We are family

By Michael

The forests of northern Ontario are very different from those on the coast—the shapes and the colours of the trees are all intermixed and different—round deciduous balls of olive green, almost fluffy, and dark, perfectly conical fir trees with attractively mangled and misshapen tops poking up above the forest.  The lakes are like mirrors, punctuated by lovely little islands, often with a single cheeky tree stylishly placed at one end.  Group of Seven, I keep thinking—nature imitating art.  Thus the world unfurls as we drive from Sault Ste Marie to Toronto, seven hours, magical and ultimately exhausting.

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Driving into Toronto put me in mind of the vacuum tubes that were once used to transfer rolled-up messages around a huge warehouse. Everything was speeding up, and there were two, then four, then six lanes, filled with vehicles whose drivers switched from lane to lane with a ferocious regularity.  I felt like we were being sucked into the city, but it was oddly exhilarating—my caffeine-fuelled exhaustion somehow making me hyper vigilant. Soon I was switching lanes, eagerly agreeing with and following our GPS’s changing instructions.  “Save 7 minutes using alternate route—ok?” It was great fun until everything slowed down and the potholes multiplied, jarring me (and keeping me awake).

We were staying at Madeline’s mother and stepfather’s house in the Annex, in the heart of Toronto, and the garage we were to park in was tiny, and already filled with her stepfather’s large SUV.  It took three of us directing, worrying, and tucking side mirrors in to get our little red hatchback safely inside, at which point we decided it was Uber or public transit for the duration.

So for the next three days we stayed with Madeline’s dad in Etobicoke during the day, and had evenings with her stepfather, alternating between the two locations via Uber.

Madeline’s father lives in a condominium on the shore of Lake Ontario in the Mimico neighbourhood, and the whole area feels very spacious—there are people around, but nothing resembling a crowd.  He is 92 and while he uses a walker, he loves to go outside frequently.  While he moves slowly, he has a gritty determination and the heart of a hero. Their building is huge—the walk from the elevator to the cavernous lobby is the length of a football field, so often a rest break is needed between the journeys from elevator to lobby and from lobby to lake shore.

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The Annex is jammed with people, and the sidewalks along Bloor are being fenced off and torn up due to major construction.  Going walking was a process of navigating between the bodies, turning this way, then that, watching to make sure you don’t get run over by a frustrated driver, and swimming through a cacophony of horns as the cars jockeyed for position and tried desperately to beat the yellow light.

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These are the two cities we visited during our four nights in Toronto, and how different they were!  Etobicoke was slow, measured and meditative.  It was at first frustrating, but soon nourishing to slow down and experience time with this aging but determined man.  Once as we sat in the courtyard, he pointed out a beautiful butterfly sitting on the ground, and I thought what a gift it is to slow down and notice, and how he was helping me to do that. Toronto was hot, urgent, frenetic.  Madeline’s stepfather is a youthful 80, so we walked for blocks, talking about restaurants, politics, travel and remembering Madeline’s mom who passed away on Valentine’s day this year. It was busy, stressful, and at times over stimulating.

I am a west coast boy, and I have never really enjoyed Toronto.  My experience this visit was very different.  The evenings were warm and pleasantly humid, perfect for walking around and exploring. The old houses are grand, red brick singing against the green of the surrounding foliage.  One night we walked to a local high school where a beautiful all-weather track has been built. Runners and walkers were enjoying the warm summer evening, and after marvelling at the luminous sky, we walked a couple of circuits of the track.  I even ran for a hundred yards or so, grateful to be free of the darned driver’s seat for an extended period. One morning we found a combination coffee shop and cannabis dispensary.  On the main floor, a conventional coffee barista station, and a stairway leading up to the dispensary on the second floor. The coffee was extremely good, and it may have been my imagination but the atmosphere seemed a lot more chill than in most coffee places I have frequented.

On our last day we visited the Art Gallery of Ontario. While the Käthe Kollwitz exhibit we went to see was wonderful, I came away touched by two other elements. Brian Jungen is an indigenous artist from B.C. who uses commercial products such as leather sofas, Nike running shoes and baseball gloves to construct a giant tipi, a cigar store Indian, and traditional indigenous headdresses. Daphne Odjig’s painting, Family, reminded me of the purpose of our visit.

We are now heading home, driving, listening to Stuart Mclean’s wonderful stories, alternately laughing and crying as he describes the memories that make up a life and the kindnesses that human beings show each other when we live from our hearts.  It strikes me that for me this trip is all about family.  First there is the privilege of spending time with parents and loved ones and realizing how precious and fleeting this time can be. Secondly there is the realization that all of us who live in Canada are family, and that my job is to open my eyes, my ears, my heart to all of my family members, and to try to recognize the blind spots that my privilege creates.

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A poem cannot contain

A poem contains (has / holds) words, but a poem cannot contain (restrain / control) meaning.

