“…time is your material.”

•March 24, 2019 • 2 Comments


In the night I had to stop myself from getting up to come down to work on my current essay “blueprint”. thinking that it was high time I had a proper sleep. I didn’t go back to sleep right away but listened to the mouse that was making tiny sounds in the sunroom just off my bedroom and to the sleeping sounds of the cat (who brought the mouse in to show us the previous night and then dropped it in his excitement). I thought about the essay with a deep curiosity for where it might take me, and how. I know some things about it, of course, but I don’t know how they will come together. Because it’s partly a piecing together of how the plans for our house were imagined and made, I’ve made a little set of questions for John to answer, as he drew the plans. I’m not sure I remember exactly how I did the plans, he said yesterday as we sat by the fire after lunch. That’s ok, I assured him. Your not remembering is important too. He thought he’d done a lot of drafts on lined yellow paper and I’m hoping those turn up somewhere.

Our life here was never really planned. We met, married, wondered where we might live. There was a lovely old rented house but it was falling down around us and the owner had plans. We looked briefly at houses in Vancouver and realized it would be huge debt and we didn’t really want to live there anyway. We bought this land, thinking we’d camp on it, maybe forever. And then we realized that we could build something. And one thing led to another.

We had a baby and I enrolled in the MFA program at UBC. It didn’t work for me for a lot of reasons. I’d thought I could get that degree and perhaps teach. But that didn’t happen. I love Ann Hamilton‘s essay, “Making Not Knowing”, for its wise musings about how artists find their way into their true work:

You may set out for New York, but you may find yourself, as I did, in Ohio. You may set out to make a sculpture and find that time is your material.

I thought I’d teach, and write poetry. Instead, I helped to build a house and wrote prose. I’m still writing prose and although I sometimes miss the brief quick heat of writing a poem, I’ve learned that prose, particularly the essay, has a wide and generous capacity to hold everything you ever wanted it to. Everything you ever needed it to. Like the expandable string bags I first saw in France, pulled from a pocket in a market and filled with cheese, a head of chicory, a little pot of stoneground mustard, a baton or two, some butter wrapped in greaseproof paper, a melon, a bottle of wine, an essay will gladly perform the same function.

It’s important to me right now to think about my work and why it matters to me. I spent many years just finding time to write and now I have all the time in the world, though maybe not enough of it. I feel both urgency and patience. In a way it’s a perfect combination. I know what I want to do won’t go away if I let myself stay in bed rather than coming downstairs in the dark to write a page by lamplight. I used to think I wasn’t a real writer because I didn’t make outlines and didn’t work in a particular way. I’ve seen the photographs of sticky notes on bulletin boards and I know that it must provide terrific guidance for some writers but it’s not my process and I’m relieved to acknowledge to myself that I don’t have to do it that way. It’s a good thing I never taught writing, apart from a few workshops here and there, because I don’t have a system to pass along.

Imagine those bags, though. You hold one, wondering what you will choose at the market under the bright umbrellas. You didn’t make a list. But following your nose, you find the heaps of freshly-picked basil, a tumble of tomatoes so ripe you can imagine their juices puddling on the cutting board, little rounds of cheeses wrapped in vine leaves, spices from North Africa, brown eggs laid that morning, a tablecloth of brilliant yellow cotton printed with irises, branches of blossoming thyme that have brought bees from the hillsides with them, and somehow, somehow it all fits in your string bag.

But not knowing, waiting and finding—though they may happen accidentally—aren’t accidents. They involve work and research. Not knowing isn’t ignorance. (Fear springs from ignorance.) Not knowing is a permissive and rigourous willingness to trust, leaving knowing in suspension, trusting in possibility without result, regarding as possible all manner of response.






“But this is all in the future.”

•March 22, 2019 • Leave a Comment

floor plan

My current essay-in-progress is one I’m calling “Blueprint”. I made some notes towards it a few months ago and then it sat around as I worked on other essays, finished a novella, made a quilt, moped a bit during the cold winter. But the other night I woke just after midnight, came down to my desk, and it suddenly called. I have a few things to try to bring together in this piece and I won’t say much about that now but this morning I got out the house-plans John worked on so labouriously in the winter and spring of 1980-81. I remember how he’d set up a workspace in his study on the second floor of the house we rented in North Vancouver. He had the most amazing view: Burrard Inlet, the city lights of Vancouver laid out beyond his window, and on clear days he could see over to Point Grey. He had a few drafting implements and a copy of the building code and somehow he drew plans for a house. I know that the process for reproducing the plans wasn’t actually blueprinting at that time– I think these plans were actually xerographed– but people still called them blueprints. Do they now? Probably not.

