within stories

sea lions.jpg

Stories within stories within stories. That’s the Odyssey. We are reading it aloud, to each other, most evenings by our fire. This translation, by Emily Wilson, is really marvelous. It reads smoothly and naturally. I’d wondered when I bought it how she would convey the long dactylic hexameters of the original text and her choice is iambic pentameter, the meter of English narrative poetry. I enjoyed the postscript to Robert Fitzgerald’s 1961 version in which he discusses at length the strategies he used to try to replicate the formulaic tropes of the poem, part of the legacy of its origins as performance. A translator is always working with equivalencies, I think. I enjoyed too Emily Wilson’s Translator’s Note:

I have taken very seriously the task of understanding the language of the original text as deeply as I can, and working through what Homer maybe have meant in archaic and classical Greece. I have also taken seriously the task of creating a new and coherent English text, which conveys something of that understanding but operates within an entirely different cultural context.

We read and I notice that we smile a lot. We smile when we recognize a moment, or appreciate an image. When Menelaus is telling Telemachus about the old sea god Proteus of Egypt and how he was advised by the god’s daughter, Eidothea, to surprise the god as he slept, he recounts Eidothea’s description of how to find him:

He goes to take his nap inside the caves.
Around him sleep the clustering seals, the daughters
of lovely Lady Brine. Their breath smells sour
from gray seawater, pungent salty depths.

I remembered traveling the length of Lynn Canal, from Skagway to Juneau, by catamaran, and being told by the skipper that we would pass a sea lion rookery enroute. If we were lucky, and quiet enough, we could get quite close to the rookery. On deck, quiet, we were hit by a wall of odour, sour as old cheese, and there they were, the sea lions, some sleeping, some roaring from the rocks. Was there a god among them? Maybe.

“Good evening, stranger…”

kite, in progress

Last night we began to read Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey. We’ve been meaning to read together for awhile now, after last winter’s experience of Dante’s Inferno, followed by the odes of John Keats. I was sort of pushing for the Odyssey but John was resistant. Maybe nothing quite so classical this time around, he suggested. But I brought out this beautiful edition, purchased (in part) with my gift certificate from the Galiano Island Literary Festival two years ago, and we simply began. It reads so well. “Tell me about a complicated man.” What an opening. Yes, tell me. I’m going to resist the urge to compare. My beloved Fitzgerald translation lives on my desk, coming apart at the spine, fringed with stickie notes, a source of both solace and inspiration for at least 45 years. I paid $2.04 for it in the University of Victoria bookstore in the fall of 1973. I’ve read other translations but this one has always felt like Homer to me. I have to say that I do love the cadences of this Wilson version, though, and look forward to tonight.

With that, she tied her sandals on her feet,
the marvelous golden sandals that she wears
to travel sea and land, as fast as wind.

I might try a little exercise as we go along, using my Loeb Odyssey and my battered Goodwin Greek Grammar. I know there are more modern ways to immerse yourself in languages but I like the slow work of an old grammar and scraps of paper.

                                                            “Good evening,
stranger, and welcome. Be our guest, come share
our dinner, and then tell us what you need.”

Imagine if we could still open a door to a stranger, a woman in beautiful sandals, and offer her a meal, not knowing that she is a goddess. Imagine.

redux: a few days ago–

In the spirit of recycling, I’ve been re-reading my old posts and offering them again. Might I add that it feels like only, oh, last week, that I was hanging around this area, trying to locate my character Declan O’Malley on its shores.


