‘And the moon went with him’

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Maurice Sendak is one of many children’s authors who cite Crocket Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon as an inspiration and influence. When Harold turned 50 in 2005, NPR invited Sendak to reflect on the delightful classic, in which a young boy builds his own story, scene by scene, using a fat crayon. Sendak said Harold was “immense fun,” nothing but fun: “There are no lessons in Harold. You do what you like, you have fun, and no one’s going to punish you. You’re just a kid.”

Given that Sendak writes for kids himself, and given that he knew Johnson and his wife Ruth Krauss, another celebrated children’s author (Sendak illustrated several of her books), I should probably put some faith in his perspective. But having read Harold enough times to my two-year-old to be able to recite it, I find myself disagreeing. From where I sit, Harold is teeming with lessons. Not those tedious, obvious morals that conscientious people love to stuff into so-called children’s literature, but lessons about human nature, and about the messy, exciting business of navigating your way, scene by scene, moment by moment, through the adventure that is your very own life. I believe that even a toddler can appreciate this kind of truth mirrored and plumbed in a story. Real literature ought not have an Adults Only designation.

On the surface, Harold is a charming tale enhanced by lovely line drawings and elegant language. One evening, after thinking it over for some time, Harold decided to go for a walk in the moonlight. This is the unassuming way the story begins. It’s simple and direct, yet already we have the makings of a plot and a sense of Harold’s character. He’s a deliberate child: he thinks things through.

And clearly, he’s not afraid of the dark.

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With his magic crayon, Harold draws himself a “long, straight path” so he won’t get lost. But he quickly deviates from this plan: he takes a short cut. The moon goes with him. Harold takes precautions as he journeys. He doesn’t want to get lost in the woods, so he draws a forest containing only one tree. The tree’s apples seem so precious, he throws in a dragon to guard them. Alas, Harold’s dragon is convincing! Shaking with fear, he accidentally sketches waves, under which he starts to sink. He makes himself a boat, climbs in and sails away. Later, after slipping off a mountaintop, he draws a balloon, and then a basket under the balloon, “big enough to stand in.” When Harold is ready to go home, he starts drawing houses and buildings, filling their walls with windows, trying to find his own. Here is where the crayon’s magic fails. It can make a million windows, but none of them is his window.

I love how Harold’s crayon suggests that (to a point) superhuman powers might be within reach of any ordinary boy or girl. Who needs delivery owls, capes, wizards, magic wands? The matter-of-fact way that Harold takes ownership of the world and its possibilities is deeply satisfying. It’s refreshing to encounter this bold, imaginative, capable child—who’s still young enough to be wearing one-piece pajamas with feet—in a time when it’s no longer socially acceptable to let your child walk to school alone. Harold finds himself in danger over and over, and finally quite lost. In all events, he calmly uses what he has at hand: his crayon, his knowledge of how things work, and his understanding that when all else fails he can turn to an adult for help. Or can he? Unfortunately, the policeman Harold draws “points the way Harold was going anyway.” This reads (to the grown-up) like an unforgivable failure on the part of the adult world: a child has been abandoned to fate and his own devices. Harold, however, simply thanks the policeman before going on his way.

The magic of this book doesn’t reside in the crayon alone, but in the understated elegance of Johnson’s writing. He has a way with rhythm, with the gentle pun, with the apt, judicious and occasionally unexpected adjective. When Harold falls beneath the waves he comes up “thinking fast,” and climbs aboard “a trim little boat.” He “makes” land without much trouble. He “draws up the covers” on his bed. When our hero gets hungry, he lays out a “nice simple picnic lunch” featuring “all nine kinds of pie that Harold liked best.” The “deserving” porcupine that Harold leaves behind to help a hungry moose finish off this feast has won a spot, alongside far more illustrious literary characters, in my heart.

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“Wow,” my son Henry says as we’re reading. “Mooooon.” When Harold finally figures out where his bedroom window is—“it’s always right around the moon”—we have closure. Our tired little boy has found his way home. Or has he? I think the ending of Harold, though it wears a sheen of comfort, is radical. Harold gets into a bed that he draws with his own crayon, beneath a window he has also drawn—around his own, purple-crayon moon. Is he truly home, or is he curling up in a make-believe substitute? It’s possible that Harold has come too far, that he may never find his way back, but his solution suggests that it doesn’t matter. Home is within you, home can be anywhere. The essentials—the moon, your own self—will not change.

In the course of his travels, it’s not the outside world that scares Harold most: it’s the dragon he draws, a creature that springs from his own mind. This is not what Harold, or the reader, expects, but it rings awfully true. I don’t know whether Crockett Johnson, whose real name was David Jonathan Leisk (1906-1975), was thinking about all of this when he wrote Harold. I don’t know whether he saw how Harold’s story works as a metaphor for so much about life—but then, don’t all journey tales become metaphors for life?

Harold has never gone out of print. It was still on the U.S. National Education Association’s “Teacher’s Top 100 Books for Children” in 2007 and on the School Library Journal’s “Top 100 Picture Books” in 2012. Sendak was right: this book is wickedly fun, and that must account for its success, at least in part. But no bit of fun, in the absence of deeper substance, has that much longevity. Harold shows us that we’re bound, in the course of life, to frighten ourselves, to make some disastrous moves, and to, at least temporarily, lose our way. Sometimes we’ll have to make do, no matter how desolate the figurative or literal locale we find ourselves in. This is the price of giving ourselves a story in which to live, our own plot. Harold’s journey is no heroic quest, no Jason and the Golden Fleece. He’s not out looking for treasure, he’s not trying to save anyone. He’s just going for a walk. He’s curious what will happen along the way, what he’ll conjure up. And so are we.

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Here is an analysis of Harold and the Purple Crayon through the window of cognitive science: The Frontal Cortex

I’ve also come across an online essay that asserts Harold is a story about deciphering reality from fiction. I don’t think real vs. imaginary is the point of Harold at all. There is, however, one worthwhile and somewhat chilling question in this blog entry: “Can there be accidents in Harold’s world even if he’s drawing them?”

And here is the NPR interview with Maurice Sendak about Harold

And here is the Crocket Johnson homepage, run by Philip Nel, director of the graduate program in children’s literature at Kansas State University, where you’ll learn, among other fascinating things, that Johnson’s editor’s first reaction to Harold was decidedly lukewarm.

Difficult men, part 1

Feodor Rojankovsky, Frog Went A-Courtin, winner of 1955 Caldecott Medal for Best Children's Picture Book. Source: animationresources.org

Feodor Rojankovsky, Frog Went A-Courtin, winner of 1955 Caldecott Medal for Best Children’s Picture Book. Source: animationresources.org

Often these days the novels we pick up tell of people we would wish to be, or at least spend time with. They might have flaws and failings, they may not rise to the potential we are induced to see in them, they may have the odds stacked against them, but at heart they are good, well-meaning. We relate to them. We feel their pain.

