“I have walked behind the sky.”

clothesline

So. Yesterday I finished writing the final essay for Blue Portugal. Or at least I finished a full draft, with some parts a little rougher than others. There are ten essays in this collection, ranging from meditations on colour, investigations into ampelography, entoptic phenomenon, Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor as a soundtrack for navigating grief, the relationship between the venous system and rivers, and using Dante’s Inferno as a means to recover from fractures. I know. It doesn’t sound like a manuscript that will be easy to place with a publisher, does it? In truth, I don’t think the essays themselves are difficult or chilly. But they’re not issue-based. They’re not life-style pieces. I read those and enjoy many of them but they’re not what I write. Or at least they’re not what I need to write right now.

There’s a lot of blue in this collection. The title piece for example begins with wine, Modry Portugal, a beautiful light red wine we drank in the Czech Republic. Modry means blue in Czech (and other Slavic languages) and I wondered about the Portugal. Where did the grape come from, and how, and why. I also wanted to look more deeply at family origin stories. There’s another essay, “The Blue Etymologies”, that I wrote to puzzle through what I experienced when I fell last November and damaged my retinas.  I have walked behind the sky, wrote Derek Jarman in Chroma, and yes, that was exactly where I went. “blueprints” revisits housebuilding and various kinds of fabric resist printing and the cyanotypes of Anna Atkins. Several of the essays use maps and land surveys in an attempt to locate the past and a couple of them might be too personal to interest anyone but members of my family. Who can say.

hooped

What I want to say is how much I’ve loved writing these essays. They are messy, imperfect, badly constructed in parts, and the craft is often careless; if you’ve read previous posts and seen images of the quilts I make, then you will recognize the parallel. But in an odd way they’ve kept me alive. Or they’ve kept my mind alive as I’ve navigated some health issues, have lain awake in the night thinking of my children and their children and how we’ve ended up living so far apart, have learned to do particular techniques with textiles, and have tried to keep what’s beautiful close to hand in the face of climate change, dangerous political systems, and an aging body.

The epigraph for this collection is a passage from a poem by the American poet Robert Penn Warren.

Tell me a story.

In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.

Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.

The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.

Tell me a story of deep delight.

–Robert Penn Warren

Deep delight, in a moment of mania. That was me, in the night, writing by starlight, telling the story over and over again.

“heat from a single woodstove”

in progress

In the night I was awake, thinking about Blue Portugal, the collection of essays I’ve recently completed. Almost completed, because there is space for one more, to be written after I visit my grandfather’s village in September. Last month I wrote about printing the manuscript and sitting down to edit it. I did that. I made my marks in red pen on the black text and then I entered the changes. Then I moved on to other work. (I’ve begun another novella and mostly I can’t stop thinking about it in that excited way that new work suspends one in, a state of heightened consciousness.)

But last night, awake, because I realized that one essay, “blueprint”, needs something more. But what? I resisted the urge to get up and come down in the dark to see what might be done because my life is very busy right now and I felt I needed to be my bed, under the quilt, beside my sleeping husband. I needed rest, not the excitement of sitting at my desk with the little lamp shining a light on my text. I talked myself back to sleep. But just before I fell into the warm tunnel of sleep, I scribbled a note on paper on my bedside table. An asterix and the words, Look to see what Robert Venturi has to say about his mother’s house. And now, at my desk, I have the book beside me: Mother’s House: The Evolution of Vanna Venturi’s House in Chestnut Hill, edited by Frederic Schwartz. It’s a book I read with avid curiousity when I was writing the first draft of “blueprint”. How the anticipated function of a building influences its design. I particularly enjoyed Venturi’s own essays in the book, one of them about designing a house for his mother in the early 1960s, the other considering the influence of the building 25 years later.

In the night, it seemed to be that the book might provide a small element for my own essay which I’ve felt needed an epigraph, a sign-post, an architectural note to the reader (and to me). And this morning, here it is, from Venturi’s essay, “Residence in Chestnut Hill”;

These complex combinations do not achieve the easy harmony of a few motifs based on exclusion – based, that is, on “less is more.” Instead, they achieve the difficult unity of a medium number of diverse parts based on inclusion and on acknowledgement of the diversity of experience.

He is summing up how he reconciled the compositional elements of the house he designed and built for his mother Vanna, the diagonals, the rectangular spaces, the scale, what architectural critics have called “the casual asymmetries”, the spacial requirements wedded to function and form. And how this passage speaks to me of what I’ve tried to do in an essay that remembers John’s work at a drafting table as he worked on plans for this house, that tries to figure out a blueprint from my grandparents’ papers, and arranges, throughout the work, a small showing of the cyanotypes of Anna Atkins.

floor plan

In my essay, I have a section of questions and answers. I asked the questions and John wrote out detailed and (to me) fascinating answers about the process for creating the rudimentary plans for our house.

