Lulu the fiddler from Fraser Arm, B.C. (not Lulu the singer-songwriter from Scotland)

In the last year, four new novels landed on my desk in which the main characters’ parents – one or both – mysteriously disappear during the protagonists’ childhood. In Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, in post-WWII England, both parents leave for the far east, and vanish. Wayne Johnston’s First Snow, Last Light opens with the young protagonist returning from school one afternoon in St. John’s during the season’s first snowfall and discovering his parents’ absence. In Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, Anna Kerrigan’s father goes missing when she’s fourteen. (I strongly recommend both Ondaatje’s and Johnston’s novels. Egan’s I haven’t yet read.)

The fourth book is The Very Marrow of Our Bones, by Christine Higdon, who lives near Toronto, whose origins are in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia and Newfoundland, and with a strong attachment to Nova Scotia.

Lulu is the central protagonist of Christine Higdon’s debut novel, set in Fraser Arm, a (fictional) tiny rural community in the Fraser Valley east of Vancouver. When Lulu is a child, with four siblings, her mother disappears. The same day, another mother vanishes from the community without explanation. The novel shifts in time between Lulu’s childhood and fifty-year-old Lulu, returning to Fraser Arm as she recovers from a near-fatal motorcycle accident, her career as a country and folk music fiddler on hold. There are also scenes and details of her life, and of several other characters’ lives, from the intervening years. The narration alternates between Lulu’s first person and the third person narrative of Doris, the “egg lady,” Lulu’s Fraser Arm contemporary, who has never spoken and communicates by writing notes, and who survives with her subsistence farm – chickens and vegetables.

When I read the novel’s final pages – deeply moved, euphoric after infusions of the bittersweet, grounded in earthy reality and also soaring with the knowledge that we humans are capable of ethereal communion – I thought: This is a big novel. Big in heart. Big in spirit – spirit that’s always solidly rooted in the tangible realms of nature and human community. Big in its understanding of the human psyche in all its variegated mystery and wonder, folly and anguish, ignorance and wisdom, duplicity and honesty, love and fear of loving, loss and recovery, abandonment and devotion. Big in its portraits of, and insights into, human relationships in all their complexity and simplicity, enigmas and discoveries, damage, healing, and redemption.

As well, the novel is masterful in the way Higdon deftly embeds her characters’ psyches, relationships, actions, and inactions within the natural world of the Fraser Valley, and within the yards and homes of Fraser Arm. Higdon has a knack for reminding, for showing, us that our lives unfold, weave, unravel, and interweave within our material environments, the realm of the five senses. “She lifts an edge of the curtain. It is still snowing and the sky is an odd pink, like blood seeping into a damp white towel.” “Everything smells and looks different after a storm. The grasses are flattened and the wind or rain – Doris does not know which – has plucked all the salmonberries from their white cone-shaped receptacles and splattered them in the mud.”

The older Lulu is back in Fraser Arm, wondering when and if she will return to Nashville, the festivals and studio work: “The birds were on the roof again. They’d been there all week, getting ready to fly south. I could hear them, a team of small football players scrabbling in cleats from one end of the field to another. Starlings. Stupid starlings, I suppose, because all of a sudden I could hear one flapping around in the chimney. I imagined the flock flying in unison off the roof, dark angels making their undulating murmuration in the sky. One of them says, ‘Hey, where’s Jim?’ ‘I dunno, he was right behind you.’ ‘Right behind me? Shit. He’s gone down the chimney. Just like his dad. We gotta go back.’ ‘Forget it Jake. It’s Chinatown. He’s a goner.” Oh yes, Higdon is often funny, a gentle wit, most of the time…though sometimes dark and caustic, as needed.

Right after I finished the novel, and after thinking of the ways in which it was big, I thought: This is a book to live by. These are characters – most of them – to learn from and live by. Now, I suppose all or most fiction writers (and poets, playwrights, memoirists, etc.) hope – overtly or secretly – that their books might inspire this reaction in their readers. If not in the grand and global sense of readers living their whole life according to some text (“Anna Karenina is my bible, a friend once reverently told me” – fortunately, she did not throw herself in front of a train), then in specific ways and circumstances.

In my early “serious” reading years – age seventeen to mid-twenties – there were books I wanted to live by. They varied greatly, as befitting the experimentations and shape-shifting of one’s early adulthood. In my late teens it was Conrad’s Lord Jim (I even planned to, and almost did, ship out on a merchant vessel – but turned down the offer of a seaman’s ticket, with Saigon as the destination.) And The Brothers Karamazov. Then Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet and Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund and Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King. Nadezhda Mandelstahm’s memoir set in Stalinist Russia, Hope Against Hope. Then, for a long time, I ceased to feel that way about novels, though I have continued to do so about various poets and their work. Now, when I have much less time to live than I did when I was suffused with Conrad and Durrell, I am, blessedly, finding such books again – or, more precisely, feeling this way about certain books I read. Such as The Very Marrow of Our Bones.

