“I pressed a pencil hard by the Deadman River”

For a few months now, I’ve been busy with some essays and also with work associated with the micro-press I run with my friend Anik See. (The second novella on our list is at the printer! For more information, visit www.fishgottaswimeditions.com) Hovering in the back of my consciousness has been my own novella-in-progress, though that progress has been stalled. Why is that, I’ve been wondering. Every time I open the file to work on it again, I am transported to its time (the 1970s), its locus (Lytton, the Thompson Plateau, and the area west of Clinton), and its explorations into the women who wrote those landscapes and whom we seldom hear referenced in the literary conversations. I mean of course Ethel Wilson and Sheila Watson. The protagonist of the novella is a young woman writing a thesis on their work, using their novels to map a very specific terrain. Or at least this is part of what she is doing. She is also coming to terms with the death by drowning of her brother and in this respect there are other texts that travel under the surface of the narrative: mostly these are ancient Egyptian funerary texts—the Books of Breathing and the Book of the Dead.

I want to talk a little about the use of secondary material in a creative work. It’s problematic. It seems to me that it wasn’t always quite so difficult to think about including other texts in one’s own work as long as the writing was properly acknowledged and cited. OF COURSE I don’t mean pretending that the material is your own. Of course not. But I’ve always thought of writing, or at least most of the writing I do, as a kind of conversation, an extension of thinking, and also an act of homage to the work that I’ve loved  and that has shaped who I am and what I do. Am I wrong in remembering that it used to be common to include passages (again, properly cited) and epigraphs (ditto), without there being the difficult dance we call Permissions? Here’s a letter I received from Seamus Heaney in 1977 after I’d written to him to ask for permission to use some lines from a poem in North as an epigraph for my book, Ikons of the Hunt.


I sent him the book when it came out and he in turn sent me a card congratulating me. “There is no need to go Fabers.” (In my query, I’d wondered.)

One reason I am thinking about this in relation to this novella is because so much of what I want to write depends on being able to include passages of several novels in my own. Sometimes the author is directly referred to in my text and sometimes, like the passage I’ll show here, I quote the passage in the context of how it’s being used, in this case to annotate a map the narrator is using as background for her thesis as she travels in search of the places mentioned in the books she is writing about. I’ve always planned to include a bibliography and have kept careful notes.

…He could not fault my writing, he admitted, but said he remained unconvinced by the material I’d quoted. I wouldn’t waste my time, he said, on this sort of thing. It’s barely coherent.

I thought of him as I made my marks on my map. His bristly moustache, there. I pressed a pencil hard by the Deadman River. His sneer, there, as I sketched some trees—“…such trees as these marched in thin armies up the runnels of the hills which were strangely coloured in places by outcroppings of rose red rock.”—on the west side of the Thompson just before Ashcroft.

But yesterday, after writing a short section, I suddenly knew what was holding me back from this book. And the fact I’ve called it a “book” is part of what I understand to be the problem. Although I don’t usually write with the thought of publishing what I am currently working on, I guess I know that’s the final step in my working process. I write. I revise. I revise some more. And then I find a publisher. I don’t have an agent. I had one briefly in the early 2000s but she was reluctant to actually place the book I’d finished—A Man In A Distant Fieldso we parted company. I tried other agents, in part because there’d been little flutters of interest for film rights for two of my books, but no agent in this country (or any other) would take me on. And that’s fine. I know that I am mostly a literary writer and that there’s a limited market for what I do. I wanted to make sure my books had their best chance and I can say I’ve done that. So yes, a book. That’s what I expect what I’m writing to be when I’m finished. But knowing how difficult it is now to actually include secondary material without paying large sums to do so has me wondering why on earth I should complete this and who on earth would publish it.

