Saturday, April 18, 2020

essays in the face of uncertainties

Through the self-isolations, I’ve already begun to feel my mood begin to shift. Harder to get to sleep at night, harder to wake the following morning. By the time I do rise, Christine on the couch on her phone, and both girls on tablets. I prepare coffee. I put on the kettle for the girls’ oatmeal. I turn on some music. Today, Joni Mitchell, out of a collection of Christine’s cds. I think it is time the young ladies were introduced to Joni Mitchell. What might be next? Dark thoughts of having to snare and strip small game from the yard. Later on, a stretch of The Ramones, as our young ladies inhale post-dinner ice cream. 

There are books one reads and loves, books one never finishes, and books one returns to, repeatedly. Once a decade or so I find myself, once again, going through Stan Dragland’s Journeys Through Bookland and Other Passages (1986), a book I first encountered somewhere during my twenties. A few years later, I carried it along during a cross-Canada reading tour, re-absorbing essays in VIA Rail coach from Winnipeg to Edmonton, and again, from Edmonton to Vancouver. As one step leads directly and immediately into another, this leads me to others of Dragland’s works from across multiple of my bookshelves, including his more recent collection of essays, The Bricoleur & His Sentences (2014). This leads me further, to this short excerpt from Ottawa writer Elizabeth Hay’s novel, Alone in the Classroom (2011):

A sentence bears the weight of the world. The emotional girl set about baptizing her child. Tess took her dying baby from her bed in the middle of the night and christened him in the presence of her small and sleepy brothers and sisters. Words weigh nothing at all, yet they carry so much on their shoulders over and over and over again.

photo by Rose (age 6 1/2)
There is a comfort, and a safety I’ve taken in books, for as long as I can remember. When I was young, it was in the books my cousins and mother would read to me, which led to my own history of reading, from Richard Scarry titles to the long list of titles I burned through as part of my grade-school participation in the MS Read-a-Thon. Scholastic Books orders from grade school, to the paperbacks set in my maternal grandmother’s house: the original Doctor Doolittle, or Cheaper By the Dozen. The 1960s-era Archie comic books and Illustrated Classics underneath my cousins’ bed, or the neighbor down the road with his attic space filled with DC Comics. There was my own small collection of comic books, now some 10,000 titles and nearly fifty years deep. And in our wee house, the books that populate this space in the suburbs, a sequence of volumes that seemingly multiply at an incredible rate.

After a week of searching, I finally dig up my copy of Czeslaw Milosz’s Road-side Dog (1998), a collection of prose poems I remember picking up at a used bookstore along Edmonton’s Whyte Avenue somewhere around the early to mid 00s, although the receipt inside tells me I did so on April 5, 2008, exactly twelve years ago this week. Whereas my memory had the location correct, I thought it had been earlier, whether five or eight years, but no. Even Milosz knew the truth, as he writes as part of “The Past”: “The past is inaccurate. Whoever lives long enough knows how much what he had seen with his own eyes becomes overgrown with rumor, legend, a magnifying or belittling hearsay.”

I like this insistence on how memory isn’t the issue, but a shift of something larger, something external. Or as the late Saskatchewan poet John Newlove wrote: “The past / is a foreign country [.]” What will we remember of the world when the dust begins to settle, and finally clears? Did either of these poems even happen the way we might recall? By the time that particular poem managed to find its way into a full-length collection, John had been gone for at least a couple of years. Did we even have that right?

April 1, 2020, and half the world’s population is sequestered in self-isolation, whether recommended or mandatory. In New Jersey, a woman is charged with violating the “stay at home” order, after she is caught allegedly tossing a Molotov cocktail at her boyfriend’s house. Is this normal?

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