“In the Crow River, a mature sun overhead..”

the point

Yesterday John came back from the mailbox with a package: a book by a Ukrainian poet, Oleh Lysheha. He’d ordered it without knowing anything about the poet but wanted to read poetry rooted in the country we are about to visit next week. He opened the book at random and read a poem aloud. It was “Father” and it couldn’t have been more beautiful. Here’s the opening:

Oh, he liked to bathe..
Best in late summer,
In the Crow River, a mature sun overhead..
—Once, there was a deeper place here—
He entered patiently, his turn of wrist,
The elbow high, slipping the hand into the water and out,
As if still dry—in the manner no one sees anymore—
Swimming to a shallow place:
—Would you wash my back?

Almost every day we swim, early, in the lake nearby, and we’ve noted that we can tell it’s late in the season by the later rising of the sun over the mountain to the east of the lake. I wouldn’t have thought to call it “mature” but that’s a perfect adjective for the sun at the end of August.

Reading on, to himself, he kept saying, There are poems for animals and birds! Fish! John’s own new book arrived earlier in the week, This Was the River, with a cover detail from Tintoretto’s painting “The Creation of the Animals”, chosen because a sequence of poems named for the painting is at the heart of the book.

john's river

I’ve been looking into Oleh Lysheha’s poems (translated by the poet and James Brasfield) and find in them something rich and mysterious, anchored in the earth, but also filled with divinity. A horse dreaming of escape to the mountains, an old dog in the woods, “His skull a cobweb of veins” (the poet imploring, “Young nettle, be kind to him—listen—/His heart can’t endure any more the arc of your leaves..”).

I have been trying to learn a few phrases in Ukrainian but wish now I had time to commit one or two of these poems to memory. That father, in the Crow River, “He walked out like a blind man/and fell face down into grass, in sunlight..” and the horse who remembers,

…the day
A man outlined
In red on the cave wall
Shadows of my friends
Coming down slowly,
One by one, to water flowing
From a subterranean river..

a summer song

stray apples

They are coming to an end, the long summer days. Already you can see that the light has changed; it’s more honeyed. This morning we swam amid the repeated dives of a kingfisher, its rattle coming from a cedar bough, then the rocks further along the lake shore. Small dragonflies were darting across the surface of the lake, blue and blue and blue.

Yesterday I made the pies I planned to, three large ones using the Merton Beauty apples and some blueberries, and those went into the freezer for winter dinners. With the last of the apples, I made a galette, adding some of the blackberries we picked the other day. Not the Himalayans but the cutleaf evergreen berries, Rubus laciniatus, that ripen a little later here. They’re spicier somehow, and firmer. We had that galette last night, with enough left for dessert tonight. It tasted of autumn, not summer. Summer is peaches and cherries and green gooseberries and golden plums. This galette was rich and dark, flavoured with candied ginger.

A bear wandered out from under the crabapple tree yesterday morning and when it heard our voices, it loped away down the driveway. It will be back, I know, and it’s welcome to the crabs. They’re too high for us to pick. Later in the day, a deer was standing in the cool flag iris leaves under the crab, grateful for its shade.

The long summer days. The star-filled nights. The mornings I woke to a house filled with my family, the voices of my grandchildren in the kitchen as their parents made coffee, and then the sound of small feet on the stairs as they came up to join me in my bed. There’s a still a stack of their books on my bedside table: The Gruffalo, Anna’s Secret Friend, Long Ago in the Mountains, The Amazing Bone. We read those stories over and over.

I made a large batch of pesto this afternoon, some for the freezer (those winter dinners…) and some for tonight’s supper. I was humming “September Song” as I peeled the garlic, brought in from the strings where it dried in the woodshed, stripped the basil from its stems.

But the days grow short when you reach September
When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame
One hasn’t got time for the waiting game

It’s dark earlier these evenings. I was reading in bed last night and was surprised to see that it was only 8:00 and I needed to turn my lamp on. When you are in the middle of those long summer days, you can’t imagine them being over. When you are surrounded by the voices of your grandchildren, you can’t imagine the quiet after they leave.

Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few
September, November
And these few precious days I’ll spend with you
These precious days I’ll spend with you

apples on the stray


blue cups

Shall I now continue this soliloquy, or shall I imagine an audience, which will make me describe…We had tea from bright blue cups under the pink light of the giant hollyhock. We were all a little drugged with the country; a little bucolic I thought. It was lovely enough—made me envious of the country peace; the trees all standing securely—why did my eye catch the trees? The look of things has a great power over me. Even now, I have to watch the rooks beating up against the wind, which is high, and still I say to myself instinctively “What’s the phrase for that?”…
–from A Writer’s Diary, Saturday, August 12th, 1928

It’s always that, isn’t it? The phrase. And the dailiness of life. Today John is putting new glass into an old window, a blue-framed window from a derelict summerhouse in the yard of the house where we lived in North Vancouver before we came to live here. The summerhouse and big house were demolished after we left and we were given permission to take windows and other bits and pieces. The windows are at least a hundred years old and every few years some of them require work. Not usually new glass but new putty, areas of dry-rot scraped out, the frames repainted with the blue I chose 37 years ago at a paint store on Lonsdale Avenue (a sort of Wedgwood blue; I’ve never seen any reason to change it). The windows have old hardware that creaks a little as you wind the windows open and some of the panes are old warbly glass that make you woozy when you look through them.