When I wrote my memoir-in-essays, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, I spent years reading and researching and remembering. There’s masses of source material cited and acknowledged After the manuscript was accepted, we spent some time deciding exactly how to shape it. Abandon some of the material? Footnote it? Endnote it? Use it as indirect quote? Paraphrase? I wanted every text I’d read and consulted to be obvious because I felt so many of the writers I’d read were guides, mentors, friends. I spent ages figuring out how to prepare the framework and the bibliography (it’s 6 1/2 pages) because it turns out that citation styles have changed from the last century when I was a student and in any case my publisher’s house-style is Chicago rather than MLA. But then I was told I had to start securing permissions. And that became something I’ll never forget because oh, how things had changed from the days when Seamus Heaney said, “There is no need to go to Faber.” I wrote to authors and in most cases they were so gracious. Translator of Dante, and an extraordinary poet in his own right? “Absolutely.” Translator of Odysseus Elytis? Yup, by all means. But then I was told (by my publisher), no, you must also secure permission from the publisher and that’s when it got expensive. There are seven pages of endnotes and I paid about half of my advance in order to be allowed to use quite a lot of the material cited. Sometimes it was 100 pounds for ten words. (In that case, I paraphrased.) The big publishers were the most aggressive and I understand, I guess, why my own (smaller) publisher insisted we track down every one of them. Though seriously? Someone is going to go after an author for quoting and citing a sentence from a book in her own book which, let’s face it, is never going to be a best seller and make her millions? Or even thousands? What times we live in. There were a lot of sleepless nights and I watched my modest advance trickle away, 50 bucks here, 75 there. If I knew the authors would see that money, I’d feel a little less grim about it. (When people write to me to ask if they can use something I’ve written, I always say Yes! Just remember to cite the source.)

None of this should be in my mind and heart as I follow a young woman in search of two women authors in the last century, wanting to insist on a feminine cartography in a landscape claimed and settled by men. Men I read and love, I hasten to add, but I don’t want the women forgotten. I don’t want their books forgotten. None of it should be in my mind but it is. That we can no longer have a conversation in our books with authors who’ve taught us, shaped us, guided us, without paying, is something I have a hard time reckoning with.



“…a hole on my sleeve the shape of a heart”

my mum

In an essay about my mother, in Euclid’s Orchard, I wrote this:

As an adult,I seldom asked her what she knew about her biological parents, though I did try, at least twice. The first time, she cried. The second time, she said her foster mother had discouraged her from trying to find them, saying that they knew where she was and never contacted her. My mother told me that she had decided to figure out who they were when our family went to Nova Scotia in 1963, but seeing her foster mother after a long absence—my parents lived in Halifax in 1953 before moving to the West Coast—convinced her that this was her mother, this was the person who’d raised her and to whom she owed loyalty and love, and she abandoned her plan to locate her birth parents. Could I try, I asked. And she was fierce in her disapproval. So I quietly put the notion aside. But she did say that her foster mother had a copy of her birth certificate with the names of both parents. Her birth mother was a MacDougall and her father, a MacDonald. And his was the surname she had until she married my father in 1950. She’d been told that her biological father was the brother of a prominent Halifax physician.

Last summer I sent a sample of my DNA to one of the companies offering to analyze it and tell you who you are. Oh I wish. The results came back and there are still as many mysteries as there ever were. But I’ve been following up on some clues, writing to people who show up as probable 2nd or 3rd cousins, and I think I may have found the trail leading to my mother’s biological father. He would have been 30 years old when he fathered her. Five years later he was married and he went on to father two sons, both dead now. One of them was a physicist which is interesting to me in light of the fact that one of my own sons did his first degree in physics and mathematics before going on to complete a PhD in mathematics. (You’ll know this if you’ve read Euclid’s Orchard!) The man whom I believe was my mother’s father wasn’t (as far as I know) the brother of a physician but he married one and she came from a family of doctors. Stories have a way of changing as they are told over decades and perhaps my mother was told a slightly altered version of her parentage. Perhaps not. Maybe I haven’t remembered it accurately.

