“a Past of Plank and Nail” (Emily Dickinson)


Sometimes the world is too much with us. Me. The news. I listen, read, and carry it around like a sad burden. The things I know to do to take my mind into other territory haven’t been working. It’s been cold here, with new snow on the mountain to the east. Last week there were some days in the garden, weeding, tucking manure around the raspberry canes, emptying pots of plants that didn’t make it over the long winter and filling others with new soil for lilies and spring greens. But then drizzly rain. The novel I am trying to write has stalled, mostly because I don’t know enough about boat engines. The quilt in progress, the one I pieced together happily but which now looks like an array of French and Russian flags–somehow I can’t bring myself to work on that one. I’ve had a basket of cotton sitting on the end of the dining table for ages, hoping that I will somehow see what to do with it. Mostly (of course) the pieces are blue. But also some other Japanese cotton prints. At one point I thought I might use them with deep purple velvet, a length given me years ago and not really a colour I’m drawn to. The blues weren’t drawn to it either. So they waited.

On Saturday I was thinking about something else entirely, remembering as I tidied the kitchen how we constructed the walls on the platform that is now the kitchen floor, 41 summers ago, raising them with the strength we had then, young parents, our baby in his stroller with his sunhat on. We’d raise the wall together, usually with some sort of brace behind it so that it wouldn’t tumble off the platform, and then I’d hold it in place while John nailed it down. When that was done–I think I have the sequence right–he’d cut a top plate, a long length of 2×4, and nail it along the top of the constructed wall, a horizontal member to give strength.


I was thinking about walls, about lumber, and the rows of stacked logs in the woodshed. The next time I passed the basket of cotton, I realized I could make blocks of vertical strips, like the 2x4s we framed our walls with. I would use blue Japanese prints because that’s what I have but I could also use some linen I once bought at Maiwa (you could fill a bag of offcut and scraps for $10) and I could take apart a thrift store skirt a friend handed on to me because it was tye-dyed and it reminded her of my experiments with indigo. Yesterday I cut strips and took everything upstairs to lay out “walls” on my bed, looking for the right relationships and combinations.

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Late in the afternoon, I began to sew the blocks together, three strips to a block, and they will be finished with a top plate of linen. I have in mind an arrangement, using deep blue for the sashing. And for the back, I have a length of dupioni silk, dark blue with a lighter blue band through it. It’s not exactly beautiful which is why it hardly cost me anything when I saw it on a remnant table at Dressew in Vancouver but it’s right for these blocks.

The whole time I was cutting and arranging, making decisions about placement, and sewing the strips to make the blocks, my mind was on the work in front of me and it was also remembering the construction of my kitchen walls. I wasn’t thinking about Bucha and the discovery of civilian dead, some of them with their grocery bags spilled around them, wasn’t thinking about women living in terror of sexual violence, of lines of refugees, the hideous legacies of war. I was under the same blue sky tumbled with clouds, the one I tried to replicate on the ceiling of the kitchen I was helping to build.

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The Props assist the House
Until the House is built
And then the Props withdraw
And adequate, erect,
The House support itself
And cease to recollect
The Augur and the Carpenter –
Just such a retrospect
Hath the perfected Life –
A Past of Plank and Nail
And slowness – then the scaffolds drop
Affirming it a Soul –
             –Emily Dickinson

“we are nothing if not impulse to direction”

When John and I met and fell in love in 1979, we spent a fair amount of time arguing about poetry. Not our own but what we imagined the important contemporary writing to be. I remember running out into the night, in tears, wondering what on earth I’d done by marrying someone whose ideas were so different from my own. I’d barely heard of Robert Duncan, Charles Olson. What on earth was “projective verse” and how could it possible matter. We did have many favourite writers in common; we were both reading Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder, for instance. And in truth, our work was far more congenial than we knew during those first months, that first year. We used different language to talk about writing and in time our vocabularies became as acquainted and then as familiar as everything else.

I’ve been remembering all this for the past month or so as I sit in audiences listening to my husband read from his new book, which isn’t really new. It’s Forecast: Selected Early Poems, 1970-1990 (Harbour Publishing). The poems come from out-of-print chapbooks and books and some of my favourites are there, including “The Crossing”:

here the star, the far shore

or this tree. we enter with attention


what passes and must pass

to bring us closer


the ocean heals behind the ship

the trodden brush springs back


and we are nothing if not impulse to direction

This poem concludes with the line, “we cannot hold our coming through the world”, which has always seemed to me a deeply powerful mantra. Our mantra, in a way.

So. “Projective Verse”. This morning I remembered the phrase and asked John about it and he immediately opened his copy of Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry to Charles Olson’s essay.

projective verseJohn’s notes on the pages are as interesting to me as the essay itself. What he noticed, what he underlined, what spoke to him. This passage, for example:

It would do no harm, as an act of correction to both prose and verse as now written, if both rime and meter, and, in the quantity of words, both sense and sound, were less in the forefront of the mind than the syllable, if the syllable, that fine creature, were more allowed to lead the harmony on.

