posts

redux: what the essay wants

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

under the cold mountain

bulgarian plate

1.

Under the cold mountain, the maples are turning, bigleaf, delicate Japanese by the greenhouse. Pick up the leaves and marvel at their colour, the way they hold both dawn and dusk, pick them up, hold them in your hand as light as a dragonfly, a strand of scouring rush, a wish.

2.

It was cold overnight and when you woke to pee just past midnight, hoping to see the moon (you missed the eclipse yesterday), when you woke, everything was muffled in frozen fog. A waning gibbous, not full like last night, ruddy as the leaves on the Bulgarian dish, stars above the fog, something in the eaves as you went back to bed.

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, trans. David Hinton

3.

Minus 3 as we drove out to swim. 0 in the greenhouse (a light clamped to the long shelf), and when we came back, the scent of clementines in the kitchen.

clementines

4.

Under the cold mountain, the cedars are dying. Too many summers without rain. I think of Du Fu, lamenting the unused talents of great scholars, the wasted strength of good men. The cedars have defined our sense of our local woods, the ones on the shore of the lake, dying as we swam back and forth in their green shade, and we haven’t praised them enough. In this morning’s clear light, their orange fronds are falling like leaves, and soon they’ll fall too.

If a great hall should teeter, wanting rafters and beams,
Ten thousand oxen would turn their heads towards its mountain’s weight.
Its potential unrevealed, the world’s already amazed,
Nothing would stop it being felled, but what man could handle it?
Its bitter heart cannot avoid the entry of the ants,
Its fragrant leaves have always given shelter to the phoenix.
Ambitious scholars, reclusive hermits—neither needs to sigh;
Always it’s the greatest timber that’s hardest to put to use.
                                             –Du Fu

redux: an Irish journal

Note: I dreamed of my cottage in Ireland last night and was reading Louise Gluck this morning. Time to revisit this post from two years ago.

irish journal

A dear friend in Toronto sent John some books and they arrived yesterday. One of them is Louise Gluck’s Faithful and Virtuous Night. I picked it up this morning and opened to “Cornwall”:

I was renting, at the time, a house in the country.
Fields and mountains had replaced tall buildings.
Fields, cows, sunsets over the damp meadow.
Night and day distinguished by rotating birdcalls,
the busy murmurs and rustlings merged into
something akin to silence.

I sat. I walked about. When night came,
I went indoors. I cooked modest dinners for myself
by the light of candles.
Evenings, when I could, I wrote in my journal.

Maybe this was the poem that led to me opening a drawer where I keep some of my old journals from times in my life when I’ve kept them. The 8 months I spent in Europe, mostly on Crete, but with two months in London. The year in the west of Ireland on a tiny island off the Connemara coast. I’ve written of the time in Ireland in a novella, Inishbream, and reading my journal reminds me of what was left out. Nettles. Endless nettles (and mussels) because I was so poor I could hardly afford to buy food. But the rhythm of the days and nights was (to me) memorable. Yes, I cooked on dark evenings by candlelight because there was no electricity and the single gas lamp in my cottage was unreliable. There were cows, a damp meadow where a donkey also lived, and he would hang his head over the stone wall, watching for me to come out to pet him. The birdcalls took time to learn. There were corncrakes who rasped in the tall grass, wagtails, rooks, once a snow bunting, gannets, osprey, an owl call from time to time (and maybe it was a short-eared owl because others saw them; I only heard something in my eaves, rustling and creaking), and everything was modulated by the sound of the sea just below my bedroom window.

One day I think I might transcribe my journal. There’s something in it that reminds me of a life lived simply and quietly, with loneliness, and with joy. Occasionally I tried to make little sketches but my drawing skills were so limited (still are!) that I quickly realized it would be better to sketch with words, with phrases, descriptions, and a log of the books I was reading. Once I set up a board with canvas clipped to it and used the paints given me by a friend to see if I might capture my house. I was standing by the stone fence haunted by that donkey and my neighbour Peter came up to see what I was doing. He didn’t think much of the results. I gave the painting to my father for his birthday and he framed it. I have it now, hung in the bathroom, and so I see it often, the green rustling elephant ears planted in front, and the hills on the mainland visible. Peter was right and he was wrong. It isn’t the house as it was but it’s as I remember it, if that doesn’t sound paradoxical.

I shut my book.
It was all behind me, all in the past.

Ahead, as I have said, was silence.

