Bears tobogganed down the hills

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

http://www.ForestWander.com

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

 

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

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On Beauty, and Losing a Friend

(or How Grief May Ignite an ‘Incipient Forest Fire’ of Insight Within a Person Wandering the Streets of Venice)

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The trio who ignite Miss Garnet’s imagination: Tobias, the Angel Rafael, and the dog. (Source and credit: Wellcome Library, London Tobias and the angel stroll through a classical landscape. Mezzotint by B. Lens.)

The hat had belonged to Harriet and although Miss Garnet, when she had seen it on Harriet, had considered it overdramatic, she had found herself reluctant to relegate it to the Oxfam box. The hat represented, she recognized, a side to Harriet which she had disregarded when her friend was alive.

 

I first read Salley Vickers’ Miss Garnet’s Angel several months ago, and its atmosphere persists, despite the many stories, poems and essays (some of them undeniably wonderful) that I’ve consumed in the interim. I feel, lingering around me, the musty air within ancient churches; I sense the kind gaze of an angel beaming straight out from the flat plane of a lost panel; I picture and re-picture an unfashionable, timid, yet determined woman traipsing the streets of Venice, driven by some curiosity and need she can’t articulate. I’m revisiting this book to try to understand why its aura is so persistent—why it has stuck.

Factor one: surprises carry extra punch, and this was an unexpected find, on several fronts. One, I had no prior knowledge of Vickers, and what a joy it was to encounter her no-nonsense style, her refusal to resort to obliqueness, her gentle humour and her absolute conviction in the validity of her characters’ experiences and ideas. Two, the Book of Tobit, the apocryphal tale about a righteous blind man, his son, the Angel Rafael and a dog, that Vickers embeds so beautifully and affectingly within her own, was a haunting revelation. Three, I had little prior interest in Venice, the novel’s setting. The place had, for me, taken on the aura of superficiality, nothing more than a tourist must-see. But after spending several fictional months roaming Miss Garnet’s Campo Angelo Raffaele and the wonders of Venice beyond it, I saw how snobbish and stupid my dismissal of the historic city’s seductive powers had been.

That comeuppance aside, it definitely wasn’t Venice that lured me. I plucked the novel, published in 2000 but set several decades prior, off the shelf at the local church’s thrift shop one Friday morning and read this on the back: “When a friend dies, Julia Garnet goes to stay in Venice, where a lifetime of caution is challenged.” As it happens, I was embroiled in revisions on a manuscript inspired by my own lost friend. I’d been lamenting how seldom one encounters this particular loss in literature, how we routinely parse the grief of lovers, spouses, parents, children, siblings, though so many of us would count our dearest friends among the greatest loves of our lives. I turned the book in my hand, looking it over, flipping its soft pages, claiming it. I paid a toonie to the volunteer behind the folding table, and allowed my son, who’d been yanking on my arm, to pull me toward the next room, where the toys are displayed.

I’ve been remembering this as a book about a politically strident, straitjacketed, judgmental woman’s awakening to beauty, mystery and the power of love. In essence, in a kind of trial-by-fire, loss offers life to a dried-out soul. What’s remarkable, coming back to the book, is to realize that Julia Garnet’s transformation begins to take shape so very early in the story. This isn’t a story culminating in a character’s evolution so much as one about what happens to her (and within her) throughout and on the other side of that changing. Though quiet, borne chiefly of seemingly innocuous moments, the initial changes in Miss Garnet are quick and profound. To compare it to your old-fashioned “happily ever after,” if this were a love story, it would be one that begins, as opposed to ends, on the wedding day.

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When Julia Garnet first arrived in Venice, she removed an image like this one from the wall in her apartment. Giovanni Bellini, Madonna and Child (Source: Wikimedia Commons, from the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts)

On page 20, shortly after arriving in Venice armed with her steely sense of irony, Miss Garnet encounters Santa Maria della Salute, “like a vast soap bubble formed out of the circling, dove-coloured mists.” She is overcome. “‘Oh!’ cried Miss Garnet. She caught at her throat and then at Harriet’s veil, scrabbling it back from her eyes to see more clearly. And oh, the light! ‘Lord, Lord,’ sighed Julia Garnet. She did not know why she had used those words as she moved off, frightened to stay longer lest the unfamiliar beauty so captivate her that she turn to stone, as she later amusingly phrased it to herself.”