Allow me to introduce you to Leo Krauss, one of the main characters in Jacqueline Baker’s engrossing novel The Horseman’s Graves (HarperCollins, 2007). As a boy in 1909, Leo journeys with his family from Odessa to the Saskatchewan-Alberta border, where his father sets up a homestead on “a hundred and sixty pitiable acres tucked right up against the Sand Hills,” in “the worst possible corner of that parched, sifting region.” Old Krauss, Leo’s father—a nasty specimen who makes Leo’s mother run to catch up with the wagon if she needs to go to town—is known to one and all as the embodiment of meanness: “Mean in the old country, mean over here.” “Mean as crossed rattlers, those Krausses.” “Can’t shake that kind of thing out of the blood.”
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Eventually young Leo, thusly cursed and all grown up, is the only Krauss left on that desolate property. He ventures forth in search of a wife. I am reminded of the folk song “Froggy Went A-Courting,” though even that ill-fated frog, “with his pistol and sword by his side,” seems better suited to the task. For one thing, in Miss Mousy, Froggy has an object in mind. Leo Krauss, on the other hand, rides systematically from one farm to the next, knocking on the door, sitting at the kitchen table, eyeing the resident daughters with a “greasy kind of look,” and getting up to leave without saying a word. He does this week after week until he starts turning up drunk, and then just shouting from his wagon in the yard at whatever girl he’s come to ogle.

When he finally gives up, there is widespread relief. But that’s not all there is, and herein lies the hard beauty of this novel. Baker writes: “But soon his absence became more of an outrage than his presence had ever been, as if he stayed away just so they would notice, and wonder about it, in spite of themselves . . . So after months of suffering bitterly his presence, they found themselves having to suffer his absence.”

The local people tell themselves they should be happy. “‘Ach,’ some said, ‘Be glad he is out of our hair.’” But no one can rest easy knowing Leo is in their midst. Is he OK out there, on that godforsaken piece of land? They’re Christians, they ought to care whether Leo has drunk himself to death, no? Surely someone should ride out and check on him. They gallantly elect the priest, for “what is the church for if not to look to the low and the fallen?”

I love this: how all that concern is deep-fried in plain old curiosity. There is so much about human nature that Baker captures in her portrayal of the community’s relationship with Leo Krauss—a relationship at times harrowing, at times hilarious—that I hardly know where to begin. The people of this isolated German community revile Leo: his behaviour is offensive, unfriendly, appalling. Yet how is it he dares put himself beyond requiring their approval or even their participation in his life? What is he capable of, this man who seems to have no sense of social mores or norms? What might he do next? And how might it affect them? Leo is a puzzle, and a potential threat, both. Because he follows none of the ordinary rules of engagement, people are confused by him, thrown off course. They also feel guilty about their own judgement of him. At the end of the Valentine’s Day social, after watching Leo suffer ridicule and rejection from the local girls, widower Mike Weiser thinks to himself that perhaps “Leo did have a heart there after all. Even if it was fed and pumped by Krauss blood, it was still a heart and he was still a man, not?”

Despite the evident hardship of their lives you get the distinct impression that without Leo and the small struggles he ignites in their minds and in their souls, the people here might grow bored; they might ease into a dangerous complacency. There is no comfort allowed when it comes to Leo. His existence stirs and ruffles the air.

The tale of Leo Krauss—not the whole or even the central tale here, though it is tied to everyone’s fate—makes me wonder about the true impact of an apparently negative presence. Do the Leos in our midst, much like a devastating storm, temporarily (or intermittently) create common cause? Does the instinct to work out the “problem” of Leo bring people together in a tense but unified (and sometimes comical) front? Does Leo simply give everyone a story around which to gather and reflect? “Leo” has so affected me that I feel a twinge of my own guilt writing this: am I suggesting we use the Leos of this world for our own betterment? What I can say for sure is that, unpleasant and confounding as he is, he matters. Like Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita—who I found so repulsive I nearly gave up on that book in the first chapter—he is the stuff of real literature (and life).

This is a novel about the immigration experience, after the fact. The people in The Horseman’s Graves have left much behind, most of it willingly: there’s a “good riddance” vibe to their survival ethic. What choice do they have? But some things can’t be shed. The Krausses and what they represent are eternal, and add layers (and perhaps generations) of difficulty to breaking in a new life, in a new place: the taint of bloodlines, the lingering power of old grudges, that whiff of the old country and its dark secrets, the day-to-day ups and downs of simply getting along with the people who live next door.

In the real world I’m lucky to know many people I’d be happy to have as neighbours (including my actual neighbours!). But I also know people who leave me at a complete loss, who remind me of Leo Krauss. I am almost always uneasy about my interactions with them. I think of Baker shaping the fictional world of The Horseman’s Graves, and all the time she spent in the company of Leo Krauss. I think of Baker holding the idea of Leo Krauss in her mind—of the building, scene by awkward scene, moment by uncomfortable moment, of Leo Krauss and all the people whose lives and consciences he infiltrates. Am I glad she’s created this ornery, disagreeable character, and stuck him in my mind? Glad is not the word. But Baker has done some hard labour here, some heavy lifting, the kind required for meaningful art to emerge. Leo is not the guy most of us want to hang out with over beers; but he’s among us. His presence, and our reaction to it, is impossible to ignore.

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Here is a profile of Jacqueline Baker from Quill and Quire magazine.

And here’s a blog entry by Kerry Clare on Horseman’s Graves from back when the book was released.

Facing the animal

The late Dr. M.

The late Dr. M.

Cats in captivity

I did not grow up with pets, but in my early twenties adopted a kitten and fell for her hard: furry little Sabine herself, but also the wonder of living in close quarters with an animal. I loved pondering that mysterious life story carrying on parallel to mine. While I was going about my business—making dinner, trying to shake off the day’s work, returning a call to Mom—Sabine’s “business” took her purposefully from room to room in the basement apartment I shared with a friend, over and under furniture, onto the TV, up to the windowsill. She was following a daily plot, the details and meaning of which were apparent only to her. I was struck by this life that was as rich and varied and agitated as my own, yet devoid of the concerns that I sometimes felt would consume me.

Of course, Sabine didn’t exist in order that I could gain perspective, nor to curl up with me on the couch while I watched “Seinfeld.” The more I enjoyed puzzling over her nature, the more I wondered about the whole idea of pet ownership. For starters, isn’t “own” a strange term to apply to our relationship with another living creature?

When she was a few years old, Sabine went to live with my mother, and I came to acquire—there it is again, that odd vocabulary—a deaf kitten named Professor McGonnagall, who’d been rescued from an Ottawa back alley by some friends. Dr. M., as another old friend came to call her—he also once gave me a tin sign that said, in her honour, “chat lunatique”—was incurably drawn to the outdoors, but I (and my partner at the time) had been foresworn to keep her housebound: her deafness was a grave liability in the urban wild. We mostly kept the promise. Dr. M. occasionally slipped past our guard, and would invariably find herself in a tense situation with other neighbourhood cats, at times even surrounded by them, howling pitifully. Eventually, by the time she and I were living on our own, even a few moments on the back fire escape of my Montreal apartment would result in her tail puffing up like a ball of static. To approach her elicited growls and hissing. She could only be brought indoors after being coaxed into her carrier.

My former alley cat—the toughness that implies!—could no longer wander beyond her own balcony without going berserk with fear. I had kept her safe, I’d spared her the grim life of a stray, but at what cost to her nature, to her essential catness? I do know conventional wisdom says domestic felines are better off as housecats. (The American Humane Association outlines all the reasons for this here.) But I can’t get past the absurdity of keeping a sentient being between four walls for its entire life. No soil, no sky, no leaves, no breeze. Like cats, people get hit by cars, get into fights, pick up diseases on their travels. Like cats, people also cause all sorts of trouble for other fauna, as well as flora, when they sally forth. All things being equal—if there were some constant source of food at our disposal, say, and heat and clothing—would we consider keeping humans indoors because it’s safer all around?

Yeah, it’s a dumb question. Totally beyond rhetorical. Still, it follows me around.

Tiger in captivity in Calcutta in 1903. (Source wikimedia commons: Underwood Travel Library: Stereoscopic Views of India. British Library.)

