Northern lights in my palm

The first two stones were too flashy for me, I realize now, as I cradle the third stone in my palm.  This piece of Labradorite feels like a mineral replacement for “blankie,” a faded green blanket I depended on as a small child. When I felt sad or lonely, I would rub its sateen border against my cheek as I sucked my thumb.  I find the same kind of comfort in my stone as I wrap it tightly in one hand in times of anxiety, or examine its blue and green gleams as I turn it in the light.  It was such an unpromising piece of feldspar, I thought, when I first saw it among others in a small basket at the Rockhound Shop.

I had been missing my second piece—a much bigger specimen, shot through with showy Labradorescence. I know exactly where I left it – beside the computer monitor in a room at the University of Saskatchewan where I was presenting with colleagues at a conference. I had been holding the stone for confidence—my usual practice. But once the presentation was underway and I was clicking through the PowerPoint slides and gesticulating, I had laid it down, only to forget all about it as I packed up, chatting with audience members.

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I found my practice of holding my stone during public speaking so effective, I incorporated it into a workshop on effective workplace presentations, even though I knew some people would find it corny.

I really missed it. Missed the cool warmth in my hand, the feel of it, the revelatory colours of it.  Every time I examined it, I was reminded of the Northern Lights. That stone played its Labradorescence fast and loose, so it took no work at all to find the lights—they gave themselves away quickly. But my third stone was introverted, I suppose like me, and it looked unprepossessing with a dull grey finish, quite a bit smaller than one and two, roundish, just a mineral lump. But as I held it and shifted it slightly, I detected a shimmer at one end—as if its interior light would only be revealed with time and patience.

I discovered these stones by chance in the Southwest. Michael and I were driving one of those long stretches on a road trip somewhere in Utah, heading to Flagstaff, Arizona where we planned to spend my Hallowe’en birthday. We’d been to Arches National Park, seen the red sandstone interrupt the blue sky, felt young and small next to the old and otherworldly shapes. Somewhere, perhaps in the café where we’d eaten breakfast, I had picked up a free magazine with articles about healing modalities, vegetarianism, and crystals, ads for herbal remedies and craniosacral treatments. As M. drove, I happened upon an article about Labradorite. Apparently the Inuit people believe this stone fell from the frozen fire of the Aurora Borealis. Ordinary dull grey stone is transformed into an extraordinary container of mystical light.  Its name stemmed from the place it was first reported found—Paul’s Island near the town of Nain, Labrador.  Labradorescence is the optical phenomenon produced when light entering the stone is reflected back.

We arrived in Flagstaff and found a restaurant. Sitting near the windows and doors open to the street and eating dinner, we could see all of the neighbourhood children in their fine costumes, trick or treating from business to business. The hostess gave them candy, oohing and aahhhing at their lovely get-ups. As the sky grew dark and starry, as ghosts, witches, princesses, and pirates passed in front of us and we raised our glasses in a toast to my day of birth, I felt exquisitely happy.  After dinner we located the store, Crystal Magic, on North San Francisco Street. Many glass shelves displayed stones from all over the world, sparkling under bright lights, but I headed straight for Labradorite, and held my chosen piece comfortably in my hand for the rest of the evening.

The crystal and gem websites and books provide many possible meanings for Labradorite: a crystal of shamans, a stone of awakening, symbolizing inner spirit and intuition, fostering self-esteem, etc. etc. But for me, it’s about confidence. Even though it’s an optical illusion—there is of course no light emanating from inside the stone, it’s merely reflected—Labradorite with its inner gleam is my constant reminder that I have all that I need within me. I have all that I need here and now to be contented, happy, whole, well. I don’t need anybody’s approval. I am enough.

I don’t know how I lost my first stone or how I obtained my second one, but some years have passed since that magical birthday in Arizona, and I have become more practised at losing things. These days I often think of Elizabeth Bishop’s poignant poem, “One Art,” pulsing with irony:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

[to read the whole poem go here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47536/one-art]

Loss is inevitable—memories, things, loved ones, life. We all get to have lots of practice. While treasuring my third stone, I already anticipate losing it. I’ve already misplaced it several times in one week, so its loss feels inevitable. I hope the person who finds this stone appreciates its oblique flicker, its slant of fire.

