cell by cell

afternoon deck

It felt like summer on this deck (with its bronze fish). Huge bees, bombus spp. of some sort (orange rumps…), going from flower to flower—crocus, daffodils, forsythia, low yellow primula. I planted out the seedlings of sugar peas I started indoors on March 16th. They were a foot tall and ready for their bed in Wave (the box where there’s a good screen of chicken wire for them to grow up against). I also transplanted some tiny kale seedlings, self-sown, in Long Eye. (My vegetable beds have names. What can I say.)

Over the past week I finished another of the essays for the collection I am calling Blue Portugal. The process of writing these essays feels a little like the fall of 2016, when I’d been tentatively diagnosed with something serious and I felt that I couldn’t waste time. I’d get up in the night and come down to my desk to work on the material that became Euclid’s Orchard. There was urgency in the work and also the daily rhythm of my life. I have no regrets, either for the sense that time was limited and I needed to use it well, and for the headlong energy I expended during that period. I felt lucky. I lived with someone I loved and who I knew would accompany me on any dark path that beckoned. I had a wonderful extended family. (Still have!) This work has that same urgency, though (as far as I know) I am strong and healthy. When I wake in the night, I have the sense that everything I know is connected, that I need to find way to stitch it all together like a useful and beautiful length of tapestry. Everything is connected, the flight of the bumblebees, the starlight, a pileated woodpecker just beyond my garden, drumming on a Douglas fir, the small blue scribble of my grandfather’s signature—he was learning to sign his name on a scrap of paper and mostly he gives up on the first syllable of his surname (my surname) but a single version is complete—the new chives so green and pungent in their pots on the deck.

The essay I just finished, “blueprints”, takes me back to house-building, the beginnings of our family, and then reaches back, back, to my grandparents’ years in Beverly, then a community outside Edmonton and now part of the city. It reaches back to the extraordinary photographer Anna Atkins, whose cyanotypes are botanical studies in blue and white. It ends with an informal picnic on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River as the ice breaks up, the ice I saw forming in late November as we drove across the Walterdale Bridge on our way to the Emergency ward of the Royal Alexandra Hospital because my retinas were trying to detach, the result of a hard fall on ice.

What I did today was shadowed by bees, their orange rumps glowing in sunlight. They entered the trumpets of daffodils, hovered over warm soil, paused from time to time on the sleeve of my flannel shirt.

We are bees,
and our body is a honeycomb.
We made
the body, cell by cell we made it.

—Rumi, translated by Robert Bly

“She wrote some of her captions in delicate seaweed.”

eel grass

Two passages from “blueprints”. a work-in-progress.

She wrote some of her captions in delicate seaweeds. Her blueprints are a hoard of perfect quilt blocks waiting to be arranged and stitched. They are like scraps of summer sky. They are a world made perfect, young algae, fruiting examples, a dreamworld, a blue heaven, where the tiniest plants float through a blue sea, nothing to damage them, almost two hundred years old and as alive as anything I’ve ever seen.

Fucus vesiculosus, Polypodium vulgare, Leucojam varium, Cystopteris dentaria, Asplenium septentrionale, Punctaria latifolia, Bortrychium lunaria, blue paper haunted with their images, as I am haunted by them, by a woman who sought, identified, collected, and dried plants, immersed sheets of paper in ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, arranged the plants, set glass over them, positioned them in sunlight, timed, waited, rinsed the sheets in clear water, and left a vast garden of white on blue for us to wonder at centuries after.