And as I sit again at my desk and try to puzzle through where to go next, what to try, I am wondering if it’s worth it. To me, yes, but to anyone else? A recent review of Euclid’s Orchard suggested that it’s boring material to readers who are not part of my family. (“Stories of ancestors, whether couched in the author’s discovery or not, can only be as interesting as those people were, and let’s face it, many of us are not. It requires tremendous skill to animate lives, let alone make sense of them, and Kishkan gives it her best in this book, breaking many of the essays into segments, weaving in ruminations to liven things up. Yet, by end of the book, I felt that nothing was truly made sense of, the knot-work made more complex, having been intellectually tackled as opposed to emotionally teased apart.”)

Yet the story of a child, kept from knowing her parents, and their own history, which might have been romantic or violent or simply sad, is a tale at the heart of many families. We can learn the precise composition of our DNA, what we are in terms of our ethnicity (for me, it’s 53% Eastern Europe, 21% Scotland, Ireland, Wales, 19% Great Britain, and tiny bits from Iberia, Scandinavia, and south Asia), but the question of who we are might still haunt us. As it does me. Yesterday I sent off material to a researcher in Ukraine who will help me to trace my family there, in preparation for a trip we will make in the fall. I want to know what lives were lived, were abandoned, were reconstructed elsewhere, in part as homage and in part as escape.

What you think you know is the shaky foundation on which you try to build something. The photograph above, for example: I’ve always thought the dark-haired girl on the left was my mum. She looks like photographs of me as a child. But my mum was born in 1926 and these girls now seem a bit old-fashioned for girls in, say, 1938, which was when the image would have been taken if my mum was about 12. It’s a postcard. Did people still do that in the late 1930s? I have a few photographs-as-postcards from my dad’s family, taken (I know) in the very early years of the 20th century. So who knows? Maybe that girl is my mother’s mother. Maybe there was a connection between the house she was raised in (a widow who took in foster children) and her biological mother. I’ve already found names on a list that suggests that the foster mother’s late husband knew the father of the woman my mother’s biological father married. Yes, the knot-work does become more complex the more you try to tease it apart. That’s the nature of stories across time and continents.

Does any of it matter? In Euclid’s Orchard, I said this about my mum:

At the Foundling Museum, a spyglass, a hairpin, the handle of a penknife. Padlocks, a tiny black hand pierced with a hole for a ribbon, a handful of coins, pierced, notched, worn thin by thumbs stroking, stroking, stored in the archives. I have My Sin,a tweed coat, a memory of Mrs.Nobody on her chair in the kitchen. I have a hole on my sleeve the shape of a heart but no scrap to match it with and the sound of a creek running underground on its way to the sea,with everything of my mother in it, and nothing. I have every regret for the way her life began, and ended, a motherless child, so far, so far from her home, no one looking for her in the listservs, among the dry records of Vital Statistics, no one, no one but me, my face against the glass case of all those unclaimed tokens, those stories begun perhaps in love and ending in sorrow.

And stubbornly, I want to make sense of her story, even though she will never know I’ve tried.


“The soul descends once more in bitter love…”

When you’ve been married a long time (in my case, almost 39 years), your partner becomes accustomed to aspects of your personality that might baffle another person. I often wake early and think about stuff. Sometimes it’s what I’ve dreamed about or else thought about the previous day but somehow didn’t have a chance to finish figuring out. Yesterday it was the soul. We talk about our souls, we understand what we mean, and yet, I wondered aloud as soon as John opened his eyes, “Does anyone have proof of the soul?” I saw his eyes flutter a little as if he thought he might want to go back to sleep but he was willing to talk about it with me. Is the soul an actual entity, does it have weight and presence, does it have a location in our corporeal bodies?
When I got up, I couldn’t stop thinking about the soul. Mine. Yours. How we know it’s our soul that responds to something that we ourselves might not otherwise acknowledge. I think my soul might be in my ribcage because I swear I feel it expand when I experience something that is beyond my usual experience of the world, something that replaces language, although I try to find words for it.
When I was in my second year of university, in 1974, my mentor Robin Skelton lent me his copy of Anthony Ostroff’s The Contemporary Poet as Artist and Critic. In it, a poem is discussed by three poets and then the author of the poem responds to them. (I have a copy of the book somewhere but I think I’ve lent it.) It was new to me, the notion of people talking about the mechanics of writing a poem, from the perspective of readers and as writers. Theodore Roethke’s “In A Dark Time”. Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour”. And the wonderful Richard Wilbur’s “Love Calls Us To The Things Of This World”. A line of laundry is a gathering of angels. “Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,/Some are in smocks…”  I thought of the poem just now as I hung out the first full load of laundry this year, on Earth Day. The vintage sheet with whitework and hemstitching at the top. Pillowcases filling with air. My favourite nightdress, moving in wind so gracefully, turning this way and that, as I am unable to move because of, well, self-consciousness. And the great weight of being human. The cottons will have their day in the sun and I’ll remember how my ribcage pressed against my skin as I stood back to look at the line of laundry, remembering what happens at the end of the day.
 “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”
    Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body…