Here’s to the ripe berry and the rat-grey fungus

Late August, and I feel a sense of impermanence. As my 60thbirthday nears, this sense becomes more sharp, an aching joy to be alive as I and everything around me changes, transforms, slips away. Riding my bicycle along Lochside Trail to work I note the rusty tinge of autumn on the leaves and grasses and the mist hovering over Swan Lake in the mornings. Sweet fruity smell of ripe blackberries blows at me in waves, and I stop sometimes to pick a few. Many fall to the ground, uneaten, wasted.  Seamus Heaney wrote about picking blackberries as a child, the hunger for these ripe jewels:

“You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet

Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it

Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for

Picking. . . .”

 

But then, that lust turns to disappointment:

 

“We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.

But when the bath was filled we found a fur,

A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.

The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush

The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.

I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair

That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.

Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.”

These last few weeks I feel the passing of time, nothing is fixed or stable, nothing keeps. At the University where I work, I sat at a table in the Student Union Building, slowly sipping my coffee, and a man, his white hair tied back in a scraggly ponytail, approached. He was looking at the bulletin board beside me.  His eyes homed in on a notice for a missing person—Gladys Barman, in her 80s, had disappeared some weeks before. The photo showed a healthy-looking old woman with short white hair and glasses, her clear face smiling broadly. The man reached out and carefully removed the notice, pulling out each pushpin and folding the paper, placing it gently in his pocket.  Just a couple of days before, the remains of a body, not yet identified, but suspected to be Barman, had been found 11 km. from her car.  Although his eyes never contacted mine, I felt I shared something with him when he removed the copy of her joyful face from the board: someone you love is no longer in the world.

And then there was the yard sale. I was riding my bike to Fabricland, and what should I happen upon—but a huge fabric sale laid out in the front yard of a house in the neighbourhood. What synchronicity! Six long tables spilled over with fabric. Several women bustled around, tidying stacks of cotton and flannel.  Plastic bins overflowed with scraps, a pile of unfinished quilting projects towered, bags of quilt batting were tucked under the long tables. Signs everywhere: “$5 a metre – no cutting – fill a bag of scraps for $5.” A gaunt woman in a wheelchair was parked in the middle of it all, directing the bustling women: “I don’t want a scrap of fabric coming back into the house!” Behind her, a run-down rancher mirrored her looks, bedraggled and tired, its shrouded windows like sad, downcast eyes. I took advantage of the “bag of scraps” offer, grazing over the bits of colourful cottons, listening to the talk swirling around me.  These plump bustling women were her sisters; she had had heart trouble, could no longer sew, and was confined to the wheelchair. As I examined a half-finished Hallowe’en quilt, dug into mounds of coloured scraps, looking for treasures, I thought of all the hope embedded here, sewn into every seam, every purchase. She thought she had ample time—all the time in the world—to finish all of these projects and more.  But all we have is  borrowed time.

Knowing my time here is only borrowed wakes me up. Yeats’s poem, “Vacillation,” contains a stanza that has been my favourite for the last 15 years because it celebrates the simple bliss of reaching middle age, of just being here:

“My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.”

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Like Yeats, I have sat in a café, nursing a coffee, reading a book. I, too, have looked up at the world and felt the searing joy of being present, alive, blessed, even capable of blessing.

The disappointment comes in believing any of it will last—the freshness of the berry, my health, energy to sew or write, my memory, my ability to read, to walk briskly, to get to Gorgeous Coffee on my own—all of it will go. Unless, of course, I go first. So here’s to now. here’s to impermanence.  Here’s to the ripe berry and to the rat-grey fungus. Here’s to aging and to great happiness. Here’s to the bitter and to the sweet.

