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.

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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

Gaps in history and geography: Of gangly birds, lost waterways, forgotten massacres, rock formations and 17th-century moose antler combs

Manjith Kainickara at ml.wikipedia

Manjith Kainickara at ml.wikipedia

(This post discusses books by Candace Savage, Dilys Leman and Fred Stenson.)

Since we moved to Toronto two and a half years ago, I’ve been drawn more and more to what we urban folk have been conditioned to call “green space”: the woods of nearby High Park, the trails along the Humber River, the parks along the lakeshore. It’s possible that growing older makes me more desperate for the nourishment of the natural world, which some research has shown actually bolsters cognition and well-being. [See this Globe and Mail article from 2012: “Why is walking in the woods so good for you?”] A lifetime in built-up environments can leave a body parched for the flash of a blood-red cardinal in thick greenery, for the optimistic calls of chickadees, for that barebones x-ray view right into the heart of the forest that winter allows. These days, I take any chance I can to venture into a lingering pocket or reminder of the wilderness that’s been tamed, used up, paved over and all-but obliterated by this smoggy, gridlocked, teeming, loveable city I call home.

A few years ago, I couldn’t tell a chickadee from a house sparrow. I had no idea that cardinals love to eat the sumac’s red fruit in winter, and that this diet is partly what gives them their intense colour—nor that the female cardinal is a dignified, muted brown, with a tuft of bright red feathers atop her head: she’s serious yet playful, mature with a whiff of youth. She reminds me of some of my best friends, women in midlife (or later) who embody a winning combination of hard-won wisdom, defiance, self-deprecation and wit. This stunning lady cardinal knows her worth, and how not to take it too seriously. I’m learning slowly and deliberately, gathering an ability to associate more directly and personally with the world—not the constructed world of humans but the world itself—a skill that, in ages past, most children learned incidentally (in many places they still do).

Basic facts, those I can retain, serve as both decoders and touchstones. Willows like water. Grey squirrels can actually be black, reddish-brown or even white; the true red squirrel is smaller, with a less bushy tail, and more rare around here. Oaks come in several varieties that can be distinguished by the shape of their leaves, the size and colour of their acorns, the texture of their bark. Starlings like to gather in crowds, in the tree tops. If you see a compact little bird skittering down a trunk, beak-first, it’s likely a nuthatch. Those slender, gawky, snow-white birds that tiptoe in the river shallows are egrets, an apt name for a bird that combines awkwardness and grace in such a beguiling way. It’s unofficially okay to harvest as much garlic mustard as you wish from Toronto’s High Park—it’s great in a soup—because this hardy plant is invasive, choking out native species such as trilliums. Teams of volunteers, called “stewards,” give over their Sunday mornings to digging up such undesirables, and seeding native plants in the loose soil left behind. (There exists among naturalists and ecologists and biologists a heated debate about this hands-on approach to native versus so-called invasive species that is too complex to get into here.)

All this forms part of a late education for me—one heavily facilitated by the not-for-profit High Park Nature Centre and its knowledgeable and enthusiastic family programs coordinator, Jon Hayes—and what sticks is random and piecemeal. I might recognize a leaf or a bird that was identified for me just yesterday; I might not. I might remember that the tall reed topped by what looks like a shortened horsetail, a pollution-tolerant invasive squeezing out the cattails of Grenadier Pond, is called phragmites (frag-my-tis), but that’s only because I’ve managed to associate it with the 1980s children’s show “Fraggle Rock,” which my younger sister loved and which starred a cast of gangly, mop-haired muppets.

In part due to the good work done by the local organization Lost Rivers Walks, I’ve also become keenly aware that any densely urban environment is home to hidden, lost or literally buried waterways. The slopes and hills of my chock-a-block neighbourhood streets represent the valleys and riverbanks that once teemed with vegetation and wildlife; the Don River in the east end of the city once meandered snakelike down the valley through which it’s now directed in a straight line through a brick and concrete-lined channel.