Higdon drew me so intimately into her Fraser Arm people that I feel like one of their community – the extended family of characters related both by blood and by experience and belonging. Almost are her characters are eminently decent, likable, even lovable – and eminently human, for they all struggle with their mistakes, needs, yearnings and fears, reluctance and resistance, and the paradoxical burden of blessings. When I was a younger writer and participant in The Banff Centre’s writing program, fiction instructor Sylvia Fraser, after reading one of my stories, said, “Your voice and main character are very likable, admirable, and that’s a strength in your writing. But the story leaves me unsatisfied because you don’t show me the price he paid to become likable and admirable. Everyone pays a price. I need to know the price.” Higdon reveals, scene by scene, the price her lovable characters pay. And, yes, there are a few characters I did not like, not one bit. She does jerks and scumbags quite well.

Finally, though she beautifully slows down the plot – sometimes sets it aside – to provide valuable anecdotes and scenes that develop her characters and their relationships, their lives in Fraser Arm and elsewhere – there is no shortage of suspense. And the tension escalates, the pace quickens in the second half, without sacrificing the ongoing development of character, relationship, and place.

A novel, a story, and characters that now have a firm place in my memory, spirit, and heart

Chris Bailey – Two Generations Removed

What draws me back to posting, however, is not knee surgery and its etiology, but two wonderful new books I’ve recently read: a first poetry collection, What Your Hands Have Done, by Chris Bailey, who hails from Prince Edward Island; and a first novel, The Very Marrow of Our Bones, by Christine Higdon, who lives near Toronto, whose origins are in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia and Newfoundland, and with a strong attachment to Nova Scotia.

Chris Bailey comes from a fishing family in North Lake, a prominent fishing community on the far northeast tip of PEI. He has fished lobster, mackerel and other fish with his father, mother, and brothers since he was young, and returns to the boat in the summer. He earned an Honours B.A. in Psychology and took creative writing courses at UPEI, then completed the Master’s program in creative writing at Guelph University, working with Dionne Brand, Michael Winter, Craig Davidson, and others. While still an undergraduate, he was accepted to the Emerging Writers Workshop – poetry workshop – at The Banff Centre to work on his poetry with Lorna Crozier. During his Master’s program, he returned to Banff to work with Elizabeth Phillips on his poetry ms., and returned more recently to work on his fiction. (His M.A. thesis was a novel.) Nightwood editions published his first collection, What Your Hands Have Done.

Chris’ poetry is both highly crafted and nitty gritty, tender and gruff. The language is eloquently colloquial, with vivid, visceral imagery. Think Raymond Carver, one of his models, along with Elmore Leonard, Charles Bukowski, Warren Zevon, Michael Crummey, and Lorna Crozier. He’s a story-telling, narrative poet, with crystal clear stories and language. He is already mastering the use of speech and dialogue in poetry, and the speech of the people in his poems rings absolutely true. There’s humour too, rough and gentle humour – the ironic, terse, earthy wit of a father battling cancer, others battling alcoholism, fishing families coping with the vagaries of the fishery and weather, the middlemen and markets, young people dealing with twenty-first century culture in a rural community permeated by the digital and globalized world.

Chris is the first PEI poet to devote the majority of a book to the lives of fishing families, their communities, their relationships, and the interaction of tradition and modernity. The book is a welcome and compelling PEI counterpart to Michael Crummey’s Hard Light, in which he retells and reinvents stories his father told him, as his father was failing and dying, of the Newfoundland and Labrador outport fishery. It’s also tempting to say that Bailey’s book is a poetry inheritor or descendant of Alistair MacLeod’s “The Boat.” But Chris’ parents are the generation after Alistair, and Chris is two generations removed, writing about life in North Lake and on the water now.

There is no nostalgia for the past, rather, the trials, sufferings, redemptions, and blessings of his era. And the reader never feels claustrophobically trapped in a “fishing” theme, for this is a writer, again, steeped in Elmore Leonard (“the Dickens of Detroit”) and Warren Zevon (“Werewolves of London”). Chris is the son in “The Boat” who goes away to college in Toronto but comes back in the summers to fish – reluctantly, for he doesn’t love it, yet is devoted to family and its well-being – then returns to Hamilton, the city he much prefers to Toronto. (And MacLeod did spend most of his adult life in Windsor, across from Detroit.) And where Chris is working on several fiction projects and more poetry.