But what about the soul? Is it real? Does it have weight? I read an interesting article at The Conversation, “Whatever the soul is, its existence can’t be proved or disproved by natural science.” Well, it was reassuring, somehow:

We recognize as fully real many things that completely lack physicality.

Mathematics, for example, clearly provides deep insights into the nature of reality, but the ideas of number and quantity cannot be grasped in anyone’s hand. The same might be said for a variety of human emotions, including despair and joy, neither of which alters a person’s weight to the slightest degree. The very desire to know in the first place cannot be weighed, measured or located.

kelly's daffodils

Maybe what happens in my ribcage isn’t my soul at all but there’s no real proof that it isn’t. No algorithm. That the sight of daffodils planted with my granddaughter in November carries joy but does not alter weight; early 20th century scientists believed the soul weighed about 3/4 oz. (Rufous hummingbirds, the ones that are buzzing around the daffodils these days, weigh about 3.2 grams or 0.112877 ounces.) I’ve held a hummingbird, dazed from an encounter with the cat, and know exactly what that feels like in my hand.

I haven’t finished thinking about this yet. Sometimes ideas wait for a portal, a moment, to enter our consciousness; sometimes they leave quietly, unwelcome, and sometimes they find a place to settle and be home. Coming in from hanging out the laundry, I turned to see it on the line and behind it, the gate to the garden where all day I’ll be entering and departing, with compost and seeds, a shovel, string to tie up the roses. alert for angels:

They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
The soul shrinks

From all that it is about to remember…

garden gate

In the honeysuckle, in the round iron disk, the beams of cedar, the light.

the pleasures of Eastern European dumplings, in the New Yorker, in Edmonton, in Grand Forks

autumn borscht
At the Borscht Bowl in Grand Forks

I’ve just read the most wonderful piece in the New Yorker online (we get the print magazine passed along to us in good time but sometimes I can’t wait) and it’s reminded me of childhood visits to my father’s family in Edmonton. (The article, “The Underrated Pleasures of Eastern European Dumplings“, by Olia Hercules, discusses those amazing creations and offers a recipe for Pork Manti, something I will have to try, probably when one or more of my children are here.)

These days, though, I no longer try to hide the fact that my death-row meal would, without question, consist of varenyky, the Ukrainian version of what in Poland are called pierogi. Even though the name comes from varyty, meaning “to boil,” these half-moon-shaped dumplings are sometimes steamed or boiled and then refried. My favorite filling is one of the simplest: homemade cheese curd, called syr, mixed with egg yolks and heavily seasoned with salt. The filling is gently wrapped in the thinnest of pasta doughs and boiled briskly. To serve, varenyky are dropped into a large bowl with about half a stick of melted butter and served with thick, full-fat crème fraîche called smetana. I can only eat about ten ravioli at a time, but I can easily pack away about forty varenyky in a single sitting. When I eat them, I feel like a euphoric child.

