Friday, May 31, 2013

Working bodies, wallpaper, knitters and quilters

The sun has finally returned to Paris, and I am sitting on my balcony--oh, hardship!--to watch a woman on the street opposite do her laundry and to write to you.  To be fair, there was sunshine yesterday, as well as torrential rain, but we spent 7 hours in the Musee d'Orsay, so were bothered by neither after we waited half an hour to get in.  And while we waited, we were helplessly privy to a lover's quarrel going on in the line ahead of us.  He was arguing about the line, which was indeed very long but which was also moving very fast.  She was emphatic about wanting to go to the Musee, which was open until late last night.  He finally won the argument, but I didn't know which of them made me more furious:  him for being a bully who didn't appreciate art or her for giving in.  (Veronica suggested--is she cynical?--that he'd have sulked for the rest of the holiday if the woman had simply said "Fine.  You go your way, I'll go mine.")  The reward for their decision was that just at that moment we arrived under the enormous awnings of the Musee, the skies opened, drenching both of them.  As we walked through the two islands in the Siene this morning, we noticed that there are walking paths that are completely under water.  As well, some American tourists reported to other American tourists (do they all have beacons on them so they can find one another?) that their cruise had been aborted because the water was so high that the ship could not get under bridges.  So lest you think that my opening--"the sun has finally returned"--is a little self-indulgent--you need to know that it's been a very cool and rainy spring in Paris.

But yesterday, weather didn't matter unless it was on the canvas before us.  The Musee gives you a brief,  rough and ready picture of pre-Impressionist nineteenth-century painting  before you ascend to the Impressionists.  One of the main genres approved by the French salon was history painting:  enormous canvases with millions--okay, hundreds--of tiny figures that freeze some historical moment.  In The Content of the Form, Hayden White argues that when we narrativize history (and yes, "narrativize" is a word: it means to force something into a narrative shape) we force a set of events into a sequence that has the increasing conflict of the rising action, a crisis, and a denouement.  So what we regard as history as often battles, conflicts, heroic ventures.  French History Painting does this with a vengeance.  Looked at with a certain viewpoint, they are simply celebrations of masculine heroism mostly set in classical or neo-classical times.  Were a Martian to fall to earth and have access to only this period of painting, she would think humans were very peculiar and would perhaps wonder most of all about the way the female nude was depicted over and over again--often without her head.  Was this some kind of fetish?  Some idealization or commodification?  Puzzling.

What you find when you get beyond this work to that of the Nabis is that there are suddenly bodies at work.  Normal bodies.  Tired bodies.  Grateful bodies.  And when we're getting indoor scenes and there aren't labouring bodies, there is wallpaper recorded on the canvas with numbing detail (at least it would have numbed me if I were the painter, to get all those white flowers on the pink ground more or less symmetrical and lined up).  Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis began recording everyday life, often in brilliant and joyful colour.  I have thought long and hard about the kind of novelist I want to be.  I know that "bigger" novels dealing with war or politics or extreme and dramatic situations tend to get the most critical attention, but this is really not what I'm trying to do.  It's your life, a corner of the life you might have lived or a sliver of the life you see in someone you love that I want to illuminate and celebrate, if I can.  I don't know nearly enough about the Nabis--I didn't know the term even existed--but learning about them seems like one more excuse to retire.  It comes from Hebrew and means "prophet,"though their joyful and even decorative dailiness seems the antithesis of prophetic, unless the point is to see the colour, joy, and beauty in one's everyday life.

