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“My genius of place is a god of water…”

My genius of place is a god of water. I have lived where two rivers flow together, and beside the brattling noise of China Creek which tumbles past our ranch house and turns our water wheel, and on the shore of the Pacific Ocean too – my home is there, and I shall go back.

                     –Ethel Wilson, from Hetty Dorval

I’ve spent the past two days peering at my computer screen, reading the text of my novella, The Weight of the Heart, due out from Palimpsest Press this April. This is a pdf of the ARC and because the novella is arranged in many short sections, I needed to make sure that the section breaks are accurate, that each page follows the one before it and isn’t an interloper from somewhere else in the book. (This once happened, with my first book of poems.) Then I compiled a page of notes and acknowledgements. Because this novella pays homage to 3 books in particular, quoting from them, all of those needed to be cited. I’m hoping that the way I’ve done this—accurate but not scholarly— will be sufficient. When I was preparing the endnotes and bibliography for my book Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, my editor and publisher felt that a scholarly approach would be best. I swallowed hard and did my best. But this isn’t the way my mind works and it felt strange to impose an apparatus on a book that was sui generis at best and sort of chaotic at worst.

So I’ve been reading carefully, lovingly really, because The Weight of the Heart is a book about beloved places and writers. There’s music in it, and white water rafting, and camping on the banks of the Deadman River where the protagonist sees these guys:

trio

My favourite pines are in it, and the road to Dog Creek, and the gate at the top of Pavilion Mountain. Everything has its place and the work of the past few days has been to ensure that those places are in order. It’s a privilege to write, a privilege to take a manuscript to the next step, and to have a team of editors and designers who take my work seriously is a gift. I can’t wait to see the book.

“…picture, a dwelling.”

arashi rivers

This morning’s swim was the first 1.3 km. of January. When we returned from Ottawa at the end of 2019, I was sick. Then we went to Victoria. And when I went for swims last week, my chest was still congested. But this morning I swam back and forth in my lane by the window and I thought about writing. The other day John and I were driving somewhere and I mentioned that I’d been wondering if it was the time to write a book about building our house—which would also be a book about building a marriage and a family and, well, a life. In a way I’ve already written this but it’s in pieces, an essay here, another there, some poems from the days in the last century when I still wrote them. I’ve written letters, notes, kept track in the way women do by creating elaborate systems of memory. Oh, we built the deck the spring Forrest turned 2 because we had his birthday party there and that was also the time I planted the montana clematis against the posts of the deck. And the most vivid cluster of memories are the very first days of work on the building site when Forrest was 2 weeks old and we slept in a tent and bathed him in the single bowl we had as part of our batterie de cuisine: one old kettle, two saucepans, the bowl, some enameled mugs to drink our campfire coffee from as we worked on digging holes for the footings and erecting batter boards to hold the lines transcribing the house. There was a table made from logs and ship-lap, stained red, now collapsing under the weight of pots by the garden shed.

That sounds like something we could write together, said John. You could begin and I could respond; our memories will be different but that will make for an interesting project.

Like me, he’s written about building. In his book An Arbitrary Dictionary, there’s a suite of poems titled “baby shouts dao”; a poem about building the outhouse, “First Structure”,  ends this way:

But out on the bluff
I’ve scraped the rock clean
for the sweep of March wind off
the lake, for the whole

valley and Valhalla, skies full
of cedar, mosquito-hawks’ whirr
of winds, old moons, falls

of snow and long westerly light,
rivulets, ripening mosses, the big

picture, a dwelling.

My own memory of the outhouse is an unexpected peace. How I picked up a copy of the Ontario Review with poems of mine published in it, in the days when I didn’t really imagine ever having time to write again (this was when I was pregnant with Brendan and we were working to have a house to move into by Christmas, 1982), and went to the outhouse to read the issue, door open, that long westerly light, the sense of being on the edge of the world, but at least I had poems in the Ontario Review. (I just checked to see if I have a copy of this issue and I don’t but looking online, I discovered it was Volume 12, Issue 1, and I think I have a letter of acceptance somewhere, signed by Ray Smith and Joyce Carol Oates.)

Swimming my slow laps this morning, I realized that we should write this book, the story of a house, a marriage, a family, constructed out of plywood, beams, concrete mixed in a red wheelbarrow (poets after all), cedar siding and shakes, and love.

 

 

redux: buttons and a father’s voice

6 years ago I was thinking about parents, their legacy, our own. And today? It doesn’t go away…

_______________________________

“We use our parents like recurring dreams, to be entered into when needed; they are always there for love or for hate.” This was something Doris Lessing wrote and I think about it quite often. My parents are dead; John’s too. Yet they are present in our lives in so many ways. The dishes we eat from came from them. Our silver. I see my father’s shoulders in my own. My mother’s hair is, or was, mine. There’s a lot we don’t share but I always wonder where certain things came from, which rich strand of genetic material twisted and frayed and tangled itself with another to produce my brothers and myself — so different and yet from the same source. My three children — I ask myself the same questions about the how, the where, the why of them. I can’t imagine a world without them and yet sometimes I wonder where they came from, in what mysterious marriage of cells.