When I was a child watching my aunts, grandmother, and mother (her background was Scots Presbyterian but she adapted well to the communal experience of preparing a Eastern European feast), anyway (to wrangle this sentence back into line), watching them prepare mountains of tiny dumplings, I felt such anticipation and also comfort. Their voices murmuring, some gossip (spoken quietly because little pitchers have big ears), the soft sound of a long rolling pin pressing out the dough on a floured table, the smell of warm potato, snipped green onion, and ground pepper (a-choo!). And what about the name? Other people called what the aunts made “pierogy”, which I think is the Polish version. We said “pedaha”. I’ve looked online and find this, from Wikipedia (not my usual go-to reference source but there you have it):

Although called varenyky in standard Ukrainian, speakers of the Canadian Ukrainian or Rusyn dialect refer to them as pyrohy, which can be misheard pedaheh or pudaheh by Anglophones unaccustomed to the rolled-r sound, or alveolar flap. This is due to the history of Ukrainian or Rusyn (Ruthenian) immigration to Canada, which came predominantly from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Ours were filled with cheese curd, and my father said in his own childhood, his mother made the simple cottage cheese she used for their pyrohy (there. I’ve used what was probably the word I heard) with milk from the family cow. He always claimed they were better with homemade cheese. Potatoes went into another version. I don’t remember meat in ours, though there was a little ground pork in the cabbage rolls, or holubchi. And sweet plums in a dessert version, heavenly with sour cream (though I love smetana, a little more like crème fraîche, and I wonder if I’m remembering correctly that in the Czech Republic, smetana was a sweet cream rather than tangy? ). At the evening meal, for which all this womanly work was directed, our plates were piled high with plump dumplings, yellow with butter, flecked with green onions, and glazed with sour cream. If we didn’t count the number we ate, our aunts did. Gluttony was encouraged. We were good children if we went back for another plateful, then another. We reclined under the trees in the backyard afterwards, holding our stomachs in awe.

Every year, often about now, John and I head for the road, taking the Crowsnest Highway to Osoyoos where we settle into the Sandy Beach Resort. One day is spent visiting our favourite wineries—Tinhorn Creek, Wild Goose, and Desert Hills—and eating lunch at Miradoro (at Tinhorn Creek); it probably has the most stunning view of any restaurant anywhere. You sit on the deck and look out to the hills on the other side of the valley and almost every time we’ve been there, a thunderstorm has passed by quickly, lightning stitching hill to hill, the air filled with the scent of rain on dry rock. Another day is spent driving to Grand Forks, with a stop in Greenwood for coffee at the Copper Eagle. (Best cinnamon buns ever.) A stop in Midway—McMynn’s Store— for flour from the Heritage Mills in Rock Creek (because we’ve never yet found the mill itself open but their flours are worth the drive). And lunch at the Borscht Bowl in Grand Forks. Their borscht is Doukhobor-inspired and it’s wonderful, though nothing like the borscht we had at home when I was growing up.  I’ve written about that here and I know I’m repeating myself but isn’t that what food is about? Trying to capture a moment which itself is a distillation of memory, of history, of necessity and comfort?

the news

the brothers

Late afternoon yesterday I looked up from my desk through the big window facing south and two bucks were staring at me. Just at the edge of the woods. They had small antler buds which might mean they’re young ones, brothers maybe, but black-tail bucks lose their antlers every January or so and grow new ones in April so maybe these are mature adults. But then I wonder if they’d be traveling together? They looked at me, they ambled, they both darted back to the the bluff they’d just come up, alert as they watched for something I couldn’t see. People have recently encountered wolves just up the mountain behind us and we hear coyotes fairly often so it could have been either. I was reminded of this poem, not because of the snow (luckily we’re spared that!) but because of all the news carried by their presence. The white muzzle and throat of the one on the right, the tentative step forward, then back. And when I went out to greet them, they bounded into the woods, tails high.

Three Deer One Coyote Running
               in the Snow

First three deer bounding
and then coyote streaks right after
tail      flat out

I stand dumb a while two seconds
blankly black-and-white of trees and snow

Coyote’s back!
good coat, fluffy tail,
sees me:            quickly gone.

