Windswept

746px-Ruszczyc-Pustka

Ferdynand Ruszczyc, Pustka (Stare Gniazdo). 1901, oil on canvas. Lithuanian Art Museum [The title is Polish and roughly translates to: Emptiness (Old Nest)]

Part of my own motivation, when we planned a “storm chasing” night for Churchmouse After Hours, was curiosity. Why do people chase storms? Why is there such an appetite for all-day weather networks; a fringe element known as tornado chasers; and why, during a hurricane, will people converge on the shore and risk being swept off a rock into the sea?

We know we’re fragile creatures but usually manage to ignore it. Is storm chasing a way to remind ourselves of nature’s power and force, or, conversely, to prove we aren’t afraid? To play truth-or-dare with hurricanes—to sidle up to disaster and emerge unscathed?

Traipsing through poems, stories and songs into the wild weathers animated and contended with there, we didn’t really address these questions directly. I even forgot to bring something I’d found about the scientists who fly into the eyes of hurricanes—on purpose!—in order to bring us the data we use to understand their nature and predict their behaviour.

But I think I got a hint of an answer nonetheless. Something altogether different from the ideas above, which I suspect tell part of the story.

In many of the passages that were shared that night at After Hours, the wind took on a personality, it pursued a purpose, it blew itself a narrative course.

In Patricia Young’s poem, “Tornado in the Bible Belt” (from her collection Short Takes on the Apocalypse), the wind is a clashing of temperatures, “nature’s blender” and even God, who, with a “third layer of dry air” and “His vortex howl,” sweeps up a boy, then drops him “like a cigarette butt far from the house.” In Victor Hernanez Cruz’s “Problems With Hurricanes” (from Red Beans) the wind is a bully pelting objects at people not just to hurt but to shame them. In Milton Acorn’s “The Squall,” read by Kim Foster, the wind “comes running down the bay, / Its waves like hounds and slanting leashes of rain / Bugling their way…” The wind’s letting loose wild dogs, performing a desperate music.

In Festes’ song from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which John Lucas sang so beautifully for us, the winds and the rain arrive “with a hey, ho,” as if they’re only teasing. In Robert Frost’s “Wind and Window Flower,” a winter wind “concerned with ice and snow” stands in for unrequited love: “He sighed upon the sill,/ He gave the sash a shake…” The flower there, though, “leaned aside / And thought of naught to say / And morning found the breeze / A hundred miles away.” And in Gwendolyn MacEwan’s “Barker Fairley and the Blizzard” the wind literally carries away the person who asks the most fundamental question about art (and life): Is suffering necessary?

I left After Hours swept up by the mystery of wind, the air come alive, an invisible force that affects us without cease, and I understood that we are drawn to wild weather, in part, because the wind that feeds it likewise feeds us: it whips us out of complacency and into action. We lean into wind, we brace against it, we feel it in our faces and hair, we watch it play with (and sometimes angrily tear apart) the things around us. The fiercer the wind, the more fully, undeniably awake the person holding ground within it becomes.

A reminder that we don’t meet in December—After Hours wishes a merry and wondrous Christmas to all!

The next Churchmouse After Hours is: Wednesday, January 24 at 7 pm. Our theme: Sound & Silence.

Meanwhile, you can hear some of Victoria’s finest poets read their work at a celebration for The Best of the Best Canadian Poetry, this Sunday December 3 at 1:30 pm at the Fine Arts Building at the University of Victoria (Rm 103). Readers include Yvonne Blomer, Lorna Crozier, John Barton, Patricia Young, Sonnet L’Abbé and Shelley A. Leedahl. Hosted by Anita Lahey.

Churchmouse After Hours is a monthly neighbourhood coffeehouse with songs, stories, poems and prose on a rotating theme. All are welcome to listen or join in. Note: This is not a literary open-mic. Though local authors do participate, we are all readers sharing work we enjoy and admire. Fourth Wed of most months at 7 pm at Churchmouse Books in St. Mary’s Oak Bay, 1701 Elgin Rd.

