Sunday, February 22, 2009

Time, Angel and The Art of Hunger

You can barely see the book in this photograph, The Art of Hunger, by Paul Auster. This is the view from my red velvet chair in my study. I didn't notice the book when I was taking the photo, it just appeared. I like the way Auster writes about poetry. From a short piece on Laura Riding: "If the poem finally is to become something we do not merely leave behind, but something we can take with us, something at rare and fortuitous moments, that can even open the way for us, it is to her work that we must turn..."

I like (of course I do), the thought of the poem as 'something we can take with us.' A friend once typed out a poem by Dahlia Ravikovitch for me, on a beautiful piece of heavy, sea green paper. She only made one small mistake in typing this page-long poem, "Surely You Remember." I carried it around in my purse for awhile, but have kept it on my desk for quite some time.

I've given a little thought lately to the bits and pieces posted here and there about negative reviewing. Thought I'd throw another quotation into the mix:

Someone who is about to admonish another must realize within himself the five qualities before doing so [that he may be able to say], thus:

"In due season will I speak, not out of season. In truth will I speak, not in falsehood. Gently will I speak, not harshly. To his profit will I speak, not to his loss. With kindly intent will I speak, not in anger."

(from the Vinaya Pitaka)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Capacious Project - Susan Elmslie

Susan Elmslie lives in Montreal and teaches at Dawson College. Her first trade collection of poetry, I, Nadja, and Other Poems (Brick, 2006) won the A.M. Klein Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for the McAuslan First Book Prize, the Pat Lowther Memorial Award and a ReLit Award. Her poems have also appeared in journals, anthologies, and in a prize-winning chapbook, When Your Body Takes to Trembling (Cranberry Tree, 1996). She won the Arc Poem of the Year contest in 2007 for her poem, “Box,” which was also selected for the Best of Canadian Poetry in English, 2008 —guest-edited by Stephanie Bolster and published by Tightrope books.

Skip-Hop Diaper Bag

I have been carrying it for four years now, since my first baby was born. And though it’s had heavier use since the arrival of the second baby, the bag’s still holding up well. Actually, it’s in perfect condition, except for the salt stains on the bottom. Those stains ground it; they say “gear” rather than “fashion accessory.” They say “jolie-laide.”

If the contents sound like the bourgeois-domestic version of an epic catalogue, that’s because it is more than a diaper bag; it carries everything needed to keep four lives in balance when we venture out en famille. The bag is magic. We pull from it a seemingly endless supply of necessities and some unexpected treats. Poof, presto! It has rarely failed to save the day, supplying the just-what-is-needed to calm the predictable and freak storms of need on the seas of parenting. It’s saved my composure on more than a few occasions. Lugging it, I feel ready for battle. No diaper blowout or hunger-induced meltdown will put the kibosh to our outing—or at least that’s the hope. That’s the armour this bag provides: the confidence to venture out with youngsters in tow.

We both carry it, my husband and I. So it had to be gender-neutral in style and user-friendly. No fuzzy ducky motifs for us. The selection of the gear itself was involved. I spent several hours researching online, talking to friends, assessing our needs—which were swelling like my belly. Months from the birth, I had the luxury of time to choose wisely. And this is one piece of baby gear I wanted to get right. The cost of some diaper bags is obscene. (You can buy a used Matt & Nat “Paltrow” diaper bag, made from recycled water bottles, for $200 on the Montreal Craigslist! New, this bag costs almost $300. I like the eco-friendly angle, but I wouldn’t pay that much for a diaper bag unless it was bullet proof!) While I knew that any bag would do the trick, I was also sure that some were better than others. I didn’t want to go through several. The image of countless discarded bags in landfills is enough to make me break out in a sweat.

Eventually, I set my heart on a black Skip-Hop—which looks more like a messenger bag than a tote for dipes and wipes—and since they were not widely available in Canada, we bid (and won!) in an eBay auction. But despite its blithe-sounding moniker, I neither skip nor hop while lugging it. Often it is suspended from the straps of our “stroller system” (the marketing savvy of the person who came up with that term both impresses and repulses me). The Skip-Hop has these great adjustable straps that, in two clicks, transform it from shoulder bag to handle-gripping pouch. The first time we travelled with this bag—to Bermuda, when my daughter was five months old—nearly a dozen people asked where we got it. That’s more people than fawned over the baby.

