what the essay wants

•November 17, 2018 • 3 Comments

essay bit

It wants space, it wants room, it wants to cry, to think aloud, to examine a plan showing subdivision of Lot C Block 6 Plan 2528 AR in Beverly Heights Annex and determine its relationship to where your grandparents built their house, it wants a recipe for your grandmother’s sweet plum pedaha, it wants to know the details of your mother’s birth and abandonment, it wants to include the spring song of the Swainson’s Thrush, the quick rustle of the winter wren in the underbrush just this morning, it wants to spread itself across the page like the clean hieroglyphics of crows on the beach of Cox Bay last month, it wants, it wants, it wants.

essay 2

 

 

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the decades

•November 12, 2018 • 4 Comments

lino

I looked out just now to see if there’s the first snow on the mountain because it feels cold enough down here. There isn’t yet, but I bet it’ll come by next week. I love the cold nights, stars, that beautiful scimitar moon in the mid-November dark sky.

I just made a (clumsy) linocut for this year’s Christmas card. A winter wren, with a slightly foreshortened beak and awkward legs. (The lino was brittle this year, even when warmed by the woodstove.) I’ve chosen a short passage from my novella, Winter Wren, and John will print later this week.

Every year I make a linocut and he sets type and prints a card. I remember the first one we created, in the basement of the house we rented in North Vancouver before moving here in December of 1982, after a year and a half of living first in a tent here, then the shell of our house while we made it comfortable enough to live in. That first card used some old wooden type that came with the press and we had enough to print just two words: LOVE&JOY, all in caps, with the beautiful ampersand.

How the years accumulate. I listened to Emmylou Harris while I worked on the lino and realized I’ve been one of her biggest fans, boots and all, since grade 11. 1972. But I don’t think I ever paid much attention to this beauty, the one that caught my heart this afternoon.

In a couple of weeks, we’ll go to Edmonton (speaking of cold) to spend time with our family there. Emails arrive, asking would we like to go for a sleigh ride on Whyte Avenue, would we like to go to an abbreviated Nutcracker (our grandchildren are 2 and 4), and what about a Dickens tea? I remember carving lino in the early year with an audience, my own children, young enough to be impressed by a small knife making images in a piece of lino warmed by the woodstove. Young enough to listen to any music I played, and yes, there was a lot of Emmylou Harris even then. I wanted to preserve time in the images I cut with my little box of tools. I still do. John’s been sorting the decades of Christmas cards to make sure we have a full collection for the High Ground Press archive and there they are—a house on a hill with a moon overhead; a cat in a window with a star by its ear; a tree by the front door; a gingerbread person; a snowflake; a pinecone; the two fish undulating under stars (the image Anik and I appropriated for our Fish Gotta Swim Editions pressmark); a fishing boat with bright lights on its rigging (inked in by hand); and more that I can’t remember right now.

Sometimes I forget what’s to come. In late summer, preserving fruit and vegetables, I forget that I’ll be here in the house on a cold day in November, wondering what might make a card image for this coming Christmas. Or that listening to a cd heard hundreds of times over the years, I’ll stop as Emmylou sings,

So blind I couldn’t see
How much she really meant to me
And that soon she would always be
On my mind, in my heart,
I was blind from the start

the intricate text in the wood

•November 10, 2018 • 2 Comments

On our way back from a swim that didn’t happen because someone at the pool let about a third of the water drain overnight (ooops) and the young women life-guarding this weekend were trying to fill it again and to turn away the eager swimmers (just us, at 10 a.m.), anyway, on our way back we stopped at one of the trails running along the slope of Mount Hallowell to gather 7 big bags of leaves from the mature bigleaf maples growing along that part of the trail. Tomorrow if it’s nice we’ll return for another load. We do this most years. The leaves make wonderful garden mulch. I’ve just been spreading a few bags over the raspberry beds and the boxes where I grow mostly perennial greens. The chicory is still lovely and leafy and the kale that the deer ate when they broke into the garden is coming back. Some of the seeds in the long kale pods were sprouting so I potted up a bunch of the pods in a tub for the sunroom. So far the deer haven’t their way into there.

chicory

7 years ago on this day I launched my book, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, a memoir of sorts exploring my life in within the context of my love of all things arboreal. (7 years! I know I’m becoming old because of how I react to time. It hardly seems like 7 years but in that time so much has happened: 2 weddings, 3 more books, 4 grandchildren…) Mnemonic was a book I loved writing, though it took me out of my usual comfort zone. There were things I wanted to find out and the routes I took were strange and (to me) wonderful. I had to harness my impatience as I worked my way through material, puzzling and thinking, and finding a way to structure the book so that a reader might feel as though she or he was in a grove of trees, a memory grove, guided by Cicero. Pliny the Elder, John Evelyn, and the ravens of Merritt, B.C.

