spirit level

spirit level

This is a spirit level on a cutting board of spalted maple on a maple worktable on a tile floor in the kitchen of the house we built more than 35 years ago. It sounds like a children’s rhyme, doesn’t it? A hole in the bucket, the spider that caught the fly, the small tool that measures level. This particular level was made by John’s grandfather and included in a tool box his grandfather Harold Pass gave his own son Ben to take to Canada when John’s family emigrated from England in the early 1950s. It seems to me to be a level more useful for cabinet-making than house-building and in fact Harold Pass was a cabinet-maker. The level is oak, with a brass plate fastened on with four smalls screws and if you look in the little window, you can see that our board (and our worktable and our floor and our house) is/are level.

But what about the spirit? Mine feels erratic these days. How can it not? If I listen to the news, my heart starts to race. Wildfires across the province, men without souls meeting to discuss the fate of the world we have known and loved, and even closer to home, the man who cleans up the small park where we swim most mornings expressing dismay at how young men came to the park on the weekend, took over the beach, moving the picnic tables into the lake, and drunkenly challenging anyone who tried to move them back. A beach where children swim and families bring picnics.

When we swim, we are almost always the only ones there. Yesterday a trout jumped out of the water in a shady area near a log. The other day a family of loons came quite close to shore and tried their voices, the song crazy and beautiful. This morning as I swam, I saw, at eye-level, small flies—may flies?—skittering in a regular pattern across the lake’s surface and I suddenly realized the connection between the pattern a fly-fisher creates on the water and the habits of the insects they are mimicking. How many times have I stroked through the water and never noticed the flies? I see mosquitoes and swallows dipping low to feed on them. I see wasps hovering. Occasionally a snake swimming strongly, head alert. But I’d never noticed the dance of the morning flies.

Right now John is outside, finishing the small deck and stairs off the entrance to our printshop. He’s been working on the deck for a week or so, replacing the older (and smaller) deck that was beginning to sag. I saw him pick up a big red plastic spirit level to check to make sure everything was right. These are the steps that lead to the deck that John built. The door that opens to the printshop where two presses wait to print the poem that John wrote for Edmond’s birth. (On our fridge, the poems for Kelly, Arthur, and Henry.)

I want my own spirit to settle down, to pay attention to the details of the place I care for in a general way but also specific ways. Listening to the last Swainson’s thrush songs of the year (probably) this morning. I saw one very early, darting out to eat mountain ash berries. Mostly they are flute notes in the woods to the south of the house so I was surprised to see the actual bird.

‘On you go now! Run, son, like the devil
And tell your mother to try
To find me a new bubble for the spirit level
And a new knot for this tie.’

That’s Seamus Heaney, making a riddle of the name for the tool that measures level but also takes our measure.  When I looked online just now to see what the liquid is that makes the bubble to indicate level, a tool site told me this: “A Spirit Level is a tool used to indicate how parallel (level) or perpendicular (plumb) a surface is relative to the earth. A spirit level gets its name from the mineral spirit solution inside the levels.” Oh the world is coded today, the last song of the thrush, the bubble hovering in the small implement on my kitchen worktable, the messages in the old rhymes we learn as children and don’t forget. I know an old lady who swallowed a fly. There’s a hole in the bucket. A little bird told me. The wise old owl saw on an oak and the more he saw, the less he spoke.

“I pressed a pencil hard by the Deadman River”

For a few months now, I’ve been busy with some essays and also with work associated with the micro-press I run with my friend Anik See. (The second novella on our list is at the printer! For more information, visit www.fishgottaswimeditions.com) Hovering in the back of my consciousness has been my own novella-in-progress, though that progress has been stalled. Why is that, I’ve been wondering. Every time I open the file to work on it again, I am transported to its time (the 1970s), its locus (Lytton, the Thompson Plateau, and the area west of Clinton), and its explorations into the women who wrote those landscapes and whom we seldom hear referenced in the literary conversations. I mean of course Ethel Wilson and Sheila Watson. The protagonist of the novella is a young woman writing a thesis on their work, using their novels to map a very specific terrain. Or at least this is part of what she is doing. She is also coming to terms with the death by drowning of her brother and in this respect there are other texts that travel under the surface of the narrative: mostly these are ancient Egyptian funerary texts—the Books of Breathing and the Book of the Dead.

I want to talk a little about the use of secondary material in a creative work. It’s problematic. It seems to me that it wasn’t always quite so difficult to think about including other texts in one’s own work as long as the writing was properly acknowledged and cited. OF COURSE I don’t mean pretending that the material is your own. Of course not. But I’ve always thought of writing, or at least most of the writing I do, as a kind of conversation, an extension of thinking, and also an act of homage to the work that I’ve loved  and that has shaped who I am and what I do. Am I wrong in remembering that it used to be common to include passages (again, properly cited) and epigraphs (ditto), without there being the difficult dance we call Permissions? Here’s a letter I received from Seamus Heaney in 1977 after I’d written to him to ask for permission to use some lines from a poem in North as an epigraph for my book, Ikons of the Hunt.


