My sister, Cindy Nickel, a teacher at Queen Alexandra Elementary in Vancouver, has ridden her bike every day to work in all weather for the past thirty-five years.
So it’s not surprising that her class of Grade 3 students wrote excellent poems about caring for the earth. I was honoured to hear the students in-person read and perform them while jumping rope for Earth Day yesterday. It’s lovely to me that what they write about is a way of life for their teacher. Two of her students wrote this one:
Skiing, scootering, skating, skipping,
Biking, bussing, walking, running,
Different ways to get to school,
Help the earth, use your own fuel.
After the presentation, some students took the jump ropes outside to continue at recess.
Back up several hours; in order to visit the school and hear this poem while following its advice, I needed to set out from my home in Yarrow at 4:45 a.m.
I’m grateful to my friend Sylvie Ingram, a teacher at Margaret Stenerson Elementary in Abbotsford, who decided to bike to her school too, and rode with me along the dyke in the dark and rain,
along North Parallel beside the Trans-Canada Highway, then down Abbotsford streets, the sky but not the rain beginning to lighten 23 km later when we parted ways on Old Clayburn Road.
Grateful to find my way 10 km farther to the Mission Bridge, to navigate its on ramp and for this rare 7 a.m. view of the Fraser River unique to pedestrians and cyclists from the biking/walking lane,
grateful to the bridge designers for including this lane as protection from the terrifying traffic a few feet away on the other side, an onslaught at odds with the tranquil view. (A sonnet line came to me and persisted: If all the cars were ordered off the road/what would we do…?)
Grateful to arrive soaking wet and shivering at Mission Station and to the West Coast Express
for carrying me to Vancouver with this view of Burrard Inlet and the Second Narrows Bridge as we neared Waterfront Station.
Grateful for Vancouver’s kindness to cyclists and the miraculous, stress-free, protected bike lanes through Dunsmuir downtown, over the Georgia Viaduct and along the Adanac and Mosaic Bike routes’ quiet blossoming streets all the way to Queen Alexandra.
After an Earth Day assembly and the jump rope poems, I found the area under the Burrard Street Bridge where they must have burned the train cars that would have taken me to Vancouver from Yarrow on the British Columbia Electric Railway before 1955 (see last week’s post). No ghosts, not even a trace of tracks.
Grateful for rest on the train back to Mission Station, for more wonders along the way home, like on tiny Grace Avenue in Matsqui;
and at almost 8 p.m., riding back into town, grateful for this earth, for friends and family near and far who help on the journey, and for my sister who inspires.
Down Clearbrook Road
Commit a poem to paper, then do what it says.
Several Aprils ago, I made this poem for Yarrow Community School during an ArtStarts residency celebrating National Poetry Month and Earth Month. Later, it travelled on BC Transit as part of the Poetry in Transit program.
April, 2023, in the Age of Heat Domes and Atmospheric Rivers, it’s still speaking to me so I was walking instead of driving down Clearbrook Road in Abbotsford, B.C. yesterday. I’ve been inside this road’s thick and incessant traffic din. It was louder out on the sidewalk, and I noticed a detail I’d been missing during years of driving by:
A four-sided sidewalk stamp framing every tree, appearing eerily like a gravestone with its fading epitaph, a vestige of what the neighbourhood might have been over half a century earlier—quieter, maybe even birdsong back when people had more time to walk and Funk’s Grocery Store sold Mennonite farmer sausage at the corner of South Fraser Way and Clearbrook Road.
The Funk family had begun their businesses twenty-four kilometres east, in Yarrow where they lived in a house on Community Street. (I used to write poems in an upstairs room of that house, another story.) In 1955, the same year the family opened their store in Clearbrook, a class of Grade Three students from Yarrow School took a field trip, experiencing a portion of the last ride of the B.C. Electric Railway which had been running from downtown Vancouver to Chilliwack (stopping in Yarrow) since 1910. According to the Fraser Valley Heritage Rail Society, after that trip most of the train cars were burned at the rail yard under the Burrard Street Bridge in Vancouver, and the Number One Highway began its reign.
Friday, April 21, 2023, rain or shine: Still listening to the footprint poem, I’ll start on bike from my home in Yarrow at 5 a.m. and ride 34 kilometres along Vye Road and other back roads as well as the Number 11 Highway to the West Coast Express’s Mission Station. I’ll board the 7:25 a.m. train with my bike to Vancouver’s Waterfront Station, then ride 5.5 kilometres to Queen Alexandra School on East 10th and Clark, where I’ll listen to and watch my sister Cindy Nickel’s Grade Three class perform their poems for jumping rope (I’ve been working with them on Zoom and by e-mail). I hope to find some rail car ghosts before heading back the way I came, and plan to arrive back in Yarrow at about 7 p.m.
I’ll post about these adventures in a week on Earth Day. Happy Poetry and Earth Month!
Mourning Dove, Rain Dove
I was reading James Agee and this thing he did with “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” set for soprano and orchestra by Samuel Barber, this piece I’ve loved for years.