I hear my parents too. For the past few days I’ve been sewing buttons onto my salmon quilt. I have five sizes of akoya shell buttons. I think that they are made from the shell of the bivalve mollusc Pinctada imbricata, a host for cultured pearls, and it occurs in Japan, Korea, and China, as well as the Indo-Pacific area, the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, Mediterranean Sea, area around South Africa, and the Caribbean. The buttons are lustrous and irregularly shaped, a pleasure to run one’s thumb across. I’ve been sewing them down among batiked rocks. I have in mind stones, salmon eggs, fish scales, and bubbles. And this is wishful thinking of course because the final effect is, well, a bit clumsy. But I love the process, the thinking that happens when I’m sewing.

P1090478Anyway, I heard my father’s voice, asking, “You’re doing what? You’re sewing buttons on a quilt? Why would you waste good buttons?” And I had to ask myself why I’d do that. Because my father, as John observed, had a good bullshit detector. (His father did too, although sometimes I think it was faulty. “Can you make head or tail of this?” he once asked another family member as he turned the pages of one of John’s books. It was the book, if I’m remembering correctly, which won the Governor General’s Award for poetry. So therein lies a paradox.)

So we talked about this, how our parents make themselves and their opinions known to us fairly regularly. Which is them, in us. Them, as us? This is a mystery I’d like to untangle, unravel as I’ve had to unravel thread today, twisting it from under buttons where I’d made a mistake and looped it through the wrong way. My father’s voice asking why I’d waste these buttons which he would never have seen as anything but buttons, useful for keeping a shirt closed, a sleeve in place.

P1090480

“The night is long.”

It’s been a week of winter, and I don’t mean the cat, though he’s finding it cold and dark, as I am. Heavy snow, high winds, no power for a day or so. Yesterday we spent most of the afternoon in the kitchen, near the stove, and by 4:30, we lit the oil lamp, a few candles. Usually we read the Odyssey after dinner but we wanted to make the most of what light there was so we pulled our chairs as close as we could to the fire and continued our reading of Book 11, The Dead. How chilling to read of Odysseus’s encounters with the lost warriors of Troy, his mother, and to enter and re-enter Hades as he stopped his telling to suggest to Alcinous, king of the Phaeacians (and father of the lovely Nausicaa), that it might be time to sleep. I felt the same and was a little dismayed for Odysseus when Alcinous responded:

                                       The night is long;
it is not time to sleep yet. Tell me more
amazing deeds! I would keep listening
until bright daybreak, if you kept on telling
the dangers you have passed.

I was in bed by 6:30. There wasn’t enough light by then to read and I was cold. Extra wool blankets on the bed, moonlight through the white curtains…No wonder I dreamed of the Odyssey myself. Or a version of it. 18 years ago I was writing a retelling of the middle books of the poem, set here on the west coast, at Oyster Bay: A Man in a Distant Field. It was a book I lived. I canoed with my friend around the bay to get a sense of what my character Declan O’Malley would see as he looked out the windows of the shack he’d washed up in, the apple tree where a robin built its nest, and how that particular bay would find its way into his own translation of the Odyssey. A young girl called Rose Neil would bring him milk most mornings from her family’s cow and she was of course a version of Nausicaa, crouched at the creek in a later chapter, doing her laundry.

francis point2

No wonder my night was filled with water, with old stories, firelight, young women learning how a stranger on their shore could be a bridegroom, a lover, or someone longing for another hearth, a beloved wife and son, and how a mother might appear to talk about her own death:

The goddess did not shoot me in my home,
aiming with gentle arrows. Nor did sickness
suck all the strength out from my limbs, with long
and cruel wasting. No, it was missing you,
Odysseus, my sunshine; your sharp mind,
and your kind heart. That took sweet life from me.

“…the snow is white where lies three forts”

This morning I came downstairs to another world. The same fire, yes; the kitchen warm and yellow-walled. But so much snow outside!

new world

I filled the bird feeder and immediately the chickadees swarmed it, appearing out of nearby trees. I could see our tracks on the driveway, softened by the night’s fall. We drove down to Vancouver on Monday to have dinner with our son Brendan who was at UBC for a few days to do some math. When we drove home yesterday, the highway was whited out just past west Sechelt but then we realized we were following a snow-plow. Wasn’t that fortuitous? And when we got closer to Madeira Park, we saw two snow-plows pulled over by the hardware store. So we pulled over too. One of the guys came to our Element and said the other guy was just working on his wind-screen (we saw him to into the hardware store and return with a long brush and scraper) but if we wanted to wait, we could trail them all the way home. What an invitation. Here’s our guide at Misery Mile, the part of the highway that winds along past Gunboat Bay.