I walk through where they ran

to study how that news all got put down

—Gary Snyder, from No Nature: New and Selected Poems

“…all the more wonderful for its mysterious provenance”

the stray

For readers of the blog, the recurrence of plants, coyotes, frog-song, births, deaths, phrases of poetry (sometimes the same poetry), musings about dandelion pizza, the various rivers I love, the growth of grandchildren (and even a fourth one due in July), swimming, must get, well, a little tired. Yesterday I was driving to a meeting and I saw that the coltsfoot at Misery Mile is in bloom and I thought, oh, I should write about that (remembering my own young horse and how the leaves reminded me of his feet), and then almost immediately realized that I already had, in my essay collection Phantom Limb.

I stop on the roadside and carefully lift a plant of the coltsfoot to bring home to my own garden. Petasites palmatus, butterburr, sweet coltsfoot. There are the blooms on their fleshy stalks and the broad leaves with fine hairs on the underside. And there is one small inrolled leaf-shoot, not yet opened, the foot of that colt I hold as I once held the entire weight of his delicate ankles in my hands.

(The plant I lifted didn’t survive.)

And just now, looking out the glass door to the deck, I saw the buds on the volunteer apple tree growing in the rocks on the bank leading down to where our orchard used to be, the orchard I celebrate and mourn in Euclid’s Orchard.

Did this tree sprout from a seed spit over the side of the deck or excreted by birds or even seeds from the compost into which I regularly deposited cores and peelings from apples given us by friends in autumn? Belle of Boskoops from Joe and Solveigh, for instance, which make delectable fall desserts and cook up into beautiful chutney. Or else a seed from the few rotten apples from the bottom of a box bought from the Hilltop Farm in Spences Bridge, their flavor so intense you could taste dry air, the Thompson River, the minerals drawn up from the soil, faintly redolent of Artemesia frigida. This stray is all the more wonderful for its mysterious provenance, its unknown parents, and its uncertain future, for it grows out of a rock cleft, on a dry western slope. I won’t dig it up since I have no doubt its roots are anchored in that rock, but I will try to remember to water it occasionally and maybe throw a shovel of manure its way this spring.

It all comes around again. That’s what I’m saying, I guess. (Even the meeting I was driving to was to work on details for the upcoming—14th!—Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival, one of the pleasures of summer; I’ve been part of the organizing committee, off and on, since the beginning.) We sit on the deck at the end of the afternoon with a glass of wine and we notice that the big-leaf maples are heavy with incipient leaves and blossoms. And that means warblers and other songbirds drawn to both the nectar and to the small insects gathered on the blossoms. And as the leaves unfurl, we’ll watch for the western tanagers who nest either in the maple canopy or near it because we see them going back and forth during the nesting season, a flash of red and yellow, brilliant in summer sunlight.

My noticing, if I may call it that, is part of the way I remember, the way I try to keep intact the world I cherish. I am as political a creature as many or most; I have issues I follow, organizations I support, and lives beyond my own family and friends that I advocate for and with. But what I can do daily is record the place I have lived on and in for nearly 40 years—its cycles, its weather, its rich and ordinary earth. So the coltsfoot, the stray apple tree, the tanagers, even the samaras that fall from the maple in autumn and echo in the middle name of my first grandchild. Not only my home but what surrounds it, holds it. That people want to read these things never ceases to astonish me and I am grateful to you. And to Gaston Bachelard, who feels like a lifelong companion in his wise book about space—both the architectural space we inhabit but also how it fits into its environment, in our actual experience and how we recall it, how it influences our dreams and memories.

