The taste of madeleine

And suddenly the memory appeared. So writes Proust in Swann’s Way. Of course, he’s referring to that famous lime-blossom tea-infused madeleine which triggered involuntary memory of the  past and resulted in seven volumes of literary works.

Proust enlarges on the experience. Intelligence is useless when it comes to invoking the past; the past can only be recreated through Screenshot_15the senses (the old creative writing course advice to summon all five and not only sight). Since our senses are connected to a material object, the past is hidden in such objects, that is, in the sensation allowed us by such material objects (i.e., the madeleine).

Proust goes on to explore how such evocation of the senses results in the creative process. “…at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside me. A delicious pleasure had invaded me, isolated me, without my having any notion as to its cause. It had immediately rendered the vicissitudes of life unimportant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory… filling me with a precious essence: or rather this essence was not merely inside me, it was me. I had ceased to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal… it went infinitely far beyond (the taste of tea and cake).” Although the drink awakened the feeling, “it is up to my mind to find the truth.” But how? he asks, when “…the seeker, is also the obscure country where it must seek.” Not only seek but create. “It is face-to-face with something that does not yet exist and that only it can…  bring into its light.”

Whew! No wonder writing is exhausting.

As writers, we would all like to be able to transport ourselves into this creative state upon command. Is there a method? Proust deliberately tried to repeat the procedure of madeleine and memory but with trials the experience kept diminishing. “Ten times I must begin again, lean down toward it. And each time, the laziness that deters us from every difficult task, every work of importance, has counselled me to leave it, to drink my tea and think only about my worries of today, my desires for tomorrow, upon which I may ruminate effortlessly.”

He concludes that he has to rid himself of distractions, clear away obstacles inside himself and create an empty space. Only then can he bring up from his deepest part the desired result to reach “the clear surface of my consciousness.”

It seems there is an ultimate trigger object, in the case of Proust the madeleine, and it is pure chance whether or not in our lifetimes we encounter this object. All we can do is relax and see what rises to the surface. Proust had the luxury of solitude and staying in bed most of his life, but how about the rest of us? Well, we might hone our meditation techniques. And some people, lucky people, can tune out the distractions around them. D.H. Lawrence, apparently, could write anywhere – under a tree, in a crowded room. And I remember a friend who used to write against the background white noise of the food court at a shopping mall.

It seems to me that the particular sense which has the most power to invoke a past moment is an individual thing. For some, smell is most powerful. Call up the smell of lilacs (for instance). I’ll bet any one of us could write a page about that.

For me, it’s sound. I’ve been accused by critics of trying to do too much with dialogue, of sacrificing narrative for conversation. But that’s how the world comes through to me. As children, we listened. We listened because there was nothing else to do. The radio, the gramophone, the piano in the living room. We learned to make pictures in our heads connected with the listening. Voices (Foster Hewitt’s Hockey Night in Canada. He shoots! He scores! We could see the game before our eyes.) Music of course, certain songs. The sound of my uncle coming home from work after the evening shift, his wheel rim scraping the wire fence, the click of the lock, the snap of his pant clips. In bed upstairs, unable to sleep, all the sounds of a summer night blowing through the curtain at my window, I hear the streetcar on 94th, a dog’s bark, and the voices, always the voices coming up from the kitchen below.

But is Proust’s method of encountering the creative self outdated and irrelevant? The world comes to my grandchildren through electronic devices. Bedtime, the bath, they humour me by letting me read to them. I kiss them, turn out the light, tiptoe out of the room, tiptoe back an hour later to check on them. All is dark, all is quiet, then I discern a strange lump under the covers and then I detect a mysterious green light through the sheet and then, if I sharpen my ears, I hear a faint and mysterious beeping as if a message from a far-off planet.

I wonder, in the future, will their creativity be in themselves or in their devices? It won’t really matter, I suppose. The new animated features in the films are pretty impressive. It will just be different.