I’m grasping for a lost language and a nearly invisible geography, the remnants of which I wander through daily, running errands, exploring with my son, hurrying to appointments. I’m after the history tied to all these changes, which of course involves the people who thrived in that wilder landscape, before European explorers, early settlers, and all the industry and later immigrants that followed. The streets around High Park have names such as Indian Grove, Indian Road, Indian Crescent. There are tales of a lost First Nations burial ground in the park, and on the cliff above the Humber, in the neighbourhood now known as Baby Point, the Iroquoian village of Teiaiagon was home to a Seneca longhouse community during the 17th Century, thought to boast a population of 5,000. The burials of two Seneca women were uncovered here around the closing of the 20th Century, during installation of a natural gas line. The graves were dated to the 1680s, and the women were buried with combs carved from moose antlers, one of them depicting a First Nations figure clad in European-style clothes, the other a human figure, bear and rattle-snake-tailed panther, a possible representation of Mishipizheu, the water lynx. It also looks like a depiction of transformation from life to life, form to form, an appropriate symbol to take down into the grave.

It’s unclear what happened to these communities, except that around the time these women were buried, the village, which was ideally situated for control of traffic along the all-important Toronto Carrying Place (a portage route from Lake Ontario to Lake Simcoe) was abandoned. It’s telling, with regards to our faith in recorded history, that the graves are variously reported to have been discovered in 1999, 2000, 2002 and 2007. Mohawk community member Haleigh Fox writes on FirstStoryTO, a blog dedicated to sharing the Aboriginal history of Toronto, that the locals may have moved on naturally (“Haudenosaunee villages are not meant to be permanent”) or returned to their New York homelands under duress, due to military threat from the Marquis de Denonville, Governor General of New France. Other articles I found contend Denonville actually destroyed the village. There’s also a recorded tale of a supposed three-day drunk at the village during the 1670s involving French brandy and every man, woman and child, during which two women were stabbed (the source is early Toronto historian Percy Robinson, but from my thus-far cursory studies I know little about his sources or their veracity). Prior to the Seneca, the location was inhabited by Huron-Wendat, who, Fox writes, may have “dispersed due to a combination of warfare, disease, and starvation brought on by inter-Indigenous and European conflict.” With few historical records and archeological clues to go on, Fox is pretty much covering all the bases.

In years past I would have noticed such markers and bits of history (and missing or conflicting history) in passing, without much thought. I’d have walked the steeply sloping Glenlake Road, which I descend after dropping my son at daycare, without thinking that it may once have led down to a pond teeming with cattails, ducks and fish. Now I want and need this more basic knowledge of things that precede us, or that persist despite us: I want to know what I’ve missed, what we’ve forgotten or are in danger of forgetting, the stories and memories and former ways of life connected with the spaces I inhabit.

Filling gaps, reclaiming lost or obscured history. This kind of impulse is in the air these days. To me, it feels more and more like an imperative. Or a compulsion. A necessary step in redressing the darker aspects of Canadian history, and possibly also a necessary step toward regaining respect—and with that comes a measure of awe—for the ailing world that sustains us. Three books, one nonfiction, one poetry, and one fiction, went a long way toward nudging me forward in this direction last year.

from the Alberta Geological Survey

from the Alberta Geological Survey

To follow the stone circles where they lead

In her heart-wrenching, myth-buster of a book, A Geography of Bood: Unearthing the Memory of a Prairie Landscape, which was published in 2012 and won the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Nonfiction Prize, Candace Savage collects and presents the counter-story to the “brave pioneers in the wilderness” history of Canada we’ve been fed since elementary school. There is truth in that old familiar history, sure, but there is more to it, so much more, and some of that has to do with the near-decimation of the plains buffalo—which was no mystery or act of God but a full-on, no-holds-barred, textbook unsustainable harvest—and the attendant near-decimation of various groups of plains First Nations, the latter of which involved broken treaties, massacres and intentional starving-out strategies.

Savage stumbles on such tragedies as the Hunger Camp at Cypress Lake in the early 1880s while escaping into the prairies, her childhood home, on holidays with her husband. Because she is curious about anything to which she’s drawn, she starts following her nose, looking into such phenomena as mysterious ancient tipi rings, asking questions. A Geography of Blood is born out of this appreciative looking, which first transforms into research, then into discovery (not happy discovery) over and over again. It becomes a painful exposé of a stain on Canada’s past, but it’s also a love story between a woman and the land, between human and geography, and a simple commitment to face up. “All I wanted to know,” writes Savage, “was who had made the stone circles, and yet here I am instead, surrounded by desperation and the nameless bodies of the dead. Yet if these memories are part of my inheritance as a prairie person, I am determined to accept them as my own. I will let them settle around me quietly, layer after layer, loss upon loss.”