Everything our bag contains has been carefully chosen; it has to be worth its weight. Miniature-sized items are especially prized. Some items are lifers. Some are on stand-by; they get crammed in if need dictates. Or the anticipation of that need registers before we set out.
Of course there are all the essentials for an infant. Some things you can’t stint on. Five or six diapers. Wipes. Change pad. Bum balm. Kleenex. Two spare infant outfits, complete with undershirt, socks and warm cap. A flannel blanket. A spare pacifier. Two wash cloths and a burp cloth. During baby’s first weeks it’s even held a spare top for mom and/or dad. And always a spare set of breast pads.

For the potty-training pre-schooler: a spare pair of underwear and slacks, a Pull-Up, and toilet seat shields. And very ingenious: a little tube of tablets that become cloths when you add water. Thanks, Q!

Then there’s the just-in-case medical kit sealed in a big Ziploc bag: infant and children’s acetaminophen and ibuprofen. Saline nose drops. A few cotton swabs. Polysporin. Band-Aids. Lip balm for everyone in the family over two. Badger brand sunscreen. A tiny sample-sized package of Tylenol Ultra-Relief (laced with caffeine) for the parents. Sometimes, for excursions to places like the Brome County Fair, a can of saline wound wash is crammed in. Sometimes a thermometer. Always ear plugs—a set for the parent and extras to offer to anyone trapped in seats nearby. The extras are a force field against stranger-rage; they pacify big babies who can’t self-soothe.

The children’s vaccination records. My son’s glasses case. A little net to cover the stroller, to keep at bay the women of a certain generation, who feel entitled to touch any baby within arm’s reach.

Spare Ziploc bags for used diapers and soiled clothes. Purell and alcohol-free spray sanitizer. Hand lotion. And a lipstick for mom, because sometimes it does matter.
A protein bar for the famished breast-feeding mom. Three organic granola bars. Lozenges. A set of small cutlery and a clean sippy cup.

A very small pad of paper or Post-It notes. Two pens. There has to be two, in case one is left behind somewhere, or one of us needs to draw or play tic-tac-toe with our preschooler. Sometimes, when we expect to wait a long time before a doctor’s appointment, I slide in a magazine or slim volume of poetry next to the change pad.

The diaper bag functions as my purse, too; I don’t carry another handbag. So my keys must be stuffed into a zippered pocket along with my slightly downsized wallet. A dedicated pouch on the side of the bag holds my cell phone. Depending on the season, a miniature umbrella and individually-wrapped plastic rain ponchos may be crammed in the bottom of the bag.

Sometimes toys or small books, things to entertain while dining out.

At times the bag has been so tightly packed that you practically need a crowbar to pry a diaper out. One anecdote bears telling here. When we went on a calèche ride in Old Montreal and the bag (which I’d set on the floor of the horse-drawn carriage) was, unnoticed by us, up-ended along the way, and was lodged upside-down between the rear fender and the step, hanging that way for a good cobble-stoned block or so, the entire contents should have spilled out into the street. But incredibly, only one thing—a pack of Kleenex?—fell out. A German tourist ran after the carriage to return the dropped item and alert us to the dangling bag.

I’ve always been a careful packer. For as long as I can remember, I’ve made a list, days or weeks before a trip, itemizing everything to take along. For the return trip, the list also ensures I don’t leave anything behind. And should my luggage go missing, I’ll know just what I lost. I’ll be able to email a precise list. When I was a freer-and-easier (childless) young woman, I used to remind myself that it didn’t matter if I forgot something I needed for my trip—as long as I had my credit card and my birth control pills, I’d manage. I waited a long time to have kids, so everything would be pretty much in place, all my ducks in a row. But where does it come from, this need to be überprepared? I’m sure it goes back to the house fire we had when I was three. The feeling of being stranded on the curb in your housecoat, while every other material thing you associate with comfort is consumed by flames. Seeing your mother helpless to meet your needs. Those sorts of feelings stay with you. After that you don’t want to leave the house without the things that will make you and yours feel comfortable and secure.

