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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Reflections on colour and light


Bill took last Monday off as part of a four-day weekend, and we drove to Moose Jaw for a little early Christmas shopping and for a stop at The Quilt Patch.  I wrote last month about a change in seasons prompting me to look at nature with different eyes.  Monday required another shift.  On Monday, the world was muted, tangled; it was made of texture rather than colour, teaching me again that each kind of tree--not to mention each tree--has its own shape.  You could see the human footprint in the fields, the scoring in the stubble like words on a page that told you exactly how that field had been harvested. You could also see the low-lying places in the field that remained wild, outside of human efforts.  Dugouts were mostly iced over; the water birds had gone.  What remained was a neutral world of hyphenated colours:  ruddy-brown, grey-brown, grey-gold,  greeny-grey.  

It is a thought-provoking landscape.  On the way to Moose Jaw, I thought about Katherine Lawrence's wonderful interview of Lawrence Hill at the Sage Hill Fundraiser.  Katherine seemed to have read everything Hill has written, and asked moving and intelligent questions about his writing practice.  There were three things he said that I have been reminding myself of since that evening because I think they're important to anyone's creative practice.  One is that when you are creating, you have to realize that whatever it is you are making--whether of words or notes or colours--has to be and is a beautiful thing in your life, whether it's published or heard or bought--or not. Katherine Arbuthnott would chime in here and tell us that our motives have to be intrinsic, part of who we are, not extrinsic--a desire for the world to tell us who we are and how important we are.  Creative people make things for their own sake, to glory initially in the making. And then Virginia Woolf would like to have her two words, and would remind us that at some point, if we want "self-expression" to become "art," we have to find a way to bridge the gap between our vision and our craft and the people we'd like to share our work with.  We have to create a conversation.  But if we haven't been deeply joyful while we've been conceiving and drafting, we've missed the point.  To go back to Lawrence Hill's wisdom:  our work has to be a beautiful thing in our life first.

Katherine asked him what it was like to suddenly be famous with The Book of Negroes, and Hill quipped back that he thought his career was going just fine:  every book he wrote was better than the last one.  The Book of Negroes has sold 600,000 copies in Canada and is being made into a mini-series for TV.  We could say Hill has arrived.  Yet he has humbly and wisely stuck with his own principles:  just keep writing better.  That's do-able.

Katherine's good questions about character produced this wisdom that I was thinking about in particular as Bill and I drove to Moose Jaw.  He exhorted us to remember that the character who has the most to loose is the most interesting character.  We'll let Henry James in on this discussion with his observation (I paraphrase, but I'm pretty close):  "What is character but the determination of incident?  What is incident but the illustration of character?"  One of the weaknesses of Blue Duets, I think, is that none of the characters had more to lose than we all risk losing every day.  I'm trying to think beyond that for Soul Weather.

Two days later the hyphenated colours of the landscape were swathed in white.  They reminded me that my mother used to call December and Christmas-time "a season of light."  Given that I have difficulty with the shorter days, I pondered that awhile, until yesterday I was out shoveling snow after dark.  Mother was right, but not in the way I expected. The season's light is the light you make--fires and candle light and comforting food, and the light you search out.  As I threw the snow under the trees, there was quite a lot of light and I wanted to shine it on the writing I was getting ready to do when my two current projects go out to publishers.

There are (at least) two questions all writers need to ask themselves.  The first concerns their world view.  Roger Fry felt that art was a complex of vision and design.  You can translate that roughly into content and form, yet his word "vision" insists on something else:  a world view that is provocative and intriguing, an understanding of the world and of human nature that is in some way visionary:  seeing the world with a particular kind of accuracy, from a revealing perspective and with the breadth that is generous to everything that is human, natural, and cultural. Though of course, my definition of what is visionary is part and parcel of my world view.  A satirist would describe "visionary" much differently.  We are all, to some degree, limited by our world views, seeking out other people--friends and artists--with whom we can have a conversation about that view and how it influences our lives.  But we have to know what that view is.

The second thing writers have to understand is the people they believe they can have the most fruitful conversation with.  I caught an odd glimpse of this in October, when I was taking manuscripts for Grain Magazine to the SWG office.  I was traveling north on Broad Street, waiting at the light at Saskatchewan Drive.  Just ahead was the overpass used by trains and pedestrians traveling between Casino Regina and their parking garage.  There was a single woman in black walking across it.  Behind her was a tall fence that separates the pedestrian path from the railway tracks.  The fence curves away from the tracks to make it impossible to climb--a design element that I found disquieting.  Because it says that someone might want to make that climb.  The fence itself suggests that someone may lose their balance--a simple thing with appalling consequences.  Somehow the scene captured what people do every day:  walk alone through a landscape of vague threat, trying to pretend it's ordinary, that we're just going through our days. I want to shine some light on that element in our lives, some light that means something to the person walking alone.


Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Blog hop


Apparently there is a blog hop going around:  writers answer questions about their writing and then tag two more people to do the same thing, on pain of writer's block for seven years.  One of my former students, Cassidy McFadzean, tagged my current student, Courtney Bates, who in turn tagged me.  How can I resist playing with the young'uns?

What am I working on?  
Too much.  I'm working on a collection of ekphrastic poems inspired by Veronica Geminder's photographs, and need to write about ten more poems to have a good-sized manuscript.  I'm also working on a study of Virginia Woolf's aesthetics whose working title is Virginia Woolf's Aesthetics of Engagement. This is a project I've been chipping away at for a long time.  In the wings are a novel, Soul Weather and some essays I'd like to write.  But working on two manuscripts--which works well most of the time--is enough, so I'm only taking occasional notes for the novel and essays.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
This isn't just a "blog hop" question:  it's something every writer should be asking herself or himself once the manuscript begins to take clear shape.  I don't know that many books that are entirely ekphrastic, or that match each poem with a work of art.  The one I know best is Elmet by Ted Hughes, with photographs by Fay Godwin.  Godwin's remarkable black and white photographs of Yorkshire came first, and Hughes's poems about the place where he grew up followed.  Sometimes the relationship between the photograph and the poem is clear; sometimes the photograph seems like the occasion for a meditation that runs parallel to the photographs, rather than being ekphrastic.  It's a remarkable book.  But I'm no Ted Hughes, and I'm not trying to be.  Moreover, these poems are clearly autobiographical and nostalgic (if one can accuse Hughes of nostalgia).  

Veronica and I are working in a similar way:  the photographs have come first.  But unlike Godwin's photographs, Veronica's are ceaselessly urban, and often they are of cityspaces that I've only visited, so there's no nostalgia involved.  Rather, what I'm trying to do is not only to write a collection of ekphrastic poems, but to explore the role cities play in our lives, how they shape our days, how they give us places to play and sometimes make us feel imprisoned by the way they're structured and regulated.  I'm hoping, then, that the book as a whole will be a kind of "essay" on cities, that it will prompt people to think about the urban spaces where most Canadians live--spaces that can make our lives easier and spaces that can be frustrating and limiting. We tend to take the built environment as "always already" there, rather than to be critical of the way it shapes us.  I'm trying to make people more aware of its role in their lives.


Why do I write what I do?
Because I'm curious.  It's my curiosity about how Woolf structured her essays and novels that has led me to write about her aesthetics.  I suppose the poems about Veronica's photographs have a different impetus:  she's my daughter, as well as a photographer who doesn't really know how to get attention, so I thought initially that I'd just write a handful of poems I'd place in journals.  But I found that writing about her photographs was a wonderful challenge that took me beyond the kind of poetry I have written in the past.  So this project is allowing me (when it's not forcing me) to grow. 

