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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Pleasure and Hope

I still have vivid memories of talking about pleasure to my mother, who was well into her eighties and lived in Florida--so our conversation was unfortunately long distance.  Otherwise, I'd have proved my point--that pleasure is moral--by walking across the room and folding her in a long hug.  If I waited 8 seconds, there would have been the requisite dopamine hit that lifts our spirits.

Instead, I found myself yammering on about Lord of the Rings.  My challenge was both unusual and usual.  My mother married in the forties and perfected domestic existence--pleasure for everyone else--in the fifties.  The fifties were a terrible time to be a wife and mother, as evidenced by the record number of prescriptions for Valium.  Yet we still regard it as the golden age of the family.  When I was pregnant, I read Adrienne Rich's remarkable memoir and study of motherhood, Of Woman Born, and suddenly saw that golden age differently.  It was the time of intricate jellied salads that required patience of the housewife:  each layer had to gel before the next layer was added.  If it was made in a Tupperware mold, then it would probably have a Christmas tree or a flower in the top that needed to be filled with dream cheese or mayonnaise at the last minute. The process said the housewife's time wasn't really worth anything that nurtured anyone, least of all her.  It was a sop to her boredom, a diversion from her lack of autonomy.

I also remember the weekend my mother made Chicken Tarragon, a favourite dish of Jacqueline Kennedy's.  It took an entire Sunday:  the poaching of the chicken breast in tarragon-infused stock, the reduction of the stock, the making of the intricate and delicate white sauce.  I had never tasted tarragon before, and the meal was indeed scrumptious, but along with her pride at successfully cooking a dish made by Jacqueline Kennedy there was a good dose of exhaustion.  

And here's a memory that occasionally startles me, one with its roots in Ladies Home Journal or Women's Day; one from the monthly column titled "Can this marriage be saved?"  I am standing in the front hallway, near the lovely oak door that graced what we would now call a character home.  I have no idea what I said or did that prompted my mother to announce that her first duty was to see that her husband was happy.  His happiness came before that of her children.  This was her clear duty, because if her husband wasn't happy, then the family simply couldn't thrive.  

Here is the source of my unsuccessful attempt to explain Lord of the Rings.  In our weekly conversation across the lines between Regina and Port Charlotte Florida, it is clear that my mother's spirits are flagging, that she is exhausted from continual self-sacrifice--as would have been any woman who still made jellied salads.  I am trying to convince her that taking care of herself by giving herself some simple pleasure--a cup of Constant Comment tea, an ice cream cone, a walk to the nearby park where she could simply sit and be herself, without my father's relentless, bored demands, while she watched the richly entertaining natural world--is moral.  Everything in her socialization had balked at that idea.  You can probably imagine the cycle that arose from her belief that everyone else's happiness mattered, and have probably even seen it:  self-sacrifice, self-sacrifice, and again self-sacrifice until the martyr explodes in anger.

So I was trying to bring the weight of Tolkien to bear in the hopes of staving off the explosion.  It was a silly, futile undertaking.  How could she take characters called Hobbits with names like Frodo, Sam Gam Gee and Pippin seriously?  How could she even imagine them?  But it has always seemed to me that, despite its mega-heroic quest, Lord of the Rings is about the ethics of pleasure.  If your greatest pleasure is a lovely meal, good Longbottom Leaf, and the companionship of the people you love, then you are of the race who can figure out how to return the Ring, which bestows almost unlimited power on the possessor, to Mount Doom.  The hobbits' life goals are intrinsic, not extrinsic.  They're not looking for power; they'd just like some decent pipe weed and time to chat with their friends.

