Dear Jane: a Letter on Return of the Wild Goose

This post is a revised version of a letter I wrote to PEI poet Jane Ledwell after I read her new book, Return of the Wild Goose, with its central subject of Katherine Hughes (1876-1925), born and raised on PEI. Return of the Wild Goose is not only an exploration of Hughes’ life; it is also a dialogue between Hughes, a ground-breaking woman, and the contemporary poet Ledwell, who is Executive Director of the PEI Advisory Council on the Status of Women. As well, the book reflects upon Prince Edward Island as experienced by Ledwell and, in Jane’s imagination, Katherine Hughes.

Dear Jane…

I read Return of the Wild Goose last week with great appreciation and admiration. It’s a splendid achievement, from beak to tail feathers. I began by being engrossed with the biographical and personal commentary in the “Preface” and impressed by its supple, succinctly eloquent prose.

Then the poems led me both “fiercely” and gracefully, insightfully, lovingly through not only Hughes’ life, passions, and accomplishments, but also through your attachments — including the welcome ironic perspective in “Province House Restoration” — to this island, your family, and your ancestral heritage. Within this framework, you poignantly and deftly explore vital matters of cultural identity, place and belonging; colonialism and independence; and exploitation, oppression, assimilation, resistance, resurgence — ranging from Indigenous peoples to the Irish in Ireland and the diaspora. That exploration also adeptly encompasses gender roles, obviously, with Hughes’ achievements, as well as personal challenges, tribulations, triumphs — hers and yours.

You also skillfully account, with persuasive poetic speculation, for her unwillingness to embrace the suffragettes. She was hardly the only dynamic, powerful, independent, high-achieving woman who held herself apart from, or even scorned, feminism – then and now. That phenomenon, and the variety of reasons, would in itself make for a fascinating study, novel, or poetic sequence.

I think of Dr. Fran Frazer, chair of the English Department when I was hired, and your father’s long-time colleague. She once said to me, in the midst of a discussion of Atwood and Munro, “I don’t understand why young women need feminist movements. I didn’t need a group when I was one of only ten women at Oxford. I’ve always been a feminist, but I don’t need a group.” But she did consider herself a feminist, and significantly mentored younger women, such as Island author Deirdre Kessler — not exactly a “group” or movement, but essential camaraderie. Everyone needs a “group,” however informal — even the early Christian desert ascetic hermits. Hughes found hers, finally, as you show: the Irish, as a people and a nation.

Back to “Province House Restoration.” Your devotion to Prince Edward Island is well-known – to its heritage, landscape, culture, and rich humanity. Therefore, you speak with considerable street cred when you satirize and trenchantly critique the obsession with monuments such as Province House. Now celebrated as the founding site of Canadian Confederation, with the Charlottetown Conference of 1864, it also embodies, as you evoke, a legacy of colonialism and imperialism, including the oppression of Indigenous peoples, the theft of their home and place, and their marginalization on an island swarmed by tourists visiting “the cradle of Confederation.” American poet Charles Olson advised that we should never underestimate the role of masonry in human civilization. And masonry overwhelmingly honours the conquerors, the rulers. Your Province House poem contributes to the resurgent effort to acknowledge the darker aspects of our colonial legacy and that this monument sits on the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq people.

Your book and Hughes’ story also make me think of another memorial, the Granite Celtic Cross at Charlottetown Harbour, which honours the 10,000 Irish settlers who arrived in the colony of St. John’s / Prince Edward Island during 1769-1810, constituting one-quarter of the island’s population, and who came from all thirty-two Irish counties. I have a vision of Hughes reading your book while sitting near the cross on the lawn.

I was in Ireland in 1974, as part of a summer cycling around England, Wales, and Ireland. I was staying in Dublin when de Valera died. I and my partner of the time — a classically trained musician (piano, cello, flute) — had secured a practice room in the music department of Trinity College. We were practicing a Handel Flute sonata (she on flute, me on alto recorder). We knew that de Valera’s funeral procession would pass by the college under our windows. Earlier that day, I nervously crossed the street rather than walk right by a pub. For this was a summer of terrible IRA bombings in England — at Harrod’s, at a pub frequented by soldiers in Birmingham. There were rumours that Protestant militants might use this occasion to set off bombs in Dublin. A knock on the door interrupted our playing. Two large men in Constabulary uniforms entered, carrying cases: a tripod, a sniper’s rifle, high-powered binoculars. Politely, they told us we must leave. The concerns, they said, were real. There would be snipers all along the route, ready for action. Fortunately, it wasn’t needed, and we watched the funeral from the street.