It sounds passive, but this kind of work takes willingness, stamina and guts. What difference does it make? Who cares about this stuff, from so long ago, that’s mostly forgotten? I do! Savage calls, raising her hand. Standing to her full height, looking us straight in the eye. And maybe you should, too. Savage would have had to hold this defiant, uncomfortable posture for years, while continuing to follow her nose toward ever more unpleasant realities, before presenting us with this book and the honest, hardscrabble journey toward some semblance of truth that it relates. It takes time and determination to hunt through obscure museums and archives for unofficial but very real histories—it takes the existence of obscure museums and archives. It takes a willingness to accept implication. We are implicated by where and how we live today, how our own position in Canadian society—where we are nearly all immigrants or the progeny of immigrants—has come to pass. More to the point, we are implicated simply by being human and thereby capable, in some hidden corner of all ourselves, of committing or condoning or turning away from the very atrocities Savage doggedly, obediently unearths—surprise!—from under generations of denial and indifference and dust.

Cypress Hills

Cypress Hills

Cypress Hills Recipes

Dilys Leman’s 2014 poetry collection, The Winter Count, crosses time and space with Savage’s book: we’re on the prairies in the late 19th Century, when the buffalo (technically bison) are failing, tensions between hungry First Nations and Europeans (de facto ruled by the Hudson’s Bay Company) are high, and our nascent federal government has growing designs on the land, and the means (and will) to get what it wants. By bringing historical characters to light—by giving them voice through their own letters and through imagined inner monologues—Leman also challenges the more commonly known versions of Canadian history, which come to feel sanitized, and blindly patriotic. The impetus for her investigations was not geography but blood ties: her great-great-grandfather, Augustus Jukes, was a senior surgeon with the North-West Mounted Police assigned to the medical commission assessing the sanity of Louis Riel during his incarceration—an assessment that would determine whether Riel was put to death for treason. Dr. Jukes was also a thinker and a poet. He left letters and records that called and called to Leman, three generations on.

Researching Jukes’s papers, as well as the context and times in which he lived and worked, led Leman to a tour of horrors similar to Savage’s, and to an understanding of the role the federal government’s policies and deliberate mythmaking played in the notions that First Nations were a rising threat to nation-building—a strategy with implications and reverberations that continue to this day. Leman’s poems, like Savage’s prose, are wrenching but not wholly despairing. That’s because they’re simultaneously subversive and inventive, angry and elegant, sorrowful and sinuous, horrific and funny. By recasting actual letters and documents, by imagining the inner monologues of historical characters—with her gruesome “Cypress Hills Recipes and lines from “Big Bear’s Speech,” with her “How to Hang Eight Indians (at Once) at Battleford” and her “Notes on Band Behaviour During Rebellion,” with her “Rules for Polite Tea” and her notes on the “Lunacy Commission”—by building a rich, polyphonic chorus of testimony, Leman stages a reenactment of that lost, shameful past. In doing so she also offers us a glimpse of a way (painful but possible) through it.

Fort Edmonton, 1910, By The Library of Congress (Bain News Service) (Flickr) [Public domain, Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Fort Edmonton, 1910, By The Library of Congress (Bain News Service) (Flickr) [Public domain, Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

So you think you know what the fur trade was all about?

Now a touch further back in time, to Fred Stenson’s 2000 novel The Trade: a gripping and often hilarious (and horrendous) wild west romp that takes us to the Bow River, Fort Edmonton, Fort Vancouver, Fort Assiniboine, Piegan Post, Fort Carlton and York Factory on Hudson Bay through the reign of the Hudson’s Bay Company during through the first half of the 1800s. Stenson isn’t out to glorify the fur traders or to sanctify the First Nations they traded with—there is, for example, no breathless homage to the coureurs de bois such as I recall from Canadian history class—but to immerse us in that hubristic economic empire of the Company, which ran like a dictatorship, and let us see and feel its fallout: the alliances and connections formed and broken (some military, some mercenary, some in the form of marriage), the missionary work facilitated (for better or worse), the damage wrought to creatures and land, the egos supported, the tensions and misunderstandings, the lure, the cost. In short, the humanity.

