winter gifts at High Ground

I know Christmas is more than a month away but if you’re thinking about gifts, we can make it simpler for you by offering some of our own books, limited edition chapbooks, and broadsheets printed on our late 19th c. Chandler & Price platen press for sale during the season.

mud bottom

For example, John’s Mud Bottom (details here) is $35. If you buy a set of the Companions Series Broadsheets (also here), a folio of 12 letter press broadsheets including poems by Gillian Wigmore, Russell Thornton, and Maleea Acker written in reponse to other poems printed enface, priced at $150, then we will include a copy of Mud Bottom for free with your order.

winter books

For a selection of our books, including my Euclid’s Orchard, Winter Wren, The Age of Water Lilies, Inishbream, Patrin, A Man in a Distant Field, and Red Laredo Boots, and John’s crawlspace (winner of the 2012 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize), Forecast (Selected Early Poems: 1970-1990), and This Was the River. the deal is this: buy one at cover price and receive a second book of your choice for 50% off. We’ll happily inscribe the books. Postage will be charged at cost.

If there are other books you’re interested in or you see something on the High Ground page (including chapbooks, individual broadsheets, including Michael Ondaatje’s “Breeze”), please ask us. And if you think that background scarf on which the books recline is as ravishing as I think it is, visit Caroline Jonas’s website. (I recently ordered the scarf as an early Christmas gift from my husband because he won’t be able to shop this year!)

an Irish journal

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

redux: where my limbs are in space

Last year I was dreaming of this lane. And looking at it this morning, I am remembering the Olson line, “…is it not a heart which has gone lazy?” Is it? Sometimes. But not this morning.

inishbream

I woke in the night from a dream of Ireland, where I lived in my early 20s. I lived on an island and I’ve written about it, first in a novella, Inishbream, and in an essay in Phantom Limb. In the dream I was walking down the boreen that crossed the island. I was wearing the old sandals I had then, even though it was raining. I was swinging my arms and my shoulders ached a little. I knew where I was, knew the air my arms were swinging through, misty, smelling a little of turf-smoke and dung. This was the path the cattle took when they were moved from one field to another and it was the trail leading up from the quay so that when the turf was brought from the mainland by currach and loaded into a donkey pannier, the donkey walked to its owner’s cottage along its rocky ground.

I wonder if I had the dream because I was reading yesterday about proprioception? It’s a term I remember from the American poet Charles Olson whose work on projective verse, field composition, the guiding breath of the poet dictating form, and so forth was an important influence for the poets I was reading as a young woman.

And the threshing floor for the dance? Is it anything but the LINE? And when the line has, is, a deadness, is it not a heart which has gone lazy, is it not, suddenly, slow things, similes, say, adjectives, or such, that we are bored by? — Charles Olson, “Projective Verse”

Proprioception is the knowledge of where your limbs are in space and in relation to each other. It’s sometimes called a sixth sense, a sense of self. It’s the thing that allows us to move in a room without bumping into people, to descending stairs in the darkness without falling (I do this often, reaching forward with my foot and trusting my own body) and without really thinking about it. I remember when our dog Friday, towards the end of her life, lost the use of her hind legs. When we took her to the vet, he said she’d lost her sense of proprioception and it was the first time I’d heard the word used outside of poetics.

In my dream last night, I knew how it felt to walk that boreen. I knew the effort needed to avoid the stones, to make sure my swinging arms didn’t graze the stone walls on either side of the path, I knew how I would feel as I approached the side path leading to my cottage (which was just behind the rise you see to the left in the photograph). I knew to be quiet as I walked past the school (that building on the right) because I loved to hear the children’s voices through the open window. Sometimes they were having their Irish lesson and the words sounded like music: gualainn, lámh, béal…Sometimes there was even music, one of the men playing a tin whistle at a gate you can’t see just beyond where the path curves away. Sometimes I’d try a few dance steps as I approached my house with the music all quavery in the wind.

Soft is the grass, my bed is free.
Ah, to be back now in Carrickfergus
On that long road down to the sea.

But even in the dream, I knew I was dreaming. I knew my shoulder was sore because of my swim yesterday when I didn’t get my usual lane for the first half and so I had to keep turning my head when I was doing the back-stroke to make sure I didn’t crash into the end of the pool. (In the water, in my usual lane, I know exactly where I am by how it feels to stretch out under a particular section of ceiling, and how many arm strokes it takes to get me from the shallow end to the deep.)