 

 

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50981/blackberry-picking

http://www.csun.edu/~hceng029/yeats/yeatspoems/Vacillation

 

 

 

A play date with poetry

Sometimes I like to plan whimsical dates with my husband, to plant an hour or two with small surprises. You never know what you’ll find, what tiny miracle may blossom before your eyes.

One weekend in March, I arranged such a date.  We headed downtown, and as we started to walk Victoria’s chilly streets, I pressed a five-dollar bill into Michael’s hand.

“We’re looking for street musicians and we’re going to give them money. If they’re good. Maybe even if they’re not.”

We found neither good nor bad musicians. Instead, we found a lone artist in front of Munro’s Books replicating famous paintings in jewel-coloured pastels, brightening up Government Street. That day he was drawing what looked like an Alphonse Mucha head of a woman juiced with lots of reds and oranges.

We admired his skill, and my husband placed his $5 bill in the hat. Next we headed up to Russell’s Books, second floor, poetry section.

“You have $10 to buy a book of poetry,” I told Michael.  We stood side by side, pulling out slim volumes, one after the other, reading lines, testing their merit. Did we feel something, see something? Was there language that lifted us out of ourselves?

We finally settled on our books and headed to Chapters, second floor, Starbucks. I bought us coffee and we sat perched on stools overlooking Douglas Street. We sliced apples and cheese and shared a little picnic there.

“Now,” I told him, “I’ll read my poem into your ear, and you’ll read yours into mine.” I can be very bossy. When I was 11, I used to corral the neighbourhood children into our basement and set up “school” where I could be the teacher, telling them what to do.  I am lucky that Michael is very tolerant and accommodating of my “play dates.”

Michael placed his mouth close to my ear and read Marilyn Bowering’s “Three Swans and an Owl”: “I remember three swans,/with black ribbons in their beaks,/that flew from the loch by the crags…” My favourite lines were “I remember the swans in the ache of winter,/ their crystal bones primed with light/ as they fly, black-mouthed with signs.”

I then leaned into Michael’s side, standing beside his stool as the cars zipped below us and all around us people jostled and chatted. I read to him a remarkable glosa by P.K. Page, from her book Hologram, and I was hooked. When we got home, I sat on the couch and read all 14 poems.

Published in 1994, Hologram comprises 14 glosas, a complex form dating back to the late 14th, early 15th century used in the Spanish court. First you take an opening quatrain written by another poet. You write four ten-line stanzas, the concluding lines taken consecutively from the quatrain. Each stanza’s sixth and ninth lines must rhyme with the borrowed tenth. Page explains in the foreword how she struggled to master this form. First the choice of lines from another poet is difficult. Lines cannot be enjambed; they must be or appear to be end-stopped. And then you must make everything run smoothly; the borrowed lines have to somehow match your own sensibility or run parallel to it in some way you can work with. She makes the distinction of doing this as an exercise—which anyone can do—and actually catching some light or brilliance in the borrowing and crafting anew.  She uses wonderful quatrains from Bishop, Rilke, Lawrence, Eliot, Serafis, and others as the basis of her glosas.  Here is a sample poem “Autumn,”her borrowing for this one from Rilke.

I was fascinated: I had to try this form. I finally found four lines, quite plain and domestic, from Denise Levertov, whom I love. Her poem “Invocation” is for a house that the speaker is leaving, but hopefully will return to. Using an old house and Levertov’s lines as the foundation, I wrote a poem ostensibly about an old man leaving his farm, but really about the “the art of losing,” as Elizabeth Bishop describes it in “One Art.”  All that we must lose as we grow old: homes, memories, strength, possessions, people…

“His life, a house” definitely falls into the category of exercise (quite a tortured exercise in trying to rhyme with serapes and thus an ignominious ending), but I’ve enjoyed heralding the beginning of poetry month with this attempt at a glosa.