What can I say about the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists that hasn't been said before?  At some point, I felt as if I'd eaten too much chocolate or gorged on something similarly rich.  That was, fortunately, a moment when Veronica and I could sit down  on the museum's benches (which are too deep for little old ladies like me) and wax philosophical.  Perhaps their very choice to paint en plein air meant that they saw beauty where they found it in the world.  There was no arrangement of vases in the studio or of perfect nude models.  There was, perhaps a snowy day that could be focused by placing a single black bird on a fence.  Or an alley of trees or a hillside of poppies.  Since Elaine Scarry's  1990 lectures On Beauty and Being Just, philosophers have been thinking about beauty in quite different terms, as if it gestures toward some civil virtue or virtues.  Let me simply say that in these galleries, which were jam packed, people were unfailingly polite.  Mrs. Dalloway is sure that her love for beauty will help the Armenians (Or was it Albanians?  She has difficulty keeping the objects of her political husband's political enquiries straight).  What you are left with, after you have seen room after room of Impressionist paintings is a way of seeing the world, plus the memories of canvases you are sure you could have returned to again and again to take away something different each time.  True beauty is complex, and wants to speak again and again.  Interestingly, if you listened in the museum, what you heard was a delicious hum of people talking to one another about what we saw.

After nearly eight hours on our feet yesterday, we decided to have a simpler day today, walking through the small shops on the island to the east of the one that holds Notre Dame.  There we found small shops of silk scarves and really goofy, delightful kitchen equipment (does anyone need me to bring back a plaid toaster?).  Here and in the small shops along our route to La Drougerie, one of Paris's premier knitting shops, we found colour and fun.  There was a table that had been covered, I suspect, with some kind of resin into which had been pressed every wild kind of bead or button you could imagine--right down to its toes.  There were white vases that looked like they'd been covered with very chic fridge magnets.  There were silk scarves (from which French women acquire some of their style) of every colour imaginable.  It was a cold, rainy, windy day, but Parisians were still having fun.  They continued to have fun at La Drouguerie, where you could find exactly what you needed to re-decorate your straw hate or just the right purple linen to make yourself a summer sweater.  Creativity lived here.

I ended my day today with a story.  Quite close to use (and no, this didn't influence our choice of a hotel) is a French patchwork shop called "Le Rouvray."  When I went in at the end of my day today, the shop keeper didn't sing out "Bon jour Madame!" the way they invariably do, but continued her hurried phone conversation, which gave me a chance to choose some lovely blue and brown fabrics.  When we finally began to talk, I asked her whether the quilt behind her on the wall was a copy of "Dear Jane."  The quilters will know what I'm speaking of.  There are hundreds of small four-inch blocks, many of them very complex, and none of them the same.  She said that she had started it with her mother-in-law when her own mother was quite ill.  Doing all that hand piecing helped her get through a difficult time.  She has now moved on to a similarly complex project that's called "Nearly Insane," which is of similar crazy complexity.  She does all her piecing by hand and doesn't even know how to use a sewing machine.  While she cut my fabric we talked simply, in English, about the ways that our projects distract us in difficult times and give us the sense of control in our lives--something you need even in Paris.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Arcades, Cathedrals, and Gardens

We arrived in Paris in the rain.  As well, the planners of the major train station between Charles de Gaule and central Paris assume that you can carry your suitcase both up and down several flights of stairs.  So thanks to a young man who helped me up the final half flight up out of the train station, we arrived at our small hotel wet and tired, dropped off our bags, and hit the street again to find ourselves some lunch.  The little restaurant we found is clearly a neighbourhood haunt (we are in the heart of the Left Bank); the host prepared one table in the corner for a customer who had not yet arrived by placing a glass of red wine and a basket of bread there.  The gentleman sauntered in about five minutes later.  I had the slightly surreal  feeling as I sat there, a little giddy from lack of sleep, that I was appearing in a movie whose plot I had no sense of.  There was activity all around me, people being voluble and emphatic, making dramatic gestures you only notice when you don't understand the language very well.

Our guide book suggested that a good thing to do in Paris on a rainy day was to visit the arcades, and since I've been reading Benjamin's Arcades Project for the poems inspired by Veronica's very urban photographs, this seemed like a good idea.  As luck would have it, it poured until we reached the arcades, which took longer than it should have because we'd put the less detailed map in our pockets. And of course, once we arrived, the rain mostly stopped.  The arcades closest to the Louvre are fairly empty; it's only when you get to the older ones that they come, perhaps, to embody excess--something I'm not sure Benjamin writes about.  Pastries.  Shoes and handbags.  Jewellery--bijoux, really.  Old books.  And then we found the simple little shop  that I photographed here.  This is their "basement," with stone walls into which they have created many fun little spaces to put their simple things. 

