redux: “I have always taken the compass as a thing to be held.”

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Note: This post is from March, 2014. I was thinking my way into a novella and I was reading, in some cases re-reading, the novels (and novellas) of Ethel Wilson and Sheila Watson. They are the muses of the novella I eventually wrote, The Marriage of Rivers, and I am so delighted to tell you that Palimpsest Press will publish it next spring (2020). The contract has been signed, sealed, and delivered! This press, like Mother Tongue Publishing, is devoted to “…poetry, fiction, and select nonfiction titles that deal with poetics, the writing life, aesthetics, cultural criticism, and literary biography.” And their books are objects of beauty in themselves.

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I’ve never been to Dog Creek though I’ve thought of it many times as we’ve driven Highway 97 from Cache Creek north. In 1934 (one account says 1935) the young Sheila Doherty went to teach school in Dog Creek, then (as now) a remote community on the west side of the Fraser River. She lived in Dog Creek for two years and wrote of this time in her first novel, Deep Hollow Creek, though it was published much later in her life, after she’d achieved a kind of fame after the publication of her second novel, The Double Hook, in 1959. By then she’d married Wilfred Watson and taken his surname.

I read The Double Hook as many of us did, as an undergraduate (in the last century), and it changed the way I thought about novels. Its language, both lean and mythic, led the reader into a hermetic world from which one emerged, dazed and somehow enlightened. Its structure was (is) perfectly balanced between darkness and illumination, between violence and redemption. As Sheila Watson wrote in The Double Hook, “…when you fish for the glory you catch the darkness too.”

But it was many years later before I found Deep Hollow Creek — and no surprise there because it wasn’t published until 1992. I read it later in the 1990s, a chance discovery on the shelves of the Sechelt Public Library. It’s a brief perfect book. 111 pages in the New Canadian Library edition I bought at Russell Books in early March. I’d call it a novella, that enigmatic form beloved by maybe too few of us these days (or so the publishing world would have us believe. We can’t market them, they say. We can’t sell them!). Every word counts in Deep Hollow Creek and there are just enough of them for the young school teacher Stella to enter the place  that is Dog Creek and tangle herself in the dense stories of the few who live there.  “If I hadn’t come here, I doubt whether I should ever have seen through the shroud of printers’ ink, through to the embalmed silence. The word is a flame burning in a dark glass.”

Deep Hollow Creek anticipates The Double Hook but to my mind it’s more satisfying. This is personal, of course. I think both books are works of sheer genius but somehow the symbolism of The Double Hook is used with a lighter hand in the earlier book. The place — Dog Creek — seems first of all to be a real place. Stella unravels the water-rights, the systems of hay crops, the genealogies of horses and dogs, the bitter disputes between families. And it all rings so true, even those grouse among the jack-pines: “…red-eyed, speckle-coated fool-hens…unconcerned, waiting for their necks to be wrung without the trouble of a shot.”

I am trying to find a way to write lean essential stories myself and it’s a gift to have this book to serve as a talisman, a compass. “I have always taken the compass as a thing to be held. Yet the hand falters measuring the fleeting body of flame.”

“How could anyone not be interested in horses whose ancestors appeared in the cave drawings in Europe?” — from a work-in-progress

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horses at Jocko Creek

The horses are Alice’s, Pete explained, as we walked towards a grey barn with a weathervane creaking in the breeze, stopping every few feet to take another spoonful of soup. A weathervane of a copper fish, parts of it completely green. And three horses waited at the gate.

     They like to know what’s going on, Alice told me. They’re curious about the new foal. She held her cheek against the cheek of the darker horse for a minute and one of the others, the colour of polished chestnuts with a rump dappled with white spots, nuzzled her hair. Then she turned to me and said, quietly, as though to keep the trio from overhearing: There was a twin, a colt, but he was born underdeveloped and I don’t believe he even took a breath. Rare for mares to have twins and mostly it doesn’t work out for the babies or the mare. I’m relieved that the filly survived and her momma was able to expel the placenta completely. I had to reach in and help her to let it go.

    (Her hands, the long fingers, the rough palms, had been inside horses. Had stroked her husband’s body afterwards, or before. I kept looking at her, in wonder.)

     In the barn, pigeons cooed in the high rafters and the air was sweet with hay. No, not hay just yet, said Pete, when I exclaimed, but just a few armloads of grass for the new momma. Hay comes later, when the grass is frozen. The mare was in a large stall, munching on the grass in the corner cradle, twitching at flies with her black tail, while her stilty-legged baby tugged at her milk-bag. I put my soup bowl on a bench and asked if I could pat the filly.

     Oh, sure. Angel’s an experienced mother. She won’t mind. Here, let me – and Alice slid the bolt open on the stall door.

