Yesterday we were driving down the Coast to do errands in Sechelt and we were talking about writing as we so often do. I was remembering the years when I didn’t, couldn’t, write, the years when our children were small, when I was up in the night with them for one reason or another, when my life was full to the brim with cooking, laundry, driving to and from pre-school, then kindergarten (because we live off the beaten track, the school bus wouldn’t come all the way out to our place to drop one child off after a half-day of kindergarten). I put the thought of writing aside for about 5 years, although it was probably more like 8. John wondered when it was that I began to find my way back to it and I knew exactly the moment, and in fact it wasn’t back, it was forward, forward to new territory, a new landscape, because I’d been waiting to write poetry again—I’d published two collections in my early twenties, and then a chapbook—but found instead that prose was what was available to me. I began with a few sentences:
I’d never noticed the way the fences of bleak houses lining the freeway out of Burnaby and Surrey were draped with morning glory, green leaves and the white trumpets covering chain-link and boards indiscriminately. Some of the houses had gardens but many had nothing but morning glory—it was mid-morning as we drove out—and I remembered a house I’d lived in as a child, for a few months only, until something better came along.
With those sentences, jotted into my notebook as we drove east from Vancouver towards the Nicola Valley, I found myself remembering and seeing two periods of time simultaneously, layered and entwined as the plants that were my guides:
The house made my mother cry. I didn’t know why then but I do now, remembering the paint flaking away from the board siding, the kernels of mice shit in the closets and cupboards, and the remnants of peonies and roses overgrown with morning glory[…]These houses brought it back and I could imagine the smell of the morning glory, sweet and rampant, bees deep in the white throats.
As I sat in the car, looking out, I was imagining myself back and I was also anticipating a period of time in a landscape I was learning to love. The sentences were leading me to a place and the place was not just physical, it was also deeply generative. On the trip we were taking to the Nicola Valley that summer, everything I was doing and seeing became part of that layering. We’d camped in the valley every summer and I knew I loved the dry air, the hills of bunchgrass, the scent of Ponderosa pine and sage, the sound of Clark’s nutcrackers as we woke in our tent in the mornings.
I loved swimming in the lake and then sitting in the sun while pollen fell from the pines onto my bare shoulders. When I wrote the sentences that began the essay that became “Morning Glory”, I remember thinking, Now I have to get everything in, I have to find a way to let everything have its place on the page. I walked through the small cemetery at the Murray Church in the townsite of Nicola, recording the names on the stones, trying to determine relationships, waves of diseases (reflected in clusters of deaths), pondering whom might be responsible for planting the clumps of iris, the tiny field bindweed. The excitement was the same that I’d always felt when I wrote poetry but I was discovering a different relationship to the page itself. I could stretch out my sentences, I could compound the imagery, use the measures of music—a longer musical line than I’d been able to work with in my poems—and I could also use the strategies I’d learned in the years of writing poems. Refrains, elliptical language, dense clusters of phrases, emotional acuity—those weren’t lost to me after all, as I thought they were when I’d lie in my bed at night wondering if I’d ever write anything again.
But then I could, I could write, though not in quite the same way. I wasn’t the same, though. My husband and I built a house ourselves, I’d given birth to three children, made a garden, and somehow what I wanted writing to do for me, with me, wasn’t what I’d needed it to do when I was a dreamy (and troubled) young woman testing waters often a little dark for her to truly enter with her whole self. Or that’s how it seems to me now when I read the poems I wrote then.
The last sentence of the first paragraph of “Morning Glory” interests me now:
I thought it meant something and wrote into my notebook “Morning glory” and the date, July 10th, 1989.
By late fall, I had a draft of that essay, the first one I wrote, and I kept writing them, writing them, until I had a collection, Red Laredo Boots, and then another, Phantom Limb, and then another (linked), Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, and another, Euclid’s Orchard, and (recently completed) Blue Portugal. Now when I wake at night, it’s not to wonder if I will ever write again but how to keep up with what I have in my mind to do. That first essay ends with almost a premonition, it almost anticipates the last essay I wrote, “The River Door”, about my grandmother’s experience of the Spanish flu in 1918:
In one corner of the graveyard at Nicola, a tendril of pink field bindweed among the small stinging cacti. In an enclosure of white pickets, a woman who died in childbirth and the daughter who survived her for nineteen days, dying on her mother’s birthday, October 31, 1881, wild iris spreading over their little field of sadness. A young boy nearby, sleeping under the cover of traveller’s joy. God speed them all.