Fall on the Job

It’s the season.
Twenty feet up on a cold wet ladder, twisting and cursing
the air-hose wrapped around his leg, the warped plywood
wobbling in one hand, and the nail-gun in the other,
a framer meets a weaver.

A. diadematus, ubiquitous spider this time of year,
marked like some medieval illumination –
the kind done in brown ink on parchment,
with stiff figures in the borders, white hands, white faces,
fall’s mappa mundi in miniature – suspended between the studs
no longer, masterpiece in shreds, rappelling in reverse
back up the safety line like it’s all in a day’s work,
just take a deep breath,
people fall off the roof all the time.

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Recommended: A River Runs Through It

Can you recommend half of a story? Even though Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It” nearly dries up towards the end, it has a strong beginning and a fine appreciation for craft. In the course of a rough and tumble narrative about two Presbyterian streetfighting flyfishing brothers, Maclean takes the time to make memorable images:

Below him was the multitudinous river, and, where the rock had parted it around him, big-grained vapor rose. The mini-molecules of water left in the wake of his line made momentary loops of gossamer, disappearing so rapidly in the rising big-grained vapor that they had to be retained in memory to be visualized as loops. The spray emanating from him was finer grained still and enclosed him in a halo of himself. The halo of himself was always there and always disappearing into the rising vapors of the river, which continually circled to the tops of the cliffs where, after becoming a wreath in the wind, they became rays of the sun.

And pays close attention to the nuances of mastering an art:

My brother and I would have preferred to start learning how to fish by going out and catching a few, omitting entirely anything difficult or technical in the way of preparation that would take away from the fun. But it wasn’t by way of fun that we were introduced to our father’s art. If our father had had his say, nobody who did not know how to fish would be allowed to disgrace a fish by catching him. So you too will have to approach the art Marine- and Presbyterian-style, and, if you have never picked up a fly rod before, you will soon find it factually and theologically true that man by nature is a damn mess.

But what I like best about it is hard to cover in short quotes. It’s the way Maclean explores the troubled dynamic between the two brothers and their father’s faith – and the moments when the three of them succeed in their struggle to show each other love, even without being able to find the right words to express it. The good half of this story makes the whole thing worth a read.

Moose in Cape Breton

If you’re driving across Canada from BC, you start running into signs for moose in eastern Manitoba. As you pass through northern Ontario on highway 17, the number and variety of moose crossing signs ramps up. Then in southern Quebec there is a brief and unexpected interlude of turtle crossing signs. By the time you reach the maritimes, the moose signs are back in force, so that for a while you get kind of jumpy at night. THERE! I HAVE SPOTTED ONE! – you think to yourself as you swerve wildly and dangerously into oncoming traffic, but at 3 in the morning every stump looks like a moose and you just can’t be sure that any of your sightings are legit. Somewhere between St Louis du Ha! Ha! and Fredericton you become a jaded skeptic, laughing bitterly as you hurtle on into increasingly moose-forsaken wastelands. St Louis du Ha! Ha! indeed.

At the beginning you didn’t really care about seeing a moose, but now you do. I had this realization in Cape Breton’s national park. It’s a beautiful park, by the way: badly wall-papered birches, scrubby evergreens and some deciduous species I can’t recall off the top of my head cover the highlands almost to the edges of the cliffs dropping away to the Atlantic. I stopped to hike there. It was fresh and wet and uproariously windy – a 45 minute walk brought me to an exposed part of the headland that jutted out into the ocean, and the wind gusted down the highlands and out to sea so furiously that I could barely stand in one place on the cliff. Gull country for sure. After it started raining I retreated to the forest again and took a different way back than I had come. I saw a walnut sized mouse and six grouse, but no moose, and no other hikers. After about half an hour without seeing anyone, I wondered if I was going the right way. And then I saw a moose! It was a full-sized bull, lying in the long grass about ten feet off the path, just looking at me. That was cool. I took a good look and then kept going, but it wasn’t long before I felt I had gone too far and missed an important fork in the trail, or something. I turned around and went back, keeping an eye out for the moose again, but didn’t see him.

The thing about second-guessing is that it’s hard to stop once you start. First I doubted my navigational skills, and then I doubted my own eyes. Maybe there was no moose, I thought. I could have sworn there was one there, but in the rain, without my glasses on…
After ten minutes of perambulatory confusion I rounded a corner and came upon a family of hikers, who turned out to be Francophones. We managed to communicate well enough with each other that I was able to understand that I had indeed been hiking the right way.

All well and good! But they were slow hikers, and I missed the opportunity to smoothly forge on ahead. So I dawdled behind them for a while, and eventually for something to say I said, “I think there’s a moose ahead.” They understood the word moose, and kept a sharp eye out thereafter. I was just starting to regret my decision to alert them to the possibility of a moose sighting when I saw him again, before any of them had noticed him.

HEY! I stage-whispered. HEY, THERE’S THE MOOSE. The family stopped and looked around expectantly, but in the time it took for my whispers to register, we had gone a little further down the trail, and all I could see was a big stump. The dad thought I was crazy, I think. To myself I thought, are you kidding me? Am I twitchy or what? How did I imagine that that was a moose?

A few seconds later, one of the family whispered urgently in French and I was vindicated – the moose was behind the stump that kind of looked like a moose.

Home

Hello BC! It’s good to be back. I’ve been all over the highway from here to Nova Scotia and I didn’t know I missed home until I walked in the door.