Tiger in captivity in Calcutta in 1903. (Source wikimedia commons: Underwood Travel Library: Stereoscopic Views of India. British Library.)

What’s the matter Billy?

I think about both Sabine and Dr. M. when I read about animals in captivity—which I have done quite a bit this winter. There were no bars or fence between myself and my cats, but like their cousins in zoos, they were “kept” and also closely watched by human eyes for their entire lives. Were they also watching us, their keepers? In the anthology Penned: Zoo Poems, edited by Stephanie Bolster, Katia Grubisic and Simon Reader (Véhicule Press, 2009) British poet Selima Hill’s poem “Parrots” raises this possibility in a wrenching scene: “One of them is looking in my eyes, // and saying, What’s the matter Billy? (meaning me). / Catch them, someone, take them back to Paradise, / they’re giving me a terrible disease.”* On the following page, our own (i.e. Canadian) Jan Conn starts out awe-struck by “The Tigers of Paramabiro”—“more radiant than Borges’ blue dream tigers”—and winds up in the cage herself: “but she has now managed / to swallow the whole antelope / and slipped between the bars, calmly / looking out at him, licking her massive / paws.”

I picked up this rich and troubling anthology again recently after reading The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, a work of nonfiction by the top-notch storyteller Diane Ackerman, about the Zabinskis, the couple who were running the Warsaw Zoo when WWII broke out. In a meticulously researched tale that has you in its hold even before the narrative embarks on the real horrors that took place, Ackerman tells us what happened to the couple, the animals that were in their care, some historical background on zoos and particular species, and all about the inner workings of the underground resistance in which the Zabinskis became central players, hiding dozens from the Nazis in their decommissioned zoo throughout the war.

Before the invasion, the zookeepers live in a villa in the zoo proper, waking each day to the sounds of the animals on the grounds. Antonina Zabinski, the “zookeeper’s wife,” is both host to VIPs and nurse to orphaned and sick animals. She tours visitors through the zoo’s “wetlands, deserts, woods, meadows and steppes”, starting with the flamingo pond at the main gate; then to the cranes and macaws, sunning cheetahs and free-range deer; before the caged lions; in view of bison and zebra in open enclosures; past tigers, hippos, monkeys, seals, giraffes and bears. She also midwifes the births of elephant calfs and cares—right in the villa—for “lion kitten, wolf cub, monkey toddler, and eagle chick…” We read about Antonina’s infant son Ryszard (Rys for short, the Polish word for lynx) joining the bevy of creatures in the villa, and of a children’s book she wrote about “three household toddlers learning to walk at the same time: son, lion and chimpanzee.” Ackerman writes that Zabinski loved to “slip out of her human skin for a while and spy on the world through each animal’s eyes, and she often wrote from that outlook…” Her husband credited her with a “nearly shamanistic empathy” with the animals: “She becomes them… She has a precise and very special gift, a way of observing and understanding animals that’s very rare, a sixth sense…”

When you read of a zookeeper such as this, and about the vibrant and undeniable relationships that emerge between Antonina and the animals in her care, it is difficult to simplify your feelings about zoos. It jars something in us to see animals in cages, in many cases continents and oceans away from their natural habitats. When my thoughts stray this way I am reminded of the protagonist in Yann Martel’s novel, Life of Pi, who argues that widespread contemporary ambivalence regarding zoos stems from an “illusion” people have about freedom. We romanticize wildlife, Pi contends, ignoring the violence and hardship of a truly wild existence: he tells us animals are, in fact, content with and even grateful for the routine and safety offered by zoo life. Martel’s hero makes a compelling case. The problem is that we don’t know he’s right—in our guts, I mean—and we can’t buy that even the keeper truly knows. We can observe the animals’ behaviour, monitor their health, and thus conjecture. But peer into an animal’s inscrutable eyes and—much as when you stare into a baby’s—you can only wonder. What is behind them? What do they see?

Many of the poems in Penned wrestle with the unease of facing the zoo animal—we, who are free to go—and imagining its restricted world. To Marianne Baruch the zoo is “the saddest of all worlds”, where hope comes in the form of lunch arriving in a bucket, carried by “some uniformed someone.” Molly Peacock hopes the mind of “The Snake,” is large enough to negate its confinement: “Her cage is her office; the zoo is her work.” To pluck another example, here’s Gavin Ewart, from “The Animals in the Adelaide Zoo”:

The animals in the Adelaide Zoo are very comfortable.
It’s a small zoo but very well organized.
The elephant stands in a small space but seems happy.

The Animals in the Adelaide Zoo are already in Heaven.
Their children are born lucky, nobody hates them.
They are surrounded by love and regular food.
Their lives are without drama, they show no fear.

The tight stanzas just barely keep a lid on the writer’s internal scream: Set them free! Indeed, so many of the poems in the collection stem from this angst it becomes frustrating. You begin to ask more of these poets who span continents and ages, to wish a larger proportion of them could—as Conn does, in entering the tiger’s cage—move past this familiar “free Willy” instinct. To, say, the darker place—or might it be lighter?—that made us lock the animals up in the first place.

For even as we project our horror of confinement onto these animals, we are drawn. Like us, they live and breathe and eat and move. We want to know them and relate to them. We find justification for zoos in the idea that they raise awareness about the natural world; that nowadays they are sometimes the last resort for endangered species. (I still don’t know what our justification is for keeping pets—though I am seeking another!) But we also know that the zoo is the only place most of us will see a tiger in our lives, likewise a polar bear, giraffe, or two-toed sloth. And we want to look. We’ll look with our mouths wide open, fingers hooked through the fence. And then we’ll blink, and look again.

Berlin Naturkundemuseum Hai. From Wikimedia Commons. Author: LoKiLeCH

Berlin Naturkundemuseum Hai. From Wikimedia Commons. Author: LoKiLeCH

‘The air is real’

In The New Quarterly’s winter 2013 issue (number 125), the poet Jeffery Donaldson has contributed a wonderful, insightful essay called “I Stand Before You: Museums, Galleries and How to Find Yourself in Them.” He is not talking about the zoo, but he is talking about looking, and he does veer into the biology department: to things preserved in bottles. Donaldson writes, “Such a frisson I feel peering into these small bottles and alembics, their quiet, tea-green oases, vessels of magnified clarity, at once both heavy and fluid.” I think of the wall of bottled eels, crustaceans and other squiggly, floating creatures at the ROM, which holds me for lengthy, wide-eyed moments during which all I can do is wonder blankly at what I’m seeing. It’s partly the way light is caught in the glass and in the jars’ buoyant contents: it’s as if the light itself has liquefied, transformed to a golden syrup. And that magical fluid has become a resting place, and all the bottled organisms are sleeping beauties plucked from the sea.

Donaldson points out that as the museum’s atmosphere is carefully controlled to preserve its paintings and fossils and fragile holdings, it, too, functions like a jar of formaldehyde: “…a material expression of some ‘kingdom come.’ Here, found specimens, still ambiguously alive and changing, are preserved in their original form. They float and abide. They stare back at you, ghostly, expressionless, but intensely realized.”

I don’t want to say that creatures in the zoo are “ambiguously alive,” but there is definitely something ambiguous about the nature of their existence that both troubles and lures us. These animals are specimens of their kind, and are—if all goes well—perpetuated and “preserved” in this place, even in the event that their wild brethren die off. But preserved to what end? Purely for our own enjoyment?

