there was good light then


I remember hearing Leonard Cohen’s songs for the first time. I was in grade ten so it must have been 1970. I’d already discovered his poetry. The first poem I memorized, took to my heart, was his “There Are Some Men”:

There are some men
who should have mountains
to bear their names to time.

Grave markers are not high enough
or green,
and sons go far away
to lose the fist
their father’s hand will always seem.

I had a friend:
he lived and died in mighty silence
and with dignity,
left no book son or lover to mourn.

Nor is this a mourning-song
but only a naming of this mountain
on which I walk,
fragrant, dark and softly white
under the pale of mist.
I name this mountain after him.

And the songs, oh, those songs. I was immediately taken by the voice, how it caressed the lyrics. And how the lyrics were so beautiful to a girl of 15, trying to figure out about poetry and why it made her feel she knew a different language, one created for her alone. These were poems but they were also songs and how was that possible? (This was the time of Black Sabbath, the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, and even if you liked those songs, it was hard to think of them as literary texts as well, capable of leading you into the world, a traveler, an explorer. Or maybe I mean that the person they led into the world was not the person I wanted to be, knew I was on the cusp of being.)

And it has to be said: he was devastatingly sexy. The voice and the face.

All these years later, he feels like he’s been a companion. Someone thinking deeply and writing beautifully and remembering.

Days of Kindness

Greece is a good place
to look at the moon, isn’t it
You can read by moonlight
You can read on the terrace
You can see a face
as you saw it when you were young
There was good light then
oil lamps and candles
and those little flames
that floated on a cork in olive oil
What I loved in my old life
I haven’t forgotten
It lives in my spine
Marianne and the child
The days of kindness
It rises in my spine
and it manifests as tears
I pray that loving memory
exists for them too
the precious ones I overthrew
for an education in the world

Hydra, 1985

And now it seems he was a prophet too. I’ve hesitated to write about the recent American election results. It matters, of course it does. Power has shifted and someone utterly unsuited (poor impulse control, no record of public service, a history of dreadful employment practices, just to begin the list) to lead one of the most militaristic and  powerful countries on earth has been elected by people who believe him to have their interests at heart. I don’t know what to say. But it turns out Leonard Cohen was predicting it all along. (And was he being ironic or hopeful when he said this:

From the wars against disorder,
from the sirens night and day,
from the fires of the homeless,
from the ashes of the gay:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Ironic, I think.)

But yes, predicting it all along:

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows
Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died

As he said in that first poem I memorized (before Shakespeare’s 29th Sonnet, before Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill”), “Nor is this a mourning song.” He lived a good life and he gave us so much. I’m looking at a mountain as I write, “fragrant, dark and softly white/under the pale of mist”, and although it already has a name, this morning it’s for him.

“That time of year…”

morning bouquet

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. (Shakespeare, Sonnet 73)

How everything shifts — the weather (our drought ended with torrential rain, wind…), the light, the things that call for daily attention. Most years it would still be summer, and maybe it is, but it’s so much cooler than even a week ago. When I go out to gather kale for my morning smoothie, my feet in flip-flops are cold and wet when I come in. Luckily John lights a fire in the woodstove when he comes down to make coffee. (There’s almost nothing that tells me where I am like the smell of woodsmoke and dark French coffee. )Tomatoes ripen in their sheltered location under the eaves on the second-story deck. The young bear walked by again this morning, pausing to eat grass on the south side of the house. Like us, he (or she) is waiting for the salmon runs to begin. Time to put plastic over the cucumber boxes at night, time to tidy the garden and keep the beans picked (and pickled).

Time to think of the larger world too, the Syrian refugees waiting at train-stations, on the edges of dark water with makeshift rafts, precarious boats, for other countries to open their borders, their hearts. Our particular government baffle-gabs and pontificates while the image of a drowned child washed up on a beach asks us to question our own inaction. I don’t have a solution but I want to part of one. So many of us are the legacy of grandparents or great-grandparents who left their own countries in difficult times and this country made it possible for what came after — our stable lives, the lives of our children.


