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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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.]

 

Wheel animals and the necessity for awe

A plate from "The Rotifera or Wheel Animulcules" by Hudson & Gosse, as shown on microscopy-uk.org with an article by Ian Walker. The central drawing is of Brachionus Rubens by C. T. Hudson.

A plate from “The Rotifera or Wheel Animalcules” by Hudson & Gosse, as shown on microscopy-uk.org with an article by Ian Walker. The central drawing is of Brachionus Rubens by C. T. Hudson.

It is well to be, if not wary, at least prepared for surprises when you go to the library. The building, with its tucked-away corners, wafts of must, and fellow patrons with their pens and power cords and winter coats cascading over tables, is not at all like a computer screen, not lulling in the least. And you can still find things in the library that are unlikely to ever make their way online.

Things, I would venture, that you can hold in your hands.

Whenever I visit the Toronto Reference Library I think of Timothy Findley’s 1993 novel Headhunter, in which retired librarian Lilah Kemp accidentally sets Kurtz free from page 92 of a copy of Heart of Darkness—and loses him in the stacks at what was then the Metro Toronto Reference Library. First as a Ryerson student and then as a fledgling journalist in the early 90s, I spent many hours at the wooden tables of Metro Ref, scanning the periodical indexes—the ones that used to be made of, you know, paper—and waiting for titles to be retrieved from the stacks. There are now white computer tables smudged with scuffmarks among the library’s décor, as well as glass “study pods” that look as if they could beam you to a faraway planet (a librarian smiled patiently and told me, yes, they hear this joke all the time).

But the general feel of the place remains the same: the rock pool continues to trickle, and that sense of opportunity—and slight thrill of danger—when you peer up from the centre of the main floor toward the layers of balconies above has not diminished. Could an escaped Kurtz be lurking among all those books? Totally.

I found something unexpected there recently. It didn’t fit into the category of “menacing fictional character on the lam.” It was a 1975, 17-page pamphlet issued by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources entitled Peck Lake Trail: Ecology of an Algonquin Lake. Innocuous. Unpromising. Its relevance to the article I was working on was tangential at best. Yet I consumed all 17 pages on the spot. Its anonymous civil servant author (or authors?) was a talented practitioner of an all-too-rare skill: writing well—as in, not dully, and without resorting to indecipherable language—about science. The pamphlet explains in its clear and lively manner how the lake “breathes” twice a year (turning over so oxygen moves from its upper to lower regions), and what lives there that can’t be seen by the naked eye. “Post 5, Invisible Pastures” and “Post 6, Fairy Kingdom Beneath the Waves” were especially entrancing. Did you know that some algae—“paltry little specks compared to trees and other plants that we see on land”—actually swim to stay afloat? Others bob about on gas bubbles or in gelatinous sheaths: “They are so tiny that even slight currents suffice to keep them in motion, circulating in the upper lake and postponing their inevitable disappearance into the sunless depths below.”

Would that we lived in a world where we might not need to pause and raise our eyebrows upon encountering such rich prose in a government-issued document.

The passage in which the document quotes an early, unnamed scientist writing on microscopic water creatures really got me. Imagine this guy peering down at supposedly clear liquid to find “ruby eyes blazing,” “delicate threads spun out from their toes,” and “an animal convolvulus that by some invisible power draws a never-ceasing stream of victims into its gaping cup and tears them to death with hooked jaws…”

My mouth fell open as I read. In part, it was the drama and violence in that drop of water. In part, it was that I’d stumbled, I was sure, on a clue to Wakefield, Quebec poet Bruce Taylor’s masterful poem “Little Animals.”