This morning I am looking at some recent work, my body still wistful for that walk on an Irish lane. Maybe it’s the rhythm I’m hoping for in the writing, the careful foot, a swinging arm, my ear listening for new words on an old wind.

This is so long ago now but thinking of it brings back the music of Miceal’s tin-whistle as clear as anything and I ache to walk out to the boreen and learn to play along. — from “The One Currach Returning Alone” in Phantom Limb

“…housed in a clamshell box of leather and vellum…”

proof
proofs

Some mornings you wake to sky cleansed by the rain overnight, crackled clean by thunder and lightning, and just a little mist settled over the trees. The fire is warm. The cat’s been fed. To prolong the peace, you read a few of your favourite blogs, one of them Commatology.com. And wow, this is what you find, the musings of a perfect reader:

http://commatology.com/index.php/2018/10/stepping-into-a-river-of-dream/

The past hour has been spent in that dream. I was 23 when I lived on the island I wrote about in Inishbream. I was 44 when the novella was finally published. I held the narrator close to me those years in-between. She was—is—me, and she isn’t. I began this book as a series of prose poems and the people I showed them to asked for more detail, more connective tissue between the anecdotes and meditative passages. I remember asking myself, Well, what if you…and I won’t confess what I did, because I’m not entirely certain now which parts are purely autobiographical and which were invented. Or imagined.

colophon
this is a terrible photograph but if you click on the Barbarian link, you will see better visuals

When the book was being printed in its private press editions by the Barbarian Press, I’d receive phone calls daily. The Barbarians would want to check a detail, they’d send the proofs, one page at a time, by fax, and I’d know the presses were inked and time was of the essence. I loved everything about the book they created: the magnificent wood engravings by John DePol; the soft papers, the typeface (Eric Gill’s gorgeous Joanna); the bindings (there are 3 states and they’re all bound with different materials, even a special clamshell box of vellum and leather made by Hélène Francouer); and the way the handmade values of this work echoed my own. Echoed the place that inspired the book. Inspired me in so many ways in the life I went on to live. Sometimes I take down my special copy and read it slowly, wondering at the younger self who lived on an island at the very edge of the world, alone.

I was lucky enough to have Goose Lane Editions publish the book as a trade edition two years later. (I think they still have copies available for sale and if they don’t, ask me; I have some here.) I’ve been back to Ireland twice since then, the last time 17 years ago. Leslie at Commatology was just there and it was sweet (and sort of sad) to read what she found and didn’t find.  She writes,

It’s a fictional place, but I locate its real-life cousins off the Connemara coast: Inishturk, Inishbofin, Inishark. Inish, or Inis, or Ennis, for that matter, all mean island in Irish, and bream are a kind of fish.

She was close. Those are all islands I knew. Mine was near them, yes, and named for a fish, though not bream. Remember what Ishmael said, in Moby Dick? “It is not down on any map; true places never are.” Or they are, but they’re hidden. Mapmakers and writers—we have our reasons.

novellas for a rainy day

rainy day friends

It’s raining, a lovely soft sound on the roof. A perfect day to curl up with a novella, or three. In that spirit, I’m offering my three novellas—Inishbream, Patrin, and Winter Wren—for $45. (That’s a paltry $15 per title! But I’m only offering them as a trio.) I’ll ship for free in Canada. Other places? We can talk!

On my Books page, you can read about the individual titles. And here’s a little sample of rainy writing from each of them:

Listen. There were weeks when the sun refused us. At first I thought I could never live in such a place, but then I learned the sweetness of the Irish mist, how it enveloped you and numbed you to any real action or consequence. And you wandered in it, your hair jewelled, and you let yourself drift in great imaginings, where the ruined castle on the coast was made whole and you lived there, where the beached hooker* was yours and you mended it.

—from Inishbream (Goose Lane Editions, 2001)

My grandmother told me once that her father had worn a cloak, a loden cloak, given him by a man who’d bought some of the copper pots. It repelled both wind and rain. Sometimes he’d open it to allow two or three of his children to shelter within, she said. We sat under trees while the rain poured down, and it was our own tent, warmed by our father’s body.

—from Patrin (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2015)

Where am I, where am I? Again, she woke and tried to orient herself in the new room. Curtains, no—the fogginess was because it was raining outside and she couldn’t see farther than the window. Her room was a cube of wood and glass. In the bed she had been born in, she leaned forward and watched drops of water slowly find their way down the glass to the sill. The trees dripped. The cabin was cold and she put off the moment when she would push away the eiderdown and rush to the woodstove to start the morning’s fire.