     The foal was still damp from her mother’s licking. I put my hand out and her soft nostrils rested briefly on my palm. Then she returned to suckling. Her eyes, when she paused to look at me, were deep pools. They had only known daylight for a few hours and I thought of her still curled up in her mother’s body while I’d slept the night before, curled up with her brother who didn’t even taste his mother’s milk. I thought of them asleep in their watery darkness while I swam in the river, wanting to let go of life to join my own lost brother. Touching the filly’s spine as her tail flickered, I was surprised to find myself wiping away tears.

     It gets me every time, Alice said quietly, and ‘course this time it’s sad too. There are foals every year and I deliver most of ‘em myself, unless there’s a breech or other problem, then the vet comes from Kamloops. And I always cry. But look at these two! This baby’s going to be a beauty. Her momma’s a marble roan and I’m hoping she’ll develop that too, though it’s too early to tell. You could write a book about the Appaloosa colours, she replied, when I asked if there were different names for the patterns. Her eyes shone. How could anyone not be interested in horses whose ancestors appeared in the cave drawings in Europe? The ancient wild horses – many of ‘em had the spots on their hips and rumps. I saw photos of those caves in National Geographic and I knew the horses right away.

     They showed me more horses, including two mares with visibly moving foals still within them. (Put your hand right there, Alice said, guiding mine to the unmistakable thump of a tiny hoof against its mother’s side; my fingers tingled, held the sensation. Hers knew what it was to enter the body and ease shoulders through a narrow cervix.) An old red tractor parked by the barn, a pitchfork leaning against a stall door, a long wooden box spilling what looked to be shoeing tools, a cat sleeping in a bar of sunlight on the floor, the drowsy sound of flies: it felt like a place out of time where you could be invited in for a bowl of soup and then never leave. Three horses by the gate, their faces mild, long lashes fringing their eyes.

–from The Marriage of Rivers

“How long could we live before we were found in a place no one expected us to go?” (from a work-in-progress)

At the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts, I had the privilege of talking to a large audience about the novella — my own and others. It was so gratifying to have people come up to me over the next few days to tell me their own favourites and to ask more questions about this most lovely of literary forms (and perhaps least appreciated on the critical and just plain publishing front).

I’ve just spent an hour (one of the small hours) working on my current novella, The Marriage of Rivers. Well, maybe not working on it exactly but re-reading, changing a comma here and there,  moving a sentence to its true place. There are barred owls calling out in the darkness — and the stars! The night is dense with them, the long path of the Milky Way right above our house.

When we drove over the top of Pavilion Mountain that day, I got out to open the gate. James drove through and I hung on the gate for a moment, over the cattle-guard, swinging briefly back in the direction we’d come from, and forward, gently towards Clinton, the wedding, the rest of our lives. And his death. It was the axis of symmetry, a notion I remembered from high-school math, the perpendicular line between a parabola, a two-dimensional, mirror-symmetrical curve: before and after. It was warm, we’d had ice-cream, but I shivered. My world (or his) was about to change. I actually thought this. Carefully closing the gate, I thought we should just stay in the kingdom of grass, find an abandoned cabin, set up housekeeping together. We could grow hay, oats, collect spring beauties to dry for winter, we could gentle a pair of the wild horses that ran through the Chilcotin, train them to carry us even farther away, runaways in the Pantheon Range. I wanted my brother all to myself. Never mind the wedding and confetti, the western band on its low stage at the front of the hall with streamers and balloons rising to the ceiling like lost souls. The couples dancing in their summer finery. How long could we live before we were found in a place no one expected us to go?

(O you gates, you who keep the gates because of Osiris, O you who guard them and who report the affairs of the Two Lands to Osiris every day; I know you and I know your names.)

pavilion

bookends

In 1977-78, I spent most of a year living in Ireland. I rented a cottage on a small island off the Connemara coast. It was a sweet time, though often lonely too. I walked. I gathered mussels and nettles to supplement the meager amount of food I could buy weekly in the nearby town when a boat was going that way and I could tag along with fishermen selling their catch or their wives doing errands. I say “meager” because I had so little money and also because everything I bought for the week had to be carried in my rucksack. Sometimes the boat would cross the narrow passage between the island and a strand several miles from the town and on those days I walked back and forth with my rucksack of provisions or else I borrowed a bike from a farmer who lived above the strand. A week’s worth of food could get heavy (and expensive) awfully quickly.

And I wrote. I wanted to discover if I was actually a writer and for some reason I thought I had to go far away to do that. I’d always loved Irish music and literature and somehow I imagined the west of Ireland would be a place I could lose my young damaged self in and find a better self. (I was 22. This is the way I thought then.)

