Monthly Archives: June 2009

Walking the beaches of Manitoulin Island, as I did today for the first time since last summer, is my surest therapy.  It is always a journey through the flora of my unconscious, the unnamed and half-remembered flowers of my childhood. Though I could not begin to name and recall all of the growing things that I encountered today, or to explain the significance that they have for me, or even to relate the experience of coming upon them, I offer the following list as a memorial of their place in my history and in my imagination:

Sand Cherry (Prunis pumila var. depressa)
Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus stolonifera)
Purple Flag (Iris versicolor)
Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Pitcher’s Thistle (Cirsium pitcheri)
Great Lakes Wheat Grass (Agropyron psammophilum)
Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)
Beach Pea (Lathyrus japonicus)
Silverweed (Potentilla anserina)
Canada Anemone (Anemone canadensis)
Starry False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum stellatum)
Wild Rose (Rosa carolina)

Some of these plants are found in amost no other place on earth, though I have walked among them every summer of my life.  Others are among the commonest of plants.  All of them, however, have a rarity quite apart from their quantity and their geographical distribution.  They are, in fact, the rarest of things: the source and the reminder of an imagined history.

The poem never produces the experience of poetry.  The poem is only ever produced by such an experience.  When I experience poetry while reading the poem, I do not experience the poetry of the poem that I am reading.  I experience the poetry of the poem that needs to be written through me.  In this way, poem calls to poem, poetry to poetry, however poorly I may accomplish the poem that is required of me.

Through Unmarked Time

She paused on the topmost stair, wonderingly,
as if she had found, without expectation,
a place preordained for her,
and the sun dappling through the cedars,
and the lake breeze stirring her clothing,
seemed to welcome her like a long expected mistress,
and she turned back toward the sun,
eyes closed and face lifted,
innocent of the face also lifted to her,
the gaze that passed over her
like the sun and like the breeze,
and her pause grew to a waiting,
and his waiting to a stillness,
and the sun’s stillness to an eternity,
a caress through unmarked time.

A certain stillness, of the mind if not of the body, is inextricably related to a certain knowledge, to a faithful knowledge that neither seeks nor attains a guarantee.  “Be still,” reads the biblical injunction, “and know that I am God.”  This does not mean, “Be still in order to know that I am God.”  Neither does it mean, “Be still because you know that I am God.”  The two commands are not consecutive.  They are parallel.  They could be separated by a colon rather than a conjunction, reading,  “Be still: Know that I am God.”  They imply that there is a stillness that is equivalent, correspondent, correlate to knowing that God is God.  The two statements repeat, reiterate, reinforce each other.  I am still: I know that God is God.  I know that God is God: I am still.

Late this past Saturday night, or, more probably, early this past Sunday morning, some people walked by my house.  They were more than likely intoxicated, walking home from one of the many bars and pubs that are within a few blocks of me, and they decided that it might be entertaining, for whatever reason, to rip out the stakes and strings that I had placed as supports for the bean plants that my kids had planted earlier in the spring.

The stakes and string were not very expensive, of course, nor very difficult to erect.  I actually found the stakes for free, and it took me all of a few minutes to hammer them into the ground and run string between them.  It will take me even less time and no money at all to return them to their places.  In this sense, pulling a few stakes out of the ground is a mostly harmless bit of vandalism.  It hurt no one, damaged little, cost nothing.

There is another sense, however, in which I find the pulling of my stakes to be a far more serious matter.  It is indicative of a certain disregard, of a certain unconcern, of a certain closedness to the other, that is the profoundest enemy of community and neighbourhood and home.  It is not a selfishness precisely, because it has as little true concern for the self as it has for the other.  It is a closedness, both to the self and the other, a closedness to the self as it becomes itself only in relation to the other, a closedness to the self in community.

This closedness saddens me.  It moves me to sorrow, not because of a few stakes and a bit of string, not because of a few extra minutes or a few extra dollars, but because it opposes entirely the possibility of the neighbourly and the communal and the familial, because it holds the seeds of inhumanity.

Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is a book written according to the desires of my imagination: poetic, fantastic, imagistic.  Its nine sections open and close with episodes in an imagined relationship between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, with the adventurer relating news of his travels to the emperor.  Between these episodes, each section contains descriptions of the cities that Polo has visited, exotic, mythic, impossible cities, yet cities that are nevertheless familiar, and cities that Polo eventually admits are all descriptions of a single city: Venice.

Each description is marvellous in its way, and each contributes to an almost mystical reflection on the ideas of city and empire, traveller and emperor, native and foreign, word and and image, story and dream.  Rather than try to describe all of this adequately, which I could not hope to do, I will offer of few of Calvino’s reflections on the city, as a way of gesturing to how the book awakened a new appreciation for what the image of the city is capable of meaning:

“The city does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked with scratches, indentations, scrolls.”

“The city says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse, and while you believe you are visiting her, you are only recording the names with which she defines herself and all her parts.”

“Each man bears in his mind a city made only of differences, a city without figures and without form, and the individual cities fill it up.”

“With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear.  Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread  of their discourse is secret, their rules absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”

“Cities believe they are the work of the mind or of chance, but neither the one nor the other suffices to hold up their walls.”

“Each city receives its form from the desert it opposes.”

“Many are the cities which elude the gaze of all, except the man who catches them by surprise.”

“My mind goes on containing a great number of cities I have never seen and will never see, names that bear with them a figure, or a fragment or glimmer of an imagined figure.”

“From one part to another, the city seems to continue, in perspective, multiplying its repertory of images, but instead it has no thickness; it consists only of a face and an obverse, like a sheet of paper, with a figure on either side, which can neither be separated nor look at each other.”

“For those who pass it without entering, the city is one thing; it is another for those who are trapped by it and never leave.  There is the city where you arrive for the first time, and there is another city which you leave never to return.  Each deserves a different name.”

“The catalogue of forms is endless: until every shape has found its city, new cities will continue to be born.  When the forms exhaust their variety and come apart, the end of cities begins.”

I am reading Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a book that I will certainly have more to say about in a future post, but I will pause in my reading long enough to share this sentence:

“And yet, in Raissa, at every moment there is a child in a window who laughs seeing a dog that has jumped on a shed to bite into a piece of polenta dropped by a stonemason who has shouted from the top of the scaffolding, ‘Darling, let me dip into it,’ to a young serving-maid who holds up a dish of ragout under the pergola, happy to serve it to the umbrella-maker who is celebrating a successful transaction, a white lace parasol bought to display at the races by a great lady in love with an officer who has smiled at her taking the last jump, happy man, and happier horse, flying over the obstacles, seeing a francolin flying in the sky, happy bird freed from its cage by a painter happy at having painted it feather by feather, speckled with red and yellow in the illumination of that page in the volume where the philosopher says: ‘Also in Raissa, city of sadness, there runs an invisible thread that binds one living being to another for a moment, then unravels, then is stretched again between moving points as it draws new and rapid patterns so that at every second the unhappy city contains a happy city unaware of its own existence.'”

In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard relates an anecdote about the dramatist and poet Jean-Francois Ducis.  Apparently, at the age of seventy, having wanted a country house all of his life, Ducis decided to construct one for himself in his imagination.  He even went so far as to write poems about this place, and he is said to have taken pleasure in it as if it actually existed.

I have myself imagined houses in this way more than once, have dreamed of them also, until I could find my way through their rooms and their corridors as well as my own home.  The houses of my imagination are always stone, old stone, and they are always larger within than they are without.  When they are approached from the road, they seem the merest cottages, with small lighted windows and thatched roofs, but their doors always open onto vastness, long hallways and stretching staircases, dark corners and grand halls.  There are always gardens around them and libraries within them.  They are always warmed by fireplaces and lit by candles.  Their centre is always a broad, rough, wooden, kitchen table.

I found many of these elements in Bachelard’s description of the home, just as I have found them in other houses in other books over the years: Vane’s house in George MacDonald’s Lilith, Badger’s house in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, the professor’s house in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the Athelny house in Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, among others.  These houses resonate with the houses of my imagination.  They are the houses where I feel at home.