We comfort ourselves by reliving memories of protection. Something closed must retain our memories, while leaving them their original value as images. Memories of the outside world will never have the same tonality as those of home and, by recalling these memories, we add to our store of dreams; we are never real historians, but always near poets, and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that was lost.
                                     —from The Poetics of Space


“…the nail which is the axis”

These are worrying times. Daily the news is bad. The chemical attack in Syria, the machinations of that madman to the south of our border (his coterie of grifters and crooks as bad, or worse, than he is), the environmental alarms sounding their dark music. My dreams last night were full of axes and assailants. This morning, I saw the little group of worry dolls at the back of my desk and nervously moved them closer to hand. When they were given to my daughter as a three year old, she was told by the person who gifted them that she should tell her worries to them at bedtime and sleep with them under her pillow. And by morning, voila, no more worry. When I tucked her in that night, she was crying. What’s the matter, I asked, and she said she had no worries so she didn’t know what to do with the dolls. We put them in a satin-lined box and she refused to open it. She said they made her anxious.
I don’t know what we do about the world. My own small anxieties—family, work, health—seem so petty when I think of the continuing difficulties in Puerto Rico (forgotten by its own government, it seems), the situation in Syria, other flash points in the Middle East, here in Canada where Indigenous communities are without clean water, the edges of the Mediterranean Sea where people still take to perilous waters in unsafe boats because they see no alternative…
A doll, some lines of poetry, the first hummingbird of the season by my window yesterday, and the sound of tree frogs loud in the darkness as we said goodnight to a dinner guest. Is it enough? Of course not. But it’s what I have now.
No, no more: this should be happening in myth, in stone, or paint, not in reality, not here;
it should be an emblem of itself, not itself, something that would mean, not really have to happen,
something to go out, expand in implication from that unmoved mass of matter in the breast;
as in the image of an anguished face, in grief for us, not us as us, us as in a myth, a moral tale,
a way to tell the truth that grief is limitless, a way to tell us we must always understand
it’s we who do such things, we who set the slant, embed the tip, lift the sledge and drive the nail,
drive the nail which is the axis upon which turns the brutal human world upon the world.
                   —from “The Nail”, by C.K. Williams

the signatures

Last week, while in Edmonton, I posted a photograph of the house I believe my grandfather built in Beverly, in 1946. I knew I had some files of tax records, building materials receipts, and other miscellaneous  papers related to the property my grandparents moved to from Drumheller, so this past week, at home, I’ve spread out the stuff on our dining table (we’ve been eating by the fire, our plates and glasses on a small bench between our chairs….) and tried to piece together a story. I’m still in the very beginning stages of understanding anything much about this period in their lives but I’m planning to continue and also planning to collect what information I’m able to when John and I travel to western Ukraine in September in search of my grandfather’s roots.

I was surprised to find a big blueprinted page of a subdivision plan allowing my grandparents and two other couples — Peter and Pearl Pawliuk, and John and Jennie Walrich — to divide up a large parcel of land. (The survey took place in 1953 and the final plan was approved in 1954.) I will try to figure this out but in the meantime, I was looking at my grandparents’ signatures on the plan and realized that they both looked identical. Hmmm. I knew my grandmother attended school in Drumheller with my father in the mid-1930s; she sat in his classroom, at a small desk, because she wanted to learn to read and write. And the story about my grandfather was that my father taught him to sign his own name at some later date. I think my grandmother signed this document for both of them. I found another document, the bill for the survey itself, with my grandfather’s name on the back, painstakingly signed in blue ink, one clear signature (my grandmother’s?) and two quavery ones. (Someone else signed for the Walrichs with a note asserting it was His Mark and Her Mark.) Was this a practice run for all the legal stuff to come? I have only three photographs of my grandfather. Only a few faint memories. (I was 3 when he died.) I am trying to piece him together, his past, his life as my father’s father, and every small detail has to mean something in the process. It’s all I have.


the beautiful waters of Venice

the beautiful waters of venice

Last night I dreamed I was in Venice, trying to find my way across a narrow canal. Somewhere there was a bridge, though I couldn’t see it. Gondolas passed but wouldn’t stop. I was wearing a black dress and the scarf I bought at what was the equivalent of a dollar store on the Campo Santa Margherita. And in the dream I didn’t want to leave, which is just about how I felt when I was in Venice for real in 2009. We’d booked a small hotel for a week, planning to travel on to Ravenna afterwards, but at the end of the week, John asked, Do you want to leave? and I said, No. So we arranged another week in the small pensione we’d found not far from the Campo Santa Margherita and settled in for more walks along canals, more visits to churches and museums, more glasses of Prosecco in the little bar near our pensione where you could order a second glass and the host pulled a hose from the tank to your glass and refilled it because of course the Prosecco was on tap. For one euro.