As I was saying…

Sir William Connor was a British journalist who wrote a regular column from 1935 to 1967 for The Daily Mirror under the inspired pen name “Cassandra.” His column was suspended temporarily during the Second World War. When it resumed, he began his first column with “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted….” My lack of Facebook posts was not, of course, the result of another world war. Rather, the “endless busyness of the world” in the words of the great Tang dynasty poet Tu Fu. As well, since late November, there has been the work of recovering and rehabbing from knee replacement surgery.

Many people, hearing about my surgery, want to know why I needed it. Sometimes I hark way back to early childhood and my love of jumping out of trees, and the countless hours in a Yogi Berra catcher’s crouch playing toss or a shortstop’s stoop on the diamond. Then there were the teen-age leaps from the front porch roof outside my second story bedroom window to the lawn when I snuck out at night. Advice: bend your knees as you land, and roll. (There were porch columns to shimmy back up.) And trying to emulate my short, thin grandfather, proud of his small man’s strength, by hoisting fifty pound bags of fertilizer, potatoes, and cement mix on my shoulder.

Other times when asked, I cut to the chase of football injuries to that knee in my junior and senior high school years. Meniscus tears, damaged cartilage. The doctors told me to give it two, preferably three, weeks rest. But that would mean missing the rest of the season. I wrapped the knee in Ace bandages, mega-iced afterward, and dosed myself generously with Aspirin. I’m fine coach, thanks.

This was followed by a full life of backpacking, basketball, tennis, soccer, cross-country skiing in the British Columbia mountains, carrying roofing shingles up ladders, and countless moves (my own and friends’) involving the schlepping of book cartons. But the primary cause may be the several adolescent years I spent as a devout Anglo-Catholic altar boy – all that genuflecting and kneeling.

 

Voices in my Head

The launch of my new poetry book, Jeopardy, last night in Charlottetown was one of the loveliest occasions of my life. Not because I was centre stage for an hour, but because of all the amazing and cherished people who were there and with whom I could share the moment – from the people I’ve known since my first season on PEI thirty-five years ago, to those I’ve come to know this past year. The occasion was so wonderful because I could thank them for enriching my life and my writing with their own efforts and achievements, their inspiring contributions to the community, their life stories, their great hearts, minds, and spirits. I also thank those people who couldn’t be there and sent me kind messages.

My grandfather who raised me loved to say that “he’d pulled himself up by the bootstraps.” (How many of you heard that one?) And there’s a good deal of truth that we have to take responsibility for pulling our boots on. But he was also a devoted union man and stressed solidarity and cooperation. As did my grandmother, raised in her parents’ logging camps, daughter of rugged individualists, but who made it clear that lumberjacks didn’t get fed and trees weren’t felled and milled without everyone working together, learning from and relying on each other.

As I read poems from my book last evening, and looked around the room, I saw all these people I’ve learned from, about life and about writing. People who, in their various ways, helped provide substance and lift and sparkle to the poems. The atoms of their experience and knowledge bonding with the atoms of mine in that magical way that helps generate the molecules of art…or science, or community service, and any other acts of creation. And we’re all creators, in diverse forms, drawing for our creations on the lives, stories, experience, knowledge, and spirit of those we respect, admire, love.

As I read my poems last evening, I could hear the resonances of others’ voices, those both in the room, and those far away in place and time. I’m speaking not only of friends whose books I have read, but friends (non-writers as well as writers) to whom I have listened, with whom I’ve communed.

book launch pic

Making poetry can feel and look like such a solitary, individualistic act – compared to making music, theatre, dance. Really, though, the poems arise and cohere from so many sources, so many voices, lives, stories. My paternal grandfather as a soldier in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. My Egyptian students in a Cairo university. The ghosts of prisoners and soldiers at the penal colony in Tasmania. The voices of Adam and Eve in that mythic Garden and early women astronomers and a nurse-therapist in an eating disorder treatment centre and Lucy Maud Montgomery time-travelling to Confederation Centre of the Arts in 2018. I think of and deeply thank all the friends and family, all the mentors, who have been teaching me over the years how to listen for and to those voices, and how to filter and shape them through my consciousness and the poetic craft.

