Another pandemic poem: “The Doves Seem to Croon Tippy Canoe Tippy Canoe”

From your small balcony     roof-top high / you listen to doves cooing in their dovecot / tippy canoe     tippy canoe / a rooster crowing. /        You wonder / if you’ve slipped into Alice’s rabbit hole.

Thank you, Felicity Sidnell for publishing “The Doves Seem to Croon Tippy Canoe Tippy Canoe” in Spirit of the Hills’ “A Journal in Time of Pandemic and Lockdown” (July 10, 2020).

Those of us abroad when Covid-19’s impact hit were about to have our travelling lives interrupted. It was to have been a writing trip, a month in a place that I love. Baracoa is a small city near the northeastern tip of Cuba, facing the Atlantic Ocean with mountains to her back. Geography makes it rather isolated and beautiful. I would visit friends, but mostly I would walk the long malecón and then the much longer curve of beach, and I would write. But then the news broke that airlines were cancelling flights, boarders were closing: paradise interrupted.

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Along Baracoa’s malecon (photo by Kathryn MacDonald)

THE DOVES SEEM TO CROON TIPPY CANOE TIPPY CANOE
     Baracoa and Boca de la Miel, Cuba

1

Rain falls overnight
cleansing heat and dust of day
susurrus song on the pillow.

Travelling news greets morning
airlines suspending flights
a case of coronavirus at home
factories and daycares closed
the mantra of self-isolation repeated
and repeated
while the sun rises above Baracoa
island town
of ocean waves and mountain breezes.

You feel a bit like Robinson Crusoe.

2

Woodcut visions of medieval plague
bodies stacked and dangling from carts
emaciated people leaning from balconies
cross your mind before you quickly wipe
them aside.

3

Walk miles of ocean shore
to lounge upon a sheltered beach.
Eat uva caleta     grapelike berries
from the tree of Columbus’ cross.
Crack almond shells with a stone.

At the small fishing village of Boca de la Miel
listen to riffs of Spanish voices
drift across Made’s verandah
devour fried platano
     sip ice-cold cerveza
walk home to your casa on Calle Maceo
close to the malecón.

4

From your small balcony     roof-top high
you listen to doves cooing in their dovecot
tippy canoe     tippy canoe
a rooster crowing.
You wonder
if you’ve slipped into Alice’s rabbit hole.

Night’s rain has emptied clouds.
The sullen sky has changed to blue.

Time flattens like a Dali watch.
The doves sing their haunting song.

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Boat huts, Boca de la Miel (photo by Kathryn MacDonald)

You may also like to read a previous post by SOTH: “Some Poetic Reactions to Covid 19” (May 20, 2020) as well as visit the SOTH website.

When this pandemic passes and we travel again, if Cuba is on your list of places to visit, think about contacting my friend Alber the Hiker who is a wonderful guide who will share his knowledge of Cuba from its history to its unique flora and fauna. He knows his island home from west to east, north to south. He’s a great guy.

Writing Tip: If you haven’t yet joined a writing group, think about doing it. They bring creative people together for sharing, inspiration, encouragement, and often, like SOTH, offer publishing opportunities.

Please leave a comment and share. Thank you.

Ru by Kim Thúy (translated by Sheila Fischman): Book Review & Writing Tips

In French, ru means a small stream and, figuratively, a flow, a discharge — of tears, of blood, of money. In Vietnamese, ru means a lullaby, to lull.

In the previous blog, Away, I looked at the journeys of poet Andrea MacPherson who ferreted out people and places of ancestors who had emigrated from Ireland and Scotland a generation or two earlier. In this post — Ru, a poetic fictionalized memoir by Kim Thúy — we experience the harrowing journey of refugees fleeing Vietnam for Canada, escaping Saigon for Montreal. From war to an escape by boat, from a refugee camp in Malaysia to snowy Montreal, Thúy shares both the intimate and the universal realities of escape and renewal.

When NPR interviewed Thúy (“A Refugee’s Multilayered Experience in Ru”), they said that the “novel unfolds in the way a flower casts off its petals: one small scene after another.” On the page, the novel looks like a prose poem or perhaps the concise pages of a journal. Yet the narrative flows smoothly and coherently.