I’d like the Skip-Hop to carry whatever I lack: a heal-all, a saving grace, a benediction, the ability to stave off pain. I’d like not to need what it contains—to know each and every day that we have what we need, and that we may not be prepared for, but can handle, anything. In a couple of years we won’t need this bag because the kids will have grown. I’ll miss the all-consuming and sometimes heavy task of taking care of them during the diaper-and-breast-feeding years. But I won’t miss hauling the gear, the lugging, the schlepping.

Then maybe I’ll auction my Skip-Hop on eBay, share the magic, or at least the salt.

Read more about the Capacious Project here.

To view all the contributions to the project go here.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Indebtedness, The Green Dress, and How We Come to Books We Love

"In defiance of everything, Miranda bought a green dress." This is the first sentence in a story called "The Green Dress," which is in a collection by Kristjana Gunnars titled, The Guest House and Other Stories. I was rearranging books on a shelf, and this one fell into my hands, literally. The red door on the cover made me look at it again more closely - I had been thinking, daydreaming really, about red, about doors, portals, passages, about the way books will appear, openings, opening, out of the blue. I was thinking about how I open books - usually nearer to the ending than the beginning. This book was published in 1992, and I must have read it shortly after it came out but I don't remember it making a huge impression on me. Not in the way that Gunnars' books, The Prowler and The Rose Garden did, and later her book on writing, Stranger at the Door. I was fortunate to have Gunnars as a professor in my undergrad, for both a creative writing class and for an honors English tutorial. I appreciated her demeanour, the calm and careful distance she kept. In spite of the distance, or maybe because of it, I felt a connection to her and her writing has since been a source of inspiration for me.

I reread "The Green Dress," amazed really, that I hadn't been more taken with the story then, as I am now. The book with the red door on the cover, opened immediately to the story of the green dress. Maybe I can see why it didn't enter into my bloodstream when I first encountered it. It's simply written, understated, sharp. Miranda shops at the West Edmonton Mall, which is also where I shop, where I did shop. I would have likely thought then that the mall was not worthy of being in a short story. Probably the character, Miranda, who is "six thousand dollars in debt" and who is pondering a dress that "cost seven hundred and eighty-two dollars" but decides in the end that "one thousand more or less did not seem to her to matter," frightened me. I saw myself in her.

Maybe when I read the story of the green dress now, I'm able to read it knowing that I escaped being Miranda, knowing that I carry a Miranda inside me. But I'm also coming to the story, to Miranda, having read The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector several times. It was through reading books by Gunnars that quoted Lispector that drew me to this particular small book. In the dedication to the book (how I love Lispector's dedications), she says: "It is an unfinished book because it offers no answer. An answer I hope someone somewhere in the world may be able to provide. You perhaps? It is a story in technicolour to add a touch of luxury, for heaven knows, I need that too. Amen for all of us." And then the book begins, the first sentence: "Everything in the world began with a yes." The 'girl' in The Hour of the Star is named Macabea, and she "found consolation in being sad." She is a typist who lives in poverty. She likes coca-cola, has a "passion for horror films and musicals," and she has taken up with a boyfriend who is a rat. They have things in common, Macabea and Miranda. Miranda drinks coffee from "Cookies by George" and would like to go to La Boheme, but opera is out of the question given her budget. I don't find it a coincidence that both of their names begin with an M.

I passed over the story of the green dress many years ago, hardly thinking about it. And now I can't get it out of my head. I keep coming back to it. The image of the dress itself, floats around in my mind. I think knowing that this sort of thing happens (it's happened to me before often enough) is what makes me reluctant to review books. The cadences of a book, of a writer, may not be accessible to one at certain times. We are not where the book needs us to be.

