Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Confession: Newfoundland

They call this place “new found land” and in a way, it is and was, for me, even in the brief three days I was in the province. Today in my lectionary meditation, I wrote – “back from Newfoundland, now where next?” For over a month I’d been on a steady voyage to this unknown shore through the wideness of our country – from my edge of prairie in Manitoba through to Canadian Shield down to Niagara Peninsula and then up again past the hump of New Brunswick onto Nova Scotia and past the wee crescent isle of P.E.I onto the rocky banks that form the narrow cove that is St. John’s Harbor. I came because I was invited, and I was invited because I interviewed Margaret once, and we had the kind of exchange that left a lasting impression. My fellow panelists Barb Nickel, Stan Dragland and Maureen Scott Harris are also familiar with Margaret or her work as editors, readers, poets and collaborators. Together we celebrated her life and her art.

Of course, I was on another kind of journey as well. And that is the parallel one that mirrors the literal, the one Margaret might refer to as ‘anagogic.’ That word ‘anagogic’ has been a touchstone for me for my own poetry ever since I encountered the term somewhere in my readings about or by Margaret. Fond as I know Margaret was of being etymologically precise, I decide to look up the word ‘anagogic’ on my generation’s equivalent of Margaret’s favorite dictionary (Klein’s Comprehensive Etymological dictionary of the English Language) which is the Internet. Here is what I found from various sources:

Anagogic: “pertaining to the moral, uplifting, progressive strivings of the unconscious.”; “relating to literature as a total order of words”; “leading on high; or that which draws towards divinity” or as referring to ‘anagoge’ which is “a mystical or allegorical interpretation (especially of Scripture.)"

I think somehow all these definitions, disparate as they appear, do define the word precisely enough in the context in which I use it in my journey with Margaret’s poetry. Thus it is, I end with this poem, a summation of my experience:

To Margaret from St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Confession: I came to dwell on your words once more
so I might catch glimpse of the sea. However, two days in,
the mist is so heavy, the only sight from Signal Hill are the
cannon ends of the Queen’s Battery – cannons, the sign says,
which have never fired “angry at an enemy.”

Mist obscures and has no face, but the sea is certain beyond it.

By the hotel bed, the Gideon Bible with its cloud of witnesses
blankets the page and I am stymied again by what veils
the hidden, yet obvious. Mere mortal record,
in language that lisps, God meets Time as mist to hillside;
still I am left, gaping at the edge.

On the third day, my last, the clouds clear
and ocean, blue and undulating, palpable as air and wind,
is glimpsed.

It is the sight I have been waiting for, longing in your words
to find it.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Dear Margaret: Going to Newfoundland

Dear Margaret:

Your death made little fanfare in the world as David Kent notes, and that is perhaps as you wished it, but your memory lingers on in the minds of many poets -- kindred spirits of the word -- and I am one of them. Tomorrow I will board a plane to Newfoundland to meet other such spirits, friends who knew you in person or through your poems. We will meet in one of those 'person-freeing' silences you speak of in the paradoxical act of remembering you, you, who eschewed the limelight in every way! A group of poet-friends will gather together to talk about you and your work; I hope you don't mind. I traveled a journey with your poetry and archive this past month that was at times exhilarating and exasperating, but always revealing of a fierce intelligence and a dogged devotion to the art of poetry and the art of seeking God. In Newfoundland, I look forward to seeing that place you call "Ajar" --

A glistening sea spread under
the teal-blue sky,
level horizons all around. By
some eerie miracle
everything tilted towards the
edge-of-nothing end.


The forecasts, all:
fair weather.

(AN, Vol 3, p.201)

Monday, June 16, 2008

Doubly Smitten: Margaret and The Word

This post is about Margaret and scripture. One of the newer things added to Margaret’s archive that I noticed on my more recent visit was the addition of her Bible study notes. There were a number of files containing years’ worth of Bible study notes in the form of scribblers, notebooks, and yes, even just plain scrap paper. I was amazed to open up one file with her notes from June 2001. It contained her daily meditations on Ezekiel, written in tiny crabbed print on scraps of paper, the backs of which read a sampling of her daily life’s mental activities – promotional letters from publishers, donation cards for various charities, handbills for concerts, royalty statements, old typed out poems with crossed-out lines, photocopies of poems printed from literary magazines, and even housekeeping notices from the residence she lived in. I could hardly read the tiny print of the meditations but these daily notes were a true testament to Margaret’s intense devotional life.