 

First, here is the foundation of my “house”:

from Denise Levertov’s “Invocation”

Silent, about-to-be-parted-from house.
Wood creaking, trying to sigh, impatient.
Clicking of squirrel-teeth in the attic.
Denuded beds, couches stripped of serapes.

And here is my glosa:

His life, a house

Dusk breaks the glowering sky with
light as he ambles up the steps
now stooped and slow. One last check to see
the floors all swept, swallows looping
by the naked windows. Oh! phantom
shape in the pasture, lone sheep that roused
him late one night, his gentle hand tugged
at tiny hooves descending, a breech that Easter.
No more a farmer? His mind bargains like Faust.
Silent, about-to-be-parted-from house.

Upstairs he climbed to fathom forty years
of sleeping here. The bedroom’s quiet now,
silent but for sighs, his own, yet echoing her
pleasure. Sharply angled ceiling stained
from rain, but smoke and jazz used to fill
this space. This is what we meant
when we spoke of love: the low vibrating
line of deep contentment thrumming
underground, through a marriage spent.
Wood creaking, trying to sigh, impatient.

Placing pulsing hands upon the sill,
Looking past the sedgy pond to where
two horses graze, but only in his mind.
He strides along the edge and checks electric
fences, smells the turf, feels such a well
of joy throb here, welcome, automatic,
his response to being outdoors, to being
of use, to being a man. His palsied
hands fall to his side. The house is static.
Clicking of squirrel-teeth in the attic.

His life a house shorn of all goods.
Drapes once protected him from night, from
fears, from cold. Now curtains gone, the winter
sun burns in through gelid panes of glass
and touches wooden floors. No carpets here
to soak up all remembered laughs and happies,
his life an unprotected, wind-lashed house.
No cloth, no coverings but only he, Lear-like
upon the hearth, exposed from head to naked knees.
Denuded beds, couches stripped of serapes.

oldman

 

Mother’s Day

A redhead named Janelle
is cleaning my teeth.
I feel the warmth of her
body through a blue glove
as she leans her tiny hand
against my chin to scale

She wields the Cavitron with
what might be called love
sonic pulse of water down
my deep pockets, she takes such
care. I count breaths, my jaw a
canyon for her small fingers

She intuits the tender spots,
knows where to swab
my gums with local,
knows when to suction, when
to spray, gently wipes spit from
my face like a mother cleans her child

She reads my body and
my pain, seeks to comfort me
Unspoken trust is here,
the intimacy of strangers
Yet is she so strange to me?

I’ve heard that Buddhists believe
every being has been our
mother innumerable times.

Suddenly, Janelle seems
beautiful, radiant.
I notice her kind responsive
hands, her bright crooked smile,
the way she studied a dark bloom on
my X-ray and broke
the news in a low solicitous voice

Imagine every person was once your
mother. Let affection blur the
critical gaze, meet every pair
of eyes with tenderness and
compassion

Imagine!

Notes on writing poetry

When my book of poems was published in 2014, I had mixed feelings. I knew they were rushed and rough, many more prosaic than poetic. I adopted the view that the process not the product was most important. I had gotten a surprise contract on the strength of a few poems, and a short deadline. I enjoyed waking up every day for most of that year with the challenge to write a new poem, 80 pages of poems in 8 months. But I knew they weren’t polished; they did not reflect long craftsmanship.

The book got scant attention when it came out. My mother-in-law, then 95 (RIP, Barbara), loved it and told me it was “so clever.” I thought, well I’m happy it pleased her. That’s enough. I have a few fans, mostly family members. There were two reviews. One was mostly positive, the other mostly negative. The negative review included the following: “Its text…makes shameless use of exclamation marks and ellipses—punctuation that I abhor.” Strong words—”shameless” and “abhor,” words that seem more appropriate collocations for rape and genocide than for punctuation. I felt the reviewer had missed the point that free use of “!” was part of the “birth of the uncool,” the shift from cool, critical academic to open, mushy, middle-aged explorer of the self.

