a copper briki

“A tiny copper briki in which coffee had been boiled three times.” That phrase occurs in my novella, Patrin. I wrote it, remembering how much I’d loved coffee the months I spent in Greece in the last century when I was in my early 20s. I had a sweetheart on Crete — I’ve written about him in my memoir, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, in the chapter “Olea europaea: Young Woman with Eros on her Shoulder”: “A very old man, a fisherman with a bright blue boat, used to bring me slices of melon when I sat at the dock and read my book. One day he brought his son, whom I will call Agamemnon. He was older, had served in the army, and spoke English only marginally better than my Greek.” I had many cups of coffee with Agamemnon and his father. They made it by spooning coffee into water in a little briki, along with sugar. The briki was placed on a gas burner (Agamemnon and his family owned a small taverna) and brought to the boil, removed, placed back on the burner, removed, and then placed on the burner one more time. It took some time for me to convince them that I wanted mine without sugar — sketos. But that’s how I liked it best. They didn’t drink their coffee quickly, the way people drink an espresso in Italy, but they sat at a table or on a bench, with a tall glass of water, and they sipped the coffee slowly and appreciatively. I learned to do the same. The first few times I had coffee with them,  I drank mine right down to the last drop — which was grounds. And I was told not to do that. I soon figured out when to consider my coffee finished. All this is so long ago now but the other day, on Commercial Drive in Vancouver, I was shopping for Christmas presents and as I was about to pay for all the things I’d chosen at the Mediterranean Market (this will be an edible Christmas!), I saw some brikis hanging behind the counter. I asked to see one and as I held in my hands, a whole world came back to me, filled with the rustling of olive leaves, the flavours of retsina and salty cheese, the feel of my body alive in the ocean, and then the company of two men under shade trees in front of Agamemnon’s taverna. Of course I bought the briki and will keep it in my kitchen for the memories it conjures on winter mornings, the taste of strong coffee — sketos — and the warmth of sunlight, almost forty years later.

briki

I wasn’t paying attention…

…to the moon’s phases and was caught off-guard last evening when the full moon rose over Mount Hallowell and shone into my bedroom all night long. The windows are curtained with white linen so the moonlight filled the room. I woke every hour or so, wondering if it was morning. And when it was, I tried to take a photograph of the full moon about to fall down behind the hump of Texada Island, fringed by trees, the sky a beautiful pinky-gold. And the moon refused to show up in the photographs.

It was the Mourning Moon, November’s full moon marking a time to give up old bad habits, old unhealthy relationships, to prepare for the season ahead. Time for one of those bonfires, I think, when old papers are turned to ash: unrealistic expectations, hopes, resentments. Time to use that eerie light to make a new path into the darkness of December.

Yesterday, tidying some papers on the counter, I was surprised to see this paint sample fall out of a sheaf of recipes. I’d been looking for it in early summer when we were planning to paint the back bedrooms to make them fresh and ready for the arrival of our children in late July. What colour should we paint them? asked John, and I said, Why not the colour we used in our bedroom? It was the lighter shade in a trio of yellows, the darker of which we’d used in the kitchen and the bathrooms. I couldn’t find the sample (because, bad habit, I never file this kind of thing efficiently but just leave it around and hope that I can find it when I need it) so we chose something close. But now, here’s the sample and I smiled to see that my bedroom, lit all night by the Mourning Moon, is in fact Morning Moon. The one which wouldn’t allow itself to be photographed.

morning moonAt one point when I woke, I looked out the east window (the bathroom window), and there were just a few stars following the moon, and I thought of Sappho, fragment 34, in Anne Carson’s restrained and beautiful translation:

stars around the beautiful moon
hide back their luminous form
whenever all full she shines
on the earth

silvery

“Holding Arthur”

A few days after we’d arrived in Ottawa to meet our new grandson Arthur, we went to Toronto where we had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours at the Royal Ontario Museum’s Pompeii exhibit. And in the way these things do, the experience of seeing the remnants of that extraordinary city — both the timelessness and the vulnerability of human creation — fused in my husband’s imagination with the tender moments he had with his new grandson. He printed this broadsheet as a celebration of Arthur’s birth. I love the umber pillars (echoing the leaves), the birds, the memory of John cradling the sleeping baby and walking him, as he walked our babies when our rooms were still new and our lives were before us.