So I’m writing about those plans as well as the beautiful Czech modrotisk, or block-printed indigo fabric, also called blueprint. I’m writing about Anna Atkins and her early 19th c. cyanotypes of British algae, ferns, and flowering plants. And I’m writing about time. Because honestly it’s on my mind almost always. As I look at John’s plans and remember the whole hullabaloo of moving our lives here (at least part of the time) to a tent, with a few cooking pots, a Coleman stove, so that we could build a house (we were poets; how on earth did we imagine we could build a house? Well, we imagined it…), I realize it was almost exactly 38 years ago. Our first baby was two weeks old when we drove up the newly-constructed driveway and he will turn 38 in 8 days. When I write about that time, I am there in body and soul. I am listening to loons nesting on Sakinaw Lake and asking again, as we frame the opening for the window above the kitchen sink, if we can make the sill deep enough for a pot of geraniums.

from a work-in-progress:

What also happened as we planned the rectangles and how high the windows, how wide the doors, was that we had a baby. While we built the first two rectangles, he lived with us in our blue tent set up on a plywood (two sheets; 8×8) platform with a tarp extending over it for added protection from coastal rain. He slept with us under our down sleeping bag in its duvet cover. I bathed him in the one enameled tin basin we had in our camp kitchen (a homemade table under the tarp with a Coleman stove and a few battered saucepans), which was also our salad bowl, in water from Ruby Lake, brought up to the building site in a 10 gallon container. The well had yet to be drilled. The baby, who was Forrest, wore a toque at night because he had almost no hair.

And what happened before we moved in to the three rectangles (because a square is also a rectangle) with their bare plywood floors and no doors to the bedrooms, is another baby, not quite born as we lugged our furniture and boxes of books and the entire contents of a kitchen into the house, but arriving soon after. The first baby was a toddler by then, eager to climb ladders, find abandoned nails in corners, and not careful enough around the woodstove so that a corral had to be constructed from offcuts of 2x4s.

But this is all in the future. I am putting the house and its life before the drawings that conceived it. I want to write about the blueprints. How John drew rooms onto big sheets of paper, using special rulers and other measures, representing lintels, top-plates, the distances between windows, how a door might open in, or out, and how a life unfolds from what a pencil projects.

Redux (in praise of what’s beautiful, for World Poetry Day): ” …they have also left us with an oud in our hands”

•March 21, 2019 • 2 Comments

For World Poetry Day, I celebrate  Nazik Al-Malaika. She was born in Iraq in 1923 and died in Cairo in 2007. She is recognized as one of the Arabic world’s foremost poets. She broke from classical tradition to explore free verse though she returned to classical forms later in life. Her work is musical and beautiful, influenced by her study of music, specifically the oud.

Why do we fear words
when they have been rose-palmed hands,
fragrant, passing gently over our cheeks,
and glasses of heartening wine
sipped, one summer, by thirsty lips?
Why do we fear words
when among them are words like unseen bells,
whose echo announces in our troubled lives
the coming of a period of enchanted dawn,
drenched in love, and life?
So why do we fear words?
We took pleasure in silence.
We became still, fearing the secret might part our lips.
We thought that in words laid an unseen ghoul,
crouching, hidden by the letters from the ear of time.
We shackled the thirsty letters,
we forbade them to spread the night for us
as a cushion, dripping with music, dreams,
and warm cups.
Why do we fear words?
Among them are words of smooth sweetness
whose letters have drawn the warmth of hope from two lips,
and others that, rejoicing in pleasure
have waded through momentary joy with two drunk eyes.
Words, poetry, tenderly
turned to caress our cheeks, sounds
that, asleep in their echo, lies a rich color, a rustling,
a secret ardor, a hidden longing.
Why do we fear words?
If their thorns have once wounded us,
then they have also wrapped their arms around our necks
and shed their sweet scent upon our desires.
If their letters have pierced us
and their face turned callously from us
Then they have also left us with an oud in our hands
And tomorrow they will shower us with life.
So pour us two full glasses of words!
Tomorrow we will build ourselves a dream-nest of words,
high, with ivy trailing from its letters.
We will nourish its buds with poetry
and water its flowers with words.
We will build a balcony for the timid rose
with pillars made of words,
and a cool hall flooded with deep shade,
guarded by words.
Our life we have dedicated as a prayer
To whom will we pray . . . but to words?