At the end of last week, having finished (re)reading (in some cases) all Woolf's letters and diaries with the pleasure of my morning coffee and my now healthy cat, I decided to turn my morning reading to poetry.  The first book I pulled off my shelf was Dante's Divine Comedy, which I hadn't read since my undergraduate years.  Every morning, under Twig's heavy warmth, with a large mug of Highlander Grogg coffee, I read two or three cantos.  After each canto, I read the wonderful notes, and then re-read the canto.  It is glorious:  Dante knew so much that is subtle and penetrating about human nature, yet manages to convey this (so John Ciardi, the translator, assures me) in the everyday language of mediaeval Italy.  Ciardi, in turn, seems to draw his own poetic power from that simplicity, so that the astounding moments of a beautifully-turned metaphor stand out like candles in Hell.  Here is my favourite from this morning, set in the second circle of hell where the winds drive those who have let their carnal desires betray reason:

As the winds of wintering starlings bear them on
  in their great wheeling flights, just so the blast
  wherries these evil souls through time foregone.

Here, there, up, down, they whirl and, whirling, strain
  with never a hope of hope to comfort them,
  not of release, but even of less pain.

As cranes go over sounding their harsh cry
  leaving the long streak of their flight in air,
  so come these spirits, wailing as they fly.  

There is so much pleasure here, in the tension between the beauty and freedom of the bird images and the lack of freedom of those whose carnal desires are now wherrying (what a great verb!) them through the darkened air.  And then that phrase, "never a hope of hope"!  Hope is tenuous at best, but not being allowed to hope that you can hope, places one of the most important human  undertakings at unimaginable distance.  But my pleasure in Dante's lines is hardly the pleasure sought by those who live in the second and third circles of hell.  Their pleasures not only betrayed reason, but betrayed husbands and wives.  Gluttony focuses on desire at the expense of all else--well-being, friendship, duty as a citizen.  These are not the immoderate pleasures I was suggesting my mother might benefit from.

That cup of tea or home-made shortbread, the ten minutes spent watching the intricate dance of the birds at your feeder, a long hug, finding the words that almost capture what you mean--these are the pleasures with which we can feed ourselves.  Walking the dog or meeting a friend for coffee.  Standing in your garden in a still, sunny day.  They require us, unlike the gluttons or those who give themselves to immoderate and unfaithful carnal passions, to be in this moment, not the next one and the next after that.  Unlike the winds in the second circle of Hell, they stop time briefly.  They remind us how nurturing our everyday experiences can be if we will only pay attention, and they value experience over accomplishment or ownership.  I find such pleasures oddly hopeful.  How can ten minutes spent watching sparrows and purple finches give us such a calm energy to face the world, to write another paragraph or listen to a lover's plaint, a calm energy, even, to be generous?  

In writing of the simple pleasures of kitchen or garden, I am avoiding the more complicated pleasures of buying an expensive pair of shoes, a new car, or a fur coat.  The pleasures' simplicity is also part of their hopefulness:  at that moment, giving a small gift to ourselves, we are autonomous, unlike people who need expensive pleasures and need to have those pleasures seen and validated by others.

What we saw about ten days ago in Paris was an attack on the pleasures of going to a concert, spending an evening in a cafe with friends, or watching a soccer game.  Of course, this attack was presented in part as one founded in religious righteousness:  such pleasures are thought by some to be immoral.  And perhaps Paris was chosen in part because Parisians know how to do pleasure.  But it was also an attack on autonomy.  Like the subjects in Dante's hell, terrorists lack autonomy; they are driven not by the winds of the second circle, but by an ideology that has been shaped with the motive of getting them to do their masters' angry, judgmental will.  But that fresh baguette or cup of thick espresso is a hopeful defiance, a way of  grounding yourself and nurturing yourself in a simple moment that celebrates the freedom you are creating with a simple gesture.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Regret and Gratitude


When I visited colleague and poet Medrie Purdham to meet her new son, Victor, conversation turned to...well...babies.  Victor seems to be sleeping fairly well, but we remembered commiserating about the fact that neither Rowan nor Veronica slept through the night for several years.  Both of us tried everything, and both of us were the recipients of advice that sometimes ran counter to the strategies we were trying.  "The secret," Medrie wisely observed, "is to have no regrets.  To know that you tried the best inside whatever constraints, whether the temperament of the baby or what we know about best practices for sleepless babies."  