As for me, I will making pies to freeze for the winter, using Merton Beauty apples and either blackberries or blueberries. I’ll freeze them unbaked but maybe I’ll make a small one for us. Maybe we’ll have a slice with cups of tea from those bright blue cups.

And I’ll continue to work at my desk, finishing up some small edits of an essay coming out in Brick later in the fall, finding my way into The Occasions, and changing into my bathing suit once it warms up enough for a swim. The light has changed. It has the faint golden promise of fall in it. This morning I looked out at the dog rose surrounding my bedroom window and noticed that the hips are red. What’s the phrase for this little hinge in the year, not yet autumn but creaking a little on summer’s axis, asking us to prepare, to replace old glass, to fill the freezer with the season’s abundance, to take the time to look at the trees.

“…the expensive delicate ship that must have seen/Something amazing…”

backeddy docks

We were sitting on the deck of the Backeddy Pub in Egmont, waiting for our dinner, when someone at another table suddenly called out, Orcas! By the island! We stood at the railing and sure enough, there were two of them out where Jervis Inlet meets Sechelt Inlet. We watched them surface and then very elegantly disappear for a time, surfacing again further north. Then the couple sitting on the other side of us quietly said, There are more, just there between those boats…

Those orcas were hunting seals. They’d approach the little rocky islets where the seals pull out to bask and then there was a lot of splashing as they ambushed the seals. Meanwhile the people on the yacht fiddled with their crane, pulling up their zodiac, someone else was reading on the deck of a boat,

And then the huge beautiful orcas were gone.

For some reason, I thought of Auden, his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts”:

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

reading Virginia Woolf on a grey Saturday morning in August

a writer's diary

Last night I had to force myself to stay in bed when I woke after midnight, wondering about the work I have in progress. The night is often such a wide and generous space for thinking and writing but I forced myself to stay in bed because I have a bit of a cold, a rough throat, and two weeks from today I will be in Kyiv and want to be healthy for that. Instead of getting up and coming down to my desk, I thought about the way the story I am writing is unfolding. It’s not as I imagined it. I thought it would be more of a piece somehow. Instead, there are sections told in the first person, there are sections that are simply calls and responses, there are overheard conversations, and there are lists. This may change of course. Right now I’m trying not to second-guess myself but simply to write. Later I can figure out if there’s a better way to arrange the sections, to tell the story and all its backstories. Its understories. At the chamber music festival last weekend, I was particularly intrigued by Timothy Corlis’s “Raven and the First Men”, a tone poem based on the Bill Reid sculpture of the same name. It’s a series of brief movements. The composer writes that, “The shortest movements titled “Bird Sanctuary I-III” are like the post-and-beam structure of the piece.” And yes, they served as structural shelters almost, where we could sit and hear rain, the waves, the sound of birds. In my work-in-progress, I think the equivalent structural element is the table. If it is to work as I hope it does, then linear time won’t be as important as what happens around it. Yes, the story will move forward but it will also linger around the table, hover over place-settings, ask a person to lean to their companion and ask for something to be passed. Meanwhile, the sun sets, the moon rises, and (this is becoming an ominous note in the story), the owls begin to call.

Speaking of companions, it is lovely to have A Writer’s Diary at hand. When I opened it this morning, to August 20th, 1930, I find this:

The Waves is I think resolving itself (I am at page 100) into a series of dramatic soliloquies. The thing is to keep them running homogeneously in and out, in the rhythm of the waves. Can they be read consecutively? I know nothing about that. I think this is the greatest opportunity I have yet been able to give myself; therefore I suppose the most complete failure. Yet I respect myself for writing this book—yes—even though it exhibits my congenital faults.

It gives me solace to read Virginia Woolf’s thoughts on her work. Lately I’ve heard young writers talk about their frustration with the “industry” they find themselves in and I’m glad to remember that it doesn’t need to be that. It can be that, of course, if people choose that. Lord knows there’s little enough money in the way I’ve chosen to do things! But for a little while yet, there’s room for other books and writers in the cultural conversation. We don’t need to write for markets, we don’t need to be guided by trends and fashions. Of course we probably won’t find ourselves popular fixtures on the reading circuits, on the bestseller lists, or in demand in a host of other ways. There’s still a place, a quiet place, for the books that don’t aspire to Big.

