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

Advertisements

Difficult men, part 1

Feodor Rojankovsky, Frog Went A-Courtin, winner of 1955 Caldecott Medal for Best Children's Picture Book. Source: animationresources.org

Feodor Rojankovsky, Frog Went A-Courtin, winner of 1955 Caldecott Medal for Best Children’s Picture Book. Source: animationresources.org

Often these days the novels we pick up tell of people we would wish to be, or at least spend time with. They might have flaws and failings, they may not rise to the potential we are induced to see in them, they may have the odds stacked against them, but at heart they are good, well-meaning. We relate to them. We feel their pain.

Allow me to introduce you to Leo Krauss, one of the main characters in Jacqueline Baker’s engrossing novel The Horseman’s Graves (HarperCollins, 2007). As a boy in 1909, Leo journeys with his family from Odessa to the Saskatchewan-Alberta border, where his father sets up a homestead on “a hundred and sixty pitiable acres tucked right up against the Sand Hills,” in “the worst possible corner of that parched, sifting region.” Old Krauss, Leo’s father—a nasty specimen who makes Leo’s mother run to catch up with the wagon if she needs to go to town—is known to one and all as the embodiment of meanness: “Mean in the old country, mean over here.” “Mean as crossed rattlers, those Krausses.” “Can’t shake that kind of thing out of the blood.”
horsemansgravescover

Eventually young Leo, thusly cursed and all grown up, is the only Krauss left on that desolate property. He ventures forth in search of a wife. I am reminded of the folk song “Froggy Went A-Courting,” though even that ill-fated frog, “with his pistol and sword by his side,” seems better suited to the task. For one thing, in Miss Mousy, Froggy has an object in mind. Leo Krauss, on the other hand, rides systematically from one farm to the next, knocking on the door, sitting at the kitchen table, eyeing the resident daughters with a “greasy kind of look,” and getting up to leave without saying a word. He does this week after week until he starts turning up drunk, and then just shouting from his wagon in the yard at whatever girl he’s come to ogle.

When he finally gives up, there is widespread relief. But that’s not all there is, and herein lies the hard beauty of this novel. Baker writes: “But soon his absence became more of an outrage than his presence had ever been, as if he stayed away just so they would notice, and wonder about it, in spite of themselves . . . So after months of suffering bitterly his presence, they found themselves having to suffer his absence.”

The local people tell themselves they should be happy. “‘Ach,’ some said, ‘Be glad he is out of our hair.’” But no one can rest easy knowing Leo is in their midst. Is he OK out there, on that godforsaken piece of land? They’re Christians, they ought to care whether Leo has drunk himself to death, no? Surely someone should ride out and check on him. They gallantly elect the priest, for “what is the church for if not to look to the low and the fallen?”

I love this: how all that concern is deep-fried in plain old curiosity. There is so much about human nature that Baker captures in her portrayal of the community’s relationship with Leo Krauss—a relationship at times harrowing, at times hilarious—that I hardly know where to begin. The people of this isolated German community revile Leo: his behaviour is offensive, unfriendly, appalling. Yet how is it he dares put himself beyond requiring their approval or even their participation in his life? What is he capable of, this man who seems to have no sense of social mores or norms? What might he do next? And how might it affect them? Leo is a puzzle, and a potential threat, both. Because he follows none of the ordinary rules of engagement, people are confused by him, thrown off course. They also feel guilty about their own judgement of him. At the end of the Valentine’s Day social, after watching Leo suffer ridicule and rejection from the local girls, widower Mike Weiser thinks to himself that perhaps “Leo did have a heart there after all. Even if it was fed and pumped by Krauss blood, it was still a heart and he was still a man, not?”

Despite the evident hardship of their lives you get the distinct impression that without Leo and the small struggles he ignites in their minds and in their souls, the people here might grow bored; they might ease into a dangerous complacency. There is no comfort allowed when it comes to Leo. His existence stirs and ruffles the air.

The tale of Leo Krauss—not the whole or even the central tale here, though it is tied to everyone’s fate—makes me wonder about the true impact of an apparently negative presence. Do the Leos in our midst, much like a devastating storm, temporarily (or intermittently) create common cause? Does the instinct to work out the “problem” of Leo bring people together in a tense but unified (and sometimes comical) front? Does Leo simply give everyone a story around which to gather and reflect? “Leo” has so affected me that I feel a twinge of my own guilt writing this: am I suggesting we use the Leos of this world for our own betterment? What I can say for sure is that, unpleasant and confounding as he is, he matters. Like Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita—who I found so repulsive I nearly gave up on that book in the first chapter—he is the stuff of real literature (and life).

This is a novel about the immigration experience, after the fact. The people in The Horseman’s Graves have left much behind, most of it willingly: there’s a “good riddance” vibe to their survival ethic. What choice do they have? But some things can’t be shed. The Krausses and what they represent are eternal, and add layers (and perhaps generations) of difficulty to breaking in a new life, in a new place: the taint of bloodlines, the lingering power of old grudges, that whiff of the old country and its dark secrets, the day-to-day ups and downs of simply getting along with the people who live next door.

In the real world I’m lucky to know many people I’d be happy to have as neighbours (including my actual neighbours!). But I also know people who leave me at a complete loss, who remind me of Leo Krauss. I am almost always uneasy about my interactions with them. I think of Baker shaping the fictional world of The Horseman’s Graves, and all the time she spent in the company of Leo Krauss. I think of Baker holding the idea of Leo Krauss in her mind—of the building, scene by awkward scene, moment by uncomfortable moment, of Leo Krauss and all the people whose lives and consciences he infiltrates. Am I glad she’s created this ornery, disagreeable character, and stuck him in my mind? Glad is not the word. But Baker has done some hard labour here, some heavy lifting, the kind required for meaningful art to emerge. Leo is not the guy most of us want to hang out with over beers; but he’s among us. His presence, and our reaction to it, is impossible to ignore.

*

Here is a profile of Jacqueline Baker from Quill and Quire magazine.

And here’s a blog entry by Kerry Clare on Horseman’s Graves from back when the book was released.