On the road to writing the Great Canadian Novel

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.* It was the perfect time to start my novel. Between jobs and men, I had a few days at my disposal. I had taken an evening course in creative writing and was chomping at the bit. Life had been interfering in my creative process but finally I  had an uncluttered weekend ahead, a long weekend as fate would have it. I unplugged the phone. (This was before the days of iPads and internets.) I would set the sail, steer the course and lock the wheel. The novel would practically compose itself!

Write about what you know, so said the creative writing instructor. Prairie, then. It had to be Prairie. That was where I was born and raised. But I would turn the traditional tale of yet another lonely misunderstood prairie wife scratching it out on a scrabble farm into… What? Prairie Gothic! I would rewrite the classic gothic tale, wrest it from England’s grasp, and bring it on home to the Prairies. I would call it westering the muse.

I knew my Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights by heart. I knew the basic Gothic form and plot like Bre’er Rabbit knew his Briar Patch. All I had to do was plug in the particulars. In place of Transylvanian castles or English moors my setting would be the isolated family farm. God knows it was just as scary – dark and forboding. Travel any prairie road in winter, you were a hundred miles from anywhere or nowhere. At long intervals a farm house and buildings huddled like prehistoric beasts. Not knowing what hostile creatures might attack if you needed to stop, you looked at your gas gauge and prayed.

And we certainly had Heathcliffes, those silent virile brooding men of few words, which perfectly described my uncles. I would have to get real creative here because my uncles were, in fact, gentle creatures. I would have to turn them into monsters made fierce by fate and circumstance. My novel would demand it. As for crazy women in the attic, every farm had one, driven mad by isolation and husbands.

Pencil between teeth I paused. How about romance? The Gothic is a heavily erotic form. I tried to think. Dracula. Love beyond death. Sucking blood becomes an erotic act. Pure innocent heroine, predatory experienced hero. Sexual tension between hero and heroine. Power. Control. How would I deal with all that? I could not imagine attempting a sex scene, conventional or otherwise. Then, I remembered, erotic love in the gothic is never consummated, another similarity between it and Prairie literature.

To work, to work. Enough theory. I must turn my ideas into words. I had already wasted one of my precious days.

The clock ticked on. The minute hand became hours, the sun came up, the sun went down, the pots of coffee disappeared, and I was still staring at a blank page. In my despair,  moaning and groaning, I wandered the rooms of my house. Idly picking up and laying down, as though in a delirium, on automatic pilot I picked up a pile of old papers and headed for the recycling. As I moved  to toss the pile into the bin I looked down. Companion to elderly invalid lady on farm. A Gothic prompt if ever there was one. I knew what I had to do. I answered the ad and to my surprise got the job, likely because no one else wanted it.

That was how I found myself on a Greyhound bus travelling north, writing pad and pen in hand. As I gazed out the window the words flowed. Dawn arrived, casting an ocean of blood on the landCage Farm crouched like the hump of a woolly mammoth on the bleak hillside, its fangs of snow biting into the descending cliff, down to the river winding like a giant anaconda… I wasn’t sure about woolly mammoths having fangs but no matter. I would look that up later.  

Only one other person was on the bus, a man with threadbare coat and valise who made no noise. When he disembarked, I was left with only the driver. I dared not look at him for fear he would have large pointy teeth and funny eyebrows.

As I travelled further and further north, the sun went down and darkness crept over the land like a dark prowling beast. After my burst of creative energy I felt depleted. Fatigue took hold. Self-doubt crept in. I read over my words. They no longer seemed world-shattering. My referencing of beasts was inconsistent. What was I doing alone on an empty bus going further and further into unfamiliar territory? WHAT WAS I DOING? Who did I think I was that I could create a landscape and populate it with people and make them come alive. Only God could do that.

As the bus continued along the highway through the ominous night, I wanted to jump up, scream at the driver, ‘turn around, take me back to what I know’. But I was afraid I would be talking to empty space. I determined that in the morning I would take the first bus going back the way I had come.