3. When you look at the plans now, how do you feel? What do you remember about drawing them?

They make me proud a little. I did what I had to do to build a good house.

Our needs were perhaps simpler (and more economically restrained) than Vanna Venturi’s but reading a little of my essay this morning makes me realize that function and form are yoked in the most interesting ways, in architecture as well as writing.

Aesthetically the change in height indoors was a way to break up large open plan spacing, and to differentiate between rooms but still allow easy distribution of heat from a single woodstove, for example.

essays in blue

an essay in blue

In the past year, I’ve written most of a collection of essays. This surprises me—and doesn’t. I knew I had threads I wanted to pursue, into a labyrinth of blue pigment, textiles, family history (again! or still?), and some other unknown and perhaps decorative elements. I had a title, Blue Portugal, and I knew that the title would help to determine something of the process of identifying likely threads.

And why the essay specifically for this work? Although I’ve written poetry in the far past and a version of fiction in the not-so-far past (and present), the essay form(s) somehow welcome(s) my own strange metabolic writing style and interests. You will find writers who will argue quite fiercely for what an essay is or isn’t. I’m more interested in what it can be. That its borders are notional. That it welcomes ideas, materials, figurative language, metrical incursions, and really almost anything that a writer cares to bring to it. I don’t mean that it is undisciplined as a form but that its disciplines are not (as they say) written in stone, though an essay would be very interested in learning about about glyphs and maybe the influence of the beautiful carved letters on Trajan’s column.

Last week I wrote an essay, over two mornings, called “Anatomy of a Button”. This one came out of the blue, literally, as I sewed buttons on an indigo quilt. And when I edited it several times and placed it in the draft manuscript of Blue Portugal, I saw that there are now 8 essays. I know I have one more (at least) to write but that one has to wait until after the middle of September when I’ll return from a trip to Ukraine to learn something about the country, and more specifically the village, my grandfather left in 1907. John and I had planned to go to Ukraine last September but an unexpected health issue arose instead. I’ve had a little literary windfall which means we can try again this fall. I’m in the process of organizing it now.

The 8 essays I’ve written are all different. They use language and even the white space of the page differently. Some of them sing. One of them uses a particular piece of music (Bach’s Partita for Violin No. 2 in D Minor) to investigate grief, the speaker of the essay taking on each of the dance moments of the Partita, sometimes gracefully, sometimes awkwardly, to move through space and time, noticing as she dances the strings of a violin bow, the bodies of those in the Cancer Institute as she waits for her own procedure, and the number of breaths a person takes in a life if you stop to do the math. Sometimes in these essays I stop to do the math (as I did in “Euclid’s Orchard”). Sometimes I tie cloth with hemp string and dip it repeatedly in indigo dye. Sometimes I visit rivers with my husband. I wonder about taking psychotropic drugs in order to recover the beauty of entoptic phenomenon experienced when my retinas were trying to detach in Edmonton in winter.

I think nothing gives me more pleasure than realizing that I have an essay to write. My pulse speeds up. Nothing else matters. I feel dazzled by and with language, pulled along in its flow and currents. This winter has been like that. So many nights I’ve come downstairs to work at my desk while the night breaths around me, essays in blue while owls called, coyotes mated, weasels raced through the eavestroughs. Having written these 8 essays, I kind of wonder what’s next. Imagine a single thread, dazzling in its colours and texture. Take it in your hand and wonder about it. Is it strong, is it tied securely to something as yet unknown, unseen? I don’t like confined space and if the thread leads down under the earth, I probably won’t follow. Not yet. But sometimes I dream of darkness, the comfort of it, and the fear. I’ll keep tugging, just a little, and maybe one day I’ll be brave enough to take the first step down.

cell by cell

afternoon deck

It felt like summer on this deck (with its bronze fish). Huge bees, bombus spp. of some sort (orange rumps…), going from flower to flower—crocus, daffodils, forsythia, low yellow primula. I planted out the seedlings of sugar peas I started indoors on March 16th. They were a foot tall and ready for their bed in Wave (the box where there’s a good screen of chicken wire for them to grow up against). I also transplanted some tiny kale seedlings, self-sown, in Long Eye. (My vegetable beds have names. What can I say.)

