Memories and Mad Hatters

By Michael Carpenter

IMG_0371Bidding adieu to Cranbrook Ed, we crossed the border into Alberta and our sojourn to Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump.  This world heritage site tells the story of the Blackfoot nation and their skilful and meticulously planned hunting process which drove herds of stampeding buffalo to their death over a carefully chosen cliff. Accessing the site from the west required us to drive over 30 km of gravel roads (we will come back to this shortly).  We arrived in time to watch the dancing demonstrations, which were truly amazing, and were well explained by the emcee.  The nobility, grace and skill of the dancers, combined with the dazzling ceremonial garb made for one continuous photo opportunity, and Madeline joined in a circle dance at the end.

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IMG_0395The exhibit spans five archeological levels and was beautifully illustrated.  I found myself deeply humbled and moved by realizing that these peoples first used this buffalo jump site 6000 years ago.  We are newcomers indeed!  Everywhere like an echo or a refrain is the message that the sacred earth provides—and the realization that we are abusing her bounty.

Lethbridge was the gateway to a couple of magical and fairly emotional days for me-rich with memories.  I lived in Lethbridge from 1987 to 1990, with my sons Aaron and Alex and with Alex’s mom Donna.  Alex, tragically killed in a backwoods motor vehicle accident in 2016,  was born in Lethbridge in 1989.  I was awash with emotion and memory, triggered in part by the vivid and happy memories of the time we spent there, so while our visit was enjoyable, I was grateful to hit the road for Medicine Hat.

Just before we left Lethbridge I noticed a stone chip on faithful Rudy’s windshield (Rudy is the name we gave our little red Hyundai Elantra GT).  As is often my wont, I decided to ‘wait and see’ about getting  it repaired.

“He who hesitates is lost” was one of my mother’s favourite sayings, and by the time we got to Medicine Hat we were looking at “Windshield Smashed In Buffalo Jump”, as the stone chip had become a nine inch crack.

I must admit, I was upset.  And hungry.  With Madeline’s great equanimity holding me down, I managed to phone our insurance company while feverishly gnawing on cold chicken legs, and swearing when my grease-laden fingers failed to make my touch screen respond.  Turned out that Speedy Glass could do a replacement the following morning, so we decided to spend the afternoon visiting the Medicine Hat Museum and Southern Alberta Art Gallery.

The art gallery featured an exhibit called Terrestrial Beings.  From the curator:

At once sublimely elegant and ruthlessly daunting, the lush intricacies of the natural world have delighted, nourished, intrigued and wrought havoc upon the human race since time immemorial. Occupying a place between reality, dream, memory and myth, Terrestrial Beings presents strange and wonderful works in which representations of the body and the land intersect physically, psychologically and metaphorically. Through sculpture, painting, drawing, and cut-paper, twelve contemporary artists from across the country embrace their connection to the earth as fertile ground for deeper spiritual and intellectual exploration.

 I’ve included a couple of examples.  One that I found particularly moving was This Creeping Feeling, a polymer clay sculpture of two figures laying a third to rest. It was created while a family member was dying, and the gallery note says it is about human entanglement and the unstoppable passage of time.  The figures are covered with coral, organisms which both war and co-operate, and leave the record of their lives on the earth and on each other. The other is of a shape-shifter, which I chose to be photographed with on my shape-shifting mad-hatter day.

The Medicine Hat Museum contained many fascinating artefacts-an anachronistic reference to settling the Indians, paired with honestly stated welcoming to diversity and the many stories that different people bring to the region.

I found myself wandering around laughing one moment and crying the next.  As Madeline and I strolled down to the river and then out for coffee, we talked about how lovely the afternoon had been, and how it never would have happened but for a broken windshield.  Then, in a little coffee shop, we found the Pour It Forward board.  People could buy an extra coffee and then write on a cup sleeve who it was for, and put it on the board.  Sometimes a person was named, sometimes not.  One said, “For someone who has had a bad day, and needs a hug in a mug.”  I am realizing that the world is simply filled with magic, so often missed by my busy or cantankerous mind.

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We began the trip across Saskatchewan and Manitoba. I love the vastness of the prairies-endless plains in quilts of emerald and dusty tan, ochre and acid yellow—with fluffy clouds hanging silently in the aquamarine sky.  I found myself feeling simultaneously tiny and expansive-open to and not separate from the world.

By Madeline

Sunday. Kenora. We wake to the bleak sun muffled by smoke and cloud. Many fires burn north of here. Three more days of driving until we arrive in Toronto.  I finished Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You on Friday, and then started Kenzaburo Oe’s Death by Water last night.  How is it that I randomly chose, one from a yard sale, one from a thrift store, two novels that are linked by drowning? Coincidence? Oe’s title is taken from Eliot’s The Wasteland, so I re-read the shortest section of that poem, Death by Water, and remembered Phlebas the Phoenician, drowning: “As he rose and fell/ He passed the stages of his age and youth/ Entering the whirlpool.”

I think sometimes this road trip, RARE 5, with its spaciousness, time to think and ruminate–without projects, to-do lists, a home to clean, people to see, objects to fixate on–has allowed us to pass the stages of our age and youth, allowed us to enter the whirlpool of a heightened awareness. We can think in big-picture ways about our lives, about the past.  We are silent, then we talk. We listen to Stuart McLean, Pema Chodron, Allison Krauss, the Decembrists. In between music and voices we enjoy long spaces and quiet times, the varied landscapes of Canada outside the window. Then we converse and share our own thoughts and stories, and most of all our feelings. A journey of the mind and heart.

On to Thunder Bay today, through green wilderness.

 

 

 

 

 

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.