He made the drawings. He sat at the desk overlooking Burrard Inlet after his teaching job finished for the day, putting aside his poems. He made marks, erased, used the three-sided ruler I sometimes take out for special quilt measurements. (Nothing is wasted.) He rolled the big sheets of paper with our house carefully imagined, no perspective, nor the distance from the eaves to the peak, but a way to see our way to building the platforms, the walls sheathed in plywood, the joists and beams to carry our roof aloft, and he took them to a place off Marine Drive in North Vancouver where they were reproduced by the process that replaced blueprint (not unlike the process used by Anna Atkins to preserve what she loved in white lines on blue paper, the negative image of what she placed on a page in sunlight). The term “blueprint” is still used for reproductions of architectural drawings and floor plans, though when John took our drawings to the office to have copies made, the process had become a form of xerography. No longer Prussian blue, no longer a page of sky showing how a house might be viewed from an angle impossible for me to apprehend. Now we’d probably hold up a phone or my small Samsung tablet, loaded with plans we could zoom in on, scroll, turn to see alternate views; looking at the little screen, we’d determine the dimensions of the lumber we needed to cut and piece together to make a house. A home.

redux: “I have always taken the compass as a thing to be held.”

5A

Note: This post is from March, 2014. I was thinking my way into a novella and I was reading, in some cases re-reading, the novels (and novellas) of Ethel Wilson and Sheila Watson. They are the muses of the novella I eventually wrote, The Marriage of Rivers, and I am so delighted to tell you that Palimpsest Press will publish it next spring (2020). The contract has been signed, sealed, and delivered! This press, like Mother Tongue Publishing, is devoted to “…poetry, fiction, and select nonfiction titles that deal with poetics, the writing life, aesthetics, cultural criticism, and literary biography.” And their books are objects of beauty in themselves.

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I’ve never been to Dog Creek though I’ve thought of it many times as we’ve driven Highway 97 from Cache Creek north. In 1934 (one account says 1935) the young Sheila Doherty went to teach school in Dog Creek, then (as now) a remote community on the west side of the Fraser River. She lived in Dog Creek for two years and wrote of this time in her first novel, Deep Hollow Creek, though it was published much later in her life, after she’d achieved a kind of fame after the publication of her second novel, The Double Hook, in 1959. By then she’d married Wilfred Watson and taken his surname.

I read The Double Hook as many of us did, as an undergraduate (in the last century), and it changed the way I thought about novels. Its language, both lean and mythic, led the reader into a hermetic world from which one emerged, dazed and somehow enlightened. Its structure was (is) perfectly balanced between darkness and illumination, between violence and redemption. As Sheila Watson wrote in The Double Hook, “…when you fish for the glory you catch the darkness too.”

But it was many years later before I found Deep Hollow Creek — and no surprise there because it wasn’t published until 1992. I read it later in the 1990s, a chance discovery on the shelves of the Sechelt Public Library. It’s a brief perfect book. 111 pages in the New Canadian Library edition I bought at Russell Books in early March. I’d call it a novella, that enigmatic form beloved by maybe too few of us these days (or so the publishing world would have us believe. We can’t market them, they say. We can’t sell them!). Every word counts in Deep Hollow Creek and there are just enough of them for the young school teacher Stella to enter the place  that is Dog Creek and tangle herself in the dense stories of the few who live there.  “If I hadn’t come here, I doubt whether I should ever have seen through the shroud of printers’ ink, through to the embalmed silence. The word is a flame burning in a dark glass.”

Deep Hollow Creek anticipates The Double Hook but to my mind it’s more satisfying. This is personal, of course. I think both books are works of sheer genius but somehow the symbolism of The Double Hook is used with a lighter hand in the earlier book. The place — Dog Creek — seems first of all to be a real place. Stella unravels the water-rights, the systems of hay crops, the genealogies of horses and dogs, the bitter disputes between families. And it all rings so true, even those grouse among the jack-pines: “…red-eyed, speckle-coated fool-hens…unconcerned, waiting for their necks to be wrung without the trouble of a shot.”

I am trying to find a way to write lean essential stories myself and it’s a gift to have this book to serve as a talisman, a compass. “I have always taken the compass as a thing to be held. Yet the hand falters measuring the fleeting body of flame.”

