“Do you see in the null shine how we’re leaving /everything behind?”

Lately I have been thinking about bridges and gates. Both of them are practical things and both of them are means of transporting us from one thing to another. From one side of a river to another, from one realm to another; both are openings in a way, if we allow them to be. Well, a gate or a door is obviously this but a bridge also has the ability to open us to a landscape, a far shore, without the potential danger of crossing a river by swimming or on horseback or by small boat (“The water is wide, I cannot swim o’er…“). My mother used to say, Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it, and I’d ponder this in a way I never pondered the verses we had to memorize in Sunday school.

Many years ago, John and I happened upon a Paul Feiler exhibit at the Tate St. Ives. I was unfamiliar with his work but loved it, particularly the Janicon paintings. Feiler had trouble with his sight at the point in his life when he painted these serene works named for the god Janus who looked forward and backwards at once. John loved them too and wrote a poem exploring his reaction. The poem walks us through rooms filled with the shields and portals of the Janicon paintings. And then it tries to grapple with what they mean.

Is there something, I scribbled down

parallel to do in language?
The catalogue quotes Whitman: Darest though now

Oh soul/Walk out with me toward the unknown region…
The catalogue quotes Pound: In the gloom the gold

Gathers the light about it. I sit down
with my mother months later in her garden pergola.

I sit down with my mother outside in her last
moments at home, in her last moments before

the Home, the crazy talk a moment suspended.
A bird passes. I tell her many times after on the phone

how her wisteria has grown to command our patio…
the lattice filling, portals closing, shade. There is nothing

parallel to do in language. Do you see?
Do you see in the null shine how we’re leaving

everything behind? I refer you to the catalogue.

— from “Janicon”, published in crawlspace, winner of the 2012 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize (if you click on the link, you can see the cover of the book; it features Janicon LXXXIX)

I was looking out a few minutes ago towards my garden and saw its gate:

enter

And now at my desk, I can see another portal:

iron portal

This morning an orange-crowed warbler perched in this particular opening, singing. I was at a loss to express how I felt at the song coming in my window as the bird sang in the old burnished iron. The song so simple in the morning light, the tendrils of wisteria, brought by John’s mother so many years ago (and from her mother, before that, tucked into plastic bags for the long flight from London to Vancouver). So much has been left behind but so much has gathered too in the areas around gates, iron grates, bridges over rivers dark with mud and the sound of magpies. Do you see? I wanted to ask but by the time I rose from my chair to call John, the warbler had flown.

redux: “I am haunted by waters.”

A year ago, I was planning a long essay about rivers, inspired by Oliver Sacks. I finished it and am in the process of finding a home for it. As I’m also trying to find a home for my novella about rivers, also completed in the past year. More water, more searching, more finishing…

rivers

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters.” — Norman Maclean, from A River Runs Through It

Last night I finished reading The River of Consciousness, the final collection of essays by Oliver Sacks. It’s a beautiful book, full of lively, erudite, and humane explorations of memory, illness, and yes, consciousness. I put it on my bedside table, turned out the light, fell into a deep sleep (helped a little, I have to say, by my homemade tincture), and woke with one thought in my mind. Do rivers themselves have consciousness?

I suspect they do. Think of how often we use river terms for our own metaphorical purposes. River of consciousness. Stream of consciousness (that wonderful narrative device so beloved by the Modernists). Time and the river.

If a dynamic, flowing consciousness allows, at the lowest level, a continuous active scanning or looking, at a higher level it allows the interaction of perception of memory, of present and past. — Oliver Sacks

The photograph above is the moment of the Thompson River entering the larger body of the Fraser River, at Lytton. How long before the Thompson is just a memory of green water in the darker water of the Fraser? What does it retain of its essential self? Its origins, its sediments, its particular history, its…yes, its own fluid memory?

My husband’s new book of poetry is due out from Harbour Publishing later this year. Its title? This Was The River. I’m thinking a conversation about rivers and their own consciousness might well begin this evening, by our fire, over a glass of wine. And later this winter or early spring, overlooking the Thompson and the Fraser, a place we stop every time we drive up Highway 1 into the Interior.

