A Poem for Beth
On Tuesday, Beth Nickel–musician, mother of three, wife, teacher, friend, sister, daughter, colleague, reader of poetry, the list goes on–died of complications after surgery for brain cancer diagnosed only at the beginning of January.
Reeling with all who knew her warmth and spirit and music, I did the only thing I could–write a poem.
I invite you in.
Yesterday we howled for grief
Beth Nickel (d. February 2, 2021)
because she was so young and left
us gaping on a dark day into the truth
of her not here, the rift
of her viola in its case. Even her name–
one syllable–music. Say
it again, again. Unflappable as math,
desk partner playing
that impossible gig. She wouldn’t flinch.
They’re saying sweet, yes, but say
steel too. For every inch
of score, deep-throat notes, core,
she bent with pencil clinching
up-bow, down-bow, slur, fourth
finger here, more accent there, to stent
a field of sound into a hearth—
heart, earth, ear, her constant
calm. Send a text,
her reply is instant;
she will come and crouch to fix
the strings of a jangly, small
violin as if she’s kin and just next door.
Journey of a Journey
Scooping beech leaves from the bugleweed outside my office in the rain, I listened to a friend tell me about the English botanist Graham Thomas. On a trellis across the yard, his namesake rose had just been pruned. I planted it when we first moved to Yarrow; summer after summer its abundant blooms climb to my bedroom window. But I’d forgotten its name and that it was introduced to the world by the rose breeder David Austin, famous for crossing old roses with modern hybrid tea varieties.
Last month, nineteen days after that garden conversation, David Austin died at the age of 92 in his home in Shropshire County, England. There in his obituary in The New York Times is my rose with a caption: “Recognition was slow at first. But his fortunes changed significantly… when he introduced…this yellow climbing rose…”
Reading about Mr. Austin’s long journey, his patience and persistence, how he “had to ignore doubters who insisted that nobody would grow his old-but-new roses”, I’m reminded of another journey; my hand lands on a book with a cover of hedgerows curving down an English landscape. The hedgerows frame a narrow lane and bring to mind lines of a musical staff, an image just right for a memoir in music by the British-born, Canadian cellist Ian Hampton.
A few weeks ago, when Jan in 35 Pieces made the shortlist for the RBC Taylor Prize, in the midst of my surprise and delight, I thought of the book’s extraordinary journey. I’ve just checked my files. I wrote a response (seven single-spaced pages) to Ian’s first draft of this book on January 10, 2010. I remember reading that draft for the first time, often laughing out loud and at one point in the narrative, almost crying. I held a treasure trove of rare stories and writing about music, a journey, a life, in a distinct and memorable voice I wanted the world to hear.
What happened in the nine years between? Bins full of file folders manuscript-thick in my crawl space, notebooks stacked on office shelves and dozens of computer files tell only a small part of the story. As the manuscript’s editor, agent and advocate, I learned about what it takes to believe in a piece of writing. Many years into the process, after a long string of rejections (many brief and neutral, one long and scathing, one generous, kind and helpful), we were waiting to hear from our very last attempt, steeling ourselves for rejection, resolving to try self-publishing.
Enter an acceptance from that very last attempt, The Porcupine’s Quill, a most excellent and elegant press. Who required us—to accommodate their in-house press—to cut (gulp) about ninety manuscript pages in what resulted in a leaner, sharper volume. Who lovingly and beautifully incorporated Ian’s drawings. Who circulated, by post, hard copy proofs with colour-coded marks from a copy editor happy to enter into an extended e-mail correspondence about the placement of a single comma. Whose cream-coloured paper with the tiny ridges I love to feel under my finger.
After the launches, a few articles and interviews and only one brief online review, Jan was largely ignored. Not surprising—as a musician with a first book, Ian Hampton was unknown to CanLit, so I’m applauding the Taylor Prize jury for recognizing Jan on merit alone. I’m hoping because of the shortlisting, more readers might find pleasure in this book, like the following favourite bits and many others I used to read over the phone to my parents–
On Sir Neville Marriner: “Known to Jan and his colleagues as ‘Nev’, he always turns up to rehearsals smartly dressed, with a box containing a lunch that’s slightly higher up in the food chain than anyone else’s—a globe artichoke, a Belgian endive, kumquats.”