I sent him the book when it came out and he in turn sent me a card congratulating me. “There is no need to go Fabers.” (In my query, I’d wondered.)

One reason I am thinking about this in relation to this novella is because so much of what I want to write depends on being able to include passages of several novels in my own. Sometimes the author is directly referred to in my text and sometimes, like the passage I’ll show here, I quote the passage in the context of how it’s being used, in this case to annotate a map the narrator is using as background for her thesis as she travels in search of the places mentioned in the books she is writing about. I’ve always planned to include a bibliography and have kept careful notes.

…He could not fault my writing, he admitted, but said he remained unconvinced by the material I’d quoted. I wouldn’t waste my time, he said, on this sort of thing. It’s barely coherent.

I thought of him as I made my marks on my map. His bristly moustache, there. I pressed a pencil hard by the Deadman River. His sneer, there, as I sketched some trees—“…such trees as these marched in thin armies up the runnels of the hills which were strangely coloured in places by outcroppings of rose red rock.”—on the west side of the Thompson just before Ashcroft.

But yesterday, after writing a short section, I suddenly knew what was holding me back from this book. And the fact I’ve called it a “book” is part of what I understand to be the problem. Although I don’t usually write with the thought of publishing what I am currently working on, I guess I know that’s the final step in my working process. I write. I revise. I revise some more. And then I find a publisher. I don’t have an agent. I had one briefly in the early 2000s but she was reluctant to actually place the book I’d finished—A Man In A Distant Fieldso we parted company. I tried other agents, in part because there’d been little flutters of interest for film rights for two of my books, but no agent in this country (or any other) would take me on. And that’s fine. I know that I am mostly a literary writer and that there’s a limited market for what I do. I wanted to make sure my books had their best chance and I can say I’ve done that. So yes, a book. That’s what I expect what I’m writing to be when I’m finished. But knowing how difficult it is now to actually include secondary material without paying large sums to do so has me wondering why on earth I should complete this and who on earth would publish it.

When I wrote my memoir-in-essays, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, I spent years reading and researching and remembering. There’s masses of source material cited and acknowledged After the manuscript was accepted, we spent some time deciding exactly how to shape it. Abandon some of the material? Footnote it? Endnote it? Use it as indirect quote? Paraphrase? I wanted every text I’d read and consulted to be obvious because I felt so many of the writers I’d read were guides, mentors, friends. I spent ages figuring out how to prepare the framework and the bibliography (it’s 6 1/2 pages) because it turns out that citation styles have changed from the last century when I was a student and in any case my publisher’s house-style is Chicago rather than MLA. But then I was told I had to start securing permissions. And that became something I’ll never forget because oh, how things had changed from the days when Seamus Heaney said, “There is no need to go to Faber.” I wrote to authors and in most cases they were so gracious. Translator of Dante, and an extraordinary poet in his own right? “Absolutely.” Translator of Odysseus Elytis? Yup, by all means. But then I was told (by my publisher), no, you must also secure permission from the publisher and that’s when it got expensive. There are seven pages of endnotes and I paid about half of my advance in order to be allowed to use quite a lot of the material cited. Sometimes it was 100 pounds for ten words. (In that case, I paraphrased.) The big publishers were the most aggressive and I understand, I guess, why my own (smaller) publisher insisted we track down every one of them. Though seriously? Someone is going to go after an author for quoting and citing a sentence from a book in her own book which, let’s face it, is never going to be a best seller and make her millions? Or even thousands? What times we live in. There were a lot of sleepless nights and I watched my modest advance trickle away, 50 bucks here, 75 there. If I knew the authors would see that money, I’d feel a little less grim about it. (When people write to me to ask if they can use something I’ve written, I always say Yes! Just remember to cite the source.)

None of this should be in my mind and heart as I follow a young woman in search of two women authors in the last century, wanting to insist on a feminine cartography in a landscape claimed and settled by men. Men I read and love, I hasten to add, but I don’t want the women forgotten. I don’t want their books forgotten. None of it should be in my mind but it is. That we can no longer have a conversation in our books with authors who’ve taught us, shaped us, guided us, without paying, is something I have a hard time reckoning with.



“Lie down/in the word-hoard…”

Good advice from Seamus Heaney. Sometimes I feel such a yearning to burrow in language, to immerse myself in all the words that have collected in my imagination, in my hands, in the hollows at the base of my neck. I hoard words like summer grain, like apples, for their utility and their solace.