I made some notes this morning and I hope to enter the river of consciousness as well as its obverse during these dark days of January. Maybe most particularly its obverse.

summer shortbread

summer shortbread

Tonight we are going for dinner with our friends at Oyster Bay. I haven’t looked at the tide table but I’ll take my bathing suit just in case. When the tide comes in, the bay is the most beautiful place to swim. You are swimming over the remains of fish weirs and oyster beds and there’s feral asparagus, remnants of the cultivated crops grown by the local market garden, self-seeded in the rich muck along the shores. My friend gathers it in spring in her canoe and those dinners are spectacular. Tonight’s will be, too. And I offered to bring dessert—a gooseberry fool flavoured with a little rose-water, and lavender and lemon shortbreads. I made them with rice flour for those in our party who don’t eat gluten and as I was mixing and shaping, I wondered at what point you can call something that you’ve always made in honour of the person who gave you the recipe (well, her son actually, who is in his 80s now) but who would probably not recognize the recipe any longer, well (realizing I’ve lost control of this sentence), how long you still name the recipe for that person? When Alistair MacKay,who was once my husband’s French professor at UBC and who, with his colleague Floyd St. Clair (partner of David Watmough), became dear friends, gave me his mother’s recipe for shortbread, he asked that I call it “Mrs. MacKay’s Shortbread”. And I do, most happily. It is excellent. I’ve passed along the recipe to others and told them they too must call it by its true name. (It was a hit in Amsterdam last Christmas, apparently.) But when I add rosemary or lemon zest or fierce Chamayo chili bought from a man selling bags of it on the roadside in New Mexico, is it still “Mrs. MacKay’s Shortbread”? Yes, I think it is. So “Mrs. MacKay’s Shortbread, with variations for the times we live in, the flavours we crave, the spice we want in winter, the flowers we have available in summer”.

Back to Oyster Bay. I am married to a poet and have lived with him for nearly 40 years, surrounded by poetry. He says he is often surprised to find records of our daily life in the pages of this blog. Surprised by what I remember or pay attention to. Mostly he’s glad, I think. And similarly, I am often surprised to find our daily life in his work. Surprised and delighted and grateful. Here’s part of the first section of one of my favourite poems, John’s “Mud Bottom”, set on Oyster Bay some years ago now but still vital and true.

                                                          I should put on old runners

to walk the creek’s last clarity, its main channel
down the estuary utterly exposed,
brazen and pungent in the sun. Its bed
of clay and hard sand is the only footing
in acres of slippery, deep mud. Its few round stones

in shroud and sweep of seaweed hair are the blind heads
of seekers pushing upstream.
They would be worth knowing, knowing

what a husband knows.
A river, a marriage, living
are deep-pulling puzzlements their whole length.

—from “Mud Bottom”, in Water Stair, Oolichan Books, 2000.

“between the history/and the archives”

john

When you spend nearly 40 years with a person, particularly a writer, you hear a lot of stories. There’s one my husband John has told many times about his summer as a fledgling archivist, “apprenticed” to Major Matthews, and it has always intrigued me. A poem written that same summer seemed to me to lay out the story on the grass by English Bay and in my mind I saw the story—

rolled out
in a noon-hour

between the history
and the archives

And now he’s written it down! You can read it here: https://bcbooklook.com/2018/01/25/the-unforgettable-major-matthews-2/#more-33483

“I am haunted by waters.”

rivers

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters.” — Norman Maclean, from A River Runs Through It

Last night I finished reading The River of Consciousness, the final collection of essays by Oliver Sacks. It’s a beautiful book, full of lively, erudite, and humane explorations of memory, illness, and yes, consciousness. I put it on my bedside table, turned out the light, fell into a deep sleep (helped a little, I have to say, by my homemade tincture), and woke with one thought in my mind. Do rivers themselves have consciousness?

I suspect they do. Think of how often we use river terms for our own metaphorical purposes. River of consciousness. Stream of consciousness (that wonderful narrative device so beloved by the Modernists). Time and the river.

If a dynamic, flowing consciousness allows, at the lowest level, a continuous active scanning or looking, at a higher level it allows the interaction of perception of memory, of present and past. — Oliver Sacks

The photograph above is the moment of the Thompson River entering the larger body of the Fraser River, at Lytton. How long before the Thompson is just a memory of green water in the darker water of the Fraser? What does it retain of its essential self? Its origins, its sediments, its particular history, its…yes, its own fluid memory?

My husband’s new book of poetry is due out from Harbour Publishing later this year. Its title? This Was The River. I’m thinking a conversation about rivers and their own consciousness might well begin this evening, by our fire, over a glass of wine. And later this winter or early spring, overlooking the Thompson and the Fraser, a place we stop every time we drive up Highway 1 into the Interior.

