The vessel that I thought of as a poem


I was doing something upstairs, something that required no thinking on my part, when I suddenly said to myself, The vessel that I thought of as a poem wasn’t right any longer. I wrote it down on a scrap of paper and came downstairs to have my breakfast and a second cup of coffee by the fire. The phrase has been in my mind ever since.

After publishing a couple of books of poetry in the mid-1970s and writing a novella, Inishbream, in that decade (a novella that began its life as a series of brief sketches I hoped were prose poems but was convinced by a couple of friends needed connective tissue to link them, broaden their strokes), I pretty much stopped writing for a few years. I had a child, then a second, and then a third, in four years. My husband and I built a house. I began (but didn’t complete) a MFA. I always thought I’d return to poetry when I had time and inclination. I did write a few poems during those years, a very few, but I had the sense that I wasn’t doing what I needed to do with language, with narrative, with the lyric line. I couldn’t have told you what I did want to do because I didn’t know the possibilities. Other people wrote novels. Or they wrote books I was reading at the time – Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; The Horse of Selene; And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos; The Practice of the Wild; Wendell Berry’s essays about farming and ecology—that used space and ideas differently than I was used to seeing in poems or traditional prose forms. I couldn’t imagine a way in to this way of writing, not until we were camping in the Nicola Valley one summer in the late 1980s and (there is no other way to write this) the world opened itself to me in a way that I am only now beginning to understand. I heard voices in the grass, I walked among the little corral of graves at the Murray churchyard and felt the presences of the dead (though they weren’t mine), and everything around me shimmered with a golden light that felt almost divine. I kept making notes. Those notes became “Morning Glory”, my first attempt at what I now call an essay. An attempt. A weighing, a testing – both of physical matter and of the actual vessel that would hold what I wanted to say. It’s interesting to me now that I first published that essay in a chapbook that co-won the bpNichol Chapbook Award, an annual prize for the best poetry chapbook, in 1992.

The vessel that I thought of as a poem…It’s something I want to think about over the next while as I anticipate the final proof-reading of my forthcoming novella, The Weight of the Heart. The novella seems such a perfect form to hold certain things I want to do with language and with the possibilities of story. When I begin a piece of writing, I’m almost always trying and weighing and testing. Is this mine? Can it be? Is this voice my own? Sometimes there comes a moment when the material I have at hand, the places I want to inhabit, require embellishment or invention to an extent that I can no longer consider what I’m writing an essay. I think of essays as grounded in something like the truth, the actual. Occasionally I’ll imagine a detail a little frivolously, or collapse several years of experiences into a single one. In an essay in Red Laredo Boots, I did that. Two summers became one. The back and forth between the two felt awkward and I reasoned that it didn’t matter if I wrote about two summers as one. Does this kind of retooling or adjusting make a essay any less true? I don’t think so. It’s perhaps not entirely verifiable but I’m not aspiring to journalism.

But as I said, sometimes I need to expand what I need to write to include perspectives that are not my own, to allow a voice that maybe begins as mine to evolve into someone else’s voice. The protagonist of The Weight of the Heart shares some of my life experiences, she had some of the same professors at her university, she loves the landscapes and books I love. But her beloved brother drowns. My three brothers are very much alive. I do remember the moment when I knew I needed to turn what had begun as a meditation on the work of women whose books were rooted in British Columbia into fiction. I was thinking about my relationships with my brothers and how, when we were children, we were so close to one another. Our father was transferred every two years for part of my childhood and we’d arrive at a new city, knowing no one. We had each other, though. We were a unit. But of course that changed as we took different paths into the future. I saw a similar dynamic between my own children. Isabel in The Weight of the Heart is haunted by her brother, looking for traces of him in the last places she knew him. Her quest to find the loci of Swamp Angel and The Double Hook is also a quest to know the passage from her brother’s life to the afterlife. (I like that a locus in mathematics is the set of all points (usually forming a curve or surface) satisfying some condition.) The vessel for this book about kayaks and fishing dinghies and rafts made of driftwood logs is something most resembling a novella, though there are lyric passages, arias, that might stand on their own as prose poems.

And now in the night when I’m awake, there’s new material asking me to find a vessel for it. I think it’s an essay but it might be longer, a book-length work of lyric prose, an investigative treatise on disease and lost history, and a very personal exploration of my family’s early experiences in Canada. Those children who travelled with their parents from one city to another: they’re in it. So are what I think of as shadows, apparitions I catch a glimpse of hovering mostly just beyond my vision but sometimes allowing me close enough to touch them, their ancient hands.