On Bach’s Cello Suites: “The rhythmic complications of the D Major Allemande are such that the cellist has to count sixteen to a bar. Anna Magdalena joined torrents of sixty-fourth notes with wavy lines that resemble the skies of a late Van Gogh painting.”
And the lovely last two sentences that I notice have remained almost unaltered from the very first draft: “In the small hours, at high tide, the freighter, now loading, will announce to its crew and the waiting tugs that it is about to sail halfway round the world. Its long, low horn will break the silence and anybody still awake, if they listen carefully, can follow its attenuating echo as it passes from nearby mountains to ones farther down the valley, disappearing into the Coastal Range.”
In the Mind of Trees
No clouds with fluffy brims, only this haze and eerie sun, bear scat full of cherry pits on the dyke where I run. About 600 wildfires are burning across British Columbia, a state of emergency. Even one forest lost means centuries turned to ash; I didn’t know an oak tree can take up to 1,000 years to grow. There’s this song by Jonathan Byrd I first heard last fall at a concert in a barn in Abbotsford. Trent Freeman performed it hauntingly; I knew I’d be looking up the words later to mull:
I was an oak tree. It took a thousand years to grow.
I’ve seen kingdoms come and go.
I’ve seen the losers turned to lords and back again.
I held the rebels when they hung them from my limbs.
When men of fortune cast their futures on the sea,
that’s when they came for me.
I was a slave ship under the standard of the cross
a hallelujah holocaust…
When cross rhymes with holocaust you know you’re in for a good song; line after line of “I Was An Oak Tree” surprised and moved me forward; in four short stanzas are worlds and the gaps between, death and transformation and “talk of freedom”… “out along the wild Cape Fear” and I want everyone I know to hear it:
In the mind of trees…Heinz Klassen’s River Walk: Winter is an astonishing 11 by 5.5 foot charcoal drawing of trees by the Vedder River.
He drew it last summer and fall in twelve smaller sections (which were later assembled with linen tape) out by the river in all kinds of weather. At first glance, you might think the bottom trees are reflections of those above but look again; Heinz actually drew two views, from the north side of the river and from the south. Rotate the drawing vertically and you’ve got a book of left and right facing trees with a river for a spine.
Last week, it took two men and a scissor lift to hang the piece in the lobby of the Chilliwack Cultural Centre where it’s part of a six-month exhibition.
Just a short walk from the Vedder, I’m writing this post in a studio designed by Heinz with meticulous hand-drawn plans.
In making the plans, Heinz considered the seasons and how they’d affect light in the studio at different times of day; amount of shade, and placement and size of windows for coolness in the summer. The studio with its extended eaves under the shade of a huge beech is a gift; he took my payment for his plans and passed it along to a family newly arrived in Canada from refugee camps. That’s typical of Heinz who died in his home in Yarrow nine months ago today, who I remember each time I escape from this heat wave and open the door; cross the threshold; deep quiet and cool and in certain kinds of light, the shadows of beech leaves moving across my desk.
Photo by Finn Longhurst
The Sunday Children
I’m both drawn to and puzzled by this opening stanza of Margaret Avison’s poem “Thaw”:
Sticky inside their winter suits
The Sunday children stare at pools
In pavement and black ice where roots
Of sky in moodier sky dissolve.
Along the North Saskatchewan River in Saskatoon, trees point skyward and down into the water, their reflection-roots dissolving into dusk and I’m a Sunday child again, back in my home province after a long time away.
If Avison were still alive, she’d be turning 100 this April 23. To celebrate, I’ve posted a conversation that Elise Partridge and I had many years ago about the first volume of Avison’s collected poems, Always Now. You’ll find it above in a new section of my website named “Otherwards.” Forwards, backwards, inwards, outwards, otherwards, in other words and in others’ words—I’m grateful to Steve Partridge for the title suggestion and for initiating the republication, to Carmine Starnino for initiating that conversation in the first place, and to hear Elise’s voice again.
