Radiance, all these years later

We went to Vancouver (3rd time in a week…) to see a concert, one of two for which the tickets were given us a gift by one child at Christmas. It was the VSO’s A Spanish Rhapsody, conducted by Jun Märkl, featuring the wonderful Argentine pianist Ingrid Fliter.

But first we went to dinner at Lupo, a restaurant we’d never been to before, though we’d heard good things about it. And yes, the meal was fabulous—I had duck confit with sausage and a delicious assortment of vegetables and John had braised rabbit with pappardelle. Before our mains, we shared a salad of beets, as sweet and succulent as any I’ve ever had, with two kinds of goat cheese—a fresh pool of creamy cheese under the beets and a roasted round of a more mature chevre beside them; and we also had a plate of vitello tonnato. Desserts were (for me) a roasted white chocolate cheesecake with a cherry compote and (for John) wild blueberry and coconut tart. We drank crisp white wine from Sardinia. The service was note-perfect.

It was the moment we were shown to our table that was most remarkable though. On the wall, right by our table, was a huge painting I recognized immediately as a Margaret Peterson. It was so beautiful, glowing against the putty-grey wall.

at Lupo

I asked our waiter where on earth they got a Margaret Peterson painting. He was gracious and said he thought it was from a gallery in Gastown that lends art to businesses like restaurants. The reason I was surprised was that I had forgotten about this extraordinary artist and I suspect many others have forgotten about her too. And that’s sad.

She came to attention in the 1950s and 1960s. You can tell, I think. Her work is abstract, highly influenced by her travels in Mexico, Central American, by Picasso and Braque, and by her own interest in Indigenous art. Her paintings are rhythmical and richly coloured.

I met her in 1975 or 1976 when I was a student at the University of Victoria. One of my instructors, the poet Rona Murray, took a few of us to have tea with Margaret and her husband, the novelist Howard O’Hagan. (I was so excited about seeing her painting at Lupo that I told the waiter all about her and O’Hagan and how important the latter’s novel Tay John is to an understanding of our province and its literary history that he came to tell me, between courses, that he’d ordered Tay John online and it would arrive by Amazon Prime today! I know my daughter will be rolling her eyes if she’s reading this and will ask me, Why do you do that, Mum? But I can’t stop myself.) Anyway, yes, a few of us were taken to meet them, Rona presenting a bottle of Scotch to Howard, and we spent a couple of hours in their company. They lived in a small shabby apartment on Dallas Road near Ogden Point and I remember wondering how such amazing people were reduced to such poverty. For it was clear they were poor. Howard wasn’t well. But Margaret’s work was on the walls and the apartment glowed. I remember thinking I’d like to know them better but I never met them again.

A few years later, Robin Skelton and Charles Lillard edited a special issue of the Malahat Review, gathering together the work of poets∗ and visual artists of British Columbia. The cover image is one of Margaret’s totemic figures. I was lucky enough to have 5 poems included in the issue (published in January, 1978) and I went just now to our library area to find my copy.

Number 45

I didn’t expect to be taken back all those years when we walked into Lupo last evening, I didn’t expect to call the small apartment to mind, to recall those two people whom I never hear mentioned these days, apart from a conversation with Kevin Paul a few years ago when he said Tay John was one of his favourite books. It was one of mine too. I’m going to read it again for its resonant retelling of an important story of B.C., and I’m going to try to look for more of Margaret’s paintings. I remember a mosaic at UVic and I believe the Maltwood Museum had some of her work so I’m thinking it will now be held at the Legacy Art Galleries of the University of Victoria; the next time I’m in Victoria, I’ll see what I can find.

If you’ve never read Tay John, here’s a passage to encourage you to seek it out:

It was early autumn, then, before the snow began to fly. –(There’s an expression for you, born in the country, born from the imaginations of men and their feeling for the right word, the only word, to mirror clearly what they see! Those with few words must know how to use them.) Men who have seen it, who have watched it day by day outside their cabin window coming down from the sky, like the visible remorse of an ageing year; who have watched it bead upon the ears of the horses they rode, muffle the sound of hoofs on the trail, lie upon spruce boughs and over grass – cover, as if forever, the landscape in which they moved, round off the mountains, blanket the ice in the rivers – for them the snow flies. The snow doesn’t fall. It may ride the wind. It may descend slowly, in utter quiet, from the grey and laden clouds, so that you can hear the flakes touching lightly on the wide white waste, as they come to rest at the end of their flight. Flight – that’s the word. They beat in the air like wings, as if reluctant ever to touch the ground. I have observed them coming down, on a very cold day, near its end when the sky above me was still blue, in flakes great and wide as the palm of my hand. They were like immense moths winging down in the twilight, making the silence about me visible.

*A second issue devoted to B.C. writing and art focused on fiction. including a story by Howard O’Hagan, illustrated by Margaret Peterson. And I’d forgotten that I have a story in that issue too.

