how to do you say “wind chime” in Czech?

How to do you say “wind chime” in Czech? Ah, well, I know that. It’s větrná zvonkohra. I know because it’s the title of John’s new book, a collection of his poems translated into Czech by the wonderful Jiří Měsíc, a young Czech poet and scholar currently living and teaching in Spain. For the past few years, Jiří has been corresponding with John about the poems and I’ve loved hearing the details of their discussions about specific words, idioms, meaning. The book comes out this month, published by Protimluv in Ostrava. In an ideal world, the world before the pandemic (which would also have been a world in which John’s hip surgery would have been last spring), we would have gone to the Czech Republic this fall to help launch the book.  And when there’s a return to travel (and good health), we hope to make a belated trip to do that. We will also celebrate Jiří’s new book on Leonard Cohen as well as the fact that his translations of John’s poems have won him a prize from the Czech Literary Translators Guild. (If you read Czech, you might be interested in learning more here.)

wind chime

When we met Jiri in Ostrava in 2012, he and John participated in a poetry festival curated by Protimluv.Here’s John, with Jiří to his right and Petr Kopecky, to his left. (Petr is a scholar of North American literature, among other things, and he will forever be dear to me because he drove me to my grandmother’s village in 2012.)

poetry in Ostrava

It was an extraordinary event, filmed for Czech television, the room filled with people who loved poetry, and I remember feeling like we’d found our people. The prospect of returning to them is exciting.

When John won the Governor General’s Award for poetry in 2006, for his book Stumbling in the Bloom, there were a lot of readings connected with being shortlisted and then winning. He often read “Wind Chime”. These are the opening lines:

Come sway in its ear-level lilt and lapses, fond instrument
day-long of come what may. It lolls, an insatiate

tongue for the random, whim’s trinket, net
of the invisible, middle-sister to leaf

and sail, shimmering
suspension in silver wire…

Who could have imagined then that the fond instrument would find another voice, in Czech, ringing across the oceans? Across the wide and beautiful world?

The year after

A year ago, I published a memoir, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees. Of all the books I’ve written, this one is perhaps the most personal. I trace significant moments and patterns in my life set against a larger arboreal canvas. Trees are the equivalent of Cicero’s architectural spaces. In thinking about them, their natural history and the human history associated with them, I discovered that they have guided me and sheltered me in ways I hadn’t even realized. I write this at my pine desk, looking out the window to a cascara, some firs, an arbutus, several cedars, a mountain ash. Every view from every window of my house is framed by foliage. In some of those trees, I see my children at play, building a fort, or simply climbing for the challenge of reaching a half-way mark. At the back of the house is a copper beech I planted to commemorate my parents and the little bits of grit at its base are their remains, still not completely washed into the soil.

In many ways, the past year has been shaped by this book. I travelled a little to read from it – Vancouver Island, the Okanagan, Kootenays, even to Alberta. I read from it in Brno, Prague, Olomouc, Ostrava, Ceske Budejovice, meeting fascinating people along the way and hearing their stories of trees. I saw the spruces lining the road leading to the house my grandmother was born in which in turn have led me to the work of the great Czech photographer Josef Sudek – he photographed the Mionsi Forest in the Beskydy Mountains just above my grandmother’s village of Horni Lomne. All of this is contained in my current work-in-progress, in some ways simply an extension of Mnemonic. Maybe that’s the best way to look at my writing in general: a single ongoing work.

The other day I saw a child walking with his mother near Sechelt. He was trailing a huge maple leaf while his mother pushed an infant in a stroller. It reminded me of the day a young neighbour showed my children how to run with a maple leaf against her face like a mask. She raced along the trail with such energy and joy while the sun filtered through the bigleaf maples, part of this grove of trees, children and parents, the living and the dead held together by the intricate lattice of memory.