Past Midnight: poem

“The lines cast off / we glide….”

In August, Amethyst Review published “Past Midnight.”

 

PAST MIDNIGHT
by Kathryn MacDonald

The lines cast off
we glide through still water
insistent weeds
and water lily leaves.

We slip past sailboats
held fast to docks
by tendrils of black or white
blue or red          lines like thoughts
tethered to mourning and borders.

We venture into the other world
beyond safe harbour
and sense some things
have changed forever.

 

I’d love to know what you think of Past Midnight (and please “share” the link — Amethyst Review deserves reading).

 

Ducks in mist-PEC-sm (1 of 1)
Leaving safe harbour in heavy mist. (The photograph “Zen Serenity” was selected for a juried show, 2018.)

 

 

 

 

 

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

Book Review: The Island of Lost Maps: a true story of cartographic Crime (by Miles Harvey)

Miles Harvey takes us on a journey where maps and travel, character and obsession, and crime come together and where the “strange borderland between inner life and outer experience, dreams and memory, body and soul” is explored. Map aficionados are bound to love The Island of Maps. Readers who are also writers will want to explore how Harvey reveals the shadowy Gilbert Bland and how it leads Harvey to character insights of himself.

Miles Harvey—who tired of reading other people’s escapades in his role as book-reviewer and columnist for Outside magazine—began to crave an adventure of his own:

Or maybe adventure isn’t quite the word. It was not that I had any particular desire to do something death-defying; what I wanted was a quest, a goal, a riddle to solve, a destination.

Harvey found his quest in crime, in his search to understand Gilbert Bland’s map thefts and, as it turns out, obsession. Along the way, we discover the fascinating world of old maps and cartographic traders. And we discover something of the character of both Bland and Harvey. We also discover the magic that is old maps.

Throughout the centuries people have viewed maps not just as useful navigational tools but as enchanted objects…. Columbus, himself, for instance, seemed to think maps were endowed with a force that transcended mere matters of geography. They stoked his imagination, inspired the flights of fancy that made his great discovery possible. The sixteenth-century chronicler Bartolomé de Las Casas wrote that when Columbus gained access to a map the Florentine scientist Paolo del Pozzo Toscanelli it “set [his] mind ablaze.”

And who among us hasn’t dreamed of maps: maps where dragons hover beyond the known edge of land; treasure maps promising trunks brimming with pearls and gold; maps to hidden, idyllic places (think about Lost Horizon’s Shangri La)? Harvey notes that maps can cast powerful spells on our imagination:

Throughout the centuries people have viewed maps not just as useful navigational tools but as enchanted objects—what [Joseph] Campbell called ‘amulets’ and [Werner]Muensterberger described as ‘power-imbued fetish[es].”

Harvey seeks Bland, the shadowy man of maps, hoping to penetrate his character—to understand why and how he became the most famous of map thieves. He concurs with Campbell, who he quotes:

As Freud has shown, blunders are not the merest chance. They are the result of suppressed desires and conflicts. They are ripples n the surface of life, produced by unsuspected springs. And these may be very deep—as deep as the soul itself. The blunder may amount to the opening of a destiny.

You can see how circuitous Harvey’s journey has become.

Along with Bland, Harvey explores the worlds of mythology and literature. Among the authors in his voluminous research is Aldous Huxley who wrote about what lurks in “‘the antipodes of the mind.’” With this, Harvey

…sensed that I was on a collision course with one of those ‘strange psychological creatures leading an autonomous existence according to the law of their own being.’ It was one discovery, I feared, that would bring no joy at all.

During his search he enters a world he didn’t know existed, a world of persons obsessed. His pursuit of a story about a series of rare-map thefts, and for insight into the character of the thief, eventually twists inward. He comes to the realization that…

We rarely reach our destinations, at least not the ones we set out to find. More often, we arrive one day at a place unfamiliar and unexpected, where all roads suddenly seem to converge and something—the ineffable smell of fate or the stench of defeat or (likeliest of all) sheer exhaustion—tells us the journey is over. In my case it was the knowledge that I had wandered too far. We do not take trips so much as they take us….

Harvey was four years researching and writing The Island of Lost Maps. Along the way, he discovered some truisms about the “strange borderland between inner life and outer experience, dreams and memory, body and soul.” For these, you will want to read the epilogue.