I made some notes this morning and I hope to enter the river of consciousness as well as its obverse during these dark days of January. Maybe most particularly its obverse.

“In the middle of his rigamarole, a brooch…”

john's dog

For Christmas I gave John Michael Longley’s new book, Angel Hill. He’s a poet we both admire. I particularly like his translations, free translations, of moments from the Iliad and the Odyssey. They are like amulets, verses to keep things alive, safe, in memory (I am thinking of earlier books containing elegies for his twin brother and his father), and in beautifully crafted lines that echo the older lines but also carry something of Longley in them too.

Last night I was reading Angel Hill in bed when I came to “The Brooch”. The poem references a passage from Book 19 of the Odyssey, when Odysseus, not yet known to Penelope, tells her a story of her husband. She’s not sure whether to believe him and asks for proof.

                                                         “I think that I shall say, friend,
give me some proof, if it is really true
that you were host in that place to my husband
with his brave men, as you declare. Come, tell me
the quality of his clothing, how he looked,
and some particular of his company.”

(This is from my beloved and much-read translation by Robert Fitzgerald. I’m going to read the new Emily Wilson translation this winter and will be curious to compare the two.)

Odysseus replies, “I shall tell what memory calls to mind.” And then he describes in detail a tunic and a purple cloak, pinned with a

                                                                    …brooch
made of pure gold with twin tubes for the prongs,
and on the face a work of art: a hunting dog
pinning a spotted fawn in agony
between his forepaws—wonderful to see
how being gold, and nothing more, he bit
the golden deer convulsed, with wild hooves flying.

I’m sure someone has written about the art objects in this poem, how they are so carefully and beautifully rendered so that the reader stops, truly sees them, and never forgets them. As Penelope never forgot.

Now hearing these details—minutely true—
she felt more strangely moved, and tears flowed
until she had tasted her salt grief again.

You want this to be the moment when she is taken back into her husband’s embrace but no, we have to wait until the bow has been strung, the suitors and slaves slaughtered, and the riddle of the bed solved. And Michael Longley gives us that moment:

Telling the truth and telling lies, Odysseus
So close to Penelope, yet so far away,
In the middle of his rigamarole, a brooch,
A golden dog grasping a dappled fawn
In his forepaws, fascinated by it
As he throttles its struggle to get free,
A clasp of such intricate craftsmanship
For fastening (in his story) the tunic…

Poetry has this capacity to turn on itself, to contain the old story and to make something new of it, its own intricate craftsmanship modelling the fine metal of myth and love and faith, and yes, cruelty, as the dog throttles the fawn and the man withholds his own identity from a woman who has waited twenty years for her husband to return to her.

This morning, thinking about the brooch, I remembered the dog I gave to John, most often worn with a vest I sewed for him (look at those buttons!), but once worn on the lapel of a black suit to Rideau Hall when he won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 2006. In her sweet voice, the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean asked him what the dog meant. And he told her it was protection against the other dogs of Canadian literature. To which she gave a small surprised laugh.

Was Odysseus’s brooch a protection? An amulet that took him through war and wild water? Did it slip from its clasp or fall with the tunic and cloak? He was naked when Nausikaa found him by the river, a time when he surely could have used a noble robe, held in place with a golden dog.

we were never going to be old

jp-tk

Today is my husband John‘s 70th birthday. When we met in 1979, we knew we wanted to spend our lives together. And we have. We’ve done what we hoped to: built a house, planted trees, written books, loved 3 children to adulthood, and now have the pleasure of our grandchildren. There have been dark times, of course, and I suspect there will be more. But this morning, by the woodstove, watching my beloved open gifts—Jorie Graham’s new collection, Fast; a beautiful scarf; a couple of bottles of special red wine; condiments and implements from Ottawa; Colm Toibin’s study of Elizabeth Bishop; tickets to the Vancouver Symphony—I saw the young man who captured my heart when I heard him read poems at Open Space in Victoria with bill bissett. Did he read from Love’s Confidence that evening? I can’t remember. But opening it now, I read the last poem, and hope for decades yet, that opening for the moon.

Finally

Taken out
of myself
the words are

a special green
of leaves beneath
the streetlamp.

I want to go on.
I want the poem
it could be

the opening the clouds
make for the moon.