…the last notes of “The Woman of the House.”


I was 22 when I travelled to Ireland the first time. I’d graduated from university and I felt drawn to the landscape(s) I’d loved in my Irish literature course. I had a thousand dollars and an idea of a place I could live, a cottage arranged for me by the friend of a friend. But it didn’t work out for a lot of reasons, mostly because Travellers had camped in the remote little house in the mountains in County Mayo and burned the floorboards for fuel. I went off with my rucksack and asked in post-offices, shops, and any other place I could think of: Did anyone know of a place I could live? Somehow (a long story) I ended up in a cottage on an island off the Connemara coast. It was a small island, with a population of 60. There wasn’t electricity or running water and my toilet was a pink plastic chamber pot, emptied over the stone wall into the grass, and rinsed in the tide just below the wall.

I had in mind a writing life. Every morning I’d wake up, make a cup of the cheapest instant coffee I could find in the grocery store in the town I’d go to once every week or ten days, depending on weather and if someone was going to the mainland strand and had room in the currach for me. From the strand I’d either walk the 7 miles to the town or else borrow a bike from the farmer whose fields rose above the sand at Eyrephort. I’d wake up, drink my coffee, and then write in my journal. I’d actually brought a typewriter with me (ah, dedication) and I’d scribble notes towards poems. The scribbles were often very prosaic. Somehow the long cries of the seabirds, the wind coming down my chimney, the quavery notes of the man who played his tin-whistle on the lane, or boreen everyone called it, the familiar moaning of the donkey who lived in my field, somehow these didn’t really lend themselves to tight syllabic lines. I wrote a lot. I was lonely. I had two love affairs with men who didn’t talk much, one on the island and one off it. I had so little money that I ate mostly rice from a five pound bag I bought in Galway, measuring it out by teacups full, and I picked nettles, silverweed, mussels on the rocks below my cottage. I was grateful for the potatoes left on my doorstep, the occasional cabbage.

When I came back to Canada, I was intending to just stay long enough to get my life into order and then I was going to return to the one man who lived off the island. But in the interim, I met the man who became my husband. Before we married, I did go back, for three months, not to the island but to a village not far away. In Canada I’d taken the little prosaic scribbles and tried to fit them together as a series of prose poems. When I showed them to a couple of friends, they said the same thing: Write more, tell the whole story. So during the period I lived in the village, I did that. Not exactly my story. Somehow I wanted to know a couple of things and in the way you can find these out by venturing a little further into the unknown, I tried to find them out. What would have happened if I’d married the fisherman on the island, what would have happened if the beautiful man in the Travellers’ camp who invited me for a drink had led me to a quiet place under the fuchsia? (We had the drink but I didn’t follow him.) And so I wrote, I walked in what the Irish call weather (“Weather, isn’t it?”) and that we might call rain, and at the end of the three months, John arrived and I tucked my pages into my rucksack. Those pages became a novella in due time, my first novella, Inishbream. Because my publishing life has never enjoyed a smooth trajectory, it wasn’t published for nearly 20 years.  Jan and Crispin Elsted at the Barbarian Press printed it in 3 beautiful states, with wood-engravings by the wonderful John DePol, I have the first two states and the third, bound in turbot skins, set in a clamshell box, with little driftwood handles, I have only seen in photographs.

Cliquez sur l'image pour fermer - Click to close

On days like today, rainy, with Irish music filling the airwaves, I am there again. I am at the table by the window, the one John DePol so beautifully caught—the deep casements, my broom leaning against the mantle, the primroses I’d lifted from under a hedge on my walk back from the town and put into a teacup—, and I am listening. There is wind, the donkey looking out to sea the way he did, moaning, half in love with loneliness, and oh, Miceal on the boreen is playing his tin-whistle.

     It seemed that even the stupid blind wind would subside when Miceal’s bent fingers jigged over the length of the whistle, and instead of its hollow, monotonous tones there’d be the sweet sad airs of the Celtic heart.
     Someone else wanted reels or “The Raggle Taggle Gypsies.” We listened till the cows came home. When it darkened, you could see the frail lights begin to bloom on Bream and Turk and the occasional headlamps of evening cars on the Sky Road. The summer people would drive to the mainland viewpoint and would park, casting their beams over Mannin Bay and out to the islands. They’d see the pale gaslight or candlelight smudging the dark of the archipelago and the long piercing flash of Slyne Head, the keepers over each season attentive to craft warnings and the forecasting of gales. And if they stepped out of their cars, they’d hear the mourning donkeys and the last notes of “The Woman of the House.”

tin whistle

Note: Inishbream was published as a trade edition in 2001 by Goose Lane Editions. I also have a few copies here if you’re interested. (The Barbarian Press editions have been out of print for years though copies do show up at fine press auctions from time to time.)

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


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:


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.

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.

“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.

“all remnants of disaster”

On our walk this morning, I stopped to take a couple of photographs of parts of a skeleton we first saw about this time last week. The remains of an elk, I’m pretty sure — I brought back two toes last week to clean and save and they’re larger than our Columbia blacktail deer toes. I looked for the skull but it wasn’t around, dragged off by a coyote, I bet. And this week some of the leg bones were also missing. I bent a little to take this shot —

P1110160— and had a sudden clear memory of seeing the ribcage of a cow or bullock on a grassy area above the water on the Irish island where I lived for a time in 1978.