The review said lots more, but I’ll stop there. I think I suffered from that review more than I let on. Ouch! It seemed so mean and tight and shaming. Though I actually agreed with many observations the reviewer made about my poems, her tone stung deeply. What I found curious to observe was how reading that review seemed to paralyze me. I didn’t want to write much poetry for almost two years.

I want to reclaim poetry again. It felt (defiantly) good to put that exclamation mark at the end of the poem. As Chesterton said, if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.  img_1690.jpg

Thanks for reading, and happy mother’s day to all sentient beings.

The road not taken

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A few times a week, I ride my bicycle to the University where I work as a writing tutor. The end of the commute takes me along the west side of the Clearihue building, a three story, squat cement slab constructed in the 1960s that houses the English and French Departments. Every time I pass that way, like clockwork, an image floats into my mind.  I travel back 16 years. A spring day and I am walking to the University library wearing leather sandals, my skirt swishing around my legs, a pile of books comfortingly heavy in my arms. As I traverse the path behind Clearihue, I hear the click of an upper story window opening, capturing my attention. I look up and an arm appears—a wide open gesture—a kind of wave. Soon following, a youthful bronze head pops out: close cropped hair, glasses, rosy cheeks. “Madeline!”  It’s my professor, ten years my junior, the one who has just hired me as his research assistant, waving at me with joyful recognition.  “Hello!”

For some reason that chance encounter, my prof seeing me from his office window, opening it, flinging out his arm in a wave, then calling my name, always reminds me of a scene in George Orwell’s 1984 when Winston dreams of the Golden Country, a “rabbit-bitten pasture” where “the elm trees were swaying very faintly in the breeze, their leaves just stirring in dense masses like women’s hair.”  For some reason, this scene has always haunted me in a peculiar way. The passage is thus:

The girl with dark hair was coming towards them across the field. With what seemed a single movement she tore off her clothes and flung them disdainfully aside. Her body was white and smooth, but it aroused no desire in him, indeed he barely looked at it. What overwhelmed him in that instant was admiration for the gesture with which she had thrown her clothes aside. With its grace and carelessness it seemed to annihilate a whole culture, a whole system of thought, as though Big Brother and the Party and the Thought Police could all be swept into nothingness by a single splendid movement of the arm.

Our minds are very odd. Why should my professor’s wave have anything at all to do with Winston’s dream girl who flings off her clothes in a graceful, careless gesture symbolizing the annihilation of a whole culture?  I have thought about that over the years. I was a grad school ingénue, enjoying the exploration of my intellect after many years at home raising children.  I was 42, and I was waking up.  Noting that I was the one student in his graduate class who actually did all of the readings and came to class prepared, my professor offered me an RA position. He wasn’t naked as he leaned out of the window of course; nor was there a sexual frisson. It was an intellectual tremor we both felt—he had found a fresh RA who was dazzled with his intellectual prowess. A “single splendid movement of the arm” seemed to signal the sweeping away of what I had known so far, and to welcome me into the life of the university—A Golden Country of words and ideas, books and conversation, writing and learning. I was waking up to a new way of seeing the world.

Yet I actually first started graduate school at the University of Toronto when I was 27, a false start. I sat among other young people in a wood panelled seminar room, struggling with and ashamed by my incoherence. I tried to keep up with the others, but everything that came out of my mouth seemed sluggish and obvious. I was an outsider in this alien world. The theoretical readings were incomprehensible. After about five weeks, I quit the program.  And went on to have three children etc.

Sometimes I think about what my life might have been life “if.” This line of thinking has been stimulated by reading Paul Auster’s 4321—a magnificent weaving of four stories—four possible lives of one man. If this had happened slightly differently, the outcome might be this. A chance meeting with a young man at a movie theatre changes everything. A car accident and maimed hand shifts life completely. A parents’ divorce creates another path. As I read the novel, I start to think about how my life might have been different if I had stayed in graduate school the first time.  I come back to intense gratitude for the way things happened.

