Postcard, just above Mill Creek Ravine

last night

Last night, our final evening with our family in Edmonton, we stood on the street while our son helped his children on their scooters in front of their house. We could have helped but honestly, it was so cold (for grandparents accustomed to a mild April on the west coast) and one of the children was quite capable of scooting along on her own. The other one beamed as his father guided him up and down the sidewalk.  (I made the hat the youngest is wearing!)

We walked, we ate cinnamon buns at Wild Eharth, we ate dinner at Chianti on Whyte Avenue as well as several wonderful dinners cooked by Cristen, we bought pastries from La Boule and had the family over to our Airbnb one morning, and we read many many stories. My favourite? Probably one we gave the kids a year or two ago: Mr. Gumpy’s Outing, by John Burningham. If I missed a word, Kelly, age 3, was quick to correct me. If I didn’t turn the pages quickly enough, Henry, age 1, turned them impatiently.

For us? I bought John W.S. Merwin’s Garden Time. And for myself, a Notting Hill essay I’d meant to order but somehow didn’t: Kirsty Gunn’s My Katherine Mansfield Project. I began it last night, in my bed on 83rd Avenue, with the sound of Whyte Avenue muted out the window. I know I’ll be writing about it here.

And in the middle of the night, only a few hours before we needed to leave for the airport? I was sitting at the window, making notes for a long essay I need to write about houses and generations and love. On the plane, more notes. I was imagining my grandparent’s house in Beverly, the park kitty-corner to it. I was thinking of all of us last May building a deck for Brendan and Cristen, and the May before, building a pergola for Forrest and Manon. I was thinking of any place the generations are gathered, the table set, the stories set into play as easily as music.

Wish I was there.

Going Bush

going bush.jpg

There’s something so satisfying about a single-edition essay. Notting Hill Editions does them. And so does Sylph Editions, in the form of the Cahier Series, published jointly with the Centre for Writers & Translators of the American University of Paris. The Series includes all kinds of interesting writing and I treasure the ones I have on my shelves.

I recently ordered Kirsty Gunn’s Going Bush, number 27 in the Cahier Series. (Her My Katherine Mansfield Project was published by Notting Hill Editions a year or two ago.) I’ve read her novellas and her wonderful rambling novel The Big Music, inspired and structured around the classical highland bagpipe pibroch. She is such an original writer, following her own beautiful sentences as they explore place and memory and carry within their syntax a lyrical and haunting music.

Going Bush is a memory of a particular kind of New Zealand bush. Not park, not fields, not farmland, not mythical forest. Bush.

That growth was everywhere, dense through my childhood and close and rotting — smelling, damp underfoot where the light couldn’t reach the matted canopy of what we called, then, ‘natives’ — those trees indigenous to New Zealand, the Matai and the Totara and the Miro as I know to call them now — only, ‘natives’ we said then, because they were not oak or pine or ash.

And it’s a memory of a kind of realization, occurring around puberty, when your body often seems to betray you, with its changes and odours, its mysteries, that a place can be a solace, even in its darkness and its stagnant water. A place of refuge for a girl alone in  her otherness in social and domestic life, in this case a family picnic when cousins turn out to be hostile and cruel.

Though the undergrowth was thick and dark, it wanted her to be inside it, wanted her to run faster and faster to find its secret river, to touch her and hold her and whisper and call, along with the bellbirds and the tuis and fantails she could hear, somewhere up there, in the dark trees, flitting in and out of the dark branches like ghost birds and spirits of ancestors with their calls like the sound of bells: Come to me, come to me, come to me.

Going Bush is a gorgeous edition, with a mixed-media work by Kirsty Gunn’s sister Merran Gunn reproduced throughout to offer a visual correlative to the text. It resembles the river the narrator is drawn to, that offers her mud and weeds and cool water:

‘Use me,’ the river bank had told her then. It had said the same again as she had stood like there a mighty tree, dark and silent, while the terrible cousins ran straight on past her — and she had let them go.

“They are the ground of the story and the air that blows through it.” (Kirsty Gunn)

A few posts ago, Sarah of Edgeofevening left a comment about Kirsty Gunn’s novella, Rain. Something I’d written about the novella I have recently begun (The Marriage of Rivers) reminded her of Rain. I’d read Gunn’s The Keepsake but not Rain — so I ordered it immediately. It’s a wonderful book, brief, lyrical, and also dense at the same time. Dense with weather, with emotional tension, and with an almost mythic dread. It’s the size it needs to be for its plot — quite simple, yet as inevitable as rain. And as lasting in the mind and heart. (I’m listening to rain now, a welcome sound after a long dry stretch; it patters on the metal roof and the way it smells, mixed with woodsmoke — because you need a fire on a wet morning — is something I’d like to bottle and dab behind my ears.)

In a talk given at the International Conference of Virginia Woolf Studies at the University of Glasgow in 2011, Kirsty Gunn commented on her writing process:

“What I know I am writing – are sentences. That’s what I am really confronting when I am at work on a piece of fiction –  not the idea of story at all, but rather the sentence that sits on the page before me. And in the end, more than any cultural doubts about the relevance of fiction’s form and content, it’s my own inability ever to leave the sentence behind…That makes me wonder sometimes how I might get any books finished at all.

Those sentences, for me, are the fiction. They are its stuff and scent and touch and ballast. They are the ground of the story and the air that blows through it. They are, these lines of words, the present tense of writing, and each one holds me in the now of making, these sentences – various, textured, new – full of smoothnesses and bits, what is known and unknown, the lovely and the shocking…So they keep me sifting through their endless possibilities, while out there somewhere is the idea of the project to which they belong, the book with its title, the story with its name…Nevertheless it is, for me, these sentences of mine that, ok, along with “the overall sense of a shape keep one at it.”

That shape is important, of course. I share with Woolf the sense of it being a kind of act of faith to “keep at it”, to keep finding the sentences that will move the fiction to find its place in the general scheme of things, be true to one’s idea of aesthetic and of form. For without that – significance – sentences would be all I would have…”

This is true of my own work. There’s a sentence, which carries with it a music, a rhythm, and that leads to the next, as a phrase of music suggests another. And those sentences will speak to one another as much as to a reader  — who at that point is unimagined in any case; or the reader is a listener, is myself, listening to the rush of words and trying to find out where they are going in their headlong play along the paper, or screen, as water moves from its source in earth, or glaciers, down a course, finding its way through a landscape, over rocks, through fields, meandering and creating oxbows, plunging over mountainsides, accumulating the taste of soil, of wild sage, of fish in its dark depths, the bodies of the drowned, a broken paddlewheel, an astrolabe dropped over the side of a canoe. Until it is itself a river.

IMG2009-0063-0007-Dm1-229x297In her talk, so appropriately given at a conference of Woolf studies, Kirsty Gunn commented that at “the beginning of writing all of my books and short stories is one sentence that starts to play over and over in my mind and that I then “capture” on the page: ‘Up in that part the water smelled rivery….'” When Rain begins with that sentence, you know you are in for a wondrous read and you’re not disappointed. You follow, with your nose as much as with your eye, your ear, until you’ve “passed the little bay at the end of the first beach but already the air was touched by the promise of our destination.”