Winter Wren (Fish Gotta Swim Editions, 2016)

*The Galway hooker (Irish: húicéir) is a traditional fishing boat used in Galway Bay off the west coast of Ireland.

postcard from Gannoghs

gannoughs

Yesterday we were driving home from another medical appointment and I heard a song on the radio that I kind of liked. What I liked was the chorus:

I wanna take you in a caravan
To the edge of the ocean
Where the trees make a canopy
And the moonlight is golden
We could make this a beautiful life
Come on let me show you
In a rented caravan

It reminded me of 39 years ago, in July, when I lived for a month in a small caravan on the edge of the ocean in Gannoghs, a townland in Connemara, not far from Cleggan. I spent two months in Ireland that summer, one of them in a cottage and then in the caravan. It was not fancy but I didn’t want fancy. I wanted a quiet place, in sight (almost) of the island where I’d lived the previous year and which was the muse (that’s not too exaggerated) for the novella I was finishing. After returning from that island, I’d met John and we’d decided to spend our lives together but first I wanted to finish my novella and that meant returning to Ireland.

The caravan had a bed that was stored in a wall and you unlatched it each evening. The view was a field and rocks and the water. There were cows in the field and they rubbed against the caravan. The first time they did it I thought I was the middle of the earthquake but then I heard them stomping around. There was also a neighbour, Bridget King, who lent me a bicycle and who visited most days. She was forgetful and sometimes she came more than once. She made a “cooey, cooey” sound as she rapped on the door with her stick. To get to the caravan you had to cross a stone fence and then push aside a tangle of fuchsia. Usually I heard Bridget but sometimes she caught me unaware.

John came in August and we spent a week in the caravan before going off on further adventures, including a week in Paris. I took him to meet Bridget, thinking that might forestall a visit from her. She lived in a cottage her husband had built with her help and she told me how they’d made the potato beds, draping seaweed over the rocky ground until there was enough depth for planting. (Gannoughs means “a place of stones”.) She had running cold water but no hot and she was elderly and her cottage needed a good cleaning. She had an old goose wing she used to sweep the table with, the crumbs and other bits and pieces landing on the floor. She found three mugs for the tea she offered us and wiped them out with a cloth that had seen better days. I was used to this but John had trouble drinking his tea. I should have warned him too not to take milk. There wasn’t a fridge.

This morning there was something in the air that reminded me of the caravan. The windows were loose in their frames and on a windy day the whole place smelled of ocean. The pages of the novella I was writing, by hand, scattered over the table and benches at the prow of the caravan where you could sit and feel that you were in the prow of a boat. The glass was even scoured by salt.

So that’s the postcard I send today, just before we head out for the follow-up to yesterday’s appointment. The moonlight was golden and we did build a beautiful life, one that goes on, despite the medical mysteries.

I wanna take you in a caravan
To the edge of the ocean

Remember?

where my limbs are in space

inishbream

I woke in the night from a dream of Ireland, where I lived in my early 20s. I lived on an island and I’ve written about it, first in a novella, Inishbream, and in an essay in Phantom Limb. In the dream I was walking down the boreen that crossed the island. I was wearing the old sandals I had then, even though it was raining. I was swinging my arms and my shoulders ached a little. I knew where I was, knew the air my arms were swinging through, misty, smelling a little of turf-smoke and dung. This was the path the cattle took when they were moved from one field to another and it was the trail leading up from the quay so that when the turf was brought from the mainland by currach and loaded into a donkey pannier, the donkey walked to its owner’s cottage along its rocky ground.

I wonder if I had the dream because I was reading yesterday about proprioception? It’s a term I remember from the American poet Charles Olson whose work on projective verse, field composition, the guiding breath of the poet dictating form, and so forth was an important influence for the poets I was reading as a young woman.

And the threshing floor for the dance? Is it anything but the LINE? And when the line has, is, a deadness, is it not a heart which has gone lazy, is it not, suddenly, slow things, similes, say, adjectives, or such, that we are bored by? — Charles Olson, “Projective Verse”

Proprioception is the knowledge of where your limbs are in space and in relation to each other. It’s sometimes called a sixth sense, a sense of self. It’s the thing that allows us to move in a room without bumping into people, to descending stairs in the darkness without falling (I do this often, reaching forward with my foot and trusting my own body) and without really thinking about it. I remember when our dog Friday, towards the end of her life, lost the use of her hind legs. When we took her to the vet, he said she’d lost her sense of proprioception and it was the first time I’d heard the word used outside of poetics.