Soul Weather has yet another motive behind it.  You could say that it's motivated by a lot of questions:  what does it mean to be at home in our houses, our bodies, our lives, our futures, our weather and planet?  What are the different ways of being at home?  But at the same time, I want to write a kind of Condition of Canada novel that will tell readers something about what it's like to be young and not very at home.  

I find that the most interesting work, whether it's poetry, essays, or fiction, comes out of questions.  Any writer who says she or he also has answers is bullshitting you or only considering simple questions.


What's my creative process?
For me, it's important to balance discipline with the writer's need to live, play, reflect, and read; to balance going inward with looking outward.  

Retirement is allowing me to experiment with keeping a very rigid work day:  I read under Twig, coffee in hand, until shortly after nine.  By ten, I'm at the computer, and most of the time I don't check my email or Facebook.  I try to take an hour for lunch, and then get back to writing from one until three.  When I can actually do this, I'm blissed, and I feel oddly liberated, given that my job as an English professor involved meetings and administrivia that took away more and more time to reflect, teach, and do research.  

But there are important breaks from this pattern.  This week, instead of being at the computer for those hours, I'm reading Woolf criticism, and I'm keeping much longer hours.  I also tend to know when I'm not getting anywhere with a poem and need to turn to something else.  I know when I'm trapped in my own head and need to do some reading or walking or gardening to shake things up.

Perhaps the most important part of my creative process is allowing drafts to go anywhere, not to censure myself or worry about whether something is good.  If I'm making discoveries, then good things are happening.  This free part of the process is balanced by an almost savage editor who queries every choice of content or language. Why do I think that?  Does this really reflect the human experience?  Is that the best word?  Does that image work?  How does this piece work with the others?  Am I making a whole?  Am I obsessing about unity?  Will anyone care?

This last is the one that trips me up.  I seem to care about a lot of things that don't even register with other people. 
And sometimes I seem to be entirely out of sync with most people's reactions to an event or a facet of our zeitgeist.  Given that I think it's the writer's or artist's job to be a compassionate, insightful, but critical reflector of the human experience, "Will anyone care?" is a question that often keeps me up at night.

The photographs here are all taken by Veronica in Paris.  The first is taken on Rue Descartes, the second in an arcade called Le Grand Cerf--shades of Walter Benjamin, and the third on an a street that had modern reflective buildings on one side and old buildings across the way.  I'm using it to think about cities and history.  These are the prompts for the poems I'm been writing over the last month.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Time to Reflect



I have to admit that I've not fully succeeded in getting back into my delicious rhythm of writing.  My first week back from Italy was basically a write-off because I really struggled with jet lag and because I had so many little things to take care of after falling out of the real world for a couple of weeks.  Then over Thanksgiving weekend, I obviously cooked a meal with more food than anyone needed (though the leftovers were glorious), and spent quite a lot of wonderful time with Bill, walking the White Butte Trails and driving to Assiniboia to revel in the fall landscape and see the room full of Group of Seven paintings and the new exhibitions at the Shurniak Gallery. Believe me, it was worth the trip and recharged something that had run down after nearly two weeks in Italy.  A sense of space, perhaps, that echoed the rhythm one might want to create in a life. 


As well, in the twenty-first century, we have perhaps learned not to ignore weather--its woes and its delights.  It just seemed silly not to go for long walks and recharge.  When the seasons change, I'm particularly aware of nature teaching me to see.  We had a wet, green year and were enveloped in a green world, even in the city.  With that much green everywhere, we don't stop to notice a single tree, much less a handful of leaves.  For me, when autumn comes, with its association of a new [academic] year, even now, the slight melancholy I feel from the shorter days and the softer colours, many of them bleaching toward grey or brown or soft gold, is tempered by my sense that the natural world is asking for my attention in quite a different way.  I'll hunt through the bleached golden grasses on the creek bank for hints of colour, and find berries clinging to branches of greygreen leaves.  Or I'll notice a row of trees I've walked by dozens of time this summer on my way to the creek, for the way they seem to be both resisting and giving in to time, changing, but changing more slowly than the trees around them.

I might jog my route a little bit from A to B to drive past the one flaming maple tree I know in my neighbourhood. Each glorious day of this remarkable fall has been grasped by most of us, knowing that quite another kind of seeing (and feeling) is around the corner when the only colours in nature are the neutrals of the branches of trees and shrubs and the various shades of white that snow can be--blue in the morning and night, pure white at noon, but with shadows of a colour I can't quite name.  Later rather than sooner, the widening days will encourage us to watch the tips of tree branches for signs of spring.
 One routine I've kept from my former life is early morning breakfasts with friends. This last Monday, Katherine and I had our usual breakfast and found ourselves--not surprisingly--talking about the effects of nature and art on our daily lives. Psychologists have learned that our deep attention on any task is limited. Attention is like a muscle:  it gets fatigued when it's pushed to its limits. What such stretched attention wants is something more fluid than, say, the next rigorously-organized paragraph on Woolf's use of narration in Jacob's Room.  Two of the best ways of recharging are to turn to the natural world or to art.  Both offer visual riches; neither dictate where you should put your attention, but allow you to wander at your will through the worlds they create.

But one of the reasons that my "creative practice" calls for walks is that these moments of less focused attention are sometimes better times for solving the problems that my attentive mind can't. Art and nature are, for me, prompts for reflection.  Some of that reflection is on the season itself; some of it is inevitably on the nature of time and how I want to negotiate my allotted portion.  Sometimes I reflect on the news and what it really might be telling me about how it is with the world. [What is really the meaning of this week's two murders of Canadian soldiers?  Does it have anything to do with ISIL or Muslim beliefs, or is radicalization simply the latest trend followed by young men who can't figure out their place in the world?  Why isn't anyone talking about masculinity as we reflect on these events?]  Sometimes I replay scenes from a movie (Bill and I saw The Judge this weekend, and I highly recommend it) to find the quieter echoes or the underlying connections beneath the noisier tensions of plots.  Sometimes I simply give myself over to joy:  this fall has been a wonderful time to do this.  If, as I believe, it is as rational when you wake up every morning to conclude that the world is well and truly fucked as it is to believe that another miraculous day has arrived, nature tends to come down on the side of optimism and joy.

This month, the Literary Review of Canada contained an essay written by Robert Sirmin about his time as director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts.  Sirman is certainly optimistic about the arts.  He is not, however, as optimistic about the world.  Let me close by quoting from his essay:

"Artists are specialists in the application of all forms of human intelligence, whether linguistic, mathematical, musical, spatial, kinesthetic or emotional.  Their work inspires the reflection so needed to make sense of the complexity of our lives.  Artists may not be the creators of the city or the faith or the imagination, but they are critical to their animation and vitality, and through their reflective capacity help each of us better understand who we are and what it means to be human.  

"I am convinced the arts serve an evolutionary purpose, and that there is nothing random about the global ascendance of artistic practice.  The future of the human species, if not the planet, is increasingly at risk.  Reflective capacity contributes to adaptive capacity, and adaptive capacity offers an evolutionary advantage critical to survival....Consensus is mounting that the survival of humanity is inextricably linked to an enhanced sense of collective responsibility that can only come about through a radical change in consciousness, the kind of change in consciousness that is the hallmark of all great art."