On the day I saw these notes, I drove home past Elim Chapel. On its billboard was the message: THE BIBLE AS IT IS FOR PEOPLE AS THEY ARE. How true of Margaret! I thought, for reading and meditating on scripture was an integral part of Margaret’s life and of her poetry. Working as I am now through the lectionary in my own devotional practice, I see how lively scripture is, how a few choice lines of this or that can quicken the intellect and spark certain images and ideas, perfect for translating into a poem. Poems can also be a way of teasing out meaning in a text in a kind of question and answer method. Clearly, I see that happening with Margaret’s long poem on Job. There’s a thesis to be written on Margaret’s poetic interpretations of scripture but the object lesson for me in seeing Margaret’s notes was about her enduring and abiding habit of reading the Bible. The same sharp-eyed attention Margaret gave to the natural word, the urban landscape, she gave also to the scriptures. She read the Word, and then with her own natural gift for words re-interpreted it for the reader.

In my short story about my encounter with Margaret, I say of my character, Elizabeth, "She did not know what she loved more: literature or God." Thus it is when Elizabeth encounters the work of a godly poet, she is doubly smitten. That is the way I feel when I read Margaret’s poems. I can’t help but feel doubly smitten by Margaret’s focus on both word and the Word.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Breathing Embroidery: Hearing Margaret Read

Thinking about doing a reading made me uneasy. Each time I do it I don’t know what order to do things in and it struck me that the thing that bothers me is that poetry is not a personal statement and yet you present yourself as a person when you read it, and reading more or less in sequence – using your personal sequence of writing tells something about your discovery, I suppose – so you may as well just give in and let it happen in an autobiographical kind of order.

This is the voiced Margaret I heard for the first time from a recording made in 1972 by Regent College recently given to me by David Kent. (David, by the way, has an excellent article on Margaret in a recent CNQ – see Links.) It’s extraordinary for me to hear Margaret’s voice live for I have never met her. She’s got a low, almost monotone voice that sounds ponderous and deliberate, but still exhibits her characteristic flair for words. In 1972, Margaret was between books – namely The Dumbfounding which came out in 1966 and sunblue which would not be published until 1978. In between those years, she was published curiously enough in an anthology called The Cosmic Chef Glee & Perloo Memorial Society under the direction of Captain Poetry presents an evening of concrete poetry edited by bp nichol. Bp was a good friend of Margaret’s; she met him when she was working at the University of Toronto library. The two poets shared a real love for the language, although for bp, this love would take him in an entirely different direction than Margaret. Although I am no Canlit historian, I sense that Margaret occasionally partook of the times in the Canadian poetry scene as it was in those heady days which included the now ubiquitous event known as the ‘poetry reading.’ Margaret was in her early fifties in 1972 and almost a decade past her conversion, so she was well entrenched in her identity as a Christian and a poet by the time this recording was made. Nontheless, as the recording shows, Margaret was still philosophically at some unease with the notion of reading her poetry aloud.

To my delight, I got to hear Margaret read her famous poem “The Swimmer’s Moment” which by that time already had a reputation for ostensibly being about conversion when it wasn’t written with that intent at all as Margaret makes clear in her prefatory remarks. After she reads the poem, she reflects upon it, saying “It’s very language-bound language, isn’t it? Hard to project. There wasn’t any reading-aloud poetry that I knew of in those years – it was just beginning – and I feel as if I’m breathing embroidery or something when I’m trying to read it.”

Breathing embroidery, indeed! There’s another lovely Avison-ism for you.

P.S. I will add a link to the recording once it is made available on-line.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Community of Readers

Poet Sarah Klassen and I are friends. Early on in our relationship - we met about a year after I moved to Winnipeg – we found we had a shared interest in the poetry of Margaret Avison. In fact, Sarah has reviewed Margaret’s books and is quoted on the back of Always Now, Vol. 2. When I told Sarah I was writing this blog, she told me about articles she had about Margaret and her poetry that might help me. We agreed to meet at Stella’s cafĂ© in my neighborhood. On Thursday afternoon, I rode my bike down to Stella’s and parked it in a rack by a nearby grocery store.