The poem appears in Taylor’s book No End in Strangeness (Cormorant, 2011). I know it well. I first read it in 2010, as part of my duties as editor of Arc Poetry Magazine, a job I held in those days. Along with Kim Jernigan, then-editor of The New Quarterly, I was combing submissions for a joint issue between our two magazines on literature and science (this fun, fat, luminous edition was published as Quarc in 2011). We were both thrilled by Taylor’s lengthy, nine-section poem, which shares an overflow of wonder with the quoted passage in the Peck Lake brochure:


and he was the first to do a thing
the finest intellects of Europe never thought of,
which was to look, to simply look,
inside a water drop
at all the thrashing whiptailed swimmers,
motile cogs and quaking ghosts
that make their lives in there,
and these he called his “little animals,”
some appearing in the glass
“as large as your arm” and others,
“as small as the beard hairs of a man
that hath not in a fortnight shaved,”
disporting themselves with merry
convolutions, flexing their numerous
limbs and nimble paws

Was Taylor’s guy—the first microscopist, “a Dutch cloth merchant called van Leeuwenhoek”— the guy in my pamphlet? (See how it has become mine?) No, it turns out. A little hunting, this time online, led me to Hudson & Gosse, who published an eloquently written “standard book on rotifers,” otherwise known as wheel animals, in 1886. It’s these guys who are anonymously quoted in the Peck Lake guide. They, however, were preceded by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), whose microscopic explorations led to discoveries of “organisms often bizarre and beautiful.”(1)

Bizarre and beautiful is exactly how I’d describe Taylor’s poem, which is as enthralling as that first look at a water droplet’s interior life must have been. “Little Animals” has now reappeared as a selection in The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2012, the fifth annual edition of what is becoming a staple of the Canadian literary scene.(2) In his introduction to the anthology, guest editor Carmine Starnino says Taylor has “patented a new genre: the meditative cliffhanger. His poems take the shape of an idea or mood clarifying itself in stages, leaving readers on tenterhooks to find out where he’ll go next.” Carmine is right: Taylor’s writing tugs and tugs and won’t let go.

But style is only the half of it. There is also the poem’s plot. You could say its meat. In “Little Animals,” Taylor’s narrator doesn’t just take van Leeuwenhoek’s word for it. He collects pondwater himself, with “a long-handled spoon” through a hole in the ice, brings it home and studies the creatures living within. “I have stared at them all week / in my Chinese miscroscope and have tried / to absorb what I saw.” He neglects his life, he confesses, to “spy” on theirs. He is hooked. Obsessed. Lost, yet found.

(Bruce Taylor has even made videos of rotifer action. Check out this “Pregnant Bdelloid Rotifer“.
)

Reading Taylor’s poem is as if, with him as guide, you are uncovering some of the most beguiling secrets of the universe. He is writing about discovery itself, and how it can be repeated, and maybe even how it must be. (This may be a sister-truth to that one about how we all must learn from our own mistakes.) Though van Leeuwenhoek discovered the “fairy kingdom beneath the waves” nearly four hundred years ago, if I were to peer down at those creatures through a microscope—though I have fair warning that they are there—I would be nearly as floored he was. Indeed, I was floored to encounter them merely written of in a little booklet at the library. And why shouldn’t I be? How else are we to remember the value of all those drops of water? Our unfathomable carelessness with the lives and futures of all the little (and larger) animals renders Taylor’s poem urgent. It also seems important, morality aside, to simply be gobsmacked once in a while; the human condition calls for it. I don’t know why. But I hope that the scientist who figures this one out writes as well as Hudson & Gosse, and van Leeuwenhoek, and Bruce Taylor.

(1) I found Hudson & Gosse, and the quote about van Leeuwenhoek, in “The developmental history of inland-water science” by J.F. Talling, Freshwater Reviews (2008)1, pp119-141, The Freshwater Biological Association.
(2)Some of my other favourites in this year’s BCP: Dani Couture’s “Salvage,” a hypnotic portrait of a Great Lakes ship; David O’Meara’s “Background Noise,” which begins with the buzz of a stereo left on and winds up in the cosmos; Rachel Lebowitz’s from Cottonopolis, which is searing in its condemnation but also glorious in its use of language; Laurie D Graham’s “Say Here, Here,” of which I would say the exact same thing, but also that it’s a fantastic use of chant, echoing Al Purdy’s “Say the Names” while leaving that great poem in the dust (not that it’s a competition); and, a poet who is new to me, Changming Yuan, who ends the collection with a thoughtful meditation on waiting (and writing).