I thought that having no regrets was excellent advice, not only for parents but also for retirees and, most recently, for the owners of sick cats.  Medrie's words kicked around in my brain so that about a week later, when we had a glorious Thursday afternoon--likely the last truly warm day, since November approached--I thought about regrets.  Would I regret having Virginia Woolf's Aesthetics of Engagement slowed down by two hours, asked the workaholic, or would I regret not kidnapping my daughter from work and taking her, her camera, and my bird glasses, for a walk.  The answer was straightforward.  The reward for deciding to play hooky was quite spectacular.  We saw a Great Blue Heron and a Double-Crested Cormorant.  And while Veronica took the time to frame, focus, and light the wonderful photographs she took that day, I simply stood in the sunshine, watching the last of the aspen leaves flicker golden in the light against dark pine trees on the boreal island, watching small waves on Wascana Creek flicker with a silvery light in one of those not-quite echoes nature sometimes offers to reassure us there is some order, some coherence in our chancy world.  Standing there, I felt what I can only call a kind of ecstasy, enveloped as I was in the minor key of late autumn beauty.

Then my gentle, companionable cat, Twig, stopped eating and ran a temperature.  Since he had pancreatitis a little over a year ago, I took him to the vet immediately.  There followed a course of treatment that was rather expensive for someone on a fixed income.  He got better quite quickly, until he stopped eating Wednesday night, and is now back in for more fluids and IV antibiotics.  No regrets is my mantra.  It led me to conclude that I have only two jobs here:  one is to see that he gets all the treatment he needs (though I must decide responsibly when treatments fail while he suffers from an inflamed pancreas, liver, and gall bladder), and that no love for him goes unexpressed.  (I am sadly aware that my decision to try every reasonable treatment is a privileged one.)  In turn, his illness has pushed me to say what it is about our animals that is so valuable.  We know lots of things about how they promote our physical and mental health:  how imagining their lives makes us more empathetic and how communicating through touch, since we don't share a language, promotes a sense of well-being.  Dog walkers, in particular, not only get exercise but connect with other dog owners and so have better social lives.  But these explanations didn't quite get to the core of my relationship with my cats.

We know one another in a way no one else does.  Bill is incredibly attuned to my moods and is always supportive, but Twig picks up on other clues, particularly around the small ebbs and flows of my writing life.  He knows when to ask for a cuddle, when to hang out nearby, when to guard the thesaurus, or when to distract me.  He seldom meows at me, something I used to think was sad, as if he had no needs he wanted to talk to me about.  But I've since learned that cats save their meows for owners, training them in that cat's particular language.  Since then, I've noticed Twigs substitutes for the meow a look, a stance, body language.  We talk a lot without words.  That means I'm intensely attuned to his aliveness, to his moods, his delights, his pleasure.  I would almost say there's an uncanny intimacy between us, if that didn't make me sound like the cat lady.  He isn't a pet, a kind of lesser being in the household (though if I had to trade between him and another human being, I know exactly what I'd do):  he is one of life's denizens.   So "no regrets" is my principle here.

But we often do have regrets, particularly around things we didn't see coming, or around decisions with consequences we couldn't anticipate.  For these, I turn to Rebecca Solnit, who writes in The Faraway Nearby, "Difficulty is always a school, though learning is optional" (14).  I remember learning to say, sometime in my thirties, "Okay.  I'll try not to screw that up quite so badly next time," realizing that "try" and "not quite so badly" were important caveats.  Regrets, then, are opportunities for generous reflection that seeks to understand rather than judge, for evaluating or re-evaluating everything from priorities to world views to values. That ineffective choice I made:  what motivated it?  What was I thinking at the time and how might I understand that thinking?

But Twig has taught me something else about regret:  its opposite is gratitude.  As he was last time, he will be in the vet's office for three days receiving IV fluids and antibiotics in an attempt to kill off the infection that is inflaming his pancreas and liver.  Because it's important to get him to eat, I'll pick him up and bring him home late this afternoon, only to turn around and take him back tomorrow at 8 a.m..  When I open his kennel this afternoon, he will twine around my legs in gratitude.  