–Nazik Al-Malaika, translated from the Arabic by Rebecca Carol Johnson

“All light, All ten thousand miles at once in its light!” (Du Fu)

•March 20, 2019 • Leave a Comment


Last night we slept with our bedroom windows open. The night before, a wolf howled and then the coyotes raised their voices. In response? In challenge? A saw-whet owl has been calling so close I think it might be in the arbutus tree just to the south of the house. I hoped for more of that last night but heard only thumps as the cat jumped from one level of the deck to another, hunting mice. And I listened as the cars from the first ferry from Saltery Bay to Earls Cove passed on the highway below. There weren’t many cars this morning and I thought of the passengers on the ferry drinking coffee and watching the moon as the ferry approached the dock at Earls Cove. The same moon that I saw rise over Hallowell and set in the west just before I got up.

I had a restless night, maybe because of all the moonlight! I was awake around 3, thinking about the past few months. It was a cold winter and there were times I wished it over. I fell and cracked my tailbone at the very end of November and still have pain, sometimes quite a lot. And the tears in my retina that were a result of the impact of that fall were repaired, though now I have a small black fly that darts across my vision. My ophthalmologist says this is normal and probably won’t go away. There were some dark days and nights over the winter as I shivered (we heat with wood, mostly, and not everything I need to do in a day is close to the fire!) and thought about mortality. But I’ve learned, or am learning, that adjusting my perspective is the most useful thing to do when stuff gets hard. for example, I could have cracked my head when I fell, or fractured my wrists. I’m alive, in short, and so many people I’ve known and loved have died this winter. Yesterday I received an unexpected call telling me I was being given an literary windfall. And the novella I thought would be impossible to publish is going to be published next year. An essay written partly in response to my fractured tailbone will also be published later this year (I found things out I wouldn’t have known if I’d never fallen). The small dwarf daffodils are blooming everywhere, there are pots of bright crocus by the front door, and a tree frog leaped out from under the hot-tub when John was hosing off the decks the other day. Guys from Egmont (the village at the end of the road) are going to come and make a skookum fence around the vegetable garden because deer and elk tore the old one apart last fall when everything in the woods was so dry and parched and the cabbages and kale were too succulent to ignore. (The fence is something we would have rebuilt ourselves even a few years ago but these guys have a post-hole auger and they’ll sink 4×4 cedar posts 2 feet deep; digging with a pick—the way we’d have to do it— is a bit daunting to us right now. Page wire instead of deer mesh. We’ll help if they need us to.)

Alive, in short, and full of energy and ready to finish the collection of essays I’m working on. Ready to plant greens. Ready to make a quilt for a grandson turning 3 in September (they get quilts when they move from their cribs to beds…) and ready to try Edmonton again (last time was when I fell…), even venturing to Drumheller with Brendan, Cristen, and the kids to visit the Tyrell Museum and the graves of ancient Kishkans.

So it’s spring, or will be by the time we go to sleep tonight. It’s the “Super-Worm Moon”, which is fitting because when we dug out the compost the other day to top-dress the raspberries and garlic, the worms were the size of small snakes. The days are getting longer and the nights are so clear that looking into them I feel like I can see forever. Stars, Jupiter to the south, Saturn over Hallowell, a chorus of coyotes and wolves and the insistent call of the saw-whet owl. Too-too-too-too-too-too. You too.


Above the tower — a lone, twice-sized moon.
On the cold river passing night-filled homes,
It scatters restless gold across the waves.
On mats, it shines richer than silken gauze.

Empty peaks, silence: among sparse stars,
Not yet flawed, it drifts. Pine and cinnamon
Spreading in my old garden . . . All light,
All ten thousand miles at once in its light!