“The soul descends once more in bitter love…”

When you’ve been married a long time (in my case, almost 39 years), your partner becomes accustomed to aspects of your personality that might baffle another person. I often wake early and think about stuff. Sometimes it’s what I’ve dreamed about or else thought about the previous day but somehow didn’t have a chance to finish figuring out. Yesterday it was the soul. We talk about our souls, we understand what we mean, and yet, I wondered aloud as soon as John opened his eyes, “Does anyone have proof of the soul?” I saw his eyes flutter a little as if he thought he might want to go back to sleep but he was willing to talk about it with me. Is the soul an actual entity, does it have weight and presence, does it have a location in our corporeal bodies?
When I got up, I couldn’t stop thinking about the soul. Mine. Yours. How we know it’s our soul that responds to something that we ourselves might not otherwise acknowledge. I think my soul might be in my ribcage because I swear I feel it expand when I experience something that is beyond my usual experience of the world, something that replaces language, although I try to find words for it.
When I was in my second year of university, in 1974, my mentor Robin Skelton lent me his copy of Anthony Ostroff’s The Contemporary Poet as Artist and Critic. In it, a poem is discussed by three poets and then the author of the poem responds to them. (I have a copy of the book somewhere but I think I’ve lent it.) It was new to me, the notion of people talking about the mechanics of writing a poem, from the perspective of readers and as writers. Theodore Roethke’s “In A Dark Time”. Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour”. And the wonderful Richard Wilbur’s “Love Calls Us To The Things Of This World”. A line of laundry is a gathering of angels. “Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,/Some are in smocks…”  I thought of the poem just now as I hung out the first full load of laundry this year, on Earth Day. The vintage sheet with whitework and hemstitching at the top. Pillowcases filling with air. My favourite nightdress, moving in wind so gracefully, turning this way and that, as I am unable to move because of, well, self-consciousness. And the great weight of being human. The cottons will have their day in the sun and I’ll remember how my ribcage pressed against my skin as I stood back to look at the line of laundry, remembering what happens at the end of the day.
 “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”
    Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body…

But what about the soul? Is it real? Does it have weight? I read an interesting article at The Conversation, “Whatever the soul is, its existence can’t be proved or disproved by natural science.” Well, it was reassuring, somehow:

We recognize as fully real many things that completely lack physicality.

Mathematics, for example, clearly provides deep insights into the nature of reality, but the ideas of number and quantity cannot be grasped in anyone’s hand. The same might be said for a variety of human emotions, including despair and joy, neither of which alters a person’s weight to the slightest degree. The very desire to know in the first place cannot be weighed, measured or located.

kelly's daffodils

Maybe what happens in my ribcage isn’t my soul at all but there’s no real proof that it isn’t. No algorithm. That the sight of daffodils planted with my granddaughter in November carries joy but does not alter weight; early 20th century scientists believed the soul weighed about 3/4 oz. (Rufous hummingbirds, the ones that are buzzing around the daffodils these days, weigh about 3.2 grams or 0.112877 ounces.) I’ve held a hummingbird, dazed from an encounter with the cat, and know exactly what that feels like in my hand.

I haven’t finished thinking about this yet. Sometimes ideas wait for a portal, a moment, to enter our consciousness; sometimes they leave quietly, unwelcome, and sometimes they find a place to settle and be home. Coming in from hanging out the laundry, I turned to see it on the line and behind it, the gate to the garden where all day I’ll be entering and departing, with compost and seeds, a shovel, string to tie up the roses. alert for angels:

They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
The soul shrinks

From all that it is about to remember…

garden gate

In the honeysuckle, in the round iron disk, the beams of cedar, the light.

Marsh marigolds

Yesterday I finished the first draft of the novella I began on October 19th, 2012. As I was writing towards the end, I still wasn’t sure what would happen. There were a few possibilities, one of them more dramatic than the others, but I found myself choosing a direction which is sort of open-ended. In some ways, I prefer novels which let me wonder a little.

This morning I came to my desk and began to read from the beginning. Because there are shifting time periods in this novella, I want to be sure I have them straight in my own mind. If they are in the right order, then the echoes which resonate from them will make more sense to a reader. And I don’t like printing out more drafts than I really need to — it’s hard to justify the waste of paper…

The novella is set in 1978-9. Mostly. There are also sections set in 1973. And even a very few sections set in the 1960s.  It’s certainly a work of fiction but I loved revisiting the Victoria of my early twenties, which is where some of the novella is located. I was new to writing, new to the notion that someone might actually be a writer as opposed to almost anything else. The culture of my family had no precedence for this so it was hard to think that it might be where I was heading. But significant teachers and friends helped me to find my way —  Robin Skelton, the painter Jack Wilkinson, Rona Murray, a few others. One of the most interesting things to me is how I tricked my subconscious into letting me write poetry in the voice of my character Patrin Szkandery. Her poems aren’t mine exactly but it was great to at least have the opportunity to write something brief and lyrical in a morning instead of, well, a novella.

And part of the novella takes place in 1979 in what was then Czechoslovakia. I’ve read everything I could find about that period and hope I’ve got the details right. Time will tell.

But this morning I am floating. In a day or two I’ll print out this draft and then I’ll know just how much more work I need to do to make this little story as fine as I want it to be but for now I’ll float. Like these marsh marigolds coming into bloom in the bathtub pool…