Regret grounds us in the past, and sometimes careful reflection on the past is important.  But reflection can't change what has already been:  to be useful, regret can only change how we frame or understand our past actions or decisions and how we decide to proceed.  Gratitude immerses us in the present.  It is only after we face difficulties and losses, perhaps, that we regret not being more gratefully present in our daily lives.   We may have failed to do X, but here we are at Y, and doesn't it have its compensations, its rewards!  Lately, I've been thinking about gratitude and mindfulness as sisters.  Gratitude is a spiritual practice--however you define spiritual; mindfulness a mental one.  Both insist that you plant your feet firmly in the present moment, look around you, and explore this time and space.

Gretchen Rubin--not nearly the calibre of writer or thinker as either Medrie or Rebecca Solnit, but she's done her research--writes about gratitude:

"Gratitude is important to happiness.  Studies show that consistently grateful people are happier and more satisfied with their lives; they even feel more physically healthy and spend more time exercising.  Gratitude brings freedom from envy, because when you're grateful for what you have, you're not consumed with wanting something different or something more.  That, in turn, makes it easier to live within your means and also to be generous to others.  Gratitude fosters forbearance--it's harder to feel disappointed with someone when you're feeling grateful toward him or her.  Gratitude also connects you to the natural world, because one of the easiest things to feel grateful for is the beauty of nature."

I've set up my computer at the little writing table at the back of my living room so that I can watch the birds at my backyard feeders.  Today, I've had a raucous blue jay and a downy woodpecker, though I'm most grateful for the nuthatches who chirp like small squeaky toys and can walk down trees:  their antics keep me endlessly amused--but then I'm easily amused.  I will not go so far to say that I am grateful for Twig's illness, for the opportunity it's given me to reflect--for the way it has demanded that I reflect.  I am grateful for Medrie's fortuitous advice; I'm grateful for the fact that I can afford to give Twig the treatment he needs; I'm certainly grateful for the support of Bill and Veronica through this time.  At this moment, I'm most of all grateful for Twig and his extraordinary companionship through the last fifteen years.  I'm grateful for the knowledge that should this be the end of his time with me, there will be few regrets to trouble my grief.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Literary Locavore IV: Hacker Packer

Cassidy McFadzean has a habit of outdoing herself.  When she graduated with her M.A.from the University of Regina in June 2013, she carried away the Governor General's Academic Gold Medal for the Most Outstanding Academic Performance.  This was for a book of riddles.  But to write these remarkable poems, she brought together her edgy, contemporary world view and the Dark Ages, studying texts like the Exeter book, learning Old English, and going so far as to organize each of her lines into two pieces, to use compound nouns and alliteration, as do the Anglo-Saxon riddles like those found in the Exeter Book.  Riddles undertake two challenges to the reader's perception.  In the first instance, they make strange a familiar object.  But once the riddle has been solved, the poem becomes a guide to seeing everyday objects, like the kettle or the sun, in a new light, as it were.

Cassidy followed her Gold Medal with other achievements:  graduating from the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop and being shortlisted for both the Walrus and the CBC poetry prizes.  Her first full-length book, Hacker Packer, was published by Mc Clelland and Stewart--a considerable achievement for anyone in their mid-twenties.

I've been triangulating Hacker Packer for the last two weeks, and have come to realize that there are three points in the poetic landscape she creates:  North Central Regina, where she grew up, the riddles she wrote for her thesis, and a visit to Europe on which she once said she spent her life savings and where she visited countless museums and monuments.  Some of the poems fall precisely on those points, but in other cases you can see her combining her riddling language to write about situations that are not riddles; other times her surreal North Central sensibility informs the reading of a museum in, say, Greece.  Time adds an additional layer to this map as she brings her 21st century sensibility to ancient places and practices.