 

 

 

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Glimpses in Passing…

Macewen photo

Toronto poet Gwendolyn MacEwen died in 1987. She was exactly the age I am now: 45. Circumstances aside, no one can really say why one person lives to 90, another to 10, or 25, or 40. That doesn’t stop us from believing certain people go “before their time.” In the case of MacEwen, she “went” before what further fierce words she may have gone on to write. When MacEwen died, we were left with the texts she’d already composed, punctuated by the mystery of what exactly caused her early death, and of the true nature of the suffering that preceded it.

We began the “Hauntings” edition of the  After Hours Coffeehouse at Churchmouse Books with MacEwen’s poem “Past and Future Ghosts,” which for me suggests a blurring of borders between now and then, what was and what is— a continuity of existence, and perhaps even continuity of awareness. I half-wonder whether these “borders” are temporarily, confusingly, clarified in this life by our concept of death, and the gut-wrenching experience of losing someone.

Everything is already known, but we proceed as though we
know nothing. I have lived in houses haunted by ghosts
from the future as well as the past—ghosts of my future
and past selves as well as ghosts of others. It’s very simple;
we all just move from room to room in these time-houses
and catch glimpses of one another in passing.

What is it about inviting the ghostly into the room that is so tantalizing? I read a passage from Jacqueline Baker’s spine-tingling novel The Broken Hours (a tribute to American master of scary tales H.P. Lovecraft) and felt, when I stopped, that the room itself was holding its breath: gripped, terrified, and wanting more.

You could sense the ripple of delight in the room when Craig Hiebert launched into Robert Service’s classic creepy ballad, “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” which in his delivery was both eerier and funnier than I remembered. Likewise we all leaned in when Kim Foster gave us a marvellous rendition of the “Song of the Witches” from Macbeth. Who, even those unfamiliar with (or weary of) Shakespeare, can resist the mesmerizing chant, “Double, double, toil and trouble; / Fire burn and cauldron bubble.” And the lizard’s leg, and the owlet’s wing, and the ghastly “eye of newt and toe of frog.” Such palm-rubbing glee as we envisioned the making of this foul brew…

Stephanie Khoury literally shivered as she delivered the final lines of Louise Gluck’s “All Hallows”:

This is the barrenness
of harvest or pestilence.
And the wife leaning out the window
with her hand extended, as in payment,
and the seeds
distinct, gold, calling
Come here Come here,
little one

And the soul creeps out of the tree.

Steph shivered—we all did, while grinning devilishly. We were led in Cat Stevens’ beguiling “Moonshadow” by Craig, and floated on the haunting sorrow in a Portuguese piece played beautifully by Stephanie. We heard actual ghost stories from generous folk willing to share their unsettling tales. Caught up and emboldened, I offered up W.B. Yeats’ “The Stolen Child.” Here’s the unsettling refrain:

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

As I read I felt the power in this bewitching poem. I felt a different kind of chill, a fear that I’d gone a shade too far, that I had truly, by my own recklessness, invited darkness in.

But as we drifted out into the night, a cool white moon shone—less melancholy than Cat Stevens’ moon, and not at all ominous. It struck down the shadows.

And that, I guess, is what we’re after: that blessed deliverance, its sensation of pure relief. Like sorrow, like joy, that feeling is elemental and deep: it lurks well below the ordinary bustling of our days. The terror from which it ignites understands that we are all here catching “glimpses of one another in passing.” Now and then we need to stop and reach down with a lit match, to remind ourselves.

 

Images: What is a “Hauntings” coffeehouse without dead poets? Alongside Shakespeare and Frost, both Gwendolyn MacEwen and W.B. Yeats were presences…

https://canpoetry.library.utoronto.ca/macewen/poems.htm

https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/stolen-child

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Churchmouse After Hours in November: Storm Chasing

The Dutch cleanser woman led us to infinity

Mosaïque_d'Ulysse_et_les_sirènes

Ulixes mosaic at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, Tunisia. 2nd century AD. Public domain. From Wikimedia Commons.