So what if I stuck with it and completed my MA the first time?  I tell myself a story about that alternate life. . . what might have happened. I finish the Masters, then get accepted at a PhD program at McGill. My husband leaves me because I drink too much.  In Montreal, I learn French, continue to drink and smoke cigarettes “to handle the stress,” and produce an award winning dissertation about French theorists’ influence on twentieth-century American women’s poetry and “jouissance.” After a brilliant defense of my thesis, I am offered a job at Princeton in New Jersey, and at the age of 36, I am an alcoholic assistant professor, preparing lecture notes in haze of smoke with a litre of white wine at my elbow. Continuing my research on female orgasm and American female poets, I live the life of an academic, focused on reading, research, writing, teaching, with occasional trips to conferences worldwide.  I live in a small book-lined apartment with a tortoiseshell cat named Denise (after Levertov), my only companion. My first book comes out. A series of flame-like affairs with married men and one lesbian professor leave me wary of love. When I get pregnant by accident, I quickly have an abortion. No babies for me—my primary relationship with alcohol means I won’t even consider it.

My career peaks at 40 when I become associate professor and my second book is published—about Kathy Acker and sexuality. The following year, I am invited to give a series of talks at Columbia University about gender and 20c poetry, but I am in trouble. My addiction to alcohol has become unforgiving.  Drinking during the day is the new normal.  After downing several shots of vodka in my hotel room, I stumble onto the stage for a public presentation on Elizabeth Bishop’s later poems. My body—lumpy from lack of exercise and bouts of hangover eating—is sheathed in a tight black dress covered with cat hair and ash, the hem sagging, my chignon unravelling. My ramblings are incoherent. What was the point I was trying to make? Audience members shift and whisper, looking at each other with embarrassment and pity. I am escorted off the stage. I wake up in a pit of shame the next day, head clanging, gluey lips stuck together. I don’t remember how I got back to the Roosevelt last night, but I am fully clothed, sprawled across the bed and surrounded by cigarette butts and striations of ash on the once-white sheets. I must have tipped the ashtray. The vodka bottle is empty.

Forty-one and childless, hopelessly addicted to booze, thirty pounds overweight, stinking of cigarettes, alone and hopeless, I take 100 sleeping pills that I’ve been hoarding. They were in my make-up kit—I was planning this opportunity. Before I take them, I write a brief note instructing whomever discovers my corpse to call my cat sitter at 609-543-6890 and to tell her to find another home for Denise. Poor sweet Denise, who has a trilling miaow and a deep purr. She loves to curl up next to me when I drink and read and smoke. My last memory as I slip into unconsciousness is of the thrilling vibration of her purr next to me. It’s early December 1999 and I am gone—a nice clean finish—gone before the turn of the century.

***

Of course this is all storytelling. And yet, the exercise makes me grateful I quit drinking at 27 and had three sons. I am glad I waited those 15 years to return to school, clean and sober. Grateful for family, friends, marriage, faith, a spiritual path. It’s a good one, this life.

The bird-light bones of change

Last year I bought my first Tarot deck with the intention to learn about this ancient tool. My purpose was to use the cards to understand myself and my life better, rather than as a way to divine the future.  So when I drew the Death card reversed last week, I was not alarmed. I did not read the card as a warning that somebody would die soon. Somebody is always going to die.

Anthony Louis says that death reversed is about resisting necessary change (death upright is about transformation).  He writes, “you are clinging to an outmoded situation, relationship, or attitude that really should be discarded.” I had asked the question before I drew: what will help me most going forward to heal myself, my whole self? And the answer I get is that I am clinging to the past because I fear change. It is time to discard a mode of living. By clinging to it, I am hindering my growth. My sense is that the outmoded ways I resist changing are, one, depending on my “rational” way of making decisions and two, living impulsively. I picture these modes as living from the top part of my body, neck up, rather than centering in on the heart. I have been slowly transforming into a fully intuitive being who follows deep inner knowing: not impulse, but intuition. I can trust my inner process, my discernment, my inner guide.  That feels very right at the moment. And it doesn’t mean eschewing intellect or reason. Of course there is a place for those!  It just means that when I feel scattered, my thoughts whipping around my head, and confusion reigning, I need to settle back into my body, put my hand on my heart, and sit with what’s happening at the moment, asking myself, what do I need right now?  Answers do come, sometimes slowly, other times quickly. Deep knowing has its own timetable.  The knowledge that comes is sometimes mysterious, yet pretty much unassailable.