In my dream last night, I knew how it felt to walk that boreen. I knew the effort needed to avoid the stones, to make sure my swinging arms didn’t graze the stone walls on either side of the path, I knew how I would feel as I approached the side path leading to my cottage (which was just behind the rise you see to the left in the photograph). I knew to be quiet as I walked past the school (that building on the right) because I loved to hear the children’s voices through the open window. Sometimes they were having their Irish lesson and the words sounded like music: gualainn, lámh, béalSometimes there was even music, one of the men playing a tin whistle at a gate you can’t see just beyond where the path curves away. Sometimes I’d try a few dance steps as I approached my house with the music all quavery in the wind.

Soft is the grass, my bed is free.
Ah, to be back now in Carrickfergus
On that long road down to the sea.

But even in the dream, I knew I was dreaming. I knew my shoulder was sore because of my swim yesterday when I didn’t get my usual lane for the first half and so I had to keep turning my head when I was doing the back-stroke to make sure I didn’t crash into the end of the pool. (In the water, in my usual lane, I know exactly where I am by how it feels to stretch out under a particular section of ceiling, and how many arm strokes it takes to get me from the shallow end to the deep.)

This morning I am looking at some recent work, my body still wistful for that walk on an Irish lane. Maybe it’s the rhythm I’m hoping for in the writing, the careful foot, a swinging arm, my ear listening for new words on an old wind.

This is so long ago now but thinking of it brings back the music of Miceal’s tin-whistle as clear as anything and I ache to walk out to the boreen and learn to play along. — from “The One Currach Returning Alone” in Phantom Limb

 

 

 

optimus

the optimus

When I was 23, I went away to Ireland to live for as long as my money lasted. I had $1200, mostly because I sold my little Datsun and a Walter J. Phillips woodcut I’d bought with some excess scholarship money a few years before. I’ve written about that time in my novella, Inishbream, as well an essay, “The One Currach Returning Alone”, in Phantom Limb. It was a strange and beautiful time of my life. I’d gone because I felt I’d burned my bridges in Victoria—several failed romances, a difficult relationship with a much-older painter, the sense that I needed to be alone in a way I couldn’t be in a place where I was known; I was young, remember, and not unfamiliar with drama…. I didn’t know where I’d go after the cottage someone had offered me turned out to be unsuitable (it was remote and people had camped in it and burned the floorboards for warmth…this wasn’t discovered until I was taken there to settle in) but luckily I had subsistence supplies: my down sleeping bag and a small Optimus stove my father had given me. I was willing to live quite rough (though I did think floorboards were a necessity, not a luxury). I wanted to try to find out if I was truly a writer. I wanted to test myself in ways I couldn’t really have articulated but somehow I knew I needed to try to find out what I could live without and what I could do in complete isolation. (Remember, I said I was not unfamiliar with drama.) Through a series of lucky encounters, I was led to an island off the Galway coast and a little cottage facing north. I had a big fireplace for heat and a small pile of turf to burn, along with any sticks I could scavenge on the beach, and I had an oil lamp for light. And candles. My down sleeping bag came in handy but I never did need my Optimus stove because the cottage came with a small propane stove. I had to lug the bottle (the islanders called the tanks “bottles”) over to the mainland and get it somehow to the nearest town when I needed a refill so I didn’t cook much, apart from steaming mussels from the rocks below my cottage, cooking nettles into soup, and making rice from the five pound bag I found in a health food store in Galway.

Sometimes I dream of that time so vividly that I wake in tears. I feel such tenderness for that young woman and her loneliness. Last night we were talking in bed and I sipped some Laphroaig, inhaling its wonderful aroma of seaweed and smoky peat, and maybe that’s why I dreamed again of Ireland. Not because I could afford fine single-malt. I couldn’t. I could barely afford the rice. But the turf fire often crozzled and I’d lean into the fireplace, adding bits of stick to try to encourage it to catch and the smoke permeated my sweater. It’s a beautiful smell, I think, and it lasted for ages in the big rough wool sweater I lived in that year. I’d sleep with my window open to the iodine tang of the ocean and it made me dream of storms, of drowning. Sometimes I’d hear a tinwhistle in my dreams, but it was almost certainly the man who played on the little lane above my house. He’d lean over the stone wall and the music would waver in the wind. By the time it found my open window, it was unearthly.

So last night, Ireland, and the Optimus stove, unused, but given pride of place on the table in my cottage. Just in case.