Which brings us—how could this essay not?—to Penned co-editor Stephanie Bolster’s own poems about zoos, and about what the back of her book A Page From the Wonders of Life on Earth (Brick Books, 2011) describes as “prisons of, monuments to, museums for the lost natural world.”

The problem of “looking” forms the nucleus of this collection—indeed of Bolster’s whole body of work, which began with the Governor General’s Award-winning White Stone: The Alice Poems (built on photographs of the little girl who was the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland), and which has since toured us through the National Gallery of Canada and the work of Vermeer and other masters, and now through a thrumming gathering of zoos, gardens, solariums, topiaries, and iconic constructed worlds such as the Parisian arcades and London’s 19th-century Crystal Palace. One of my favourite poems in A Page From the Wonders of Life on Earth is “Comfort,” which is short enough to share in full here (and which I do with the author’s permission):

A Spanish man who rides the metro daily,
open-palmed, delivering a discourse on his poverty,
puts his face to the chimpanzee’s glass.

To be in there. Warm hay and tires, oranges,
and look how the mother presses the young one close.

If he took this city by the neck
and shook, would the strand break,
pearls roll into corners?

Underneath, the metro runs
faces he could spend an hour watching
if the earth were made of glass.

Though awfully sad, it’s not unexpected to imagine a destitute man longing for the comforts inside the cage—but Bolster renders this longing so plainly and honestly that its very inevitability gives it power. I have been seeing this fellow in my mind on and off for the past few weeks, staring in at the warm world of the chimps, the bright oranges standing out against the hay, the snuggling mother-and-baby emphasizing his own shortage of homey human contact. And then the poem turns, and turns again. First the whole city gripped by the neck like an errant cub. And then the rolling pearls become the glistening cars of the metro, a racing stream of shiny cages, offering a view that could be the man’s, if only things were different: his situation, his perspective, the make-up of the earth itself. And what would he think, peering down at his own glassed-in kind? What would he at last understand?

In “Song for the Song of the Aviary,” Bolster puts all her effort into recording the birds’ artificial environment: the echoes “as in a can”, “plastic tassels”, “mesh sky”, “fish in dishes, paste smeared in a tray”, “shallow basin, mini hills”. The question at the heart of the poem: Is this enough? “Maybe they’re happy” she writes. And: “The air is real, rainy at times/ to wash it cleanish.” I think “cleanish” calls up a feeling that lingers after a visit to the zoo, after pondering the creatures on display. Something has stuck to us that we can’t easily wash off. A mixture of lingering animal scents? A discomfort with our own unrelenting curiosity? For me, the poem’s real question is this: Is it enough to have asked “Is this enough”? I’m aware, thoughtful, concerned; I’ve made note. Have I done my duty?

Is it now OK to stare?

Beco, a 1 year old male Asian Elephant (elephas maximus), born in captivity 2009-03-27. Photographed at the Columbus Zoo, Powell, Ohio, United States on May 21, 2010. Author: Shell Kinney. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Beco, a 1 year old male Asian Elephant (elephas maximus), born in captivity 2009-03-27. Photographed at the Columbus Zoo, Powell, Ohio, United States on May 21, 2010. Author: Shell Kinney. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The keepers will keep on

Certain images and situations recur in poets’ encounters with zoos. The Jardin des Plantes is visited in Penned by John Wain and Daryl Hine, and, in her own collection, by Bolster herself. Elephants are unavoidable, in winter and otherwise. Likewise tigers and gorillas, and, of course, the zoo keeper, who is watched as keenly as the animals he tends, and perhaps less apologetically. In A.F. Mortiz’s “Zoo Keeper,” we see him lugging meat and slipping “through urine and water . . . a gravy/ of various sewage”. In Linda Paston’s “The Keeper,” the bearded God in Tintoretto’s painting Creation of the Animals, his “arms bent/ like the wings of the white swan,” is wonderfully, unexpectedly transformed into the keeper at the Bronx Zoo, “who sat among the elephants/ in his gray and crumpled uniform, trumpeting/ with laughter, feeding/ them bits of his own lunch”. Bolster’s keepers, who maintain their duties “When We Stop Visiting”, who “stirred/ the tanks in Budapest/ during the siege, to stop/ the sharks from freezing”, usher us into another recurring element of zoo poetry: the zoo during wartime.

The fate of the animals in a zoo in a city under siege feels especially tragic, for they were never meant to be there: that was our own doing. Not only have we corralled them, we’ve put them in the path of an unseemly danger. Poem after poem in Penned addresses some zoo-related wartime footnote; the bear that was reportedly the last animal at the Sarajevo Zoo appears in poems by both Walter Pavich and Glyn Maxwell. Maxwell writes, “The hands of children here were wringing themselves/ hot with the plight of the animals over there”. Susan Howe writes of a visit to the zoo in Delaware Park the day Pearl Harbour was attacked, and Alison Calder writes rivetingly of an elephant in the Berlin Zoo on which a bomb dropped during WWII, “the logic of his death no stranger/ than his transplanted life beside the statues”.

It sadly almost seems a tit-for-tat. For the animals in the Warsaw Zoo, as related in The Zookeeper’s Wife, were either claimed and shipped to Berlin, or slaughtered by a group of SS officers, right on the zoo grounds, during a “private hunting party” led by a man who was actually a zoo keeper himself and a former international colleague of the Zabinskis. Ackerman writes, “Heck and a cadre of fellow hunters arrived on a sunny day, full of drink and hilarity, elated by army victories, laughing as they roamed the grounds, shooting penned and caged animals for sport.”

Antonina kept her son indoors that day, and couldn’t answer his question, “Mama, what does it mean?” She was paralyzed, according to Ackerman’s account, in part by her failure to keep the animals in her care safe—and by what that meant for her ability to protect her own son. She later wrote of the birds that might have escaped, but which were doomed by their own domesticity. “In the cold-blue evening light, sunset was playing funeral bells for our just-buried animals. We could see our two hawks and one eagle circling above the garden. When their cage was split open by bullets, they’d flown free, but they didn’t want to leave the only home they knew. Gliding down, they landed on our porch and waited for a meal of some horsemeat. Soon even they became trophies, part of the Gestapo officers’ New Year’s hunting party.”

This does not seem a pleasant place to end. But it does leave us with a fact worth pondering: we could do far worse than “keeping” animals in cages and in our homes, and unforgivably, we have. As the late Gwendolyn MacEwen wrote in her poem “Invocations,” which appears in Penned, “In this zoo there are beasts which/ like some truths, are far too true”.

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*Toronto poet Paul Vermeersch wrote a great appreciation of Selima Hill’s work on his blog a few years back: “It’s time to applaud Selima Hill”

‘They lay on the earth like sadness come to rest’

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Just a little detour

In the autumn of 2005, Dad and I were driving the back road to Main-à-dieu, his Cape Breton village. Just beyond Little Lorraine, a pretty cove sprinkled with immaculate houses, he turned down a dirt road. “Just a little detour,” he said.

It was a road a city-trained eye like mine would easily have missed. Tire tracks leading into the bush. Puddle-pocked gravel. Branches scraped the sides of the jostling car. The already dim day—fog, rain, the usual—darkened.

After several long moments, the trees fell away. Dead ahead, a broad cove, butting against a large bog. A blue house sat back from the road, a white one on a rise. I glimpsed swatches of ocean through the mist. This, Dad said, was Baleine (1). Though I’d visited Main-à-dieu dozens of times, I’d never seen this nearby village of six or so houses, or even known of its existence. It was boggy and bleak and breathtaking—remarkable for being there at all.