But unfortunately I hoard papers as well. (Books, too: the subject of another day.) For weeks now, I’ve wanted to tidy my desk. I’d make a desultory attempt to do that and I’d find that there wasn’t an inch of storage space to put the letters, the notes scribbled onto file cards or old receipts (and nowhere for receipts either which is why they end up on my desk). Today I decided to simply begin. To bring in some bags for the papers that could be recycled and a laundry basket for the stuff I’m going to burn. Every year I have a bonfire of the vanities and it makes me feel so clear afterwards, though my clothes are dense with woodsmoke — and the more esoteric smoke of old manuscripts and Christmas cards and recipes I’ll never try. So now I’ve begun the process and I won’t be able to do anything much in here until I’m finished. It should be incentive. I hope it is.

sunday work.jpg

There’s a filing cabinet to the left of the small table in this photograph. (Beneath the table? The laptop I replaced in February. I’m trying to decide whether it’s worthwhile to have the hard-drive removed to store. But to store for what? Old emails? Four years of drafts of essays and novellas which have already been published? On top of the table, hidden under stuff — the printer I bought to print quilt blocks on treated fabric for a particular project, a quilt to accompany my  essay “Euclid’s Orchard”. There are no available drivers to allow me to use that printer with my current laptop. Still I keep the printer. You never know…)

So far this morning I’ve filled the laundry basket with old journals  — I’m keeping a couple of travel journals but the ones where I am 18 and trying to write poetry are kind of embarrassing now. The ones where I am 32, with three small children under five, and wondering if I’ll ever write again are too sad to re-read. I know. I dipped into them this morning. Ideas for writing workshops from the days I used to teach them? Out. My academic papers from the 1970s, written in such pretentious language? Out.

All four file drawers are empty now and I’m going to organize the folders you see on the floor (and the ones you can’t see to the right of the chair) pretty carefully. There’s an entire folder of letters from literary agents who’ve turned me down. I might burn those. (It would feel liberating, I think.)

On the other hand, there are gems. A forgotten sheaf of wood-engravings by John DePol, sent as a gift when my novella Inishbream was published by the Barbarian Press. (John did the illustrations.) An autobiography written by one son, which condenses his life to the age of 7 with such clarity (I’m leaving out the birth year and the first year):

when I was two I ate a bug. when I was three I was normal. when I was four I got a bike. when I was give I lost my first tooth. when I was six I got stitches. now Im seven.

And there’s a generous letter from Seamus Heaney, written not long after North was published, giving me permission to use from a few lines (attributed, of course) from that book as an epigraph for my second book of poems. No request for a fee. No need to ask his publisher. Just a fulsome note wishing me luck.

I thought I might finish this job today but I can see it’s more of a process than I imagined. Although there’s a very pretty Turkish carpet under all those file folders, I won’t be lying down on it, luxuriating in the word-hoard, for at least a week.

“Where does spirit live?”

Awake very early, listening to a loon call on Sakinaw Lake as the light was just beginning, and I felt the sound enter my body, as a soul returns after a long journey. When we camped here, 35 summers ago, we heard loons all summer, the air tremulous with their calls. I’d wake from sleep, my husband and first baby next to me in the tent, and think how far we were from everything we’d known, yet how complete that felt. A house creates barriers, the walls less porous than the canvas we were sleeping within. And age creates other barriers — you sleep differently and miss the sounds of the night.

morning window.jpg

Where does spirit live? Inside or outside

Things remembered, made things, things unmade?

What came first, the seabird’s cry or the soul

Imagined in the dawn cold when it cried?

                               –Seamus Heaney, from “Settings”, in Seeing Things

death of a naturalist

It was my high-school English teacher, George Kelly, who suggested to me that I read Seamus Heaney. It was 1972 and he loaned me his copy of Death of a Naturalist. (I have George to thank for encouraging me to take a path I hadn’t even suspected existed: writing…) The poems were so clean and precise. “Digging”, for instance:

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, going down and down

For the good turf. Digging.

I didn’t know then that one day I would live in the west of Ireland and watch men dig turf in exactly that way. I didn’t know then that simple language could take you so far into the heart of a subject, a landscape.

In 1976, living in London, I bought North at Foyle’s. I was enchanted by the image of its author on the back cover — a portrait by Edward McGuire. The poet sits at a small table, a book in his hands, while behind him, at the window, the wild is pushing against the glass. The floorboards are beautifully scrubbed and grained. I remember going by train from my digs in Wimbledon to one of the theatres in the City to hear Seamus Heaney read from North and I thought he was reading to me alone. I’m sure every person in the crowded hall felt the same way, the poems about the Troubles and the poems about the bodies brought up from the bogs singing the same dark notes.

Murdered, forgotten, nameless, terrible

Beheaded girl, outstaring axe

And beatification,  outstaring

What had begun to feel like reverence.

I remember his generous and courteous response to my request that he allow me to use a few lines from his “Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces” as an epigraph for my poetry collection, Ikons of the Hunt. (There was no suggestion on his part that I should pay him a fee. How times have changed.) When I sent him a copy of the book, he sent a kind note to say he’d enjoyed it.

I’ve read every book by Seamus Heaney. There’s something to admire, to love, in every one. The cover of Seeing Things is a perfect entrance to the poems it contains — the tiny gold boat from the Broighter hoard on a black background and the title, the poet’s name, balanced across the darkness. There are poems in it about his father’s death, exact and dignified. Poems about the past, in which homely objects — a pitchfork, a bed, a schoolbag — shine with a light almost holy. His praise was practical and sturdy.

How strange to hear on the radio news this morning that Seamus Heaney died yesterday. Just a few months ago Forrest and Manon heard him read in Scotland. Like his poems, I guess I thought he’d go on forever.

Here’s the Broighter boat to take him away, wherever he wants to go.