Darkroom outlines

 

morning sunshine

Morning Sunshine, by Frank L. Huson, from The American Annual of Photography, 1911. (Tenant and Ward, Harold B. Lee Library.) Source: wikimedia commons. Excerpt from text following the image: “in the dark room. You may succeed in getting a negative of the coveted scene. If not successful you will have made an effort at least.”

Rob Winger’s poem, “Liquid Light,” from his 2007 book Muybridge’s Horse, investigates the early photographers’ role as “necessary chemists.” In his poem, Rob imagines Eadweard Muybridge, the photographer whose work laid the groundwork for motion pictures, at work with photo development substances such as cyanide and pyrogallic acid.

He writes, “in his early darkrooms, Eadweard births outlines.”

Since our After Hours Coffeehouse in March, during which we oscillated between Light and Dark, I have been thinking about this alchemy, of “birthing outlines” in darkness. It calls to mind wombs, stars, ideas, and all of us swirling in what can feel like an amorphous existential darkness, grasping for the shape—the discernible outline—of a meaning. Some discovery or pulsing possibility. A vision. A flash—that’s all, that’s thrilling enough—of understanding.

It’s almost overwhelming, in a good way, to revisit that evening in March. We let “Light” by Rabindranath Tagore (who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1913) wash over us: “Light, my light, the world-filling light.” We grasped for light in William Henley’s “Invictus”: “Out of the night that covers me, / Black as the pit from pole to pole”. We had Robert Frost’s uncertainty played out for us strong and clear as he “tried the new moon tilted in the air” and “put it shining anywhere” he pleased. We remembered Leonard Cohen’s winning refrain, “There’s a crack in everything. / That’s how the light gets in.” We “saw the light” as we had Hank Williams sung to us (thank you, Kim Harrison!).

Mike St. Yves brought us Razan Sid Erani’s “Light,” in which the author asks: “What if the dark side isn’t dark but pure white light…/A perfect disguise?” He followed that “darkly” profound question with something a little “lighter”: Ellen Degeneres’ quip on the moment when God, in the creation story, switches on the lights. Ellen: “God said, ‘Let there be light!’ And there was light. There was still nothing, but you could see it a whole lot better.”

Any joint consideration of light and dark leads to questions of competing realities, flip sides, the inherent contradictions in the human condition, and the universe as a whole. We met with both the light and shadows of spring, as John Lucas generously shared with us his conflicted yet deeply meaningful relationship with the season; and as Michael Arsenault sang a stirring rendition of Rodgers and Hart’s wisfully melancholic song “Spring is Here”: “Spring is here. Why doesn’t my heart go dancing?” We pondered the darker episodes in the myth of Orion, that “handsome giant and mighty hunter,” as he’s described in my Bullfinch’s Mythology, who was gifted from his father Neptune the ability to wade through the depths of the sea—but who committed questionable acts in the name of love, possibly more than once!

I was delighted to share Phyllis Webb’s “The Colour of the Light,” in which a man bends “to light a cigarette”: “With what succinct ease he joins / himself to flame!” And also to bring Louise Moray Bowman, a too-little-remembered Canadian poet—she lived from 1882 to 1944—briefly back into the light, as Vancouver author Aislinn Hunter did with her beautiful essay, “Life hum and fearlessness,” in Arc Poetry Magazine no. 58, published in 2007. Here is the start of Bowman’s poem “Moonlight and Common Day”:

Listen—you very few who will care to listen—
And I will tell you a story
Of moonlight.
Don’t imagine because I try to tell stories of moonlight
That I am a poet—neurotic and mystic—

As for me, neurotic and mystic I may be, but I am grateful to all of you who come to After Hours, and come back, again and again, willing to listen.