I have no regrets about that time. I loved the island, I loved the hedges of fuchsia and the sound of corncrakes in the field behind my cottage. I read voraciously and I wrote the beginning of a novella which I completed later, once I’d returned to Canada. That novella, Inishbream, was published first as a private press book by the Barbarian Press. It took them years to actually produce the book and all the reasons for the delays were entirely legitimate. The wait was worth it. And so was the process, the step-by-step process of making a book the old beautiful way. An American artist, John DePol, did a series of wood-engravings for the book.

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Some copies were quarter-bound with soft green Japanese silk; others with leather; and the very rare Design editions were quarter-bound with turbot leather. The printing is exquisite. And when I read the novella now, as I do from time to time, my heart goes out to that girl on a western island, her wild ecstatic heart. (I know now that some of the way she saw the world — a heightened rapturous vision — was in part due to hunger…)

There are pale beaches of coral sand, strung darkly with the dead weeds. I walk them endlessly, alert for news of the world: a bottle, an explosive, a book of the saint’s voyage enacted on the edge of the Atlantic, a waterlogged crate washed from the deck of a ship.

In those windy cottages, the stories age. Outside, a well runs dry. Pots rise empty on their bleach-bottle floats, the hay rots under the rain’s assault. And they stand, all of them, on the rim of the chopping sea, straining to the tide, pulling in the nets of the morning. World without end, amen.

My husband John remarked awhile back that my new novella, Winter Wren, is in some ways a bookend to Inishbream. The main character lives on a remote beach, on an island’s western edge, and although much older than the protagonist of Inishbream, she shares many of the same habits and aspirations. She wants to know where she is, wants to know the plants, the weather, the patterns on the rocks. (In Inishbream, the speaker of the book discovers what she thinks is a pattern of carvings on rock and wonders if they’re petroglyphs. In Winter Wren, Grace finds fossils from the Oligocene period in the sandstone below her house. Both of them are alert for whales. Both have unexpected lovers.) And although Winter Wren isn’t printed letterpress on fine papers with linen stitching, it is a very pretty production (thanks to Anik See and the great team at Printorium). In purely physical terms, it’s a bookend to the trade edition of Inishbream, published by Goose Lane Editions.

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The older I get, the more I realize what a capacious form the novella can be. A small but surprisingly roomy vessel, for meanderings, meditations, for recording flora and fish species, for weather notes and snatches of poetry, for expanding the known world of a speaker who “came, wanting only the isolation of tides” but who found so much more at the doorstep of those tides. Birdsong, old stories, the vertebra of a whale, the far-off lights of Neah Bay.

 

“one who creeps into holes”

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This little bird house swings from an eave out my study window. A winter wren (I know they’ve been reclassified as Pacific wrens but old habits die hard) visits most mornings. After Brendan gave me this house for Christmas five years ago, I hoped a wren might nest in it but I suspect the opening is too wide and the house is too obvious.  The genus name Troglodytes is from the Greek (and I can’t do the orthographic decorations here) and means “one who creeps into holes”, a perfect designation for these tiny birds that dart about in the underbrush, in and out of roots. They are territorial and quite fierce about protecting their (small) ground but they will gather communally in cold weather to keep each warm during the long winter nights. I was sitting at my desk in late afternoon in December and saw 6 wrens arrive at this house, one after another, and each one paused at the opening, looking around to make sure of, well, I’m not sure what (they didn’t know I was watching and probably thought no one could see them), before entering. Was it memory of that safety that brought a wren just now to enter the house and peer out? Or, more likely, the prospect of little spiders and pupae to make a breakfast.

In my forthcoming novella, Winter Wren (Fish Gotta Swim Editions), there’s an elderly reclusive man, the son of a famous artefact collector (based loosely on Charles Newcombe), who earned a living by preparing bird skins for museums. I tried to imagine preparing a study skin of these tiny birds and realized the skill it takes to do such work. Skill and love. The man, whose name is Tom Winston, also learns something about the music of wrens. I’ll leave that to prospective readers to discover for themselves. But here’s a passage in which wrens occur — and if you read this novella, you’ll learn that they’ve been there all along and that they don’t forget.

Dreaming of water, further north, near Tanu, the darkness that surrounded them as they edged towards an island where burials had taken place. I only want to look at the mortuary poles, Tom, his father told him as the boat bumped against rock, pipe-smoke damp and sweet in the rain. Only want to look. But then his father was winching a pole to the shore with someone else and Tom was helping them tip it into the boat which swayed and lurched on its tether. The smell of rotting cedar and moss. He was dreaming of what was concealed in the niche in the back of the pole, the bones huddled in scraps of clothing. The remnants of a woven cape, skins around the torso, winter wren song trilling out of the underbrush, witnessing their theft.