Eight pages later, after a glass cutter refuses payment for repair work on a Bellini portrait of the Virgin and Christ Child, there’s this: “But Miss Garnet, in whom insight, like an incipient forest fire, was beginning to catch and creep, sensed suddenly that there was more to it than that. The glass-cutter, she guessed, also liked the subject of Bellini’s painting and his love of Mary, and the bambino in her arms, was stronger than his love of money. How would Marx or even Lenin have explained that, she wondered…”

A few pages after this, after the opening of a perfunctory letter from a friend back home: “For a moment Julia Garnet remembered the impoverished little ceremony with which she had bidden Harriet a final farewell, and the utilitarian stone with the severely practical information carved upon its stony face, with which she had chosen to mark the passing of her closest friend’s life.”

Jabs of insight, memory and awe are laid like stepping stones throughout the book. Miss Garnet dutifully hops from one to the next, learning as she goes a talent for self-awareness, an openness she’d heretofore never imagined, and a tolerance for ambiguities: a humility before the mysteries of life and death. What’s puzzling is Vickers’ ability to keep us invested in Miss Garnet’s fate while revealing, so early on, that she’s facing and conquering her grief with aplomb. There’s no sense of pending disaster: we don’t fear for her safety or that she’ll be damaged by her new boldness. We do see her suffer for having put herself “out there”—in fact it’s her first broken heart, poignantly late in life—but this suffering, too, becomes part of her changing: it makes her less afraid, and only pushes her further in her reclamation of herself.

On some level it doesn’t matter what happens after Julia has begun to change: She’s finally living, yes? So who cares about the details? But oh, we do care. Vickers makes sure of that. We care about the twin restorers she befriends, and the odd tensions between them. We care about young Nicco who wants to learn English, and Carlos the art historian who pines after him. We care about the wealthy American couple who force Julia to confront her prejudices against the rich, and about the ageing Monsignore, who embodies all the excesses of the Catholic church as well as its redemptive spirit. We care about the intrigue Julia finally becomes embroiled in. But mostly we care how her own journey and her perception of its meaning becomes so elegantly interwoven with the Book of Tobit. Brilliantly, Vickers gives Julia splendid agency here: intrigued by its plot and by the artistic representations around her—especially those of the Angel Rafael and the dog—Julia conducts her own investigation into Tobit’s story. We discover it alongside her. She jots brief, sudden insights into a little notebook that had been intended for history notes on Venice. “Dogs lead the blind. Old Tobit is ‘blind’ because he doesn’t see the limitations of his own values. (Look how he treats his wife when she is working her fingers to the bone for him. He doesn’t ‘see’ her!)” As Julia had failed to see Harriet, an insight into her own ‘blindness’ that she has already begun to grasp. This is the character taking charge of her own evolution, through study of the human heart.

So, why does this book stay with me? When my own friend died, many years ago, I remember the world around me shimmering in a kind of unreal clarity. I felt able to see and understand things that had previously lain beyond perception. The surprise of each day and how much it might contain. My grief gave me an unasked for vitality and power—and even on the worst days, all around me was vivid, translucent. Porch railings, leaves, the faces of strangers. Once, jogging in my Toronto neighbourhood, I paused for a long time to watch a caterpillar cross the sidewalk. Its laborious journey from one grass edge to the next appeared epic. I was grateful, though confused by the fact that the reason for all this intense awareness was a reality I would wish reversed. Bring me back my friend, give her back her life, but don’t take what I’ve gained by her loss. Now there’s an emotional and psychological paradox, one mined to its core by Vickers.

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This scene and others by Guardi feature in the novel’s intrigue. Giovanni Antonio Guardi “The Healing of Tobias’s Father” circa 1750, Chiesa dell’Angelo Raffaele, Venice

Miss Garnet’s Angel is a story of redemption, one that admits the impossible, that allows for human frailty and the beauty embedded even in that. Some might call this story soft, or “easy,” because of its optimism and its essential kindness toward its characters. We are so afraid, we skeptics, of anything that hints at reverence. But Vickers’ generosity is profoundly political. In her matter-of-fact yet loving telling of Miss Vickers’ journey through gradual enlightenment, Vickers reminds us why we require beauty every bit as much as food, and how because of this, if we allow ourselves, we’re able to find it in the most unlikely, even the most apparently ugly, of circumstances. Imagine being granted permission to simply live, to take in what is placed before you, through all your senses, in all the imperfection of your own humanity. Imagine that.

  • Insights on beauty from Canadian poet Shawna Lemay

http://transactionswithbeauty.com/

Henrietta & me on the blog hop

Nude woman running, jumping, straight high jump. Eadweard Muybridge. Animal locomotion: an electro-photographic investigation of consecutive phases of animal movements. 1872-1885 / published under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania

Nude woman running, jumping, straight high jump. Eadweard Muybridge. Animal locomotion: an electro-photographic investigation of consecutive phases of animal movements. 1872-1885 / published under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania

I was invited to participate in this little branch of a vast blog hop by the poet Susan Gillis, whose recent, wonderful collection The Rapids is, incidentally, on my list of “books I’d really like to delve into on my blog.” But I’m not yet ready to do it justice; I’m still letting it sink in. Susan also curates Concrete & River, a blog rich with poetry talk. You’ll find her blog hop entry here.