It begins with a ten-year-old girl, but like memory that doesn’t necessarily reveal itself chronologically, the story called Ru flows back and forth in time as one experience triggers another. It does so as the name suggests, as gently as a lullaby. This is extraordinary given the intense and often devastating experiences of the refugees. At the books core, Ru is a story of survival against all odds (Thúy has said the family expected to die) but it is also a beautiful story of a girl who becomes a woman almost in awe of the way lives unfold and people grow and blossom.

Near the middle of the book, Thúy introduces Monsieur Minh who gave me the urge to write. And we can see how writing flings windows wide open, creating space for seeing:

He was saved not by the sky but by writing. He had written a number of books during his time in the re-education camp—always on the one piece of paper he possessed, page by page, chapter by chapter, an unending story. Without writing, he wouldn’t have heard the snow melting or leaves growing or clouds sailing through the sky. Nor would he have seen the dead end of a thought, the remains of a star or the texture of a comma (88).

Later, we meet the grandmother who chose withdrawal into prayer as a way to cope:

Today, my grandmother is a very old woman, but still beautiful, lavishly so, like a queen. When she was in her forties, sitting in her parlour in Saigon, she epitomized a whole era of an extreme kind of beauty, of opulence.…

After the markets had been cleaned out of merchandise and merchants, after her Communist tenants had taken the contents of her safe and her lace scarves, she learned to dress in the long grey kimono worn by the faithful.…

She’d let her two youngest, a boy and a girl, leave with my mother despite the uncertainty. My mother asked my grandmother to choose between the risk of losing her son at sea and that of finding him torn to shreds in a minefield during his military service in Cambodia. She had to choose secretly, without hesitating, without trembling, without perspiring. Perhaps it was to control her fear that she started to pray. Perhaps it was to become intoxicated with the incense smoke that she no longer left the altar (116-117).

Imagine! Yet the story is so sensitively written that the horror fails to leap out and grab us with a scream. Instead, it silently builds and haunts long after we’ve read the last page.

Ru has won a string of prizes, including the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, the Grand prix littéraire Archambault,  the Prix du Grand Public Salon du Livre/La Presse, the Grand prix littéraire RTL-Lire (France), and the Mondello Prize for Multiculturalism (Italy). In addition, it was the 2015 winner of “Canada Reads” (CBC Books/Canada Broadcasting Corporation).

Writing tips:

Structure: the lesson here is to not fear innovation. Choose the format that best suits the telling of your story. Think about how different the reading experience would be if the novel had been written in the usual chapter format, all those transitions and unnecessary details.

Consider the power being concise. In an interview or talk (I can’t be sure where), I heard Thúy say that whatever country that she has traveled people have related their unique journey through war and escape. I believe, in large part, that the brevity of her narration opened space wherein readers filled in their reality. You may want to take a longer piece you’ve written and streamline it down to essential; then consider the impact of each style.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Ru

Away by Andrea MacPherson: Book Review and Writing Tip

Before, there might have been children playing in the street, / the rumbling of cars and feet, / but now there is nothing. Taut, stretched stillness. Waiting.

“Walking Shankill Road” (29)

Andrea MacPherson travels in Away — and we travel with her through the magic of her poetry. The journey begins in Ireland, a personal quest where sites and family are sought.

This is the one place you insisted I come,
this place where limestone weeps
and children once played between execution sites
and burial grounds.

So begins “here’s to the wings of a bird” (12) and with it an elusive you, someone who has planted the seed of return, a return instead of, as if MacPherson is visiting the memories of another. Throughout, the time of the “Troubles” persists. In “boundaries” (16), she writes:

We anticipated a stop here,
men with guns and strict faces
(tightropes of unsmiling mouths,
eyes that have seen marchers falling)
a checkpoint at least, with flashlights
turning our faces to ghosts.

Instead there is nothing but seamless conversation;
rapeseed fields.
Trading prayer for something even quieter.

With the poet, we ride through countryside, lulled, until Belfast and RUC men… their guns and tanks.

Somehow we have forgotten about the strife
we had prepared to see, more content
with wavering fields a thousand shades of yellow
and ancient schoolhouses.

These places where people once sat.

The “Troubles” are old; the people we meet are old. It is as if all love and youth have left Ireland. MacPherson captures a poignancy that is haunting. In “the backyard faerie circle” (20), we visit an old man, alone:

A grey cardigan coming apart at the seams,
smelling of sheep and skin and age.
A threadbare chair,
imprinted with the memory of the body
thighs and shoulders and hip bones.
This is what his life has become:
wool and paisley just there.