holding arthur

“…the red lengths”

spiral

“I’ll use red thread for this quilt, small stitches to draw layer to layer, capillaries to help the blood of our relationship circulate through the images and actual fabric of my thinking. Red thread, long strands carried by the needles I will prepare, three at a time, to allow me to push and pull the red lengths in and out, to meditate between the past and present, to contemplate the future, to secure with tiny knots the end of each fragment of thought.” (from “Euclid’s Orchard”)

“we are nothing if not impulse to direction”

When John and I met and fell in love in 1979, we spent a fair amount of time arguing about poetry. Not our own but what we imagined the important contemporary writing to be. I remember running out into the night, in tears, wondering what on earth I’d done by marrying someone whose ideas were so different from my own. I’d barely heard of Robert Duncan, Charles Olson. What on earth was “projective verse” and how could it possible matter. We did have many favourite writers in common; we were both reading Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder, for instance. And in truth, our work was far more congenial than we knew during those first months, that first year. We used different language to talk about writing and in time our vocabularies became as acquainted and then as familiar as everything else.

I’ve been remembering all this for the past month or so as I sit in audiences listening to my husband read from his new book, which isn’t really new. It’s Forecast: Selected Early Poems, 1970-1990 (Harbour Publishing). The poems come from out-of-print chapbooks and books and some of my favourites are there, including “The Crossing”:

here the star, the far shore

or this tree. we enter with attention

 

what passes and must pass

to bring us closer

 

the ocean heals behind the ship

the trodden brush springs back

 

and we are nothing if not impulse to direction

This poem concludes with the line, “we cannot hold our coming through the world”, which has always seemed to me a deeply powerful mantra. Our mantra, in a way.

So. “Projective Verse”. This morning I remembered the phrase and asked John about it and he immediately opened his copy of Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry to Charles Olson’s essay.

projective verseJohn’s notes on the pages are as interesting to me as the essay itself. What he noticed, what he underlined, what spoke to him. This passage, for example:

It would do no harm, as an act of correction to both prose and verse as now written, if both rime and meter, and, in the quantity of words, both sense and sound, were less in the forefront of the mind than the syllable, if the syllable, that fine creature, were more allowed to lead the harmony on.

And later, this:

The objects which occur at every given moment of composition (of recognition, we can call it) are, can be, must be treated exactly as they do occur therein and not by any ideas or preconceptions from outside the poem, must be handled as a series of objects in field in such a way that a series of tensions (which they also are) are made to hold, and to hold exactly inside the content and the context of the poem which has forced itself through the poet and them, into being.

And this:

Let me just throw in this. It is my impression that all parts of speech suddenly, in composition by field, are fresh for both sound and percussive use, spring up like unknown, unnamed vegetables in the patch, when you work it, come spring.

In those years, I was trying to find a way to integrate all the elements of my life — my love of place, of plants, of textiles, of food (the making of it, the history of it, the science of it); I was hoping to find a form which would allow all those parts of daily life to take their place in my artistic practice, to find the right tension (like knitting!) to hold them in a way that enhanced their textures and relationships. I remember making paper one summer, using a kit brought by a friend for our children, and we were experimenting with adding flowers to the pulp, which we’d made with various kinds of newspaper and other paper, chopping and blending them all together. In those years we were the grateful recipients of passed-on copies of the Times Literary Supplement and that particular light newsprint was perfect for the pulp. When I’d pressed the pulp into the screen and then removed it and let it dry, I was astonished to see that words and phrases from the TLS had survived the process of blending and had emerged at various points in the finished sheet of paper, along with flowers and stems. (Somewhere I still have this piece of paper, I think.) I realized I could manipulate the contents of the pulp with a bit more experience and effort — imagine positioning lines of poetry so they could be seen within the paper from certain perspectives. Paper as palimpsest, as repository… I felt both exhilaration and anguish. Yes, here was another process which would allow so many elements of what I loved to conspire and create something new but did I really have time to take on another practice?

The older I get, the more I realize that the writing of a book is a composition both as crafty as the making of paper and as artful as the positioning of objects in a field, a projective field, the syllables sounding their way across it in a lively and unexpected way. When I look at my drafts and notes for Patrin, I see how they resemble, in a way, the notes I make for quilts. There were other possible arrangements for the individual blocks which make up the narrative(s) and it took me some time to find the pattern which allowed the visible or external story to both hold and reveal the coded history. And are these things ever completely known to us as we work and then as we read? As we sew, as we press pulp through a screen to make sheets of new paper? I suspect not.  I remember reading a wonderful book years ago about the quilts women made as they travelled the Oregon Trail. In Treasures in the Trunk, Mary Bywater Cross provides an alternate history of that movement west by decoding the quilts which were created during , or after, the migration. They were commodoties, death shrouds, memorial texts, dreamscapes, echoes of everything seen and experienced. Even their titles have the resonance of poetry: “Stars with Wild Geese Strips”, “Wandering Foot”, “Pieced Star”, “Wheel of Fortune”, “Birds in Flight”, “Delectable Mountains”. Did those women consciously embed their hopes and fears in the patterns they chose for the bedcovers they composed during the long days of their journey west? Maybe not entirely consciously. But for women who perhaps had no other outlet for such expression, the domestic becomes the artistic.

