The trick is finding your own pocket of silence within sound. This is what I was thinking when Stephanie Khoury and James Hamilton, seated on cushions on the floor of Churchmouse Books, improvised an Indian classical raga, a mesmerizing, melodic tune that enveloped us in its repetitive strains. Rapt, we all sank into our own private silences.
This raga wasn’t a contribution I imagined when we settled on “Sound & Silence” as the framework for January’s After Hours Coffeehouse. This is what I’ve come to love most, one year into this experiment, about After Hours and its format of bringing together works on a theme to share aloud. Each gathering around an idea brings unexpected offerings from brave and generous participants who share a sampling of words or music they themselves enjoy. Each After Hours is like a spontaneous tour through the possibilities of an idea, its textures and seasonings, its tantalizing detours.
And so, in January we heard Bob Dylan (courtesy of Dralene on the ukulele) intone us to “Lay down your weary tune.” We were lulled into peacefulness by local songwriter Chris Regehr’s musical tribute to a monk who kept 21 hours of silence every day for 5 years. A delightful line (I think) I recall from this song is: “humble as a bee in the wide expanse.”
Bookshop manager Kimberley Foster brought us Robert Frost’s “Waiting” and Longfellow’s “Midnight.” (We have yet to raise a theme Kim can’t meet with a piece by Frost.) I contributed an urban cacophony from Ottawa poet David O’Meara’s “Background Noise”—which, in its desperate search for silence, leads us out into the universe and the source of being—and a counterpoint, a streetscape racket reenacted, with a kind of affection, by the late great Kingston poet Bronwen Wallace (in “Spaces,” from her book Signs of the Former Tenant).
There was so much more. A love poem by Pat McCann, shared by Kim. Thomas Lux’s “Wife Hits Moose,” read by our town’s marvel of a poet laureate, Yvonne Blomer. Ezra Pound. Billy Collins: “The silence of the falling vase / before it strikes the floor.” Venice haikus paired with a riveting improvisation on piano from Terry Ann Carter. Seamus Heaney’s “The Given Note” (“On the most westerly blasket / in a dry stone hut / he got this air out of the night…”) contrasted with the quiet in the kitchen in “Clearances,” Heaney peeling potatoes with his mother, in silent communion, “when all the others were away at Mass.”
Courtesy of local author Marilyn Bowering, who arrived with a trio of carefully selected, riveting offerings, we encountered: the glottal song of the corncrake—I believe this bird’s “music” was, by legend, capable of holding up the sky—via Finlay J. Macdonald’s memoir, The Corncrake and the Lysander, about growing up on the Island of Harris in the outer Hebrides in the 1930s; the “dissolving voice” of rain in Mexican poet Homero Aridjis’ “Rain in the Night,” as translated by B.C. author George McWhirter; and “Old Man Thinking” by the Scottish poet Norman McCraig. Marilyn is taken by the word “roulades” in this last poem, an alluring word for which, she tells us, there are at least three correct pronunciations.
It was such a full evening of rich silences and gripping sounds—such a rousing welcome to the year—that I actually forget whether I read either of the pieces I brought by American poet Timothy Yu. These are part of a larger series Yu wrote as a “symbol of the way Asia and Asians are present, yet silenced, in American culture.” Here is part of Chinese Silence No. 22, which I found on the Poetry magazine website:
The Italians are making their pasta,
the French are making things French,
and the Chinese are cultivating their silence.
They cultivate silence
in every Chinatown on the persimmon of earth—
mute below the towers of Toronto,
silently sweeping the streets of Singapore
clear of noisy self-expression.
The Americans are in their sport utility vehicles,
the Canadians are behaving reasonably,
but the Chinese remain silent
maybe with a cup of tea or an opium pipe
and maybe a finger puzzle or water torture is involved.
This poem makes me think of the silences being broken here in Canada. I am listening hard these days to the stories and words and voices that are rippling along our coastlines and down our busy streets, through the newsfeeds and on the radio, especially those that have not been heard in such numbers or in quite the force of mainstream venues in the past.
John Lucas sent us off into the bellowing winds of a Vancouver-Island winter evening, soaring alongside his powerful voice to the tune of “They Call the Wind Maria,” from the 1951 Broadway musical Paint Your Wagon. Here it is in a clip from the 1969 movie musical. I gotta say, I prefer John’s own treatment, done just for the After Hours crowd.
We gather again on Wednesday, February 28, to grapple with the theme of Generosity. Please join us!
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.