What am I working on?
Assignments from others: An essay about rereading a beloved book (there are almost too many to pick from!). A review of Chava Rosenfarb’s Exile at Last: Selected Poems. An introduction to a poetry anthology (I shall avoid revisiting Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist during this phase.). Another review of a poetry collection: Summertime Swamp-Love, by Patricia Young. Stuff I assigned to myself: A memoir about a lost friend, and how both the friendship and the loss tints life afterward, and continues to, two decades on. A graphic-novel-in-poems (anyone got a better term for that?) with my partner-in-crime, artist Pauline Conley. Inspiration: The Great Fire of Main-à-dieu, Nova Scotia, 1976. Working title: Clarence the Welder.

Montreal clothesline, 2009

Montreal clothesline, 2009

How does my work differ from other work in its genre?
Aside from the fact that I can’t stop writing about clotheslines (see previous entry)? My nonfiction and poetry is not “out there” in terms of form or content, so to say how it differs means talking about voice. The voice in my work is, I hope, distinct: its cadences mine, its preoccupations particular to my history and personality. I also hope it’s natural and unfeigned. What I’m trying harder and harder to do, the older I get, is to do away with the tricks and filters, any temptations to get fancy, or hide within obliqueness, and just write what I mean to say—and to imagine my reader as a trusted friend who doesn’t need everything spelled out. I don’t want to throw readers, rather welcome them, give them a place in which they can recognize something from their own experience or in themselves, but to see that truth from a slightly different angle. The light is of a different quality, and therefore so, too, the sense of reality, the understanding, the perspective that light unveils.

A Warsaw window, summer 2005

A Warsaw window, summer 2005

Why do I write what I do?
Necessity. It’s a way of reporting on, clarifying and wondering over thoughts, questions, doubts, memories and emotions, tackling them straight on in the hope that the resulting text will be useful (maybe even entertaining!) to others as well. It’s also, I think, an effort to stop time, to hold something I’d prefer not to let go, or allow to fade. That could be an event, an idea, a person, a sighting, a sound. That method of holding, through articulation, offers another benefit when successful, which is to reveal at least a glimmer of why that thing matters so much—why it begs to be held. A friend once said, impatient with himself for the recurring impulse, that not every significant moment can or should be turned into a poem. I agreed with him, but I also believe that when a poem needs to happen, it will.

The knitting machine that used to live in my friend Natasha's studio. I sometimes wish I could thread my thoughts into a contraption like this and set it to weave them into something beautiful and coherent.

The knitting machine that used to live in my friend Natasha’s studio. I sometimes wish I could thread my thoughts into a contraption like this and set it to weave them into something beautiful and coherent.

How does my writing process work?
It’s messy. I write big and pare back. I shape on the page. I seldom sit down knowing just what I need to say or how to say it: my mind is not so orderly. I’ll know a little part of it, or only the starting point. I must work out the rest as I go. Sometimes this is painstaking. I confuse myself. I get stuck. I get diverted by tangents—sometimes for years!

I start out with a scene like this Warsaw public square in my mind. I need to find the place or person to home in on. I zoom in, zoom back out, zoom in again from another angle—this goes on, and on...

I start out with a scene like this Warsaw public square in my mind. I need to find the place or person to home in on. I zoom in, zoom back out, zoom in again from another angle—this goes on, and on…

But with practice, experience, age, a better understanding of the need for patience, I’m now able to do some of the hard work in my head before writing. I no longer race to write down every thought; I trust that the relevant, important ideas—and even phrases—will stick, or resurface when the time is right. I can now see connections between narrative threads, objects, moments, long before writing: there’s a big-picture view, or at least a glimpse of the whole, that I’m allowed, which wasn’t on offer when I was younger. Still, my first draft of anything, be it essay, poem, or some other form, is generally a lumpy, mucky heap of far too much. Ninety percent of writing, for me, is revision. Usually, several revisions in is when things start getting good, when I really start enjoying myself, when I can see something emerging, inch by inch, cut by cut, that may actually prove worthwhile.

Next week on the blog hop:

Fiction writer Alice Zorn, author of Ruins & Relics and Arrhythmia. She writes on life, travels, writing and her Montreal neighbourhood (and translates Grimms’ fairy tales straight from the German!) at Rapunzel’s Hair.

Teacher and writer Siobhan Curious, whose amazing tour of the joys and tribulations of life at the front of the class can be found at Classroom as Microcosm.

‘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!)