 

Next up for the After Hours Coffeehouse:

Animals: Domestic and Wild
7pm, Wed, April 25Arc POetry Magazine
Churchmouse Bookshop, St. Mary’s Oak Bay, 1701 Elgin Rd

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hands Off My Plums

plums

Illustrations by Alois Lunzer depicting plum cultivars Abundance, Burbank, German Prune and October Purple, from Brown Brothers Continental Nurseries Catalog 1909. Source: Wikimedia Commons. a caption

[from the Churchmouse After Hours Coffeehouse chronicles]

Chicano poet Alberto Ríos, who served as Arizona’s first poet laureate from 2013-2015, grew up in the U.S. near the Mexican border, speaking Spanish at home and English at school. The result, he says in an essay written about him for the Poetry Foundation website, was the creation of a kind of third language. “I have been around other languages all my life,” Ríos is quoted as saying, “particularly Spanish, and have too often thought of the act of translation as simply giving something two names. But it is not so, not at all. Rather than filling out, a second name for something pushes it forward, forward and backward, and gives it another life.”

This sounds like an offering that language makes to us when we engage with it meaningfully—when we work hard to communicate, to find the right word, especially in a language other than our first. I read a poem by Ríos at last month’s After Hours, not knowing much about him or his work. Now that I have done some reading about him—and have determined to get a copy of his book Whispering to Fool the Wind—it seems even more fitting that his poem “Giving Is All We Have,” which I had stumbled upon just in time, set the tone for our evening on “Generosity,” delineating in simple statements the many characteristics and effects of, and reasons for, giving. He writes, in part:

We give because somebody gave to us.
We give because nobody gave to us.

We give because giving has changed us.
We give because giving could have changed us.

We have been better for it,
We have been wounded by it—

The After Hours crowd lived up to the spirit of generosity in spades at February’s gathering. We were “given” Khalil Gibran’s enduring words on love (“Let there be spaces in your togetherness, / And let the winds of heaven dance between you”); U.S. poet Billy Collins’ wry acknowledgement of the inadequacy of the gift of a lanyard for his mother (“Here are thousands of meals, she said, / and here is clothing and a good education. / And here is your lanyard, I replied, / which I made with a little help from a counselor.”); that fabulous 1936 song, written by Billy Hill and recorded by Benny Goodman, Bette Midler, and others, “The Glory of Love” (“You’ve got to give a little, take a little, and let your poor heart break a little…”); and a beguiling entry from the rural diaries of Francis Kilvert, which he wrote after visiting a shop on January 12, 1871, and encountering a shopkeeper who refused to show his goods—a surprising and even haunting failure of generosity.

Approach the idea of generosity and friendship rears. Back from Venice, Craig gave us his rendition of James’ Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” and Michael and John performed a delightful duet, funny and warm: Cole Porter’s “Friendship”:

If you’re ever in a jam,
here I am.

 If you’re ever in a mess,
S.O.S.

 If you’re ever down a well,
ring my bell.

 If you’re ever up a tree,
just call me.

The icing on the cake—or the fruit atop the sundae—was William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say”:

I have
eaten the plums
that were in
the icebox

 and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Alyse accompanied her reading of this poem—this famous, infuriating poem—with her own longheld beliefs about the nature of the narrator. Her guess: here’s a long-married guy who takes his wife for granted, who’s already had his share. But she didn’t allow herself the last word. She brought us the website Better Living Through Beowulf, on which the site’s author Robin Bates compares Williams’ poem to a Rorschach test: “In my experience, no two people respond to this poem in the same way.” Bates’ followers prove the point with their commentary. The more we considered this wee little poem, the larger it grew—the riper and sweeter the plums. Finally, Alyse read a spoof of Williams’ poem in which the purloined prize is not fruit, but beer.

I can’t of course determine the results of all these offerings, but I do admit that my mind dwells far more on the failures of generosity: the unwilling shopkeeper, the unrepentant plum-eater. These, for me, are where the tantalizing puzzles lie—tantalizing if you’re incorrigibly curious about human nature. But why are the failures so mysterious? People fail to be generous all the time. It’s hardly rare. I must nonetheless believe—instinctively, deeply—that generosity is our default state.