We learn something of him, his youth and love, but now the small patch of wild roses / left untended, / forgotten in the shade.

The family journey of remembrance crosses the Irish Sea and continues in Scotland where we learn MacPherson’s mother’s mother left with only a rose-gold / wedding band, a few porcelain figurines (“blue salt,” 41). In “Caldrum Street,” MacPherson writes: I take photos to enter a past that is not mine (48); yet the poems lack nostalgia. They are immediate, felt, experienced. History – political and personal – continues to dig deep, becoming, as she says in one poem, fable.

MacPherson’s travels continue to France and Greece. In Paris: A streak of blue paint / thick / across a painter’s cheek (“sketches of Paris, 71). Allusions to artists and their art continue. In “La Goulue & Jane Avril” (77).

You write to me from Toulouse
and I think not of you and the red
city you describe, but of the small
deformed man with miniature legs
(childhood breaks that never quite healed)
who drew cabaret dancers
and whores and faceless men.
Smell the absinthe on his stale breath,
the unwashed quality of his hair.
Dark, dense in the spring sun.

Toulouse is nowhere in those photos,
only the possibility of his compressed figure in the corner,
black coat tails, shriveled leg
fleeting.

In “National Archaeological Museum” (85), Greece, archeology replaces the art trope of France:

[The statues] have all been saved from watery graves,
a shipwreck hundreds of years ago in the Aegean.
They might have been home for minnows,
crustaceous prawns, octopuses;
seaweed might have covered the boy’s eyes,
letting him forget he once had limbs.

As the trip comes to an end, she writes: I dream of the places I will go once home: / thick rainforests, yards of lilac and rose bushes…relearn the taste of green (“the geography of bougainvillea” 89).

Away describes a circle, a going out and a return – to place, to self – and it does so with keen observation and insight. This is Andrea MacPherson’s second book of poetry. It is now one of my favourites to be read and reread.

Hints for Writers 

  1. For writers on personal journeys to places of emigration, Away shows how the quest can embrace the stories of generations, the return (almost) on behalf of parents and grandparents but also open doors to others curious minds. MacPherson travels with purpose, but her list of places and people to see does not blind her. She finds ways to draw readers into her poems; she bridges the personal : universal divide. If this is your journey, read MacPherson with an eye and ear as to how she accomplishes the magic.
  2. The author’s voice is consistent throughout the collection, creating cohesion between poems and sections of the book. MacPherson’s voice is intimate/personal but also knowledgeable. We trust her. We also remain open to the surprises and insights that happen along the journey. Think about how she uses the first person to control what we see and feel and then how she inserts the twist that makes us pause and contemplate the awareness or insight or question revealed.

67 Away.jpg

Available through your local bookstore or online: Away

Mechanics of a Gaze by Branka Petrovic; poetry review and reading/writing tips

Inside his studio, a woman awaits // her turn to be myth

In Mechanics of a Gaze, Branka Petrovic strips the paintings of Gustav Klimt—layer by layer—until only the male gaze is left. Petrovic’s interpretation of the man and his work is not flattering. The poems are irreverent, provocative, skillful and mature.

The structure of the book leads us from insightful—although sometimes devastating profiles—and ekphrastic poems to historical notes and interpretations by others. In the first section (“His Women”), we meet a selection of the women who were model, muse and sexual object. The poems unmask the erotic within Klimt’s studio, sometimes blatantly and sometimes more suggestively.

Whatever’s semi about this nude, it’s not
the way we enter the sketch,
her swift dialogue of the illicit.

Slipped between the poems are excerpts from postcards sent by Klimt to Emilie Flӧge over their long relationship. They continue throughout, presaging the final section and providing an insight into the Klimt-Flӧge relationship and his character.

Next, the focus is on Emilie Flӧge, the woman who was Klimt’s friend, sometimes lover, and lifelong companion. In a poem called “Gustav & Emilie, Petrovic creates a scene (perhaps from a photo taken at her family cottage at Lake Attersee) but then imagines:

If he were to paint you right now,
the vertical lines of your dress
would leak jonquil, mutate

into a metallic-gold,

backdrop; osmanthus sprouting

from your hands….

…Your air,

a brooding saint.