There was never silence on the island. Always the ocean, the donkeys, the cows groaning on the lane as they were herded from one tiny field to another, a fiddle when the wind was right, a tin whistle quavering across the rocks, and the owls in the night.

my cottage

“leaping with salmon for old emotions” (Duane Niatum)

ghost fish

The rain over the past few days has me remembering last November when the weather system known as an atmospheric river caused such damage and chaos in the province. I’d listen to the news and when it seemed that things couldn’t get worse, they got worse. Whole rivers were rerouted. Portions of Highway 8 and surrounding ranches, pastures, hillsides, collapsed into the Nicola River. If you’ve read Blue Portugal and Other Essays, you might remember the section of “How Rivers Break Away and Meet Again” about that length of Highway 8 in my family’s history of beloved places, written a few years before last fall, but somehow part of the ongoing story of rivers and what they mean to us over time. In November last year I’d begun to think about a quilt using red strips and blue ones, inspired, at first, by my regular swims from October til May in our local pool. I began these swims because of a venous issue and for a time I swam reluctantly because a pool with straight lanes felt like anathema to me. The idea of wearing a bathing suit in a bright public place: yikes. I was wrong though. No one is looking at a woman in her 60s in a black bathing suit. I should have known I’d become invisible. So I find my lane, swim, and it’s made all the difference. I wanted to think about that as I stitched. But then the news turned my attention to raging rivers and ranches washed away, highways collapsing, bridges tumbled into water. The top of the quilt was still a composition of lines, red ones, blue Japanese cottons, but I found a length of soft cotton, something I’d put into the dye vat after it was almost worn out, so the resulting blue is quiet, but I’d forgotten I’d batiked salmon on the surface, forgotten until I spread out the cotton to see if I had enough for a quilt back. I did, and I thought how appropriate those ghostly fish were, considering how many newly-laid salmon eggs were being washed away in those river systems.

How long have they laid buried
in the sludge and grime of industry
erasing the river’s breath
 
So after the 3 layers were basted together–the top, with its lanes of red and blue; the organic cotton batting; the blue back with a few ghost-salmon swimming through its folds–I took out red sashiko thread and the long sharp needles and stitched those wild rivers with their ox-bows, meanders, collapsing banks.
 
old rivers
 
Yesterday we stopped at Anderson Creek, still dry 3 weeks ago, but now filled with chum salmon, swimming in their purposeful way to their spawning area. For years we went every fall to see them. They’re not as dramatic as bright red sockeye or burgundy coho but they are beautiful in the quick water, the females filled with eggs, the males hovering near. For years when our children were in school, I’d volunteer on the days when parents were needed to drive a class to the creek to witness this phenomenon, many of their fathers fishermen themselves, and as noisy and wild as kids can be, they were always quiet on the banks of the creek, looking at the miracle of fish, of clean water, of huge cedars nourished by nitrogen 15 deposits from the decaying bodies of spawned out salmon, the eagles waiting in the trees, bears lurking, and everywhere the scent of those fish. Yesterday I remembered those mornings and was glad we stopped to see this part of the beautiful cycle again.
 
chum
 
It’s colder now at night, the sound of rain on our blue metal roof, and the quilt inspired by swimming, rivers, the fish (somehow the heroes of every story I know about them) over us as we sleep.
 
           …my old salmonberry moon under a sky
as light as a tossed net, who remains,
leaping with salmon for old emotions?
 
frozen fog
 
Note: the lines of poetry are from Duane Niatum’s “The Disappearance of the Duwamish Salmon”

wren

wren

This morning there’s a dusting of new snow on the mountain, winter’s tentative nudge. And on the railing of the porch outside my study window, a wren perched for a few minutes, then investigated the little bird house hanging from the eaves. No one nests in it but in the depths of winter I’ve seen as many as 6 wrens enter at dusk to gather together for warmth. I confess I still call them winter wrens. I knew them before it was decided that there are actually two distinct species in North America and that the ones I’ve loved all my life are more properly Troglodytes pacificus or Pacific wrens. It doesn’t matter. They’re wrens. They are always around in winter, singing in the salal, the woodshed, their song as lovely as anything I’ve ever heard. In my novella Winter Wren, the main character Grace hears them singing near the cabin she’s bought above Sandcut Beach, west of Sooke. She hears them and then she listens to Bach’s Flute Partita in A Minor, the Bourrée anglaise, and realizes that there are intricate convergences.

She was on the porch, wringing the mop over the edge when her favourite movement of the Bach Partita in A Minor, the last, the Bourée Anglaise, began. Leaning on the railing, she loved how the passage floated out in the wintry air, a counterpoint to waves and wind. She hummed a little of it from memory. She’d heard Jean-Pierre Rampal play this in Paris, the amazing backward rhythm of the bourrée balancing the rapid run of sixteenth notes, and ever after thought of it as music she would choose before all else.