Return of the Wild Goose takes its place among the very best volumes of poetry by residents of this island, and of Atlantic Canada. It would, I am positive, resonate powerfully far beyond these shores, from Ireland to Australia.



Short Bio of Katherine Hughes

Katherine Hughes was born in Emerald, PEI, in 1876, in an Irish Catholic family, and graduated from Prince of Wales College in Charlottetown with a first-class teacher’s license. She became a Catholic missionary, taught at the Akwesasne Reserve in 1899, and founded the Catholic Indian Association in 1901. She left teaching in 1902 to become a writer. Working for The Montreal Daily Star from 1903 to 1906, she covered the 1904 St. Louis World Fair, and helped establish the Canadian Women’s Press Club in 1904. She wrote a biography of Catholic missionary Albert Lacombe, Father Lacombe, the black-robe voyageur.

Hughes became the first provincial archivist for Alberta in 1908. She then worked for Alberta Premier Alexander Rutherford and his successor Arthur Sifton. In 1913, she was employed by the Agent General of Alberta in London. In 1917, she took a radically different path, devoting herself to Irish independence, and worked for the Irish National Bureau in the United States. The Irish nationalist leader Éamon de Valera chose her to be the Canadian National Organizer of the Self-Determination League. In this position, she worked on clandestine tasks, travelling to Australia and New Zealand, and to Paris at de Valera’s request to coordinate the Irish World Race Congress. She died in New York City in 1925.

A Deaf Boy Named Trout: Bruce Hunter is In the Bear’s House

Bruce Hunter

Until fairly recently, I believed that my father had been born and raised in Montreal. My German-American grandparents had left their farm in Minnesota and, for some reason, went against the grain of westward migration and moved to Quebec. This belief was based on statements by my maternal grandmother – who raised me – such as “Your father was from Montreal, you know,” and “Your father was a French Canadian.” Their migration to Seattle in the mid-1930s when my father was sixteen made much more historical sense.

My paternal grandmother was alive in Seattle until I was thirteen, and we visited her every few months. But I never inquired about her past. And, sadly unlike my maternal grandmother, she wasn’t a story-teller. She dressed elegantly, had refined manners, and her apartment was handsomely decorated in late Victorian style. All that spoke of a venerable east coast city such as Montreal. She also bought me a Buffet clarinet, made in Paris, considered “the best of the best” by many professionals. To a nine-year-old’s logic, that was more proof of my French background.

This later suited my emerging personal mythology quite nicely, since I’d first visited Montreal at age sixteen and was enthralled by the city, its ambience and culture, and then again when I was eighteen. Immigrating to Canada from San Francisco, I bought a one-way plane ticket to Montreal – a trip that was cancelled for amorous reasons and rebooked for Vancouver. When I “discovered” hockey in 1976, I became a devout fan of Les Habs. After moving to the Maritimes, whenever I rode the train into Montreal, crossing the bridge over the St. Lawrence, I’d look at the city and think with a warm glow of connection, “My father grew up here.” I even wrote my Ph.D. thesis on two Montreal poets, A.M. Klein and Irving Layton.

Imagine my surprise when, at work on a memoir and finally researching my family history with scholarly rigour, I discovered proof that my father was, indeed, born in Canada. As well, according to a U.S. “Border Crossings” document from 1922, he briefly returned to Minnesota at age two and his “Race/Nationality” is listed as “French.” However, there is no evidence that he was ever east of Manitoba, and sufficient proof that he was born somewhere in the Canadian Prairies and spent almost all his childhood until age sixteen in Alberta, south and southeast of Edmonton, where his parents were living as early as 1903. Some of his uncles and aunts and cousins joined them. I have evidence that my father and his parents lived in Wetaskuwin and near Holden. The fact that an American customs official labelled my father “French” might reinforce one’s bias about American ignorance of life beyond that nation’s borders.