I loved the light in Venice. It was November when we were there and the sky and water were almost the same colour. The grand buildings were reflected in water with the sky inverted and I kept losing my balance. My inner balance, I mean, because walking on the ancient cobbles was just wonderful. One of my favourite books about Venice is Joseph Brodsky’s Watermark and I kept thinking of it as we walked.

Water equals time and provides beauty with its double. Part water, we serve beauty in the same fashion.

One morning I took John on a little adventure. I’d bought a book for him, about Ezra Pound in Venice, and I’d worked out how to find the Calle Querini, in the Dorsoduro, where Pound had lived with Olga Rudge for almost fifty years. He is a complicated poet, I know, with as much in his work and his life to question as to admire. But that day, we found the house, with the little nametag by the bell —

the doorway.jpg

It was such a private thing, the tag, the bell, the door to the place Pound called “the little nest.” I could only be grateful for poets and their lovers and how time sometimes collapses in a whoosh of wind and water and you are there in an immortal city among the gods.

I have tried to write Paradise

Do not move
Let the wind speak.
              that is paradise.

Let the Gods forgive what I
              have made
Let those I love try to forgive
              what I have made.

In Watermark, Brodsky writes of a recurring dream of Venice and I too dream of the canals and the light.

This is the winter light at its purest. It carries no warmth or energy, having shed them and left them behind somewhere in the universe, or in the nearby cumulus. Its particles’ only ambition is to reach an object and make it, big or small, visible. It’s a private light, the light of Giorgione or Bellini, not the light of Tiepolo or Tintoretto. And the city lingers in it, savouring its touch, the caress of the infinity whence it came. An object, after all, is what makes infinity private.

Thank goodness for dreams, that almost a decade later I can return to Venice, the same place it was then, as it was a century earlier, and keep counting. Where the poet still lives with his lover and another poet still returns to the city winter after winter and the years have accumulated, not passed. And we are still there too, looking into water for our own reflection, the bridge suddenly visible.


Postcard, just above Mill Creek Ravine

last night

Last night, our final evening with our family in Edmonton, we stood on the street while our son helped his children on their scooters in front of their house. We could have helped but honestly, it was so cold (for grandparents accustomed to a mild April on the west coast) and one of the children was quite capable of scooting along on her own. The other one beamed as his father guided him up and down the sidewalk.  (I made the hat the youngest is wearing!)

We walked, we ate cinnamon buns at Wild Eharth, we ate dinner at Chianti on Whyte Avenue as well as several wonderful dinners cooked by Cristen, we bought pastries from La Boule and had the family over to our Airbnb one morning, and we read many many stories. My favourite? Probably one we gave the kids a year or two ago: Mr. Gumpy’s Outing, by John Burningham. If I missed a word, Kelly, age 3, was quick to correct me. If I didn’t turn the pages quickly enough, Henry, age 1, turned them impatiently.

For us? I bought John W.S. Merwin’s Garden Time. And for myself, a Notting Hill essay I’d meant to order but somehow didn’t: Kirsty Gunn’s My Katherine Mansfield Project. I began it last night, in my bed on 83rd Avenue, with the sound of Whyte Avenue muted out the window. I know I’ll be writing about it here.

And in the middle of the night, only a few hours before we needed to leave for the airport? I was sitting at the window, making notes for a long essay I need to write about houses and generations and love. On the plane, more notes. I was imagining my grandparent’s house in Beverly, the park kitty-corner to it. I was thinking of all of us last May building a deck for Brendan and Cristen, and the May before, building a pergola for Forrest and Manon. I was thinking of any place the generations are gathered, the table set, the stories set into play as easily as music.

Wish I was there.