Misery Mile

We had to park down by the highway but we were prepared for that; the sleigh was in the back of the car. We tromped up the driveway to the house, pulling the groceries on the sleigh. Most years we get a little snow in winter but not usually this much. And it’s cold. Not minus 46 as it was in Nazko when my brother called the other day. Luckily the power hasn’t gone out, though we have candles, oil lamps, and our trusty woodstove in that event. But the world is different, even though the news is the same. Quiet, white, the old familiar landmarks hidden.

A Wilderness View

In the western mountains the snow is white where lies three forts
In the south, the Wanli Bridge crosses the vast Jinjiang River
Oh, the wind and dust keep me from my brothers, and
The edge of heaven ends in tears, as I am so far away
And the future offers only many ills and the stay of the sunset
To the imperial court, I have less use than a speck of dust
Yet, astride my horse I sally forth to the open country
No man can endure the chaos of the world      

–Du Fu

 

 

 

“I don’t believe my grandfather knew these places.”

It’s snowing here on the edge of the world. Everything is quiet, apart from the chickadees beeping and buzzing as they take seed and find good places to eat it. I looked out the kitchen window just now and saw three of them under the crown of cotoneaster.

kitchen window

By the time I returned with a camera, they’d gone.

It’s a good day to try to figure out how to make a chapbook. How to make a chapbook. That sounds easy. But I am at a loss as to how to get the text in the right order—the little book will be 27 pages and I’ve made a mock-up to understand how the sequence of text has to work on the pages—and I keep pasting, deleting, leaving my desk in order to find patience again. The other day we went out to the printshop and chose paper for this project. We have enough cover stock in a beautiful soft moss green. We found some sort of faux parchment bond in an off-white and I tried printing the map I will be using as endpapers on this and it’s perfect. Somewhere I have some red linen thread for stitching. John will print cover labels and we talked about how to print a border on them, using some ornaments in each corner and decorative rule; he will also print title pages, maybe with some of the rule to echo the label (which I hope will echo in turn old museum labels). Now it’s up to me to prepare the text. I’m reminded of quilt designs that ask you to cut so many triangles, so many squares, little bits of this and that, and to fit them together in what might seem to some in a logical arrangement but that always leave me feeling that I have more thumbs than functional fingers. I look at the text, reduce the font size, gasp as a whole page disappears.

Yet I want to make this book, “The Museum of the Multitude Village”. I want something to give to my friends and my family to celebrate my birthday and this particular essay, about my trip to Ukraine, about my grandfather, has a shape that I think will fit the notion of chapbook, each section a small exhibit in the museum of my memory. It snows and I copy and paste, delete and look at my hands, wishing for the kind of spatial intelligence that such work requires.

Star, Shandro, Bolan, Toporvitsi, North Kotzman, Buchach, Podola, Luzan, Smoky Lake, Myrnam, Musidora, South River. I don’t believe my grandfather knew these places. They were not what he came to. What did he come to? What did he come for? I look at photographs of the buildingsthe grain elevator from a village now dissolved; a burdei, or dugout structure, where a family might have lived for years until a true house could be built, a clay-plastered log home, saddle-notched, a four-sided hip-gabled roof, thatched with straw or marsh grass; the churches with their elegant domes; a school-house; barns collapsing into earth. I look at the men on flimsy pole scaffolding building a church in Alberta and try to imagine my grandfather among them.

looking west

“I did not mean to describe, once more, the downs in snow.”

 

bluebird of happiness

A morning when the news is filled with the beautiful faces and stories of those killed in the crash of the Ukrainian airliner west of Tehran on Wednesday morning. Each of those was loved. They were members of families, households, communities, they had dreams. To see their faces now, at the beginning of a new year, a new decade, is so sad.

I sit at my desk and think about the year ahead, my own year. Some mornings I open A Writer’s Diary like a horoscope, wondering if there’s a message in Virginia Woolf’s notes and musings. In 1941, on January 9:

A blank. All frost. Still frost. Burning white. Burning blue. The elms red. I did not mean to describe, once more, the downs in snow; but it came. And I can’t help even now turning to look at Asheham down, red, purple, dove blue grey, with the cross so melodramatically against it. What is the phrase I always remember—or forget. Look your last on all things lovely.

I did not mean to describe again the cascara draped in lichen, the skim of frost on the bare branches of ocean spray. The heavy light. A bright flash as a sapsucker turns from its work on an alder. The footprints on last night’s deer still impressed in the moss. It could all be taken so suddenly and so to notice is to hold the moment as beloved.

In Ottawa the other week, I was reading a small edition of one chapter of Richard Dawkins’ River out of Eden:

A young salmon migrates down the stream of its birth and spends the bulk of its life feeding and growing in the sea. When it reaches maturity it again seeks out, probably by smell, the mouth of its native stream.

Was it the light, was it the proximity of my son, his wife, their two small boys, the dense richness of Christmas in the air, my husband of 40 years, the work my son and I were doing to reconstruct some family history, what was it that made me read that last phrase as, “the mouth of the narrative stream”? As I wrote down the phrase, and the reference, I began to realize that the narrative stream is a perfect metaphor for our lives, and I filled a few pages of my notebook with the beginnings of a new essay, one I hope to finish this month.