Overnight, I ceased to be the child of a Montrealer and became the son of a man who grew up hunting wolves and coyotes for bounty and working on ranches with his father, and no doubt helping with his dad’s moonshine and auction businesses. My father wasn’t slicing open baguettes, he was skinning critters. His later stylish fondness for dapper clothes, sleek sedans, and dancing in jazz clubs didn’t derive from a Montreal upbringing, but, I now reckon, from spending the Roaring 20s and early Dirty Thirties riding fence and hawking farm equipment in rural Alberta. My heritage wasn’t the fictionalized world of Mordecai Richler, Yves Beauchemin, Hugh MacLennan, and Marie-Claire Blais, but that of Robert Kroetsch, Merna Summers, and Guy Vanderhaege. Perhaps it was this lurking reality that made me switch my allegiance to the Oilers during the reign of Gretzy, et al. And a gravitational psychic force that pulled me back to the Rockies summer after summer to teach in The Banff Centre’s writing program.

There I met Bruce Hunter, a Calgary native, a program participant who was writing and publishing fine poetry, while working blue collar jobs. We struck up a friendship, which continued after he moved to Toronto, completed a Master’s degree, and secured a permanent position teaching English and Literary Studies at Seneca College. Recently, he was Author in Residence at the Calgary Public Library. From 1981 onward, he published five volumes of poetry, a short story collection, and the novel In the Bear’s House.

Lee Ellen often has to warn me against being a spoiler when it comes to fiction, so I will restrain myself with the characters and plot of Bruce’s wonderful novel. In the Bear’s House is partly a coming-of-age story, with young, hearing-impaired Will – known as Trout – as one of the two main characters. The narrative structure alternates between the third-person relating of Trout’s experiences and inner world, and first-person accounts by Clare, Trout’s mother. The story opens and remains for a long while in Calgary and the surrounding landscape, then moves to the country west of Edmonton and Rocky Mountain House – Kooteney Plains, the North Saskatchewan, the foothills and mountains of Jasper.

I want to quote and heartily second the cover blurb by poet Phil Hall: “I have always read Bruce Hunter because his wide integrity and his deep craft are equal. He uses words carefully because he has earned them. This is a coming-of-age story about Scots in working-class Calgary. Later, to the north-west, high crags, forest fire trails, hard lessons. Here is a life-affirming, place-affirming, wise mountain of a book.”

Clare’s sections make this equally, and remarkably, the story of a woman experiencing a different kind of coming-of-age – the adult kind of long-term rites de passage we all must or should undergo – in Clare’s case, as a working-class mother, wife, and home-maker in the 1960s-1970s; and as a woman of exceptional intelligence and talent, mostly side-lined, who must reclaim and enact that huge part of herself. As a male reader, my praise of a woman character crafted by a male writer may be called into question. However, based on my decades of living and of reading fiction, I was quite impressed and moved by Bruce’s ability to create an eminently complex, memorable, likable, admirable, inspiring, and convincing woman protagonist.

As for Trout, I’ll simply say that he is richly conceived and realized, utterly endearing, and unforgettable.

Also unforgettable, vibrantly drawn, and hugely admirable, are Trout’s Uncle Jack and Aunt Shelagh, along with a Stony elder, Silas Moses, and his grand-daughter, Carrie. But I will say no more about them.

There are suspenseful events and conflicts, ranging from the consequences of Trout’s disability to larger dramas in the northern mountains and valleys. But most of the novel’s suspense emanates from the characters’ inner lives and relationships, and this, along with Bruce’s deep appreciation of the landscape and understanding of these places, is where Hall’s “wise mountain of a book” is so applicable.

Finally, the language of the novel is everywhere vivid, evocative, captivating. He is a fiction-writing poet for whom the poetry serves the story and characters, without stealing the stage and showing off. The writing subtly dazzles. There’s nitty-gritty writing rooted in Bruce’s working class background: “He slung a climbing rope over his shoulders and took the Winchester rifle from the gun rack in the cab.” And there is language that crests from the page: Trout gets a new gold-receiver hearing aid and “Hearing brought new words with sharp flint edges that sparked when they struck.” He collects sea shells, and has a special conch: “In his blue-walled room he picked up his shells, caressed them one by one: comfort, order and calm. He held up the conch with its pearled knobs crowning it. He put it to his ear. Nothing. He held it against the gold receiver, which hung above his heart. Noise. Not the sea, which he’s never seen. But a sound like it: washing, circling, hinting.”

