a badlands antiphon


The one essay in my forthcoming collection that’s giving me trouble is a long one about the search for my grandmother’s first home in Canada. Or, more correctly, it’s about the search for a homestead taken out (in theory) by her first husband, Joseph Yopek, who came to Canada around 1911. His name appears on the Alberta Homestead Records, a guide I used to try to find out information about the place he prepared for my grandmother’s arrival from what’s now the Czech Republic in 1913.

The editor for this collection has rightly observed that the essay doesn’t quite work. All the parts are there but they don’t add up to a finished piece. I know she’s right. When my publisher wondered in the fall if I might have enough essays for a book, I thought I didn’t. And then I went through a series of medical tests that indicated I could be facing a fairly serious health situation. I thought to myself, You need to finish the work you’ve begun because your days could be numbered. Well, of course all our days are numbered but there you have it. And I confess I sort of rushed this particular essay. My hope for it was something other than the way I put it together. So my challenge right now is to find its true shape. In the beginning I wanted it to be an antiphon. Not necessarily the sort I knew, where a choir or group of voices (or sometimes even a single voice) responds to lines of a psalm or other liturgical text. But I wanted to call across the years to the man my grandmother married, a man who seems to have disappeared from any kind of recorded memory, and I wanted him to answer. I wanted to engage in a kind of song with him. But then I let the writing take me elsewhere. Into the dry archive of land grants and the Department of the Interior. Men writing to other men in the language of early 20th c. bureaucracy.

Yesterday I worked for most of the day on other essays. Their editorial requirements were pretty straightforward. Commas. Clarity. Eliminating all those parenthetical asides, or at least thinking about them in a different way. I enjoy this work. I want this book to be as good as I can make it.

But in the middle of the manuscript is this long brooding shadow. I kept scrolling past it to pretend that fixing it would be easy enough, why didn’t I simply leave it for a bit? And in the night, I was awake thinking about it and it suddenly seemed so clear. Return to your original vision. Sing to Joseph Yopek and maybe he will sing back. Never mind that he would sing in Polish, a language I don’t understand. Music can take us beyond language, can’t it? After all, the liturgy of Joseph Yopek’s church would have been Latin and surely he didn’t understand Latin, apart from its context. And when you think about it, liturgy is not confined to the Catholic church. The word itself is a Greek composite, λειτουργία, or leitourgia, meaning “public service”.  The liturgy I have in mind would be service to my family, our own particular music. And his part has been lost, this man who died in 1918 and whose grave I couldn’t even find in the small-ish Drumheller Cemetery.

bridge over the Rosebud River

bridge over Rosebud River

When you visit a place where a difficult parent was young, you find yourself looking for them — at them — in a different way. My father was melancholic. He was given to gloomy prognostications about the world, himself, us, and maybe even life itself. He was born in Drumheller, a place we traveled to as children a time or two, to visit relations mostly, and I seem to remember a visit to the cemetery to stand back while my father paid homage (if that is the word) to two sisters buried under a single stone along one edge of the cemetery. In the complicated and slightly tangled kinship chart that was his family, one of the sisters was born to his mother and her first husband. That child died in infancy, of diphtheria, seven years before my father was born. Between her birth and death, there was also the death of my grandmother’s first husband, of Spanish flu, and someone whom I think might have been my grandmother’s brother. (I am trying to figure out dates, places of birth, etc.) My grandmother, a widow with eight children, remarried a year or two later and had a baby daughter with her new husband (my grandfather). That baby died at the age of three, also from diphtheria. Then there was my father. He was much younger than his half-siblings –whom he never considered halves. They were his brothers and sisters and in his father’s obituary, in 1959, they were listed as his sons and daughters. At some point in his childhood, my father left Drumheller to live with a sister in Beverly. My grandparents  stayed in Drumheller for a few more years. My grandfather was a coal-miner, though at which of the valley’s fabled mines, I have yet to find out. The other morning, standing on the Rosedale side of the Red Deer River, looking at the suspension bridge swinging slightly in the wind, the bridge built by the Great West Coal Company in 1931 to take men to their mining operation, I wondered if it might have been that one. (“Warning: The coal in the slag heaps has been smouldering for years. DO NOT approach smoking coal or climb slag heaps. A thin black crust may hide coal or burned out caverns underneath.”)

So when you visit a place where a difficult parent was young, and you see the bridges, the bare hills, the low buildings crouched out of the wind, the taverns “under new management”, and the remnants of hard small farms, you begin to know that parent in a different way. This country is called the Badlands, defined by the Canadian Encyclopedia this way:

Barren, scoured and eroded by water and etched by weathering and wind-driven sand and rain, badlands are dramatic landforms that develop an intricate network of deeply incised, narrow, winding gullies and occasional fantastically shaped HOODOO ROCKS.