–Du Fu

“Having lived for none of these Etruscan things, we learned the text by heart.” (Ann York)

•March 18, 2019 • Leave a Comment

in memory

These warmer days as we approach the vernal equinox (I believe it’s March 20, at 21:58) are a gift. On Saturday we spread compost over the raspberry beds (“Long Barrow” and “Raspberry Beret”) and the garlic bed (“Wild Lilies”). John saw a bee. I didn’t. But yesterday I heard tree frogs as I tidied the herbs and potted roses and bulbs on the west-facing deck. The past few nights have been loud with owls, two barred owls calling back and forth, and a saw-whet just beyond the bedroom window, its insistent too-too-too-too-too-too an indication that the mice are plentiful and the temperatures just right.

I planted agapanthus yesterday, remembering as I did the beautiful title poem of an old friend’s second book. She has disappeared from my life but her poem lingers, particularly on nearly-spring days when poetry is what my heart longs for:

War. Piracy. Trade. Industry. Agriculture. Having lived
for none of these Etruscan things, we learned the text by heart.
Afternoons, when the Australian sun poured down its spears of heat,
we studied in the shade:
some beneath the eucalyptus tree,
more against the wall by the madonna-lily bed…

–Ann York, “Agapanthus” from Agapanthus (Sono Nis, 1987)

I was awake early. When I went to pee, I saw two bright stars above Mount Hallowell to the east. One of them was Saturn, I think, and the other smaller one possibly one of Saturn’s moons. A little later, John and I were talking in bed and we saw Jupiter in the southern sky, framed by Douglas fir boughs. Silent wishes were made. A few weeks ago, none of this would have been possible—planting agapanthus (the soil still frozen), watching planets in a velvet sky (everything was overcast), hearing tree frogs sing their joy. Though the owl operas began in January, I guess, and they were joined by coyotes who are quiet, now that they’ve mated.

The other thing I did this weekend is finish the essay I think will be the title piece of the collection I’m working on: “Blue Portugal”. I began it some time ago but put it aside while I wrote other essays and finished a novella. There was something missing, I thought, and I figured if I waited, I’d learn what it was. It was music. I should have known. So over the weekend I listened to Janáček, his folk-song arrangements and the piano cycle “On an Overgrown Path” and found a way to write what I needed to write. And when I added the essay to those I’ve already written, I see that I have most of a possible book. This surprises me because when I look back, I see all the times I’ve come away from my work without any sense of accumulation. Yet there’s almost enough for a book this morning. How does this happen? You get up in the night or find time during the day, you write, you wait, you put things aside, wondering if you’ll ever know how to finish them, you listen, you hope.

The world feels dangerous to me these days. Not the world out my window, with its owls, the bright planets passing my house, tree frogs waiting for the right moment to lay their eggs in the old cast-iron bathtub I made into a pond for them, even the coyotes passing close enough to smell. But the violence, the ugly rhetoric, the strongmen muscling their way to power on every continent: some days it’s hard to imagine a way for us to simply live our lives, and help others to do the same, with tolerance and peace.

Today, more gardening, more writing. More poetry. A little Janáček, “here is the narrow path, as winds through the vineyards,” and the sound of tree frogs if I listen, the sound of possibilities.

“I carry a yearning I cannot bear alone in the dark” (Joy Harjo)

•March 16, 2019 • Leave a Comment

look up (1)

Some things on this earth are unspeakable:
Genealogy of the broken—
A shy wind threading leaves after a massacre

The other night I was up in the small hours, feeling unsettled. For a couple of weeks I’ve been having daily dealings with someone I finally decided I couldn’t engage with any longer. It was in a context outside my usual life and disengaging myself meant causing some friction in a larger way. I’m not used to giving up. But I had to.

So I was at my desk, working on an essay about my grandmother. Or is it really about my grandmother? What can I possibly know now of a life begun in 1881, far away, and what can I know of her early years in a new country, poor and foreign? Is is possible to comfort someone living more than a century ago? Is it possible to receive comfort from that distance? In a way, yes, as least to the second question.

I carry a yearning I cannot bear alone in the dark—

I have a new compilation of Moravian folk songs, set by Leoš Janáček, sung by Martina Janková and Tomaš Král, acccompanied by Ivo Kahánek, and those have led me down the overgrown path to my grandmother’s house, to her life before she came to Canada. I wasn’t playing the cd in the early hours the other night–John and Winter the cat were sleeping upstairs!–but I could hear the songs anyway if that makes sense. They are brisk, stylized, rowdy, tender, as complicated and simple as folk songs can be. And there was deep solace in imagining them, imagining my father’s mother. It was everything I needed. And then my newsfeed brought the terrible story of Christchurch and the massacre of Muslims into my dark room, lit only by a small lamp, and I wondered how our world could ever be healed.