And later, this:

The objects which occur at every given moment of composition (of recognition, we can call it) are, can be, must be treated exactly as they do occur therein and not by any ideas or preconceptions from outside the poem, must be handled as a series of objects in field in such a way that a series of tensions (which they also are) are made to hold, and to hold exactly inside the content and the context of the poem which has forced itself through the poet and them, into being.

And this:

Let me just throw in this. It is my impression that all parts of speech suddenly, in composition by field, are fresh for both sound and percussive use, spring up like unknown, unnamed vegetables in the patch, when you work it, come spring.

In those years, I was trying to find a way to integrate all the elements of my life — my love of place, of plants, of textiles, of food (the making of it, the history of it, the science of it); I was hoping to find a form which would allow all those parts of daily life to take their place in my artistic practice, to find the right tension (like knitting!) to hold them in a way that enhanced their textures and relationships. I remember making paper one summer, using a kit brought by a friend for our children, and we were experimenting with adding flowers to the pulp, which we’d made with various kinds of newspaper and other paper, chopping and blending them all together. In those years we were the grateful recipients of passed-on copies of the Times Literary Supplement and that particular light newsprint was perfect for the pulp. When I’d pressed the pulp into the screen and then removed it and let it dry, I was astonished to see that words and phrases from the TLS had survived the process of blending and had emerged at various points in the finished sheet of paper, along with flowers and stems. (Somewhere I still have this piece of paper, I think.) I realized I could manipulate the contents of the pulp with a bit more experience and effort — imagine positioning lines of poetry so they could be seen within the paper from certain perspectives. Paper as palimpsest, as repository… I felt both exhilaration and anguish. Yes, here was another process which would allow so many elements of what I loved to conspire and create something new but did I really have time to take on another practice?

The older I get, the more I realize that the writing of a book is a composition both as crafty as the making of paper and as artful as the positioning of objects in a field, a projective field, the syllables sounding their way across it in a lively and unexpected way. When I look at my drafts and notes for Patrin, I see how they resemble, in a way, the notes I make for quilts. There were other possible arrangements for the individual blocks which make up the narrative(s) and it took me some time to find the pattern which allowed the visible or external story to both hold and reveal the coded history. And are these things ever completely known to us as we work and then as we read? As we sew, as we press pulp through a screen to make sheets of new paper? I suspect not.  I remember reading a wonderful book years ago about the quilts women made as they travelled the Oregon Trail. In Treasures in the Trunk, Mary Bywater Cross provides an alternate history of that movement west by decoding the quilts which were created during , or after, the migration. They were commodoties, death shrouds, memorial texts, dreamscapes, echoes of everything seen and experienced. Even their titles have the resonance of poetry: “Stars with Wild Geese Strips”, “Wandering Foot”, “Pieced Star”, “Wheel of Fortune”, “Birds in Flight”, “Delectable Mountains”. Did those women consciously embed their hopes and fears in the patterns they chose for the bedcovers they composed during the long days of their journey west? Maybe not entirely consciously. But for women who perhaps had no other outlet for such expression, the domestic becomes the artistic.

My friend Barbara Lambert sent me something she’d posted about Patrin on Facebook. It made me so happy that she’d detected the pattern at its heart and that she also provided a visual example (in her photograph, the book is resting on a potholder I made for her years ago and the potholder is layered on a beautiful piece of shibori cotton):

When is a novella even more than a novella?

When its form takes on the shape of its subject matter, in a most intriguing way —
as Theresa Kishkan’s “PATRIN” leads you on a young woman’s quest for her Romany origins, along a sensuous trail inspired by the inheritance of an antique quilt.

patrin at home


Indigo fish, buttoned

Progress on the fish quilt has been, well, slow. Life has intervened — weddings, short trips, a delivery of five yards of mushroom manure for the garden. But now that cold weather is here, I have such a yearning to sit in the big wicker rocking chair by the fire, stitching. I had problems finding backing for this quilt — nothing I had on hand quite worked so I ordered a big flannel sheet in a lovely marine blue which was backordered, then lost. Finally I found unbleached cotton of a good weight and went through the process of preshrinking, drying, and then piecing to the right size.

So here are the three layers, basted together, waiting to be quilted.

And in a moment of what I hope was inspiration and not foolishness, I thought how lovely it would be to articulate the spines of each fish with small shell buttons. I think this will echo the beautiful Tlingit button blankets with their emblematic fish and birds.

Indigo fish, blue water, red frame

I spent the morning finishing the salmon quilt top. In June I batiked fish onto cotton squares, applied a shibori pattern with thread, and then dyed the squares in indigo. Not really with a plan in mind, I submerged the remains of the old cotton sheet I’d cut the squares from in the bucket of indigo dye and left it for a few days. I was surprised and delighted with the marbled pale blue results. So I cut squares out of that cloth and alternated fish blocks with squares of marbled blue. I used 4″ strips of deep red cotton between the rows and then framed the whole thing with 6″ sashing of the same red cotton. I’m really happy with this top and look forward to sandwiching organic cotton batting between it and a backing I haven’t yet decided on, basting it all together, and then beginning the actual hand-quilting, which is probably my favourite part.

Here’s a photograph of the top hanging on the clothes line. The colours aren’t quite right. The indigo is deeper and the paler marbled squares are richer. But this gives the idea and I’ll add progress reports as I go along.