evening reading

deep hollow creek

We began reading together in the evenings last winter, stopped for the summer, and then continued again this winter. Our first book together was Robert Pinsky’s translation of Dante’s Inferno. This winter we read Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey, followed by Volume One of the Tales of Chekhov. Then Seeing Things, by Seamus Heaney, followed by Outside History by Eavan Boland. We pass the books back and forth, bringing to each our own reading styles, our own cadences. We talk a little about what we’re reading but mostly one of us reads, the other listens. I’ve grown to love this.

Two nights ago, the day after we finished Outside History, we were wondering what we’d read next. For some reason we were talking about my recently published novella, The Weight of the Heart, and I was explaining about the notes at the back, how I wanted to include reference to Sheila Watson’s Deep Hollow Creek, her first work of fiction, written about her first teaching job at Dog Creek in 1934 but not published until 1992*. I wanted to reference it because I think it is a small perfect gem but the protagonist of my book wouldn’t have known about it in 1976 or 1977 when she was searching for traces of the fiction of Ethel Wilson and Sheila Watson in the landscapes of British Columbia. Anyway, I was explaining this and then I asked John if he’d read it. No, he hadn’t. So let’s make that the book we read over the next few weeks. Sure, he said.

When you read aloud, you hear a text that you don’t necessarily find on the page. You hear what I think of as the undercurrents of the language. In this book, about a small community in the Cariboo, you hear the laconic voices of some of the characters (the dour hardscrabble farmers), the more voluble chatter of the woman who owns the store and who is so self-referential that I think I might have tuned her out when reading to myself (but it’s impossible to do that reading aloud!), and you also hear the heightened language framing the narrative. You realize just a few sentences in that it won’t be an ordinary story.

She had come into the valley to find life for herself. It is not difficult, she thought, to recall all the fine things which have been written about life. She could summon to witness Taylor’s rose, Browne’s frame, and Harvey’s microcosmic sun, the palpitating radiance of the life-streak seen with the naked eye in the egg of a barnyard fowl.

The shift between metaphysics and the quotidian detail of life in houses of rough boards, fenced by weathered poles, surrounded by trees filled with fool hens—this is characteristic of Watson’s work of course but reading aloud you are taken by how her language accommodates these shifts. It’s so exhilarating. Is this what it’s like, asked John, meaning all the gossip as the characters are introduced. Yes, I said, but of course there’s so much more. And there is! After a sad description of Rose Flower’s terrible bread (“cold and grey and sour”), which the narrator Stella realizes is Rose’s “peculiar emblem”, there is this paragraph:

Can the validity of this emblem—or of any other emblem—she wondered, be assessed. I see the hand, the compass, the dragon when the book falls open. The hand reaches over the ledge spilling one knows not what of essence or substance into the narrow cleft. Through Sassetta’s eyes or Edmund Spenser’s I see in the shadow of Limbo the red cross—and they see it because the light glances off and reflects from the fire which warms their shoulders as they work. I have always taken the compass as a thing to be held. Yet the hand falters measuring the fleeting body of flame.

The ledge of Stella’s window overlooks the narrow cleft where the house is built against a hill but somehow it is also an aperture. This is a book to take your time with and reading aloud will allow us to do just that.

The cover of this New Canadian Library edition features a painting of Lynn Valley, North Vancouver, by Frederick Varley. But it could have featured a painting by another member of the Group of Seven: A.Y. Jackson. In the 1950s, he stayed at the stopping house in Dog Creek, owned by the Place family, and painted what he saw around him. Hilary Place, grandson of the original Place of Dog Creek, wrote a book about his family and his community. Sheila Watson has a cameo in the book—as Sheila Doherty, she was his grade 8 teacher. On the cover of Dog Creek: A Place in the Cariboo is a beautiful view of the deep hollow threaded through by a blue creek, painted by A.Y. Jackson and given to his hosts.

*Deep Hollow Creek was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction that year but it didn’t win. The English Patient did…


The vessel that I thought of as a poem


I was doing something upstairs, something that required no thinking on my part, when I suddenly said to myself, The vessel that I thought of as a poem wasn’t right any longer. I wrote it down on a scrap of paper and came downstairs to have my breakfast and a second cup of coffee by the fire. The phrase has been in my mind ever since.