We turned onto a secondary gravel road. There is nothing so dark as the country at night dark roadbefore the stars come up. And silent. Have I mentioned silence? Strangely, the tires made no sound. I was too afraid to sleep. I hadn’t even blinked for the last two hours. My eyes were burning in their sockets.

Finally, the bus stopped, not at a town or even a village, but at a gas station, an unlighted  uninhabited rundown gas station in the middle of nowhere. It was starting to snow. I was afraid to get off, afraid to stay on, but I would have if a voice had not come out of the driver’s cubicle. There’s your ride, lady.

The man who met me was tall, dark, brooding and fierce looking, in short, my perfect hero. What else could I do? I stepped off the bus into my novel and never looked back.


P.S. Forty years later, I’m still trying to write the great Canadian novel.


*I’m sure everyone knows that this is from Dickens’, A Tale of Two Cities, one of the most famous novel starters in the English language.


Especially when the October wind*

With frosty fingers punishes my hair,

Caught by the crabbing sun I walk on fire

And cast a shadow crab upon the land,…

Never an October goes by that I don’t think of these words of Dylan Thomas. And so it is this year. Driving, looking out my study window, but, especially, walking, the physical world assaults the senses. The autumn wind fills the human heart to bursting with words that demand expression.

Some poets speak of spring melancholy (April is the cruellest month according to T.S. Eliot), but I’m with DT on this one – autumn leaf scenebeing the season to challenge the heart’s endurance. The eye is assaulted with fall colours, the nose assailed with smells of ripe vegetation, fallen leaves, damp earth or, conversely, a dry herbal scent. The ear is filled with the sound of birds. Not song birds, however, who, for the most part, have now abdicated, leaving us with crows and ravens, birds traditionally associated with sinister omens and events.

In October the poet becomes the sun’s emissary. On his walk, he is empowered like the ‘crabbing’ sun with a life force that can turn the world of the senses into language. ‘(H)earing the noise of birds,/Hearing the raven cough…’, the poet’s shuddering heart ‘(s)heds the syllabic blood and drains her words.’

In this poem about making a poem, the poet ‘(s)hut… in a tower of words,’ addresses the problem of how to move the inside out, how to give voice to voiceless moods and feelings, how to speak the unspoken, for only in outward expression can nature or the world of the senses be fulfilled. ‘Some let me make you of the vowelled beeches,/Some of the oaken voices,…’. The poet as alchemist turns the physical world into language.

But this is not all. The poem moves into a connection between words and time. At the start of the 3rd stanza, ‘(T)he wagging clock/tells me the hour’s word, the neural meaning/Flies on the shafted disk, declaims the morning/And tells the windy weather in the cock.” What was ‘the raven cough in winter sticks’, arrives at ‘(s)ome let me tell you of the raven’s sins’, sinister connotations which were only hinted at in the first  stanza.

The fourth stanza further develops the darkening mood of the poem. While from the first  there is a premonition of winter (and thus death)  – frosty fingers, winter sticks for leafless tree branches – the October wind now  “(w)ith fists of turnips punishes the land,’. autumn leavesWords are ‘heartless’. Blood  once ‘syllabic’ is now ‘chemic’. ‘The heart is drained that,/spelling in the scurry/Of chemic blood, warned of the coming fury.’ Is the poet thinking here about his own future, did he have a premonition of his own tragic life and death? Or is he thinking about the  future of the planet, the build-up towards war in Europe? Or was he referring to the fury of creation?

The poem appeared in 1934 in Dylan Thomas’s first collection of poetry. He must have written it before his 20th year. What do you suppose brought him to the last line of the poem: ‘By the sea’s side hear the dark-vowelled birds.’


*You can hear Dylan Thomas  read his poem on YouTube.


Of Sand Mites and Novels

Last summer, a sand mite entered my world. Lying on my beach towel, head on folded arms, I was trying to figure out the novel I’m currently writing, when my eye opened a slit and there he was,  coming straight for me.

Without the parameters of lake or grass that book & mitewere apparent to my vision, that stretch of sand must have appeared as a vast Sahara without beginning or end. Yet, propelled by some intuitive directive force, he did not hesitate.