Nature, of course, doesn't have the same purposiveness of art:  it doesn't necessarily prompt us to critique our treatment of people who are different from us or to consider how democracy, in a time when campaign contributions have such an impact on the outcome of an election, can keep its integrity. But maybe, in prompting us to look at it more carefully, it makes careful observers--certainly the first step of any creative process--of us all, and prompts us to think about the more philosophical issues of time and change and our place in this miraculous world.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Craftsmanship, revisited in Venice and Ravenna



I began the first of three blog posts on craftsmanship quoting the didactic panel next to Bill Reid's magical sculpture, "Raven and the First Men" on exhibition  at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC:  "One basic quality unites all the works of mankind that speak to us in human, recognizable voices across the barriers of time, culture, and space:  the simple quality of being well-made." I wrote in that post of the lore of craftsmanship that was part of knitting, quilting, ceramics or woodworking, suggesting that one of the qualities of craftsmanship was its relationship to time.  The practice of a craft--ceramics, for example--is founded in the rituals and practices of other ceramicists who have gone before.  I also suggested that craftsmanship is timeless, insofar as the maker is not concerned with how long it will take to piece that quilt or make that Shaker box, but with how well she or he is doing it.  Bill Reid's words, even after my trip to Italy, still seem like the right place to begin this conversation.

I realized, after my time in St. Mark's Basilica in Venice, that I have made unarticulated assumptions about craftsmanship.  In particular, I have tended to see craftsmanship as part of a minimalist aesthetic, one that you can see in a piece of well-turned wood or a mellifluous sentence.  Craftsmanship, I think I would have said, is present when the simplest, most elegant solution to a maker's problem is brought to bear.  This is ironic, given that most people who aren't quilters tend to see quilting as a practice of buying perfectly good fabric and cutting it up into tiny pieces to sew it together again.  Some of my quilts are simple, like the Amish ones.  Many of them employ colour and pattern and design in ways that are less than simple.  And then there's my penchant for knitting complicated lace, particularly when I can't sleep.  I think my error is the product of nostalgia, of the notion that the times when the lore of a craft developed were simpler times.  Someday, though, there's going to be a Ph.D. thesis on the craftsmanship of the effective tweet or the engaging computer game or the most elegant Ap. Or at least an essay.

The Basilica de San Marco, was (finally) consecrated in 1093, and is an example of Italo-Byzantine architecture--and of Venice's historic connections between "east" and "west."  Every surface is decorated.  The walls and the vaults that hold up the domes are the simplest example of such decoration:  marble with complicated patterns has been cut in sheets and re-assembled on the structure to create complex patterns.  The floor of the enormous church (of which I have a good dozen photographs because they are a great sourcebook for quilters) is entirely made of inlaid stone, one pattern butting up against another.  The capital of every column is carved and often painted gold.  Some columns in lesser-used areas are carved into a wood frieze that twines around, with hundreds of people and animals in each column:  they are an encyclopedia of human experience, showing a knight in armour, a shepherd carrying his sheep, a man hanging himself.  Those found at hand height are lightly worn where people have touched them as they passed, adding another layer of the human.  The ceilings are covered with mosaic figures, most of them in a simple gold ground.

I would have expected to be overwhelmed with the relentless decoration, longing for a simpler structure of Palladio, for example.  But I was uncharacteristically entranced.  Veronica (whose photographs you see here, except for mine of the floor) put my reaction well.  For the most part, one thinks of places like St. Mark's as expressions of "the greater glory of God," yet what one often experiences is the glory of the human:  of our inventiveness, of our delight in craftsmanship, of our sense of the human, of our attempt to reach toward the divine.  You could feel, in this space, the makers' delight in invention, in the craftsmanship necessary to give voice to that inventiveness.  You could feel their sense that they were making a world apart, but a world so rich with echoes of our own world that we would see the connection between the daily and the spiritual.

Perhaps this is because craftsmanship threads together the traditions from the past, the present engagement in the making, and the imagination's vision.  There is something timeless about craftsmanship, but it's not necessarily the timelessness of elegance or simplicity.  The photograph below is of the ceiling of the Basilica of Saint Vitale in Ravenna, built in 527, half a century before San Marco.  We were told by guides that Italian birders who happen to come in with their binoculars can recognize birds on this ceiling that are still alive--so detailed and accurate are their portraits.  These earlier Byzantine churches require an enormous amount of time to unfold.  You have to be willing to stand there, letting the detail and inventiveness work on you.


 

Many sections of mosaics can be read for their "plot," like the small piece you see at the left.  We see a newly-born Christ Child sitting in his mother's lap, surrounded by angels.  We know what this depiction means.  But if you let the craftsmanship and inventiveness work on you, you will begin to see that each facial expression is quite different, that each of the virgins (You can see one of them below) to the left of this panel has both a different facial expression and her robes are made of a different pattern of draped material, and somehow this is composed of pieces of stone or glass about half a centimeter square.  Then you begin to see the flowers, the abstract designs that embrace every arch and window well, all of which are different.  The invention is astounding.

Standing in these fifteen-hundred-year-old buildings made me see that craftsmanship is timeless in yet another way.  Yes, it speaks to the past traditions, the current practice, the vision for the future.  And yes, the craftsman is not thinking about time but about using their craft skillfully.  But appreciating craftsmanship also takes time.  Interestingly, the days Veronica and I spent looking at mosaics or at art seemed longer than other days, particularly when we sat down for dinner and thought about the day.  It seems that the time you spend allowing a work of art or craft unfold its complexity is time given back to you twicefold--at least.  It's time spent engaged with another sensibility, another worldview, another mind, another delight, and your world and life expand to encompass it.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Improbable City


In spite of Venice's long history as a republic, as a naval power, as part of an important trade route between the Muslim world and Europe, it remains for me an improbable city.  Whoever thought of building a city on 117 islands divided by 177 canals and joined by 409 bridges? There are no cars in Venice, making it a wonderful place to wander and get lost.  But everything needed by everyone living or visiting there must be brought in by boat:  the flour you use to make bread, the bottles of wine and water consumed by 50,000 visitors a day, the needle and thread you need to tack up your hem, lest you look unfashionable in this very fashionable city, the ribbons and sequins used to make the masks that fill shop windows.  I didn't know whether to call it the city of masks or the city of layers:  it seemed open and closed, beautiful and severe; its buildings were constantly falling apart and being repaired, revealing how many layers held the structure together.

Our arrival was equally improbable.  Late in the afternoon on the first day of fall, Veronica and I were floating down the Grand Canal in the boat that connects the airport to the city, observing how ceremonious the palazzos on the canal looked:  most of them have a second- or third-storey balcony that would have allowed onlookers to feel part of a parade or a party floating down the canal.  Behind us to the north, dark clouds rumbled and then flashed, so the Alilaguna employees set about creating a waterproof cabin for themselves (we were already under cover) and ensuring that luggage still out on deck would be out of the rain.

We seemed to move just ahead of the storm, which arrived just as we reached our small bed and breakfast, pouring down rain and hail.  Alas, our host wasn't there, so we stood in the rain for about half an hour until the woman living two doors down, who had tried to contact the B&B owner by cell phone, trudged toward us once more in her housecoat and slippers, which sloshed more each time, with a torn envelope on which she laboriously wrote down the phone number written on the brass address plaque, and went to give him, we suspect, a piece of her mind.  On each of her helpful incursions into the rain her Italian burbled faster and faster, in spite of the fact that we'd told her, in our pigeon Italian, that we didn't understand anything she was saying.  He arrived ten minutes later, but we were both soaked.  Water had even permeated the zippers of our luggage.