I had a recurring dream as a child that I was clawing my way through a dark underground tunnel. The physical feelings accompanying the dream were pain, suffocation, fear, and claustrophobia.  And then, after a long time, bloody-knuckled and exhausted, I saw light. I came out into the air, greeted by a daisy growing at the mouth of the tunnel. And the lightness I felt then was like the lightness you feel after setting down your pack at the top of the mountain. I can still recreate those sensations of the childhood dream, though I haven’t had it for decades. For a long time I thought it was about birth, then I thought perhaps it was about death. It’s probably about both, but it’s also about the journey from living in the head to living from the heart.

In my mandala, I painted that  underground journey.

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In my book of poems, I wrote about it in a poem called “Daisy”: “But finally I came up into the day and/ a big daisy—such a cartoonish flower—/was handed to me./ I sat on green grass at the mouth of the hole,/ crosslegged, light, my bones like a bird’s, holding a large/ white-petalled, yolk-centred flower that seems now like the repository of all happiness!”

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Reference

Louis, Anthony.  (2001). Tarot: Plain and simple.  St. Paul, MO: Llewellyn Publications.

 

Already dead

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The day Alex was killed
a beautiful Vietnamese woman,
her mouth concealed by a
paper mask, crouched at my feet
to paint blood on nails.

I felt ridiculous on the throne,
all this attention paid to
my calloused feet.
So I asked her, “what is the loveliest
place in your country?”

In the cheap notebook I keep in my purse,
I recorded her answer, Hoi An.
A few hours later, Alex was gone.

Three months ago to the day
a pedicure, a death.
Still there are curves of mock blood
on the halluces.

Every time I wake, a red wall
of fear rushes at me
I pray for our four surviving sons.

The youngest just laughs,
“Mom,” he says hugging me,
“Just live like I’m already dead.”

 

November 13, 2016 by Madeline Walker
Watercolour by Madeline Walker

 

 

Dilettante blues

dilettante |ˌdiləˈtäntdiləˈtäntē| noun (pl. dilettantanti |-ˈtäntē| or dilettantantes): a person who cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge: [ as modifier ] : a dilettante approach to science.

I have long thought of myself as having a dilettante approach to intellectual and artistic projects. In our loving household, we put a slightly kinder label on it: “Dabblers unite” is one of our mottos. Yet on my more self-critical days, I wonder why I cannot commit to a path and get really good at one thing, whether it’s fiction, sewing, poetry, drawing, painting or making comics. I come into my room on weekend mornings, loving the light pooling on blond wood floors; the palm tree outside the window; my son’s, my husband’s, and my own paintings decorating white walls. The drawing table and swivel chair in front of the window beckon, “pick me! Draw comics today!” The sewing machine and cutting table are spread with a quilt I am in the middle of making, also calling out to me: “Play with us! Free motion quilting is so fun!” And my low wicker chair, lined with plump blue pillows, looks seductive, laptop not far away. “Write! write! you know you want to, you know you want to get better at this short story thing. . . . “ The tall cupboard might be open, with its treasure trove: glue gun, watercolours, scissors, charcoal, India ink, felt-tip pens and pencils in every hue. Whose birthday is next? Shall I make a card?

Yes, I want to create, but when I never commit to one path, I never get really good any one thing. Even when I committed five years of my life to getting a PhD, I don’t think I went really deep, and I didn’t continue my research in that area. I never got to really know my subject. I used to joke that I was getting a “PhD lite” because I would rather go horizontal, exploring many tangents, than go vertical, deep into the material. I’ve always read this way too: skimming and popping in and out of several different books, writing down the title of a new one, pursuing first this lead and then that one, rarely settling down for any length of time and achieving depth. Picking books off shelves, reading a line. This and that, this and that. I’ve celebrated my dilettantism too–deciding to write about film and gender and just doing it, making the plunge. It often feels liberating to follow my variegated passions.