Last month at Churchmouse After Hours we plodded through deserts, rode ships, dug tunnels and escaped tyranny.

We followed T.S. Eliot’s magi at “Just the worst the worst time of the year / For a journey, and such a long journey: / The ways deep and the weather sharp, / the very dead of winter.”

We roamed with Ulysses and his “hungry heart,” courtesy of Alfred Lord Tennyson, weighing his claim that “I am a part of all that I have met” and pondering his compulsion to keep moving: “Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ / Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades / For ever and for ever when I move. / How dull it is to pause, to make an end, / To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!”

Victoria poet P.K. Page rivalled Ulysses in terms of the sheer persistence of movement in her long life. Born in the U.K., she grew up in Canada, eventually living in Red Deer, Alberta; Calgary; Winnipeg; Saint John, New Brunswick; Ottawa; Montreal and finally Victoria—six of Canada’s ten provinces. During her diplomat husband’s career she also took up residence in Australia, Brazil, Mexico and Guatemala. Instead of geographical travel, though, with Page we ventured on two metaphorical journeys, both seemingly lacking in adventurousness—on the surface, that is. We followed “The Mole,” down “the slow dark personal passage” (here’s a great essay on “The Mole” by Zach Wells, from Arc Poetry Magazine) and took “A Backwards Journey” through the eyes of a child to the very mystery of existence:

the very busy Dutch cleanser woman
her face hidden behind her bonnet
holding a yellow Dutch Cleanser can
on which a smaller Dutch Cleanser woman
was holding a smaller Dutch cleanser can
on which a minute Dutch cleanser woman
held an imagined Dutch cleanser can…

Infinity. Eternity. The evening began with a tour through a decidedly contemporary version of the circles of hell: Asa Boxer’s “Dante’s Ikea,” which appears in Tightrope Books’ upcoming Best of the Best Canadian Poetry in English anthology as well as in Boxer’s collection Skulduggery. (Note: I am assistant series editor of the BCP anthology—this is its 10th anniversary edition!) This poem is a personal favourite—I was lucky enough to be editor of Arc Poetry Magazine back in 2008 when it first appeared in print, in our pages. It’s deliciously wicked. We’re seen these days as a serious, moody lot, but poets take more delight in being wicked (and absurd) than many would expect. Here’s an excerpt:

From thence we proceeded till
we stood atop the stairwell to the final
warehouse floor, and there, we paused

and thus we prayed: “Dear God,
I hope the pieces fit this time.”
Then down we tread

to the third, most dreaded circle;
and with each awful step,
we took the holy name.

The pillows brought no comfort.
The bathmats were all wrong.
The candles smelled like poison.

The vases lacked all grace of form.
The picture-frames and hangers,
though, were irresistible.

There is, if you wish to find it, serious commentary embedded in this tongue-in-cheek critique of our culture, but its scaffolding is pure play: with words, with literary allusion, with a wry, sidelong perspective on this particular “journey” that seems a prerequisite for certain among us in this time and place.

Back on solid ground, the late Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska led us straight into the desperate hearts of “Some People” on the run from violence, ethnic cleansing, war—some threat so depressingly ever-present in human history it requires no specificity:

Some people fleeing some other people.
In some country under the sun
and some clouds.

They leave behind some of their everything,
sown fields, some chickens, dogs,
mirrors in which fire now sees itself reflected.

On their backs are pitchers and bundles,
the emptier, the heavier from one day to the next.

Taking place stealthily is somebody’s stopping,
and in the commotion, somebody’s bread somebody’s snatching
and a dead child somebody’s shaking.

This is from the translation by Joanna Trzeciak in the collection Miracle Fair. The poem is tense and plot-driven: you read it hoping to see these refugees safely arrive. But to where? My intense involvement in this poem, my concern for how things will turn out for these people Szymborska has deliberately left generic—without colour, shape, ethnicity, language—reminds me of that instinctive connection that binds all humanity. But it also reminds me how intrinsically our species’ evolution is tied up in movement: the idea of journey, even a necessary one, is intoxicating. It promises strangeness, discovery, possibility, newness, hope, change. Or it seems to…

[Please join us Wednesday, October 25 at 7 p.m. at St. Mary’s Oak Bay, 1701 Elgin Rd., for Churchmouse After Hours, the “Hauntings” edition.