Petrovic at once captures the essence of Klimt’s art and sexual fecundity as evidenced in “osmanthus.” In another poem, she does this with “Calder,” alluding to movement. Petrovic demonstrates a close reading of both the paintings/drawings and the characters that inhabit (and those who created) them. And in five words defines Flӧge and the relationship.

The third section places the gaze on Adele Bloch-Bauer. (You may recall the 2006 movie “The Woman in Gold,” starring Helen Mirren, which takes the point-of-view of Maria Altmann who reclaims the painting of her aunt from the Austrian establishment.)  In one poem, Petrovic expresses the essence of Adele and Klimt as “a Wittgenstein riddle.”

In the fourth section, “Mankind Drifting,” the perspective broadens to include Vienna and the Secessionists’ art (late 19th through early 20th centuries). The Secessionists led the way from traditional-to-modern art in Vienna. The movement turned conservative values on their head, and Gustav Klimt was in the vanguard.  In this section, Petrovic switches focus from Klimt’s portraits to his controversial work for the University of Vienna’s ceilings: Philosophy; Medicine; and Jurisprudence. It is also here that Petrovic returns to Egon Shiele, provocative protégé (“Disabled Sex” appears in the first section).

The final part, “Catalogue Raisonné,” is where we come to found poems and collages, information gleaned from sources such as Wikipedia and the Internet to reviews and the press from The New York Times to The Montreal Gazette. Petrovic’s innovative structuring of the collection leads readers from her subject—the sexualized gaze—of artist and model to the political subject of Nazi looting. With this innovation, Petrovic pushes the convention of most poetry collections.

Branka Petrovic’s debut collection reinvigorates Gustav Klimt and Secessionists’ art. You will never look at the stale gold and mosaic looking greeting cards of Klimt the same. I find Mechanics of a Gaze as invigorating as was the poetry of Sylvia Plath in the 1960s. My guess is that we’ll be hearing more from Branka Petrovic.

 

Tips for Writers

  1. Relevancy: read the poems as a whole, thinking about their subject and relevancy (see Good News for Poets and Readers). As a poet, what role does relevancy to your readers play in your writing? Is relevancy important?
  2. Read each poem for its ekphrastic insight, asking yourself if Petrovic captures the essence of the art. Does the poem work as a poem?
  3. In 2017, I reviewed The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey. Like “Peter Schjeldahl on Gustav Klimt Part 1” and “…Part II” in Mechanics of a Gaze, I have changed my mind somewhat. In that review, I ignored sexual politics and the inherent power of the “gaze.” But after reading The Mechanics of a Gaze, and having witnessed the revelations of the last couple of years, I’ve reread the more sympathetic Kiss. It is Hickey’s fictionalized story of Klimt, written entirely from the point-of-view of Emilie Flӧge. Hickey seeks to get under the skin and into the heart of a woman of the last century. Yet it is all there: the sexualized gaze and acts. Bring your consciousness to Petrovic’s collection. Is Mechanics of a Gaze a feminist collection? If so, does “the message” inform or detract from the work as art?
  4. The Secessionists rejected the orthodox conventions of late 19th-early 20th century Vienna. Their art was rejected by traditional art galleries, so they established their own, a movement toward modernity. Should it be judged/reinterpreted against today’s standards or accepted within its place in history?

 

Available through your local bookstore or online: Mechanics of a Gaze

Also, please see blog 14 The Painted Kiss (2005): The Painted Kiss

66 Mechanics of a Gaze

Apologetic for Joy by Jessica Hiemstra-van der Horst for poetry lovers

I ate quince with musicians and contemplated
transformation

In Apologetic for Joy, Jessica Hiemstra-van der Horst’s poems not only explore transformation but they also elicit the experience of transformation in her readers. In “Eating Quince with Musicians,” she creates images and takes us beyond the fruit and conversation.

It begins hard and yellow,” she said, needs peeling
and long heat.
Finally it is ambrosia, soft and red.

By the end of the fourth stanza, she weaves through the sensuality of experience, arriving at love and we do not question the transformation. This process unfolds throughout the collection, but sometimes there is a detour on the journey through the poem as there is in “Fingertips Are for Touching” when something discordant jars us into paying attention:

Do I leave a mark on you
when I graze by your chair?
Children understand loneliness
they sit in laps, cry
until they are empty.

