Like so many others, I find January a long month. A dark month. And although we are not in the middle of the polar vortex that is creating such frigid temperatures in other parts of the continent, it’s cold here. In the mornings I put on two or three layers and drink my coffee close to the fire.
But then there’s a morning when it’s somehow lighter. I woke at 5 a.m. on Monday and the sky was dense with stars against the deepest indigo. I thought, oh, that would make a beautiful quilt and then I realized I’d made several inspired by winter skies. In my book Phantom Limb, there’s an essay called “An Autobiography of Stars” in which I detail the making of a quilt for my daughter Angelica, set against a meditation on astronomy and the Leonid showers.
On each bed, a patchwork, for warmth and for safe passage through the night. In the sky we might fashion a parallel life, a world mirroring the topography of our own lives, irregular and beautiful, geometry in service to love. Sewing stars for my daughter to sleep under, I am fashioning a metaphor for my love of her and a belief in her luminosity, a parable of meteors and radiance and grace.
I have no photograph of that quilt to share but it was silvery stars—Variable Star blocks—on a ground of deep purple and blue. And I’m pretty sure I was making it in winter.
So a morning when it’s lighter, when you walk across the patio and realize that the winter jasmine has begun to bloom, single yellow stars in a thicket of branches:
A morning when you are looking forward to reading more of Dante’s Inferno by the fire. Last night we read the 4th Canto, the long beautiful lines taking us into the first circle of hell with Dante and Virgil. And in that place too is a bright fire with poets gathered—Homer, Horace, Lucan, and Ovid. More company appears, every poet or philosopher or mathematician important to Dante. In the poem’s notes, written by Robert Pinsky’s daughter Nicole, she calls this “an abundant, almost ecstatic identifying list.” Dante and Virgil spend some time with them and then
…my wise guide leads me away from that quiet
Another way—again I see air tremble,
And come to a part that has no light inside it.
Tonight we’ll go there, into the second circle. But even in that darkness, there will be beauty. I remembered in 2013, in the aftermath of having to take the vegetable garden apart for a septic field repair and then rebuilding it again, digging in a new border and finding, underground, unexpected beauty. When I’d dug up all the plants and trees a few months earlier, I thought I’d also lifted all the bulbs to set aside and replant again. But there, in the dark, an incandescent clump of crocus.
The other night—well, it was actually very early morning: around 2 a.m.— I was in my study working on one of the essays in a linked group (one of them has just been published at the Little Toller Books site) and remembered a passage from the Inferno. Luckily I had a copy on my desk, Robert Pinsky’s glorious translation. I found my passage, contemplated it, and read a bit more of the poem I hadn’t really thought much about in years. Yet it is so current in its considerations. The next day we were talking about stuff, the darkness of winter, the indignities of aging, etc. (as one does), and I suddenly said, I think we should read something together. What do you suggest, John asked. The Inferno of Dante, I replied. He blinked. And said, Yes, let’s. So we read the first Canto yesterday, each of us reading a page, then passing the book to the other. Our fire was warm and agreeable. Just now we read the second Canto. It couldn’t be more appropriate to everything we’ve been talking about and thinking about. To what I’ve been writing about in the small hours at my desk with my small desk light allowing me to see the keys of my computer and not much else.
I’m working on a quilt I’ve called A Dark Path and now an essay called the same thing. How good to read a poem that begins,
Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard—so tangled and rough…
There aren’t many people you can read the Inferno with, on a January evening, in front of a woodstove fire. Passing the book back and forth, our voices were oddly at ease in the terza rima of a poet born in the 13th century.
O Muses, O genius of art, O memory whose merit
Has inscribed inwardly those things I saw—
Help me fulfill the perfection of your nature.
I commenced: “Poet, take my measure now:
Appraise my powers before you trust me to venture
Through that deep passage where you would be my guide.
My Edmonton family gave me Jenna Butler’s Magnetic North: Sea Voyage to Svalbard for my birthday a few weeks ago. It’s a beautiful book, brief in the way a book can be when it knows exactly what it wants to do. This one takes you on a (brief) voyage on a sailing ship carrying researchers, artists, and writers along one coast of Spitsbergen Island, in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. The island was a whaling base in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Svalbard is a land of traces: what dies, lingers. The bone beds of the
whaling stations, the outposts with their ragged timbers overlooking
the straits. Each thing that lives its space on the island casts some small
shadow, a sundial arm of birth and death. Only humans in this place
foreshorten the clock, turn away those about to die, to be born.