It’s tough to credit. But who knows? Maybe. As Ríos writes, “You gave me / What you did not have, and I gave you / What I had to give—together, we made / Something greater from the difference.”

*

I’ve been a little slow with this latest After Hours chronicle, which means our next gathering fast approaches. Join us next Wed, March 28 for Light & Dark. 7pm at Churchmouse Bookshop at St. Mary’s Oak Bay.

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.

 

 

 

Inside the Sitar’s Buzz, Venice’s Beguiling Melodies, the ‘Dissolving Voice’ of Rain

 

Woman_Peeling_Potatos,_or_Potato_Peeler._1886

Potato Peeler, by Fritz von Uhde (1848-1911), 1886, oil on canvas.  Source: Wikimedia Commons, from http://reproarte.com/en/paintings/woman-peeling-potatos-detail

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.

They Call the Wind Maria, from Paint Your Wagon, Harve Presnell

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.

Tick, tock, sssh!

Cuckoo_clocks_in_Triberg_im_Schwarzwald

Photo:  dr. avishai teicher. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Drip, clunk, ping, ring, crunch, bang, rustle, hush, hum, roar. The soundtrack of our lives contains music, voices, bells, weather, machinery, bird calls, the whisper of wind. Gentle words and shouting. Think of a soaring soprano, a raucous meeting of crows, the muffle of newfallen snow. Let’s relish the cacophony as we contemplate what silence holds—and whether it truly exists.

I offer here an aural collage to introduce the upcoming edition of After Hours, the first of 2018: Sound & Silence.

Time to gather stories, poems and songs to share on Wednesday, January 24—or just mark your calendar and get set to cock your ears.

Churchmouse After Hours Coffeehouse: Sound & Silence 

 

Sound:

The clock began to tick. Or I began
to hear it in the room where it had always
ticked and I had rested. The rhythm

appeared, like blood that had been there
circling invisible that surges from some cut,
that bursts open a flaw. A spurt, another,

regular. Won’t they ever end? Won’t it run out?
And it keeps running out, the blood in the terrified
attention fastened on the fountain…

(from “The Clock,” by A.F. Moritz)

 

Silence:

“But the world is varied, there are storms and there are calms, and it was gloriously calm when they last rowed out, half a month ago. The world slept, the sea was a mirror that rose and fell. They had seen every crack and crevice in the mountains many kilometres from the boat and the sky arched over them like the roof of a church, the roof that protects us. The six men had been silent, humble and thankful for their existence. But it isn’t natural for a person to feel thankful or humble for long: some had started thinking about tobacco and forgotten eternal life.

(from Heaven and Hell, by Jón Kalman Stefánsson)

 

Sound:

Toot me something on your golden horn
he said to the musician.
I feel cold as my soul turns blue.

Jerryrig me an intricate song
full of those diminished sevenths
and just enough thrust to push me through…

(from “Blues,” by Ricardo Sternberg)

 

Silence:

An owl at night:
antennae of the frost.

(from “Bird Count,” by M. Travis Lane)

 

Sound:

All that winter the rains arrived,
sometimes as nobody’s footsteps,
sometimes as ack-ack, sometimes
hard bits of Braille flung at the house,
the mailbox, the woodshed, at the car parked
in the driveway, at all that is solid, all
that winter leaving the window open to its
pizzicato, hearing them accelerate and blend and
drown in the river’s big
ambiguous chorus…

(from “Sleeping with the River,” by Don McKay)

 

Silence (as Sound):

There is, said Pythagoras, a sound
the planet makes: a kind of music
just outside our hearing, the proportion
and the resonance of things—not
the clang of theory or the wuthering
of human speech, not even
the bright song of sex or hunger, but
the unrung ringing that
supports them all.

(from “Practicing Bach,” by Jan Zwicky)

 

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.

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.

 

 

 

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

*

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