“Forgotten, but remembering/ourselves as no one will ever remember us.”

sunning

I’ve said this before but I become more and more convinced every day that the world is becoming a perilous place. I remember the Cold War, as much as one can remember something that formed the backdrop of the time one grew up in. I was born in 1955 and my father was in the Navy. We never had a bomb shelter or anything like that but there was the sense that politics were fraught, that the war my father had fought in (very tangentially) wasn’t really over because, well, there was Korea, then Vietnam, and god knows what would happen with the Soviet Union.

But I was a child, then a teenager. And when I was a teenager, the biggest threat seemed to be environmental. I remember attending a rally at the Provincial Legislature protesting the nuclear weapons test on the island of Amchitka, in Alaska. When I was in university, I was reading the literature that coming out of the Soviet Union, not just Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose big books were everywhere, but the poets: Osip Mandelstam (and his wife Nadezhda’s extraordinary memoirs, Hope Against Hope, and Hope Abandoned), Anna Akhmatova, and others. Later, in my 30s, I encountered the work of Irina Ratushinskaya, reading her poetry—No, I’m Not Afraid and Pencil Letter particularly come to mind—and her memoir of 3 1/2 years in a labour camp, Grey is the Colour of Hope.

Hope is the thing, isn’t it? You have it and then you find it’s fading. For a time, I thought the world would improve. We knew enough about what it took to keep ecological systems healthy and intact that we couldn’t fail to act, could we? We watched the Berlin Wall fall in 1989, we watched (we thought) the collapse of the Soviet system in 1991, and can anyone forget the 1994 general election in South Africa, with Nelson Mandela becoming President? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (finally) established in Canada in 2008? Or the 2008 U.S. election and how Barack Obama and his beautiful family seemed to hold such promise for modern democracy? I kept thinking, it’s so late in our collective history for what ought to be long-accepted as the natural course of events to be unfolding but it’s better late than never. Wasn’t it? And wouldn’t things improve? Weren’t these the openings we’d waited for, agitated for, voted for? For the citizens of countries that were in a position to set aside the old and ugly racial, gender, and geopolitical divisions, ours included (of course)? We could truly address the environmental devastations and the economic inequities. The food insecurities.

But it’s getting later and later and those openings are closing, or at least that’s what it seems to me.

These are days when I’m glad (in a way) to live on the edge of the world. To sit with my beloved and talk about poetry and to watch tree frogs sleeping on the leaf of a lily. I haven’t given up hope, not exactly, but I agree with Mr. Dylan that, “It’s not dark yet but it’s getting there.

no one can see me

One of the poets I was remembering this morning was Nathaniel Tarn. I first read him in the mid-1970s; Where Babylon Ends and Lyrics for the Bride of God come to mind as the collections I loved. There was a spaciousness to his work, a wide-ranging gathering of materials that negotiated a world full of mystery and beauty.

Before the Snake

Sitting, facing the sun, eyes closed. I can hear the
sun. I can hear the bird life all around for miles.
It flies through us and around us, it takes up all
space, as if we were not there, as if we had never
interrupted this place. The birds move diorami-
cally through our heads, from ear to ear. What
are they doing, singing in this luminous fall. It is
marvelous to be so alone, the two of us, in this
garden desert. Forgotten, but remembering
ourselves as no one will ever remember us. The
space between the trees, the bare ground-sand
between them, you can see the land’s skin which
is so much home. We cannot buy or sell this
marvelous day. I can hear the sun and, within
the sun, the wind which comes out of the world’s
lungs from immeasurable depth; we catch only
a distant echo. Beyond the birds there are per-
sons carrying their names like great weights.
Just think: carrying X your whole life, or Y, or Z.
Carrying all that A and B and C around with you,
having to be A all the time, B, or C. Here you can
be the sun, the pine, the bird. You can be the
breathing. I can tell you, I think this may be
Eden. I think it is.

—Nathaniel Tarn

“And look! she comes…”

after fog

The fog has lifted. On a walk to scout out possible Christmas trees, the prints of wolves (we thought) on the track. And rosehips, bare trunks of alders. Everything so beautiful and so finely-wrought.

The Muse

All that I am hangs by a thread tonight
as I wait for her whom no one can command
Whatever I cherish most—youth, freedom, glory–
fades before her who bears the flute in her hand.