— we walked with friends over by Oyster Bay. More than ten years ago I wrote a novel, A Man in a Distant Field, in which the main character, an Irish schoolmaster, washed up on the shores of Oyster Bay. I explored the area a fair bit in those days, wanting to give my character a true place to live, a particular place on earth, and this particularity — the weather, the scent of wild roses in summer, the water birds, the bears that came to feast on salmon in autumn, the oysters on the rocks by the shore — would allow him to understand the resonances in the poem he was translating (which happened to be the Odyssey). And walking again by the bay a few days after Christmas, I felt that old complicated obsession a writer shares with her materials. While the others stood down by the water and watched a hawk on the opposite shore, I dreamed my way back into this abandoned cabin, not exactly the one I called World’s End in my novel, but a similar one. (As Melville so wisely noted, “It is not down in any map; true places never are.)

a man in a distant fieldHe put the poem aside and walked out to the shore. He never tired of the bay, stretching out to open sea. Today the tide was coming in over the exposed mud flats, threaded with silvery runs of fresh water. There were birds everywhere — sandpipers on the shore where he supposed their nests must be, ducks coming in with the tide, a solitary loon, silent in daylight, geese gathered by the small rocky islands where some of them nested. He loved the smell when the tide came in, the rich fecund mud, warmed by the sun, meeting the sharp iodine of the sea. He supposed men had always stood by water, admiring the liveliness of its movement, loving the sight of birds feeding on its shores, fishing its depths with their strong bills. (from A Man in a Distant Field, Dundurn, 2004)

we were not on the path of totality

We didn’t have special glasses. We used two metal colanders as pinhole cameras and noted that the images through the round drainage holes turned from periods to commas as the eclipse progressed. We sat outside and it got a little cooler, a little greyer (which was eerie) but not dark.  It’s not a month in which we hear much birdsong at all so the quiet wasn’t unexpected. A hummingbird worked in the zinnias. One in our household slept.

sleeping through the eclipse

Yet we do live in perilous times. Listening to the madman south of the border makes this moment in the Odyssey ring true. It’s Theoklymenos, the seer, in Book Twenty (the Fitzgerald translation), foretelling the death of the suitors:

Oh lost sad men, what terror is this you suffer?
Night shrouds you to the knees, your heads, your faces;
dry retch of death runs round like fire in sticks;
your cheeks are streaming; these fair walls and pedestals
are dripping crimson blood. And thick with shades
is the entry way, the courtyard thick with shades
passing athirst toward Erebos, in the dark,
the sun is quenched in heaven, foul mist hems us in…


a great loveliness of ghosts

Since the beginnng of January, I’ve been swimming three times a week, sometimes four. There’s a pool and gym at the local high school and for years my children took lessons there. We’d go sometimes on winter weekends, especially when the power was out for a few days, as was more common in those years. (There’s a new kind of wire now running along the Hydro poles and we don’t have those long outages any longer, though we still have a few days here and there when the power goes out and we resort to lamps, a Coleman stove).

But the pool. I don’t much like chlorine and I don’t exactly like the notion of swimming back and forth without much purpose. Whatever it was that happened to me after my bout of pneumonia in late August had some unexpected side effects. One was pain in my right knee. Sometimes it was too severe for me to go for the long walks we like to take most days. It didn’t occur to me until quite late in the fall that swimming might alleviate the pain or at least allow me movement. And then it was Christmas so I didn’t bother looking for my bathing suit and figuring out the pool schedule, though by then John had begun to swim a couple of mornings a week. Home he’d come with news of the world — or least news of the world of Pender Harbour retirees.

So I began to join him in early January. There’s something that happens a few laps in. My mind clears, I find my way in my breathing and in the water itself (because water can resist you if you don’t find where you should be in it), and some deep thinking begins.

I’ve been thinking about what happened to me in the fall, why I felt, with the uncertainty of my health situation, that I was between worlds. At night the sky shimmered with stars and I wanted to be among them. My dreams changed. I saw things in my daily life, just out of the corner of my eye. People I knew long ago. People who’ve died. It was comforting in a way. Whatever happened, there would be company. I saw my mother in dreams a few times. I thought of Odysseus’s journey to the underworld, “the realm and region of the Men of Winter”,  and how he found his mother. She told him she died not of any true illness but of loneliness for him. And reading Book Eleven just now, A Gathering of Shades, I remember all over again why I love Robert Fitzgerald’s work with this great poem: “Here was great loveliness of ghosts!” If they are lonely for us, so are we, for them.