Notes from the past: from a work-in-progress

I’ve been in the past, and in the Interior, for the last week, working away on a novella. I’ve posted little snippets here before. This comes from about the middle-point of the narrative, when the main character recalls a road-trip with her brother in the mid-1970s. I didn’t have a date to begin with but then as phrases of songs began to sing their way into the novella, I realized that it had to be after 1975 when Joan Baez first released “Diamonds and Rust”. (Another song, Emmylou Harris’s “Boulder to Birmingham”, was also released that year, and it echoes through the first part of the book.) As for the other sacred texts that form what I think of as calls and responses in the novella, they range from Hetty Dorval (1947), Swamp Angel (1954), The Double Hook (1959), to the much older Egyptian funerary texts — The Book of the Dead and The Books of Breathing. Is this too much literary weight for a small story to carry? Time will tell, as it always does. Here’s a photograph of the road to Pavilion so you can imagine the wind, the grass, the prospect of horses.

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from The Marriage of Rivers, a work-in-progress….

Once we were driving to a wedding in Clinton – a guy James went to university with was marrying the daughter of a local rancher – and we’d taken the Duffy Lake Road, through Lillooet, then to Pavilion where we stopped for ice-cream. Our plan had been to continue on 99 until it met 97 at the Hat Creek Ranch north of Cache Creek. We were looking forward to taking some photographs at Marble Canyon. A Shuswap guy James knew said that the high white pinnacle everyone called Chimney Rock was really Coyote’s Penis and James couldn’t resist. –I’ll have postcards made, he said. While we were leaning on one of the poles holding up the roof overhanging the entrance to the store, James suddenly said, I’ve changed my mind. Forget Marble Canyon and that penis. Let’s drive up over the mountain and go past Kelly Lake. Remember the time Dad took us camping there and all he wanted to do with fish until finally Mum said she was on strike so we had slices of bread with ham and nothing else and we thought it was a feast?

Did I remember? I’ve never forgotten how we camped on what I thought was the most beautiful lake in the world and how good those ham sandwiches were. We dipped our tin cups into the lake and drank its mineral water. And how we drove back to the coast with our windows open as we came down off Pavilion Mountain, down the crazy road (“Count the switchbacks, kids, and the one’s who’s right gets ice-cream at the store.” Then, “Who got 8? All of you? (None of us even knew what a switchback was or when we were on one.) That’s ice-cream all around!”).

–Have you got the map?

–We don’t need a map, James. It’s that road there – look, you can see the switchbacks from here. Remember when we didn’t even know what a switchback was?

We always argued about maps. James liked them to be folded just so and he liked to know distances. –How far, how far? And I’d try to estimate by using the scale but it was easier to wing it. –Oh, as far as Vancouver to Hope. Or, about the same as Kamloops to Salmon Arm.

I decided it was more about gender than temperament. I knew how to find our way by landmarks. It was hard to explain but I felt them more than I saw them. I knew how it felt in my body to drive up and get out of the car at what our father had called Carson’s Kingdom, explaining to us that a man called Carson had acquired the land in 1866 and his family had owned it until Colonel Spencer bought it in the 1940s, bought a few ranches both up the mountains and down in the valleys and on the lower benches. Spencer like the department store on Government Street, he reminded us; the store where our mother took us for back-to-school clothing, preferring it to other stores because of the quality and because she knew, slightly, a painter who lived out on Ardmore Drive, also a Spencer. Same family. We all got out of the car to watch how he opened the gate across the road while some cattle watched and we walked along a bit while he drove through, then closed the gate again. Country etiquette, he told us. So we were taking that same route, but backwards; we were driving up Pavilion Mountain rather than down and we were heading north to Kelly Lake, then east to Clinton. But my body felt the road’s contours, the rich feathery growth of the pines, the tickle of those soft grasses. I could relate these things to a map but I didn’t use the map to see how to get from one place to another. I used it as a literary text of its own. I used it to remind me how my body responded to the hills, the low-lying lakes to one of the road, the sight of a hawk gliding along the shoulder, another on a fencepost, and wind, sunlight on my arm resting on the car-door. My shoulders ached for the dry air, a few ripe Saskatoon berries in my palm. That was my map.

Roads went from this to that. But the hill led up to the pines and on to the rock rise which flattened out and fell off to nowhere on the other side. (DH, 33)

Up and up, the grass waving, the finished heads of balsamroot rustling. Crack me a beer, my brother requested, and I did, taking a long pull myself before handing him the bottle. When James was too involved with his beer and keeping us from leaving the edge of the road (the long fall to the far green valley), I let the map drop from the window on my side of the car to the ground where it floated away. Later, I thought, later I could explain that I would never forget a single contour of this landscape, not a single blade of grass, not a square inch of the blue sky above; my body was the map with its wild topography, its legends of distance and scale. In my throat, the bitter taste of hops. Speaking strictly for me, we both could have died then and there.