And then, all of this has got me thinking about how we find those books we love anyway. Sometimes it's through a review, but for me, it's more often that I find a book through another book. Or word of mouth, a recommendation by a friend, or on a blog. Those books we need tend to appear by rather more mysterious methods I've found. I know several people who have talked about meaningful books that have literally fallen off a shelf into their hands or onto their path. Of course, I've most often worked in libraries or bookstores, so this will increase the odds of such things happening.

If I hadn't read The Rose Garden and other books by Gunnars I don't think I'd be writing the sort of thing I'm writing currently. It's not that it's really like The Rose Garden in any way, but that Gunnars' writing illuminated certain possible paths for me. And then, this book also affirmed things that I'd been thinking about how to read (and isn't reading the most important part of writing?). Gunnars says, "It occurred to me in this summer of reading, that the whole idea of "reading" is suspect. We think that to read is to sit down with a book, scan its pages word for word, finish it, and put it away. That is a consumer model of reading, and that is the one we have." Up until I read this, I think I felt twinges of guilt about the way I often read books - not always front to back, but dipping in and out, returning to them again and again. Maybe this mode of reading has to do with how we read as writers.

All this really to say, that I'm indebted to Kristjana Gunnars, to her books. In an essay in Stranger at the Door, called "Theory and Fiction," she writes, "If a text is an apprenticeship to other texts, it would be natural for it to reflect its influences, to make them transparent and to show a certain self-consciousness about its own genesis and process. In doing so, the writer can acknowledge a debt that is owing." She also talks about an 'honest' writing and this is exactly the sort of writing one finds in "The Green Dress."

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Playing with Fire (and Wax, Twine, and Paper)

Once in a while I get the urge to fiddle around with flames, to melt things. And so it was this afternoon. This is in fact a book purse, the kind you can buy in a craft store with blank pages. The last time I did this, I set the wee thing on my windowsill which was fine in the winter, but one particularly hot day this past summer....well, you can imagine.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

What Book is in Your Purse?

I usually have a book in my purse, my hold-all. And there's always one in the car too. What book is in my purse, right now? The Guest House and Other Stories by Kristjana Gunnars.

The book in the photo is Venetian Palaces.

What book is in your purse, right now?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Utility Corridor, part two

Thanks to a dog who doesn't seem to feel the cold at all, I've been out walking in the corridor nearly every day this winter, even in extreme weather. The colder the weather, the more likely that one finds oneself alone.

Mornings, the field is full of (usually) women walking dogs. We have dropped our kids off at school and then walk the dogs before burying ourselves in whatever work awaits. We watch the dogs racing around together, pretending to hunt the partridges that hide in the low spots, and we talk and we notice the various gradations of blue, how high the sun is, how warm.

The wind is always higher in the field, blowing over the paths in the field quite often, so that one becomes accustomed to trudging.

The sky can be many things all at once. The photos above and below were taken on the same walk, only minutes apart.

A winter view of the church across the highway.

Clouds, seemingly on a collision course.

Someone in the distance walking a dog. We never meet.

The tracks across the snow, the line of the fence, the power lines, and then two faint human shadows stretching out.

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Friday, February 6, 2009

Thoughts on the Utility Corridor - part one

It happens that I live a couple of houses over from a utility corridor. I, who crave quiet, silence, live a few houses over from a gravel walking path, which is beside a fenced field (the corridor), which is beside an increasingly busy highway. I've installed a fountain in my backyard so that in the summer, I can focus on the water trickling. But at certain times of the day, the roar and rumble of semi trucks and motorcycles gets under my skin, adjusts my nervous system. I've been walking in that space, between houses and highway for about nine years now. The last couple of years has been with a dog, before that mostly alone. I wrote a great deal of my forthcoming book of poetry, Red Velvet Forest, walking out in that strip of land over four years ago, ignoring the no trespassing signs, the warnings that "unauthorized access is not permitted." Everyone does.

It's an interesting space though. It used to be farmland. There are stands of trees at either ends of the long field. In the middle is a wetlands area. We spot deer out there once in a while. Coyotes. All sorts of birds. The other day, out walking with a friend, we saw an owl emerge from one of the stands of trees and fly into the area with houses. We thought it would circle and come back to the trees and though we watched for some time, it didn't return and we haven't seen it since.