In fall, the samaras whirl to the ground: time to be grateful for fire, the woodshed neatly stacked with fir and bigleaf maple. Bringing in logs, I sometimes see areas of spalting within the chunks of maple I carry. This is a bacteria that causes veining in the wood, a kind of scribbling, like pen lines on paper. The bacteria can be introduced to felled maple, and cultured or managed for a time, to create beautiful patters which woodworkers value. We have a cutting board in our kitchen made by a local craftsman, featuring strips of both spalted and clear-grained maple. When I clean and oil the board, I marvel at the intricate text in the wood we use to cut our bread. Like those beetles that wrote obituaries to the ponderosa pines near Kamloops, something lively is at work to leave its story intact for the future to read as loaves are sliced, fish boned or trimmed of their fins.

cutting board

7 years later, the board is well-used, its stories intact, and new ones have been added. The stains of ripe cheeses, apples, tomatoes heavy with seeds, red cabbage partly gnawed by elk or deer trimmed, then shredded, a splash of red wine from a glass too near the cutting knife, lemon juice rubbed in to get rid of the scent of pine mushrooms, garlic.

 

 

“Is the heart still light?” (from a work-in-progress)

•November 6, 2018 • 4 Comments

lac lejeune

In certain parts of the lake shore there is tulé grass growing out into the water, thick at the shore, thin and sparse as it stretches into the lake. Where the tulé grass – which is a tall reedlike grass – is sparse, its angled reflections fall into the water and form engaging patterns.” (SA, 86)

Turned off again on the road to Lac le Jeune because I wanted to see Three Loon Lake after all, what Ethel Wilson called it in Swamp Angel, though she had other names for it in another stories: Nimpish, Blue, and before it was renamed in the 1930s, in honour of Father Le Jeune, it was Fish Lake. Before that, for thousands of years, it was Chuhwels. She and Wallace loved the lake and took a cabin on the hill above the water, fishing daily for Kamloops trout.

Is the heart still light, does it balance in the scale as light as the feather?

In Swamp Angel, Ethel Wilson describes Maggie’s relationship with the lake as a union, like a happy marriage. And the Wilsons were happy. Casting their flies, from a row-boat, in deep water or among the tulé reeds; sharing drinks on the verandah afterwards, the water shimmering with sky. So to give Maggie the lake, with its rich presence, the birds, warm rocks, the pines, and even a gun, the Swamp Angel itself, to drop finally into the water, was to give a woman an everlasting place in a landscape. As horses ran through the grass of the Jocko Creek Ranch, the Two-Bit, and others unknown to me, women loved lakes also unknown to me, but Maggie’s was on any map if you knew the code. Knew the legend.

The lake was gun-metal, rippled, as I approached. No loons but what was that? A moose in the shallows eating reeds. Lily pads glittering, a chill in the air I hadn’t felt at the Two-Bit. But low cabins on one shore, drifting ducks, a dock pushed out into the lake and weathered grey. At the very far end, almost out of sight, a man in a small boat casting. One of those moments. It could have Wallace, it could have been. Ethel on the small deck of the cabin, reading. Ice in a bucket for cocktails late afternoon and a warm fire waiting.

“…housed in a clamshell box of leather and vellum…”

•November 2, 2018 • 4 Comments
proof

proofs

Some mornings you wake to sky cleansed by the rain overnight, crackled clean by thunder and lightning, and just a little mist settled over the trees. The fire is warm. The cat’s been fed. To prolong the peace, you read a few of your favourite blogs, one of them Commatology.com. And wow, this is what you find, the musings of a perfect reader:

http://commatology.com/index.php/2018/10/stepping-into-a-river-of-dream/

The past hour has been spent in that dream. I was 23 when I lived on the island I wrote about in Inishbream. I was 44 when the novella was finally published. I held the narrator close to me those years in-between. She was—is—me, and she isn’t. I began this book as a series of prose poems and the people I showed them to asked for more detail, more connective tissue between the anecdotes and meditative passages. I remember asking myself, Well, what if you…and I won’t confess what I did, because I’m not entirely certain now which parts are purely autobiographical and which were invented. Or imagined.

colophon

this is a terrible photograph but if you click on the Barbarian link, you will see better visuals

When the book was being printed in its private press editions by the Barbarian Press, I’d receive phone calls daily. The Barbarians would want to check a detail, they’d send the proofs, one page at a time, by fax, and I’d know the presses were inked and time was of the essence. I loved everything about the book they created: the magnificent wood engravings by John DePol; the soft papers, the typeface (Eric Gill’s gorgeous Joanna); the bindings (there are 3 states and they’re all bound with different materials, even a special clamshell box of vellum and leather made by Hélène Francouer); and the way the handmade values of this work echoed my own. Echoed the place that inspired the book. Inspired me in so many ways in the life I went on to live. Sometimes I take down my special copy and read it slowly, wondering at the younger self who lived on an island at the very edge of the world, alone.