You do not have to discover that your ancestry is half-Albertan, or Scots, in order to love this novel. You just have to read Clare’s first words on the first page – “He was my first born, my blue baby, my water baby” – and Trout’s – “This was the place he’d hide, the deaf boy named Trout” and you will, I hope, be hooked. And, waving fare-thee-well to them later, know and care for these people and places as if they’re also your own.

ANNA MARIE SEWELL: Poetry – Water Flowing with Names

A poet, story-teller, musician-songwriter, and collaborative performer, Anna Marie Sewell was born in Fredericton, and is of Mi’kmaq, Anishinaabe and Polish heritage. Lee Ellen and I met Anna Marie, a long-time Alberta resident, when she was Edmonton’s Poet Laureate in 2011-2013 and beginning a community project, The PoemCatcher.

Lee Ellen was touring the country for the Canadian Capital Cities Organization in preparation for Canada’s celebration of its 150th anniversary, and I was tagging along on one of her western jaunts. Anna Marie was the highlight of our Edmonton visit – a radiant spirit with a hugely loving and grateful heart, and a sweet wisdom and warm sense of humour to match her muscular devotion to justice and opposition to iniquity. In our short time with her, we felt blessed to meet one of those people who make you feel that we humans can and do survive and triumph over malevolence. Not often enough, obviously, but sufficiently often to keep our faith in humanity intact and sometimes soaring.

That’s how I felt again as I read her new, second poetry collection, For the Changing Moon, from Thistledown Press in Saskatchewan. There are poems, such as the powerful “Omiimiikaa – Place of the Wild Dove,” focusing on the extinction of the passenger pigeon and corresponding violence against Indigenous women, in which the poet faces greed, malice, ignorance, and wanton destruction head-on. But there are other poems, such as the masterful “Knit” – dedicated “To our Elders, with respect…” – in which she solemnly celebrates the struggle, often painful, often joyous, to nurture one’s children, protect one’s people, and be part of the renaissance of one’s culture. In “Knit” she writes of unravelling “knots between when we come into this world sacred / and sacred take our leave.”

And there is Anna Marie’s wonderfully playful, inventive vision, as in “Kinds of Moon,” a longer poem I can’t help but quote at length:

“The moon by which your eyes are endless
pinwheel portals to whole other galaxies…”

“Moon of teen brothers, college girl moon, moon of wolves
and of taxicabs”

“Moon of lozenges, homeopathic moon, moon for injections”

“Moon of the wealthy, uptown moon, home-schooled
unbound homebrew moon…”

“The moon on your shoulder
that one you carried, and the moon
trolling your wake…”

There’s the heart-breaking yet also inspiring “She Sang,” a love poem for her sister, who “sang in Carnegie Hall, a farmgirl / halfbreed, singlehandedly talked producers into / adding five Indigenous women to the bill of an / international choral festival….” And there’s Anna Marie’s bitingly satirical voice as in “Shape Shifting”: “Real Indians, the shape-shifting kind, they’re gone / now, if they ever were more than fantasy….” This poem is also a reverent tribute to her father , a “shape-shifter” who was part of the Métis Delegation to Ottawa in 1982 that helped secure the Constitutional entrenchment of the Métis as a People:

“Disenfranchised Anishinaabe, orphaned Mi’gmaq, church
school survivor went working in the bush, broke a leg and
turned into a guitarist. Singer, trainer, teacher, army sergeant
farmer, trucker, taught himself mover’s physics
and Robert’s Rules of Order.”

She includes the lyrics of several songs, for instance “Lakesong,” which begins, “I have outlasted the cynical, who’ve outlasted their fear / And seen the tough boys opening up and shed their honest tears.” Her poems are talismans against cynicism and to help us with our fears. Her poems also make invite and urge us to rejoice: “Perhaps the moon does not reflect voiced joys, but / refracts them, into a radiant plenty without regard for distance.”

