Note: this post was written in November, 2015. This morning I’ve been looking at the novel I’m writing and trying to figure out some things about its shape. If the lines are asking to be poetry, do I let them have their way? Do I wrangle them into paragraphs just because? Do I want to bury the pattern that seems to be emerging from some of the material? Ah, morning thoughts of the aging modernist.
When John and I met and fell in love in 1979, we spent a fair amount of time arguing about poetry. Not our own but what we imagined the important contemporary writing to be. I remember running out into the night, in tears, wondering what on earth I’d done by marrying someone whose ideas were so different from my own. I’d barely heard of Robert Duncan, Charles Olson. What on earth was “projective verse” and how could it possible matter. We did have many favourite writers in common; we were both reading Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder, for instance. And in truth, our work was far more congenial than we knew during those first months, that first year. We used different language to talk about writing and in time our vocabularies became as acquainted and then as familiar as everything else.
I’ve been remembering all this for the past month or so as I sit in audiences listening to my husband read from his new book, which isn’t really new. It’s Forecast: Selected Early Poems, 1970-1990 (Harbour Publishing). The poems come from out-of-print chapbooks and books and some of my favourites are there, including “The Crossing”:
here the star, the far shore
or this tree. we enter with attention
what passes and must pass
to bring us closer
the ocean heals behind the ship
the trodden brush springs back
and we are nothing if not impulse to direction
This poem concludes with the line, “we cannot hold our coming through the world”, which has always seemed to me a deeply powerful mantra. Our mantra, in a way.
So. “Projective Verse”. This morning I remembered the phrase and asked John about it and he immediately opened his copy of Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry to Charles Olson’s essay.
John’s notes on the pages are as interesting to me as the essay itself. What he noticed, what he underlined, what spoke to him. This passage, for example:
It would do no harm, as an act of correction to both prose and verse as now written, if both rime and meter, and, in the quantity of words, both sense and sound, were less in the forefront of the mind than the syllable, if the syllable, that fine creature, were more allowed to lead the harmony on.
And later, this:
The objects which occur at every given moment of composition (of recognition, we can call it) are, can be, must be treated exactly as they do occur therein and not by any ideas or preconceptions from outside the poem, must be handled as a series of objects in field in such a way that a series of tensions (which they also are) are made to hold, and to hold exactly inside the content and the context of the poem which has forced itself through the poet and them, into being.
Let me just throw in this. It is my impression that all parts of speech suddenly, in composition by field, are fresh for both sound and percussive use, spring up like unknown, unnamed vegetables in the patch, when you work it, come spring.
In those years, I was trying to find a way to integrate all the elements of my life — my love of place, of plants, of textiles, of food (the making of it, the history of it, the science of it); I was hoping to find a form which would allow all those parts of daily life to take their place in my artistic practice, to find the right tension (like knitting!) to hold them in a way that enhanced their textures and relationships. I remember making paper one summer, using a kit brought by a friend for our children, and we were experimenting with adding flowers to the pulp, which we’d made with various kinds of newspaper and other paper, chopping and blending them all together. In those years we were the grateful recipients of passed-on copies of the Times Literary Supplement and that particular light newsprint was perfect for the pulp. When I’d pressed the pulp into the screen and then removed it and let it dry, I was astonished to see that words and phrases from the TLS had survived the process of blending and had emerged at various points in the finished sheet of paper, along with flowers and stems. (Somewhere I still have this piece of paper, I think.) I realized I could manipulate the contents of the pulp with a bit more experience and effort — imagine positioning lines of poetry so they could be seen within the paper from certain perspectives. Paper as palimpsest, as repository… I felt both exhilaration and anguish. Yes, here was another process which would allow so many elements of what I loved to conspire and create something new but did I really have time to take on another practice?
The older I get, the more I realize that the writing of a book is a composition both as crafty as the making of paper and as artful as the positioning of objects in a field, a projective field, the syllables sounding their way across it in a lively and unexpected way. When I look at my drafts and notes for Patrin, I see how they resemble, in a way, the notes I make for quilts. There were other possible arrangements for the individual blocks which make up the narrative(s) and it took me some time to find the pattern which allowed the visible or external story to both hold and reveal the coded history. And are these things ever completely known to us as we work and then as we read? As we sew, as we press pulp through a screen to make sheets of new paper? I suspect not. I remember reading a wonderful book years ago about the quilts women made as they travelled the Oregon Trail. In Treasures in the Trunk, Mary Bywater Cross provides an alternate history of that movement west by decoding the quilts which were created during , or after, the migration. They were commodoties, death shrouds, memorial texts, dreamscapes, echoes of everything seen and experienced. Even their titles have the resonance of poetry: “Stars with Wild Geese Strips”, “Wandering Foot”, “Pieced Star”, “Wheel of Fortune”, “Birds in Flight”, “Delectable Mountains”. Did those women consciously embed their hopes and fears in the patterns they chose for the bedcovers they composed during the long days of their journey west? Maybe not entirely consciously. But for women who perhaps had no other outlet for such expression, the domestic becomes the artistic.
My friend Barbara Lambert sent me something she’d posted about Patrin on Facebook. It made me so happy that she’d detected the pattern at its heart and that she also provided a visual example (in her photograph, the book is resting on a potholder I made for her years ago and the potholder is layered on a beautiful piece of shibori cotton):
When is a novella even more than a novella?
When its form takes on the shape of its subject matter, in a most intriguing way —
as Theresa Kishkan’s “PATRIN” leads you on a young woman’s quest for her Romany origins, along a sensuous trail inspired by the inheritance of an antique quilt.