I’ve thought a lot about this book since I read it last week. It straddles genre in a way. It’s given this classification on the publisher’s page:
Subject(s): TRAVEL / Essays & Travelogues, SCIENCE / Global Warming & Climate Change, SCIENCE / Life Sciences / Ecology, Climate change, The North / Environment / Travel / Women’s Studies, Ecological science, the Biosphere, LITERARY COLLECTIONS / Canadian
Yes, it’s all those things. Jenna notes the signs of climate change, the geology of Spitsbergen, the tiny Arctic willows, saxifrage, the kittiwakes, the weather; and hers is an ardent eye: “To watch a glacier calve is to watch time run in both directions at once.”
It’s also poetry. Some might call it prose-poetry but I’d suggest the line breaks are important in a lyric context. The language is taut and transparent as ice. You see through the lines into the air and water, where a minke whale breaches, and where midden heaps are visible from sea. Each short section contains sufficient observation and imagery to allow the imagination to expand in the long hours of daylight.
In a way, this book is almost perfect and its beauty is in the restraint of its author. I think that another writer, another publisher might well have wanted more. A travelogue/essay collection of 100 pages is the literary equivalent of a novella, a suite of poems, and how often we are told that such books are simply not cost-effective? I never thought as I was reading Magnetic North that it should have been longer. Yet I was surprised (and delighted) with the physical qualities of the book itself, the attention given it by a designer (the pages are uncluttered and open, the sections feature black and white photographs that elegantly take the reader into the text, there are French flaps, a beautiful cover). It’s not that I think all travel books (or essay collections) should be this size, with the elegant brevity of this narrative; but I’m so glad that the University of Alberta Press gave this particular book such a classy presentation.
We carry this space with us when we go.
In photographs and recordings, etchings and climate data, we carry
the feel of a Svalbard summer. On the sun-brittled carapaces of prairie
sailboats, I’ll find my feet and bear down; I’ll cast back to Antigua’s decks, the come-from-away skeletons of the whaling stations under
endless noonhour sun.
The way of all expeditions: at the end, a slow fragmenting, everyone
compassed towards home. Pyongyang and Halifax, Seattle and
Sacramento, London, the Alberta bush. We are flotsam, travelling
greedy tides back to our own small spaces of dark. Our own
On the eve of my son Brendan’s birthday, I am sitting at my desk, awash in nostalgia for the early years of our family’s life. 36 years ago this evening, I was unable to sleep (though we had a new mattress!) and was awake in my bed, eager for the new baby to arrive to join us—John, Forrest, and me—in our brand-new house. My parents had come from the Island to help out for the first week and they were sound asleep downstairs in the study (this study!). So nostalgia, love, the memory of a quiet sleeping household, while I tried to find a comfortable position for my body with its beautiful cargo. And I wonder if the stories I tell about those years are plain fact or embellished. Both, I think. Does it matter?
From January 23, 2013
This afternoon I found myself reading a small journal I kept during a trip to Europe in 2010. At an exhibition in Vienna – and I didn’t record the museum but possibly it was the Museum of Modern Art (or Mumok) where I recall a fascinating exhibit on the Moderns – I wrote down this observation by Sidney Tillim, from an essay, “Notes on Narrative and History Painting”, published in Artforum (May, 1977), posted on the wall of one gallery:
“The risk of nostalgia is a morbid identification with the past. But its power is precisely as a criticism of the present. Representation, as I conceive it, is an admission of loss…and a criticism of an unfulfilling reality which takes the form of an attempt to re-establish a live equivalent of the lost ideal.”
This strikes me as particularly resonant as I am currently reading Artemis Cooper’s biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor. I first encountered PLF’s work in the late 1970s, just after A Time of Gifts (1977) was published. I remember how taken I was with both the journey described in its pages (and that of its sequel, Between the Woods and the Water, which came out in 1986) – imagine, a young man, 18 years of age, deciding to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (we would say Istanbul but that romantic boy insisted on its earlier name)! – and the rich prose taking the reader so generously to a time and a series of places about to be changed utterly by the Second World War. A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water trace his route through Holland, beginning in December, 1933, entering Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Romania, and ending at the Bulgarian border. He reached Constantinople a little more than a year later, in December, 1934. I re-read his books every few years and have had the pleasure of introducing several friends and family members to them. Like many fans of PLF, I am eagerly waiting for the third book, left in draft form after its author’s death in June, 2011.
