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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Tick, tock, sssh!

Cuckoo_clocks_in_Triberg_im_Schwarzwald

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

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

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

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

Churchmouse After Hours Coffeehouse: Sound & Silence 

 

Sound:

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

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

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

(from “The Clock,” by A.F. Moritz)

 

Silence:

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

(from Heaven and Hell, by Jón Kalman Stefánsson)

 

Sound:

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

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

(from “Blues,” by Ricardo Sternberg)

 

Silence:

An owl at night:
antennae of the frost.

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

 

Sound:

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

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

 

Silence (as Sound):

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

(from “Practicing Bach,” by Jan Zwicky)

 

Churchmouse After Hours is a monthly neighbourhood coffeehouse with songs, stories, poems and prose on a rotating theme. All are welcome to listen or join in. Note: This is not a literary open-mic. Though local authors do participate, we are all readers sharing work we enjoy and admire. Fourth Wed of most months at 7 pm at Churchmouse Bookshop in St. Mary’s Oak Bay, 1701 Elgin Rd.

Windswept

746px-Ruszczyc-Pustka

Ferdynand Ruszczyc, Pustka (Stare Gniazdo). 1901, oil on canvas. Lithuanian Art Museum [The title is Polish and roughly translates to: Emptiness (Old Nest)]

Part of my own motivation, when we planned a “storm chasing” night for Churchmouse After Hours, was curiosity. Why do people chase storms? Why is there such an appetite for all-day weather networks; a fringe element known as tornado chasers; and why, during a hurricane, will people converge on the shore and risk being swept off a rock into the sea?

We know we’re fragile creatures but usually manage to ignore it. Is storm chasing a way to remind ourselves of nature’s power and force, or, conversely, to prove we aren’t afraid? To play truth-or-dare with hurricanes—to sidle up to disaster and emerge unscathed?

Traipsing through poems, stories and songs into the wild weathers animated and contended with there, we didn’t really address these questions directly. I even forgot to bring something I’d found about the scientists who fly into the eyes of hurricanes—on purpose!—in order to bring us the data we use to understand their nature and predict their behaviour.

But I think I got a hint of an answer nonetheless. Something altogether different from the ideas above, which I suspect tell part of the story.

In many of the passages that were shared that night at After Hours, the wind took on a personality, it pursued a purpose, it blew itself a narrative course.

In Patricia Young’s poem, “Tornado in the Bible Belt” (from her collection Short Takes on the Apocalypse), the wind is a clashing of temperatures, “nature’s blender” and even God, who, with a “third layer of dry air” and “His vortex howl,” sweeps up a boy, then drops him “like a cigarette butt far from the house.” In Victor Hernanez Cruz’s “Problems With Hurricanes” (from Red Beans) the wind is a bully pelting objects at people not just to hurt but to shame them. In Milton Acorn’s “The Squall,” read by Kim Foster, the wind “comes running down the bay, / Its waves like hounds and slanting leashes of rain / Bugling their way…” The wind’s letting loose wild dogs, performing a desperate music.

In Festes’ song from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which John Lucas sang so beautifully for us, the winds and the rain arrive “with a hey, ho,” as if they’re only teasing. In Robert Frost’s “Wind and Window Flower,” a winter wind “concerned with ice and snow” stands in for unrequited love: “He sighed upon the sill,/ He gave the sash a shake…” The flower there, though, “leaned aside / And thought of naught to say / And morning found the breeze / A hundred miles away.” And in Gwendolyn MacEwan’s “Barker Fairley and the Blizzard” the wind literally carries away the person who asks the most fundamental question about art (and life): Is suffering necessary?

I left After Hours swept up by the mystery of wind, the air come alive, an invisible force that affects us without cease, and I understood that we are drawn to wild weather, in part, because the wind that feeds it likewise feeds us: it whips us out of complacency and into action. We lean into wind, we brace against it, we feel it in our faces and hair, we watch it play with (and sometimes angrily tear apart) the things around us. The fiercer the wind, the more fully, undeniably awake the person holding ground within it becomes.

A reminder that we don’t meet in December—After Hours wishes a merry and wondrous Christmas to all!

The next Churchmouse After Hours is: Wednesday, January 24 at 7 pm. Our theme: Sound & Silence.