In 1956 Dorothy Livesay wrote “On looking into Henry Moore.”

This week I wrestled with that poem and its subject.

I paused on the bridge over Colquitz Creek and watched a mallard fly awkwardly beneath my feet, squawking with urgency. I thought: I am like that duck. Flying with ungainly wings—so clumsy you could hardly call it flying. Toward what? For what purpose? Only to get to another part of the creek? Why? That is what trying to “get” poetry can feel like for me.

I have been struggling to find conclusions to writing that is meant to be open to many interpretations, work that must remain ambiguous, opaque. And of course this is part of its beauty. Thank you to Blank and Kay on close reading of poems. They remind us there is no final solution or mastery of a poem in close reading: only deeper understanding.

So I will meander a bit today as a way of acknowledging that blog posts are not polished academic papers; they are (or can be) exploratory essays. First, Livesay’s poem cannot contain Moore’s work any more than this post can contain any final interpretation. She wrote the poem in 1956, so I kept trying to figure out which piece or pieces of his sculpture had motivated the poem, kept thumbing through books showing a chronology of his massive oeuvre. What had she seen? And in what context? I don’t know—I only know my experience of Henry Moore’s work, not Livesay’s experience.

To grow up in Toronto in the 1960s is to remember when, in 1966, Moore’s The Archer (or Three-Way Piece Number Two) was unveiled in Nathan Phillips Square. This bold bronze sculpture was so revolutionary, so wonderfully different from anything I knew, a complement to the curved towers of our City Hall. The Archer seemed part machine, part human with smooth protuberances punching up and out into space.

Later that sculpture was the backdrop for my stepfather’s photographic portraits of my teenaged sisters: brown and red hair whipping cross their lean and tender faces. Then later, in 1974, the Henry Moore Sculpture Gallery opened at the AGO. I can remember walking around in the silent gallery, among the monumental stone figures, many of them recumbent, and feeling peace. This was hallowed space. Those figures felt human, kind, and wise.

Fast forward, way forward, to 2014 when the AGO made the brilliant pairing of Henry Moore with Francis Bacon for “Terror and Beauty.” We travelled to Toronto to see family and to see the show. I discovered Moore’s realistic drawings of the London underground during the blitz in WWII. People lined the tube like insects wrapped in chrysalis blankets, mouths agape as they slept off the trauma of the bombings. I also saw Moore’s late crucifixion drawing and felt again, something hallowed in the vulnerable curve of Jesus’s spare, feminine body against the cross.

Poems don’t always yield their nuts easily: If I can pry open the shell a little, get a crumb, that is enough for now. To strive too hard to get it, to get it all, is to be like the urgent flapping duck.

To open her poem, Livesay writes,*

Sun   stun me   sustain me
turn me to stone:
Stone   goad me  gall me
urge me to run.

When I have found
passivity in fire
and fire in stone
female and male
I’ll rise alone
self-extending and self-known.

Livesay’s title is “on looking into Henry Moore.” Perhaps she’s looking into the artist’s mind and attempting to capture his experience of working in stone. To feel, paradoxically, energy and movement in immovable, inert material. To feel your medium goading you, prodding you to make something, to run, to create. To find passivity in dynamic, always changing fire: again, paradoxical. Those extra spaces placed after Sun, stun me, stone, goad me: The pauses of incantation, as if making art is like making magic. Leaving space for us to walk around Moore’s massive sculptures.

“And fire in stone”: Michelangelo said (I paraphrase) every block of stone has a statue in it and it is up to the sculptor to discover it. So the passive fire burns slowly in the stone, willing its sculptor to fan the flames.

In the next line, Livesay writes “male and female” then “I’ll rise alone/ self-extending and self-known.” To acknowledge the potential for male and female within the stone, within ourselves, to be sufficient unto ourselves, to be fire and stone, to be passive and feel vital energy, to know oneself, to extend oneself, to complete oneself. To contain all things, yet never be contained.

On second thought, this is not Livesay trying to get into Moore, but isn’t it Livesay herself, spinning some of her common threads from The Self-Completing Tree? Just as the reclining figure was a subject Moore explored over and over, so self-completion, aloneness, the paradoxical self, were some ideas Livesay returned to throughout her writing life.

I know the poem will yield more nut crumbs as I continue to ponder. And I’ve started reading John Russell’s biography of Moore, as well. The duck has landed.

Sketch from Moore/Bacon show AGO 2014 by Madeline Walker

Sketch from Moore/Bacon show AGO 2014 by Madeline Walker

Sketch from Moore/Bacon Show AGO 2014 by Michael Carpenter

Sketch from Moore/Bacon Show AGO 2014 by Michael Carpenter

Livesay, D. (1986). On looking into Henry Moore. in The self-completing tree: Selected poems. pp. 27-28. Victoria, BC: Press Porcépic.

*Copyright law dictates I cannot quote the entire poem here, but you can read it here.