“…time is your material.”

yellow

In the night I had to stop myself from getting up to come down to work on my current essay “blueprint”. thinking that it was high time I had a proper sleep. I didn’t go back to sleep right away but listened to the mouse that was making tiny sounds in the sunroom just off my bedroom and to the sleeping sounds of the cat (who brought the mouse in to show us the previous night and then dropped it in his excitement). I thought about the essay with a deep curiosity for where it might take me, and how. I know some things about it, of course, but I don’t know how they will come together. Because it’s partly a piecing together of how the plans for our house were imagined and made, I’ve made a little set of questions for John to answer, as he drew the plans. I’m not sure I remember exactly how I did the plans, he said yesterday as we sat by the fire after lunch. That’s ok, I assured him. Your not remembering is important too. He thought he’d done a lot of drafts on lined yellow paper and I’m hoping those turn up somewhere.

Our life here was never really planned. We met, married, wondered where we might live. There was a lovely old rented house but it was falling down around us and the owner had plans. We looked briefly at houses in Vancouver and realized it would be huge debt and we didn’t really want to live there anyway. We bought this land, thinking we’d camp on it, maybe forever. And then we realized that we could build something. And one thing led to another.

We had a baby and I enrolled in the MFA program at UBC. It didn’t work for me for a lot of reasons. I’d thought I could get that degree and perhaps teach. But that didn’t happen. I love Ann Hamilton‘s essay, “Making Not Knowing”, for its wise musings about how artists find their way into their true work:

You may set out for New York, but you may find yourself, as I did, in Ohio. You may set out to make a sculpture and find that time is your material.

I thought I’d teach, and write poetry. Instead, I helped to build a house and wrote prose. I’m still writing prose and although I sometimes miss the brief quick heat of writing a poem, I’ve learned that prose, particularly the essay, has a wide and generous capacity to hold everything you ever wanted it to. Everything you ever needed it to. Like the expandable string bags I first saw in France, pulled from a pocket in a market and filled with cheese, a head of chicory, a little pot of stoneground mustard, a baton or two, some butter wrapped in greaseproof paper, a melon, a bottle of wine, an essay will gladly perform the same function.

It’s important to me right now to think about my work and why it matters to me. I spent many years just finding time to write and now I have all the time in the world, though maybe not enough of it. I feel both urgency and patience. In a way it’s a perfect combination. I know what I want to do won’t go away if I let myself stay in bed rather than coming downstairs in the dark to write a page by lamplight. I used to think I wasn’t a real writer because I didn’t make outlines and didn’t work in a particular way. I’ve seen the photographs of sticky notes on bulletin boards and I know that it must provide terrific guidance for some writers but it’s not my process and I’m relieved to acknowledge to myself that I don’t have to do it that way. It’s a good thing I never taught writing, apart from a few workshops here and there, because I don’t have a system to pass along.

Imagine those bags, though. You hold one, wondering what you will choose at the market under the bright umbrellas. You didn’t make a list. But following your nose, you find the heaps of freshly-picked basil, a tumble of tomatoes so ripe you can imagine their juices puddling on the cutting board, little rounds of cheeses wrapped in vine leaves, spices from North Africa, brown eggs laid that morning, a tablecloth of brilliant yellow cotton printed with irises, branches of blossoming thyme that have brought bees from the hillsides with them, and somehow, somehow it all fits in your string bag.

But not knowing, waiting and finding—though they may happen accidentally—aren’t accidents. They involve work and research. Not knowing isn’t ignorance. (Fear springs from ignorance.) Not knowing is a permissive and rigourous willingness to trust, leaving knowing in suspension, trusting in possibility without result, regarding as possible all manner of response.

 

 

 

 

“But this is all in the future.”

floor plan

My current essay-in-progress is one I’m calling “Blueprint”. I made some notes towards it a few months ago and then it sat around as I worked on other essays, finished a novella, made a quilt, moped a bit during the cold winter. But the other night I woke just after midnight, came down to my desk, and it suddenly called. I have a few things to try to bring together in this piece and I won’t say much about that now but this morning I got out the house-plans John worked on so labouriously in the winter and spring of 1980-81. I remember how he’d set up a workspace in his study on the second floor of the house we rented in North Vancouver. He had the most amazing view: Burrard Inlet, the city lights of Vancouver laid out beyond his window, and on clear days he could see over to Point Grey. He had a few drafting implements and a copy of the building code and somehow he drew plans for a house. I know that the process for reproducing the plans wasn’t actually blueprinting at that time– I think these plans were actually xerographed– but people still called them blueprints. Do they now? Probably not.