It wasn’t until the movement was almost complete that she realized she was hearing another sound, another melody answering the bourrée, ascending as the flute descended. Startled, she looked around, fearful. Was it someone whistling on her property? No, it was a bird. It must be a bird because there wasn’t anyone or anything else in sight. And it came from within the salal on the trail down to the waterfall. Peering into the undergrowth, she came face to face with a tiny dark bird, very pert, bobbing and bending on the stem it had claimed. From its open beak came a long undulating series of notes as melodic as anthing Bach had put to paper.

It was this time of year that my friend Anik See stopped in to visit us on her way back to the Netherlands from a residency at the Berton House in Dawson City. We’d both recently completed novellas and we’d both received many rejections from publishers, who all said something like, Oh, this is lovely work but we can’t publish a novella. Anik and I looked at one another after about the 6th story of rejection and we laughed. You know what this means, one of us said, and in that moment, our little imprint fishgottaswimeditions.com  was born. We decided to start with one of our novellas because then, if the whole enterprise didn’t work, there’d be fewer people to disappoint. We decided on Winter Wren (and I’m hoping Anik will consider including her Cabin Fever on our list too). We’ve published 4 novellas thus far: Winter Wren was followed by Frances Boyle’s Tower which in turn was followed by Barbara Lambert’s Wanda and our most recent title was Jennifer Falkner’s Susanna Hall, Her Book. You can visit our website (linked above) for more information.

Because I’ve been visited by the wren and because I just washed the bowl that was used for the cover of Winter Wren and I’m reminded all over again of these birds in the low brush, their song, I’m offering copies of my novella for $10 plus postage (currently $3.50 in Canada, $5.50 to the US, and I don’t know how much to other places right now but I’d simply charge the cost).

“Red thread, string of beaten stinging nettles, the tiny skull of a shrew.”

museum

Tomorrow evening, at 7 p,m. (PST), I’ll be giving a talk, via Zoom, as a guest of the Canadian Authors Association B.C. Branch. I’m going to talk about the essay, a mode of expression I am drawn to increasingly–I’ve published 5 collections of them and am working on more. Here’s the link for registering if you’d like to attend.

map of bukovyna

In the night, awake in the dark, thinking about essays and how I shape them, how they shape me, I thought of the joy I took making a chapbook of “Museum of the Multitude Village”, the final essay in Blue Portugal & Other Essays, how I sat at the pine table in our dining area in February, 2020, collating the pages, folding them into endpapers of an old map of Bukovyna, sewing the leaves into charcoal covers with red silk thread, pasting on labels John printed on our 19th c Chandler and Price platen press, tucking marbled paper bookmarks into each finished copy, and mailing them out as a gift to friends and family in celebration of my 65th birthday. When I went to Ukraine in autumn of 2019, I felt my world had opened wide. Making the chapbook extended the borders of that world. A month later, we were sheltering in place while everything shut down.

inner

In this world of uncertainty, of shifting ideas of what’s worth doing, what has value, I’ll continue to step out the door with my basket, a few cloth carrier bags tucked inside. Who knows what might be there for the gathering? Red thread, string of beaten stinging nettles, the tiny skull of a shrew. Blue chicory, a story hidden for decades.

“Never watered, growing in rock”

1.

mist on the inlet

Last night, eating fish chowder on the edge of the world, a single house lit up across the inlet, I confessed to deep loneliness, and my husband, across the table, took my hand in his. Now as the nights lengthen, the darkness settling in at 5, the leaves falling, ours is the single house under the mountain, the light over the door left on for our return.

2.

apple left

The stray apple tree, the one growing out of rock below the deck, not a native crab-apple but something seeded by birds or a core tossed over the railings, has a single fruit left on one long branch. John picked the others to keep the bears from breaking the tree and they did anyway, pulling boughs down, but they missed the single apple with the red shoulders. Never watered, growing in rock, a perch for the morning jays, a tiny golden-crowned kinglet in winter.

Fire blight. Scab and powdery mildew.
Cedar apple rust. The apple endures.
Born of the wild rose, of crab ancestors.
The first pip raised in Kazakhstan.
          –Dorianne Laux, from “A Short History of the Apple”

3.

poet

Stop half-way down the stairs. Why are my eyes so dark, shadowed, slightly averted? I was not comfortable then with the attention, the gaze. I’m still not. Look away, look away. You are given permanence in pigment, behind glass. A moment, forever happening. The present tense is used to describe things that are happening right now, or things that are continuous. Behind glass, the present tense of something that happened a long time ago but is happening every morning when I come down the stairs. The gaze that caught the angle of my face, the blue of my vest, my dark eyes, the gaze that left this earth in 2007 but has given me this young woman, myself, her eyes not meeting mine, though I know she sees me in the moment that is now.
             –from a work-in-progress

 

redux: how road music leads to an essay

Note: 3 years ago, we were on a little road trip, visiting our favourite places. Before the virus, before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, before a surgery gone sideways. The world was different — and the same.

