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.

I am not exactly a handyman.  My father, who was in most other respects an admirable role model, gave me precious little help in this respect, and I maintained my ignorance by opting out of shop class in favour of home economics when I was forced to choose between the two in junior high school.  As I saw it, home economics meant making food and talking with girls, while shop class meant mostly an increased likelihood of severing my arm with an acetylene torch.  The choice seemed obvious to me.

In retrospect, however, I could probably have used some of the skills that were being taught in junior high shop.  Though I do try to build and repair things around the house when I am capable of it, the fact is that I am not very often capable of it, and the projects that I undertake tend to involve much frustration and profanity.  I always have great plans.  It is the implementation that gets me.

This was the case once again when I set myself to build a three bin composter to replace our mostly useless black plastic one.  I brought home a bunch of old wooden pallets that I found by the side of the road and then dissembled them into their component parts, with reasonable success.  I measured the space, drew up a design, and set to work.  It quickly became apparent, however, that the dimensions, which had seemed very reasonable at the design stage, were producing a composter that far exceeded the needs of any home.

It is large.  It looks as if I am building cattle chutes, or shipping something overseas circa 1900, or farming goats: that kind of large.  I am thinking of renting space to the city’s troubled composting program or of advertising myself as the neighbourhood lawnclippings depot, just to fill the thing.

I am not sure whether junior high shop could have prevented this situation, but I prefer to blame these kinds of fiascos on the gaps in my education rather than on my own an essential inability.  It is easier on my pride.

This past Saturday was a busy one for our family.  We spent the morning at the Speed River Cleanup, an annual event where volunteers pull a year’s worth of garbage out of our local river.  We spent the afternoon with some friends who came to visit, the kids playing in the back yard while the parents were chatting over soup preparation.  We spent the evening watching The Boys of Baraka for this month’s Dinner and a Doc and eating the soup we had made that afternoon.

As I was going to sleep that night, I found myself reflecting on these neighbourhood activities and on how deeply they contrasted with those of the urban Baltimore neighbourhoods that were portrayed in Boys of Baraka, where life is dominated by poverty, crime, addiction, and violence.  Now, I recognize the complex of factors, both past and present, that have produced and perpetuated these urban neighbourhoods, and I recognize also that the question of how to renew these communities is difficult in the extreme, politically and economically and logistically.  It involves providing adequate learning, employment, and health to a massive number of people living in densely populated and poverty stricken areas.  It involves overcoming a long established culture of hopelessness, addiction, and violence.  It involves addressing the effects of the slavery, exploitation, racism, and classism that has been perpetrated over several hundred years.  It involves, in other words, alleviating the by-products of a capitalism, democracy, protestantism, industrialism, and nationalism gone horribly wrong.

Traditional approaches to this problem are often of the institutional and programmatic sort: a restructuring of the grossly inequitable education funding formula, a publicly funded and easily accessible health system, a massive rebuilding of infrastructure, widereaching retraining initiatives, consistent support of local businesses, a landscaping program to replace concrete with parks and gardens, free and accessible addiction counselling and rehabilitation centers, free and accessible family conflict counselling.  Though many of these initiatives would be beneficial, I think, and though some of them are absolutely necessary for a viable future in urban neighbourhoods, all of them would require a staggering level of financial, political, and logistical commitment.

The very limited attempts that have been already made to revitalize urban neighbourhoods, such as those in New York, have shown some success, but only at tremendous cost to governments and to charitable organizations.  The resources simply do not exist to implement these kinds of initiatives on the scale that is required.  It may possible to send twenty boys to a school in Kenya or to make other limited interventions, and these things are valuable in their way, but it is not possible, not through traditional institutional and programmatical means at least, to fund or support these kinds of programs on a scale that have any realistic hope of changing urban communities.

The real problem, therefore, is not how to change the culture of urban neighbourhoods, or of any other neighbourhood for that matter.  The problem is how to change these neighbourhoods without the resources to make large scale institutional interventions, even if everyone could agree on what these interventions should be.  The problem is how to change these neighbourhoods through other means, and I confess that I am not sure what these means would be.

I can only suggest, from the perspective of someone obviously unqualified to make any suggestion at all, that we need to imagine a renewal of community that proceeds, not from institution or from government, even if these things are involved to a certain extent, but from human relation.  What if people formed sharing and bartering cooperatives to help alleviate their low incomes?  What if they provided homeschooling or afterschool learning groups to help supplement the poorly funded schools?  What if they developed community gardens on balconies and on rooftops to help provide food?  What if they organized community programs to get people safely out of their homes and away from their televisions?

I know that none of this would be easy, and I know that none of this would be without risk, but it seems to me that these are the only forms of renewal that have a hope, because they proceed from the community itself and from the relationships within it rather than from the kinds of programs that governments do not have the resources to run.  Yet, the question remains, who will begin these relational approaches to neighbourhood renewal within communities that are so oppressed by poverty and violence and fear?  Who will continue them through the many difficult years that will be required to renew a whole culture and a whole community?

This is where I truly have no answers?  Perhaps it is too much to expect from these broken neighbourhoods themselves.  Perhaps it can only be expected from those of us who have been fortunate enough to experience what a neighbourhood and a community and a family can be.  Perhaps it requires you or I or both of us to go and begin to live in these neighbourhoods as best we can in order to support and encourage those who are already living there as best they can.  If so, I am at fault.  Though I am moved to pity, I am not willing to stop by the side of this road.

I have been revelling in Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, his exploration of intimate space, and one of the images that has resonated with me most is that of the house as tree. Speaking of the cellar, he says, “The house, the cellar, the deep earth, achieve totality through depth. The house has become a natural being whose fate is bound to that of the mountains and of the waters that plough the land. The enormous stone plant it has become would not flourish if it did not have subterranean water at its base.”  Then, later, while exploring the image of the garret, he adds, “The well rooted house likes to have a branch that is sensitive to the wind, or an attic that can hear the rustle of leaves.”

My appreciation of this image is not solely based on the conjunction of two things that I love: the house and the tree. It is also based on the aptness of these two things in conjunction. The house, as Bachelard assures his readers throughout the book, is not still, is not dead, is not immobile, not if it truly inhabited. The image of the house as tree recognizes, however, though Bachelard does not make this explicit, that the life of the house is not an animal life. It grows and moves and changes and lives with the slow deliberation of trees. This is not a growth that we ourselves can experience. We can merely inhabit it.

It is in this sense that homes take root beneath us. It is in this sense that they seek deep subterranean waters. It is in this sense also that, once rooted, they can have branches that are sensitive to the wind, can have the whole sky as their terrace. This is an image that I have lived myself. It is an image that I am, even now, inhabiting.