Hands Off My Plums

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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.”

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

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/

‘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