Once inside, our clothing strung around the room to dry, we found clothes we could wear to dinner, and had a pleasant meal at a small restaurant in Campo Santa Margherita.  We decided that we were not quite warm enough for the tables outside, and so took the last tiny table indoors in the crowded restaurant.  Fairly soon, the waiters started moving those stalwart souls who had been eating outdoors into the restaurant and closing the glass doors to the patio--to some applause.  We all moved our tables a little closer together to accommodate everyone.  Someone began to whistle "Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer," which we thought a bit silly.  From inside, we watched the lightning illuminate the other buildings on the square, turning them into the backdrop for an old black and white movie that has a small lighting budget.

When we left, we walked out into two inches of hail.  Picking our way slowly through the slippery streets, we were told by an elderly German gentleman, though in English, the lingua franca of Venice, "Please be careful.  Be very, very careful," as we climbed the steps to the small bridge we needed to cross to our bed and breakfast.  The next morning, the sky was blue and late summer weather had returned, though small piles of hail remained where shopkeepers had swept it away from their doors.

The trick to navigating Venice, which seems to have filled, higgledy-piggledly, each of its 117 islands with buildings that would fit, wasting the least amount of space for walking, is to figure out the clearest path between where you are and one of the major bridges that crosses the Grand Canal.  On our first day, we made for the Ponte dell'Accademia, which would take us to Campo San Marco.  On our map, the path looked like a set of arbitrary squiggles, but if we exited Campo San Barnaba at the right spot, we joined a whole parade of people going the same way at a leisurely pace.  This was also true of our attempt to navigate between our B&B and the Rialto Bridge.  The important thing was to discover where you exited the squares where restaurants and cafes spilled into the streets, squares filled with pharmacias, with small shops selling masks or herbal soaps or groceries, with children playing with scooters or balls.  Other than that, you followed the other tourists as they wended their way through the small shops selling Murano glass, leather, hand-bound books, and high fashion.

But, I asked myself stubbornly, what if you had arrived after dark, sleepless, and left your hotel at 6:30 a.m., before the tourists were out, looking for breakfast?  How would you possibly find your way, if there were no tourists to follow? Asking this question reveals another rule for navigating Venice.  Follow the small shopfronts, many of which are beautifully designed.  If you are tempted to go down a street like the one above looking for a quicker bridge to the next island, resist that temptation.  Even if you can find several bridges, it will have a dead end, bringing you face to face with Virginia Woolf.
 
The area around the Rialto Bridge is one of the major shopping areas, with its own H&M, Max Mara, and Disney store, as well as the obligatory Prada and Armani.  Having walked there, stopping to look at several small churches, we were soon inundated with tourists and their ennui:  "What is the perfect thing I can buy that will encapsulate this moment, and can I get a deal on it?"  Attempting to elude this crowd, we wandered farther eastward, hoping to find a parallel route back to our B&B.  After several dead ends like this one, we found a track that looked more promising, giving us a couple of bridges to cross on to other islands, bridges on the stone walkways more or less in the direction we wanted to go.  (This was before we'd figured out that one needed to follow the small shop fronts.)  We finally came to a dead end in a square surrounded by large old apartment buildings, full of children playing, dogs barking, mothers talking.  Not a tree or a plant in sight.

Because I'm working on poems inspired by Veronica's photographs, and because Veronica is very much an urban photographer, I've been reading a lot of theory about cities.  Most recently, I've been reading Jane Jacobs's groundbreaking The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  In her introduction, she writes "I shall mainly be writing about common, ordinary things:  for instance, what kinds of city streets are safe and what kinds are not; why some city parks are narvelous and others are vice traps and death traps; why some slums stay slums and other slums regenerate themselves even against financial and official opposition; what makes downtowns shift their centers; what, if anything, is a city neighborhood, and what jobs, if any, neighborhoods in great cities do.  In short, I shall be writing about how cities work in real life, because this is the only way to learn what principles of planning and what practice in rebuilding can promote social and economic vitality in cities, and what practices and principles will deaden these attributes" (4).  I particularly tried to keep in mind Jacobs's notion that cities are not works of art, that they do not have to be beautiful.  But try as I might, and no matter how heretical it is, I had some questions about the way Venice had been "planned."

Most of the campos have no trees or benches, so that although they create a place for children to play and for people to meet and chat, little in their structure encourages this--except that there's no place else to do it.  When the squares do have benches, these are almost always full.  I wondered whether the small cafe and restaurant owners discouraged benches so that people looking for someplace to sit would be more likely to buy a cappuccino or a piece of pizza in order to be comfortable.  The square surrounded by apartment buildings seemed, in Jacobs's terms, to be "working."  People were clustered around talking and the children were shouting and running.  There are no cars in Venice, so children and the well-behaved medium-sized dogs Venetians seem to prefer are not going to be run over.  But I can't help wondering what it says about Venetians' sense or pride of place that no one had bought a couple of large pots and put in a few trees that would provide some small shade for a couple of benches placed face to face.  What does it do to a child's notion of play that it takes place on stone, surrounded by stone--all of it (in this case) dark grey?  Where are the ants, the dandelions?  Perhaps I am imposing my own sense of nature deficit disorder on people who do not feel this at all.  Like all of us, they regard their lives as relatively normal.

Certainly on the smaller island of Venice's southern edge, Guidecca, home to a couple of Paladian churches we went looking for, plants are an important part of the aesthetic, and there the more modern, less crowded areas are filled with greenery in pots.  When I mentioned my concern about Venice's severe setting for its lovely architecture, she pointed out that in North America, we have an almost luxurious amount of space. 

I left Venice with quite a bit of ambivalence.  Touted as the world's most romantic city, it is made largely of stone and water.  Its streets can certainly be described as quaint, its architecture majestic.  It has been, in a day of brisk trade coming from the East, the richest city in the world.
It is in some ways eerily quiet and noisy:  there is no traffic noise at night, but private conversations echo down the stone walkways and give you melodic snatches of other peoples' private lives.  People gather, of a Friday night, in their local bar/coffee shop to trade gossip and complaint.  But its green shutters close off everything to the street.  In all my time there, I never saw a family sitting down to a meal or conversation.  Willing to talk to a complete stranger on the water bus about life, the universe, and everything, they nevertheless--perhaps in self-defense, close their lives off to the stony streets.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Being and Time Redux

Perhaps it began shortly after I retired, when I found myself driving differently.  I have noted for quite some time that people are less and less aware of one another in space, in the hallways of the university, in the amount of room we take up in parking lots, or on the roads. I'm going to be an old fart for a moment and blame this on our smart phones, where we wait impatiently for the addictive dopamine hit that comes with the next "like" or the imperious text telling us to meet Fozzy at Common Ground today at 4.  We are less often where we actually are and more often in some space that's between here and there, mediated always by our "devices," to use Bill's word.  But after retirement, I found myself driving differently, more intent on modelling civility on the road or being patient with the person who didn't quite know where he was going, someone perhaps checking the map ap on his phone.  