I’ll leave you with two more lines, from “Start Making Sense”:

“this is no empty land, and underground
the water flows with names, with names.”

These poems are water flowing with names.

Part II: Ringing Here and There by Brian Bartlett

There are several reasons for that pleasure. First, Brian’s knowledge of the natural world, garnered over a lifetime, is exemplary. That knowledge is based mostly in Nova Scotia, but also gathered from his early years in and return visits to his native New Brunswick, and from field trips in Alberta, Nebraska, and Ireland.

Birds are Brian’s most frequent focus, but he knows his mammals, insects, amphibians, reptiles, and fish species too. He’s also amazingly conversant with the plant world – from wildflowers and the Acadian forest to lichen and fungi. Moreover, he always views species and varieties within their habitats – interconnected and inter-dependent. Therefore, he is impressively familiar with rocks (geology), water and clouds (hydrology), winds, snow, sunlight and other interacting phenomena and processes. He is no twitcher merely seeking another bird for his life list. Brian is an ecologist, perceiving the web of life among the four elements.

As well, the human-made features of habitats figure prominently, for example: “Stuck to the cement pillar-props of an overpass, dozens of mud nests like rows of minicaves. Cliff swallows fly into and out of the sun,” and “On the horizon at Dominion Beach, a sign of conflicting times: the towers of wind-power generators lined up on either side of a coal-burning plant. White blades slicing, black smoke rising. Late August, Yellow-rumped Warblers fidget among the thicknesses of myrtle, the seeds so plentiful the birds won’t answer the familiar calls to migrate. Once named Myrtle Warblers, they crack the hard green seeds under the skies of Industry.” And “Over shrubby land near a girls’ soccer tournament, a Northern Harrier lets out sharp whistles distinctly different from the referees’.”

Brian never fails to make the natural world fascinating, through the merging of his keen observations, imaginative and musical language, and wit. “Far past midnight, I wake to the clicking of crickets, which hear each other with their knees’ timpanic membranes. In Queen Square tennis balls and softballs have given way to those insects running a wingtip along the comb-like veins on the oppositive wing’s underside.” Who knew? Brian did. And I’ll now have that wonderful knowledge, and that vivid image, in mind when the crickets play their harps next summer.

Brian often has fun: “After we flung mackerel and popcorn…from the boat, a trio of Northern Fulmars arrives.” Epiphanies abound, joyous and bittersweet: “On the granite barrens we hear a fluster of duck voices, from an unseen pond or pool hidden in the evergreen density below. They’re disembodied, without lungs or beaks or clear location, yet they sound full of spring, the old spring before weather was twisted askew.”

And there are unmitigated laments: “oil oil slicked brown pelican oil oil flightless horned grebe….oil oil golden plover no longer golden.” Brian knows all too well the damage our species does. But that knowledge never overwhelms you; rather, it appears as subtle nudges, with the occasional body-slam. What Ringing Here & There does overwhelmingly is show us the natural world in its luxuriantly diverse omnipresence – the endlessly varied rewards if we pay closer attention. Go for walks and boat rides, gaze out the windows, sit on patios and park benches with eyes and ears and other sense wide open.

Finally, these entries are rewarding for the eminently affable, modest, and witty voice and persona of the writer. He quickly becomes a friend we want to walk with, listen with and to, share discoveries with. As a writer, his voice and persona, and his prose, never come between the reader and the natural world, never interfere with what he wants us to discover. He’s that finger pointing to the moon. The ideal companion.

Ringing Here & There is an ideal book both for seasoned nature lovers and for people who are detached from the natural world and need inspiration to leave their screens and rooms and go outdoors. This is a volume that belongs on a shelf with Thoreau’s and Rachel Carson’s writings, with Aldo Leopold’s Sand Country Almanac, with the poetry of Brian’s friend Don McKay, “the Canadian poet laureate of ecological philosophy.”