My friend Barbara Lambert sent me something she’d posted about Patrin on Facebook. It made me so happy that she’d detected the pattern at its heart and that she also provided a visual example (in her photograph, the book is resting on a potholder I made for her years ago and the potholder is layered on a beautiful piece of shibori cotton):

When is a novella even more than a novella?

When its form takes on the shape of its subject matter, in a most intriguing way —
as Theresa Kishkan’s “PATRIN” leads you on a young woman’s quest for her Romany origins, along a sensuous trail inspired by the inheritance of an antique quilt.

patrin at home

 

the same boat

Alan_Kurdi_lifeless_body

In September, 2015, the body of Aylun Kurdi washed up on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea in Turkey. His family had been trying to get to Kos, a island in the Greek Dodacanese chain; they were fleeing Syria, as were millions of others. The boat that took them was inflatable, plastic or rubber, and capsized not far from Bodrum. The image of his body galvanised people around the world; it became a symbol of the migrant crisis. It also became a turning point in the Canadian election and voters turned their backs on the Harper Conservatives who fumbled and prevaricated, particularly then-Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander. Justin Trudeau seemed to speak for all of us (or most of us, enough of us in any case) when he reiterated the Liberal promise to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees: “Canadians get it. This is about doing the right thing, about living up to the values that we cherish as a country.” Our own provincial Premier, not a woman known for her compassion or willingness to help the underdogs of our society (let alone any other), cried in public and announced a special fund to help settle migrant families in B.C. A million dollars out of thin air…It felt as though the human family was in the same boat, on the same water; our hopes and dreams were the same: to make a better world for ourselves and those we love.

Speaking of boats, my grandmother came to Canada in 1913, travelling in steerage from Antwerp to Saint John with five small children. Her husband had gone to Drumheller the year before to arrange for land for his family. They weren’t rich. They were, I guess, economic migrants. Everything I’ve heard of their early years indicates such hardship. That husband died in October, 1918 in the influenza epidemic. He left a wife and 8 children. My grandmother fended for herself for a couple of years and remarried, having two more children, one of whom survived: my father. My grandmother’s children all married – several married Ukrainians, one a Syrian. They raised families. Those children are part of the intricate fabric of this country. Over in Saskatchewan, my grandfather’s cousin, from the same part of Bukovina and probably raised by the same grandparents who raised my grandfather, also had a large family; one of his sons went on to change his name and earn a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame for his illustrious goal-keeping. That was Johnny Bower.

In the 1980s, there was a First Nations firebrand around who constantly called us on our complacency about the deep history of our province (and by extension, our country). His name was Bill Wilson. He spoke forcefully and powerfully of what it was like to be an aboriginal person living in a colonial enterprise. I remember reading a long piece in the Vancouver Sun where he detailed his family’s history, the history of the potlatch, and the various ways his family needed to both defend and protect their culture and legacy. The article concluded very powerfully:

Now at 63, with my father and mother and all but two of my immediate family dead, I look back on the last 150 years since B.C. was named. For my people it has been a constant struggle which continues today. My people and other tribes built this province despite being marginalized, ignored, trampled upon, incarcerated, abused and even killed. My reminisces do not leave me angry even though I have cried to myself in recounting them. Instead, I am proud of my family and their accomplishments. I have one of the highest ranking names in our Potlatch. In March of 1983, I helped draft and successfully argue for the entrenchment of the first and only amendment of Canada’s new Constitution. We have 18 university degrees in our family and best of all I have five granddaughters who by their strength and breeding will continue to make this province and this country a better place for all of us.
Hemas Kla-Lee-Lee-Kla (Chief Bill Wilson, BA, LLB)

And the beautiful continuation of this story told by Bill Wilson is that one of his daughters, Jody Wilson-Raybould, is now Justice Minister in the new Liberal Cabinet.

