“Memorial hour returns with each new year…”

So it’s winter and for me, that means quilting. There’s something about having my hands full of fabric, finding a way to create texture with a needle drawing thread over and through the surface of a quilt, pulling the layers together in a durable way. A subversive way, because no one could imagine how much pleasure and deep thinking is given to the work of making a practical thing. A bedcover, after all! A blanket of scraps! My mother used to knit, badly — I feel mean saying this, but honestly everything she knit for us was lopsided; the bulky Buffalo yarn sweaters had the collars on backwards and they always needed several extra inches added to the cuffs and those inches were often in a different yarn because she’d run out of the main one. She knit lovingly though and I remember she once said, giving me a blanket she’d made for one of my babies, that she couldn’t bear to have a winter pass without something to show for it. I know what she meant. A quilt, a blanket, a sweater which I still wear (for gardening) which barely covers my wrists and sort of flares at the waist.

This morning I was writing a letter to a friend and I told her this:

Yesterday I was putting away some quilting supplies (I finished the Euclid’s Orchard quilt for Brendan for Christmas!) and saw a basket of blocks I’d finished in the spring, all in a heat of creation, and then abandoned because they didn’t make sense to me once I’d tried to find a pattern with them. But yesterday I saw how I could take apart some of the long strips and rearrange them and use another fabric I have for sashing and voila, I think I’ll have something close to what I’d first envisioned. We’ll see. (It sounds a lot like writing, doesn’t it?)

I spent a few hours unpicking the long strips of blocks and this morning I began to arrange them on top of my bed to see if I can create a woven effect with alternating blocks. The blocks are pieced with four inch strips of reds, blues, and white damask from some old tablecloths I can’t bear to throw out. Some of the reds and blues are prints and some solids. I hadn’t anticipated that the way I’d first sewn them together would result in a series of French flags — I don’t have a very refined spatial sense. I have to do things by doing them. I can’t “see” clearly until the thing itself is in front of me. I use the word “envisioned” in the letter but it isn’t really vision at all. It’s hope. If I sew these things together, I hope I will have a pattern that approximates, well, something I might have dreamed or seen or imagined. I do it to find something out. And to spend time in the rocking chair in front of the woodstove, the scent of dry fir lightly perfuming the cottons.

And these days, while I unpick and resew, while I think about texture and how the damask has probably been the silent witness of hundreds of family meals, some of them ours, I’ve been listening in an almost obsessive way to The Trackless Woods, written about here. It is such a perfect recording, a relationship across the decades — or the centuries by now. Across continents and sensibilities. Amazing, how one woman found another to talk to in this way, to accompany in this way. I read a beautiful interview on the NPR site and loved this question, asked by Ann Power:

The Trackless Woods emerges from the act of reading. You fell into the Akhmatova poems somewhat unexpectedly, and clearly sat with them for a while as you were composing the music. The album’s intimate, domestic feel evokes a similar response from the listener. How can music be like reading? What did you get from reading Akhmatova’s poems that you most hope will come across in your versions?

And Iris DeMent’s reply:

Some of them I sat with a long time; with others, the melody came as I was reading them for the first or second time. My experience with and connection to poetry has primarily been through songs, so it probably shouldn’t be surprising to me that most, if not all, of these poems weren’t fully known to me, or understood on that deeper emotional level, until the melodies arrived. It was like the melody served as a doorway, a means by which I was able to enter the poem and that was the criteria I used when determining whether or not a particular melody stood up or not: It either allowed me entrance into the poem or it didn’t. And that’s something I never had to wonder about. It’s like any other door, it either opens up and lets you into the room or it doesn’t. It’s very basic. I could feel that every time.

Maybe my own sewing is part of this right now. A door, an entrance — into winter, its powerful hoard of memories and requirements (quiet, warmth, an abundance of quilts). As Iris sang “The souls of all my dears”, I found myself weeping at these lines as I cut out sashing for each course of blocks:

The souls of all my dears

have flown to the stars

 

Memorial hour returns with each new year

I see, I hear, I touch you drawing near

 

You step onto the porch and call my name

Your face pressed up against the frosted pane

Is it my mother, come back for a brief visit, lopsided sweater in her arms? Or the poet herself, across the river of languages, or the singer of these poems, her sweet voice in the falling light? Those who sat at the table laid with damask have gone home. Everywhere the scent of fir, the call of thread and cotton, the frost on the branches outside as lovely as silver.

winter quilt

winter jasmine, for The Trackless Woods

One of my Christmas gifts this year, from my husband John: the extraordinary recording The Trackless Woods, in which Iris DeMent has set poems by Anna Akhmatova and accompanies herself so sweetly on piano with some help from Leo Kottke. I’ve loved Akhmatova since I first read her poems when I was in my early twenties. And who knew they would hold up so well in these country gospel settings? There is something so quietly profound about DeMent’s voice — I have her earlier cd, My Life (1993) but I couldn’t have anticipated this pairing. I’ve just read Rosemary Sullivan’s Stalin’s Daughter and have some fresh insights into the horrors of the terrible years of Soviet power and somehow these poems bring it so sorrowfully to life:

I drink to this house, already destroyed,

And my whole life, too awful to tell,

To the loneliness we together enjoyed,

I drink to you as well,

To the eyes with deadly cold imbued,

To the lips that betrayed me with a lie,

To the world for being cruel and rude,

To the God who didn’t save us, or try. (“The Last Toast”, trans. Lyn Coffin)

I’m listening to this as the house whirls in its holiday colour and spirit, while food is being prepared, drinks poured, and on the table, a little sprig of winter jasmine as the year comes to an end.

winter jasmine