Monday, March 14, 2011

A day inside poetry

"For every poet it is always morning in the world.  History a forgotten, insomniac night.  History and elemental awe are always our early beginning, because the fate of poetry is to fall in love with the world, in spite of history." 
                           Derek Walcott's 1992 Nobel Prize acceptance speech

I took a "mental health day" on Friday:  it's the first time since Mother died that there wasn't something I had to do, reinforcing my sense that we spend too much time doing and not enough time being ("Time and Being," January 14).  My original plans were to drive to Moose Jaw, to The Quilt Patch and Quilter's Haven, to look for fabric that would let me finish up some quilts, but the white-out on the No. 1 between here and Moose Jaw intervened.  Looking back, I see how serendipitous the weather was, that it forced me to do exactly what was best for me:  stay put for a change.  So I began the day with a cat on my lap and a large cup of hot coffee, reading Karen Solie's Griffin Poetry Prize-winning book, Pigeon.  I read these lines, and immediately behaved like an undergraduate:

a red-tailed hawk pinpoints the moving detail
of his meal in the big picture.

Karen's poems are deeply committed to the environment.  Even if poems like "Four Factories" don't seem to be on topics we casually (but wrongly) think poetry "naturally" covers, her work represents nature as it is and nature as we have made it.  The hawk in "The World of Plants" isn't a sentimentalized hawk--what hungry hawk can be?  Once on a grid road around the Cypress Hills, Bill and I startled a hawk with a small rabbit who took off with his prey, wiping blood and shit across the hood of the car and the windshield, so I don't think I'd trust a sentimentalized hawk.  Yet I immediately appropriated Karen's lines for what seemed my own purpose that day:  for thinking about and inside poetry, for considering its paradoxes.

Derek Walcott's quotation, which has been taped to my office door for several weeks, certainly conveys one of the paradoxes of poetry:  it both eludes and is implicated in history.  The fountainhead of the lyric poem is the moment when one rediscovers one's love of morning, of the day, of the day's light--whether bitter or reluctant or golden;  consequently, the poem's epicentre, the place where the pebble has been dropped in the Walden Pond of experience, is the intensity of the present moment. The poets I most enjoy, however, explore the way this moment ripples out into other moments--into history, into cosmic time.

Karen's image of the hawk, springing from its context where it denotes something quite different, seemed to me to capture another of poetry's paradoxical qualities.  Like poetry, the hawk's eyes are on the "moving detail" of a meal, but the only way it can maintain that kind of focus is to keep the big picture well in view.  Similarly, the lyric poem homes on a particular node or knot, an image, a gesture, or a tone of voice, yet it tries to ripple out to touch the edges of the rest of the world .  Poetry is both in close and far away;  it's implicated in history and yet preoccupied with the present moment.

When you're living inside poems, in the words of other writers or in your own struggle for language, you notice everything:  Sometimes I think this is one of poetry's gifts:  the invitation to notice everything, to feel as if everything has meaning, or to struggle with the world's refusal to mean.  You try to interpret the graffiti in the back lane.  You notice the way the snow acts like sand to make whirlpools in the street and consider the paradoxical similarity between snow and sand when they are the wind's playthings:  they way they pirouette and ride the wind into scalloped or striated arpeggios of rifts.  You notice the paleness of everything once the sun reluctantly comes out.  In the tentative light you see the world through freshly-squeezed lemonade.

So because the weather was hopeless and miserable, there was nothing for it but to start the poems about my mother.  I've got a cadence and a few images.  Nothing I want to show anyone yet.  But I'm past that awful moment when you must leap the Grand Canyon that lies between your conception and what you can actually get language to do.

The image of the quilt at the top of this post has nothing to do with the post at all, except that I didn't feel like having my picture appear, again, in the Facebook thumbnail.  Part of being "orphaned into my mortality," as my friend Deborah Morrison described me, has been to finish projects.  The blocks for that quilt had been sitting around for quite a long time and when I last tried to put them together, I hit a snag.  There's a half-inch arc that must be exactly half an inch, or the seams don't line up.  Somehow, I had the patience Saturday night and Sunday morning to pick out some stitches and re-sew the seams that were making it hard to join the blocks.  It's the first of my quilts that I've named; called "All colours," it includes every single colour there is.  You can't see the red, because Twig is settled on it.  Sheba's on the small patch of orange.

Quilt magazines occasionally publish articles on how to take good photographs of your quilts.  I've broken every one of their rules.  Really, you should photograph your quilts hanging vertically, preferably not with someone standing behind it holding it gingerly at the corners, their feet visible at the bottom.  You shouldn't climb up on a stepstool to see what the quilt looks like when you can see more of it at once.  And of course, while I climbed up onto the stool that usually holds my bedtime reading, both Twig and Sheba leapt onto the top to check it out.  I don't know what it is about cats and quilts, but arrange a few blocks on the bed to see how they look together, and you'll find you have a cat. 

The other project I've finished is the Frozen Leaves shawl I wrote about in my Woolgathering post, where I talked about the fact that knitting complicated lace takes just enough concentration that it stills my insomniac "grasshopper mind."  I had to do the edging three times to get it right, but it was worth it.  And yes, I've started a new lace shawl, which has been good company on several sleepless nights. 

Do you know why I'm suddenly motivated to finish projects that have been languishing, sometimes, for several years?  It's not simply that I'm afraid I'm going to die tomorrow.  So why is it?


  1. I know why I'm finishing things. I will never be "finished" with my parents; closure is a fiction of the modern media who want to be able to move onto the next story. So in acknowledgment of that,I'm finishing what I can and in so doing buying myself some meditative time for problematizing my parents, enriching my memories, exploring the layers and the contradictions. This is messy work. It needs a quilt or some lace to work on.

  2. Wonderful post. I'm an enthusiastic and careless quilter. My blocks are never the same size. Rather than despair (because I've discovered that I simply don't get any better at the measuring and piecing together, even after 25 years of trying...), I simply use sashing! The great equalizer...

  3. Thank you for your kind words, Theresa. Do you know Sharyn Craig's book Setting Solutions (C&T Publishing)? She makes an art out of blocks that don't quite fit.