After publishing a couple of books of poetry in the mid-1970s and writing a novella, Inishbream, in that decade (a novella that began its life as a series of brief sketches I hoped were prose poems but was convinced by a couple of friends needed connective tissue to link them, broaden their strokes), I pretty much stopped writing for a few years. I had a child, then a second, and then a third, in four years. My husband and I built a house. I began (but didn’t complete) a MFA. I always thought I’d return to poetry when I had time and inclination. I did write a few poems during those years, a very few, but I had the sense that I wasn’t doing what I needed to do with language, with narrative, with the lyric line. I couldn’t have told you what I did want to do because I didn’t know the possibilities. Other people wrote novels. Or they wrote books I was reading at the time – Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; The Horse of Selene; And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos; The Practice of the Wild; Wendell Berry’s essays about farming and ecology—that used space and ideas differently than I was used to seeing in poems or traditional prose forms. I couldn’t imagine a way in to this way of writing, not until we were camping in the Nicola Valley one summer in the late 1980s and (there is no other way to write this) the world opened itself to me in a way that I am only now beginning to understand. I heard voices in the grass, I walked among the little corral of graves at the Murray churchyard and felt the presences of the dead (though they weren’t mine), and everything around me shimmered with a golden light that felt almost divine. I kept making notes. Those notes became “Morning Glory”, my first attempt at what I now call an essay. An attempt. A weighing, a testing – both of physical matter and of the actual vessel that would hold what I wanted to say. It’s interesting to me now that I first published that essay in a chapbook that co-won the bpNichol Chapbook Award, an annual prize for the best poetry chapbook, in 1992.

The vessel that I thought of as a poem…It’s something I want to think about over the next while as I anticipate the final proof-reading of my forthcoming novella, The Weight of the Heart. The novella seems such a perfect form to hold certain things I want to do with language and with the possibilities of story. When I begin a piece of writing, I’m almost always trying and weighing and testing. Is this mine? Can it be? Is this voice my own? Sometimes there comes a moment when the material I have at hand, the places I want to inhabit, require embellishment or invention to an extent that I can no longer consider what I’m writing an essay. I think of essays as grounded in something like the truth, the actual. Occasionally I’ll imagine a detail a little frivolously, or collapse several years of experiences into a single one. In an essay in Red Laredo Boots, I did that. Two summers became one. The back and forth between the two felt awkward and I reasoned that it didn’t matter if I wrote about two summers as one. Does this kind of retooling or adjusting make a essay any less true? I don’t think so. It’s perhaps not entirely verifiable but I’m not aspiring to journalism.

But as I said, sometimes I need to expand what I need to write to include perspectives that are not my own, to allow a voice that maybe begins as mine to evolve into someone else’s voice. The protagonist of The Weight of the Heart shares some of my life experiences, she had some of the same professors at her university, she loves the landscapes and books I love. But her beloved brother drowns. My three brothers are very much alive. I do remember the moment when I knew I needed to turn what had begun as a meditation on the work of women whose books were rooted in British Columbia into fiction. I was thinking about my relationships with my brothers and how, when we were children, we were so close to one another. Our father was transferred every two years for part of my childhood and we’d arrive at a new city, knowing no one. We had each other, though. We were a unit. But of course that changed as we took different paths into the future. I saw a similar dynamic between my own children. Isabel in The Weight of the Heart is haunted by her brother, looking for traces of him in the last places she knew him. Her quest to find the loci of Swamp Angel and The Double Hook is also a quest to know the passage from her brother’s life to the afterlife. (I like that a locus in mathematics is the set of all points (usually forming a curve or surface) satisfying some condition.) The vessel for this book about kayaks and fishing dinghies and rafts made of driftwood logs is something most resembling a novella, though there are lyric passages, arias, that might stand on their own as prose poems.

And now in the night when I’m awake, there’s new material asking me to find a vessel for it. I think it’s an essay but it might be longer, a book-length work of lyric prose, an investigative treatise on disease and lost history, and a very personal exploration of my family’s early experiences in Canada. Those children who travelled with their parents from one city to another: they’re in it. So are what I think of as shadows, apparitions I catch a glimpse of hovering mostly just beyond my vision but sometimes allowing me close enough to touch them, their ancient hands.