Wandering the bog with a gash in her head

As we drove closer, I was further surprised to see a tall flagpole bearing the maple leaf. Dad stopped the car. We stepped out into the autumn rain and read a bronze plaque that told how, on September 5, 1936, the aviatrix Beryl Markham ended the first-ever solo flight by a woman (the second by anyone) from the U.K. to North America—against prevailing winds—by landing right here in this bog.
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Markham's plane being loaded onto a boat to be taken to Louisbourg. (This image is from nsexplore.ca.)

Markham’s plane being loaded onto a boat to be taken to Louisbourg. (This image is from nsexplore.ca.)

(Click here to see footage of Markham’s rescue at Baleine and her subsequent arrival in New York.)

I had a sensation reminiscent of childhood: of being granted sudden, unexpected knowledge. How had this never come up before? More likely the place and its long-ago claim to fame had simply crossed his mind as we were driving by—but it was as if Dad had purposely held this (and what else?) back so he would still have the power to astonish me well into adulthood. I turned and stared into the white sky over the steely water. Imagine a woman in a plane falling out of that murk. Imagine such a thing happening decades ago, before transatlantic flight was an everyday occurrence, before 24-hour news cycles and all the rest. Would this have seemed like a dream, like some miracle or terrible omen, to the fisherman who found Markham wandering the bog with a gash in her head? Or would it have been nothing remarkable to a people accustomed to the occasional shipwreck and various other surprises washing up onshore?

Later, I read a news clipping shellacked on wood at the local museum, and learned that Markham’s engine had been choked by ice, and that she was ferried to Louisbourg, where she spent the night with a local family. What an unusual evening that must have been for all concerned. I tried to imagine it, but it did not seem real to me. Nor did Markham herself. Who dreams such a feat, and then pulls it off?

All before the cockpit enters into it

Recently, I read Markham’s 1942 memoir, West With the Night, a used copy of which I’ve owned for years and which I was compelled to finally slide off the shelf because it’s mentioned by a character in Heather Jessup’s lovely novel The Lightning Field. (Does anyone else ever feel that fictional characters are running their lives in this way?) I’ve moved that book from house to apartment to house, hesitant to delve in, wary, I think, of shattering the mysterious aura surrounding this woman. I needn’t have worried. In the memoir, we learn of Markham’s childhood days hunting with Nandi boys in Kenya; her survival of a lion attack; her success training racehorses; her early flights delivering mail and supplies through uncharted African territories; and her daring journey across the Atlantic. Review that list. Lion attacks? Childhood hunting in the African bush? A young female horse trainer in 1930s Kenya? All this, before the cockpit even enters into it.

And all of it elegantly told, and gripping. Markham describes the loneliness of flying “in unbroken darkness without even the cold companionship of a pair of ear-phones or the knowledge that somewhere ahead are lights and life and a well-marked airport.” She writes, of the plane of a missing pilot: “There she rested, frail and feminine, against the rough, grey ground, her pretty wings unmarked, her propeller rakishly tilted, her cockpit empty.” She tells of “throttling down” to follow a racing herd of impala (or wildebeest): “To see ten thousand animals untamed and not branded with the symbols of human commerce is like scaling an unconquered mountain for the first time, or like finding a forest without roads or footpaths, or the blemish of an axe. You know then what you had always been told—that the world once lived and grew without adding machines and newsprint and brick-walled streets and the tyranny of clocks.”

The tyranny of clocks. How did that get in there? It is brilliant, the mark of a master.

She keeps us at a distance

West With the Night is unlike many of the memoirs we encounter today. It is not about overcoming some personal tragedy, and is no tell-all. You won’t learn from Markham’s memoir that her mother essentially abandoned her (leaving her with her father in Kenya) at the age of four. Nor that she worked her way through three marriages and several notorious affairs—and that she is a mother herself. Nor how she felt navigating her way through two male-dominated careers: horse trainer and pilot. She keeps us at a distance, in a way that feels more polite than we are used to, more reserved, and that leaves the contemporary reader—me, that is—bothered by (I admit sometimes unseemly) questions. Such as: could Markham possibly have spent so much time in the African bush with fellow pilot Bror Blixen—just them and the thick vegetation and the threat of becoming prey to any manner of wild beasts—without a single thing going on between them?

Answer: of course not. That Markham carried on with Blixen (husband of Karen Blixen, a.k.a. Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa) is well known. But you won’t learn of this in her book. You won’t even glean a hint, though “Blix” is a colourful recurring character, and she even writes of being a guest at the Blixens’ home. I found it sometimes intriguing, sometimes irritating, to know how much was going unsaid between the lines. Has my sensibility been sullied by our confessional culture? Or was Markham being coy? On the one hand, there is a dignity in how this book avoids rehashing personal traumas. Her affairs and family history are none of my business, and were extraneous to her purpose. On the other hand, I closed the book feeling that Markham was as surreal and untouchable as ever.

It is absurd for a man to kill an elephant

It wasn’t a comfortable read in other ways, too. Markham’s voice is decidedly colonial—I want to say pre-post-colonial because that seems to better convey the squirm-inducing moments sprinkled throughout. For example, she expresses shock over a childhood friend addressing her as “Memsahib,” but doesn’t question the inevitability of their respective placements in the racial hierarchy. That she is “of her time” doesn’t change how wrong this feels. Then there are the elephants. One of Markham’s gigs was to ferry big-game hunters around Kenya, locating herds from what, to my mind, was the unfair advantage of her plane’s bird’s eye view. Even so, her related observations are so well written you want to ignore the unsavoury circumstances and simply revel in the language, cadence and ideas. Such as: “It is absurd for a man to kill an elephant. It is not brutal, it is not heroic, and certainly it is not easy: it is just one of those preposterous things that men do like putting a dam across a great river…”

There are those who suspect West With the Night was actually written by Markham’s third husband. The charge seems to centre on the fact that he was a writer, while she had never shown any interest in literary pursuits (a discussion of this controversy can be found here). And perhaps, too, on the fact that the book is so well crafted. My copy, a 1983 reprint, bears a lengthy quote from Hemingway on the back, in which he confesses, “she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer.”

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A woman living so boldly

Annie Dillard has observed that the key question when writing memoir is what to divulge and what to omit. Many of the omitted details of Markham’s life are compelling. What insights, if mined, could they have realized? Whatever they were, Markham was not after them. She was an adventurer; her reflections centre on her daring exploits rather than on herself. West With the Night is an homage to the pursuit of a craft, the conquering of a skill. I think, predictably, of our parallel efforts to conquer the sentence, the untamed language, but has anyone yet written such a gripping memoir about that—unaided by juicy details from the writer’s personal life? (Dillard, to be fair, has come pretty close! Do you even need me to link to it? The Writing Life.) I can’t help wishing, though, that Markham had let us in just a little more, so we could glean what life was truly like for a woman living so boldly at such a time in human history. (I shall have to hunt down a copy of Mary S. Lovell’s highly praised biography of Markham, Straight on Till Morning, in the hopes that she has figured it out.)

I learned of Markham in a fog. She landed in Cape Breton in fog. Here is her own description of the fog engulfing Nairobi the morning she left Africa to embark on the journey that would lead to her flight over the Atlantic. It was not, she writes, a “pilot’s day”:

The town, the sunrise and the ship were isolated from each other by clouds that had no edges and refused to roll. They lay on the earth like sadness come to rest; they clung to people like burial clothes, white and premature. Blix found them gay.

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(1) Pronounced “baw-leen” (speaking of which, Main-à-dieu is “man-ah-doo” and Louisbourg is “lewz-burg”).