And, of course, I thank Terrilee Bulger, the fabulous publisher of Acorn Press and co-publisher of Nimbus Press. And Dr. Laurie Brinklow, founder of Acorn, and master copy-editor. And Newfoundland-Nova Scotian artist Geoff Butler for the cover image and for all his vital artwork, which can be viewed in his books The Art of War and Our Own Little World. And Matt Reid for the cover design. And the masterful Jay Ruzesky – a superb writer, professor, and editor – for editing this book. (Do secure a copy of his latest book, a travel memoir, In Antarctica: an Amundsen Pilgrimage.) And I thank Dr. Brent MacLaine for his wonderful introduction last evening. If you haven’t read his poetry, please do so. Every one of his books is a treasure.

A special thanks to The Bookmark in Charlottetown, our great independent bookstore, and a big hug to Lori, Dan, Marlene, and their staff. And thanks to Peter and Nancy Richards, wonder workers of The Buzz, to Dave Atkinson, research publicist at UPEI, and to CBC Radio and Mainstreet host Angela Walker. And to Dr. George Deitz, my freshman English professor at San Francisco State College, who advised me to drop out of university and write full-time. I obviously didn’t heed his advice, but his ability to see something redeemable in my callow verse and sophomoric prose did help me, eventually, to roll up my sleeves and do the hard work.

Finally, my deepest gratitude goes to my wife, my companion, Lee Ellen Pottie, for, well, everything. Her love of me. The love she shares with and gives to so many people. Her love of life’s richness and beauty, and, too, of those struggles, those heartaches, that are an inevitable part of life’s fruitfulness and bounty. My gratitude, specifically, for her support of my writing, her encouragement, her faith in the written word and in poetry, and her astute, wise, and relentless editorial acumen.

If you would like a copy of Jeopardy, and you’re on PEI, contact The Bookmark in Charlottetown. Or your independent bookstores elsewhere.

Thank you!

earthshine and hope

After gently urging me for years to create a Facebook site as a writer, my talented, lovely, and wonderfully-thoughtful wife, Lee Ellen, realized I would never undertake that task, and decided to create one for me. Having been raised by grandparents who reminded me at least once a week that they’d lived through the Depression and, therefore, I should never waste anything, especially gifts from other people, I have resolved to heed Lee Ellen’s words: “Now that you have a Facebook site, put it to good use, write and post something.”

I can’t think of a better focus for my first post than the new collection of haiku, earthshine, by my dear friend of almost fifty years, Chuck Brickley. I met Chuck when we were working at the legendary Duthie Books on Robson Street in Vancouver. I’d moved there from San Francisco in 1968, and Chuck and his wife, Kim, natives of a San Francisco suburb, had recently immigrated. Chuck was a musician (saxophone), devoted student of literature, and haiku poet. Kim, one of the most beautiful spirits I’ve been blessed to know, would become a gifted pre-school teacher and then college teacher in early childhood education. We formed a fast friendship.

That friendship grew when Kim and Chuck, wanting to live in the countryside, moved in 1971 one hundred miles east to Hope, where the Fraser River, after rushing south through breath-taking canyons, bends west to the Fraser Valley carved by the river as the glaciers melted. Surrounded by mountains on three sides, Hope was a destination in the 1970s for back-to-the-landers and draft dodgers. There was a Sasquatch cave tourist trap. The pool tables in the hotel pub were surrounded by loggers and highway construction workers. Sto:lo members of the Union Bar First Nation would appear on your doorstep at night with salmon, from their stretch of the river, which the government forbade them to sell. Over Chinese food in the Kan Yon, the newcomers spoke of close calls with semis – long-haul drivers dazed from sleeplessness and wired on Coke and bennies – in two-lane tunnels of the canyon. (“Never gonna drive that stoned again.”) On the town’s tennis courts and baseball fields, the afternoon winds tunneling up the valley from the ocean added to the challenge of hitting lobs and tracking down fly balls, while dare-devil hang-gliders leapt into those winds off Hope Mountain. In the marsh near Kim and Chuck’s log lodge, owned by UBC as an occasional field study location for Biology students, red-winged blackbirds trilled in the cattails.

I often visited Chuck and Kim on weekends, then moved to Hope in 1974, to a small cottage on Kawkawa Lake three miles from town, Hope Mountain looming overhead.

chuck brickley

Chuck, I tell people, was the first serious and high-quality writer I became close friends with. If we’d gathered the countless hours we talked – often while hiking and bird-watching – about writing, poetry and fiction, religion and philosophy, music, nature and ecology, and political and economic philosophy, and devoted that time to mastering and playing the stock market, we’d be multi-millionaires today, and otherwise profoundly impoverished. As with such friendships, there is so much mentoring going on – and as with the best friendships, the flow of mentorship was so constant and equal in both directions that it was impossible to know at any moment who was the teacher and who the student.