Over the past week I finished another of the essays for the collection I am calling Blue Portugal. The process of writing these essays feels a little like the fall of 2016, when I’d been tentatively diagnosed with something serious and I felt that I couldn’t waste time. I’d get up in the night and come down to my desk to work on the material that became Euclid’s Orchard. There was urgency in the work and also the daily rhythm of my life. I have no regrets, either for the sense that time was limited and I needed to use it well, and for the headlong energy I expended during that period. I felt lucky. I lived with someone I loved and who I knew would accompany me on any dark path that beckoned. I had a wonderful extended family. (Still have!) This work has that same urgency, though (as far as I know) I am strong and healthy. When I wake in the night, I have the sense that everything I know is connected, that I need to find way to stitch it all together like a useful and beautiful length of tapestry. Everything is connected, the flight of the bumblebees, the starlight, a pileated woodpecker just beyond my garden, drumming on a Douglas fir, the small blue scribble of my grandfather’s signature—he was learning to sign his name on a scrap of paper and mostly he gives up on the first syllable of his surname (my surname) but a single version is complete—the new chives so green and pungent in their pots on the deck.

The essay I just finished, “blueprints”, takes me back to house-building, the beginnings of our family, and then reaches back, back, to my grandparents’ years in Beverly, then a community outside Edmonton and now part of the city. It reaches back to the extraordinary photographer Anna Atkins, whose cyanotypes are botanical studies in blue and white. It ends with an informal picnic on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River as the ice breaks up, the ice I saw forming in late November as we drove across the Walterdale Bridge on our way to the Emergency ward of the Royal Alexandra Hospital because my retinas were trying to detach, the result of a hard fall on ice.

What I did today was shadowed by bees, their orange rumps glowing in sunlight. They entered the trumpets of daffodils, hovered over warm soil, paused from time to time on the sleeve of my flannel shirt.

We are bees,
and our body is a honeycomb.
We made
the body, cell by cell we made it.

—Rumi, translated by Robert Bly

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

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.

“So a road becomes a series of tracks, byways, trails into the mystery.”

path1

About a month ago,  I found myself not only writing an essay, “A Dark Path”, but also thinking about how and why I wrote it. This is not the way I usually work. I mean, yes, I write, and yes, I think, but I don’t often see the process that takes me from one to the other so clearly. Or at least not while I am in the heat of writing. Writing is a very intuitive process for me. I don’t start with a plan. I don’t think I’ve ever made an outline. You might be thinking, Well, it shows. (A book of my essays was once turned down by a publisher who scolded me for what he sternly called “a scattergun approach.”) I’m not making an argument for all writers to work the way I do. But I also feel confident (or as confident as someone can be, at this moment, knowing that all the other uncertainties are part of my writing life too) that I’ve evolved a method that is true to what I need to do.

I’m working on a series of connected essays, of which “A Dark Path” is one. I didn’t begin this body of work thinking that I’d be writing individual pieces. I’d thought I was going to write a memoir called Blue Portugal, an extended single text, probably book-length, about family history, wine, genetics, and the colour blue. Blue Portugal? It’s the name of a wine we drank in the Czech Republic when we were invited to teach a short course about B.C. literature at Masaryk University in Brno. I was discovering something of my grandmother’s past when we were there. I’ve written about this before. But I wanted to immerse myself in what I knew, what I could discover, and everything in-between, because it seems to me that part of what we do when we write about the past is to imagine how the spaces might be filled in. The wine seemed like a good touchstone for this investigation because the grape, called Modrý Portugal in the CR, Blauer Portugiese in Austria, Portugizac Plavi in Croatia, Kékoportó in Hungary, and so on, was thought to have come to Austria from Portugal in the 18th century.  But recent research by scientists at the Julius Kühn-Institute (JKI), Institute for Grapevine Breeding Geilweilerhof, Siebeldingen, Germany determined that the origins of the grape lie in Lower Styria.  I read a paper on this research and was fascinated by how much the work of contemporary ampelographers resembles my own obsession with the early lives of my grandparents, and theirs, and theirs. The paper concluded:

The knowledge about grapevine cultivars progenitors discloses the genetic composition and geographical origin of cultivars, assists to trace back migration routes and to estimate their distribution and importance in former times.

As I’ve been working on Blue Portugal, I find myself taking side-roads. Sometimes those side-roads don’t want to return to the main road. One of them has become “The Blue Etymologies” and it’s the one that calls to me in the night (though luckily not last night because honestly I wanted a whole night of dreams, not a few hours here, an hour there). I’ve been writing about the process of dyeing with indigo and woad and then was surprised that another thread entered the essay in early December after I’d fallen and damaged my retinas. When my ophthalmologist told me that the visual patterns I’d been experiencing, both as a result of the injury and during the examinations with bright lights, were called “entoptic phenomena”, that led me to find out everything I could about the various forms of the phenomena and also what they meant to people who experienced them. That side-road led to others—trails leading to caves used by paleolithic artists to record their own experiences of entoptic phenomena, paths to rooms where people experimented with psychotropic mixtures to summon the phenomena, and even, through Derek Jarman’s sublime Chroma, the urge of artists to use colour to map the soul.

