
Alice Major, Edmonton, Canada

An agglomeration of huts or tents turns into a town only when its space has been recognized ceremonially as substantially other than rural expanse, when it is opposed to the outside, when the paths that transverse its space are recognized as roads.
- Ivan Illich, H2O and the waters of forgetfulness

The framework for the following sequence of poems is the ritual, known as contemplation, used in ancient times to found a colony of Rome.

1. Locate the site

To find a city, make a chance encounter

The plane sails in above the setter-coloured fields
swathed in concentric lines of harvest,
circle on square. I find myself returning
to this place that wasnt home.

I came to escape somewhere else, to scrape
a little gold from the sidewalk,
a little frost from the windshield —
meant to pocket these shavings,
shiftless change that would melt and leave
me unchanged. X
marks the spot on the treasure map.

Marked here
on this bend among so many —
the only city in a thousand miles of river.
A site decided through the puzzling ratio
of random chance to fate.

The planes wings slide in the angle of light.
Below, the river ploughs its brown furrow —
wedding of land and water.

The North Saskatchewan.
South Saskatchewan. Rivers like long legs
of a compass splayed across the prairies.
A thousand miles of river —
how to take that measure?

Arithmetic of river, aftermath of current
as the river bends into cliff, cuts its path rounder
and rounder, rolls back on itself.
But cannot flow in circles — trips up,
cuts off an oxbow, snaps
its path straight again.

Do we measure length
as geese or gulls fly? or as a leaf
would float each elemental bend and curve?
Both these distances bound up
in one another, by the ratio
of circle to the line drawn taut across it.

Runways mark a skewed cross
on prairie. Wheels rush at tarmac.
We arc in our seats — thrust
forwards and backwards at the same time.

I collect my circulating luggage
from the baggage belts meander,
cut through the swirl of strangers
and their bright foreign chatter,
head for the taxi stand.

To find a city, accept
the guidance of whatever calculating god
has taken you in care.

The length of a meandering river is governed by pi — in other words, when the actual, circuitous length is compared with the direct end-to-end distance, the ratio tends towards pi. This is due to balancing tensions between circularity and straightness.