Playing god, I reached out my arm and put my finger in his way. He scurried along its length, first one way, then the other. He tried climbing without success. Bored with my play, I scooped up some sand and buried him and went back to my mental torture.

But that sand mite wouldn’t leave me alone. Maybe I should have given him more time, went my thought. Maybe he would have figured it out. Then I thought how writing a novel is a lot like crossing the Sahara without a map and running into obstacles and you have no idea what these obstacles are (you just know something’s not working) let alone how to surmount them, how like the sand mite you try various ways of going around or over, how god sabotages your efforts.

In a matter of minutes I was in total empathy with that sand mite. We had the same job description, troubleshooting an obstacle course. We were both dealing with a larger force that deliberately sabotaged our efforts.

So then I had a good talk with myself: surely you have more patience than a sand mite. You have to keep trying. Rah rah. Blah blah. Maybe if you keep trying, god will become bored with the game and lift his finger.

Hold on! (I must have raised my head with the surprise of the epiphany.) I’m not the sand mite. My novel is the sand mite. I’m just an instrument, a means for the novel to get itself  down on paper. It’s up to my novel to find direction.

What’s wrong with you, stupid novel? I’ve done my job. I’ve written you so many times, from so many different angles. I’ve written to the left and right and over and under, each attempt  ending up like a pile of steaming cow flop. I’m fed up. It’s time you did a little work. It’s time you turned that cow flop into compost. I’m tired, I need a holiday. I need to sleep in the sun on the sand.

Having divested myself of responsibility, I put my head back down and was just dozing off when it came loud and clear: the trouble with you is you don’t listen.

You don’t listen to what I’m saying – I can’t carry the weight of too much complication. Or, I’m hamstrung with these lame brain characters. Or, you expect me to make this plot believable? Or, you expect me to build something on such a faulty, weak, shaky, structure!

The protests mount: I can’t stand myself. I’m confused, I’m incoherent. Nothing here makes sense. I feel like deconstructing.

The novel begs: I need more time. Don’t let me die a premature death by squishing my creative heart.

I opened my eye, and darned if that sand mite hadn’t burrowed himself out of the sand and was bustling toward me again. Full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes. Again, I put down my finger. Again, he travelled its length one way then another. Thinking to put him out of his misery, I was about to pick him up between thumb and index finger and squeeze (take that you stupid sand mite!) when he made a sharp turn and scurried around my towel. The last I saw of him he was rounding nearby towels, a picnic table leg, a beach umbrella, to who knew where. But his course was steady.

I turned over to tan my front and immediately fell asleep.


Dog Days

As Sirius the dog star rises with the sun between July 3rd and August 11th, the sultry part of summer is upon us bringing, according to Greek and Roman astrology, heat, drought, sudden thunderstorms, lethargy, fever, mad dogs, and bad luck.

Dog days of summer in our house, rather, refers to our dogsitting Thumper, a shih tzu/poodle, 21 years of age in dog years which Thumpertranslates into 147 in human years. Barely a foot long, minus tail, weighing in at about 8 pounds, riddled with arthritis, half-deaf, half-blind, the little guy soldiers on. For Thumper has the heart of a lion. Loving, laid back, patient, understanding… oh, if more humans were like him what a beautiful world it would be.

But to get back to writing and the writing life, a certain mood hangs in the air these days, a restlessness that makes it difficult to focus. We could take up Thumper’s solution, which is, when in doubt have a nap. Or, in the famous words of W.O. we could just write, write whatever, whatever random thought may enter your head. So, here it is:

this is love’s end


blood pools


now and then

by the split hoof

incantations and

midnight trysts


as Sirius rises with the sun

my poems get shorter and shorter

disappear into heat shimmer

into toad stew


i stand at the open door

of my refrigerator

cooling my toes

smelling sour

cottage cheese

think what a great metaphor

for life

nothing can return it to innocence


think riddled lungs

hacking up gobs

impelled to the end

to lift trillions

of trillions

of molecules. o the hours

days, years of sodden exchange

give us a rest

they have a right to say

put us on hold

upon occasion



predictions for October:

once more Venus will ascend

a sky clean as mint

brisk as new love

Cartoon dog 1





Tamar Ferouin’s Purple Period* ***

A state of restless flux with nothing definite except the reddish black velvet glow of distant suns while particles, bodies, drift and crash aimlessly stirring up the sediment of the system into a cloudy emulsion in which that which is present at the beginning of life floats unstable disappearing, reappearing, …evil