For reading as writers, pay particular attention as to how Miles Harvey’s search to understand Gilbert Bland’s character leads to insight about the author’s own. Besides character, if you are writing about obsession, there’s much to learn by being attentive as to how Harvey layers his story to reveal many facets of this kind of passion.

45 The Island of Lost Maps

Available through your local bookstore or online: The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime

Been traveling: Cuba’s Oriente

Journal map sketch-1 LR
One of my sketches showing the area of my recent visit where many adventures unfolded.

 

I’ve just returned from nearly a month’s stay in the eastern tip of Cuba where I explored nature, history, the unique Baracoa style of art and its many studios, and so much more. It was my third trip to the area and each visit opens doors to new experiences and insights.

Cuba’s eastern tip, known as Oriente, offers

  • one of the few rain forests in North America (although most of us think of Cuba as Caribbean, and it is that too) where Hurricane Matthew left a path of destruction but didn’t dispel the indomitable spirit of the people;
  • the tallest waterfall in the Caribbean (the 20th tallest in the world) and many lesser ones with their own special beauty;
  • a semi-desert in the region of Maisi (say My-see) and the Terraces that step up from the lowlands to the sea with breath-taking twists and views (and for geography buffs, the Maisi lighthouse on the Windward Channel is only 80 kilometres from Haiti);
  • the Farola Highway, which creates passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean Sea, is known as an engineering marvel, not to mention an adventurous ride (and on the south shore where I set off on foot to the site of poet-revolutionary José Marti’s famous landing in 1895, which set off a revolution that aimed to free Cuba of Spain’s rule);
  • Baracoa — a provincial city with a two-kilometre-plus-long malacon, that brims with art galleries, parks, and the friendliest people you will ever meet. It’s the biggest city in the area and the starting point for numerous day-trips to places like Rio Yumuri, Rio Toa, Rio Miel, each providing its own unique experience and ambience — and Alejandro Humboldt Nation Park, a United Nations designated site to touch on only a few places to enjoy a boat ride or to hike.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting photos and stories; click below to follow my many adventures in one of the most varied and beautiful landscapes in the world (and this is not hyperbole).

 

The Last Journey (East of the Mountains by David Guterson)

Underfoot, a fine sand shifted and confounded his progress. A strange apprehension haunted his limbs. He changed his direction twice, three times. Low, barren mountains appeared on the horizon. A lunar barrenness, the topography of dreams, stones strewn artfully down an arroyo as if laid by a Japanese gardener, a sinuous bend in the dry bed of stones, one, stone, two, a stone carved in runes… .

Like David Guterson’s award-winning Snow Falling on Cedars, East of the Mountains, is dense with description that uses all of the senses to draw us into place and experience. Besides the extraordinary detail, the end-papers provide a map of the mountain journey to help us traverse the route taken. East of the Mountains is an Odyssey, except we cross mountains rather than sea.

In Snow, Guterson explores relationships between Japanese Americans and their Caucasian neighbours along the northwest coast of the U.S. during WWII. East of the Mountains moves inland but remains true to place, although in this book the relationships involve Mexican migrant farm labourers. Here, the major conflict is within his protagonist Dr. Ben Givens and between Givens and the orchardists and other residents of the area. But East of the Mountains is essentially a character study that reveals one man’s journey toward death and acceptance.

The story is raw with pain: of bereavements; of terminal cancer and dying; a particular gun and the hunting of small birds (with two Brittany spaniels); and Italy during WWII. Balancing the emotions these themes elicit are tranquil orchard scenes from Givens’ youth; love and sensuously drawn passion; and his openness to life’s surprises.

The doctor plans suicide to protect himself from the pain he knows lies ahead and to protect his family from witnessing it. He goes off toward his childhood home among orchards to see it one more time. He hasn’t reached it in this scene where he’s arrived at a rough town. He feels like “a transient pauper, a graybeard drifter, a derelict or vagrant.” He’s on a quest, which he’s beginning to recognize:

Sitting there with his jug in his lap he thought of those Hindu wanderers he’s seen on a public television documentary, mendicants abroad with begging bowls, dressed in rags and clutching staffs, divested of all other property, seeking to meet the world unencumbered, aspiring, always, toward—what did they call it?—atman, the self, God. 