I was lucky enough to have Goose Lane Editions publish the book as a trade edition two years later. (I think they still have copies available for sale and if they don’t, ask me; I have some here.) I’ve been back to Ireland twice since then, the last time 17 years ago. Leslie at Commatology was just there and it was sweet (and sort of sad) to read what she found and didn’t find.  She writes,

It’s a fictional place, but I locate its real-life cousins off the Connemara coast: Inishturk, Inishbofin, Inishark. Inish, or Inis, or Ennis, for that matter, all mean island in Irish, and bream are a kind of fish.

She was close. Those are all islands I knew. Mine was near them, yes, and named for a fish, though not bream. Remember what Ishmael said, in Moby Dick? “It is not down on any map; true places never are.” Or they are, but they’re hidden. Mapmakers and writers—we have our reasons.

“…who notices the cloth-gowned scholar?”

•November 1, 2018 • Leave a Comment

last year's quilt

The winter wren has begun to visit most mornings, perching on a chair outside my study window, peering in, then skitting up to a rattan birdhouse to check it for spiders. Every year I forget and every year I am reminded, when this happens, that they are secret birds, with careful habits, and when I see this one, I know where I am in the year.

waiting

At this point in my life, it’s all about patterns. Reading my entry from November 1st last year—https://theresakishkan.com/2017/11/01/finding-my-way-into-winter/—I see that I was stacking wood (due to a health malady on the part of my husband, whose job this usually is). Last night, around supper time, a guy delivered a load of fir, right on time. (John’s been cutting and splitting wood here, too, but there wasn’t enough to last the cold months; we burn 3 or 4 cords.)

Last year I was stitching the quilt at the beginning of this entry, from linen I’d tied and dipped in indigo dye. I backed it with warm red flannel and it’s on a couch, for cold evenings. This year? I have another length of the linen, not quite so deep a blue, but I’m about to turn it into something, not sure what yet, but maybe, oh, a quilt?

this year's quilt

I have some Moravian blueprint, too, bought from a shop near my grandmother’s village in the Czech Republic, and hoarded until the right thing came along. I think it might look beautiful with this linen. We’ll see. The cold months are long and fires are warm. It’s been raining for days and I think of Du Fu, preparing for winter:

In Chang’an, who notices the cloth-gowned scholar?
Locked behind his gate and guarding his walls.
The old man doesn’t go out, the weeds grow tall,
Children blithely rush through wind and rain.
The rustling rain hastens the early cold,
And geese with wet wings find high flying hard.
This autumn we’ve had no glimpse of the white sun,
When will the mud and dirt become dry earth?

 

“And all the lives we ever lived”

•October 26, 2018 • 4 Comments
light2
“And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be are full of trees
and changing leaves.” — Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
Yesterday I surprised myself and finished the novella I’ve been working on. I knew I was somewhere near the conclusion but as I didn’t know what would ultimately happen, I didn’t see the end coming until I was actually there.
(When I say I “finished”, what I mean is that I completed a first draft. The next step is to print it out because I can never do a substantial edit before I see what the work looks like as a physical text. Some people can scroll through pages on a screen and understand where they are in the work as a whole and how each chapter (or section, in my case) relates to the others. But I can’t. I like to sit with an actual draft and a pen and scribble on paper as I read.)
I’ve noted before that this is probably a novella that will not be published. It’s a strange sort of meta thing. The narrator is writing a thesis on the work of Sheila Watson and Ethel Wilson and she frequently refers to their writing. She is notating a map with places and moments in their fiction and the reader imagines a map with actual passages from various books. A scholar writing a thesis wouldn’t have to worry (I don’t think) about securing permission to use the quoted material because it’s considered fair use for critical purposes. But as this is a work of fiction, the situation is a bit more complicated. And potentially prohibitively expensive. That’s what I mean by “meta”. Or maybe I don’t. This novella is a strange sort of hybrid. And I loved every minute of its creation.

Last week I met with the Special Collections librarian and archivist at the University of Victoria about papers (mine, and John’s) and they showed me one of the Margaret Peterson works held by the Legacy Gallery at UVic. It’s a huge tempera on panel and when I saw it, I thought two things. One is that Margaret Peterson belongs in this novella and so now she’s there. (There’s that meta idea again: in my own life, I met her and her husband Howard O’Hagan once. The narrator of the novella is, in a way, the person I would have been if I’d pursued a degree in Canadian Literature instead of becoming a writer.) The other is that the painting would make a perfect cover image.

light1
At this point in my life, I am grateful to be able to sit at my desk and construct a work in which worlds are superimposed on one another, the real and the imagined. Grateful to spend time in the grace and beauty of language and rivers, bluebunch wheatgrass and Ponderosa pines. Where coyotes appear out of folds in the hills and history glosses the landscape like a weathered homestead where someone still makes a daily fire and tends to the animals.
“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.” — Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
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