Today we started with the promise of sunshine and cappuccino or tea and croissants at the bakery right across the street.  I had forgotten what real croissants taste like.  Then we walked to the outdoor sculpture garden on the Sienne (closed--echoing my experience of Paris in 2001, when everything was closed for a strike), and then on down some tiny little streets.  We found, entirely by accident, a quilt shop which was not open, a shop for needlecrafts.  (There's a second photograph of this shop below, and I've managed Veronica's "reflection" effect, getting the context for the shop into the window reflection.  I see why she likes doing this.)  Bookstores again--lots of specialty bookstores for the very bohemian Left Bank. 

Some of the questions I had about Paris last time have finally cohered into a single, larger question:  how many Parises are there?  It's impossible, given the number of people with maps in their hands, not to see that there is certainly a Paris for tourists.  There is also a bourgeois Paris, judging from the shoes, jewellery, handbags, and beautifully tailored clothes you see in store windows.  There is also a small business person's Paris, a person who keeps a shop of exquisite Japanese pottery, or antique books, who doesn't feel he or she needs to keep particularly regular hours.   On the Left Bank, there is a students' Paris, evident in the bookstores and inexpensive paninis.  But there are two other versions of Paris I can't quite ignore.  One is the workers' Paris--people who ride the metro long distances to get to their jobs serving food and cleaning hotels in central Paris.  On the subways, they look bored and tired.  Then there is the homeless Paris, people who in yesterday's rain knew exactly the little alcoves where they could make themselves comfortable.  Many of them have dogs--an extra expense, doubtless, but the need for loyal companionship I completely understand.

After a lovely lunch of roast chicken with herbs and tarte aux pomme, we went on to the church of St. Severin, which was built in the 13th century, enlarged between then and the 16th century, amended in the 17th, and finally given new stained glass windows in the late twentieth century.  (That's a segue from homelessness to simple wonderful food that the nested Lenin baba doll I saw would query.  At the same time, can you imagine a whole shop of nothing but nested Russian dolls?)  Somehow I expected that the heritage police would have intervened at some point, but they haven't.  History in Paris is a process, not a time.  Surprisingly, the modern stained glass windows go wonderfully with the mediaevel spiralling pillars you see below.  

South on more small streets (we try to stay off the noisier main streets), we made our way to the Luxembourg Gardens where  we ran smack into a pocket of Parisian minimalism (if that phrase isn't a kind of oxymoron).  People can find quite minimal pleasure in the gardens of Paris.  Usually it begins with a friend or with grandchildren.  If you are a foot-weary tourist, you find three chairs for the two of you--for a place to put your feet up.  It might involve crumbs for the pigeons or one of the sailboats children can use in the round pond.  I don't see children here loaded down with toys; I do see lots of children on little scooters that parents pull as they walk along, or that big sisters push with one foot while their little brothers stand stolidly gripping the handle bar.  One element of minimalism may be time:  the time to enjoy, read, glory in one another's company, be playful.  You don't need much, besides good company, to do these things.

On from their through more small streets to St-Germain-des-Pres, which is one of Paris's oldest surviving buildings, a "rare Romanesque structure structure that dates back to the late tenth and early eleventh centuries" (Rough Guide to Paris 136).  Once again, there is that profound sense of layers which are under the nineteenth-century painting.  We wandered the small streets around St.-Germain-des-Pres until our feet could stand no more--Veronica even declined to go down a promising little narrow street because the cobblestones were impossible to walk on with blistered feet--and then found tea and chocolate tart for her and cappuccino for me.  Ever true to my practice, I found the shortest way back to the hotel, and am now writing this on our balcony.

