the day after

at the book prizes

Last night was the B.C. Book Prizes gala. I was glad to be there, glad to be nominated for a prize, though I didn’t “win”. (Here’s the link to the winning titles!) It was lovely to see old friends, meet some new people, and to realize again what a vital literary community we have in this province on the far edge of the country, west of the Rocky Mountains. People put so much effort into the event, from the jurors (and how nice it was to spend a bit of time with Jean Barman, a historian I believe to be a national treasure) to the organizing committee to the librarians, booksellers, and everyone else who gathered to honour the nominated writers.

I want to commend my own publisher, Mona Fertig, at Mother Tongue Publishing. She is so supportive, so enthusiastic, and she runs her business out of an old heritage house near Ganges on Salt Spring Island. She celebrates the unsung artists of our province, the writers who are working in forms not part of the best-seller culture, and she insists on their importance. Not “instead of” but “as well as”. It’s harder to do this work, I know, with financial constraints and reluctance on the part of much of the media to embrace what might not seem popular. Last night Mona was her bounteous generous self and I was glad to be there for the reception and dinner as well as the awards ceremony for the opportunity to share a glass or two of wine and to know that my book, Euclid’s Orchard, was possible because of her encouragement, her faith.

“…a coyote is singing a long low passage.”

Last night I woke around 3:00 to hear coyotes singing in the woods. Or the orchard. Hard to tell in moonlight the location of music, particularly coyote music, which is cast to the air in a kind of magic. I thought of my essay, “Euclid’s Orchard”, which also hears the music and tries to make sense of it. Not only its location but its meaning, over time.

From “Euclid’s Orchard”:

Braid groups, harmonic analysis: The whole is greater than the part. (5th axiom of Euclid)

braid groupsA mid-summer evening, clear moonlight. Down in the orchard, the coyotes have gone under the fence with their young. How many? I’ve seen one, heard several others. I’ve imagined them on the soft grass, tumbling like my children used to play, rolling down the slope over tiny sweet wild strawberries, over the heart-shaped violet leaves, the deep pockets of moss, while around them snakes hid under the lupines. But now in the quiet, I am shaken out of my dreaming because a coyote is singing a long low passage. A lump forms in my throat as I look out into the night, the sky dusty with stars, a three-quarter moon hanging so perfect over the hidden lake that I think of a stage-set, an arranged scene created by strings and wishful thinking. A jagged line of dark horizon and the vertical trees, the line of them rising, then descending as the bar changes, a page of music, the arpeggiated chords, the implied bassline. A pause, a comma of silence. Another coyote joins in, then at least two more. It’s a part-song, a madrigal. Each voice is on pitch but one is low, another high, and several braid themselves in and around the melody line.

See, see, mine own sweet jewel,
See what I have here for my darling:
A robin-redbreast and a starling.
These I give both, in hope to move thee–
And yet thou say’st I do not love thee.

What feast have the parents provided—a flying squirrel, a clutch of frogs, robin nestlings fallen from a tree, a cat from the summer neighbours sound asleep in their beds? See what I have here for my darling—I hear the riso in the father’s line, his extravagant vibrato; and then the sospiroin hope to move thee, as the mother nudges the twitching body towards her eager pups. For she knows, oh, she knows, that by summer’s end, her young will have gone their own way, far from the natal den in the woods just south of the orchard, forgetting the braided perfection of the family body and its unravelling, the strands unplucked and loose, and yet thou say’st I do not love thee.

Playlist for summer

After weeks of rain, a time when the province’s rivers flooded, when cherry growers mourned the condition of this year’s crop, when the berry growers in the Fraser Valley prayed for sun, when the roses lost their petals in sodden clumps, when driving home in darkness meant being alert for frogs on the highway, when the slugs (I swear) grew to the size of mice, well, yesterday afternoon the sun came out. And we are promised weeks of it. The UV index this morning is 7. Or maybe 8.

So it’s time to bring out the summer music. I confess I’m not really sure what a playlist is. I don’t have any of the latest technology, I still play cds and have only once or twice downloaded a song. What I’ve always loved about vinyl records and then cassette tapes and compact discs is the sense of narrative in the playing of them. You start at the beginning and you listen to the whole thing (mostly). You realize that the musician had a particular kind of listening in mind as he or she decided on the sequence of pieces. There’s a trajectory and the listener is part of that.

Last night friends came for dinner and we listened to a collection of Romska balada, a cycle of Roma songs that are individually beautiful but form an extraordinary extended expression of longing, sorrow, prayer, and joy. Somehow this was perfect music for sitting under grape leaves while the sapsuckers flew from tree to tree and we talked of absent children, gardens, and waited for the lamb to finish grilling.

So what would my summer playlist sound like? Some Dylan, Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You”, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending”, played by the marvellous Hilary Hahn, Steve Earle singing “Jerusalem” (and not Blake’s Jerusalem, though maybe I’d want that too), two “Four Strong Winds” – Ian Tyson and Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris singing “Boulder to Birmingham”, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Drew Minter  singing “Son nata a lagrimar” from Giulio Cesare, a duet that gives me goose bumps just typing the title, Dire Straits (“Wild West End”), Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in its entirety, and then maybe Jean Redpath singing the songs of Robbie Burns. I’m sure I’ve left out key elements but it looks like I’ll have the whole summer to perfect my list.