I have to admit that as a whole Hacker Packer posed a significant challenge for this reader (and I need to remind you that I'm sharing my impressions--poet to poet--not reviewing her book).  There are several reasons for the difficulties I found.  One is that the title, while it's edgy and might be evidence of her love of riddle and rhyme, is more expression than meaning, unless I'm to take it to mean that after some packing she traveled to Europe, where she hacked into other cultures.  It doesn't guide me in any way into the poems or name a single poem that might provide this collection's key or ground note or central chord.  The second is that there are no sections.  Travel poems mix with riddles, which mix with sometimes straightforward sometimes surreal poems about North Central, which in turn bump up against poems about animals undergoing disturbing transformations, poems about gnomes, poems about the medicinal powers of plants, ekphrastic poems about Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights.  Unless you are very patient and well-organized, you don't read all the travel poems together to understand the larger issues of world view and perspective that you could gather up if they were together.  The third is her remarkable vocabulary and range of cultural references.  This is literature in the age of Google:  you read Hacker Packer with your cellphone's or iPad's dictionary and search engine open to look up words like "oscine," and "corvus,."  You look up "Dolni Vestonice" and "Doctrine of Signatures."

Broadly speaking, Cassidy is asking her own questions about how the world works and how it means.  Most artists do this, I suppose; if the artist is serious about those questions and has developed an individual voice and perspective, then astute readers feel the poems will delight and surprise them; they are willing to walk through those questions with the poet.  Cassidy is serious about those questions.  The voice and approach she developed as a writer of riddles has bloomed here, informing both her riddling choice of language and her off-kilter perspective.

The North Central poems are the most direct, so let's start there.  "A Skin for a Skin" alludes to Canada's colonial history, the disruption and death it brought to First Nations people with its small-pox laden blankets, with its fur trade, with its laws.  "Soloist" and "On Naming and the Origin of Pity" (which was shortlisted for the CBC poetry prize, I believe)  bring us more up to date on the lasting effects of racism and racist policies, and suggest some small redemptive moments.  In "Soloist," a group of children from a North Central school are taken to Regina's Centre of the Arts for a concert after being coached on how to behave. For "kids shipped from foster / homes to rez homes to Dojack / then back," manners seem pointless.  Cassidy's riddling habits of seeing one thing as something else altogether are clear in the first stanza:

A piano is an animal's chest
propped open, ribs spread to better
hear the beating of its heart.

Despite the fact that for the children "the seams between / at-risk and asking-for-it" are beginning "to fray," that opening metaphor, with its heart reaching out is slyly hopeful, and gestures toward the closing, which suggests that art has the power to touch in the most surprising places:  "Moved to our feet, we clapped / when we felt it.  We did." 

There are similar hopeful moments in "On Naming and the Origin of Pity," a poem about a student named George, whose life seems laden with trauma and difficulty.  He is taller than everyone else in his class because he has held back; his face is a "wax-tightened mask" from having been badly burned.  Yet the firefighters choose George to demonstrate how to test a door before walking through it if there is a fire.  This is one of those broader queries about how the world works:  "Really?" we ask.  "They would do that?  What are they thinking?"  George is, in a sense, doubly victimized here.  Yet at free nights at the Lawson pool, George has two moments that are not about his burned body.  One is when he is befriended by the speaker's father, who helps George when he can't get into his locker--which contains no towel or jeans, but only a T-shirt and sneakers.  The second is when he jumps off the third-storey tower, where two things make his history beside the point.  One is that no one can see him clearly enough to remember that he has been badly burned.  The other is the ecstasy of simply being a body in flight--not a bruised body but a thrilled one: 

He dashed and dove off the edge of the platform,
a blur through the air,
then disappeared under water.