beginning

And all the while, writing this essay, I’ve also been sewing, working on two quilts, one “A Dark Path” and one a small indigo-dyed panel I’m quilting with spirals. In one of the books I’ve been reading, by the archaeologist David Lewis-Williams, I was startled to learn that my work with spirals can be interpreted as a valid response to the damage done to my retina:

The exact way in which entoptic phenomena are ‘wired into’ the human nervous system has been a topic of recent research. It has been found that the patterns of connections between the retina and the striate cortex (known as VI) and of neuronal circuits within the striate cortex determined their geometric form…In Stage 2 of the intensified trajectory, subjects try to make sense of entoptic phenomena by elaborating them into iconic forms.

So a road becomes a series of tracks, byways, trails into the mystery. Sometimes I feel as though I’m sewing a map to my own history and sometimes, well, I have no idea where I’m going. I close my eyes. There’s light, spirals, stars falling from winter skies. And blue, so much blue.

 

night writing

sweet peas

These days it’s too hot to do much but keep up with the watering, the general chores around the house, some reading in the afternoon when the sun is right overhead and everything outside is quietly frying. Radio news always ends with heat warnings, how important it is to stay hydrated, and updates about fires. Last year we lost many young cedars. It took 6 months for it to be clear they were dead—they lost fronds last summer and then seemed a bit more lively in the fall. But now we can see they’re dead and we’re waiting for B.C. Hydro crews to clear the ones close to the power lines (a guy came and identified 7 that he said were a potential hazard and those were ones Hydro crews would cut down because of their proximity to wires). Some of the others are more difficult. And right now we wouldn’t use a chain saw in the dry woods in any case.

What is lovely though: the small hours of coolness, after midnight but before dawn. I’ve been getting up most nights to make use of them. I come down the dark stairs, feeling my way with my toes. There’s moonlight in the living room, enough to help me find my way to my study without turning on any lights. By feel again, I turn the switch on my little desk lamp. Cool air comes in the big window that my desk faces.

I have two works-in-progress: my [unpublishable] novella about a young woman looking for traces of Sheila Watson and Ethel Wilson in the dry Interior of B.C., mapping their works in an attempt to create a feminine (or feminist) cartography; and a sequence of linked essays exploring (again) family history. I am trying to figure out stuff about my grandfather’s early years in Bukovina and in North America, reading social histories of Ukrainian immigrants as well as Anne Applebaum’s extraordinary Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, to understand something of the place he left and what might have been the fate of those family members who remained.

In the night, so much seems possible. That knowing a few names and a place of origin might miraculously produce a long-lost family or that following a young woman in her beat-up truck along the road up the Deadman River or north-west of Clinton to Dog Creek will reveal contours and wildflowers equivalent to a woman’s body, her apprehension of a landscape both peopled and barren.

And what I also do in the night is remember wonderful meals and how the details of a dinner in Prague are also the details of family history. By writing the table, I hope to find everything.

What wine would you recommend, we asked the waiter, who was friendly, using American idioms in his greeting (“How you guys doing? Take a load off, my friend.”) which fooled us into thinking his English was better than it was. Wine, he answered (or echoed), and brought us a bottle of Modry Portugal, pouring it with a flourish as we ordered our meal. The delicious česnečka for me –garlic broth, soft potato, with cubes of fried bread and grated cheese. John ordered chicken livers with almonds and was surprised to be presented with a plate of prawns. The waiter’s obvious pride in the dish and our growing suspicion that his English was illusory (as indeed was our Czech, and we were in his city after all) stopped John from making any fuss, though we were so far from any ocean. And then a wonderful gulas, which reminded me of an aunt’s recipe passed along to my mother, one I always assumed was Hungarian, from my uncle’s side of the family, not realizing that it probably came from my grandmother. (Those porous borders, that history.)The guláš was served with houskový knedlik, bread dumplings that soaked up the copious gravy.

And the wine? Beautiful. Ruby coloured, light, and perfect with the food. Later, in Brno, we were told that “modry” means blue. And Portugal, I asked? Well, just Portugal. (There’s a story that an Austrian brought the grape from Oporto to his estate near Vienna in the late-18th century but ampelographers, who use genetic fingerprinting to pinpoint the identity and origins of vines, dispute this provenance.)

I think now of the difficulties in my search for my own origins – the pruned shoots of my mother’s family tree, the tangled roots of my father’s, with grafts and sports on every limb. And drinking a wine like Blue Portugal seems the perfect accompaniment to both the search and the failure.

—from “Blue Portugal”, an essay-in-progressN