Saying that paints too swish a picture of our tiny room where Veronica and I do a funny little dance when we need to get by one another.  All the same, the view is spectacular, and I am sitting on a balcony in Paris thinking about paying attention, or as Don McKay suggested for one of the poems I worked on at Sage Hill, "giving attention."  On holidays, particularly to places like Paris, we look forward to seeing something new, perhaps something that challenges our everyday ways of being in the world--assumptions hidden in our relationships with others or in our relationship with our context.  That has certainly happened here:  Parisians interact differently with their social and public space than Canadians typically do.  I think they are more dramatically at home in them.  But what often happens on holidays is not simply that we see something new, but that we concentrate on seeing.  We're thrown into time in which we have nothing to do but feast our senses, primarily our eyes.  How much we give ourselves when we give attention to our world.

The photograph above from our balcony, as you might guess from the quality of light, was taken by Veronica.  The rest are my handy point-and-click. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Birdwatching with Don McKay

The pace here at the Sage Hill Poetry Colloquium has been measured yet intense.  Because I'm working with Veronica's photographs, I don't have to wait for the muse; her work is my muse. I simply choose a photograph and read around it or stare at it long enough to find a way in. (Today I was reading Benjamin's Arcades Project.)  Many of them are almost metaphors for the human experience or condition or the human world we create:  they give me a rich range of things to write about.  Then sometimes less than a day later, we workshop it.  My colleagues here are exacting and helpful.  Then it's on to another poem.

So on Sunday, many of us needed a break.  Don McKay had checked out a park at the bottom of Last Mountain Lake, one where I've often been, and I suggested a drive along 99, a mostly dirt road that runs at the foot of the valley between Craven and Southey.  Nine of us scrunched into two cars, I leading, Don behind.  I can tell you a secret about Don McKay that is no longer a secret.  He's a fairly leisurely driver on roads marked 100 km, (in fact, you can lose him) but he goes like stink on dirt roads.  I got a little worried when I could no longer see the dust he kicked up.  But I also learned that if we're in bird-rich landscape, it makes more sense to let him be the lead car.  Rather than stopping because you can see that he is way behind you and has gotten out of the car with his binoculars, and wondering what he's seeing, you can stop just behind him and see the same things.

At Last Mountain Lake, I saw and heard many things that I've seen and heard before, except now I know what they mean.  There's a difference between merely passively seeing and actually noticing, a difference between  taking note, rather than simply letting the sounds and sights wash over you in a pleasurable but ignorant melange. We watched a Killdeer set up her nest in some mud, some shovellers on the shores, red wing blackbirds, terns, lots of geese and ducks.  Along 99, we saw a pair of Swainson's Hawks sitting on a fence, I heard a Western Meadowlark; two flocks of 6 pelicans serenely sailed the thermals down the  Qu'Appelle Valley.  I learned to tell a Barn Swallow from a Tree Swallow (which isn't rocket science).  It was a beautiful day; in fact, beauty swept you off your feet at every turn.  I was brought back to the magic of the Qu'Appelle Valley by the reaction of one of my classmates, who had never seen it before, and so who allowed me to see it anew and feel wonder anew.

In some ways, this wasn't a day off:  it was another poetry lesson.  I have a feeling that identifying birds isn't a matter of seeing them clearly posed on a nearby tree and recognizing them from their pictures in books.  Because you seldom see them that clearly.  You need to understand their behaviour, their habits, their songs, the patterns of their flight, their habitat.  Experience gives you fragments of some of these things--you can see a wing, a throat, or some tail feathers; you hear a bit of song--and you need to make something out of that, just as life's experience gives you fragments that you eke out with your own imagination to make a coherent whole that, when truly crafted, is as alive and perhaps as fragile as a bird.   Much like birds, you have to understand poems and all their unruly and unpredictable habits, or create them on the wing as they flit just outside of your consciousness, just at the edge of language, that place where you need the second language of form to help you unearth that uncanny, unearthly thing, the poem.