So begins my first novel, Breakaway, and as fine an example of purple prose you are never likely to find. In my defence, I claim ignorance. Knowing nothing and having no one to tell me different, I thought that was the way writing was supposed to be.

Purple Prose is defined as writing that draws attention to itself and away from the narrative by being extravagant, ornate and flowery. It says ‘look at me’ rather than at plot or characters. It focuses on description, lengthy and fanciful, overuse of metaphors and similes, adjectives and adverbs. With all this wordiness, sentences become overly long and meandering, melodramatic and repetitive.

Purple prose loves abstractions, which is probably why cliches slip in. Rather than find more concrete terms as modifiers, heroes are brooding, mountains majestic, and so on. What exactly does a brooding hero or majestic mountain look like?

One source goes so far as to say that “Purple is immoral, undemocratic and insincere; at best artsy, at worst the exterminating angel of depravity.” ***

So why do we become involved with this miscreant? Because we are young and naive.  At least that’s my excuse. Today, children in elementary school can tell you about the dramatic arc. I had never heard the term until I was nearly fifty. Language Arts in my day consisted of spelling and sentence conjugation. (As an aside here, I did come out of it knowing how to write a sentence, unlike many of the writing students I’ve had over the years.)

I learned to write stories the long hard way through rejection and an occasional note from an editor which I resented immensely but for which today I thank the good lord. Those rejections  forced me to seek help in the way of instruction and workshops. Even then, the business didn’t come easily. I had so many bad habits that I didn’t realize were bad habits. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. In the end, it was writing – day after day, month after month, year after year, that taught me how to write.

And I read. Other writers I admired were the best  teachers. I used to wonder how they knew how to do it. I’m sure they also learned from those who had gone before.

Although purple prose tends to be a malady of apprentice writers, not all beginners come down with it. Some from the get-go are minimalists, noun/verb/object people. It’s a  matter of temperament, I suppose. Certainly, there are great minimalist writers (Carver, Hemingway, but note they are masters of style). Still, years of teaching taught me that between the two, the purple prose addict is more likely to become a writer. From observing students, I’d say it’s easier to pare down than write up, easier to edit out the boring bits than put flesh on a skeleton.

I’ve heard of writers who go around buying up existing copies of their first books so that they can burn them in a giant bonfire. I understand the impulse. Yet, I don’t feel that way about Breakaway. That first book is out there, a physical entity, never to be erased, a testament to my deficiencies as a writer. But I acknowledge it for what it is, love child of my youth, a reminder of my starry-eyed believing self, happily typing away, unaware of the wolves in the pines called critics who were waiting with bared teeth ready to pounce.


*Tamar Ferouin, a fanciful creature, is the name of the main character in my short story, Tamar Ferouin Amongst the Savages (The Nefertiti Look, 1987).

** blog suggested by Shaun Hunter

***Paul West, In Defense of Purple Prose (New York Times, 15 December 1985)


Ode to my Golden Pen

(It had to happen and here it is.

a phantom that became a reality)


I love you golden pen

although sometimes I hate you

the way in the morning

you climb into my warm bed

push the blanket from my face

shake my shoulder

shout in my ear

up and at it


and I

paralysed by

the fatigue of all the years

foraging in the valley

gathering splinters

out of reluctant matter, say


I have become

a tiny tree of bone

bent and crooked

the way of all things in this country

rain, snow, sleet, hail just when the crop is emerging

so just go away

let me sleep



you trace the lines of my face

the one carved by

the man

with eyes of stone

his head on his fist

his fist on his knee

the one cut by the girl

with red painted toenails, white

shoes, a sling strap and little cutouts


all that was excavated from the earth

the characters I have loved

their confusions


you lift my stinging eyelids

one by one

into the light

the morning sunPen

Archibald Lampman: Fish out of Water?