And look! she comes…she tosses back her veil,
staring me down. serene and pitiless.
“Are you the one,” I ask, “whom Dante heard dictate
the lines of his Inferno?”She answers: “Yes.’

— Anna Akhmatova (Translated by Stanley Kunitz with Max Hayward)

“That marvellous sorrows might endure forever”

I’m listening (again!) to Iris DeMent sing her beautiful settings of Akhmatova’s poems. And this one, this morning, sings its way directly to my heart.

The ancient gods changed men
To things, but left them
A consciousness that smoldered endlessly
That marvellous sorrows might endure forever,
You have been changed into a memory.

I keep telling people that I’m glad we don’t live forever. I’m finding the world a difficult place these days. It’s hard to keep my own focus and intention when it seems nuclear war hovers again in the minds and actions of madmen (it’s almost never women), when the things that we thought might be solved by now are still the ugly presences they’ve always been, and our planet and its urgent climate issues, well, what to say about that.

I just picked the last of the basil before frost—because it’s in the air when we get up, even if the temperatures are not quite low enough—and made a double batch of pesto to freeze for winter. The last tomatoes.

tomatoes

There are three Meyer lemons remaining from the tree’s generous bounty.

meyer lemons

And of course there’s so much to be thankful for. This time last year I wasn’t sure I’d have more time to pick tomatoes and lemons, a big colander of lettuce-leaf basil. And yesterday as I prepared a duck for the oven and we opened a bottle of golden wine that went down so easily that the bottle is empty this morning,

empty

and as John set the table with our moon plates and the faux Murano goblets, I was grateful for every molecule of my life. For a day, maybe all the sad mutterings of the world will go away, and we can go pick chanterelles and read by the fire. I found wooden knitting needles at the thrift store on Saturday and am wondering if it’s too late to learn to knit. Oh, I can, a bit. Straight lines, like scarves. But a few years ago I found yarn made with nettle fibre and I’d like to make something worthy of it. Something to wrap up in during the dark times to come.

 

winter jasmine, for The Trackless Woods

One of my Christmas gifts this year, from my husband John: the extraordinary recording The Trackless Woods, in which Iris DeMent has set poems by Anna Akhmatova and accompanies herself so sweetly on piano with some help from Leo Kottke. I’ve loved Akhmatova since I first read her poems when I was in my early twenties. And who knew they would hold up so well in these country gospel settings? There is something so quietly profound about DeMent’s voice — I have her earlier cd, My Life (1993) but I couldn’t have anticipated this pairing. I’ve just read Rosemary Sullivan’s Stalin’s Daughter and have some fresh insights into the horrors of the terrible years of Soviet power and somehow these poems bring it so sorrowfully to life:

I drink to this house, already destroyed,

And my whole life, too awful to tell,

To the loneliness we together enjoyed,

I drink to you as well,

To the eyes with deadly cold imbued,

To the lips that betrayed me with a lie,

To the world for being cruel and rude,

To the God who didn’t save us, or try. (“The Last Toast”, trans. Lyn Coffin)

I’m listening to this as the house whirls in its holiday colour and spirit, while food is being prepared, drinks poured, and on the table, a little sprig of winter jasmine as the year comes to an end.

winter jasmine

September offering

For so many years, the day after Labour Day marked the first day of school for our household. Up early, new pencils and notebooks packed into backpacks, eye on the clock, kids racing down the driveway as the school bus made the turn on the highway coming from Egmont. I’d listen from the deck to hear the bus doors opening, then closing, and the engine revving as the bus began its ascent of the Sakinaw hill. John or I would walk the kids down to the bus when they were little but then they asked us not to. Our black Lab/Wolf X Lily went with them, waiting until they’d climbed the step and the driver closed the doors to return to the house without them, patient until 3:45 when she’d cock an ear, then trot down the driveway again to meet them. Our Retriever X Tiger was less reliable. Some days she’d accompany them and some days she’d be off in her own world. But she did love to see them walking up the driveway.

I still hear the bus, still imagine it stopping at our driveway for the ghosts who wait for it. Still expect to see a black dog, or a golden one, returning.

In the meantime, here’s a September bouquet, and a few lines of Anna Akhmatova, in Judith Hemschemyer’s translation:

“Let them be more plentiful than stars kindled

In the September skies —

For children, for wanderers, for lovers

They grow, those wild flowers.”