The man who was my earliest mentor was disappointed when I stopped writing poetry. I took on that disappointment as my own for years. I was glad to be writing again, once my children were all in school and I had more time; but I wondered if I was doing the right work. As though I had a choice. To say no to those voices in the grass, the presences in the Murray churchyard, the meaning of pollen on our tent as we woke on those mornings on Nicola Lake to the sound of nutcrackers and magpies. Or to refuse what seemed possible after years of not being able to put one word after another until I had a sentence, a page. Or four.

In our house, we re-purpose things. Sheets became curtains for the guest room, a Greek olive oil tin holds a rosemary plant, scraps of fabric find their way into quilts, an old iron grate from the basement of the house we were living in when poetry left me has become the portal hanging out my study window. These days as I wait to welcome a new book into the world and think about the next one, I think of a book I’ve  written about before: Guy Davenport’s wonderful essay collection, Every Force Evolves a Form, the title bowing in homage to Shaker founder, Mother Ann Lee. The title essay, a gathering of birds, concludes this way:

The history of birds taken to be daimons traverses religions, folklore, and literature. In Europe it begins with the drawing of a bird mounted on a pole in Lascaux. In the New World we can trace it back to the Amerindian understanding of the meadowlark as a mediator between men and spirits of the air. Poe’s raven, Keats’ nightingale, Shelley’s skylark, Olson’s kingfisher, Whitman’s osprey thrush, and mocking-bird, Hopkins’ windhover are but modulations in a long tradition, a dance of forms to a perennial spiritual force.

I’d add Emily Dickinson’s lark (“Split the Lark, and you’ll find the Music”), who in fact prefaces this essay, and I’d say yes, to all the birds, their modulations, all the vessels, holding flowers or ashes, oil or water, powered by oars or wind, dense with potential.

“A work of art is a form that articulates forces, making them intelligible.”

Guy Davenport was such an elegant writer. We have most of his books and from time to time I pick one up to observe the twists and turns of a truly original and interesting mind. Today, it’s Every Force Evolves A Form, his 1987 collection of 20 essays. Occasional pieces, if you like. There is no connecting thread, unless it’s happenstance. What happens if you think about birds without a direction in mind? You might begin with Wordsworth and a robin. You might move to a raven, an osprey. Whitman will enter the essay, then Hopkins and his windhover (or kestrel). You will think about the possibility that the birds are daimons, spirits, forces evolving a form, which is the titular essay. It takes its title from Mother Ann Lee, the founder of the Shakers. Davenport tells us, “In its practical sense, this axiom was the rule by which Shaker architects and designers found perfect forms.”

I am drawn to essays that make themselves out of musings, scraps, remnants, snags of light; essays that move ideas together in unexpected ways, so that you know the writer felt the same delight and surprise that you feel when you read the sentences in their lovely arrangements. Did Guy Davenport expect that a robin entering a Westmoreland cottage in 1835 would lead him to Whitman talking in Camden in 1888, then a little beyond? I hope not. I hope he just began thinking. Seeing. Sharing those things on the page. Not all essays work this way. Nor should they. But isn’t it wonderful when you find some that do?

One reason that I have this book in front of me today is that I was trying to tidy my study and went to the room we call our “library” (think Ikea pine utility shelves with books back to back and stacked to the ceiling and then three more cases filled to the brim and stacks on the floor waiting to be shelved) to put a few things away. Pushing some books aside to make room, I saw Every Force Evolves A Form and wanted to re-read it (instead of finishing the tidying).

And the reason I’m tidying is to clear room in order to begin a dyeing project. Not physical room but the sense that chores are taken care of so maybe I can do something I’ve had in mind for ages. I want to try to clamp a large piece of linen to make a series of windows once the fabric has been dipped in many baths of indigo dye. It will look something like this:


This particular fabric is only about ten inches wide and I want these new windows large. I want to put things in them. I don’t know what yet. I’ll figure that out as I go along. By pleating the linen in an accordion fold, I’ll use sturdy pieces of wood, more or less the same size, and clamp them to the cloth in a regular way. I have small clamps but I suspect I’ll need to use carpenter ones for something this size. The idea is that the dye won’t penetrate the areas clamped under the wood. It’s work that needs to be done outside and it won’t stop raining. But one day soon the sun will shine and the force of the clamped cloth will evolve a form that will lead me somewhere else.

Not all textile projects begin this way but I’m always eager when they do.