Sean Virgo was here earlier in the week, and he talked about the fact that it is the poet's job to create beauty.  I reached into my pocket of definitions and pulled out Alexander Nehamas's understanding of beauty--which has nothing to do with any kind of prettiness.  Nehemas normally writes the kind of philosophy where every point is pinned down before another one rises up out of the implications of the first.  But when he comes to define beauty, he suddenly gets very personal, talking about the people we love and their particular beauties.  For him, when we return to something or someone or some place time and time again because we know that each time it will repay our curiosity,  because it will tell us something more about itself or ourselves or our world, we have come face to face with beauty and perhaps with love.

I have been thinking a lot about voice here, with Don's voice at the fore.  How does such wisdom and knowledge of earth and human become these unerring, seemingly simple and humble lyrics that we listen to or read with such attention because we know there are depths and depths beneath the surface?  Watching his awe over a pair of hawks made me suspect that fleeting beauty and his love of it, his dedicated fascination with bird and rock and human  have become so much a part of him that they are transfigured into deep, humble knowledge.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Sage Hill's Generosity

Jane Austen has a lovely little metafictional moment in her first novel, Northanger Abbey, when she observes that many women writers don't read or praise the work of other women writers.  And if a novelist can't depend on another novelist, who can she count on?  I think the same is true of poets.  When you consider that more Canadians think that Elvis is still alive than read a poem in the last year, you realize that we are perhaps one another's most avid readers.  That might account for our behaviour when we get together.  No movie scripts, cat fights, or gossip columns here.  What I have found is the most remarkable and imaginative yet rigorous support.

The monastery helps.  There have been all manner of celebrations within these walls, and we hang around the dinner table with glasses of wine (sometimes to the dismay of our Franciscan hosts who would like to wash our dishes so they can finish their own days), telling our favourite (and often groan-inducing) jokes.  But there is also remarkable discipline suggested by our monastic rooms.  This sense of purpose is heightened by our sense of good fortune to be here working with Don McKay, one of Canada's finest and most generous poets.  The Qu'Appelle Valley helps. Sometimes there are as many as seven of us sitting in the comfy chairs reading or writing in a magical, pregnant silence, uninterrupted.  There has apparently been wildlife, though I've missed it all.  People told of a coyote chorus last night around 1 a.m., though all I heard were banging pipes.  There have been deer and owls and the obligatory and numerous ticks.

On our first full day together, we all talked about our projects, talked about their challenges and read a single poem out loud.  I learned, first of all, that I have to get my classmates' reading lists.  My own sense of what is happening in Canadian poetry right now is rather narrow, and I learned much simply from the joyous cacophony of styles and subjects my classmates are exploring.  Now I can analyze a poem with the best of them, but they have a way of bringing up issues of craft that I'd never considered.  (We're not just talking line breaks here.)

The first task Don set us was to take an object important to another classmate and write a poem that defamiliarized it, that looked at it as we might if we were from Mars.  He urged us to make conjectures about its secret life, to see its independent existence unconstrained by our sense of its use, referencing some Polish phenomonologists who no longer trusted ideas but only things.  I am ashamed to say that, caught in the drafting of a poem for my book and completely puzzled by what it was I held in my hand (it looked like a concrete bird that had been broken off something but was apparently the fossil of something--a claw, I hypothesized) I tanked on this assignment and would like to try it with something that perhaps wasn't arbitrarily chosen for me.  Perhaps we can only defamiliarize the familiar.

Don also talked about the creative imperative.  Some times we feel that there's a fence or earth wall or barricade in front of us.  He suggests we simply cross it to find out why it's there.  Sometimes those barriers are tabu, which makes them not only things perhaps to avoid, but things with energy.  He asked about our allegiance to intelligibility; I can tell you that mine is high, at least when it comes to syntax.  If someone can't sort out a sentence (I care less whether they can make it mean something), then I need to do some clean-up or rearranging.  He talked about the energy enjambment creates, the way we leap across the lines, the kind of syncopation or swing it creates that end-stopped lines or lines that are simply phrases don't have.