The house was too hot, as it always is in August. It was dusk and the cat appeared on the edge of it – a small white question mark – when she heard me roll in. I had my arms full of books and my legs were uncramping and the laminate flooring in the entry was warm and clean and the room was spacious and did not smell like my car. It was glorious. The dogs were besides themselves when I went out back to see them (but they always are). By the time my sisters came home from work, it was dark and the living room was just glowing with being properly lived in.

There are a lot of wonderful strangers in this country – a saleswoman at Atmosphere in Thunder Bay, the congregation of Ottawa’s Canadian Reformed Church, the custodians of the Friends of the Library bookstore in Sault Ste Marie, a family of French hikers in Cape Breton, to name a few – but in spite of them something like loneliness creeps up on you after three weeks of rest stops and gas stations. Maybe it’s the absence of rhythm, or the feeling that your own rhythm is out of sync with the rhythms of the communities you pass through. That’s not to say the trip wasn’t a success. In some ways it was exhilarating. (I’ll be posting little word-pictures of the exhilarating or otherwise noteworthy events in the near future.) Anyway, there was something about coming home that reminded me about the importance of routine, or rhythm, or fellowship.  And the blessing of having a home and family to return to.

For Friends interested in Seamus Heaney’s Bog Poems

Check out this interview at the Paris Review. It’s not specifically about the bog poems until somewhere in the middle, and afterward it meanders away to other subjects, but it’s fascinating all the way through. There’s an unusual range of questions (from the excellent, “Do you feel the poet has an obligation at a politically difficult time?” to the awful, “if you could be an animal, what would it be?”).

Also, beg, steal, or borrow to get the District and Circle collection, just for “The Tollund Man in Springtime” sonnets. Here are two to whet your appetite:

‘The soul exceeds its circumstances.’ Yes.
History not to be granted the last word
Or the first claim … In the end I gathered
From the display-case peat my staying powers,
Told my webbed wrists to be like silver birches,
My old uncallused hands to be young sward,
The spade-cut skin to heal, and got restored
By telling myself this. Late as it was,
The early bird still sang, the meadow hay
Still buttercupped and daisied, sky was new.
I smelled the air, exhaust fumes, silage reek,
Heard from my heather bed the thickened traffic
Swarm at a roundabout five fields away
And transatlantic flights stacked in the blue.

——

Cattle out in rain, their knowledgeable
Solid standing and readiness to wait,
These I learned from. My study was the wet,
My head as washy as a head of kale,
Shedding water like the flanks and tail
Of every dumb beast sunk above the cloot
In trampled gaps, bringing their heavyweight
Silence to bear on nosed-at sludge and puddle.
Of another world, unlearnable, and so
To be lived by, whatever it was I knew
Came back to me. Newfound contrariness.
In check-out lines, at cash-points, in those queues
Of wired, far-faced smilers, I stood off,
Bulrush, head in air, far from its lough.

——

What does it mean for an Irish person to tell his webbed wrists to be like silver birches, I wonder?  Or to tell yourself to heal?

Notes, Indiscriminately

So the kiwi vine on the deck is fruiting for the first time since we got it, which means somewhere within bee-distance (about 3 km) there’s a kiwi vine of the opposite sex, and there are now very small kiwis ripening on our vine. I don’t know why this is having such a positive effect on my morning, but it is. I am sitting at the kitchen table with a mug of coffee listening to Jordan Klassen’s newest album, Javelin (check out “No Salesman”), feeling pleased about kiwis. This while my the cat shows she is happy to see me by walking on my laptop and rubbing against my face. And I am inspired! I’ve found time to read again lately – a little bit of Comment magazine’s latest issue, Wallace Stevens ad nauseam, some Bachelard.

And though Bachelard is probably crazy, he never fails to inspire.

In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard’s phenomenological day dreaming takes him to various images of houses – a house alone in winter, with one window lit by a lamp, a house battered by storms, a child-hood home, a cottage, a manor, etc. – with charming insight. For instance: “In a house that has become for the imagination the very heart of a cyclone, we have to go beyond the mere impressions of consolation that we should feel in any shelter. We have to participate in the dramatic cosmic events sustained by the combatant house.” The combatant house. I love that phrase. As if the house were a character inside a bigger building, maybe a pub, and the house’s inhabitant was peeking timidly over the counter while a drunken melee raged, and the house was the bartender – a red-faced barrel-chested hooligan struggling to defend the high ground on top of the bar, cracking windy heads indiscriminately with a stool, swearing a blue streak at the rain.

So how if one were to take a leaf from Bachelard’s book? What of the phenomenology of cars? I’ve been thinking for a long time about various images of cars – a car speeding along alone on a highway winding through snow-covered rolling hills, a car lit up at night, a car pushing through a rainstorm, a child-hood car – you get the idea. In the car, on the way to somewhere or from somewhere, you are in a one room moving house, with its own furniture, lights and sounds. The common car is no less alive than Howl’s Moving Castle. It shares affordances with the common house, especially for dreaming. And through daydreaming, cars do take on a life of their own, don’t they? During the day, Escalades, Chargers, Passats are bruisers gliding through reefs of hardbitten rhododendrons, stop signs and parking spots. Big fish in a mall parking lot’s little ecosystem: like Ted Hughes’ pike, one hundred feet long in their world. At night, they come alive in a different way: yes, that Civic is Voyager One, doing 17 km/s out to absolute wilderness – that car is loneliness.  That car is wonder. That car is among the private thoughts of every part-time astronaut.