Monday, February 1, 2016

how it all works together

Though the seasons are used to having poems written in their name, and certain months have the same honour, it's a little surprising to me that February has been so often written about in poems.

It always seems to me as though February is the month to get through. I turned to May Sarton and her journals to see how she wrote through the month. 

From Journal of a Solitude, February 13: "The house is full of spring flowers, Valentines. There is no month when I can imagine spring flowers being more of a delight. Yesterday the trees were sheathed in ice and it is bitterly cold; so the freshness, the aliveness of daffodils and iris and tulips indoors is quite overwhelming. Even the rich, green leaves and the scent in this frozen odourless world seem like marvels."

February 4th: "I did write a poem, so it was not a wholly wasted day, after all. And it occurs to me that there is a proper balance between not asking enough of oneself and asking or expecting too much. It may be that I set my sights too high and so repeatedly end a day in depression. Not easy to find the balance, for if one does not have wild dreams of achievement, there is no spur even to get the dishes washed. One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being. "

Black February

by Boris Pasternak

Black spring! Pick up your pen, and weeping,
Of February, in sobs and ink,
Write poems, while the slush in thunder
Is burning in the black of spring.

Through clanking wheels, through church bells ringing
A hired cab will take you where
The town has ended, where the showers
Are louder still than ink and tears.

Where rooks, like charred pears, from the branches
In thousands break away, and sweep
Into the melting snow, instilling
Dry sadness into eyes that weep.

Beneath — the earth is black in puddles,
The wind with croaking screeches throbs,
And–the more randomly, the surer
Poems are forming out of sobs.

- translated by Lydia Pasternak Slater

The poem, so full of emotion, was written after the death of Alexander Pushkin. And this is another dimension of the month, a blackness, dark and sad and sorrowing.

And here's another translation of the same poem, quite different, as you'll see. There are many variations floating around on the internet - but the first line in the one below seems the most popular.


by Boris Pasternak

It's February. Get ink. Weep.
Write the heart out about it, sing
Another song of February
While raucous slush burns black with spring.

Six grivnas for a buggy ride
Past booming bells, on screaming gears,
Out to a place where drizzles fall
Louder than any ink or tears

Where like a flock of charcoal pears,
A thousand blackbirds, ripped awry
From trees to puddles, knock dry grief
Into the deep end of the eye.

A thaw patch blackens underfoot.
The wind is gutted with a scream.
True verses are the most haphazard,
Rhyming the heart out on a theme.

And yet another translation ends thus:

Below, the wet black earth shows through,
With sudden cries the wind is pitted,
The more haphazard, the more true
The poetry that sobs its heart out.

Another look at the month:


by James Schuyler

A chimney, breathing a little smoke.
The sun, I can't see
making a bit of pink
I can't quite see in the blue.
The pink of five tulips
at five p.m. on the day before March first.
The green of the tulip stems and leaves
like something I can't remember,
finding a jack-in-the-pulpit
a long time ago and far away.
Why it was December then
and the sun was on the sea
by the temples we'd gone to see.
One green wave moved in the violet sea
like the UN Building on big evenings,
green and wet
while the sky turns violet.
A few almond trees
had a few flowers, like a few snowflakes
out of the blue looking pink in the light.
A gray hush
in which the boxy trucks roll up Second Avenue
into the sky. They're just
going over the hill.
The green leaves of the tulips on my desk
like grass light on flesh,
and a green-copper steeple
and streaks of cloud beginning to glow.
I can't get over
how it all works in together
like a woman who just came to her window
and stands there filling it
jogging her baby in her arms.
She's so far off. Is it the light
that makes the baby pink?
I can see the little fists
and the rocking-horse motion of her breasts.
It's getting grayer and gold and chilly.
Two dog-size lions face each other
at the corners of a roof.
It's the yellow dust inside the tulips.
It's the shape of a tulip.
It's the water in the drinking glass the tulips are in.
It's a day like any other.

It's a day like any other, says Schuyler, and yet, "it all works together" - thoughts of the past arrive in the present, memories mingle with the scene of tulips in a drinking glass, and the colours of the sky seem to bring everything together into one fluid composition.

Here's a thing I'm going to do in February, I'm going to to look out for the yeses. I'm going to do just exactly what I want to do.

God Says Yes To Me

by Kaylin Haught

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don't paragraph
my letters
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I'm telling you is
Yes Yes Yes


(can also be found in the lovely anthology Soul Food}

I'm saying yes to pink roses and to the light at 11:30 in the morning that reminds me how it all works together.

I'm going to start sentences about all those things I feel guilty or odd or lazy about with, "Is it okay if...." and I'm just going to answer them with yes.

I'm going to say yes to pink flowers, all month long.

You'll be surprised, perhaps, by how few photos I have of the great outdoors this week. You see, there was rain, and ice, and the paths are now treacherous and unpleasant. We've been relying on the snow in the field, and on the cleats we bought for our boots before Christmas. It seemed for a while that we wouldn't be needing them, but as it turns out they're a lifesaver at the moment.

One last poem, which takes us into spring (however far away that really is), and thoughts of what happiness might look like. How we might be experiencing it and not recognize it as such.