So I’m writing about those plans as well as the beautiful Czech modrotisk, or block-printed indigo fabric, also called blueprint. I’m writing about Anna Atkins and her early 19th c. cyanotypes of British algae, ferns, and flowering plants. And I’m writing about time. Because honestly it’s on my mind almost always. As I look at John’s plans and remember the whole hullabaloo of moving our lives here (at least part of the time) to a tent, with a few cooking pots, a Coleman stove, so that we could build a house (we were poets; how on earth did we imagine we could build a house? Well, we imagined it…), I realize it was almost exactly 38 years ago. Our first baby was two weeks old when we drove up the newly-constructed driveway and he will turn 38 in 8 days. When I write about that time, I am there in body and soul. I am listening to loons nesting on Sakinaw Lake and asking again, as we frame the opening for the window above the kitchen sink, if we can make the sill deep enough for a pot of geraniums.

from a work-in-progress:

What also happened as we planned the rectangles and how high the windows, how wide the doors, was that we had a baby. While we built the first two rectangles, he lived with us in our blue tent set up on a plywood (two sheets; 8×8) platform with a tarp extending over it for added protection from coastal rain. He slept with us under our down sleeping bag in its duvet cover. I bathed him in the one enameled tin basin we had in our camp kitchen (a homemade table under the tarp with a Coleman stove and a few battered saucepans), which was also our salad bowl, in water from Ruby Lake, brought up to the building site in a 10 gallon container. The well had yet to be drilled. The baby, who was Forrest, wore a toque at night because he had almost no hair.

And what happened before we moved in to the three rectangles (because a square is also a rectangle) with their bare plywood floors and no doors to the bedrooms, is another baby, not quite born as we lugged our furniture and boxes of books and the entire contents of a kitchen into the house, but arriving soon after. The first baby was a toddler by then, eager to climb ladders, find abandoned nails in corners, and not careful enough around the woodstove so that a corral had to be constructed from offcuts of 2x4s.

But this is all in the future. I am putting the house and its life before the drawings that conceived it. I want to write about the blueprints. How John drew rooms onto big sheets of paper, using special rulers and other measures, representing lintels, top-plates, the distances between windows, how a door might open in, or out, and how a life unfolds from what a pencil projects.

Redux (in praise of what’s beautiful, for World Poetry Day): ” …they have also left us with an oud in our hands”

For World Poetry Day, I celebrate  Nazik Al-Malaika. She was born in Iraq in 1923 and died in Cairo in 2007. She is recognized as one of the Arabic world’s foremost poets. She broke from classical tradition to explore free verse though she returned to classical forms later in life. Her work is musical and beautiful, influenced by her study of music, specifically the oud.

Why do we fear words
when they have been rose-palmed hands,
fragrant, passing gently over our cheeks,
and glasses of heartening wine
sipped, one summer, by thirsty lips?
Why do we fear words
when among them are words like unseen bells,
whose echo announces in our troubled lives
the coming of a period of enchanted dawn,
drenched in love, and life?
So why do we fear words?
We took pleasure in silence.
We became still, fearing the secret might part our lips.
We thought that in words laid an unseen ghoul,
crouching, hidden by the letters from the ear of time.
We shackled the thirsty letters,
we forbade them to spread the night for us
as a cushion, dripping with music, dreams,
and warm cups.
Why do we fear words?
Among them are words of smooth sweetness
whose letters have drawn the warmth of hope from two lips,
and others that, rejoicing in pleasure
have waded through momentary joy with two drunk eyes.
Words, poetry, tenderly
turned to caress our cheeks, sounds
that, asleep in their echo, lies a rich color, a rustling,
a secret ardor, a hidden longing.
Why do we fear words?
If their thorns have once wounded us,
then they have also wrapped their arms around our necks
and shed their sweet scent upon our desires.
If their letters have pierced us
and their face turned callously from us
Then they have also left us with an oud in our hands
And tomorrow they will shower us with life.
So pour us two full glasses of words!
Tomorrow we will build ourselves a dream-nest of words,
high, with ivy trailing from its letters.
We will nourish its buds with poetry
and water its flowers with words.
We will build a balcony for the timid rose
with pillars made of words,
and a cool hall flooded with deep shade,
guarded by words.
Our life we have dedicated as a prayer
To whom will we pray . . . but to words?