Agee took about ninety minutes and didn’t revise, just published what he came up with.
So I set myself the same restrictions; no fussing, revising, just getting it down because I needed to write something, it’s been so long.
I invite you in.
Mourning dove, rain dove, turtle dove on a telephone wire. Hear it coo in the mind of the evening previous when the silken spider threads are hung with the spray from the garden hose, curtains up, windows open once again so the house can take in the night, sound of spray down deep into the roots of the blue spruce, the sweet gum, the phlox, the yew, the lavender, the old rose, the fig, the peaches ripening, slightly pocked and the yarrow dying brown and past its prime, summer savory gone to flower and the nasturtiums, marigolds, the unruly arugula, sweet basil and kale, most of the sour cherry lost to the winter, all night these roots drinking silently from the spray of this evening, swimmers at the lake sometime long ago toweled dry and slowly in their cars down the long mountain road and waiting in the ice cream line, the little lights in the cherry tree near the bishop’s hat and the lime green hydrangea balloons and the Persian ivy taking its time, year after year never climbing high and covering the fence as it should, but there among the Welsh poppy stalks spreading yellow and orange in thoughts of spring, slipping its seeds into the weeds unseen in the night about to slip into September but not there yet, when the weeds grow thick in the night, oxalis, buttercup, quack grass, morning glory in the cedars to snip and unravel from the raspberry canes in the day when things must be done.
Day of doves when the living is done, the laundry strung up on the new clothesline, and the sky is clear of clouds day after day after day and thoughts drift to rain and when will it come, and what if, and no, and how many summers still out with the hose, the water soaking each one down to the roots and nights of the fan turning overhead and a breeze, sleep and the train and a breeze and memory of the lemon scent of some weed crushed in a meadow ridden through on a bike, that meadow laden with daisy and foxglove after the cool winding shade of some ancient trees.
Snowforest (July June August September 2021)
Late July in Snowforest, a new national park campground, kids biked past our site, exploring, looping as our kids used to do in other campgrounds, and as decades ago we did too.
In the gorgeous bathroom complex no more stalls; each toilet housed in its own high-ceilinged room where you could read about the Coeur d’Alene salamander, endangered in other parts, discovered here.
Late June we dared not go outside. Stood by the fan by the sink pitting sour cherries. Sweat that shower after shower wouldn’t wash; nights no longer cool, craving rain.
When weeks later it came there was a joyous run, catching it on the tongue, pleasure of the hour that didn’t last long.
Late August we drove by Lytton, that town minutes burned, record heat everyone knows but can’t imagine.
Charred remains out of sight down in the valley so you could almost drive by as if it didn’t happen.
Late September, the rain won’t go away. Routine now lush green, hummingbird across the glass where you stand at the sink forgetting that sweat. Startles close:
You forget Snowforest. You forgot. You forget.
Ash had fallen in the night.
(Remember the pale flakes
on the freshly hewn
picnic table, carried
on the wind from some un-
There’s a Nurse
As many of you know, I launched my third poetry collection, Essential Tremor, on April 24 online. I’m so grateful to Caitlin Press, to co-hosts Stephanie Bolster, Christopher Patton and Rob Taylor, and to you who were among 110 people who showed up from St. John’s to Nashville to Saskatoon to celebrate with me. Thank you!
I wish I could have thanked each person in person. There were other things I wanted to say but there wasn’t time. Before I read the poem “Hospital Room,” I’d planned to thank nurses. The preceding weekend, I’d been in the hospital overnight for surgery to my ankle after a hiking accident. In excruciating pain, I trusted a crew of nurses over an intense twenty-four hours to manage each step by step by step I needed to get from that pain to laughing with one as she wheeled me out to the parking lot with nine screws in my ankle. Hear the word hospital; there’s a nurse holding your barf bag at 3 a.m.
“Hospital Room” opens:
Chill and old. Rain thrashes the window,
almost seems to enter in. No nurses
come and Nicola is snoring…
That was ages ago. I was lonely in that moment. I’m sure the nurses had come and gone and would come again; they were probably just overworked and had been called somewhere else for a time. I thank them, too.
If you’d like to hear me read “Hospital Room” again and other poems from Essential Tremor, I invite you to the following online readings:
This Tuesday, May 25 at 5 p.m. PDT, I’ll be giving a reading with Karen Shenfeld as part of the Art Bar Poetry Series. You can sign up on Facebook, or click here to attend. The reading will include five clips from my “Corona: Sonnets in Situ” video including Yarrow’s Flame the Rooster, an appearance at UBC’s Chan Centre and the beaver surprise in “3 (Spring).”
You can also watch the whole Sonnets in Situ video on this website here.
Friday, May 28 at 7:30 p.m. PDT, I’ll be giving a reading on Zoom as part of Planet Earth Poetry. You can visit their website for details and to sign up for a Zoom link.
As ever, I’m grateful to you all!
Happy May Long!
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.