Perhaps it began last weekend, when Bill and I went for a drive to Katepwa Point and then along the lake to Fort Qu'Appelle.  Maybe I glimpsed it when I wished that I could photograph sound, particularly the hilarious, whooping, joyous laugh of a young man sitting near us, eating french fries.  Perhaps it was inspired by the pelicans that simply drifted effortlessly along the currents or by the clouds that seemed to hang inert from the sky, not even bothering to drift with the currents.  They looked so serene, as if they embodied the fact that hanging out, especially hanging out somewhere up high, gives one a sense of perspective.


Maybe I was convinced by reading Proust's In Search of Lost Time.  I have nearly finished the second volume, and at some point settled into the novel's pace.  It probably helped that sometimes I read it in the evenings sitting in the front yard until I could no longer see, or taking it upstairs to read in bed, among the trees and the breeze at the end of the day.  I love the time created by summer TV re-run season, the way evenings open out into late day light and cooler air and a kind of exquisite, engaged laziness.  So I have begun to revel in Marcel's attempt to stop the narrative to see everything there is to see and consider an event from every possible (and some impossible) angle.  What does this all mean, he asks himself as he observes the troop of young girls who are currently the focus of his interest and his questions.  What does her facial expression mean?  What does his reaction, that odd feeling in his gut--half longing, half nostalgia, half self-knowledge, half self-delusion--mean?

The nature and uses of time have changed profoundly for me. Time is no longer something to be fought with or even bested in some peculiar way by doing more in a given period than is really humanly possible.  It's not exactly that I'm lazy; I'm editing the upcoming issue of Grain Magazine, I examined a creative MFA thesis at U of S, where I also had a charming and informative chat about poetics with Adam Pottle, Grain's current poetry editor. And if I'm not doing these things I'm writing a minimum of four hours a day.  Four sacred hours:  10-12; 1-3.  Gardening or playing the piano or watching the birds over the enforced hour for lunch.  Surely we can meet some other time?  Yet in four hours (a time when I do not let myself check FB or my email) I can get a great deal done.  I can do it over and over several times, so that whatever I'm writing is better written, more carefully reflected upon--deeper, I hope.  I can try out words, delete the almost right word to look for the right one. 



But the other hours in my life have changed.  I have time to study the pattern of a boil in the apple jelly I am making, or listen to the hollow sound of canning jars bubbling while they get sterilized. Instead of running right back to Regina after the thesis exam last Wednesday, I went up to the family farm where dee Hobsbawm-Smith and Dave Margoshes live.  dee and I walked down the causeway the next morning, stopping to listen to the birds or to talk about Amigo's arthritis, or to share stories of our lives and so become better friends.  On either side of us, the prairie sky was clear from horizon to horizon, and I felt as if I were inside time in an entirely different way.  I've glimpsed this way of being at Emma Lake or at Banff, but I don't think I was prepared in either case to delve right into that sense of peaceful timelessness which takes care of itself while we take care of what's important to us.  I probably lost a day or two as I made the shift from time-as-antagonist to time as a place to glory in being.

We live too quickly.  What are we running towards?  What will we accomplish at the pace we force ourselves to keep?  Anything thoughtful or permanent?  What happens to a culture whose heroes are ineffective CEOs who are lauded for the long hours they work--long, ineffective hours?  Multi-tasking--interrupting one task for another--makes us even less productive.



I have seen some of the plot lines of Act III, wherein the comedy of your life is likely to turn tragic.  When the way you begin every single day is the result of a deliberate choice you've made because you are now retired, then time is on your mind, particularly the fact that each day there is one less day for you to live.  That sounds like an existential threat.  But what I'm learning is that your relationship to time shifts, so that each moment, each long walk, each coffee with a friend, each poem drafted, each chapter of the Woolf book almost brought up to snuff, is something to be celebrated. That there is time and that it flows through a glorious world full of moonrise and cats and words and stories and gardens (and wars and religious fundamentalism and cruelty) brings you back, in Act III, to decisions about what matters.  It's profoundly joyful and liberating. 

 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Life- and Mind-Changing Books


My student, Courtney Bates, challenged me and 9 other friends to make a list of the ten most important books in our lives.  I understood that these were supposed to be life-changing, though other list-makers have interpreted the instructions differently--which is appropriate, I think.  Important books don't say simply one thing, which is why they're important.  They leave respectful room for the reader.  You will smile when I say that I couldn't simply make a list; I want to explain the list--of course.

Some of my earliest memories are of my mother taking me to the public library in Muskegon Michigan, where I was born and lived until I was five. I remember taking out favourites again and again, particularly Make Way for Ducklings and Mr. Popper's Penguins. As well, my mother had a small pamphlet given to her by my Aunt Hazel, the only one of my mother's siblings to attend what was then called "Normal School."  Aunt Hazel became a teacher, as my mother should have done if she hadn't found the first few days away from home overwhelming.  I can still see this little booklet, which was about 8" x 5" and printed widthwise.  The book titles, along with brief descriptions, were printed by age group.  My mother consulted this pamphlet constantly. Nevertheless, my family had a very small "library," which sometimes lived in the cupboards under the bathroom sink.  There was Daddy Long Legs, Gone with the Wind, several volumes of the Funk and Wagnall's Encyclaloopedia, bought from A&P,  along with a very old, musty copy of Louisa May Alcott's Eight Cousins

Much as I loved and read over and over Make Way for Ducklings and Mr. Popper's Penguins, Alcott's book would be number 1 on my list were I following chronology.  It's the most feminist of all Alcott's books (of the ones I know).  Rose Campbell has been recently orphaned and sent to the Aunt Hill, where her father's siblings live, to be brought up primarily by her Uncle Alec--a sailor who makes perhaps unusual guardian until we see that he combines compassion and good sense in exactly the right measures.  The aunts give Rose, as they gave me, a variety of patterns for being a woman.  Aunts Peace and Plenty  were domesticity and self-sacrifice personified; they were philosophical but  somehow stifled.  Aunt Myra was the hypochondriac:  not a good choice.  Aunt Jessie was bringing up four boys on her own while her husband was away at sea and is often Uncle Alec's sensible partner in bringing up Rose.  My favourite scene occurs when "the aunts" gather together to give Rose new clothes for her 16th birthday:  a lovely drapey mauve something that is absolutely the latest thing for the period.  Rose tries it on and looks glorious.  But Aunt Jessie has warned Uncle Alec, who has his own birthday present prepared, and asks her to try on his clothes and make a choice.  His outfit is a sensible kind of girlish sailor outfit that gives Rose the freedom to run and jump--and of course is the one she chooses.  She vaults over the sofa in it to prove to her aunts that if she is wearing this she can run away from mad dogs.  This  scene is perhaps the closest to Austen's wise advice to heroines in Love and Freindship [sic]:  "Run mad as you choose but do not faint."  Heroines who can't act for themselves are sitting ducks.  And women who assume there's only one way to be a woman are given plenty of choice by Alcott's novel.