The man who was my earliest mentor was disappointed when I stopped writing poetry. I took on that disappointment as my own for years. I was glad to be writing again, once my children were all in school and I had more time; but I wondered if I was doing the right work. As though I had a choice. To say no to those voices in the grass, the presences in the Murray churchyard, the meaning of pollen on our tent as we woke on those mornings on Nicola Lake to the sound of nutcrackers and magpies. Or to refuse what seemed possible after years of not being able to put one word after another until I had a sentence, a page. Or four.

In our house, we re-purpose things. Sheets became curtains for the guest room, a Greek olive oil tin holds a rosemary plant, scraps of fabric find their way into quilts, an old iron grate from the basement of the house we were living in when poetry left me has become the portal hanging out my study window. These days as I wait to welcome a new book into the world and think about the next one, I think of a book I’ve  written about before: Guy Davenport’s wonderful essay collection, Every Force Evolves a Form, the title bowing in homage to Shaker founder, Mother Ann Lee. The title essay, a gathering of birds, concludes this way:

The history of birds taken to be daimons traverses religions, folklore, and literature. In Europe it begins with the drawing of a bird mounted on a pole in Lascaux. In the New World we can trace it back to the Amerindian understanding of the meadowlark as a mediator between men and spirits of the air. Poe’s raven, Keats’ nightingale, Shelley’s skylark, Olson’s kingfisher, Whitman’s osprey thrush, and mocking-bird, Hopkins’ windhover are but modulations in a long tradition, a dance of forms to a perennial spiritual force.

I’d add Emily Dickinson’s lark (“Split the Lark, and you’ll find the Music”), who in fact prefaces this essay, and I’d say yes, to all the birds, their modulations, all the vessels, holding flowers or ashes, oil or water, powered by oars or wind, dense with potential.

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

This was written on March 31, 2014. 6 years later I am anticipating the publication (in a month or so) of a novella written in homage to the novellas of Sheila Watson and Ethel Wilson. They were the compass and the maps I had in my mind and on my desk as I wrote The Weight of the Heart.


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.”

redux: “neatly chiseled”

Note: 5 years ago, and I’m still thinking about novellas (I was up in the night, working on The Occasions, my novella-in-progress); I still keep Swamp Angel on my desk. (A year ago I had the pleasure of talking to Michael Enright on CBC’s Sunday Edition about Ethel Wilson’s book.)


I’ve been rereading my favourite novellas lately, trying to fix in my mind what it is that makes the form so attractive. (Someone, somewhere, wrote that a novella is a bit like a recit in opera but I’d argue against that, I think. Some of them are full of arias, lyrical and serving exactly the same function as, say, an aria in a Handel opera: to balance and contrast the narrative work of the recit.) This afternoon I was reading Ethel Wilson’s Swamp Angel and came to this beautiful passage:

The sound of the cranes’ silver music approaching in all that silence would take her at once out of a cabin with her broom, and into the open, to look up, to listen, and when they had passed over, to recapture the sight and the silver sound which moved on over other lakes and hills. She would walk up the long overgrown trail to the far end of the lake and, in the evening, approach softly, and stand, waiting to see the heads and backs of beaver in the water, leaving their lodge and returning again. She would hear the gunshot sound of the beaver’s tail upon the water as, startled, he dived. She would examine the stumps of the birches, neatly chiseled to clean points by the sharp teeth…

Swamp Angel is set mostly on Three Loon Lake which I believe is a fictional stand-in for Lac Le Jeune, near Kamloops. We often take the Lac Le Jeune Road when we’re in that area, an old route leading past the Jocko Creek Ranch and past small lakes and the larger Lac Le Jeune. Years ago I camped there with Forrest while on a research trip on the Thompson Plateau and we watched a wood duck hen lead her ducklings down from their nest hole in a tree by the marshy end of the lake. And south of Lac Le Jeune, near Nicola Lake, I once heard the sandhill cranes before I saw them, their singing like creaking wooden wheels across the sky. But what I loved about this passage of Swamp Angel is the bit about the beavers. In a marsh on our route from home to the mailboxes, there’s a small marsh where we hear red-winged blackbirds every spring and occasionally ducks in the more watery areas. But there are two alders on the edge of the marsh and a beaver has been chiseling them for the past week. Every day we say, “It won’t be long now!” and today I asked John to take a photograph when he went alone for the mail. (I was busy getting things ready for a birthday party for him tomorrow!) The photographs are blurry because it’s raining and because, well, it was nearly sunset (just before 4). But it won’t be long!