And yet, deep down I know that if I put on blinders and really work at something, eschewing all the persuasive pulls at my attention, a jewel may be uncovered. So, my intuition tells me not to just accept my dilettantism. To choose one path and stick to it, to put aside the other things, simply breaks my heart. However, I sense that that is the way I need to go eventually. I won’t force it, but at some point, “big magic” (Elizabeth Gilbert) will  lead me to the vertical plunge. I can feel it coming.

For now, I will enjoy dabbling.  A little moon quilt, a little cartooning, a little short story writing.  A little of this, a little of that.

 

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Have a creative week.

 

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.

 

 

Inter-art

I am writing short stories. I am on number six, with a goal of ten. And sometimes I need a break, so I decided to start a weekly blog post about intertextuality, more broadly inter-art. Most of my stories so far refer to other books; for example in my long Fez story the young protagonist is in love with Catherine Barkley of Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms and in “Elephant Man Comes Out,” the protagonist is aroused (again) by Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story.  I am often captivated by poems, stories, and novels that refer to other poems, narratives, paintings, pieces of art, songs, movies, and symphonies because art is such an important part of my own life. Following the threads of influence and provenance is a mysterious process, revealing layer upon layer of literary and artistic sediment/sentiment. I am also reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert and feeling the rightness of just writing and not necessarily getting it right. Blogging is good practice. A way of priming the pump for the stories.

So each week (or more often, or less often), I will blog about inter-art. I will either discuss something I have come across in my writing, or I will open books randomly to find something (a favourite pastime of mine). I’d like to start, though, with one of my favourite short stories and the poem referred to and, in fact, quoted in its entirety, in that story.  Ann Beattie is an American novelist and short story writer (68 years old), and her “Yancey” is a story about an ageing woman and her ageing dog (whose name is Yancey). In the first person, this woman (a poet), describes an intriguing encounter with the IRS man who comes to make sure she does have a home office dedicated to writing that she has claimed in her tax return.  After he looks at the room and they exchange some playful dialogue, he says to her “If you were to recommend one book of poetry I should read, what would it be?” We don’t expect an IRS man–a numbers and rules man–to be interested in poetry. They discuss poems, the narrator probing his tastes, and finally she settles on James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” 

A deceptive poem, a lovely poem, a shocking poem. The bronze butterfly and cowbells, the sunlight, the chicken hawk, the horse droppings all mused upon as the speaker lies in a hammock on a friend’s farm.  Then the last line: “I have wasted my life.”  When the narrator recites the poem to the IRS guy, he is incredulous.  “Is that really a poem?” He asks. And “I’ve never heard anything like that. The last line comes out of nowhere.”  And the narrator, who is, remember, a poet, disagrees. She responds that the last line could have come first, but the writer sets us up, seduces us.  And they both end up agreeing that everybody feels like that–that they’ve wasted their life–at least some of the time.  Their brief encounter, the old poet reciting Wright’s startling poem as she sits on the stairs, her dog next to her, the IRS man listening patiently:  it is all so unusual and so unlikely. And yet it is the stuff that happens in our lives, those random coming togethers with strangers or near strangers. Those almost magical encounters.  The IRS guy leaves, saying he’ll get a book of Wright’s poetry and she responds “Any day’s good when you get someone to buy a book of poetry who wouldn’t ordinarily do it.”

Reading “Yancey” several times made me recognize how the meeting of two unlikely people can create the heart of a narrative. What do they exchange? How are they transformed by the exchange? I hope that I do some of that work in “Elephant Man” and even in “Family Life,” though in that story it’s an exchange between a son and his mother.  More next week.

Madeline