Our second group meeting was a workshop where my classmates argued and suggested and cajoled about issues of craft, ideas about what belonged in a particular poem, about ways to read and ways to write.  Even before they came to my work (I was the last one for the day), I learned so much from them that it made my head spin.  Next morning I woke exhilarated, ready to revise, torn between doing that and finishing a poem I'd begun a day before.  I feel as if I'm getting the hang of this syncopation that moves words in an entirely different way.

Don ended out first workshop with a remarkable mini-lecture that I certainly won't do justice to here.  He said the eros of poetry came from the love between the lyric moment--which wants to stop time, to go on being a moment as long as it possibly can, and the narrative drive, which asks "And then?" and "What next?"  He talked in a way I found helpful about the lyric novel which subverts that narrative drive with lyrical moments that don't want to go anywhere, and even explained what I might have been trying to do in Blue Duets.  He says you can create a lot of energy when you break the rules, but if I know myself as a writer and as a social being, I know that I often don't know where the rules are, what the rules are.  Sometimes that's a blessing rather than a curse, though if I knew the rules, I could ignore them, couldn't I?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013


 Spring, as we have all been whining, has been extraordinarily reluctant this year.  This has left many of us in Saskatchewan disoriented, as we look out the window at 8 p.m.--and we know it's 8 because we feel that dinner has settled and that we're end-of-day tired--to see it still light outside and the blue hour coming down on snow.  I've been aware that the trees are reluctant to bud, the grass cautious about extending some green into the grey-brown lawns (are they also greyer and browner than normal?), because normally I am watching these changes as my poor students write their final exams.

So I've found myself watching the shadows on my walls.  I suppose in some way this is like saying that I'm watching the light.  But the shadow of branches with a bird at my feeder or the shadows of tangled branches on my kitchen walls have been, perhaps, a reaction to this spring's spare beauty--a beauty almost reluctant to arrive, but unable to stop itself.  There have been lots of butterflies in my back yard, but I lose them as the fly into the sun and can more easily watch their shadows.

There have been other shadows.  Saturday was Angela Oxman's funeral, and since her death two weeks ago, I have been aware of how she is a shadow:  how I think about her delight in spring and in her garden, how I realize that she should be out in that  lovely slanting end-of-day light to see what has ventured up, to admire the green shoots, maybe even admire the tenacity of this plant, that shrub, these bulbs, their determination to reach for sunshine when the earth itself it still cold.  Or I will think about her nurse's take-charge belief in life, and realize that this lives on only in our memories of her.  It is up to us to continue to carry her in the world, something I suspect her dear husband, who kept her home to the end, and her sons will do with aplomb and devotion.  

Maybe this is something about death that you only learn intuitively when you lose someone very close to you, someone whom you know so intimately that in a crowd you see their gestures out of the corner of your eye, hear their favourite expressions, see their world view right alongside yours as you consider a problem.  It's been difficult for me to explain, but my parents are more present than they were when my father was an unspeaking old man who could only take my hand or lean his head into my shoulder, or than when my mother was made completely unfamiliar (well, not completely) by her fury at losing reason, her ability to think, her grip on reality--a fury she hurled at everyone around her since she couldn't aim it at that abstract thing--time--that was stealing it. Now they come back as small joyous fireworks in phrases or memories that, over time, come as close to a mental hologram of them as it's possible to get.  For all that they are shadowy, it's the light they give off that surprises.  

Sunday night, Bill and I took our first long walk of this spring, both of us with our cameras, because they somehow help us pay attention to what's around us.  The trees have finally begun to bud, two weeks late by my estimate.  The blackbirds are back by the creek, the mourning doves' wings are whistling in my back yard, their sad coos lifted out of sadness by the light and warmth.  The robins' songs twine into my work room, where I don't mind being a little cool if it comes with birdsong.  Much of what is around us is dominated by the shadows of last fall and winter,  but the light is unmistakable.