novellas for a rainy day

rainy day friends

It’s raining, a lovely soft sound on the roof. A perfect day to curl up with a novella, or three. In that spirit, I’m offering my three novellas—Inishbream, Patrin, and Winter Wren—for $45. (That’s a paltry $15 per title! But I’m only offering them as a trio.) I’ll ship for free in Canada. Other places? We can talk!

On my Books page, you can read about the individual titles. And here’s a little sample of rainy writing from each of them:

Listen. There were weeks when the sun refused us. At first I thought I could never live in such a place, but then I learned the sweetness of the Irish mist, how it enveloped you and numbed you to any real action or consequence. And you wandered in it, your hair jewelled, and you let yourself drift in great imaginings, where the ruined castle on the coast was made whole and you lived there, where the beached hooker* was yours and you mended it.

—from Inishbream (Goose Lane Editions, 2001)

My grandmother told me once that her father had worn a cloak, a loden cloak, given him by a man who’d bought some of the copper pots. It repelled both wind and rain. Sometimes he’d open it to allow two or three of his children to shelter within, she said. We sat under trees while the rain poured down, and it was our own tent, warmed by our father’s body.

—from Patrin (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2015)

Where am I, where am I? Again, she woke and tried to orient herself in the new room. Curtains, no—the fogginess was because it was raining outside and she couldn’t see farther than the window. Her room was a cube of wood and glass. In the bed she had been born in, she leaned forward and watched drops of water slowly find their way down the glass to the sill. The trees dripped. The cabin was cold and she put off the moment when she would push away the eiderdown and rush to the woodstove to start the morning’s fire.

Winter Wren (Fish Gotta Swim Editions, 2016)

*The Galway hooker (Irish: húicéir) is a traditional fishing boat used in Galway Bay off the west coast of Ireland.

September song

But the days grow short when you reach September
And the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame
And I haven’t got time for the waiting game

And the days dwindle down to a precious few
September, November
And these few precious days I’ll spend with you

                         (Kurt Weill, Maxwell Anderson)
A sweet time at our house with a visiting grandson (and his parents), a visiting daughter (minus her cats this time around), and a scattering of bright days among the rainy ones. The other morning I noticed that the bigleaf maples are turning and the air has that cool tang of autumn. Apples, stardust, the knowledge that chanterelles are out there if we just hunt carefully enough.
A perfect time to offer a sale! So I am. Three novellas — Inishbream, Patrin, and Winter Wren — for $45, shipping included. Here’s what reviewers have said about the books:
Inishbream is a story imbued with the rhythms of speech and of the natural world, of dying and living, of flight and change. It holds the same fundamental truths as a sung air, as the hanging notes of a tin whistle, of the resonance of pipes.” — Quill and Quire
“In Patrin, Kishkan skilfully weaves together several complementary threads, each one illustrating a different aspect of longing. One thread expresses the nostalgia for a personal past (Patrin’s first loves, and her early days of independence as a young woman just coming into her own); another illustrates Patrin’s desire to connect to an ancestral past, to feel part of something larger than herself.” — Vancouver Sun
“Kishkan’s new novella, Winter Wren, is a phenomenal read, and the latest evidence that there’s no accounting for which artists are the ones who get famous.” — Book Addiction
Each of them is the ideal length for an afternoon’s read by the fire (or the memory of one), each one of them will take you to unexpected places — an island off the west coast of Ireland, Czechoslovakia before the Velvet Revolution, a wild beach on Vancouver Island. And they make beautiful gifts. (Is it too early to think about Christmas? No.)
Here’s my grandson Arthur enjoying novellas on a rocking chair by the fire.
And the days dwindle down to a precious few
September, November
And these few precious days I’ll spend with you