Sarah had a few articles for me like John Barton’s essay “Fluid Epiphanies: Margaret Avison’s “The Swimmer’s Moment,” from Arc and an interview with Margaret entitled “A Conversation with Margaret Avison” conducted by D.S. Martin for Image magazine. There was also another essay of literary criticism on Margaret’s poem “Dispersed Titles,” a poem which deals with Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe. Looking at the latter made me feel a little overwhelmed and reminded me of the day I had spent at the archive a week earlier. There was so much stuff on Margaret’s poetry – theses, articles, essays – because Margaret’s poetry is, to put it bluntly, dense. For the literary scholar, there is much to dwell on and one could be drawn tantalizingly into an analysis of the work without end. And to somehow not do so, might make one appear slight in one’s admiration for the poems and poet – sycophantic and deferential – in ways that had not fundamentally grappled with the art and intent of the work. Sarah recounted to me a story of a friend who had seen Margaret once and told her that on occasion, she found Margaret’s poems difficult and sometimes hard to understand. And Margaret replied that in that case, the poems had failed. By ‘failed’, I imagine she meant failed in its intent to communicate meaning. I myself have not ‘understood’ all of Margaret’s poems and don’t pretend to. Some of them are obscure and difficult. But there are ones, when they’re just plain good, that sing with poetic clarity. In one of Margaret’s correspondences with a writer, she speaks of wanting to be known for those poems that strike a chord in the reader that begets awe – a sort of self-less silent awe – as if the poet has simply said it and there is nothing more to add. A moment where poet and reader have communed. That was what happened to me when I read “The Swimmer’s Moment,” and evidently, the same poem struck John Barton. “Margaret Avison’s “The Swimmer’s Moment” has haunted me for thirty years.” he writes.

Sarah herself writes in her review of Always Now, Vol. 1 that Margaret’s work “challenges her readers, who, unless, they are as willing as the poet to be rigorously attentive may get bogged down in ideas often conveyed through allusion and expressed in tightly compressed syntax.” It’s the getting-bogged-down-in-ideas that is the scholar’s particular predicament, but for a poet reading the poetry, this may not be so much of a concern. Either the allusions or images strike a chord, or they don’t. There’s no argument that Margaret’s work can be exceedingly ‘intellectual,’ as in “Dispersed Titles” but the poet there – to rob deliciously from that poem these lines – is “an intellect/created into world, [was] wounded with whispers from a single oak tree.” (AN, vol. 1, p. 57) There’s that lovely Avisonesque syntax again – oh, to be an ‘intellect/ created’ and alliteratively ‘wounded with whispers’!

D.S. Martin’s interview with Margaret in Image was published after the appearance of Always Now and is therefore more recent than mine. There’s much to be gleaned from the article about Margaret’s faith and poetics. I found there a recounting of her conversion experience in which she threw her Bible across the room, telling God “Okay, take everything then!” when she at last, was compelled to give up what was so precious to her, her poetry. But later, she discovers that such a sacrifice is unnecessary, experiencing that ‘added unto you’ aspect of scripture that so aptly follows Christ’s command to “Seek ye first the kingdom.” And so, the poetry was not given up, but further enhanced and enriched. And now, too, there was a fresh new audience for it – those who sought after an articulation of their Christian experience in poetic terms that were not ‘sentimental nor preachy’ as Sarah Klassen puts it. Here now was a new community of readers for Margaret’s work.