How did he do it, I’ve always wondered. How did he write so vividly of a walk across Europe, years after he’d done it, with many more extraordinary adventures — his war-time service for instance, including his time in occupied Crete, working with the Cretan resistance. (If you’ve seen the film, Ill Met by Moonlight, you’ll know something about this.) I think it’s fair to say that A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water contain elements of embellishment. The gorgeous passages describing his grand ride across the Great Hungarian Plain are an example of this. The wonder of those days, walking and riding across a vast sunlit steppe among sheep and goats and long-horned cattle, hosted by one family of faded nobility after another, all of them kind and cultured. There were games of bicycle polo in courtyards followed by long dinners made splendid with poetry and music. It seems that he walked more than rode, though the story of being lent a horse at one end and honouring the arrangement to drop the horse off at the other is, well, exaggerated. In a letter to Artemis Cooper, he says, “I did ride a fair amount, so I decided to put myself on horseback for a bit. I felt the reader might be getting bored of me just plodding along…You won’t let on, will you?” Does it make any difference, knowing this? To me, not a bit. Memory has a way of storing and polishing the important events of our lives until they have the clarity of fine jewels. They are no less valuable for having begun as glass. And PLF is a writer above all, his imagination shaping his memories into narratives we are lucky to have.
In my Vienna journal from 2010, I wrote down an observation made by Alex Colville, accompanying (I think) “The River Spree, 1971”:
“I do not paint from direct observation but from memories. I paint exact, and only change the reality according to the requirements of the composition. To be a good realist, I must invent everything.”
A few years ago, everyone was reading The Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, described by their publisher as follows:
“How negotiable is a fact in nonfiction? In 2003, an essay by John D’Agata was rejected by the magazine that commissioned it due to factual inaccuracies. That essay—which eventually became the foundation of D’Agata’s critically acclaimed About a Mountain—was accepted by another magazine, The Believer, but not before they handed it to their own fact-checker, Jim Fingal. What resulted from that assignment was seven years of arguments, negotiations, and revisions as D’Agata and Fingal struggled to navigate the boundaries of literary nonfiction.”
Oh, how times have changed. For the better? I wonder. I’m so grateful to have PLF’s glorious account of his walk across Europe, a copy of Horace’s Odes in his rucksack, and a greatcoat to keep him warm those nights when he hadn’t been taken in by a baron or a baker or a Rumanian princess, just before the maps he used were redrawn forever.
The other night, outside in the cold, looking at the red moon, spring felt a thousand years away. The stars were winter stars. No owls. A glaze of frost on every surface. But yesterday, walking up the mountain, John and I noticed how the light had changed. Not spring light, not yet. But there was a little warmth in it. And on our way down, we stopped to look at the first leaves of miners lettuce sprouting under some blackberry canes. Soon the early salads, the snippings of chives, the pizzas of dandelion greens, the buckets of forsythia blossoms brought into the house. This morning I woke from a complicated dream, not about any particular season, but I was younger, more nimble. So before the strange series of misadventures that began in late summer, 2016. Before the tests, the injections, the puzzling of specialists over screens. I’d like to think I’ve left that behind and that’s how I’m proceeding with my life but then I dream, I wake, and know where I am in the grand scheme. Or simply in the cycle of the seasons, of which winter is one.
The pillow’s low, the quilt is warm, the body smooth and peaceful,
Sun shines on the door of the room, the curtain not yet open.
Still the youthful taste of spring remains in the air,
Often it will come to you even in your sleep.
Yesterday I was outside by the bench where I do my indigo dyeing in better weather. I was thinking about the long essay I’m current writing on blue, its various incarnations, and visual disturbances. The research has led me into the most amazing areas of scholarship, unknown to me before I fell on ice in Edmonton in November and tore the retina in my right eye. My son Forrest mentioned Oliver Sacks and his experience with indigo and so I read his collection of essays, Hallucinations.