Every mark I make
on you, on canvas,
is a brush with infinity, hoping
two of us under covers
see each other without light.

What do children have to do with the light mark she makes as she passes? Are the lonely children a way to tell us what the touch means to Hiemstra-van der Horst? Then we learn the marks she leaves “on you, on canvas…brush with infinity.” Infinity: an immensity, a vastness beyond quantity, beyond qualification. Notice how she leads us “under covers.” Notice how the poem takes us beyond sensuality into the deeper knowing of seeing beneath the surface, the deeper seeing even “without light.” Notice how simple the poem is on the surface of language and image and see how she transforms it into something difficult to quantify.

This is a woman like Daisy Johnson (please see Everything Under) who loves words and mines them for all they are worth. In the section Bad Things Erased by Oranges, Jessica Hiemstra-van der Horst travels to Southern Africa and into Setswana, a new language. The poems flow so smoothly the skill she employs could easily be overlooked. Then, with the abruptness of a phone call, she creates a shift and we see where she’s been taking us and the symbolic importance a simple thing like an orange can become.

Although seven sections make up Apologetic for Joy (most leading to sensual transformations), Notes for a Dying Amaryllis is different. It makes me smile despite its subject and situation. Here we meet George and God, two characters I have come to love. Once more, Hiemstra-van der Horst manages to reveal something easily overlooked. In “The Substance of Almost,” she once more sheds light on how she sees:

Gerald’s been complaining about a mouse in the wall.
For weeks I’ve assumed it’s in his head. Everything we see
is mixed with three colours and shades of darkness.

Nothing is quite as it seems. She uses words and painting, which she says in an interview are intertwined (please see “A Stabbing Out of Darkness”). With words, she strips the darkness away as if it was paint on her brush, making the image clear.

I have read Apologetic for Joy many, many times over the winter and into spring. Every reading has taken me deeper while also giving me more pleasure: pleasure in the insights Jessica Hiemstra-van der Horst shares about what she sees and where the experience of really seeing (and feeling) can take us. I’ve touched on only three of the seven sections of this collection. If you are a poetry lover—even if you are not—this is a rare book whose themes are pared down to their core. We are both fulfilled and left wanting more.

For the writers among us: Think about the excerpts and how every word is carefully chosen to provide sensual details that lead us to insight. Think about how she uses metaphor and symbol to make the abstract concrete and how she writes between the lines. Jessica Hiemstra-van der Horst is also a painter; think about how she integrates both art forms and what that adds to her writing.

Available through your local bookstore or online: Apologetic for Joy

64 Apologetic for Joy

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson Book Review and Writing Tips

The places we are born come back. They disguise themselves as migraines, stomach aches, insomnia. They are the way we sometimes wake falling….

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson is the story of a daughter, mother, and digging into memory:

If I really cared about you I would put you in a home for your own good. Floral curtains, meals at the same time every day, others of your kind. Old people are a species all of their own. If I really still loved you I would have left you where you were, not carted you here, where the days are so short they are barely worth talking about and where we endlessly, excavate, exhume what should remain buried.

It is the story of words: their creation, meaning, and power:

Occasionally we find those old words sneaking back in and we are undone by them. It’s as if nothing has ever changed, as if time doesn’t mean a jot. We have gone back and I am thirteen years old and you are my awful, wonderful, terrifying mother. We live on a boat on the river and we have words that no one else does. We have a whole language of our own.

And it is a story about fear: naming it, running from it:

One night I wake and you are screaming and screaming. I skid along the corridor, knock you door open, put on the light.

The Bonak is here, you say, and for a moment—because it is night and I am only just awake—I feel a rise of sickening panic.

Johnson’s story reverberates from the present to the past and it balloons into more than a mother’s dementia and a daughter’s search to find meaning behind the words, truth.

Some mornings I am cold with certainty that only some ancient punishment will do, a stoning or a blinding, leaving you out for the wolves. You tell me that you didn’t know and we grow silent and wonder if either of us really believes that. Again and again I go back to the idea that our thoughts and actions are determined by the language that lives in our minds.

Truth is elusive, stretching to include a run-away youth: Margo/Marcus. And it becomes tangled like the weeds beneath the boat, knotted into words woven into the Oedipus myth.

Daisy Johnson has created an original page-turning story that was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize 2018. Fall into Everything Under and let her laden words carry you like the river’s current.