Her mentioning that Avison “can give us the zoom-lens precision of small details” reminds me of the solitary pearl on the window ledge in Avison’s “New Year’s Poem.” Stan Dragland calls this poem “part of the permanent lining” of his mind in a wonderful essay forthcoming in a special Avison issue of Canadian Poetry, which will be launched this April in Toronto at an event marking her birthday. (Read more.)
In his essay, Stan quotes “New Year’s Poem” in full. Reading it, I was caught by the word “brimmed” on the brim of the line, a lovely move, which reminded me of another poem with “brim” in it:
This is Leah Britton’s first poem. I like the way, in the voice of a cloud, she opens with the memorable “brim” and closes with “and see/what I see,” the double “see” line-endings giving her cloud not only double vision but wisdom and mystery and a vast kind of stillness just right for a cloud. She wrote it several weeks ago in a nature poetry workshop I was leading at the Great Blue Heron Reserve, attended by other kids and their families from Nature Kids B.C.
The workshop lasted only two hours but days later I was still marvelling at the clear-eyed sensibility of these kids, their calm energy and lack of ego and with what ease they observed and listened and saw. It might be, I thought later—my spirits lifting every time I thought about that spirit in the room and on our walk—because they spend so much time in nature, staring at pools…
Photo by Laurie de Jong (used with permission)
After the Not Peaceful and Ordinary Sunday
Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life. All it needs from you is that you take care not to trample it.
That’s John Ames, Congregationalist minister, narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead.
I love John Ames as I’ve never loved a fictional character; I sat at his feet and listened to his gentle voice. Not one to push himself to the front of a crowd and trumpet his views, John Ames; approaching death, he wants his sermons burned. (“The deacons could arrange it. There are enough to make a good fire. I’m thinking here of hot dogs and marshmallows, something to celebrate the first snow.”) I wish his voice haunting the ear of the gunman in Quebec before he fired at the praying men. You take care not to trample. The silent and invisible life of prayer, care not to trample, the three-year-old with his father at prayer.
Obama loves John Ames, too. He read Gilead while campaigning in Iowa. He reveals this in an enlightening conversation with M. Robinson in The New York Review of Books (in two parts, November 2015) here:
Obama: “…the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found…” The whole conversation brings to mind the vast gulf, to say the least, between the last U.S. president and the current one.
But in these days of hate the quiet and small kindnesses are accumulating like at The Book Man in downtown Chilliwack; if you don’t take a bag for your books, you can drop in a token for local literacy or families in transition or even for Nietzsche the Bookstore Cat (community cats and dogs) and there’s the hollow clink of one but a week later a whole heap and there’s a heap of books to read for every trumping tweet.
Yesterday evening, browsing there, I found a novel I’d loved and lost and then found and found again and from it this passage in the wake of death and the face of hate:
For families will not be broken. Curse and expel them, send their children wandering, drown them in floods and fires, and old women will make songs out of all these sorrows and sit in the porches and sing them on mild evenings. Every sorrow suggests a thousand songs, and every song recalls a thousand sorrows, and so they are infinite in number, and all the same.
The Missing Vivian Marple
He understood so much now…why Time in the garden had sometimes jumped far ahead, and sometimes gone backwards.
The quote is in the mind of Tom Long from Philippa Pearce’s novel Tom’s Midnight Garden. To read this book, even for the umpteenth time, even in snatches, is to escape Time but also to delight in its unraveling. There’s a scene when Tom, gone back to 1895 from the mid-twentieth century by means of a garden, finds himself without skates. His friend Hatty promises, in 1895, to hide her skates, when she grows too old for them or leaves the house, in a secret space under the floorboards of her room (Tom’s room in the present). Back in his present, Tom finds her skates and enters the 1895 garden with them in hand. There’s a brilliant moment when Hatty and Tom, children of different centuries, both hold the same pair of skates; they’ve tricked Time. “Time No Longer” says Tom near the book’s close.