I had long wanted to see “true” indigo, and thought that drugs might be the way to do this. So one sunny Saturday in 1964, I developed a pharmacologic launchpad consisting of a base of amphetamine (for general arousal), LSD (for hallucinogenic intensity), and a touch of cannabis (for a little added delirium). About twenty minutes after taking this, I faced a white wall and exclaimed, “I want to see indigo — now!”
And then, as if thrown by a giant paintbrush, there appeared a huge, trembling, pear-shaped blob of the purest indigo. Luminous, numinous, it filled me with rapture. It was the colour of heaven…
(Oliver Sacks, “Altered States”)
After that I was interested in the idea that the entoptic phenonoma I’d experienced before the retinal tear was diagnosed might be something one could induce. I’m not sure I want to induce them but I found myself thinking about the intense beauty I’d been reluctant to admit was the result of damage to my eye. The blue in particular, the blue of the sky billowing with white clouds: if I was a believer, I might have thought I was seeing heaven.
It hadn’t occurred to me that a person could summon indigo. My own recipe for producing it was pretty tame. Indigo powder (which is sourced from a farm in India, not grown in my garden and fermented in a vat),thiourea dioxide, lye, synthropol soap, and soda ash. I use vinegar for rinsing the dyed fabrics. Some of these are caustic but none, as far as I know, is capable of generating hallucinations.
Would I use a cocktail of hallucinogens to see that inner sky again? Would I mix a little of my precious vial of homemade cannabis tincture (Texada Timewarp buds soaked in Silent Sam vodka) with something else more powerful if it meant I could look upon that cracked red desert beyond my irises? An inner landscape entirely my own.I don’t know. But I would be in good company. Dr. Sacks—and those who entered the caves perhaps 35,000 years ago to paint horses, bison, ibex, a gallery of lions, their own hands outlined in hematite.
—from “The Blue Etymologies”, a work-in-progress
Right now I’m reading The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art, by the South African archaeologist David Lewis-Williams. It’s quite a provocative analysis of the origins of image-making, the evolution of symbolic activity, and how certain percepts are wired into the human nervous system. I think of the spirals, the gridwork, the zigzag lines that are part of the complex non-representational patterns we see in cave art, existing alongside the most beautiful and coherent images of animals, keenly observed and anatomically represented. The quartet of horses in Chauvet, the polychrome bison in Altamira. The finger-flutings in mud in the Cosquer Cave. The finger-drawn grids in Hornos, in Spain.
I read, and I write, and I wait for better weather in order to set up my dye vat and pursue my own indigo dream.
I remember the silver light falling beside my face, like the tails of shooting stars, in the dark cave of my bed at night, fearful and blessed, and how I will try to replicate that sensation—not just the visual beauty but the awe—in some way for the rest of my life.
A year ago, I was planning a long essay about rivers, inspired by Oliver Sacks. I finished it and am in the process of finding a home for it. As I’m also trying to find a home for my novella about rivers, also completed in the past year. More water, more searching, more finishing…
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.” — Norman Maclean, from A River Runs Through It
Last night I finished reading The River of Consciousness, the final collection of essays by Oliver Sacks. It’s a beautiful book, full of lively, erudite, and humane explorations of memory, illness, and yes, consciousness. I put it on my bedside table, turned out the light, fell into a deep sleep (helped a little, I have to say, by my homemade tincture), and woke with one thought in my mind. Do rivers themselves have consciousness?
I suspect they do. Think of how often we use river terms for our own metaphorical purposes. River of consciousness. Stream of consciousness (that wonderful narrative device so beloved by the Modernists). Time and the river.
If a dynamic, flowing consciousness allows, at the lowest level, a continuous active scanning or looking, at a higher level it allows the interaction of perception of memory, of present and past. — Oliver Sacks
The photograph above is the moment of the Thompson River entering the larger body of the Fraser River, at Lytton. How long before the Thompson is just a memory of green water in the darker water of the Fraser? What does it retain of its essential self? Its origins, its sediments, its particular history, its…yes, its own fluid memory?
My husband’s new book of poetry is due out from Harbour Publishing later this year. Its title? This Was The River. I’m thinking a conversation about rivers and their own consciousness might well begin this evening, by our fire, over a glass of wine. And later this winter or early spring, overlooking the Thompson and the Fraser, a place we stop every time we drive up Highway 1 into the Interior.
I made some notes this morning and I hope to enter the river of consciousness as well as its obverse during these dark days of January. Maybe most particularly its obverse.