–Nazik Al-Malaika, translated from the Arabic by Rebecca Carol Johnson

“All light, All ten thousand miles at once in its light!” (Du Fu)

vernal

Last night we slept with our bedroom windows open. The night before, a wolf howled and then the coyotes raised their voices. In response? In challenge? A saw-whet owl has been calling so close I think it might be in the arbutus tree just to the south of the house. I hoped for more of that last night but heard only thumps as the cat jumped from one level of the deck to another, hunting mice. And I listened as the cars from the first ferry from Saltery Bay to Earls Cove passed on the highway below. There weren’t many cars this morning and I thought of the passengers on the ferry drinking coffee and watching the moon as the ferry approached the dock at Earls Cove. The same moon that I saw rise over Hallowell and set in the west just before I got up.

I had a restless night, maybe because of all the moonlight! I was awake around 3, thinking about the past few months. It was a cold winter and there were times I wished it over. I fell and cracked my tailbone at the very end of November and still have pain, sometimes quite a lot. And the tears in my retina that were a result of the impact of that fall were repaired, though now I have a small black fly that darts across my vision. My ophthalmologist says this is normal and probably won’t go away. There were some dark days and nights over the winter as I shivered (we heat with wood, mostly, and not everything I need to do in a day is close to the fire!) and thought about mortality. But I’ve learned, or am learning, that adjusting my perspective is the most useful thing to do when stuff gets hard. for example, I could have cracked my head when I fell, or fractured my wrists. I’m alive, in short, and so many people I’ve known and loved have died this winter. Yesterday I received an unexpected call telling me I was being given an literary windfall. And the novella I thought would be impossible to publish is going to be published next year. An essay written partly in response to my fractured tailbone will also be published later this year (I found things out I wouldn’t have known if I’d never fallen). The small dwarf daffodils are blooming everywhere, there are pots of bright crocus by the front door, and a tree frog leaped out from under the hot-tub when John was hosing off the decks the other day. Guys from Egmont (the village at the end of the road) are going to come and make a skookum fence around the vegetable garden because deer and elk tore the old one apart last fall when everything in the woods was so dry and parched and the cabbages and kale were too succulent to ignore. (The fence is something we would have rebuilt ourselves even a few years ago but these guys have a post-hole auger and they’ll sink 4×4 cedar posts 2 feet deep; digging with a pick—the way we’d have to do it— is a bit daunting to us right now. Page wire instead of deer mesh. We’ll help if they need us to.)

Alive, in short, and full of energy and ready to finish the collection of essays I’m working on. Ready to plant greens. Ready to make a quilt for a grandson turning 3 in September (they get quilts when they move from their cribs to beds…) and ready to try Edmonton again (last time was when I fell…), even venturing to Drumheller with Brendan, Cristen, and the kids to visit the Tyrell Museum and the graves of ancient Kishkans.

So it’s spring, or will be by the time we go to sleep tonight. It’s the “Super-Worm Moon”, which is fitting because when we dug out the compost the other day to top-dress the raspberries and garlic, the worms were the size of small snakes. The days are getting longer and the nights are so clear that looking into them I feel like I can see forever. Stars, Jupiter to the south, Saturn over Hallowell, a chorus of coyotes and wolves and the insistent call of the saw-whet owl. Too-too-too-too-too-too. You too.

 

Above the tower — a lone, twice-sized moon.
On the cold river passing night-filled homes,
It scatters restless gold across the waves.
On mats, it shines richer than silken gauze.

Empty peaks, silence: among sparse stars,
Not yet flawed, it drifts. Pine and cinnamon
Spreading in my old garden . . . All light,
All ten thousand miles at once in its light!

–Du Fu