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Some articles on Beryl Markham worth reading:

Against prevailing winds: the remarkable life of Beryl Markham,” Woman Pilot Magazine, April 2008

Beryl Markham: Britain’s Amelia Earhart,” by Gavin Mortimer, The Telegraph, 27 Nov 2009

Wheel animals and the necessity for awe

A plate from "The Rotifera or Wheel Animulcules" by Hudson & Gosse, as shown on microscopy-uk.org with an article by Ian Walker. The central drawing is of Brachionus Rubens by C. T. Hudson.

A plate from “The Rotifera or Wheel Animalcules” by Hudson & Gosse, as shown on microscopy-uk.org with an article by Ian Walker. The central drawing is of Brachionus Rubens by C. T. Hudson.

It is well to be, if not wary, at least prepared for surprises when you go to the library. The building, with its tucked-away corners, wafts of must, and fellow patrons with their pens and power cords and winter coats cascading over tables, is not at all like a computer screen, not lulling in the least. And you can still find things in the library that are unlikely to ever make their way online.

Things, I would venture, that you can hold in your hands.

Whenever I visit the Toronto Reference Library I think of Timothy Findley’s 1993 novel Headhunter, in which retired librarian Lilah Kemp accidentally sets Kurtz free from page 92 of a copy of Heart of Darkness—and loses him in the stacks at what was then the Metro Toronto Reference Library. First as a Ryerson student and then as a fledgling journalist in the early 90s, I spent many hours at the wooden tables of Metro Ref, scanning the periodical indexes—the ones that used to be made of, you know, paper—and waiting for titles to be retrieved from the stacks. There are now white computer tables smudged with scuffmarks among the library’s décor, as well as glass “study pods” that look as if they could beam you to a faraway planet (a librarian smiled patiently and told me, yes, they hear this joke all the time).

But the general feel of the place remains the same: the rock pool continues to trickle, and that sense of opportunity—and slight thrill of danger—when you peer up from the centre of the main floor toward the layers of balconies above has not diminished. Could an escaped Kurtz be lurking among all those books? Totally.

I found something unexpected there recently. It didn’t fit into the category of “menacing fictional character on the lam.” It was a 1975, 17-page pamphlet issued by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources entitled Peck Lake Trail: Ecology of an Algonquin Lake. Innocuous. Unpromising. Its relevance to the article I was working on was tangential at best. Yet I consumed all 17 pages on the spot. Its anonymous civil servant author (or authors?) was a talented practitioner of an all-too-rare skill: writing well—as in, not dully, and without resorting to indecipherable language—about science. The pamphlet explains in its clear and lively manner how the lake “breathes” twice a year (turning over so oxygen moves from its upper to lower regions), and what lives there that can’t be seen by the naked eye. “Post 5, Invisible Pastures” and “Post 6, Fairy Kingdom Beneath the Waves” were especially entrancing. Did you know that some algae—“paltry little specks compared to trees and other plants that we see on land”—actually swim to stay afloat? Others bob about on gas bubbles or in gelatinous sheaths: “They are so tiny that even slight currents suffice to keep them in motion, circulating in the upper lake and postponing their inevitable disappearance into the sunless depths below.”

Would that we lived in a world where we might not need to pause and raise our eyebrows upon encountering such rich prose in a government-issued document.

The passage in which the document quotes an early, unnamed scientist writing on microscopic water creatures really got me. Imagine this guy peering down at supposedly clear liquid to find “ruby eyes blazing,” “delicate threads spun out from their toes,” and “an animal convolvulus that by some invisible power draws a never-ceasing stream of victims into its gaping cup and tears them to death with hooked jaws…”

My mouth fell open as I read. In part, it was the drama and violence in that drop of water. In part, it was that I’d stumbled, I was sure, on a clue to Wakefield, Quebec poet Bruce Taylor’s masterful poem “Little Animals.”

The poem appears in Taylor’s book No End in Strangeness (Cormorant, 2011). I know it well. I first read it in 2010, as part of my duties as editor of Arc Poetry Magazine, a job I held in those days. Along with Kim Jernigan, then-editor of The New Quarterly, I was combing submissions for a joint issue between our two magazines on literature and science (this fun, fat, luminous edition was published as Quarc in 2011). We were both thrilled by Taylor’s lengthy, nine-section poem, which shares an overflow of wonder with the quoted passage in the Peck Lake brochure:


and he was the first to do a thing
the finest intellects of Europe never thought of,
which was to look, to simply look,
inside a water drop
at all the thrashing whiptailed swimmers,
motile cogs and quaking ghosts
that make their lives in there,
and these he called his “little animals,”
some appearing in the glass
“as large as your arm” and others,
“as small as the beard hairs of a man
that hath not in a fortnight shaved,”
disporting themselves with merry
convolutions, flexing their numerous
limbs and nimble paws

Was Taylor’s guy—the first microscopist, “a Dutch cloth merchant called van Leeuwenhoek”— the guy in my pamphlet? (See how it has become mine?) No, it turns out. A little hunting, this time online, led me to Hudson & Gosse, who published an eloquently written “standard book on rotifers,” otherwise known as wheel animals, in 1886. It’s these guys who are anonymously quoted in the Peck Lake guide. They, however, were preceded by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), whose microscopic explorations led to discoveries of “organisms often bizarre and beautiful.”(1)

Bizarre and beautiful is exactly how I’d describe Taylor’s poem, which is as enthralling as that first look at a water droplet’s interior life must have been. “Little Animals” has now reappeared as a selection in The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2012, the fifth annual edition of what is becoming a staple of the Canadian literary scene.(2) In his introduction to the anthology, guest editor Carmine Starnino says Taylor has “patented a new genre: the meditative cliffhanger. His poems take the shape of an idea or mood clarifying itself in stages, leaving readers on tenterhooks to find out where he’ll go next.” Carmine is right: Taylor’s writing tugs and tugs and won’t let go.

But style is only the half of it. There is also the poem’s plot. You could say its meat. In “Little Animals,” Taylor’s narrator doesn’t just take van Leeuwenhoek’s word for it. He collects pondwater himself, with “a long-handled spoon” through a hole in the ice, brings it home and studies the creatures living within. “I have stared at them all week / in my Chinese miscroscope and have tried / to absorb what I saw.” He neglects his life, he confesses, to “spy” on theirs. He is hooked. Obsessed. Lost, yet found.

(Bruce Taylor has even made videos of rotifer action. Check out this “Pregnant Bdelloid Rotifer“.
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Reading Taylor’s poem is as if, with him as guide, you are uncovering some of the most beguiling secrets of the universe. He is writing about discovery itself, and how it can be repeated, and maybe even how it must be. (This may be a sister-truth to that one about how we all must learn from our own mistakes.) Though van Leeuwenhoek discovered the “fairy kingdom beneath the waves” nearly four hundred years ago, if I were to peer down at those creatures through a microscope—though I have fair warning that they are there—I would be nearly as floored he was. Indeed, I was floored to encounter them merely written of in a little booklet at the library. And why shouldn’t I be? How else are we to remember the value of all those drops of water? Our unfathomable carelessness with the lives and futures of all the little (and larger) animals renders Taylor’s poem urgent. It also seems important, morality aside, to simply be gobsmacked once in a while; the human condition calls for it. I don’t know why. But I hope that the scientist who figures this one out writes as well as Hudson & Gosse, and van Leeuwenhoek, and Bruce Taylor.