What shall I do with all this heartache?

What will any of us do? I don’t know. It happens. It happens again. And we are somehow helpless. Is there even a “we” anyway? It’s good to see people bring flowers to the sites of terrible violence and it’s good to see them gathered in solidarity at mosques but these are not the people who bomb and shoot and drive their vans into crowds. They’re not the leaders of so-called democratic nations who inspire such violence by their ugly rhetoric (and who, it has be said, are elected by millions of people who share their beliefs).

I don’t know what to do. Poetry makes nothing happen but I read it anyway. Joy Harjo’s beautiful “Speaking Tree”:

I have heard trees talking, long after the sun has gone down:

Imagine what would it be like to dance close together
In this land of water and knowledge. . .

To drink deep what is undrinkable.

redux: where my limbs are in space

•March 14, 2019 • 4 Comments

Last year I was dreaming of this lane. And looking at it this morning, I am remembering the Olson line, “…is it not a heart which has gone lazy?” Is it? Sometimes. But not this morning.


I woke in the night from a dream of Ireland, where I lived in my early 20s. I lived on an island and I’ve written about it, first in a novella, Inishbream, and in an essay in Phantom Limb. In the dream I was walking down the boreen that crossed the island. I was wearing the old sandals I had then, even though it was raining. I was swinging my arms and my shoulders ached a little. I knew where I was, knew the air my arms were swinging through, misty, smelling a little of turf-smoke and dung. This was the path the cattle took when they were moved from one field to another and it was the trail leading up from the quay so that when the turf was brought from the mainland by currach and loaded into a donkey pannier, the donkey walked to its owner’s cottage along its rocky ground.

I wonder if I had the dream because I was reading yesterday about proprioception? It’s a term I remember from the American poet Charles Olson whose work on projective verse, field composition, the guiding breath of the poet dictating form, and so forth was an important influence for the poets I was reading as a young woman.

And the threshing floor for the dance? Is it anything but the LINE? And when the line has, is, a deadness, is it not a heart which has gone lazy, is it not, suddenly, slow things, similes, say, adjectives, or such, that we are bored by? — Charles Olson, “Projective Verse”

Proprioception is the knowledge of where your limbs are in space and in relation to each other. It’s sometimes called a sixth sense, a sense of self. It’s the thing that allows us to move in a room without bumping into people, to descending stairs in the darkness without falling (I do this often, reaching forward with my foot and trusting my own body) and without really thinking about it. I remember when our dog Friday, towards the end of her life, lost the use of her hind legs. When we took her to the vet, he said she’d lost her sense of proprioception and it was the first time I’d heard the word used outside of poetics.

In my dream last night, I knew how it felt to walk that boreen. I knew the effort needed to avoid the stones, to make sure my swinging arms didn’t graze the stone walls on either side of the path, I knew how I would feel as I approached the side path leading to my cottage (which was just behind the rise you see to the left in the photograph). I knew to be quiet as I walked past the school (that building on the right) because I loved to hear the children’s voices through the open window. Sometimes they were having their Irish lesson and the words sounded like music: gualainn, lámh, béal…Sometimes there was even music, one of the men playing a tin whistle at a gate you can’t see just beyond where the path curves away. Sometimes I’d try a few dance steps as I approached my house with the music all quavery in the wind.

Soft is the grass, my bed is free.
Ah, to be back now in Carrickfergus
On that long road down to the sea.

But even in the dream, I knew I was dreaming. I knew my shoulder was sore because of my swim yesterday when I didn’t get my usual lane for the first half and so I had to keep turning my head when I was doing the back-stroke to make sure I didn’t crash into the end of the pool. (In the water, in my usual lane, I know exactly where I am by how it feels to stretch out under a particular section of ceiling, and how many arm strokes it takes to get me from the shallow end to the deep.)

This morning I am looking at some recent work, my body still wistful for that walk on an Irish lane. Maybe it’s the rhythm I’m hoping for in the writing, the careful foot, a swinging arm, my ear listening for new words on an old wind.

This is so long ago now but thinking of it brings back the music of Miceal’s tin-whistle as clear as anything and I ache to walk out to the boreen and learn to play along. — from “The One Currach Returning Alone” in Phantom Limb