Steep, often precipitous and densely rilled slopes almost devoid of vegetation are striking evidence of the forces of EROSION. To European settlers, such areas were clearly worthless. Perhaps the term badlands is derived from the French terres mauvais à traverser, meaning “land hard to cross,” as the French were among the earliest explorers in the interior of western North America.

I wish my father was still alive so I could ask him questions. There are so many. Was the man who lived in the next lot, the one with your grandmother’s maiden surname, was he her brother? Did you swim in the river? Did you see bluebirds? (We saw a courting pair in the hills above the Last Chance Saloon.) How often did your mother visit her daughters under the grass in the Drumheller Cemetery? Did you ride your bike as far as Wayne, as far as East Coulee, as far as Carbon? Was St. Anthony’s church the one where you were an altar boy? Were you allowed to swing on the suspension bridge while coal smouldered in the distance?  Is your mother’s first husband one of those buried in the common grave for Spanish flu victims (though he isn’t named on the plaque)? I wonder what one I’d begin with?

There are days when I know I’ll remember standing on the bridge over the Rosebud River, just after 7 a.m., watching magpies in the willows along the edge, with the sun already warm on those bare slopes. Dad, it’s a bridge I wish I could stand on with you.


One of my favourite poems about fathers (and sons) is by the late Stanley Kunitz. I encountered this poem in the last century, as an undergraduate, and it both confounded and thrilled me. Its dreamlike quality and its mythic power were immediately apparent and made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. They still do.  Those last two lines… Yet there is quotidian detail to anchor the poem — the odor of ponds, the information about the speaker’s sister, even the turtles and the lilies, so familiar to me from my walks over to the marsh on Hallowell Road where turtles bask on logs among yellow pond lilies. And the biblical echo, so haunting: “I lived on a hill that had too many rooms…”

Father and Son

Now in the suburbs and the falling light
I followed him, and now down sandy road
Whiter than bone-dust, through the sweet
Curdle of fields, where the plums
Dropped with their load of ripeness, one by one.
Mile after mile I followed, with skimming feet,
After the secret master of my blood,
Him, steeped in the odor of ponds, whose indomitable love
Kept me in chains. Strode years; stretched into bird;
Raced through the sleeping country where I was young,
The silence unrolling before me as I came,
The night nailed like an orange to my brow.

How should I tell him my fable and the fears,
How bridge the chasm in a casual tone,
Saying, “The house, the stucco one you built,
We lost. Sister married and went from home,
And nothing comes back, it’s strange, from where she goes.
I lived on a hill that had too many rooms;
Light we could make, but not enough of warmth,
And when the light failed, I climbed under the hill.
The papers are delivered every day;
I am alone and never shed a tear.”

At the water’s edge, where the smothering ferns lifted
Their arms, “Father!” I cried, “Return! You know
The way. I’ll wipe the mudstains from your clothes;
No trace, I promise, will remain. Instruct
Your son, whirling between two wars,
In the Gemara of your gentleness,
For I would be a child to those who mourn
And brother to the foundlings of the field
And friend of innocence and all bright eyes.
0 teach me how to work and keep me kind.”

Among the turtles and the lilies he turned to me
The white ignorant hollow of his face.

–Stanley Kunitz

Did I feel like this about my own father — that he was absent from my life (Stanley Kunitz’s father committed suicide 6 weeks before his son was born so he truly was absent), that I would do anything to connect with him (“I’ll wipe the mudstains from your clothes…”), that finally he was in my life only as a deathly detached presence? No, I don’t feel like that, exactly. But of course my father was a mystery to me, as I know I was to him. He didn’t know me as I wanted to be known — but perhaps this is always true of our relationships with our parents. When he died I was in Venice. I learned of his death in a phone booth on a dark canal. It wasn’t unexpected but it was sad. I regretted not being there, not having told him the things I was grateful for: camping trips in childhood with his buckwheat pancakes for breakfast, burned on one side and undercooked on the other; the books he introduced me to (I still have his copy of Frederick Niven’s Wild Honey, easily the most evocative book I know about the Thompson Canyon and the small communities of the Boundary country); the patience he demonstrated when teaching my sons to fish. He surprised me once by telling me how much he’d liked Robert Kroetsch’s novel Badlands and that one day he wanted to drift down the Red Deer River on a raft. I told him if he did that, I’d join him. I wish we had. Would we have talked of things that matter and shared a sundowner of good whiskey? Who knows.

Here’s my dad, aged 2 or 3, outside his home in the middle of the badlands. Maybe it’s never too late to say thank you.