(1) I found Hudson & Gosse, and the quote about van Leeuwenhoek, in “The developmental history of inland-water science” by J.F. Talling, Freshwater Reviews (2008)1, pp119-141, The Freshwater Biological Association.
(2)Some of my other favourites in this year’s BCP: Dani Couture’s “Salvage,” a hypnotic portrait of a Great Lakes ship; David O’Meara’s “Background Noise,” which begins with the buzz of a stereo left on and winds up in the cosmos; Rachel Lebowitz’s from Cottonopolis, which is searing in its condemnation but also glorious in its use of language; Laurie D Graham’s “Say Here, Here,” of which I would say the exact same thing, but also that it’s a fantastic use of chant, echoing Al Purdy’s “Say the Names” while leaving that great poem in the dust (not that it’s a competition); and, a poet who is new to me, Changming Yuan, who ends the collection with a thoughtful meditation on waiting (and writing).

Smell the cabbage

by Alina Zienowicz, 2008 (from wikimedia commons)

I can’t stop thinking about the sauerkraut.

I’ll give you the scene. A young woman in her Toronto apartment. Some workers arrive to fix the plumbing downstairs, and one comes up to turn on the water. Our heroine is wary: her pantry contains a crock of “out-of-control” sauerkraut. Once the plumber is back downstairs, she overhears, through the floorboards, “there’s definitely something rotting up there,” and wants to run down to explain: “how I hate the stink too, how I wish I could just dump the whole fucking crock into the compost…but that I can’t, because, you see, because of my grandfather.” And then there are two increasingly desperate pages of “because.” “Because his house is up for sale.” “Because the man poured pickle juice on his fried rice…” “Because I don’t speak Low German or German or Ukrainian or Russian or Dutch.”

In the closing moment, she’s “kneeling in front of the sauerkraut scooping the scum into a blue plastic cup… holding my breath in the stink and my nose is running and I’m wiping it on my sleeve and trying not to sob too loudly as the plumbers gather their tools below.”

In last week’s entry I mentioned Alayna Munce’s novel When I Was Young & In My Prime (Nightwood Editions, 2005). Though I have been reading some poetry I keenly want to write about (specifically pieces in The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2012), I can’t yet shake When I Was Young. It lingers—I hesitate to say “like the smell from a crock of fermenting cabbage,” but that is kind of what I mean. In a good way.

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To recap, Munce’s book follows the narrator’s life in the city, where she works two jobs and struggles in her marriage. Meanwhile, her grandmother, Mary Friesen, recedes into an Alzheimer’s-fogged existence. Grandfather Peter also begins to decline. So, one narrative tracks the wobbly launch of a life, the other tracks the recession of two other lives, and the place where the novel finds its richness is where the two meet, in our narrator’s heart and mind.

We are dealing with a narrator who is determined to not let her grandparents’ lives—or their suffering—slip away unstudied. Not unnoticed, but unstudied. She writes poem sequences based on fragments of their history. She extrapolates from old diary entries of her grandmother’s and slips into her mind, her voice, in a time before the narrator’s life began. She does the same with her grandfather. I’m not sure how Munce pulls this off. It might have come across as false, or too cute. Instead, we sink into the voices, while also remaining aware that this is only the narrator’s clumsy attempt to glimpse her grandparents’ secret lives. The tension between these two states of awareness, for the reader, is quietly effective.

I suspect we’ve all looked at a close relation from a previous generation and thought, with a mixture of fascination and dismay: their life is a mystery to me. Because their tale is the precursor to our own, it’s also ours, and we yearn to know it. Munce gently steers her narrator into that usually impenetrable universe: someone else’s existence. It does not feel like invasion so much as homage, a rare empathy. Story being applied to one of its chief purposes, I daresay one of its chief obligations.

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The narrator’s effort to learn from her grandfather how to make sauerkraut—before it’s too late remains unspoken—calls forth vivid associations. Once, my cousins asked my maternal grandmother, Babci (our informal version of the Polish babcia), to teach them how to make pierogies. They arrived at her house on the appointed Saturday afternoon. They found the kitchen table laid out with rows of meticulously trimmed ovals of dough. They found bowls brimming with fillings: potato-and-cheese, sauerkraut-mushroom, meat. Their job: to place a dollop of filling into the centre of each round of dough, fold the dough over and pinch it closed. Pierogy assembly.

We still laugh about this, but the incident also troubles me. Did Babci not believe they truly wanted to learn? Did she not want to give up her secrets?

In my thirties, I told this same grandmother that I’d begun to study Polish—a language none of my 16 cousins spoke either, so which, in a single generation, had disappeared. She said, “Why you want speak Polish?” She waved a hand dismissively. “Polish difficult language. You soon forget.” I wanted to say, so I can ask you more questions, better questions, and understand the answers. So I can get a glimpse of how a Polish mind, trained by a whole other system of grammar, works. How it feels to use my mouth in a Polish way, to make Polish sounds. Because I’m half-Polish, I wanted to say, and since you and I talk in broken English, since Polish—which I’ve heard spoken around me my entire life—sounds to me like garbled mutterings, I hardly know what being half-Polish means.

I started too late: my Polish (it is a difficult language) did not progress quickly enough. Babci died in 2006. (I wrote a Lives Lived piece about her for the Globe and Mail. You can read it here.) Now her thoughts about so many things—as well as her particular technique for pierogy preparation—exist somewhere out of time, out of my reach.

There are days when I’m as skeptical as my grandmother was about all this hanging on, cluttering ourselves up with the past. Are we just being sentimental? Trapping people inside our greedy imaginations? Then I read a book like Munce’s, her narrator’s loving, painful itemization of the changes in her grandparents’ lives, their belongings, fragments of history, minor facts. The mason jars, stepladder, hat boxes and butter forms hauled up from the basement for a garage sale. Grandma’s ruminations on the saying it’s all downhill from here: “I couldn’t for the life of me remember whether the phrase is meant to be uplifting or melancholy.” Grandpa’s five languages, “if you included whistling.”

I read this and feel a resurgence of a kind of faith. I ask myself where it’s been. What has happened in my life—and in my craft as a writer—to make me forget that the main thing is to take note? That behind everything we do, this one imperative: pay attention. Maybe I lose faith sometimes because the impulse to “pay attention” is often followed in my mind by: Okay, then what? Is it possible that in choosing to observe—meticulously, unsparingly—we avoid a duty to act? We shy away from a meaningful, useful response?

I finished reading When I Was Young a few days before the 19th anniversary of my Polish grandfather’s death. He died November 5, 1993. Various hospital stays punctuated his later years. Once my sister and I went to visit him in the Henderson, the hospital on the Hamilton mountain, an old building that back then had narrow, stuffy, yellow hallways. (It may still; I have not been back.) When we were saying goodbye, he sat up in bed, watery eyes wide and bright, and said, “I’m go with you. I’m no stay.” He pointed to a knapsack one of us held. “I’m fit in bag.” He grinned. He was joking, but he wasn’t. We held back tears, kissed him—three times each, cheek after cheek, the Polish way—and squeezed his mottled hand and walked out of the room, down the suffocating hallways, back outdoors, squinting into the daylight.

Sometimes action is beside the point. We couldn’t rescue our grandfather from his hospital bed or from his failing body. We could note his struggle, and carry it with us, along with all the other things about him that we remembered and knew. This is what we mean by paying attention. It’s what I mean. And then what? I don’t know. But we have to let the sauerkraut ferment, let the stench work its way into our noses.