Now that terrorist attacks have shaken France, and the rest of us too, it seems that too many of us are willing to move to the other side of the boat. Brad Wall, the Premier of Saskatchewan, wants the Canadian government to suspend its plan to bring in 25,000 refugees. Our Premier, the one who cried, is now expressing grave doubts about security. I’m not sure of exact numbers of those who have fled Syria. The U.N. says more than 6 million have been displaced within Syria and at least 3 million have fled; more are leaving every day, every hour. So 25,000 is a drop in the bucket. Though it’s also a start. More than half of the Governors of the United States say they will refuse to cooperate with efforts to bring refugees into their individual States. (Authority over the admission of refugees is a federal responsibility but individual States would be responsible for welcoming and settling those who entered the country.)

In the middle of the night, these are things that keep me awake. I was listening to the news most of the day and was so distressed to hear the new rhetoric (although it’s also old rhetoric) about immigrants. In two days, it will be one month since we elected a new government to take our country in a new and compassionate direction. Wasn’t that the promise? And didn’t we love to hear it? Why is it so difficult now to believe that we can still be that country, the one that continues its tradition of welcoming newcomers? Those Syrians are leaving in huge numbers because they’re as afraid of terrorism as we are. No. Actually they have direct experience with it while we have the kind of fear whipped up by right-wing journalists, commentators, politicians who haven’t read enough history, their own and the country’s.

In my grandmother’s papers, there is a letter which a friend in the Czech Republic recently translated for me. The letter was written by my grandmother’s god-daughter and was sent from a village very near my grandmother’s own Horni Lomna. There’s no date but I feel that it was written sometime before the Second World War. By then my grandparents had moved to a very modest house in Beverly, then just outside of Edmonton, though now it’s part of the city. They didn’t have much. They grew potatoes, they had chickens, and an extended family, all of whom had done well enough by the standards of the day.

Dear godmother, a few years ago nobody would have thought we would live such a life because this is beyond description what poverty it is here in the old world, not only in our Czechoslovak Republic but in the whole Europe…I don’t have any other news except that Adam Gumda (illegible) from … died and that in Bukowec a Filanc shot Pacholek who was carrying 2 kilos of meat from Poland, he was dead on the spot. We come to live in times when they eat our food and take our lives. But there are things happening these days because the people have been revolting.

What would any of us do to make a safe life for our families? My grandmother was lucky enough to be able to leave, though I wonder if she felt lucky in the belly of the Mount Temple as it made its way across the Atlantic to Canada? Five small children. All her worldly possessions. No English (not yet, though she learned it as soon as she arrived, and even attended my father’s grade one class to learn to read and write). I’m sure there were times when she felt unwelcome, when she wondered if it might have been better to stay and take her chances in that old world of plum trees and gunshot, of grazing pigs and hunger. My father said his parents were proud to vote and they were proud to have raised children and although sometimes there wasn’t much more for dinner than potatoes, they were grateful. Why do we imagine others would be any less grateful? Or deserving? There’s a picture of my father that I treasure. He is riding a small tricycle through a bleak yard, which must be the yard of the house in Drumheller. He’s probably about the age of Aylun Kurdi. It’s not much, but so much more than others can even dream of.  And it’s time for more of them to have those dreams come true.

dad

 

 

“If a century, this.”

french angel

It seems impossible now but I was just writing an email to a friend and in response to her question, “How are your children?”, I typed “Brendan is in Paris.” Then the phone rang. It was Forrest, in Ottawa, asking if we’d heard about the attacks in Paris and was there any news of Brendan. I’d been in the garden and John in the printshop so the radio was quiet. No, we didn’t know about Paris. A quick call to Cristen who said she’d had a good-night message from Brendan on his return to his hotel from dinner with friends. She thought he’d gone to bed. And his phone was turned off.

There are no words for the horror of what happened yesterday. Maybe we will find some. I thought of the young couple in the bakery in Bordeaux in March saying that they were hoping to come to Canada. And the concierge at our hotel in Toulouse, saying he wanted to move his family to Montreal. Those beautiful cities with their ancient churches, their fountains, their monuments. Yet there is no safety. Just when it’s least expected — a soccer game, a concert, a meal in a restaurant on a Friday evening. My own son sleeping in a hotel while around him sirens, ambulances taking away the wounded, the dead. I can’t make sense of it.

In the night, in response to the message I’d sent, three words on the screen of my tablet. “Yep, I’m fine.” And no more, because what can anyone say? Yet?

When I woke, I thought of Carolyn Forché’s The Angel of History:

In the night-vaulted corridors of the Hôtel-Dieu it is winter.

If a city, ruin, if an animal, hunger.

If a grave, anonymous.

If a century, this.