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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Inside the Sitar’s Buzz, Venice’s Beguiling Melodies, the ‘Dissolving Voice’ of Rain

 

Woman_Peeling_Potatos,_or_Potato_Peeler._1886

Potato Peeler, by Fritz von Uhde (1848-1911), 1886, oil on canvas.  Source: Wikimedia Commons, from http://reproarte.com/en/paintings/woman-peeling-potatos-detail

The trick is finding your own pocket of silence within sound. This is what I was thinking when Stephanie Khoury and James Hamilton, seated on cushions on the floor of Churchmouse Books, improvised an Indian classical raga, a mesmerizing, melodic tune that enveloped us in its repetitive strains. Rapt, we all sank into our own private silences.

This raga wasn’t a contribution I imagined when we settled on “Sound & Silence” as the framework for January’s After Hours Coffeehouse. This is what I’ve come to love most, one year into this experiment, about After Hours and its format of bringing together works on a theme to share aloud. Each gathering around an idea brings unexpected offerings from brave and generous participants who share a sampling of words or music they themselves enjoy. Each After Hours is like a spontaneous tour through the possibilities of an idea, its textures and seasonings, its tantalizing detours.

And so, in January we heard Bob Dylan (courtesy of Dralene on the ukulele) intone us to “Lay down your weary tune.” We were lulled into peacefulness by local songwriter Chris Regehr’s musical tribute to a monk who kept 21 hours of silence every day for 5 years. A delightful line (I think) I recall from this song is: “humble as a bee in the wide expanse.”

Bookshop manager Kimberley Foster brought us Robert Frost’s “Waiting” and Longfellow’s “Midnight.” (We have yet to raise a theme Kim can’t meet with a piece by Frost.) I contributed an urban cacophony from Ottawa poet David O’Meara’s “Background Noise”—which, in its desperate search for silence, leads us out into the universe and the source of being—and a counterpoint, a streetscape racket reenacted, with a kind of affection, by the late great Kingston poet Bronwen Wallace (in “Spaces,” from her book Signs of the Former Tenant).

There was so much more. A love poem by Pat McCann, shared by Kim. Thomas Lux’s “Wife Hits Moose,” read by our town’s marvel of a poet laureate, Yvonne Blomer. Ezra Pound. Billy Collins: “The silence of the falling vase / before it strikes the floor.” Venice haikus paired with a riveting improvisation on piano from Terry Ann Carter. Seamus Heaney’s “The Given Note” (“On the most westerly blasket / in a dry stone hut / he got this air out of the night…”) contrasted with the quiet in the kitchen in “Clearances,” Heaney peeling potatoes with his mother, in silent communion, “when all the others were away at Mass.”

Courtesy of local author Marilyn Bowering, who arrived with a trio of carefully selected, riveting offerings, we encountered: the glottal song of the corncrake—I believe this bird’s “music” was, by legend, capable of holding up the sky—via Finlay J. Macdonald’s memoir, The Corncrake and the Lysander, about growing up on the Island of Harris in the outer Hebrides in the 1930s; the “dissolving voice” of rain in Mexican poet Homero Aridjis’ “Rain in the Night,” as translated by B.C. author George McWhirter; and “Old Man Thinking” by the Scottish poet Norman McCraig. Marilyn is taken by the word “roulades” in this last poem, an alluring word for which, she tells us, there are at least three correct pronunciations.

It was such a full evening of rich silences and gripping sounds—such a rousing welcome to the year—that I actually forget whether I read either of the pieces I brought by American poet Timothy Yu. These are part of a larger series Yu wrote as a “symbol of the way Asia and Asians are present, yet silenced, in American culture.” Here is part of Chinese Silence No. 22, which I found on the Poetry magazine website:

The Italians are making their pasta,
the French are making things French,
and the Chinese are cultivating their silence.

They cultivate silence
in every Chinatown on the persimmon of earth—
mute below the towers of Toronto,
silently sweeping the streets of Singapore
clear of noisy self-expression.

The Americans are in their sport utility vehicles,
the Canadians are behaving reasonably,
but the Chinese remain silent
maybe with a cup of tea or an opium pipe
and maybe a finger puzzle or water torture is involved.

This poem makes me think of the silences being broken here in Canada. I am listening hard these days to the stories and words and voices that are rippling along our coastlines and down our busy streets, through the newsfeeds and on the radio, especially those that have not been heard in such numbers or in quite the force of mainstream venues in the past.

John Lucas sent us off into the bellowing winds of a Vancouver-Island winter evening, soaring alongside his powerful voice to the tune of “They Call the Wind Maria,” from the 1951 Broadway musical Paint Your Wagon. Here it is in a clip from the 1969 movie musical. I gotta say, I prefer John’s own treatment, done just for the After Hours crowd.

They Call the Wind Maria, from Paint Your Wagon, Harve Presnell

We gather again on Wednesday, February 28, to grapple with the theme of Generosity. Please join us!

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.