Number two isn't a single book, but twelve.  My mother's family drew names out of a hat for Christmas presents, and I suspect that Aunt Hazel went to particular trouble to find mine, for two years running she gave me the first two of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books.  Raised in a time when "history" was names, events, and dates, I suspect I found in these a kind of history of daily life that provided me with a somewhat sanitized but detailed account of how the pioneers who settled the west managed to survive between 1868, when the Ingalls family leaves the woods of Wisconsin and 1881, when they endure, without much food and no coal, one of the most difficult winters experienced in South Dakota.  The more I read these, the more I realized how heavily they were censored and idealized, how they left me with a sense of the paradox of women's lives.  Ma is crucial to the survival of the family.  She milks the cow, makes the butter, makes soap, smokes meat--things that are described in luscious detail in the novel.  But she has no say about where the family lives.  If Pa decides that he needs more space, they go.  But at the same time, I had a sense of how pioneers lived their daily lives, making quilts, building sod huts, hemming sheets or getting the first sewing machine in time to make the sheets for Laura's new household.  They've left me with a love for the history of everyday lives, with a sense of the beautiful ways in which people improvise to make life joyful.

Number three is Jane Eyre.  Another strong heroine.  Are we seeing a pattern here, even in the late fifties?  I took Jane Eyre out from the bookmobile that spent one day a week on a city street about a block and a half away from home.  I could go on my own.  There I found the novel in one of those beautiful Illustrated Classics volumes that made reading so inviting. Reading this book gives me the memory of an early experience of "deep reading," that state of mind that psychologists say is so good for us, teaching us imagination and empathy.  I remember reading about Jane at Thornfield, Rochester's house, and looking up, surprised to find myself sitting in Grand Rapids, Michigan on a summer day in the early sixties.  To this day, that experience colours how I look at literature:  someone from another time and place and circumstance can touch a reader's mind. If that isn't a marvel, I don't know what is.  I once had a teddy bear named Rochester.  Enough said.

Number four is Doctor Zhivago, which I studied in Grade Ten English with Mr. Twedt.  And here is another theme of the books I've loved:  I might have been able to imagine Jane Eyre's life, but Yurii Zhivago's was entirely beyond me, particularly historically.  A novel that begins at the end of the nineteenth century shows us the beauty and culture of the lives of aristocratic Russians--only to devolve into World War One and the Russian Revolution.  I don't think I thought of the Little House books as history; here I couldn't miss the historical dimension.  Nor could I miss, in the record of the lives of Yurii and Lara, the way history has a profound impact on the most intimate and private moments of our lives.

Number five is Pride and Prejudice. I borrowed the copy from my first husband during my boring early years in Winnipeg.  As you know, one thing led to another, with this miraculous book (quite brief, really) that traces a woman's education.  Somewhere in the early nineties--before the BBC Pride and Prejudice and the spate of films that followed--I taught my first Austen class in AdHum 348, which was full to bursting.  The 37 of us (a librarian came over just to spend time with us) started Austenmania all on our own.

Number six is Jacob's Room.  It's 1978 and I'm in Italy, but have run out of reading.  In a small bookstore in Florence, I find a few books in English and choose this one.  When I finished reading it, I said--aloud, I believe--"That's the most beautiful things I've ever read, but I have no idea what it means."  How did I finish both a Bachelor's and a Master's degree without reading a word of George Eliot, Jane Austen, or Virginia Woolf? That doesn't bear thought, but it sends its own historical message:  I had to discover Woolf in a small book stall in Italy.  You know, too well, the rest of the story.

Number seven is Toni Morrison's Jazz, the novel written by the Novel Prize Winner that I can't quite get out of my mind.  It's a study in voice:  I can almost hear Morrison reading it.  And like Dr. Zhivago, is too studies the ways in which history resonates through the private moments of our lives.

Number eight is The Stone Diaries. I knew Carol Shields, who was just an unassuming, lovely woman, and was startled when someone I knew won all those well-deserved awards.  Another woman.  Hmmmm?  Shields creates Daisy Goodwill Flett, the heroine who almost disappears from her own book, but does it with such care and attention for the domestic realities of Daisy's life.  From Carol, I suspect I learned the call of the archive, a call which coloured my first novel (which is now living happily in a box under my desk at the University). 

Number nine is Don McKay's Paradoxides, which is really a stand-in for any of his books of poems.  From Don I learned that poetry can be crystalline yet complex.  It's diction comes from daily lives, but the wisdom coming from Don's favourite Chinese writers and his rich knowledge of the natural world.  Getting to know his work re-made poetry for me.

Number ten is Elaine Scarry's On Beauty and Being Just.  The three essays were given as the Tanner Lectures on Human Values. Perhaps because analytic philosophy can't find a way of defining art that includes everything those philosophers believe to be art but excludes everything they know isn't art, philosophy has turned its attention over the last twenty years to beauty.  Don't get me start about the wonderful books this turn has produced--Denis Donoghue's Speaking of Beauty and Alexander Nehemas's Only a Promise of Happiness are just a couple of favourites.  From Donoghue I learned that beauty too is undefinable, so we have to talk about what beauty means to us--always a fruitful conversation.  Nehemas taught me that we are in the presence of beauty when we return to the source again and again, sure that it will repay that attention and maybe even give up its secrets.  Both of these are must-reads.  But Scarry was there first.  She argues (please, it's a brief and beautiful book:  just read it!) that beauty is not a matter of prettiness scattered throughout our world, but that it is an integral part of our lives--of the Human Values the lecture series names--that prompts us to be just.  I can't do this book justice in a brief paragraph, so let me simply tell you about one of her central points.  When we are struck by something beautiful, we are taken out of ourselves, something that is crucial to justice.  The secondary effect of being thus startled by beauty is that we see the world differently.  We pay attention to particulars and bestow this different kind of attention on the people around us. Justice doesn't even begin to happen in the world until we stop insisting on our own viewpoints and give our attention to others--something that good books always ask us to do.



Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Weather and Memory

Which of our senses most powerfully gives rise to memory?  Proust would argue, of course, that it is taste, given that a book of 4,300 pages came from the taste of a madeleine dipped in tea.  Some scientists think that our sense of smell--our most complex and primitive sense, one we still can't fully explain, takes its stimuli right to the stem of the brain.  Cinnamon.  Pine trees.  Baking bread.  Our young children. Apparently women can recognize their biological children--but not their stepchildren--from their smell.  If you're a mom, you'll remember that powerful whiff of recognition.

But I'd like to argue, for today anyway, that it's touch. And I'm making the argument backwards, as it were. Who doesn't have powerful memories associated with the crisper, drier air of fall? Or of first snowy days?  Or of endless sunny summer days? A week ago, when our muggy weather broke and delivered a couple of cool days, I was catapulted right into fall. My reaction was contradictory. On the one hand, I was jubilant when the humidity lifted. And like many academics, who are really lifetime learners, I associate fall with adventures and new beginnings--new people to meet and new things to learn and teach. On the other, I thought the weather was delivering us a taste of fall way too soon. I hadn't had enough of the hot dry heat that infuses my bones with something that's crucial to surviving winter here. And on my third hand (proof that I'm a Martian), I felt nostalgia and grief, partly because fall is the end of summer and prelude to winter, and partly because I've come to the point in my life when fall is going to mean making crabapple jelly and putting in tulip bulbs.

Or several weeks back, our thunderstorms reminded me of standing out on our front porch when I was a child watching the rain come toward us in sheets.  Or we would brave the storm and put large pans under the downspouts to catch rainwater to rinse our hair. (Believe it or not, once upon a time cream rinse didn't exist, but rainwater was a great substitute.  Man, I'm getting old!)  I remembered the week when we took a cottage at Silver Lake, a three mile hike over the dunes to Lake Michigan, when it stormed for much of the time.  I learned to play double solitaire with my sister, who was 7 years older and beat me every time.  I can still see her making incredibly neat and tidy piles of her cards as she laid out the game, something I could never do. I remembered the time my family was on vacation and literally drove out of a storm.  You don't think storms have edges, but they do--often quite definite ones.  Or I remembered the time Bill and I were driving to Calgary to visit his sister and brother-in-law and were inundated with thunder, lightning, and hail.  We were driving my car, and Bill said he could see me simply putting my head down and drawing inward.  I was telling myself that my car was not my livelihood--unlike the crops in the fields around us.  Grabbing for perspective.  The hail was too soft to hurt anything, but by the time the storm was over, a half inch of slush covered the car. 