I am grateful that the worst hasn’t happened (or been diagnosed). I’m grateful to have the opportunity to carry on with my life, which I’ve always loved. But I think I’ve learned things about what waits for me. I had such clarity in the fall. I hope I don’t lose that. I knew what I wanted to do with my time on earth. I knew what was important. I wrote and sewed and planted a hundred tulips. I fed the birds with such tenderness, because what if it was my last fall?

In 2013, in mid-winter, we had to have our septic field rebuilt. Because we’d made our big vegetable garden over the field, we had to dig out everything we could — raspberry canes, gooseberry bushes, roses growing there because the fence protected them from deer and elk, an apple tree, huge perennial herbs, bulbs of every sort. We dug things up and put them into temporary pots and then the man who was doing the rebuilding, a gardener himself, lifted the soil into big heaps outside the garden area with his backhoe. He scraped up every last teaspoon of rich earth. And after he’d made the new drainfield, we worked out where we’d put new beds, all to be framed with recycled cedar boards from old decks and various projects, the paths over the drainlines so if there was trouble, we’d know exactly where to find it. Then Doug scooped the soil back with the bucket of his backhoe, smoothing it into long barrows in the areas between the lines. It took some weeks to build those boxes, to replant what was waiting, and to try to establish the garden again. One day, easily a month after we’d replanted everything we’d taken out, I dug a hole for a new rose.  And here’s what my shovel brought up from under the earth:

from underground.jpg

There’s an amazing scene in Book Eleven of the Odyssey when Odysseus meets his old comrade Akhilleus.

            Let me hear no smooth talk
of death from you, Odysseus, light of councils.
Better, I say, to break sod as a farm hand
for some poor country man, on iron rations,
than lord it over all the exhausted dead.

Yes, absolutely. I wouldn’t change my life on earth for anything. Not yet. But I have some sense of entering the great system of rivers surrounding the underworld: the Acheron (river of woe), the Cocytus (river of lamentation), the Phlegethon (river of fire), the Styx (river of unbreakable oath by which the gods took vows), and the Lethe (river of forgetfulness). I’ve always loved rivers. And having dreamed of my mother and others I’ve loved and lost, I understand what Odysseus meant when he said, “But my heart longed, after this, to see the dead elsewhere.”

our allotted threads

I am thinking about textiles this morning  (no surprise there; my mind is often occupied with scraps and how to use them, how to turn a pile of small and easily cast aside remnants into a quilt or, well, something else). Thinking about the threads of life — having my grandson Arthur here over the holiday makes that particular thing ever-present — and the Moirai, the three Fates: Clotho, spinning the thread of life; Lachesis measuring each person’s allotted thread; and Atropos, ready to cut the thread at the end of that allotted time. I love the passage in the Odyssey when Odysseus has been recounting his adventures  to an assembled party in Phaiákia and the king Alkinoös asks them to return in the morning for the ceremonies of leave-taking:

Our banquet’s ended, so you may retire;
but let our seniors gather in the morning
to give this guest a festal day, and make
fair offerings to the gods. In due course we
shall put our minds upon the means at hand
to take him safely, comfortably, well
and happily, with speed, to his own country,
distant though it may lie. And may no trouble
come to him here or on the way; his fate
he shall pay out at home, even as the Spinners
spun for him on the day his mother bore him.

— Odyssey, Book Seven

Our family will leave in a few days. I want to somehow spin something out of the rich and dense materials of living with them, amongst them. A quilt? A story? Something that manages to be both? Textiles have the capacity to do many things simultaneously. In the making of them, they satisfy at the very deepest level — and women have always known this, I think. In earlier times, women were given the work of making clothing, vessels to gather and hold food, to provide comfort and warmth using the materials at hand. For centuries it was easy to relegate this work to the realm of domestic utility but I think we know (and women have always known) how important an economic force this work has been. Continues to be in cultures where women still produce textiles (often cooperatively). This Christmas I gave Forrest and Manon a beautiful basket of woven and coloured reeds, made by Lydia in Uganda. I have on my bed a duvet cover made in a women’s workshop in India, dyed with indigo grown by the women, prepared by them, and then printed onto cotton using traditional techniques. I have a few of the blocks used in this kind of fabric printing and they’re beautiful.