April and National Poetry Month and it seems appropriate to talk about one of our major Confederation poets, one who, with the possible exception of university English students, no one reads or even knows about today. In my elementary school years, we were taught that Lampman was a Canadian and a nature poet. In those days we had to memorize:

The wind-swayed daisies that on every side

Throng the wide fields in whispering companies,

Serene and gently smiling like the eyes

Of tender children long beatified, . . .

A poor man’s Wordsworth, you might think. After his death, a journalist in the Ottawa Journal wrote that it was Lampman’s fate “to be born in the suburbs of civilization,” a raw, rough, materialistic society with little culture. This suggests that Lampman’s poetry was second-rate due to him being born in the wrong place at the wrong time. Another, less tragic, perspective is that he was born at exactly the right place at the right time to allow him to become “the finest of Canada’s late 19th century poets in English” (Canadian Encyclopedia).

Born 17 November 1861, died 10 February 1899, his short life was classic in circumstances that nurtured sensibilities crucial to his artistic development. He even died young, if not of consumption (the fate of many English poets), of a malady nearly as commendable, a heart problem instigated by a bout of rheumatic fever at the age of seven which, by the way, left him lame for some years. Son of a clergyman in small-town Ontario, his parents were intelligent and well-educated, his father had an extensive library, his mother taught him to play the piano. As a child, he had a huge countryside to roam around in, rolling fertile fields and a lake with reed-lined banks and scattered wooded islands,* which environment certainly would have nurtured his love of nature if not his romantic impulse. He was a good student and attained the high academic standing necessary to attend Trinity College at the University of Toronto, where he met fellow poets and started publishing his poetry in journals. Apparently these were the happiest years of his life.

So far so good. Maybe too good. Maybe he had to sabotage things to fulfill his destiny.  Whatever… he failed to get a first at College because of his extracurricular literary activities resulting in his having to take a position teaching high school. After a few months of that,  finding the boys resistant to learning and discipline, he resigned, applied for and was appointed temporary third-class clerk in the post office department in Ottawa. He stayed at the post office  for the rest of his life.

Some accounts take the view that he was severely restricted and limited by his Ottawa existence and its lack of stimulation. Goldwin Smith speaks of Lampman as “a civil servant in a sub-Arctic lumber village converted into a political cockpit.” (Don’t you love it?) However, Desmond Pacey in an extensive essay on the subject says that Lampman had the friendship and support of several poets who have since attained eminent stature, some of them were colleagues in the post office. (Seems to have been the go-to profession for writers of the time, much like academia is now.) Duncan Campbell Scott who did so much to promote Lampman’s poetry after his death worked at Indian Affairs, eventually becoming its head.

Lampman, in a letter to a friend, discredits this view, saying that the monotonous and easy life gave him time to himself. A spurt in his literary activity at this time supports his statement. In 1887, he married and started a family.

Lampman had a sensitive nature both physically and psychologically and in his later years a series of events  – the death of one of his children in 1894, the death of his father in 1897, the worsening of his own health – seems to have plunged this precarious nature into gloom and melancholy. Another source of anxiety was his affair with Katherine Waddell (Lampman’s Kate), fellow worker at the post office.

Reading about Lampman’s sensibilities and struggles and reading his poetry, it’s tempting to say he should have been born a century earlier into English society where he might have roamed the countryside with Wordsworth or romped on the Italian shore with Shelley. But then he would have been just another romantic poet. This way he is immortalized as Canada’s foremost romantic poet. Yes, girls and boys, he’s one of ours. We must claim him. He wrote about nature and the weather, two topics dear to our hearts. He felt constrained in the strait jacket of colonialism. He felt his spirit to be held down by circumstance. (He has a poem about trees, their spirits imprisoned in their roots and by the earth.) He had difficulty getting his poems published. He felt restrictions on his poetry in the place where he was.