Over the years I've watched treehouses being built by one group of kids, then destroyed by another. Sometimes they just fall apart. But every spring, a new batch of kids can be seen hauling scraps of lumber and cans of nails out to the narrow strip of trees.

A hay crop is grown and made into round bales, which the kids also enjoy. They climb on them, hide amid them, roll them around, break them up. In the photo above you can see the big ol' church across the highway.

If you don't look left or right you can imagine you're in the country. You can ignore the suburban sprawl to the east, and the highway to the west. But the power poles are impossible to hide from your view.

And then, there's a hill that you can climb at one point in the field where you get a very nice view of downtown Edmonton, and West Edmonton Mall. In this photo, you can see the hotel attached to the mall and the endless bland structure beside it.

Is there anything beautiful about these steel structures? Not exactly the Eiffel Tower....But the geometry plays out in interesting ways from certain angles.

The blues and purples in the field in the summer are spectacular. When the traffic is at a lull you can hear the bees humming away. There are well worn paths out in the field, and yet you can sometimes walk for an hour and see no one. But you're never alone - the cars are buzzing by on the highway, the birds and insects and butterflies are abundant.

When we moved here, there was very little on the other side of the highway. We lived at the outskirts. This is no longer true - the suburban sprawl goes on and on now. I forget what it looked like before all the houses and the Shopper's Drug Mart and the huge condos. From my study window I can see the highway, the cars going by. In the winter, with the windows closed, there is silence. But in the summer I have to invent a silence, an interior quiet.

I'm still trying to invent myself in this space that is in the middle of the city, yet is not city. It holds the memory of forest and farmland. It is noisy, imperfect, encroached upon, and yet still surprises me every day with its wildness. In my recent editing of Red Velvet Forest, revisiting those poems from years ago has reminded me too of how we measure ourselves against a place, how it changes us.

For a sneak preview of the poems, the Olive has posted a selection of the poems that appeared in the chapbook from the Reading Series.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

More Hetrochromia

I recently succumbed to the 24 Random Things About Me note thingie going around on Facebook. It's an interesting phenomena. I like the take on it here.

One of my random revelations was that a popular search term on this blog is "heterochromia" - something I've mentioned a couple of times. Thought I would add a few new links, including the link to the trailer for the movie "The Unborn." Far too scary for me, I admit.

Here's the flickr link as well. I'm most interested in sectoral heterochromia, as that's what I have. I've read that it occurs in 1% of the population, but I wonder if it's more than that? It's not like anyone keeps tabs on this.

A list of fictional instances of heterochromia here if you scroll down.

I see that poet Les Murray has been added to wikipedia's list of 'famous people with heterochromia.' I'll have to do some further reading to find out if this is true. Not that I don't believe everything I read on wikipedia...

And lastly, put this in your calendar - July 12 is "Different Colored Eyes Day." Not sure exactly how one goes about celebrating but I have time to plan...

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Diana K. Moore - Holy Purse

Holy Purse
Carbon Steel

I probably don't even need to say how much I'm drooling over this sculpture. That feeling you have when you see a work of art and are just filled with insane desire to own it. Check out Diana K. Moore's website - lots to drool over. If I ever win the lotto....

From the Forum Gallery site talking about her 2004 exhibition:

Throughout modern history, purses have been used as fashion statements, indicia of luxury and containers of fashion and sexual accessories. Though inspired by ancient vessels, they are decidedly modern. Diana Moore has invented, and then cast these objects in bold carbon steel, presenting them as closed containers that can be opened. For contemporary women, the handbag is a private place. These purses publicly represent richness and bounty, like a female version of the phallic cornucopia. They also represent an inheritance of tangible things, values and cultural history.

All of Diana Moore’s vessels are related to storage containers from ancient times and other cultures. Vessels holding life-sustaining matter, like seeds and grains; vessels for holding salve ointments, oils and perfumes, for enhancing the body and replenishing the soul. They resemble reliquaries, vessels for preserving the body parts of cherished holy people. Their association with archeological artifacts is very strong, suggested through the material, form and motifs.