__________________________

We just spent a few days away from home, driving up to Lillooet the first night, then taking Highway 99 through Fountain and Pavilion where the road meets Cariboo Highway 97. This is the loveliest way to see the Fraser River with the benches on either side falling to the fishing rocks, everything grey-green with sage.

fish rocks

These roads are perfect for Emmylou Harris, her sweet voice singing us the whole way to Ashcroft and more of her the next day driving down Highway 5A to Merritt. “The Shores of White Sand”,

‘Cause my heart’s been skipping
Like a flat rock on water
And with each ripple
The further I’m gone

and Patty Griffin’s gorgeous “Moon Song”:

Followed your road till the sky ran out

old

And though it never ran out, that huge blue sky, you could lose your heart to the wide pastures with cattle and paint ponies, a coyote watching the river, and all the forlorn cabins:

Time go easy on me tonight
I’m one of the lost sheep alright

I kept making notes. Why do some road trips lead to essays and some don’t? I have no idea. But there are times when the landscape shimmers, when the mare turning her face to you when you stop by the fence is somehow your soulmate, when the trumpeter swans on Nicola Lake swim close to the shore so that you can see 3 adults and 3 juvenile cygnets, still grey but nearly the size of the parents and the other adult with them. You text your children to say how the park where you once camped every summer with them is as beautiful as ever, and unchanged, and two of them respond immediately. So you are all there, in that moment, walking down for a swim from your campsite, the black dog Lily settled in the shade of the tent-trailer.

across nicola lake

We’d never taken the road up to Tunkwa Lake and there it was, open and empty. Past ranches, past marshes with remnants of blackbird nests, a field with three sleepy donkeys and the dog keeping guard coming to sniff me out when I stopped to photograph his charges:

donkeys

We listened to the entire Western Stars cd on the Tunkwa Lake road. It’s like an old-fashioned orchestral tone poem, in a way, with brief intimate lyrics:

I lie awake in the middle of the night
Makin’ a list of things that I didn’t do right
……
Now the heart’s unsteady, and the night is still
All I’ve got’s this melody, and time to kill

and huge anthems that somehow match the country we were driving through:

Moonlight, moon bright
Where’s my lucky star tonight
The streets lost in lamp light
Then suddenly inside
Suddenly inside
There goes my miracle…

All the while, making notes, little scratches in my journal, the colour of the birches, the sound of geese high, high, and the rounded river stones at least half a kilometer above the Thompson at Walhachin, a line of geological history telling us what happened, and when. Two osprey nests on the Walhachin bridge, the old houses Bert Footner designed and built decades before he was our neighbour in Royal Oak, a man as old as god, it seemed like, when he came out to sit on his shooting stick and talk to me about horses.

On Tuesday, driving back from Merritt, I saw the road unfold in front of us as Van Morrison sang,

Traveling like a stranger in the night, all along the ancient highway
Got you in my sights, got you on my mind
I’ll be praying in the evening when the sun goes down
Over the mountain, got to get you right in my sight

and it’s a song I know every word, every note, and I sing along always:

And we’re driving down that ancient road
Shining like diamonds in the night, oh diamonds in the night
All along the ancient highway
Got you in my sight, got you in my mind
Got you in my arms and I’m praying, and I’m gonna pray
I’m gonna pray, to my higher self, ah don’t let me down
Don’t let me down, give me the fire, ah give me the fire

The memory of our fire, the one we built with resiny pine, and kept our coffee pot warm on a rock in its ashes, that fire, I could lead you to it in a campsite on Nicola Lake in 1988, children in their pajamas roasting a last marshmallow, everything golden with pollen from the pine that spreads its generous branches over our tent. Don’t let me down.

pine

“under my feet the moon” (Du Fu)

heading back

How do you balance two works-in-progress? I have no clue. Lately I’ve been immersed in a long piece of writing about portraits, an early relationship with a painter, how over time his (male) gaze has been subverted, how I (who’ve felt invisible for, oh, the past ten years) have found another way of seeing myself. It’s the writing I’ve been doing in the night, in the morning, whenever I am drawn to my desk and the stack of archival material on one side. The other day, swimming, I was working out a particular wrinkle in the fabric of this work and when I came home afterwards, hair dripping, I went right to my desk and wrote my way through it.