Lampman’s yearning for freedom is a modern predicament as is his articulation of the problems of modern man. He defines us to ourselves. We know what he’s talking about when he describes winter snowstorms and summer heat, solitude and the vastness of the Canadian landscape.His expression of his art is our expression as Canadians. His expression of isolation, alienation, soul-weariness is our expression as human beings. We feel his constraints, his struggles, the tension in his poetry. His writing about his small life in a marginal place takes on a larger universal meaning.

In return, Canada gave him his poetry. In content certainly, but also in tone, mood, and theme – seasonal melancholy, gloom of the north, frustration of circumstances, claustrophobia of spirit.

This is what he had to say about poets:

Half god, half brute, within the self-same shell,

Changers with every hour from dawn till even,

Who dream with angels in the gate of heaven,

And skirt with curious eyes the brinks of hell,

Children of Pan, whom some, the few, love well,

But most draw back, and know not what to say,

Poor shining angels, whom the hoofs betray, . . .


There it is, poets amongst us. You know who you are.



*Pacey, D. Ten Canadian Poets. Toronto, 1966. To whom this blog is indebted for much material.

Window to Nowhere

I know a man who built a window to nothing in the middle of nowhere facing north. The window is fixed on a solid structure so the wind can’t blow it away. The frame, top and sides, is of four by fours, the window itself consists of three panels of glass separated by wooden slats.

The view outside the frame is of vast distances, endless prairie, green for a short while in summer, white for a long time in winter, goldenwindow 8 during harvest, brown the times between. There are no trees, no mountains, no hills to spoil the view. The entire immense bowl of sky in all its moods and variances is visible. The sun’s annual trek from the equator in winter to its northern boundary in summer can be charted. All the phases of the moon as well as a galaxy of stars can be studied.

The window restricts this panoramic view. Through it, the sun is visible only from late May to early August and, even then, its rising and setting is cut off by the sides of the frame. The stars are partially visible but never the moon, which always rises and sets further south.

Why would anyone do such a crazy thing? I wondered, as to build a window in the middle of an empty field facing north. Then I thought of my mother in the Canadian wilderness putting up a chicken wire fence around her garden to define a space small enough for her to handle, saying, in essence, I can control this much. What is outside this wire is too big for me to  get my arms around.

I wanted to understand the window and its frame so I looked and looked through the glass until my eyes glazed over. I started to notice things – up in a corner of one of the glass panels, branches of a lilac bush, flowering in summer. In winter the branches appeared as black etchings  against the white of snow. I saw a rain drop on a leaf. I saw a rabbit hop past, east to west. In other words, I saw what was lost in the large view, how details become undifferentiated, how the general obscures the particular. I saw that the variations of colour in prairie grasses, from a distance, appeared as one continuous carpet of a sort of beige brown.

The artist explained that the window is a living work of art. Every day, every hour of every day, the painting changes, depending on the weather – sun or cloud, rain or snow, depending on the sky, the angle of the stars, the shadows cast by the sun. Every season is different, in colour, texture  and tone. The light is always changing, he said, and the light is crucial.

The frame is an organizational strategy, he went on. It allows the artist to harness and Screenshot_6channel a vast amount of material into a manageable form, to control part of a larger picture that is overwhelming. The frame allows a whittling down to size to something the artist can make sense of and talk about.

It occurs to me that apart from paintings and novels, artists have to find a space for themselves in the real world (for want of a better term), a space they feel comfortable in, one not too big or too small, one that is just right for that individual. For mental stability, they have to be able to define themselves satisfactorily to themselves. I’ve known many fine writers who quit writing. Various reasons present themselves, but I wonder if a partial explanation is that these writers didn’t feel at home in the space where they found themselves. Some writers feel comfortable with the whole planet – think Stephen King, Danielle Steele, John Gresham, etc. Others become confused and lose direction there.