Nonetheless, I know that Chuck, and Kim, suffered generously and encouragingly through my early attempts at poetry and fiction. Chuck brought his erudition and antennae for poetic technique and form to his critiques, while Kim brought the lucidity, sensitivity, and wisdom of her glorious inner eye.

Chuck also gave me the life-long gift of playing recorders. Wanting to play an instrument that blended in more gracefully than a sax at the frequent music parties where folk and folk-rock dominated, Chuck bought and quickly became adept at recorders. I’d grown up playing clarinet and also honked rather poorly on a sax. In Vancouver, I bought a rosewood alto and a grenadilla soprano recorde, and was thrilled that I could now glide into the musical flow when people were playing Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison. I also learned a great deal from Chuck about jazz, as well as rock.

I owe an enormous debt to Chuck for introducing me both to the poetry and essays of Gary Snyder and the music of The Band – for opening my mind both to Basho and Bruce Cockburn.

When it came to haiku, other poetic forms originating in Japan, and the aesthetic and philosophical traditions underlying those forms, I definitely sat as pupil at Chuck’s feet. Though he would, in his great modesty, vigorously deny that. I remember Chuck saying that, while he loved the Beat poets, and the German poet Rilke, and some modernist poets, he found himself unable to write in those modes. He’d been drawn from a young age to haiku and other Japanese forms… to the “haiku experience.”

Over the years, his mastery of haiku steadily grew, and he caught the attention of Robert Spiess, the revered editor of Modern Haiku, the premier magazine of English-language haiku. Not only did Spiess publish Chuck’s poems, he invited Chuck to be associate editor, a post Chuck served in from 1980 to 1985.

I left Hope in 1977, after attending the Summer Writing Program at The Banff Centre, working with Canadian writers such as W.O. Mitchell, Sylvia Fraser, and Eli Mandel, and deciding that I wanted to go to grad school and study Canadian literature. Chuck and Kim remained in Hope until 2006, when they moved back to San Francisco, into Kim’s childhood home, and to care for her aging father.

earthshine is a selection of Chuck’s hakiu written from the early 1970s to the present, and sequenced over a single year. In the afterword, Chuck writes, “Gazing at a crescent moon on a clear night, one may sometimes notice that the section not directly lit by the sun is graced with its own subtle shading of light. This faint glow is actually sunlight reflected from our planet. It is called earthshine.”

Chuck has always been a proponent of considerable flexibility and inclusiveness when it comes to haiku’s subject matter. He introduced me, for instance, to Michael McClintock, now a distinguished poet and scholar, who shocked much of the haiku world in the 1970s with powerful poems about his experiences as an American soldier in Vietnam. But McClintock helped transform and enrich the haiku tradition, and so has Chuck Brickley.

The natural world, keeping with the haiku tradition, is ever-present in Chuck’s poetry. But his focus often moves among the human world – more precisely, in that unity of human experience and nature which is foundational in ecology. To what Snyder called our Earth House Hold. Thus, there are poems without human presence, apart from the invisible poet…

withered marsh
one by one the last geese
lift into dawn

waterfall spray
a hummingbird draws up
to a rainbow

As well, Chuck gives us:

summer evening
the grandchild waves once more
at the empty road

the abortion.
her long drive home
through spring rain

Indian summer night
I call up my stepfather
to hear his laugh

saw switched off
the Douglas fir lingers
in the breeze

dry creekbed
the gleam of a bullet shell
the only sound

and about his wife’s mother:

moonrise
still out there weeding
in her sunhat

If you want to read more, you can buy earthshine from Snapshot Press (UK) or directly from Chuck’s website

This first post is also my Christmas present, after all these years, to Chuck and Kim.

Jeopardy

from “Jeopardy”

Life’s tough choices. Beauty
contests, for instance, three goddesses
and a mortal judge, a straight-ahead
guy, no counter-intuitive there.
He taps the no-brainer button
and what’s his reward? A drop-dead
gorgeous babe, sex to die for,
envy of his mates in Troy.
Greeks up in arms, want her back,
lay siege? No problem:
one sensational shot with his bow
and arrow at the unprotected heel
of their pouty, vain hero
and Paris is home free. Except for
the wrath of Athena, goddess of war,
wisdom, justice, and other big-time stuff,
who doesn’t take rejection lightly
and oversees the burning of his city.
Next time, his father tells him, just before
he screws up in single combat and a two-bit
Greek dispatches him with a poisoned arrow,
go for the fierce, the bookish one.

From Jeopardy (2018)