As for Brian being storm-stayed in the bird house, when the main road was cleared and he could catch the bus to Halifax, I broke trail in waist-high snow for two hundred yards on our lane, sliding his suitcase ahead of me. Brian followed no doubt looking for chickadees and juncos. Waiting at the end of our lane was Ann Sherman, who, with her poet husband Joe, were old friends of Brian from their time together in Fredericton, in those literary glory years with Alden Nowlan, Fred Cogswell, John Thompson, M. Travis Lane, and other writers who beautifully captured the natural world and humans in their habitats. He left Lee Ellen and me with the gift of Ringing Here & There, more than ample thanks for breaking trail.

Ringing Here & There: A Nature Calendar by Brian Bartlett

Four winters ago, Brian Bartlett, Halifax-based poet and essayist and St. Mary’s English and Creative Writing professor, was on the Island as the UPEI short-term writer-in-residence. That winter has now entered local lore for the kinds of exuberant snowfalls, flying buttress snow drifts, and epic snowbanks that old-timers spoke of harking back to earlier eras.

Lee Ellen and I were living in Alexandra, east of Charlottetown, on a long private lane in “the bird house,” so named because its builder, Dr. Phil Cox, a UPEI philosophy prof, designed his house in the shape of an osprey. Phil’s expertise and amateur enthusiasms did not include the science of wind movement. An unfortunate lack for the positioning of an avian-shaped abode. And while he was no doubt aware of Feng Shui, he apparently did not consult a master.

During snowstorms, the prevailing winds came off a ridge, over farmers’ fields, and drove the snow into our driveway and against our main entrance and garage. When I say “drove,” I mean pile-driver winds, battering rams, Mark Messier and Sydney Crosby skating full throttle toward you. After one storm, the snowpack was eight feet high around the entrance. Our other entrance, patio doors into the front yard, was blocked with six-foot drifts. I was crawling out the kitchen window and carving a path atop our rockery garden. We called for backup – a few noble friends and our Wonder Woman daughter-in-law, Major Jen Arsenault, Signals, Canadian Forces Reserves, who possesses the (clean) energy and power of several snow blowers. She deploys in a few weeks for Africa, taking her clean energy with her. Look out.

The way was cleared for Brian Bartlett to stay with us during his residency, coming and going without the need for crampons and ice axes.

Then, on his last day here, another snowstorm struck. This one so severe that our lane was three- and four-feet deep in snow. As the saying goes, “the Island was shut down,” plows too busy with essential roads and parking lots to clear private lanes. We were blessed, therefore, with Brian as our guest for two extra days. With no workshops or manuscript consultations, we cherished hours and hours of blissful conversation about poetry and fiction, music, Maritime and Newfoundland culture… and about the natural world and ecology.

Brian Bartlett is an exceedingly devoted, knowledgeable, and perceptive field naturalist, and one of Canada’s premier nature writers, as well as one of our finest poets.

That winter, his new book was Ringing Here & There: A Nature Calendar. It consists of 366 short entries, “Longer than haiku and shorter than sonnets,” he writes, arranged by months, April through March. His other terms for these entries are “field reports, sketches, commentaries, tributes, laments, micro-narratives, quotations, & collages” – the latter two from writers such as Thoreau, Chekhov, Emily Dickinson, Dorothy Wordsworth, and Bliss Carman.

Ringing Here & There has been sitting ever since in a pile of must-read books on a shelf beside my desk, most of them by friends and acquaintances. I’m like that with books – waiting for the right time to read a specific book. Right time meaning the confluence of mood, need, hunch, and whatever is happening in the caves and aurora borealis of my mind. I had read three gripping novels in a row before I selected Ringing Here and There. This is exactly what I need, I thought, after the narrative juggernauts of suspenseful novels – to slow down, meditate, dwell on Brian’s observations, descriptions, images, assessments, and sense of wonder…to borrow a Rachel Carson book title.

Yet Brian’s “entries” were so compelling – the richness of nature he evokes with such transfixing perceptions, the compelling stories he tells about his interactions, and his wondrous language: a melding of science and metaphor – that I found myself rushing onward to the next entry and the next. Eager to know what Brian had seen, heard, smelled, touched; what he had learned; what epiphanies he had been granted by his loving and well-informed attention to nature. Fortunately, as with the best haiku, the entries are ideal for re-reading slowly, reflectively, and with the utmost pleasure.

To be continued…

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:

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.