Reading as a writer:

  1. Gretel, the daughter-narrator, is a lexicographer. Pay attention to the role words play in the story and why Johnson made her a word person. As you read, also consider the naming of people and objects in Johnson’s story. What is the importance of Gretel’s career choice and how does it impact or layer the story? In your writing, what do character’s names bring to your stories? What do their roles contribute?
  2. Can you read “Gretel” without thinking of the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel? What does this allusion bring to Everything Under? Gretel is as lost in her own way as her mother is lost in dementia. Another literary reference is made to the Oedipus myth. Think about your own literary references and ask yourself if they are integral to your story, layering it and deepening the meaning, or if they are superficial and ostentatious.

63 Everything Under

Available through your local bookstore or online: Everything Under

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys – Book Review and Writing Tips

The sound of children screaming, wood splintering, and life departing roared from behind. I tried to run toward the crowd but the soldier grabbed me and threw me off the road. I crawled through the snow toward the pink of Emilia’s hat and draped my body over hers. (Joana)

I’ve read many books about the atrocities that occurred during World War II and hesitated to open another. I’m glad that I did. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys is a timely reminder of the human costs and futility of war.

Salt to the Sea unfolds through the voices of four separate narrators: Joana (a nurse who is haunted by guilt); Florian (an artist whose skill is his fate); Emilia (whose condition is her shame); and Alfred (whose fear propels him toward betrayal and delusion). Joana, Florian and Emilia—along with a blind girl, an old shoemaker, a small boy, and a giant woman—make a hellish journey toward the port at Gotenhafen, walking across Lithuania, East Prussia, and Poland as Russia advances toward Germany and Germany advances toward Russia. Alfred awaits aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a luxury liner refitted to evacuate German military and refugees.

I held the paper, waiting to approach the checkpoint. I stared at the type.… Special pass. It looked real. Perhaps my best work ever. (Florian)

At the lagoon, the refugees must cross there was a strafing, panic of course, then fifteen-year-old Emilia:

We waited on the bank for several hours but the planes did not return. The water froze again. So did our hands and feet.

I held my breath as we crossed, quivering at the thought of our Ingrid frozen beneath. The ice ached and groaned, like bones carrying too many years, brittle and threatening to snap at any moment.

Alfred, already aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff is a frightened boy, a boy in the German navy:

This would be my first-ever journey at sea. My maiden voyage had already presented its challenges. I noticed an unbecoming rash had appeared on my hands and in my armpits. I blamed the Communists.

These excerpts do not begin to demonstrate the page-turning intensity of the story. Sepetys does not wow with vocabulary or overwrought emotion. She lets each of her narrators slowly reveal their character and together their voices accumulate to tell the larger, universal horrors of thousands of women, old men and children crossing treacherous landscapes and borders (the young men—except for Florian—have been conscripted).

I highly recommend Salt to the Sea. I’m a slow reader but the bedside lamp was lit most of two nights straight and the last page was read before the weekend was over.

For the writers among us:

  1. The point of view of the narrator affects what readers are told and how they respond to a story. The story of the three little pigs would be different if told from the wolf’s perspective rather than an omnipotent narrator who is sympathetic to the pigs’ plight. Think about Sepetys use of multiple narrators and what she may be attempting to achieve that she could not achieve with a single narrator.
  2. As Robert Fulford wrote in The Triumph of Narrative: Storytelling in the Age of Mass Culture, “There is no such thing as just a story. A story is always charged with meaning, otherwise it is not a story, merely a sequence of events. [T]here is no such thing as value-free story.” As you read, think about the values embedded in Salt to the Sea. What is Sepetys telling us about war and its victims?
  3. Do you write (or will you attempt writing) stories with multiple points-of-view? What can you learn from Ruta Sepetys’ Salt and the Sea? Poets too: accept the challenge.

All this…and we did not even touch on researching and writing historical fiction! Another time perhaps.

62 Salt to the Sea

Available through your local bookstore or online: Salt to the Sea

Ragged Company by Richard Wagamese (Book Review & Writing Tips)

…the day that’s all around you, is inside you too, and you think that it’s a perfect fit. But you go outside and you walk in your woe. You take it to the streets or the fields or wherever and you walk in it.

This is what you do with yearning.