This is all so long ago now but thinking of it brings back the music of Miceal’s tinwhistle as clear as anything and I ache to walk out to the boreen and learn to play along.

—from “The One Currach Returning Alone”, Phantom Limb (Thistledown Press, 2007)

Three Friends of Winter: a novella sale

450px-three_friends_of_winter_by_zhao_mengjian

The Three Friends of Winter refer to the pine, plum, and bamboo. The origin of this term is found as early as “The Record of the Five-Cloud Plum Cottage” from The Clear Mountain Collection of literary writings by Lin Ching-hsi (1241-1310, a Sung dynasty loyalist): “For his residence, earth was piled to form a hill and a hundred plum trees, which along with lofty pines and tall bamboo comprise the friends of winter, were planted.”

Years ago, I saw a planting of the Three Friends of Winter in the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in Vancouver. And I thought, what a lovely idea — a companion planting of things that thrive in winter! They symbolize steadfastness, perseverance, and resilience. A little like the novella? In honour of the Three Friends of Winter, I’d like to offer my three novellas — Inishbream, Patrin, and Winter Wren — for the winter-friendly price of $45. For the three of them. (See my Contact page for my email address.) And I will ship them for free. Think of them as hardy green trees (and doesn’t the scouring rush on Winter Wren look like bamboo?), flourishing in snow and wind, eager to find their way to you.

three-friends-of-winter

“Lie down/in the word-hoard…”

Good advice from Seamus Heaney. Sometimes I feel such a yearning to burrow in language, to immerse myself in all the words that have collected in my imagination, in my hands, in the hollows at the base of my neck. I hoard words like summer grain, like apples, for their utility and their solace.

But unfortunately I hoard papers as well. (Books, too: the subject of another day.) For weeks now, I’ve wanted to tidy my desk. I’d make a desultory attempt to do that and I’d find that there wasn’t an inch of storage space to put the letters, the notes scribbled onto file cards or old receipts (and nowhere for receipts either which is why they end up on my desk). Today I decided to simply begin. To bring in some bags for the papers that could be recycled and a laundry basket for the stuff I’m going to burn. Every year I have a bonfire of the vanities and it makes me feel so clear afterwards, though my clothes are dense with woodsmoke — and the more esoteric smoke of old manuscripts and Christmas cards and recipes I’ll never try. So now I’ve begun the process and I won’t be able to do anything much in here until I’m finished. It should be incentive. I hope it is.

sunday work.jpg

There’s a filing cabinet to the left of the small table in this photograph. (Beneath the table? The laptop I replaced in February. I’m trying to decide whether it’s worthwhile to have the hard-drive removed to store. But to store for what? Old emails? Four years of drafts of essays and novellas which have already been published? On top of the table, hidden under stuff — the printer I bought to print quilt blocks on treated fabric for a particular project, a quilt to accompany my  essay “Euclid’s Orchard”. There are no available drivers to allow me to use that printer with my current laptop. Still I keep the printer. You never know…)

So far this morning I’ve filled the laundry basket with old journals  — I’m keeping a couple of travel journals but the ones where I am 18 and trying to write poetry are kind of embarrassing now. The ones where I am 32, with three small children under five, and wondering if I’ll ever write again are too sad to re-read. I know. I dipped into them this morning. Ideas for writing workshops from the days I used to teach them? Out. My academic papers from the 1970s, written in such pretentious language? Out.

All four file drawers are empty now and I’m going to organize the folders you see on the floor (and the ones you can’t see to the right of the chair) pretty carefully. There’s an entire folder of letters from literary agents who’ve turned me down. I might burn those. (It would feel liberating, I think.)

On the other hand, there are gems. A forgotten sheaf of wood-engravings by John DePol, sent as a gift when my novella Inishbream was published by the Barbarian Press. (John did the illustrations.) An autobiography written by one son, which condenses his life to the age of 7 with such clarity (I’m leaving out the birth year and the first year):

when I was two I ate a bug. when I was three I was normal. when I was four I got a bike. when I was give I lost my first tooth. when I was six I got stitches. now Im seven.

And there’s a generous letter from Seamus Heaney, written not long after North was published, giving me permission to use from a few lines (attributed, of course) from that book as an epigraph for my second book of poems. No request for a fee. No need to ask his publisher. Just a fulsome note wishing me luck.

I thought I might finish this job today but I can see it’s more of a process than I imagined. Although there’s a very pretty Turkish carpet under all those file folders, I won’t be lying down on it, luxuriating in the word-hoard, for at least a week.