“The walks in the field are corridors…”

your table is ready

When I was about 21 and figuring out how to be a writer, I sometimes helped at an antiquarian bookstore on Fort Street in Victoria. I liked being there. There were old Persian carpets on the floor and shelves filled with treasures. The owner, who was a friend, gave me books instead of money and that was perfect. Once he presented me (there is no other word) with a copy of a first UK edition (though possibly not a first printing) of Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary, with a cover design by Vanessa Bell. He made a little speech about her being a good model for me as a young writer and that he knew I would love the book. He’d enclosed a sweet card that I used as a bookmark, and yes, I did love the book. A year or two later I was teaching a writing course at the Y, the one across from Christ Church Cathedral, and I loaned books to the students in that way you do when you are very trusting. I think every book came back except A Writer’s Diary. I’ve borrowed it from the library many times but for some reason I’ve never replaced it. Well, let’s be honest. That particular volume, given in those circumstances, couldn’t be replaced.

A week or two ago, I needed the book. I’m writing a novella (I think it will be a novella, though there’s a chance it might be longer…) that takes as its template Mrs. Dalloway. An anticipated party, the preparations, and of course the flowers. The party in my book will be site-specific and the site is here, though the characters are not us and the house is a bit bigger (to accommodate all the guests who are arriving by ferry, car, plane) and there is even a little guest house, a tiny house on wheels, and that is something I’d love to have here but I don’t think we will take on the work at this point in our lives. My book will be called The Occasions. Even during the busy whirl of the past month, with visiting children and their children, with visiting musicians for the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival, I was awake many nights working at my desk. I didn’t want to lose momentum. I wanted the guidance of someone who knew how a book can take over both the waking life and the dreaming one.

I ordered a copy of A Writer’s Diary, the very elegant Persephone edition, and it arrived in today’s mail. I’m so happy to see that the end papers are based on the original Vanessa Bell cover! I opened to August, 1924, when I knew Virginia Woolf was working on Mrs. Dalloway.

For I see that Mrs. Dalloway is going to stretch beyond October. In my forecasts I always forget some most important intervening scenes: I think I can go straight at the grand party and so end; forgetting Septimus, which is a very intense and ticklish business, and jumping Peter Walsh eating his dinner, which may be some obstacle too. But I like going from one lighted room to another, such is my brain to me; lighted rooms; and the walks in the fields are corridors; and now today I’m lying thinking.

Mine is a tale in which I know the place and thought I knew how the events would unfold but something dark is happening and I think I wanted to know that it didn’t need to take over my life. Someone isn’t invited to the party for a whole lot of complicated reasons and she has begun to haunt the proceedings. I’m not quite sure what to do about it. About her. In the meantime, the narrator is surrounded by loved ones, the flowers arranged in big jugs for the long table that is being set with French cloths on the grass by the vegetable garden, and someone is tuning her oud. Yes, her oud. I know nothing about these beautiful pear-shaped instruments but a woman has brought it out to the big rock to the south of the house and I can see the rosettes on its soundboard from where I sit. Or at least I’d be able to see them if she really existed and if an oud was truly being tuned for the party. The walks in the fields are corridors, Virginia wrote, and I am walking them, walking them, listening to music.

a little night music


Last night I slept on the couch downstairs because John has a bad chest cold and I a)knew he would cough for a good portion of the night and b) I don’t want to catch the cold myself. The window above me was open wide and sometime after midnight I heard the rain begin. We have a metal roof and the sound amplifies. It’s lovely to listen to. I found the rhythm very regular and I tried to think how I would write it down. There is a pergola above the section of deck the window opens to and it’s covered densely with wisteria, grape vine, and clematis. When it had rained for a time, the water began to drip down from the green vines, irregular in tempo. There’s a capiz shell windchime hanging over the table (I think of it as our summer chandelier) and it periodically shook in the light wind. After a bit of fuss when the cat came in with some small creature, wanting to be praised while the catch ran away and hid (a shrew, either Sorex vagrans or S. monticolus, whom I believe has made an escape this morning through the door we left open for it after we watched it race across the kitchen floor), who could sleep? Not me. I turned on a light and picked up the book I was reading before bedtime: Listen to This, by Alex Ross. I read this collection of writing about music some years ago, not long after it was released in 2010. This past weekend, the young violist Evan Hesketh and his wife Farrah O’Shea were staying with us during the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival and we talked about how much we enjoyed Ross’s earlier book, The Rest is Noise. I left Listen to This out so they could sample its pleasures. Before bedtime, I re-read the essay on Bob Dylan and in the night I went to my favourite essay in the book, “Song of the Earth”, a piece about visiting John Luther Adams in Alaska and talking to him about music. I love JLA’s Dark Waves and so much more of his work, including the ravishing Become Ocean, an orchestral composition that won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music. Somehow it was exactly right to be reading about him, reading his sources for music:

When the ice breakup comes, it makes incredible sounds. It’s symphonic. There’s candle ice, which is crystals hanging down like chandeliers. They chime together in the wind. Or whirlpools open up along the shore or out in the middle of the river, and water goes swirling through them. Or sizzle ice, which makes a sound like the effervescent popping you hear when you pour water over ice cubes.

In a room with high ceilings, I was reading about ice and listening to water, the lush harmonies of leaf rustle, shell chimes, water pinging on metal, and finding its way through dense green vines.