Meanwhile, you can hear some of Victoria’s finest poets read their work at a celebration for The Best of the Best Canadian Poetry, this Sunday December 3 at 1:30 pm at the Fine Arts Building at the University of Victoria (Rm 103). Readers include Yvonne Blomer, Lorna Crozier, John Barton, Patricia Young, Sonnet L’Abbé and Shelley A. Leedahl. Hosted by Anita Lahey.

Churchmouse After Hours is a monthly neighbourhood coffeehouse with songs, stories, poems and prose on a rotating theme. All are welcome to listen or join in. Note: This is not a literary open-mic. Though local authors do participate, we are all readers sharing work we enjoy and admire. Fourth Wed of most months at 7 pm at Churchmouse Books in St. Mary’s Oak Bay, 1701 Elgin Rd.

 

 

 

Glimpses in Passing…

Macewen photo

Toronto poet Gwendolyn MacEwen died in 1987. She was exactly the age I am now: 45. Circumstances aside, no one can really say why one person lives to 90, another to 10, or 25, or 40. That doesn’t stop us from believing certain people go “before their time.” In the case of MacEwen, she “went” before what further fierce words she may have gone on to write. When MacEwen died, we were left with the texts she’d already composed, punctuated by the mystery of what exactly caused her early death, and of the true nature of the suffering that preceded it.

We began the “Hauntings” edition of the  After Hours Coffeehouse at Churchmouse Books with MacEwen’s poem “Past and Future Ghosts,” which for me suggests a blurring of borders between now and then, what was and what is— a continuity of existence, and perhaps even continuity of awareness. I half-wonder whether these “borders” are temporarily, confusingly, clarified in this life by our concept of death, and the gut-wrenching experience of losing someone.

Everything is already known, but we proceed as though we
know nothing. I have lived in houses haunted by ghosts
from the future as well as the past—ghosts of my future
and past selves as well as ghosts of others. It’s very simple;
we all just move from room to room in these time-houses
and catch glimpses of one another in passing.

What is it about inviting the ghostly into the room that is so tantalizing? I read a passage from Jacqueline Baker’s spine-tingling novel The Broken Hours (a tribute to American master of scary tales H.P. Lovecraft) and felt, when I stopped, that the room itself was holding its breath: gripped, terrified, and wanting more.

You could sense the ripple of delight in the room when Craig Hiebert launched into Robert Service’s classic creepy ballad, “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” which in his delivery was both eerier and funnier than I remembered. Likewise we all leaned in when Kim Foster gave us a marvellous rendition of the “Song of the Witches” from Macbeth. Who, even those unfamiliar with (or weary of) Shakespeare, can resist the mesmerizing chant, “Double, double, toil and trouble; / Fire burn and cauldron bubble.” And the lizard’s leg, and the owlet’s wing, and the ghastly “eye of newt and toe of frog.” Such palm-rubbing glee as we envisioned the making of this foul brew…

Stephanie Khoury literally shivered as she delivered the final lines of Louise Gluck’s “All Hallows”:

This is the barrenness
of harvest or pestilence.
And the wife leaning out the window
with her hand extended, as in payment,
and the seeds
distinct, gold, calling
Come here Come here,
little one

And the soul creeps out of the tree.

Steph shivered—we all did, while grinning devilishly. We were led in Cat Stevens’ beguiling “Moonshadow” by Craig, and floated on the haunting sorrow in a Portuguese piece played beautifully by Stephanie. We heard actual ghost stories from generous folk willing to share their unsettling tales. Caught up and emboldened, I offered up W.B. Yeats’ “The Stolen Child.” Here’s the unsettling refrain:

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

As I read I felt the power in this bewitching poem. I felt a different kind of chill, a fear that I’d gone a shade too far, that I had truly, by my own recklessness, invited darkness in.

But as we drifted out into the night, a cool white moon shone—less melancholy than Cat Stevens’ moon, and not at all ominous. It struck down the shadows.

And that, I guess, is what we’re after: that blessed deliverance, its sensation of pure relief. Like sorrow, like joy, that feeling is elemental and deep: it lurks well below the ordinary bustling of our days. The terror from which it ignites understands that we are all here catching “glimpses of one another in passing.” Now and then we need to stop and reach down with a lit match, to remind ourselves.

 

Images: What is a “Hauntings” coffeehouse without dead poets? Alongside Shakespeare and Frost, both Gwendolyn MacEwen and W.B. Yeats were presences…

https://canpoetry.library.utoronto.ca/macewen/poems.htm

https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/stolen-child

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Churchmouse After Hours in November: Storm Chasing

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