Saturday, March 14, 2009

Further reading: Friday the thirteenth

1982 was the year when snow barely fell in Toronto. We were entranced by the lack of it.

On the night of December 3rd I was in my office on Markham Street tossing black olive pits out the wide open window into the matching black warmth. It was +20 Celsius. After the olives I ate sunripened dates. Then figs. Anything dark and warm against the thought of snow.

Snow fell on December 20th and melted by Christmas. Christmas eve was the warmest on record, and so was Christmas day. A six year old girl walked around in bare feet looking at Christmas lights.

That year I lived near Marshall McLuhan’s house, a big gray mansion next to a pond, where he dreamed up his ideas about hot and cool, or so I like to think. the house was in Wychwood Park, a hillside retreat founded in 1888 by a spice merchant who came home every night from his Pure Gold Manufacturing Company smelling of cinnamon and thinking of Cathay.

In Toronto we know about cold and long to be warm. McLuhan, for instance, fell in love with a southern accent.

‘Mississippi,’ the neighbour said. ‘I think she’s from Mississippi.’

Listening to his wife did McLuhan think about heat?

The hottest thought I had was New Orleans.
Porous is a word that keeps repeating through Ottawa writer Elizabeth Hay’s first book, Crossing the Snow Line (Windsor ON: Black Moss Press, 1989), a book I recently borrowed from the Ottawa Public Library, and I would similarly describe the book as a whole as the same, unable to specifically clarify it between stories (as the cover would tell us), novel or memoir, working through a lush and direct kind of liquid prose. Where are the divides we would usually expect? It’s part of what attracts me to Hay’s earlier writing, and I admire (and am envious of) the porous nature of this small collection, and the books that followed, from The Only Snow in Havana (1992; Toronto ON: Cormorant Books, 2008) and Captivity Tales: Canadians in New York (Vancouver BC: New Star Books, 1993).

Art should never shift for the sake of public taste, but I’ve always felt a deeper kinship with her earlier works where this porousness exists, before shifting her prose into more traditional fiction, following her first three books with her Governor General’s Award shortlisted collection of stories, Small Change (Erin ON: The Porcupine’s Quill, Inc., 1997), and the three novels that came after that. I even published one of those stories, originally, in Missing Jacket, a writing and visual art magazine I once produced, back in the mid-1990s. What is it about early Elizabeth Hay and the porousness of writing love, geography, Canadianness and snow?
Some people are porous, snow without a crust: everything sinks in, all the visitors, all the noise.

Porous, yet I absorb so little.

Last night I dreamt I was standing in a woods and a caribou with magnificent antlers stepped through the trees. A hunter followed the caribou. When I caught up with them the hunter had wound heavy wire around the caribou’s neck and pushed silver studs into its flesh.

This limbo of not belonging. Worse than not belonging – resistance to belonging. I buy a Spanish newspaper and don’t read it. I just don’t want to.

I told the Bolivians who came to visit about winter in Yellowknife – four hours of
daylight, frostbitten skin, white and hard. The way they listened! ‘Does anything grow?’ they wanted to know.

‘What do you miss?’ I asked them.

‘Intimacies,’ they answered. ‘Mexico City is a place that encourages many friendships, few intimacies. It’s so hard to get across the city to visit people.’

I’ve never seen them again.
Another Friday the thirteenth in the space of a month, and I spend most of the day reading, moving through Elizabeth Hay, moving through Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited (New York NY: New Directions, 1986), The Art of Desire: The Fiction of Douglas Glover, ed. Bruce Stone (Ottawa ON: Oberon Press, 2004) and Travels with Virginia Woolf, ed. Jan Morris (London: Pimlico, 1997). Just what is it I’m looking for? Years ago, this was the day that my ex-wife and I had decided our anniversary, another Friday the thirteenth, and coming up faster than I can keep track.

The Woolf book, found second-hand a few days earlier, compiles essays, letters and journal entries into a book of what could otherwise be “travel writing,” thinking about my own journeys forth into further creative non-fiction (McLennan, Alberta), whether back to Edmonton in the bare space of weeks, or an extended upcoming Toronto stay. In a letter to Ethel Smyth from June 26, 1938 (three years to the day before my father was born), for example, Woolf wrote of visiting Hadrian’s Wall:
We were 2 days on the wall: lay on top of it the one hot day; and saw the landscape that to me is the loveliest in the world; miles and miles of lavender coloured loneliness, with one thread white path; dear me, were I a writer, how I could describe that: the immensity and tragedy and the sense of the Romans, and time, and eternity; and then the wild white hawthorn, and the sheep cropping, and 3 little white headed boys playing in a Roman camp.
How she says, were she a writer? As a bookmark, using a postcard the poet Phil Hall sent but a month ago from Bali, on a side-trip from Australia.

Now that I’ve got my second novel off to the publisher (waiting just on her edits), the past few days thinking more about Don Quixote, how my version might work how many other threads of the entire world; working in my own commentary on how cities are made, cities are built, and the city of Ottawa itself, writing:
Every city constructed out of a series of markers, of landmarks, but what happens to a city when it is constantly in danger of losing? What happens to memory when a city is constantly new? There is nothing to hold on to, there are no regulars to keep the rent in your restaurant. There is no heart, no soul, no loyalty. When a city is constantly new, it runs the risk of losing all meaning.
Why is it, no matter where I look, I can’t find a single copy of the original? I picked up the Rexroth because of what he wrote about Don Quixote, including this lovely ending to his little essay:

There are any number of editions of Don Quixote in paperback and hardcover. If the newcomer to the novel only had time and patience enough, he would be well advised to read and compare more than one translation, classic and modern.

There are, indicentally, a number of anthologies of the critical literature on Don Quixote that make fascinating reading, not least for their amazing disparity of interpretation. Were it not that my interpretation would then seem unduly flattering to myself, I would say that every man finds himself in Don Quixote, as Don Quixote finds himself in his adventures and as Sancho Panza is never lost.
I pick up the Rexroth for the same reason as I pick up Glover, working through further what he wrote about the novel himself, and the book-length essay on same I can’t find in my little apartment. Is this all about working to find one’s self, working back from the point of being lost? I am thinking about Toronto, I am thinking about travel. I am thinking about Edmonton. I am thinking about Don Quixote. Or, as Toronto writer Ken Sparling wrote in his For Those Whom God Has Blessed with Fingers:
You can’t go home. I am home. You can’t go home even when you are home. You’re never home. When were you ever home? Home captured you one moment. Maybe when you were little. It got you. This idea of home. And now you know about it because you can’t go there. It’s that place you can’t go to. You can almost go there. You get closest when you’re furthest away. Like calculus. You get further and further close. The other side of the planet. The moon. Finally, the true reason for travelling to the moon. To go back home. To go back. Whatever is back. Maybe abuse is back. Maybe it’s love. Maybe it’s so much love it becomes abuse. You go back. Breaking free is considered something of an accomplishment. But then, accomplishment. Trap. You get the picture.

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