Prescription: one fine passage a day

Mary Louise Parker as Henrietta Stackpole in Portrait of a Lady (1996)

Mary Louise Parker as Henrietta Stackpole in Portrait of a Lady (1996)

‘Henrietta was a literary woman, and the great advantage of being a literary woman was that you could go everywhere and do everything’

Years ago, when I was young and snooty and resentful of obligatory social engagements, I attended a work party with my then-boyfriend (his work, not mine). I found myself sipping wine in a well-appointed Ottawa living room with several wives who, to my relief, turned out to be avid readers. One of them said, “It’s weird, but nothing seems right, everything’s a little tougher, when I’m not in the middle of a good book.”

I wanted to take her by the hand and bring her home. She’d articulated something I’d always sensed but never consciously noted: That an interlude with a passage of fine writing can smooth out the edges, lessen the sting, wrench open the eyes. Forget the apple: a chapter, a poem, an essay a day, this is what is required. That Ottawa woman whose name and face I now forget got it: some of us use—some of us need—the written word as a binding force in life, offering a parallel narrative to backdrop our own, an army of company (and ideas, and even horrors) to trail us on our errands, wanderings, pursuits.

Welcome to my blog, which borrows the spirit of Henrietta Stackpole, a character—minor yet key—in Henry James’s novel The Portrait of a Lady. I read this book last winter, holed up, nursing my newborn son. I would sit in an armchair, lie baby Henry on a wide flat pillow, latch him on, and prop the book on the pillow behind him. It is a coincidence that James and the baby share a first name, I swear. And don’t worry: this is not a blog about all things Henry James. Nor is it about how reading saved me in the early days of motherhood (though, yeah, it did). And it ain’t no book review blog. More like a book report. Informal and wide-ranging. I hope to share ideas, reactions and thoughts on what I’ve been reading. Nothing fancy or grand or—what is that annoyingly popular concept?—innovative. But it seems to matter. I aim to muddle through that watery space between the lines where most good writing leaves you, paddling and spinning, trying to figure out how you got there, where the shore is, what’s lurking beneath your feet.

Back to Henrietta Stackpole, our guardian angel. A friend of Isabel’s, the protagonist, Henrietta is a journalist “in the van of progress,” first introduced as a “high example of useful activity,” Isabel’s “proof that a woman might suffice to herself and be happy.” In the social context surrounding Portrait of a Lady, Henrietta is a lady possessing a shocking, almost distasteful sense of personal freedom. She comes and goes as she pleases; can attend the opera or stay at an inn without concern over which male figure, if any, serves as escort. James explains, with that hint of comic relief that accompanies most of his passages on Miss Stackpole, “Henrietta was a literary woman, and the great advantage of being a literary woman was that you could go everywhere and do everything.”

I fell for her from the get-go.

It is out of fashion these days to describe a fictional character with the heartiness that James applied to the task. Here she is upon first appearing to Ralph, Isabel’s invalid cousin, who had hoped to disapprove of her but was forced instead into a reluctant admiration: “She resulted, she shimmered, in fresh, dove-coloured draperies, and Ralph saw at a glance that she was as crisp and new and comprehensive as a first issue before the folding. From top to toe she had probably no misprint.”

Then she fixes her eyes upon him and “there was something in their character that reminded him of large polished buttons—buttons that might have fixed the elastic loops of some tense receptacle: he seemed to see the reflection of surrounding objects on the pupil. The expression of a button is not usually deemed human, but there was something in Miss Stackpole’s gaze that made him, as a very modest man, feel vaguely embarrassed—less inviolate, more dishonoured, than he liked.”

Finally, upon further reflection by Ralph: “She was wanting in distinction, but, as Isabel had said, she was brave: she went into cages, she flourished lashes, like a spangled lion-tamer.”

James’s lush descriptions are enough to make me lament, a little, the sparsity of contemporary letters. I am currently reading, and deeply admiring, Toronto author Alayna Munce’s novel When I Was Young & In My Prime (Nightwood Editions, 2005). It’s a compassionate study of a young woman struggling through early adulthood (two jobs, faltering marriage) while, outside the city, her grandparents are declining. It’s also wonderfully natural the way it’s written and told, its diary-like passages interspersed with poem sequences that delve into issues raised during incidents that are recounted in prose. But Munce’s style is definitely of our time. We are introduced to Mom, Grandma, Grandpa, James and various other characters. We learn them through their words and actions and various talismans, through setting and implication, impression and voice, but we are not literally shown them: their size, their hair, their eyes, their noses, their hands. We writers don’t do that these days. And of course all that description was overbearing. It left no room for the power of suggestion, for the character to fit a heretofore undiscovered nook in your mind. Good for us that we’ve moved on: call it progress. Even so, when I turn a page and encounter Henrietta as Madame Merle does— “[she] surveyed her with a single glance, took her in from head to foot, and after a pang of despair determined to endure her. She determined indeed to delight in her. She mightn’t be inhaled as a rose, but she might be grasped as a nettle”—I glory in all that exposition. I pause and read the lines again, following their snaking through Madame Merle’s calculating mind. The nettle pricking. Henrietta flowering.

James clearly had a ball writing Henrietta. With apologies to James scholars, I can’t help but wonder if he was using her as a vehicle to poke fun at himself. The name is a flag, of course. And then there are her incessant efforts to report on “the inner life,” which becomes a kind of running joke throughout the novel: Henrietta’s ideas about the “inner life” are already set, we “the reader” understand, but she must pin down examples. She must poke about the English estates and the lives of their inhabitants. James plumbed his own society, the dramas (or types of dramas) played out in his own circles, for his novels: to peel back the “inner” life” for real was his literary calling. But of course at times—as for any writer—it felt ridiculous, futile, intrusive. The opportunity for gentle, though exuberant, mockery afforded by Henrietta must have been a welcome release.

(For a magnificent exploration of all that, even if you aren’t a James fan—and especially if you are a writer—read Colm Toibin’s The Master, a novel based on James’ life, a real digging down into the unsettling aspects of the author’s toil and trade. Click here for the Guardian review.)

Such is my theory. Henrietta is brilliant in that she’s both a break from all that painstaking psychic excavation—and with James as guide it can be remarkably painstaking—while at the same time a key source of revelation. The only forthright, trustworthy character in the novel, Henrietta is blunt and intrusive, at times hilariously lacking tact, and thus a caricature of a “modern woman” that I am willing to bet sets some feminist scholars teeth on edge. She exudes guts and principal; she’s without guile, and is the one person in Isabel’s life who cares about her without self-interest.

Henrietta was on the hunt. As was James. As am I. (And I daresay I can be just as awkward and cringe-worthy as she.) Nowadays, nobody I know needs the cover of being a “literary woman” to follow her nose, to explore the world. However, there are far too many women I don’t know directly, women in oppressive societies—and in restrictive circumstances right here in contemporary Canada—for whom no “literary woman” guise would help. I can’t read or write, pursue any autonomous endeavour, without my thoughts shifting the way of those women, without anger bubbling—and simmering equally on behalf of women in times past, the Isabels reduced to looking upon the bold, unusual Henriettas with admiration.

I was happy and lucky when I read Portrait of a Lady, a new mother in the throes of all that entails. I was also desperate. Desperate to engage my mind while my body was doing its work, while I was kept stationary for lengthy stretches, sating the baby’s hunger. James brought me England and Rome and Henrietta, in all her shimmering certainty. Her usefulness. The book led me out of the living room and my own ordinary dramas and duties while also bringing what was before me into sharp relief: exactly how, I don’t know, but the one effect makes the other possible. A good read leaves me both rinsed and brimming. It was important to find that hadn’t changed, though so much else had. It is no great discovery, yet it is a discovery, each time it happens: The book is a gateway. A literary woman can go anywhere.