I was 23 and in retreat from the life I’d lived in North America. I wanted something but I couldn’t have told you what. Well, I knew I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to test myself. I’d walk the island — it wasn’t big and there weren’t trees to block the view — and it seemed that everything asked to be noticed. The hedges of fuchsia, the children walking to and from the schoolhouse, the sound of their lessons from the open windows, a calf bawling for its mother, someone stacking turf (the bricks of peat which were cut and brought from mainland bogs as the island had no source of its own), the hum of a generator (no electricity either), a currach returning to the quay and men helping to untangle the nets and pots used for fishing, the frail notes of a tinwhistle from a doorway. I loved trips to the mainland when I’d tag along with someone rowing over in a currach, the wood-framed boats of the west of Ireland, covered with canvas (though with skins once).

inishbream image
This is how a currach was carried down to the water. It’s a wood-engraving by John DePol, made for my novella Inishbream.

The ribcage on the grasswas like polished ivory and I sketched it, I remember. Later I saw a spine — from the same animal? I don’t know — and that made it into a poem:

The things I find I leave:

a great spine of a bullock

on the west beach

the shards of a tern’s egg.

Brought back 3 ribs

of a currach once

and dreamed all night

of storms and drowning

and when I burned them

in the morning

I saw the craft complete

itself in the flame.

There is nothing beyond here.

They tell me America lies west

and I have looked forever

beyond Slyne Head,

have seen only waves

bullying the fishermen,

have seen only a horizon

too far away for sailing.

All remnants of disaster

catch on these rocks:

there is shipwood, a lobster pot,

a strand of net, myself,

not buried or blessed

but given land underneath,

the sting of an iodine wind

telling us this might be home.

It’s a strange experience to read something written almost 40 years ago. I’m amused a little by the melodrama (I felt I was a remnant of disaster, having run away from unrequited love among other things, but was I really?) but also grateful for the unexpected connections that are often part of the process of writing. The bone frame of the bullock echoing the structure of the currach —

currach1-150x150— the lilt of the language, the gift of the word “craft” at that point in the poem as well as in my life.

When I saw the skeleton last week, it was because it was unexpected. (When you walk in the same place over time, your eyes readily see what’s different.) And I didn’t expect to be taken back to that grassy place just outside the cemetery on one of my solitary walks around the island’s circumference where the beautiful weathered ribs taught me something about writing and where several months later a currach took me on the first leg of my long journey home.

An argument for the novella

As a writer who loves the novella, I am always interested to read what others have to say about the possibilities of this strange and lovely form. Most recently there’s this:


Although I wonder why the default suggestion seems to be that they are a perfect size for ebooks, I am glad to know that novellas inspire panels at literary festivals, debates online and off, and much discussion about length and the parameters of plot. I wish publishers weren’t so afraid of them. I have two out now, as a single manuscript, making the rounds. How would we market these, seems to be the lament — and although I understand it in some ways (a small book in a culture driven by excess and hype), I have to wonder where that old bold spirit went, the one that motivated publishers to take on unlikely titles and market them in the same way they would market anything: as necessary and vital books, not as something to apologize for. Years ago Jan and Crispin Elsted made a beautiful book of my novella, Inishbream, with wonderful wood-engravings by John DePol:



And Goose Lane Editions published a lovely trade edition of the book a couple of years later. I never felt that the manuscript was treated with anything less than respect as a work of literature rather than a abbreviated version of a real book. And for the New Year, my wish is that I find an equally congenial home for Winter Wren and Patrin.

It’s a perfect time of year to re-read James Joyce’s elegant example of the novella, The Dead. In his essay on the novella in the New Yorker last year, Ian McEwan wrote about The Dead: “A simple binary structure (a party, a hotel room) supports the evocation of an entire social milieu (decorous and fractious by turns) with extraordinary warmth. They seem to play out in real time, the dancing and singing at the aunts’ annual dinner, the family tensions, the barbed exchange about national identity.”

the novella

I’ve always loved the novella, even before I knew what it was, how it differed from a full-length novel, a short story. So it was marvellous to find this piece by Ian McEwan in the New Yorker.


This is so right, so true: “Let’s take, as an arbitrary measure, something that is between twenty and forty thousand words, long enough for a reader to inhabit a world or a consciousness and be kept there, short enough to be read in a sitting or two and for the whole structure to be held in mind at first encounter—the architecture of the novella is one of its immediate pleasures.”

As a reader, I appreciate the entry into that world, so complete and contained somehow. And as a writer, I treasure the making of that world. It seems to me that the writing of a novella is a bit like musical composition, developing a theme and modulating it over time, space, keeping the language concise and taut, then introducing lyrical variations on the main theme.

The first long piece of fiction I wrote was a novella called Inishbream. I wrote it when I was 23, trying to find a form to contain the music, the landscape, the weather, and the human interactions of the period I lived on a small island off the west coast of Ireland. The Barbarian Press published it in three states — all of them gorgeous —  in 1999, illustrated by the great American wood-engraver John DePol. Here’s one image from the book:

And then in 2001, Goose Lane Editions published it as a lovely small trade edition, with John DePol’s images on the cover and the titlepage.

Last week I began a new novella and have been immersed, again, in the pleasures of the form. I see it as a companion piece to Winter Wren, a novella I finished last year. I don’t have any illusions about their “marketability”.  But I wouldn’t trade the daily exhilaration of sitting at my desk and finding my way into a cosmos contained in less than 100 pages for anything.