Sarah and I are part of that community of readers. And together, we met and ‘communed’ over Margaret as I had with Tim Lilburn a week previous. I thank Margaret for these moments of companionship instigated by her poetry. I came out of that coffee shop exhilarated by our talk and eager to read the articles. When I got back to my bike, I discovered to my delight that someone had stuck a flower in my handlebars. I tossed the articles Sarah had given me into my basket and rode off, happily feted on my journey by that one gracious act by a stranger.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Re-reading the World

Yesterday, I spent an hour reading the third volume of Always Now. And then I took a bike ride down a street lined with blossoming apple trees. In spring in Japan, the viewing of the cherry trees in bloom is an almost sacred event. The whole nation is primed for it with even the weather broadcasters showing maps of the country in graduated shades of pink indicating when the blossoms will be at their peak throughout the land. June is the month of blossoms in Winnipeg, I find, especially of crab apple and lilac. From a neighbor’s deck, I saw a faraway apple tree, rife with blossoms, like an explosion caught in mid-frame, wads of white fisted flowers punching the blue air.

A good poet makes a person re-read the world. So spoke a voice in my head as I biked along the trail by the river. Because I’d read Margaret’s poetry, every living thing I encountered hummed and buzzed with meaning – the burdock lining the banks of the river with the spindly grey shadows of their former selves rising ethereally above the riotously elephantine eared new growth, the roar of the jet plane overhead as my wheels crunch over the gravel below the underpass, the thrust of a branch studded with flowers into the stark lined symmetry of telephone wires against the blue sky, and then suddenly that lane full of blossoming trees so lovely it makes one stop and gape in awe.

I read the world I saw that day because I read Margaret read the world in her poems. Her ‘concrete and wild carrot,’ her ‘snowflakes in starlight/obliterated into weft and stippling,’ her ‘young medalioned trees’ her leaves ‘blossomy in frills and lace,’ her ‘still angora mist,’ her ‘rollicking orb’ – all these descriptors bespeak a gift with language for the well-observed. It’s as if these things named themselves to her. In “Knowing the New,” the poet declares “Suddenly utterance is everywhere.” and that is exactly right. In spring, utterance IS everywhere. I had half a mind to find all of Margaret’s spring poems – she has quite a few, for example, set in April which is a favorite month for poets – and put them in a home-made calendar. Of course, her linguistic acuity is not simply limited to observation of the natural world but to other things like the unseen and the invisible that have only the fingertips of words to probe them. There are her meditations on death, for example, and her many poems on scripture – words reading the Word, as it were, but today, because it is spring, I want to celebrate it the way Margaret did in her poems so often and so marvelously in those moments when her sheer gift with language truly lit up the terrain.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Of Momentary Dark

Today, Momentary Dark is missing. After I send the kids off to school, put in the laundry, pull off the plastic on the garden beds, I sit down at my desk, intent on writing about something that happened to me in the archive on Thursday. One of the first boxes I opened contained a correspondence that seemed meant for my eyes only – not my own which I found later and which I did not care a whit to look at – but something else. It was a short correspondence between Margaret and another writer, both of whom were Christians, and who were struggling with each other, and also with a great darkness that perplexed, troubled, and saddened both of them. I read the correspondence furtively and then later, recounting it to my husband, I wept.

Momentary Dark was in that box. One copy alone, nothing else. All weekend long, I thought about that correspondence, and about that book in that box. I’d taken out Momentary Dark in my raid on the library for Margaret’s poetry, and quoted from it already in a past blog posting. I decided that on Monday (today) I would read more of that book and perhaps glean from it the wisdom in it that must somehow have grappled with the darkness I read about in the correspondence. I also wanted to read this book because its title was different than the others. For yes, in the lives of all – pessimist or optimist, believer or non – there is momentary dark.

Strangely, the book this morning is missing. I clear off my desk in an attempt to find it, but it's disappeared as if whisked out of sight. All the other of Margaret’s titles I’ve taken out of the library are here – the three volumes of Always Now, Not Yet But Still, Concrete and Wild Carrot, Winter Sun, and the Pascal lectures monograph. But no sign of Momentary Dark, anywhere. I wonder where it’s gone.

I flip through Always Now, thinking that Momentary Dark might be in there, but Momentary Dark came after Always Now. Momentary Dark was Margaret’s last published book. It appeared in 2006, a year before her death. In fact, its title does not even appear on Margaret’s list of published works on the Margaret Avison website that I’ve put on my list of links. I find one link from M & S that contains a synopsis of the book and a list of the poems, but I dearly want the book in hand. Momentary Dark, where are you? What hand has hid you from my sight this day?