A book is powerful when it captures emotion, when it stirs memory buried so deep you’re surprised when it surfaces. Ragged Company by the late Ojibway author Richard Wagamese is a powerful story.

The memory Wagamese stirred in me is rooted in a downtown neighbourhood of Ottawa around 25 years ago. Every morning as I walked the few blocks to my office along the river, I passed a man sitting on a worn grey blanket, his back to a wall. In winter, icy wind tunneled through the street. In summer, dust and debris blew relentlessly. I respected his diligence. Some mornings—not every morning—I dropped change into his hat, but whether I did or not, we nodded. Gradually over time, I think we looked for each other. One morning, he beckoned me to squat down as he unfolded a newspaper. There on his lap was a feather. “A peregrine feather,” he told me. A man had found it—a pair were nesting high on one of the city’s hotel towers—and had given it to him. A hawk feather. A simple, thoughtful act. A smile crinkled his eyes. I felt deeply honoured to be sharing his joy.

Ragged Company is a hard story told in stark language through the voices of five narrators—four “rounders” of the streets and one “Straight John.” Everyone has a story, and none are as soft as mine. One of the characters, One For the Dead (they each have street names), explains to the “Straight John” the importance stories play in our lives:

“We’re all storytellers, Granite,” I said. “From the moment we’re graced with the beginnings of language, we become storytellers. Kids, the first thing they do when they learn to talk is tell you all about what they’re doing, what they’re seeing. They tell you stories about their little lives. Us, too. When we get together after not seeing each other for a while, the first thing we do is tell each other a story about what we’ve been up to. What we’ve seen, what we did, what we felt and went through. Guess we kinda can’t help ourselves that way. It’s who we are.

I won’t go into the plot line of Ragged Company, you can check the cover copy for that, but the themes of loss and yearning and the importance of friendship and respect are particularly interesting as explored by Wagamese.

Although Granite is a retired journalist who knows something about stories, he learns more about others and about himself. He comes to realize a truth:

Beggary. It’s not the sole property of the street people or the ill defined. It’s part of all of us, part of everyone who has ever suffered loss. A handout. It meant something more suddenly. It meant more than the image and the idea of a dirty, wrinkled, weakened hand stretched outward to accept nickels and dimes. It meant every hand extended across the galaxy of separation that exists between all of us.

This is a story about loss of culture, loss of family, loss of love, and loss of self. It is also a story about finding those things within and through the company of others. It is course and tender, brutal and poetic. The sixth narrator—perhaps the voice of Wagamese—is reflective and appears sparingly in offset italic type. It is this voice that introduced the novel and the thread of movies that runs throughout creating insight, magical, empathetic insight.

For the writers among us:

  1. Movies become open doorways to understanding unspoken realities and dreams, catalysts for feeling and for discussion among the unlikely friendships. Whether you write prose or poetry, think about how you open windows and doors for your characters and readers?
  2. We write our myths and legends into our work, sometimes directly as Wagamese does with Ojibway stories, and sometimes subtly written between the lines. Think about your awareness of the stories layered in your writing and what they add to (or distract from) your theme.

62 Ragged Company

Available through your local bookstore or online: Ragged Company

Reading “What They Wanted” by Donna Morrissey as a Writer

I remember clear as yesterday those last days in Cooney Arm, the sea dying around us and taking Father’s spirit with it. And my, but he had fought. Long after his brothers and the others left he’s stayed, netting cod, netting salmon, spearing flatfish, hauling crab-pots, trapping eels and rabbits, hunting seals and turrs and boo birds, and landing capelin and squid and all else the sea hove at him.

What They Wanted by Donna Morrissey explores loss of home and all that means, of becoming lost while chasing survival. Memories haunt her protagonist and then one day she asks herself,

What of memory is truth? It was a staggering thought, and for a moment I felt a great fear, like those split seconds sometimes upon awakening when all sense of self is still caught back in the nether world of sleep and the eyes alone are opened onto the blankness of a room without memory. I clutched my arms around myself, needing to feel the solidity of flesh and bone, like the ghosts from Cooney Arm whose lives have been vanquished into time, leaving behind fragments of soul clinging to wood, no longer knowing what, if any of this, is real, and frightened of their invisibility.