Stenson’s story, aside from being a great read, a colourful page-turner filled with cruelty and compassion and killer dialogue, is a reminder that history is made up of people, that the play of money and power is dangerous and far-reaching, that every event we learn about in a textbook might have happened differently, or not at all, given another mood, moment, happenstance, person in charge or kind of weather. It’s a reminder of the history beneath history, which can be partly filled in with research and facts, but must always, in some measure—because it’s driven by human beings, whose thoughts and motivations belong wholly to themselves, yet may not be wholly or even partially understood by themselves—be imagined.

By User:Kclama (Own work) Wikimedia Commons.

By User:Kclama (Own work) Wikimedia Commons.

What did the egret see?

There is a big picture and there are the individual lives within it. Redemption and its first cousins, awareness and understanding, can only ever move piecemeal through the scene, soul by soul, waving their little flags. Sometimes, some of us see them beckoning. Sometimes none of us do. Sometimes one of us is compelled to raise our own ragged bit of cloth against the official story, against the only version easily and widely accessible to common memory.

I don’t know where my newfound love of egrets and female cardinals will lead, nor my belated awareness of hidden waterways and ghost First Nations villages. But one thing I know. Walking through my neighbourhood, I can feel that my eyes are more open than they used to be. That is not a metaphor: they literally feel more wide open. When I see the contours of a road, I now see more than the contours of a road. I see invisible creek beds, boulders, leaning willows with beaver-gnawed trunks. When I see a tidy, compact, rock-enclosed garden on the tip of the ravine, I also see a corn field that may once have been cultivated here. I see a tangle of herbs that a woman three hundred years before my time would have assessed with a practiced eye: her living pharmacy. The child on her back ails from some mysterious illness that arrived with the newcomers. The exquisite moose antler comb is tucked into her hair, keeping the strands back from her face, as she bends to collect greens and roots that represent hope. Way down the ravine, beyond the high flat lands where the corn and squash grow in rows, down there in the river shallows, an egret (much like the one I saw yesterday) stands stock still, its thin neck curled like a rope. It has spotted a fish…

This scene, built around the barest of facts, doesn’t seem like anything concrete. But it’s made of actual stuff, some of which constitutes my own attempts to see and understand, and some of which is real: little clues; sediment, residue. Layers. Layers that have always existed, that I never used to wonder about, or bother trying to see.

One of the alchemic qualities of Savage’s book is her belief—and the extension of that belief to her reader—that history lives on in the places where it happened, in the rocks and the soil and the trees, in the very air. She tells how she came to love visiting Ravenscrag, about 14 miles west of her home-away-from-home, Eastend, Saskatchewan. In between the two was a valley she describes as a “broad-floored, walled-in trench” from where “steep, dissected cutbanks rise to clip the horizon, enclosing a river of sky.” She writes that the embankments are ever-changing, “sometimes towering and majestic, sometimes hazy and withdrawn, sometimes outlined with snow so that their bones show.” Can you feel her love of this place, the permission she allows herself to wallow in beauty even when it comes bearing shadows? Maybe especially then?

The real wonder of this place, Savage learns, is what’s missing. She finds a geological guide book to the area that describes an “unconformity” at the top of the cliffs, a missing layer of sediment that amounts to a thousand metres of soil, or “the erasure of thirty million years.” Savage looks hard through binoculars and begins to see a “coarse jumble of stones” that, in some places, is absent. In its place lies far more recent debris and silt, left by receding glaciers. “Yet to an unschooled eye, nothing looked amiss; one layer overlaid another in complete innocence. Apparently, an unconformity could exist between the present and what we knew of the past, and very few of us would ever notice it.”

Few of us would notice, but it would be there.

‘Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry’

Wind on an ordinary day in Cape Breton, where we often spend time in the summer, necessitates a sturdy clothes peg and solid technique. I have had to run after my sheets more than once.

Wind on an ordinary day in Cape Breton, where we often spend time in the summer, necessitates a sturdy clothes peg and solid technique. I have had to run after my sheets more than once.

I have laundry on the line. Navy blue flannel sheets, a white blanket, a pair of my son’s tiny pants, an even tinier pair of socks, one bra. We installed the line and pulleys a few weeks ago. Tom, my husband, used some green army rope, leftover from his combat engineer days, to tie the far pulley to the Chinese sumac in our backyard, so we wouldn’t have to hammer a hole in the trunk. So far, the squirrels have not chewed through: it’s issue rope, it ought to be indestructible.