“calls back…”


My mother has been dead for nearly five years. I’ve been working on a book about family history — hers, in part; but mostly my father’s mother’s history in Horni Lomna, in what’s now the Czech Republic. Most days I find myself thinking about the strange and wonderful cartography of motherhood. How a small wooden house in a tiny village in the Beskydy Mountains held the girlhood of my father’s mother, spruce trees along the road in front and the slope of the mountains behind. Fruit trees in snow. The sound of churchbells. And how my mother’s mother was unknown to her — my mum was given up at birth to a foster home and raised to think of herself as motherless — and how that first terrible loss shaped her. She told a granddaughter once that she’d only ever wanted to be a mother, as though she needed to fill the emptiness of herself with that function. When I was young, it never seemed enough to me. I wanted more of her, from her. But now I realize — too late — what she gave me and my brothers.

Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime:
So thou through windows of thine age shall see
Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time.
But if thou live, remember’d not to be,
Die single, and thine image dies with thee. (Sonnet 3, Shakespeare)

In Toulouse, in March, I dreamed of my mother. I’d been thinking a great deal about geographical loneliness. Not only for a place one has left, often forever (my grandmother never returned to Europe and as far as I know, she had only very sporadic contact with her family there), but also the loneliness we feel when we try to follow the traces our ancestors made across a landscape. A field loved by a child for its birdsong, the scent of plum blossom after a long winter, a tree planted to celebrate a wedding, a birth, an occasion long-forgotten. So the dream of my mother surprised me. She was on a tour, just before heart surgery. I always wanted to travel to France, she said, her eyes glowing as she jostled and joked with her new friends, but no one would ever go with me. She had photographs – a long road leading down to the sea, a restaurant filled with sunlight, a plate of sausage. I held her hand and thought, I have another chance. We went to the restroom together and she was running. Please, Mum, don’t run, I pleaded with her, only half in fun. Please. I don’t want you to die on me!

I wish I’d taken her to France, though I wonder if she truly wanted to go or if the dream came from my own pleasure in the sight of umbrella pines, orange trees, the silvery leaves of olives.  She confessed once, after my father died, that she’d always hoped to go to Greece. I looked at her with such surprise, I remember, because the trips she took were to Reno or Disneyland and once, to Hawaii. Packaged tours, on buses or charter flights. Later she and my father travelled to places he’d been to in the Navy and insisted she’d love: Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand. I don’t think she did love those trips but my father was persuasive.

I have an album sent to her after her foster sister died. Mostly it’s a record of her foster sister’s life but there are a few early photographs of my mum, aged three, in a garden, or standing by some stairs. She is chubby and dark-haired. So far away in time, in geography — she grew up in Halifax. But somehow curiously present (“Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee…”).



salad days

Remember Cleopatra in Anthony and Cleopatra? I thought of her just now as I cut salad for our dinner tonight.

My salad days,
When I was green in judgment: cold in blood,
To say as I said then! But, come, away;
Get me ink and paper:
He shall have every day a several greeting,
Or I’ll unpeople Egypt.

Our salad has two kinds of kale, blood-red sorrel, and some whisps of fennel. When I see all the sprouting lettuces, broad beans, shallots, and herbs in the garden right now, I’m glad to be green in judgement — though not, I hope, cold in blood.



“Think, when we talk of horses…”

I’m reading a wonderful book this week, Neil MacGregor’s Shakespeare’s Restless World, which takes the reader immediately into both the world of Shakespeare in about 1590, and also into the minds of those who came to see his plays in the commercial playhouses which were a fairly new phenomenon, not one the parents of those attending had experienced just 20 or 30 years earlier.

Neil MacGregor is a marvellous guide. He’s the director of the British Museum and the author of A History of the World in 100 Objects, a book I have by my desk and will read once I’ve finished this. I am convinced that we can understand so much of a time and a culture by the material objects common (or uncommon) to it. And the 20 objects that take us to Shakespeare’s world are intriguing. A slender brass fork, engraved with the initials A.N., excavated from the Rose Theatre on the south bank of the Thames in London. A knitted and felted cap, almost certainly worn by someone from the lower echelons of Elizabethan society. Sir Francis Drake’s Circumnavigation Medal — remember Oberon from A Midsummer Night’s Dream? “We the globe can compass soon,/Swifter than the wandering moon.” And most wondrously, a pedlar’s trunk, rich with disguises, speaking to the theatrical conventions at the heart of so many of Shakespeare’s plots.

A week in which the news has been full of the DNA tests positively identifying the remains of King Richard III, the machinations at play in our own political theatre with the antics and ploys of several senators in Ottawa, and so how timely to read a book like this one. Nothing, and everything is new — yet imagination allows a great playwright to show us the world as though for the first time.

“Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them

Printing their proud hoofs i’ th’ receiving earth…” (from the prologue to Henry V)

horses from the chauvet caves