Some of these memories, like those of a new school year or the December holidays, are created by cultural rituals, with a supporting cast of smells, like the smell of pine and baking, or the scent of fallen leaves. (Can you tell the smell of a fallen maple leaf from the smell an oak?  I can, even years after oaks have ceased to be part of my environment.)  But I wonder if the cultural rituals like the return to school, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter are placed on the cusp of new seasons so that the weather can play a supporting role, add something to the drama, even provide a magnet for memories?


Weather literally touches us. Our skin, as you will remember from high school biology, is our body's largest organ, filled with receptors. Humid air touches us differently than dry air.  A breeze touches our skin lightly, while air that is heavy and unmoving seems to envelope and stifle us. I had such a strangely strong reaction to the hot humid weather and whined on FB, only to find lots of sympathy from other people who were struggling with the sense of being trapped. And as anyone with headaches or arthritis will tell you, changes in air pressure or humidity affect the inside of our bodies. That day on the highway in Alberta, the sudden cold touched my skin in a way that was subtly threatening, while the drier, cooler air of the last couple of weeks makes me feel free and yet vaguely sad. As I work in the garden more this fall than I usually do, though, I'll have chances to gather new memories of the way weather touches us.   

 


Saturday, August 16, 2014

Metaphor revisited


Retirement should be about doing exactly as you like, even if finding out that some of the things you like to do are a bit...odd.  I've decided that I finally have the freedom and the concentration to read In Search of Lost Time, and so have gone back to the first book to pick up all the complex threads again.  That's not to say that a plethora of Proust--both in terms of page numbers and the way he can worry and worry and worry a state of mind or an obsession (yes, I meant to say he obsesses even about obsessions), isn't sometimes a little much.  Then I get out the short stories of Kay Boyle of Elizabeth Bowen, both of which I've been meaning to read, for a change of pace and tone.  It also doesn't mean that I actually know how to read Proust, though Roger Shattuck's Proust's Way (courtesy of dear Ken Probert's library) is proving very helpful. 

But I may have, in my own bumbling way, discovered something when I finished Combray last week.  Marcel is anxious about his desire to be a writer--anxious that he doesn't actually have the gift that should go with the desire.  This anxiety seems to nearly overwhelm him as he describes the second of the two walks his parents usually take when they are living in Combray--the Guermantes Way.  This longer walk offers so much beauty that it is almost overwhelming:  he could write paragraphs and paragraphs about the water lilies alone.  But on some level he is realizing the the ecstasy with which the world comes to him is not enough.  At one of these anxious moments, "suddenly a roof, a gleam of sunlight on a stone, the smell of a path would make me stop still, to enjoy the special pleasure that each of them gave me, and also because they appeared to be concealing, beyond what my eyes could see, something which they invited me to come and take but which despite all my efforts I never managed to discover....It was certainly not impressions of this kind that could restore the hope I had lost of succeeding one day in becoming and author and poet, for each of them was associated with some material object devoid of intellectual value and suggesting no abstract truth.   But at least they gave me an unreasoning pleasure, the illusions of a sort of fecundity, and thereby distracted me from the tedium, from the sense of my own impotence which I had felt whenever I had sought a philosophic theme for some great literary work" (252).  

For the next four pages, he describes his experience of the "twin steeples of Martinville, bathed in the setting sun and constantly changing their position with the movement of the carriage and the windings of the road, and then of a third steeple, that of Vieuxvicq, which, although separated from them by a hill and a valley, and rising from rather higher ground in the distance, appeared none the less to be standing by their side" (254). Two pages later, he manages to borrow a pencil and paper from the doctor with whom he is traveling and record his impressions.  After describing the three steeples he observes how the turns of the road transform their relation with one another:  "Sometimes one would withdraw, so that the other two might watch us for a moment still; then the road changed direction, they veered in the evening light like three three golden pivots, and vanished from my sight.  But a little later, when we were close to Combray, the sun having set meanwhile, I caught sight of them for the last time, far away, and seeming no more now than three flowers painted upon the sky above the low line of the fields.  They made me think, too, of three maidens in a legend, abandoned in a solitary place over which night had begun to fall; and as we drew away from then at a gallop, I could see them timidly seeking their way, and after some awkward, stumbling movements of their noble silhouettes, drawing close to one another, gliding one behind another, forming now against the still rosy sky no more than a single dusky shape, charming and resigned, and so vanishing in the night" (256).

What Marcel has discovered is, of course, metaphor.  He's asking a lot of himself, at his age, to find a great philosophic theme that will infuse his work.  But he can find a different--less literal--way of seeing the world that infuses it with significance.  What Marcel intuits here is, of course, the fact that where you stand determines what you see; the three steeples, "golden pivots" in the setting sun, provide him with a chance to note how turns in the road, metaphorical and literal, change his view of these unchanging pivot points that nevertheless look different every moment.  And as if to underline the metaphorical significance he intuits, he turns naturally to metaphor:  they are flowers painted on the sky or three abandoned maidens.  In Search of Lost Time is full of rich prose, but--and I'm assuming I can trust the three translators that have brought their skills to the translation--Proust tends to use far more similes than metaphors, at least in the first volume, Swan's Way.  This fact makes the metaphors of his early writing stand out that much more dramatically.

In the final chapter of Metaphor, Denis Donoghue quotes Quintilian, who offers "the strongest motive for known to me...'it ensures that nothing goes without a name,'" thus adding "'to the resources of language by exchanges or borrowings to supply its deficiencies'" (182).  In keeping with Donoghue's notion that metaphor confers liberty--an earlier observation that might flow from this later moment--he writes "The source of metaphor is the liberty of the mind among such words as there are.  In metaphors, we cry out to change the world by giving things their proper names--which they have lacked" (183-4).  There is something Adamic about metaphor, then; some moment when a turn of phrase actually turns up the real significance of something you have seen or used every day.  But the naming we do when we create metaphors is world-creating, world-shifting.  Forgive me if I sound like an overly-clever undergraduate for a moment, but it seems to me important that there are three steeples involved in Marcel's epiphany, two closer together and one farther away:  perhaps they are themselves a metaphor.  The two that are close are the tenor and the vehicle of metaphor.  The vehicle, this surprising yet apt comparison, causes us to see the tenor in an entirely different way. But the whole project of metaphor, and the varied ways in which the tenor and vehicle resonate with each other like the third steeple of Marcel's vision or the strings on a well-tuned violin, produces a third thing that is almost equivalent to the philosophical project that Marcel seeks.  It creates an interaction between mind and world.

The final chapter of Donoghue's book, "The Motive for Metaphor," takes its title from a poem by Wallace Stevens, whom Donoghue quotes extensively on metaphor.  In a rather somber poem titled "Metaphor as Degeneration," Stevens notes that "being / Includes death and the imagination" (205). That's a world view I can live with; I do believe that our imaginations allow us all to live more fruitfully, more fully.  Imagination doesn't privilege the world--as if all we live for is material; nor does it privilege solely the inner life.  Imagination creates conversations with the world--even moments for world to talk back. Metaphor may give us liberty, but finally the world with its intransigence talks back and reminds us that in the face of our mortality metaphor may only express desire.