But I have other work to do. A novel that draws me in, through dreams and other routes, and it’s been waiting patiently in its folder, knowing that its time will come.

It came last night. I got up and made my way down the dark stairs, feeling in front of me with my toes. I spent an hour looking at maps. I have to get my characters up Princess Louisa Inlet and back. I want them to see everything–Deserted Bay, the beach of slate, the fish farms and logging scars, the pictographs up Queens Reach. They need to pack the right food, bathing suits, a bottle of wine to cool in a bucket of seawater. They’ll need binoculars, coffee for the morning, a sketchbook (because one of them is an artist). And in every word I write, I am recording the details of the wondrous boat trip we took with our friend at the beginning of September. When we returned from our adventure, I thought I’d immediately return to my novel too and I did, but somehow I wasn’t able to write about what it felt like to sleep under an open skylight where this was the nightlight

night

and where I woke early and immediately slipped into the water for a swim (though I will leave out the part where I had to be hoisted like a great seal back onto the boat because there was no ladder…), mergansers on one side of the dock, seals on the other, and mountains all around.

you can't see us here

I’ve just written that part and I am seeing everything again. Seeing the lions mane jellyfish under the falls, the seals curious a few yards off the bow, my characters waking, pulling on bathing suits, and how the water fell from their (my) bodies as they climbed back on the boat after a swim.

And now to save the file.

Under my feet the moon
Glides along the river.
Near midnight, a gusty lantern
Shines in the heart of night.
Along the sandbars flocks
Of white egrets roost,
Each one clenched like a fist.
In the wake of my barge
The fish leap, cut the water,
And dive and splash.
–Du Fu, translated by Kenneth Rexroth

folded: an archive

drawing1

John was downstairs making coffee and I was half-asleep. Maybe more than half. I heard a voice say, close to my ear, “Folded.” That was all. When I was drinking my coffee, I thought about what it meant. What folds? Time does. It wrinkles, it turns on itself, it collapses, it takes us forward and back in the same moment.

It seems, as one becomes older,
That the past has another pattern,
and ceases to be a mere sequence…
            –T.S. Eliot, from “The Dry Salvages”

A few weeks ago I wrote about something I had in mind to begin. Maybe an essay or maybe a longer piece of writing. I live in a house hung with portraits of my younger self and I’ve been thinking about them, wondering how to write about them. Which means writing about the artist who painted them. The artist who drew me over and over, who wrote letters to me, made me a book of painting tips when I was leaving to live in Ireland for a year, a book that began with very practical advice and quickly became a torrent of affection. If that’s the word for it. Every morning I come down the stairs from my bedroom, I see myself at 23, with flowers in my hair, and most mornings I stop briefly to make eye contact, though I am looking down and slightly away, my eyes shadowed. In another portrait I am standing with my arms folded in a red robe, aloof and reserved. In another, holding Forrest in a French restaurant on Thurlow Street when the artist took me to lunch and ordered me two desserts, which I ate happily. In another, in another, another. Here I am, in a drawing, with Angelica. Or Brendan.

drawing3

It’s a pattern, I guess, that I want to decipher. The other day I wrote the first words.

     Every morning I descend the stairs from my bedroom and there she is: myself, at 23. She has dark hair, strewn with flowers. She is wearing a blue woollen waistcoat with wooden buttons, the one I sewed from fabric bought at Capital Iron. Even if you didn’t know me then, you’d know I was a poet.
     I remember the mornings I’d begin the descent to the kitchen and stop after two stairs, sitting heavily in front of the portrait. In those years, with 3 small children, I was always tired. I didn’t sleep well and often I’d lie awake for hours, thinking about the day ahead, the days past. I thought a lot about the painter who brought the portrait as a birth gift to my daughter. I remembered vividly the first time we met.

And since then, nearly 4000 words. I sit at my desk, read the stack of letters, the little book, run my finger over the shape of my face at 23. It’s complicated, this story, because of course it’s not a single story; it’s many. Some of them aren’t really mine to tell. But my own is folded around those, or they’re folded around mine. We are intricate boxes of stories, folios of them, lines sketched, cross-hatched, thick oil paint applied to gessoed canvas.

My literary papers are held by the University of Victoria and eventually the stack of letters will go there to join them. Which is fitting because the painter belonged to a group of artists and their archive is also there. Brown paper folded in half holds the account of his life the painter wrote for me. I unfolded it yesterday, smoothed the pages within, and folded it again. This morning I will arrange the papers in order–letters, drawings, professions of love on the edges of pages. I am unfolding myself, the years, 44 of them, my arms, the curve of my mouth, meeting myself on the stairs.

drawing2