In Newfoundland, Sylvie—a sister, daughter, and granddaughter— confronts “what is and what could be.” After a time, she follows her quiet brother Chris to the oilfields of Alberta. There, they face a different kind of fear from the old ghosts and guilts of childhood. Sylvie:

If I’d learned anything from this camp, it was that fear doesn’t necessarily present itself in well-defined situations; more often it’s that darker shade of red flowing through our veins, tinting our views and no doubt stripping us of the courage to make decisions along the way.

In Newfoundland, the graves and past was tangible, but in the oil fields of Albert, the fears were elusive shadows. Yet, decisions are made and consequences unfold.  To say more would be to give too much away and spoil your reading.

For the writers among us:

  1. As you read, pay attention to the details of place and culture. See how these play into and reveal character.
  2. Notice how Morrissey creates situations that, in turn, create the need for decisions, and notice how decisions often carry unforeseen consequences.
  3. Notice how she controls tension, keeping us turning pages.
  4. Notice also how an undercurrent develops, a movement beneath the thread of the surface story.
  5. All these things together lead to a story that we believe; it feels authentic.

Morrissey uncovers the human cost of loss while also revealing the power of family and love and  she does this within the specifics of a time and place that we recognize as also universal. It is what we aim for as writers.

If you have read What They Wanted—or when you read it—please share your thoughts on how Morrissey achieves moving the personal (particular) time, place, and situation of the novel into the universal so that we can each relate, regardless of whether we share the Newfoundland experience of dislocation.

60 What They Wanted

Available through your local bookstore or online: What They Wanted

10 Tips for Poets and Readers

“Tell the truth but tell it slant” (#1263, Emily Dickinson) continues to be good advice, but there are more.

Over the years a collection of writing tips have accumulated along with lessons learned while teaching creative and memoir college-level classes and workshops. Occasionally, I review, add and subtract. This is my current list of things for poets to think about:

  1. Write what you know
    • Experience life (do something out of your ordinary and see with fresh eyes)
    • Write about it
    • Avoid abstractions and ideas alone;
  2.  Ask yourself if your subject and theme are relevant to readers
    For readers to buy your poetry collection, you must create a bridge that joins you, and the subject and theme of your poem is what will attract and hold them;
  3. Choose the best point of view for your poem
    • It makes a huge difference whose perspective tells the story; find what best suits the poem (first person “I” or second person “you,” or third person “he, she, they”);
    • First write it with one narrator and then the same poem with another p-o-v and see the difference;
  4. Choose the best literary form for each poem
    From free verse to traditional forms like ballad, epic, ode, and sonnet;
  5.  Use accessible language and make every word work
    Choose only the perfect words for each poem (invest in a good dictionary and thesaurus);
  6. Create poetry that is clear and accessible
    Avoid being obtuse or vague;
  1. Use literary techniques
    • Create images, sounds (assonance, alliterations, repetition – read your poem aloud), and metaphors and similes;
    • Think about tone and mood and the importance of evoking emotion (and remember that even in the darkest place a sense of wonder often exists and, if you can create it, readers will feel rewarded for accompanying you on the journey – this does not mean happy-happy, but more awe to balance the awful, or perhaps simply wonder that the sun rises even after the nightmare);
    • Create echoes within a poem and across a collection (perhaps a symbol running through as A.F. Moritz’s sparrow);
  1. Look at your finished poem
    • Just as in story writing, you must hook your reader; then, you must maintain interest; and finally, you must reward them for reading to the end;
    • This has meant providing a twist, a surprise, something that builds within the poem but is still unexpected (perhaps it is easiest to see this in the three-line haiku);
  1. Invite readers into your poems by leaving the door open for them to find their meaning
    • As Jane Hirshfield suggests, “a poem needs to retain within its words some of the disequilibrium that called it forth, and to include when it is finished some sense also of uncomfortable remainder, the undissolvable residue carried over….” Leave room for more than your personal meaning (a poem is not an essay) to the dilemma, situation, or question your poem raises.
  1. Read other poets
    • Learn as much as you can about the poets who created the foundation on which we write;
    • Read contemporary poets;
    • Read. Read;
    • Figure out what you like and don’t like and why; don’t copy or mimic but …
    • Learn how a successful poem unfolds.

Of course, this incomplete and inadequate list points to characteristics that I like in poetry and advice that I find useful. After you’ve been writing and reading for a while, create your own list. If you already have a list, share it with us.

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