This marks the first time I have had a clothesline regularly at my disposal since 2006. That year, several months before my first collection of poems was published—called Out to Dry in Cape Breton, it was half-filled with poems about clotheslines—I moved from a house with a little yard in Ottawa to an apartment in the same neighbourhood with a fire escape for a balcony. The move was necessary; the new apartment wonderful; giving up the clothesline, difficult. A couple of years later I moved to Montreal, to another lovely apartment, with two balconies this time, but nowhere to hang a line. Then to Fredericton, to another apartment without a balcony or yard. Finally, in 2012, we moved to Toronto, to a house with, again, a little yard. Last summer, due to a sinkhole (yikes) and some other necessary repair work, we did not have the use of our outdoor space for much of the summer. This year, sometime in February or March, when the notion of spring began to creep into consciousness, I started adding “install clothesline” to our weekly to-do list.

On the mild April afternoon when Tom and I were finally putting up the clothesline—Henry, meant to be napping, was watching from his bedroom window—I did the math, and realized that aside from the brief periods we spend in summer on Cape Breton Island, it’s been eight years since I’ve been able to hang my clothes out to dry. That’s a good chunk of my adult life. Yet my sense of well-being, even my identity, remains tied up in this simple chore—a chore that’s spent decades in widespread disrepute in North America, a phenomenon I won’t delve into here (go to Project Laundry List for background on that front).

Putting clothes on the line again, I’ve been reminded that one of the things that makes them compelling, from a writer’s point of view, is what they reveal about the lives connected with them, and even the character of the launderer. I, for example, am not a purist when it comes to organizing laundry. Whatever needs to get thrown in, gets thrown in, regardless of type or colour. I also use a mish-mash of pins, of different colours and designs. There’s nothing uniform about my hanging style.

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I’ve been revisiting a gorgeous little anthology, Washing Lines: a collection of poems, published in England in 2011 by Lautus Press. I’m lucky to have my poem “Woman at Clothes Line” appear in this book (it happens to sit on the page facing Seamus Heaney’s “The Clothes Shrine”!). Beautifully illustrated with woodcuts, the collection also contains, in addition to contributions by several lesser-knowns such as myself, pieces by Pablo Neruda, Anna Swir, Louise Glück, Fernando Pessoa, Louisa May Alcott, Simon Armitage, P. K. Page (her popular “Planet Earth,” actually a glosa built upon a stanza from Neruda’s “Ode to Ironing”).

One of the first poems I fell in love with when I started reading poetry in an earnest, deliberate way, Richard Wilbur’s “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” appears in Washing Lines. Rereading it the other day, I was struck by the darker side of the poem. I used to dwell on lines such as the one I borrowed for the title of this entry (“Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry”), the brilliant opener (“The eyes open to a cry of pulleys”), and later in the first stanza, “The morning air is all awash with angels.” But now I note the menace of those angels dressed in bed-sheets, blouses and smocks: “Now they are flying in place, conveying/ The terrible speed of their omnipresence”). I also see how reluctant the “soul” is to re-enter the sleeping body that’s been awoken by the morning activity, how important that stanza break after “The soul shrinks”, and how deftly, through the metaphor of the hanging laundry, Wilbur has turned the soul’s daily entrapment within the self into a necessary suffering, one that is not without beauty but that works only by “keeping” a “difficult balance.”

Here’s another memorable transformation of laundry into metaphor, in a little poem with a fantastic lilt, by acclaimed U.K. poet Maura Dooley:

The Line

A heavy linen cloth,
her dress of shooting stars,
the brittle blue of spring,
his sodden woollen shirt.

The peg becomes a pen,
fills the line with cursive,
a changing word in wind,
love or duty or life.

The peg becomes a pen. I’m so grateful to Janie Hextall and Barbara McNaught, the editors of this anthology, for noticing how many poets have been compelled to bring poems and washing together, the line composed on paper with the line composed in air, how many have seen and felt “love or duty or life” flapping madly through both.

(I’ve just learned the first edition of Washing Lines is sold out, but a reprint is under consideration. Email Lautus Press at barbara@ryton-house.co.uk and plead with them to do one!)