Or as the topic applies to life itself – we must take a piece of it, whittle it down to something we can understand, embrace, something we can love.



Let’s Get Lost*

Once, on a flight to London my luggage ended up in Munich. Two days later, it was delivered to my door by the airline company. Those two sorry suitcases sitting in the foyer  seemed embarrassed at having gotten themselves lost. They needn’t have been. Getting to where you expect to get to is predictable. Getting lost is poetry.

When contemplating my master’s degree thesis I started out on a journey to find Margaret Lawrence and instead found Eli Mandel. I’d heard that Margaret Lawrence was up at Banff and was scheduled to give a Two Jack Lake Campgroundpublic reading. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. Synchronicity. John and I made a weekend of it, camped at Two Jack Lake and the evening of the event got rid of our smoke smell as best we could and made our way into Banff and up the hill to the School.

I was thrilled by the presence of Margaret Lawrence and the one and only time I heard her read. Next up was Eli Mandel; the mind boggles now to think that those two were on the same roster. I had taken a CanLit survey course and was vaguely familiar with his work. I thought and still think his poem Houdini a timeless classic. I can’t remember what he read that evening but obviously was impressed because it led to a total revision of my thesis subject.

I went home, consulted my supervisor, settled down to work and cranked out about a hundred pages about the various mythological metaphors and allusions in Eli’s poetry. But, once again, fate intervened. The man himself came to U of C as chair of Canadian Studies. What are the odds of that – your thesis subject arriving at your university as a guest instructor? If nothing else, it gave me confidence in my choice.

I attended his lectures and came to admire the man, his unassuming yet powerful presence, and his great intellect. Our many discussions gave me a deeper insight into his poetry  resulting in my detection of an underlying preoccupation in the work which, I argued in the thesis, was the very foundation of prairie literature, the attempt to organize space. Such an approach to Eli’s work was different as most literary critics at the time tended to think of him as an intellectual poet. The exploration of space in his poetry revealed an emotional element and allowed a case connecting the work to the prairie and to prairie literature. I threw out that first hundred pages about mythology, started over and never looked back.

The journey that started out in the direction of Margaret Lawrence and ended with Eli Mandel and prairie literature, while lengthy, was fairly painless. Sometimes, however, the powers that be have to get tough with us to make us see the light. This happened with my last book of poetry, North. I had a clear vision of what I wanted the book to be and duly set out on a real journey north with the idea of writing a series of poems along the way. I remember one about the Sangudo general store and one about eating lunch beside some old railway ties, that sort of thing – descriptive, nostalgic, written in traditional form. John drove while I sat beside him working on my laptop as we motored up Highways 32 and 43 into the Peace Country. Things were going well. I had, perhaps, a dozen good poems. For the nonpoets, that might not seem much, but believe me it is. Then I LOST THEM! Somehow, by some mistaken flick of the finger on the wrong key, I managed to delete my file. Being naive, at the time, as to the perverse nature of computers, I had not bothered to back up material. I was so upset, not to mention disgusted, that I turned my back on the manuscript, put it away in a box under the bed and decided to forget about it. I didn’t recognize it at the time but God had entered my life. He didn’t want me to write that book.

Several years later in clearing out boxes I found the material. Of course, by now everything had changed, including me. I came back to the book with an entirely different vision of what I wanted it to be –  a combination of history and memory, the two forces that shape individuals. The new book is not a pastoral about the wonders of the north and the boreal forest. Rather, it’s a book about desperation, loneliness, a harsh unfriendly land, stunted hopes and dreams, a narrative about the immigrants who came in desperate circumstances and met challenges they had not known existed.

In my first attempt, I determined to write about perfect straight elms or mighty oaks. In my second attempt, the work dictated to me what it would be – stunted spruce, twisted aspen,  gnarled cottonwood of the boreal forest. The first attempt would have been just another book, derivative, predictable. The second, I believe, is poetry.


*Chet Baker album, 1989