Note: I found this post this morning while looking for something else. I wrote that I had 8 essays towards a book for which I had a title, Blue Portugal, and that I was planning a trip to Ukraine where I hoped to gather material for a 9th essay. I did travel to Ukraine and I wrote that 9th essay, “Museum of the Multitude Village”; I wrote another, “The River Door”, about my grandmother’s experience of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, to complete the collection. It will be published in spring 2022 by the University of Alberta Press.
In the past year, I’ve written most of a collection of essays. This surprises me—and doesn’t. I knew I had threads I wanted to pursue, into a labyrinth of blue pigment, textiles, family history (again! or still?), and some other unknown and perhaps decorative elements. I had a title, Blue Portugal, and I knew that the title would help to determine something of the process of identifying likely threads.
And why the essay specifically for this work? Although I’ve written poetry in the far past and a version of fiction in the not-so-far past (and present), the essay form(s) somehow welcome(s) my own strange metabolic writing style and interests. You will find writers who will argue quite fiercely for what an essay is or isn’t. I’m more interested in what it can be. That its borders are notional. That it welcomes ideas, materials, figurative language, metrical incursions, and really almost anything that a writer cares to bring to it. I don’t mean that it is undisciplined as a form but that its disciplines are not (as they say) written in stone, though an essay would be very interested in learning about about glyphs and maybe the influence of the beautiful carved letters on Trajan’s column.
Last week I wrote an essay, over two mornings, called “Anatomy of a Button”. This one came out of the blue, literally, as I sewed buttons on an indigo quilt. And when I edited it several times and placed it in the draft manuscript of Blue Portugal, I saw that there are now 8 essays. I know I have one more (at least) to write but that one has to wait until after the middle of September when I’ll return from a trip to Ukraine to learn something about the country, and more specifically the village, my grandfather left in 1907. John and I had planned to go to Ukraine last September but an unexpected health issue arose instead. I’ve had a little literary windfall which means we can try again this fall. I’m in the process of organizing it now.
The 8 essays I’ve written are all different. They use language and even the white space of the page differently. Some of them sing. One of them uses a particular piece of music (Bach’s Partita for Violin No. 2 in D Minor) to investigate grief, the speaker of the essay taking on each of the dance moments of the Partita, sometimes gracefully, sometimes awkwardly, to move through space and time, noticing as she dances the strings of a violin bow, the bodies of those in the Cancer Institute as she waits for her own procedure, and the number of breaths a person takes in a life if you stop to do the math. Sometimes in these essays I stop to do the math (as I did in “Euclid’s Orchard”). Sometimes I tie cloth with hemp string and dip it repeatedly in indigo dye. Sometimes I visit rivers with my husband. I wonder about taking psychotropic drugs in order to recover the beauty of entoptic phenomenon experienced when my retinas were trying to detach in Edmonton in winter.
I think nothing gives me more pleasure than realizing that I have an essay to write. My pulse speeds up. Nothing else matters. I feel dazzled by and with language, pulled along in its flow and currents. This winter has been like that. So many nights I’ve come downstairs to work at my desk while the night breaths around me, essays in blue while owls called, coyotes mated, weasels raced through the eavestroughs. Having written these 8 essays, I kind of wonder what’s next. Imagine a single thread, dazzling in its colours and texture. Take it in your hand and wonder about it. Is it strong, is it tied securely to something as yet unknown, unseen? I don’t like confined space and if the thread leads down under the earth, I probably won’t follow. Not yet. But sometimes I dream of darkness, the comfort of it, and the fear. I’ll keep tugging, just a little, and maybe one day I’ll be brave enough to take the first step down.