Soon, Givens will wrangle a ride with a trucker. As they share their stories, he comes to another kind of realization:

Ben’s heart recoiled. The lean, spare life of the wanderer, which had held some attraction an hour before, held no attraction now.… He tried to embrace some other end than the one he’d chosen for himself—he thought of dying in a hospital room, imagined languishing in one. He fell silent and stared out the window. There were no good answers to important questions. He tried to picture the shape of Stu Robinson’s [the trucker’s] final days, but he couldn’t even begin.

Throughout, Ben Givens is pulled by his moral centre. Haunted by memories and a promise, he seeks—what? answers to the big unanswerable questions, but he tries. He becomes caught up in others’ lives and surmounts his pain (both the memories and the physical, which run a parallel course).

Inevitably, there was no other subject, and he forced himself to muse on death as though it were simply a form of sleep, warm and full of dreams.

His musing finally gave way to sleep, and Ben dreamed he was traveling in the desert. On a journey whose purpose he couldn’t guess.

The inevitability of death and the bigger questions of meaning and memory, and of promises, thread through East of the Mountains. At times, I thought the detail would overwhelm me, but I’m very glad I read to the end in order to experience the epiphanies of personal discovery. Guterson is a writer who isn’t afraid to probe the big questions, and I’m glad I journeyed through waste- and lush lands sharing the loves and fears and coming to acceptance of Ben Givens.

33 East of the Mountains

Available through your local bookstore or online: East of the Mountains

Journeys: a Writer’s (incomplete) Oeuvre (Prose: One Room in a Castle 1995; The Lizard Cage 2005; Burmese Lessons 2009; The Change Room 2017. Poetry: The Border Surrounds Us 2000; and Grace & Poison 1990 by Karen Connelly)

I know this. Our lives begin and end with journeys made alone.
“The Lid Over Europe” (100-101), One Room in a Castle

Karen Connelly makes many journeys. Travel introduces us to strangers and both her poems and prose reveal ways of understanding the other and experiencing ourselves.

In her 2017 novel, The Change Room, she notes two paths toward knowing: listening and storytelling. “Listening,” she writes, “was a way of pulling a stranger toward you without touching.” And so is storytelling: Shar or Shaharzad or Sheherazade – the great storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights – is the siren of enticement in The Change Room and the sensual “amazon” of the story. Listening and storytelling, strangers and borders, are common themes in Connelly’s oeuvre.

Writers’ recurrent themes interest me. I like their unfolding like fans, and their closing tight. I like the way they spread across continents and genres – always surprising, maturing, shifting but remaining, in important ways, the same. In Karen Connelly’s writing, the travellers and lovers among us glimpse ways of knowing ourselves and the other. This holds true from her earliest stories to the most recent novel.

In Connelly’s stories, strangers often become intimate in a variety of ways, sensuality being one. In “Esmeralda, a story” (One Room in a Castle 36-67), readers glimpse insights into what has matured into the novel The Change Room.

From Castle: “Our greatest similarity was our love of water, the freedom of motion it creates. ‘It’s flying,’ Esmé said. ‘It’s the closest we’ll come to being free of our bodies.’ We began to meet in the change-room before swimming….” Esmé swims; she is also a musician. Music, like water, is freeing and sensuous: “She closed her eyes, bent herself over the piano, and laid her hands on its black surface…. Then I leaned forward and kissed her eyelids.” These themes sown in Castle dominate in Room.

In The Change Room, the writing is more complex, layered and mature, but in the early work, we glimpsed seeds that later became mature fruit. (For more on recurring themes of individual writers, please also see my review of Bicycle Thieves by Mary di Michele.)

Connelly writes across genres, which leads me to think about truth in nonfiction and fiction. One Room in a Castle, for example, was published as nonfiction – purportedly as correspondence and travel. The Change Room – 22 years later — as fiction. It begins with an Emily Dickinson quote:

“Ourself, behind ourself, concealed,
should startle most.”

And we are left wondering about the difference between reality and imagination – a conundrum for writers and readers. Connelly does provide hints. For example, in “Extrah-dinary” (Castle 33-35) she writes “It is difficult to get to the truth of one’s self; how much more difficult to create an imaginary world and reveal its truth.” Still…. (For more on this topic of fact and truth, please see my review of Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel.)