The photograph at the top of the blog was taken by Veronica Geminder in Montmartre last spring.  I'm using it as the inspiration for a poem about metaphor, because it seems to me that metaphor is both a window and a stairway going unexpected places.   


Thursday, August 7, 2014

Metaphor


You would not think that I needed, at the age of 64, to go to Sage Hill and work with Ken Babstock in order to learn about metaphor.  In my defense, I now realize that as a teacher I spent way too much time with undergraduates simply attempting to help them identify the implied tenor (the thing or idea or action that the author is writing about) and the vehicle (the thing that replaces the tenor by way of comparison or substitution), and then trying to get them to be playful (When reading poetry?  Never!) and consider the significance or the meaning of the collision of these two ways of looking at the writer's subject.  This is a terrible way to do this:  it makes the reading of metaphors into a kind of decoding, a kind of literary Enigma Project.  Now there's a metaphor for you.  (Yesterday when Bill and I were looking at new sofas, I was trying to explain to a salesman what I was looking for when I used the word "streamlined" or "minimal."  I finally tried "as if the sofa isn't trying to look like an SUV."  He got it.  They didn't have any.)

Ken's approach is much more dramatic:  for him, a good metaphor creates a kind of "explosion," a species of alchemy.  His Griffin-prize-winning collection, Methodist Hatchet, signifies by its title--what makes a Methodist hatchet different from, say, a Catholic hatchet?--the way Ken will relentlessly question what language will do.  The poems are full of metaphors almost too particular to their context to use as examples. What does it mean that shrikes are rhetoric's murre?--a figure from the title poem.  But here's a more straightforward example from "Fending Off the Conservativism in Adorno":  "bread's now a four-pound cow pat of walnut sourdough that petrifies by Wednesday."  Yes, we've bought that particular sour dough, and it was indeed amazingly dry by Wednesday.  But comparing walnut sourdough to a four-pound cow pat makes that fact startlingly visceral and distinctly disgusting in its pretensions to be artisanal bread.

So I came home to read Denis Donoghue's latest book, Metaphor.  At 86, Donoghue is entitled to be as autobiographical as he likes to see where it takes him.  It takes the scholar to his Irish Catholic upbringing before his voice turned, when he was a boy soprano, singing the hymns of Aquinas; now he is inclined to consider, through translations and close reading, what Aquinas means by "figure," a Latin term for figurative language or metaphor.  While that particular line of questioning didn't resonate with me, it nevertheless made very clear that the idea of metaphor, the querying of metaphor has a very long tradition and that its history has deep roots in our sense of the sacred:  Donoghue quotes Father Ong's description of metaphor as a "transubstantiation of language." Metaphor descends beneath mere play with similar appearances or rhetorical decoration to explore or instantiate a moment when our sense of the world is temporarily changed or thrown into disarray by language. Perhaps this is part of the explosion, the charge, that Ken pushed me to achieve.

Early on, Donoghue is categorical about this "transubstantiation."  Thinking about his experience of reading "The Wasteland," Donoghue lands on the following lines:

A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings.

A woman combing her hair is suddenly--and eerily--transformed into a violinist playing a pianissimo passage:  we can see the visual similarity if we're not too nice about it.  Donoghue comments "If the lines make us imagine for a moment a different world than our own, all the better....The effect of Eliot's metaphor is to give her a new life, not by deleting the old one but by drawing a new image across it, that of a woman with long, black hair playing the fiddle.  The woman has been given another life for the time being.  So have I, when I read it" (2-3). In the most powerful metaphors, there is no "is" between tenor and vehicle:  nothing in Eliot's lines say that the black-haired woman is also a violinist.  The verb "fiddled" effects the image, slips us momentarily into another world, but in no way replaces the tenor.  In this way according to Kant, metaphor shows both the mind of the writer and that of the reader using the imagination to think beyond itself (48), to consider two things in the same instant. 

Donoghue also suggests that one of the experiences created by the use of metaphor is freedom for both reader and writer.  One of Donoghue's most strident examples of this freedom is Milton's metaphors and similes, which were sometimes derided by his contemporaries because they "obeyed no laws."  The vehicle, according to Origen, has the capacity to float free of the tenor or even to supplant it--something a strong metaphor should be able to do--other wise, it's mere decoration.  Donoghue remarks that metaphors "conspire with the mind in the enjoyment of its freedom" (64).  This is certainly the case for the writer who, through the conventions that govern metaphor, is free to surprise, shock, query, delight with an apt or even a comprehensible but counterintuitive metaphor that calls into question what we thought we knew about the tenor.  That freedom extend to the reader who is free "to replace the given world with an imagined world of one's devising" (86).  A simile allows us to see the world differently, but the "like" or "as" makes the vehicle into something else only for the time when we consider the comparison; simile is more polite and self-effacing.  A metaphor, on the other hand, involves a change in the world and a change in our perception of the world.
On Wednesday, Bill and I went to Moose Jaw, partly to go to the Moose Jaw Art Gallery, which may be small, but which offers many delights, and on a scale small enough that you can mull over what you have seen.  The ceramic piece at the top of the post is one of a group created by Les Manning for an exhibition called Common Opposites; it's called "Anvil/Boat."  Throughout this work, Manning is juxtaposing one element of clay--its roughness, to another element of ceramic  practice that makes use of glazes.  If we quickly identify the bottom of the piece as the anvil, we are left wondering how the top portion represents a boat.  I can't help feeling as if the piece as a whole operates as a metaphor for all kinds of oppositions, like open and closed, protected and vulnerable. In literal terms, the "anvil" portion of the work is not really very anvil-like:  I don't think a piece of clay would make a good surface for beating out the shape of a piece of armour, for example.  It would fracture under the first blow.  So what exactly is an anvil or a boat?  These visual forms are almost vehicles for tenors implied by the words in the title that Manning gives his work, and as such they ask all kinds of questions about how we conceive of anvils and boats--besides noting their playful juxtaposition.  Directly above is an installation by Judy McNaughton called "Lamb's Tales."  She is honest about the metaphoric side of her work, noting that while the decision to cast all these delightful lambs came from helping her brother at lambing time, the "implications are metaphoric:  the thin threshold between life and death and how this parallels other transitional states." 

I'm not done with metaphor.  I still have four more chapters of Donoghue's work to read.  As well, he's made me a little more aware of the many ways we can create metaphors besides saying "this is that."  We can use verbs, as Eliot has done above.  We can let the metaphor remain on the level of comparison implied by "this is that," or we can find a more interesting way of getting the two images to interpenetrate each other and shift the very ground the reader stands on.  As well, I'm finding myself curious about the metaphors in Proust's Remembrance of Lost Time, which I've begun again with the intention of getting all the way through this time.  In the twenty-first century, one would be inclined to call the work ill-shaped, with too little scene and a plethora of summary, yet I find the work seductive.  In part, I keep looking for those moments when the narrator's endless reflections stumble onto some recognition, some statement about the human condition that is completely surprising.  Other times, I think I'm reading metaphor to metaphor--and enjoying every moment in between.

Care to share your favourite metaphor in the comments section?