Oh Hamilton: A love poem for your city

Erin Shields, a Governor General's Award-winning playwright writes a love poem to Hamilton.
She is a founding member of Groundwater Productions and won the Governor General's Award for her play If We Were Birds. (Erin Shields)

When I spend time by the ocean

I think about people who grew up by the ocean,

who live with the ocean

every day.

The wind, the water, the salt is imprinted on their faces,

infused in their language,

vibrating in their very bones

and it conjures in me romantic notions

of fishermen and terrifying storms,

of women waiting in lighthouses

for their men to come home.



And mountain people,

those who raise goats

or ski through the winter

in the shadow of that magnificence,

dwarfed by sculptures so divine

and unmovable, one cannot help

but be perpetually humbled.

The strength in the people that live on that strength,

the solitude soaked from solitude,

the wild cats and wolves,

the barren patches, the caves.



Then there’s the desert people ...

I’ve never been to a desert.

I’d love to go to a desert but never having been to a desert

I’m not sure I can make anything but assumptions

about the perfect solace that sandy landscape imposes,

about extreme temperatures and petrifying sandstorms

and camels and tents and the cartoon man on his knees

crawling to the oasis his mind has tricked him into seeing.



I covet that attachment to landscape;

envy that ‘in the bones’ knowledge of rocks and wind and water,

yearn for the displacement people who grew up on those landscapes

feel when they have moved or been forcefully removed

from their element.

They carry that landscape inside them

and yearn for the ocean, the mountains, the desert.



That makes me think about cities.



Large cities.

Metropolitan cities.

My husband talks about Toronto with the twinkle of the eye

a New Yorker gets when he talks about New York.

He’s born and bred in Toronto

so there’s something about the speed of it,

the dirt of it,

the grunge and grind of it,

the sheer population of different people

rubbing up against different people

on street cars and subways

and neighbourhoods backing out onto

other neighbourhoods

that makes him feel at home.

Like a massive landscape,

his massive city lives inside his bones.



I’m from Hamilton.

So going home for Thanksgiving I started to wonder

what the Hammer gave to me.

What is in my bones?



People who don’t come from Hamilton think of Hamilton

as a steel town.

And once it was.

My grandfather worked at Stelco

and my father did stints in the summer

of sweeping the factory floor

but my childhood had nothing to do with steel.

Hamilton is at the end of the lake.

It’s no ocean but rather, a harbour.

Hamilton Harbour.

Coots Paradise.

Princess Point.

I fell into Hamilton Harbour when I was eleven

and my eyes were burning when I got out

but effort has been made to clean it up so it’s beautiful again

and there’s a boulevard I like to run along now

still, I wouldn’t say the water got into my bones in Hamilton.



We have a mountain in Hamilton.

Well, an escarpment, really, but it’s called ‘the mountain’

and I remember driving up the Jolly Cut with my Greek driving teacher

who had religious icons all over his car,

no doubt to protect himself from the teenagers he took driving

up and down the Jolly Cut.

A five minute drive.

Up the mountain.

A five minute drive.


So I wouldn’t say it was the great heights of Hamilton

I carry in my bones.



There is no desert in Hamilton.

I don’t think.

Although some of the areas ‘under development’

remind me of the desert

but I’ve already established the fact

that I’ve never been to a desert

so I might not have a reliable perspective

on the deserts of Hamilton.



As for that big city feel ...

It’s more like a ‘close to a bigger city,

close to a bigger country’ feel in Hamilton.

We were never allowed to take the bus -

public transit wasn’t an appropriate place

for adolescent girls in Hamilton.

And in the eighties and nineties Hamilton suffered

‘The Doughnut Effect’ like so many other manufacturing towns

who watched their centres shut down while outlaying suburbs flourished,

perhaps to avoid being too close to the centre of something that no longer works.

The Doughnut Effect.

There is one intersection in Hamilton that has a Tim Hortons

on three different corners.



But I’m making Hamilton sound like a bad place to live.

Like a bad place to be from.

Like a depressing haunt but it’s not.

It’s merely a city of smaller treasures -

no oceans or mountains or deserts or big city flash -

but ravines: waterfalls, woods, running trails -

I saw six deer on Saturday when I was out for a run!

It’s a city of neighbours and one-way streets and finished basements -

I spent more time in other peoples’ basement rec-rooms

than I did anywhere else in Hamilton.

And coffee shops (not just Tim Hortons).

And music venues.

And community theatres.

And parks with wading pools like Dundas Driving Park

where I ran into my oldest childhood friend -

we were both with our kids and she’s a teacher

and lives around the corner from the house she grew up in

which is around the corner from the house I grew up in

and she looks happy.

And people I know are moving to Hamilton.

From Toronto.

People are moving to Hamilton.

There is art happening in Hamilton.



But my bones, my bones,

what is in my bones?

Rather than anything extreme,

I think my bones are infused with a composite

of the Hamilton landscape: a bit of escarpment, a bit of harbour,

a bit of ravine, a bit of one-way-street,

a bit of basement rec-room, a bit of mid-sized-school,

a bit all of the people I grew up with

and the people I met since I’ve left.



Thanks Hamilton.

You’re in my bones.



Erin Shields is a playwright and actor who most recently won the Governor General's Award for her play If We Were Birds (Playwrights Canada Press). Her poem Oh Hamilton can be found at Open Book Toronto.