The travel poems constitute the largest group in the book.  In and early one and one of the collection's many sonnets, the speaker observes that "Museums are zoos where we see other countries' / breeds of griffins, nymphs, endangered stone beasts."  The metaphor of museums as zoos establishes the traveler's culture of the gaze:  I'm just here to look at you, it suggests.  Moreover, the poem's traveler doesn't want to immerse herself into the everyday life of the places they visit, but seeks instead the unreal, the surreal, the puzzling--nymphs and griffins.  Travellers are spectators, hoping to be entertained.  The collection's speaker observes carefully, as in the evocative "On Defeat in the Siegesallee."  Sometimes she even gets involved in the museal culture, as in "Thermal Shock, Dolni Vestonice."  Yet this reader gets the sense that these collections do not open themselves freely to the speaker's understanding.  What the speaker expects and gets from visits to graves, the boundary stone of a Greek Agora, or Rodin's studio is sometimes surprising.  In "The Charioteer," the speaker and her traveling companion crawl into a tunnel under the Temple of Apollo "expecting to unearth / some prophecies," whereas all they achieve is a "trance with dirt on our knees."  

Souvenirs get into the act of mediating our experiences as travelers.  In "On Wearing the Garden of Earthly Delights" (which could also be "On Carrying an Umbrella with Renoir's painting of a rainy day, or "On Wearing a William Morris scarf--museums depend on such souvenirs for a good part of their income) the speaker has clearly bought a pair of tights that depicts the central panel in Bosch's triptych, one scholars believe was designed for a patron, not for an altar.  The tights she wears depicting the central panel give the speaker an opportunity for ekphrasis--to describe the left-hand and right-hand panels which her tights do not depict.  In Bosch's painting, these are rather surreal versions of the creation and the Garden of Eden, and of hell.  The central panel has puzzled scholars:  it's another garden, but this one is full of naked figures in a surreal landscape that is neither earthly nor heavenly.  Those of us who don't like art made into commodities might suggest that making "The Garden of Earthly Delights" into a pair of tights distances us from the painting, making it more a part of the world of commercial stuff than the world of art.  Cassidy's poem suggests otherwise:  the speaker becomes part of the scenes the panel depicts:

      While at my knees, I'm touched by eager arms clutching 
for ripened fruit from the branches of my tree.
      My thighs host a battle scene:  owls besiege their prey
            as nude knights ride in procession alongside swine and ass.

Yet Cassidy's traveler is a little distracted or out of touch with what she views.  She leaves the bone chapel (in a poem with the same title) wondering how she is going to "keep my memory of this moment clear? / Like cartloads of bodies pulled to the friary and air- / buried, time eats our memories, no matter how dear."  She does not ponder this dilemma about memory for very long, however, being distracted by an attractive women in "short black hair and Ray-Bans.  Wedged heels, / tight grey jeans.  I wanted to be her, in Rome, / and disappear down the street talking on an iPhone."  This poem might, in a way, sum up the treatment of travel.  Cassidy offers the reader many, many well-observed moments and sites; you feel that you are traveling with her.  Yet there is often a quiet query about whether travel really gives us access to different cultures and times or whether it only offers an occasion to consider our own culture, our own time.  Is travel critiqued or celebrated here?  I'd say both.

Another group of poems considers transformations:  the way violent death changes animals, the way a fledgling the speaker tried to save became part of the garden, the way colourful blue fish turn colourless when cooked, the way honey looks like putty after decades, yet is still unspoiled.  In "As she talks, her lips breathe spring roses," replete with classical references to Ovid's Fasti and Botticelli's Primavera, the speaker undergoes the calendar-based transformations of Ovid's work, but the changes are entirely surreal.  A related fourth group of poems considers botanical magic and is grounded in "Triptych with Doctrine of Signatures."  Here too, plants have their surreal landscapes, transformations, effects, and uses.  When Cassidy announced on Facebook yesterday that she had "two new witchy poems in Petal," I wasn't quite surprised; in fact, it confirmed one of my reticent hunches about her aesthetic.  These poems about transformations and plants are not "realistic" or "representational."  Rather, in their surreal landscapes and situations, they gesture toward another world altogether, a world seemingly unlike our own.  Yet because that world belongs to Cassidy's powerful imagination and is viscerally evoked in her poems, it's a world we step into.