Look at this ravishing coat of salmon skins with a plain and modest front and a beautifully detailed — storied? — back and you realize that women have always known that textiles can be message-carriers, they can be subversive. (“If people visited, women couldn’t look at visitors. Women sat at the fire, with their backs to visitors, but that back side was beautifully decorated—their backs said so much more than their faces.”)

I’m still in my dressing gown as I write this and looking down, this is what I see:

dressing gown.jpg

Years ago, a friend in Cornwall sent me this garment as a gift. It’s made of many many squares (scraps!) of salt-dyed silk. Its maker — a clothing designer called Denise Stracey – is obviously a woman after my own heart: each small remnant of some larger project has been arranged to make something utilitarian and also lovely. It’s lovely to wear. Silk against the skin, the morning made bright and lively.

I will be here
till midnight,
cross-legged in the dining-room,
logging triangles and diamonds,
cutting and aligning,
finding greens in pinks
and burgundies in whites
until I finish it.

There’s no reason in it.

Only when it’s laid
right across the floor,
sphere on square
and seam on seam,
in a good light—
a night-sky spread—
will it start to hit me.

These are not bits.
They are pieces.

And the pieces fit.

from Eavan Boland’s “Patchwork”, Outside History: Selected Poems, 1980-1990

scraps in winter


Late Middle English (as a plural noun denoting fragments of uneaten food): from Old Norse skrap scraps; related to skrapa to scrape. The verb dates from the late 19th century. — from Oxford online

Small detached piece of something, fragment, remnant, (pl.) odds and ends, useless remains… — from Concise Oxford 1973-74 (my copy bought for university)

I’m thinking about scraps and fragments and, yes, remnants. I just made a comforter for the crib we’ve recently bought for visiting grandbabies. We have a smaller portable crib which has been fine until now but babies grow and this crib has the added feature of converting to a toddler bed. Grandson Arthur will come for Christmas and I thought I’d use some scraps of quilt batting to make a crib-size comforter. And then I wanted to make a cosy cover for it. I had enough blue striped flannel for one side so I found a remnant of that pink print at the wonderful Dressew on Hastings Street in Vancouver the other day. And sewing, I thought of all the quilts I’d pieced together at the kitchen table, all the remnants and scraps that somehow became something larger than themselves. I don’t like waste. I have baskets and bins of little pieces of fabric and I love to find new functions, new meanings for them.

It’s the same with writing. I’ve been revising the essays that will form a collection called Euclid’s Orchard, to be published next September. One of the essays is called “Tokens” and it is a series of linked meditations about my mother, my attempts to find out about her biological parents (she was given up at birth), and also to find out who she was all the years she was my mother. And in the process of writing about her, she was there in the room — the bottle of My Sin perfume my father brought her as a gift in (I think) 1962, still 3/4 full; her Harris tweed coat nearby, her scent still in the satin lining. Her sayings, always a little off: “Let’s play it by air.” “He was mad as a hatter.” (This, to explain someone’s anger.) “By the same token.” (For anything.)

Winter is a good time for thinking about scraps, fragments. The Ptolemaic scrap of papyrus with three lines from Book 20 of the Odyssey that don’t exist in other versions of the poem. Unfinished music. Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems. The Archimedes palimpsest, which I remembered this morning: years ago I read about the cleaning of a 13th c. prayer book that contained (partly erased but recoverable by delicate conservation practices) two treatises by Archimedes, the Greek mathematician and physicist (and astronomer, inventor…) who lived from around 287 B.C. until around 212. There’s so much still hidden, so much to be discovered, often in fragments, like the lines of the Odyssey, to offer us moments of the world before us.

The other night, John and I had dinner with our son Brendan who was in Vancouver for some math work at UBC — conferring with a research partner and giving a seminar. We asked for news of our grandchildren and I loved hearing how Kelly, who is 2, refers to her Daddy’s work. She calls it “counting by the vending machines.” When she and her mum and brother visit her Dad at his job (mathematics professor at a big Canadian university), they meet up at the vending machines in the lobby. And math? Well, it’s a kind of counting.