Four months ago (four!) Time seemed to steal the whole morning as I searched in vain for Vivian Marple’s book of poetry, I Mention the Garden for Clarity. I wanted a garden quote to end the last post and nothing else would do. Where had Vivian gone? Her only book, published about twenty years ago by Quarry Press (long gone), not readily available and my only copy (signed I think) was mysteriously missing.
Now, months later, another copy (stamped by the National Library of Canada) finally in my hands, I’m searching again, this time for a quote that I might have used if I’d ended the last post in Vivian’s garden instead of Tom’s. Perhaps this, from “The Lamb”:
Imagine a woman in a blue dress
with a scar in the palm of her hand
who sings canticles on Wednesday
mornings as the magpies lift the
brown sky above the careful houses
of the suburb where you live
Why does the woman have a scar in her palm? Why canticles? Why Wednesday mornings and magpies and why are the houses careful?
I love canticles, just as, several pages later, I rejoice to come upon the word chalice in “statements about Margaretha and the cosmos”. The opening:
She is Margaretha, marigold, marry gold woman on the front porch. On the step is the mustard seed and the cook book. It is 1966.
I ask, “Why marry gold woman?” even as I savour the mustard seed and the cook book on the step. I ask “Why 1966?” Still after all these years new questions arise from her strange and fierce and original poems, reminding me of another poet. Who was it that wrote–
Of Silken Speech and Specious Shoe
A Traitor is the Bee…?
The capitals should give her
away but I’ll leave it here
anyway as twenty minutes
elapsed a long, long time ago.
About Text & Image & the Wonderful Gillian Newland
I set out initially wanting to write about Maurice Sendak, maybe a few ideas from a lecture that he gave – “Sources of Inspiration” – back in 1983. It had been many years since I read that lecture in preparation for a course I was to give on Writing Children’s Literature at UBC. Now I found myself, for reasons I won’t go into, at UBC again, in a carrel in Koerner Library, skimming the lecture and trying to write a blog post in 20 minutes, impossible task. On the first page is not, as you might expect, a reference to Where the Wild Things Are (that comes hilariously and brilliantly later), but a mention of Ezra Jack Keats. Which reminded me of The Snowy Day, which I had just a few days previously read three times over to a bunch of preschoolers at story time. One of my favourite parts – and theirs, too—is when Peter trails a stick in the snow and you can see the single new track beside his boot tracks.
From The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
The illustration pinpoints where he picks up the stick and begins to drag it along (you get the feeling he’s dawdling), but you don’t get the word “stick” until the page is turned. This is the true brilliance of an illustrated book – when pictures and text lean on each other to fill in the missing information. Remember Pat Hutchins’ magnificent Rosie’s Walk? No mention at all is made of the fox in the text, but there he is, under a dump of flour and chased by a hive of angry bees as Rosie (the hen, his prey) strolls blissfully on. The marriage of text and image in the hands of a single artist/writer like Sendak, Keats, Hutchins and Brett is of course ideal.
I’m often asked, when I tell people about my forthcoming picture book, if I’m drawing the pictures, too. I laugh. No, I tell them, you wouldn’t ever want to buy a book with any visual art by me! What many people don’t realize is that when a publisher accepts a picture book text (unless the author is one of the lucky handful who can successfully do both), they need to find a professional illustrator to do the rest. I’m thrilled with Red Deer Press’s choice for my forthcoming book, A Boy Asked the Wind – Gillian Newland. You can view her exquisite illustration of the wind churning the sea on this website. I’m so grateful to Gillian for generously giving me permission to feature it, since the cover image of the book isn’t yet available. I love the swell of the wave and the fish carried along and within it, the tiny details of froth and marbling on the sea’s surface that somehow also convey hugeness, and all of this super-realism juxtaposed with the hint of a magic wind in the background; this is no ordinary wind, no ordinary ocean.
And…speaking of oceans, who was it that said, “Twenty minutes is an ocean of time…”?