I was introduced to Connelly’s writing through a book club reading of her mid-1990s memoir, Burmese Lessons, which still pops into consciousness despite the time lapse. But it’s the poetry collection, The Border Surrounds Us, which remains my favourite – especially section II – which I’ve read over-and-over again.  It is only recently that I discovered Grace & Poison, a compilation of Connelly’s first two poetry books. Even in 1990 her themes were clear and her voice strong. From that collection, a prose poem – “A Story for Suradev, In Bangkok” – stands out. In it we find her mature themes of intimacy/compassion, strangers/self. The closeness of her observations stand stark.

Her passion for travel and imagining the experiences of those she meets into story is continuous. Perhaps Connelly’s most intense book is The Lizard Cage, published in 2005, which drew me back to Burmese Lessons. Burmese Lessons is essentially a love story/a political story. The Lizard Cage is darker, taking readers inside a Burmese prison and into the isolation of an ancient man and a small boy, cruelty beyond comprehension, love, and survival. Somehow Connelly manages to maintain dignity, love, compassion, and beauty.

Karen Connelly began her writing career with the idea of borders, journeys from the known into the unknown: “Our lives begin and end with journeys made alone,” she wrote in her early twenties. In between life’s bookends, many other journeys are made and borders crossed: some geographic and cultural; some social and political; most intimate and sensual. They are all crossed personally, alone, and usually with risk of one sort or another. The intimacy with which she crosses borders can challenge us; she touches the heart, the soul, and the body.

22 Connelly Bks LR (1 of 1)

Various publishers have put Karen Connelly’s writing into print. Search her name or the name of one of her books and that will take you to a source. Most are available through your local bookstore or online.

Travel Madness (Congo Journey by Redmond O’Hanlon)

“The Western Bantu word for hero comes from the verb meaning to enter oblivion, to be lost, to become a spirit.”

If these are the terms and conditions for becoming a hero, then Redmond O’Hanlon is a hero: he enters oblivion; he becomes lost; and enters dark places of the spirit. O’Hanlon is a traveller, a student of natural history, and a serious risk-taker. In Congo Journey, O’Hanlon searches for a mythical dinosaur – Mokélé-mbembé – that is believed to live in Lake Télé deep in the equatorial swamps and forests of the northern Congo.

The story opens with a visit to a féticheuse who tosses a handful of cowrie shells and forewarns O’Hanlon’s traveling companion – American university professor Lary Shaffer – that he will die if he remains in the Congo for a day more than two months. To O’Hanlon she says, “You don’t speak your desires. You think them.”  It seems observation, complaint, and foretelling. The mood and tone are set for increasingly surreal and nightmarish experiences. At times, I wondered if the book actually relates a traveler’s tale or if it is pure fiction.

O’Hanlon has credentials: as a travel writer and as a naturalist. He did a doctorate at Oxford on Conrad and Darwin, and it is clear that in key ways he’s caught in the era of British exploration. The Guardian calls O’Hanlon a “legendary bonhomie.” He is a throwback, entering the unknown – not as an observer – but as a full participant, an informed participant. The party paddles through rivers, trudges along barely discernable pathways, and take refuge in villages right out of a bygone era. Scattered among these harrowing experiences are fascinating details about the birds that enamour him as:

I was woken at dawn by a loud and discordant chorus of alarm, the ka-ka-ka of a flock of Plumed guineafowl disturbed at their scratching through the leaf-litter, somewhere off to the left. You’re ancient birds, I thought, and you sound like it, you cackling old aunts in a tizzy, you fossils, you date from forty-five million years ago.

One book close by in his pocket is Birds of Tropical West Africa that we learn grows mouldy and mottled (but O’Hanlon provides an extensive bibliography, more than seven pages long.)

Redmond O’Hanlon made an extraordinary journey that took him to his destination. It simultaneously carried him deep within himself, testing him on the deepest levels. All this is shared with bluntness and honesty, blindness and seer-like vision. Readers gain more than glimpses into a man’s determination, more than knowledge about the natural history of the Congo, and more than a superficial snapshot of the people who inhabit the swamps, jungles, and villages. (Speaking of snapshots, Congo Journey includes a section of photographs.)

Highly recommended…especially for armchair travelers who want more than the common gloss of travel articles, and for those dreaming of such an adventure, Congo Journey will inform and also make you stop and think.

20 Congo Journey

Available through your local bookstore or online: Congo Journey