Churchmouse After Hours Hauntings edition

Churchmouse After Hours Hauntings on Facebook

Churchmouse After Hours is a monthly neighbourhood coffeehouse with songs, stories, poems and prose on a rotating theme. All are welcome to listen or join in. Note: This is not a literary open-mic. Though local authors do participate, we are all readers sharing work we enjoy and admire. Fourth Wed of most months at 7 pm at Churchmouse Bookshop in St. Mary’s Oak Bay, 1701 Elgin Rd.]

 

We Creatures of the Earth Must Move and Move Again—

. . . a matter of sense—the thousand-eyed,
thousand-eared alertness of a flock.
The strategies are given names—
I don’t know them. What sticks for me is how
the air itself is altered. The way light
bends back from bellies and wings as they turn.

migration image

This duck, called a smew, is taking off from a Finnish wetland. By Thermos (Own work;) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons 

Churchmouse is back home—only to ponder what it means to go elsewhere.

I was rooting around for material to share at the September installment of Churchmouse After Hours. (REMINDER: it’s the evening of Wed. Sept 27 — that’s, like, really soon!)  Our theme this month is “Migration & Journeys.” I came across Anne Reynolds Voegtlen’s “Migration,” from the September, 1998 issue of Poetry magazine. The poem itself is a “journey” toward understanding avian migration—and the longing it can call up in a lone person on the ground, looking up as a city’s worth of birds passes over.

As I ponder this happy discovery, I’m also making a stack of other possible poems and prose excerpts to read aloud—or offer up for others to read—that includes works by Homer; T. S. Eliot; two Polish poets (Adam Zagajewski and Wyslawa Szymborska—regulars at After Hours will know by now Szymborska is a favourite of mine); the marvellous Vancouver poet Elise Partridge; and Victoria’s own Patrick Lane and P.K. Page. Page brings us two exceedingly different, yet equally haunting, journeys—one a childhood flight of the imagination that leads to the deepest mysteries of existence, the other that of a small, determined, burrowing animal.

I hope the Churchmice out there are gathering their own morsels to bring to our humble literary & musical feast. See you all tomorrow evening at St. Mary’s, 1701 Elgin Rd., 7 p.m.

Its Place Among the Elements

The latest from Churchmouse After Hours, in which we meet ‘Endings and Beginnings.’

790px-Halley's_Comet,_1910

Image: Halley’s Comet, June 6, 1910. The Yerkes Observatory. Public domain.

https://www.stmarysoakbay.ca/blog/its-place-among-the-elements

Bears tobogganed down the hills

512px-Black-bears-winter-snow-sleeping-cuddled-together_-_West_Virginia_-_ForestWander

http://www.ForestWander.com

I do have a new Henrietta & Me essay brewing (or two, or three) but meanwhile, here is the latest from Churchmouse After Hours, a report on our winter coffeehouse adventure—posted here just in time for winter’s last hurrahs…

 

https://www.stmarysoakbay.ca/blog/bears-tobogganed-down-the-hills

We Read and Are Read To

ParrTrailmouse

from Little Downy, or The History of a Field-Mouse, Catherine Parr Trail, (1822)

 

So, here is a way that, out in the world (well, the world of my own neighbourhood) I’m trying to act out the spirit of this blog. Out loud, with other people—

https://www.stmarysoakbay.ca/blog/churchmouse-after-hours-birth-of-a-21st-century-coffeehouse

Bowen, the blitz and the twists and turns of the human heart

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This is the sort of piece I would normally post here. The good folks at The Puritan have given me room in their winter issue to parse my love of Elizabeth Bowen’s writing in their vital, energetic magazine.

http://puritan-magazine.com/every-possible-problem-in-the-world-a-review-of-the-heat-of-the-day-by-elizabeth-bowen/