The Happiest Day

by Linda Pastan

It was early May, I think
a moment of lilac or dogwood
when so many promises are made
it hardly matters if a few are broken.
My mother and father still hovered
in the background, part of the scenery
like the houses I had grown up in,
and if they would be torn down later
that was something I knew
but didn't believe. Our children were asleep
or playing, the youngest as new
as the new smell of the lilacs,
and how could I have guessed
their roots were shallow
and would be easily transplanted.
I didn't even guess that I was happy.
The small irritations that are like salt
on melon were what I dwelt on,
though in truth they simply
made the fruit taste sweeter.
So we sat on the porch
in the cool morning, sipping
hot coffee. Behind the news of the day—
strikes and small wars, a fire somewhere—
I could see the top of your dark head
and thought not of public conflagrations
but of how it would feel on my bare shoulder.
If someone could stop the camera then…
if someone could only stop the camera
and ask me: are you happy?
perhaps I would have noticed
how the morning shone in the reflected
color of lilac. Yes, I might have said
and offered a steaming cup of coffee.


I was driving somewhere one day, and music from this album was played on CBC. The album trailer is quite lovely. 

What have I been reading these days?

This interview with William Stafford in The Paris Review, where he says, "Well, I think language does bring us together. Fragile and misleading as it is, it’s the best communication we’ve got, and poetry is language at its most intense and potentially fulfilling. Poems do bring people together.

This article about book sales, and the refrain, so how many books have you sold?

Drinking coffee, from the Italian Centre in their cool new cups. (Or maybe they're not new, and we've just not had take-out coffee from there in a while...)

In other news, Rob has announced his upcoming show in Calgary. Details on his Facebook page.

Next book on my to-read list? My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout.

Guilty tv/Netflix pleasure: White Collar. There's art, there's forgery, there's crime. What's not to like.

Wishing you all a calm week, the happiest of days, bouquets of yeses.

- Shawna

Monday, January 25, 2016

souls who are fully lit

The Light

by Charles Simic

Admittedly, yours is an odd
Sort of work, galactic traveler.
I watched you early this morning
Get on your knees by my bed
To help a pair of my old shoes
Find their way out of the dark.

- from The Lunatic by Charles Simic

(Some library books will be harder to return than others....)

One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it.

- Clarissa Pinkola Estes

I dimly perceive that whilst everything around me is ever changing, ever dying, there is underlying all that change a living power that is changeless, that holds all together, that creates, dissolves, and re-creates. . . . in the midst of death life persists, in the midst of untruth truth persists, in the midst of darkness light persists.

- Mahatma Ghandi

One winter day
something will shine out
from an everyday object
and the darkness will flood with light.
Something we have seen
a thousand times
suddenly becomes
the sentinel of
another world.

- Marv and Nancy Hiles

So, yes. Trying to find those objects I've seen a thousand times and see them anew. To see anew. To continue to move toward the light, in these dark winter months.

All week, I dragged myself out of bed at 5:30 to write. Me and my best friend, coffee, hanging out in front of the bright computer screen for an hour and a half before it's time to wake up C. And then on Sunday, I thought, I'll sleep in. But no, the body is now accustomed to 5:30 and likes (apparently) 5:30.

Here's what I know so far. This thing is going to take a long while to write. I need to read many more books. Also, thank goodness for the internet. I seem to stop every three sentences and look something up. A person should really keep track of their weird google searches when writing a novel. That could  be an entirely different book beside the book you're writing. I ended up reading a lot about wow and flutter, for example, which will probably not have a direct appearance in the work. But that all these little excursions and forays, the delving and digging, the tangents and tangles, these are all part of the sediment of the work, the invisible underpinnings. Again, I'm talking like I know what I'm doing, but I'm making all this up as I go along. I'm dragging Woolf's A Writer's Diary off the shelf. I'm opening it to all the dogeared and underlined pages. My edition is falling apart a little. I've had it so long I don't remember where I would have bought it. A secondhand store perhaps? It has a painting of Charleston on the cover by Vanessa Bell.

"At the worst, should I be a quite negligible writer, I enjoy writing: I think I am an honest observer. Therefore the world will go on providing me with excitement whether I can use it or not."

- Virginia Woolf


"A note: despair at the badness of the book: can't think how I ever could write such stuff - and with such excitement: that's yesterday: today I think it good again. A note, by way of advising other Virginias with other books that this is the way of the thing: up down up down - and Lord knows the truth."

Which is something I've always found to be extremely comforting, even if I can't quite put myself in the category of Woolf. Who can.

I picked up a couple of extra shifts at the library this past week and so find that life is a bit off kilter right now. Which is not a complaint. I'm grateful to work in a place where I have the opportunity to pick up extra shifts, and it might be something I do more next year. So this was a good trial run, though in future I'll be careful to arrange it so I don't work nine days in a row. (Not all full shifts, mind, so that sounds more heroic than it is).

There was still some time for tea at the kitchen table, time for writing. (With wishes for more time to read).

What I guess must seem strange to those who don't write, is how much time you need to just sit. To let the thoughts swirl around, ideas to form, to create the unseen layers in a work. To let things arrive, in their own time. The necessity for dreaming. For not worrying. The utter slowness of it all.

So one of the many nice things about working at a library, and having had one's photo in the newspaper and one's book talked about, is that a lot of people come into the branch and say nice things to you about it all. Really lovely things. 

There was one kind of funny conversation I had, though, where someone, after saying the nice things, also said, 'but you're still struggling. You haven't made it.' Which was kind of funny on a couple of levels. It was honest, matter of fact, not spoken out of malice. And kind of how I feel. (Though, really, what does that mean: to make it). So, I do feel kind of like I'm still struggling. That's the process. It has to be. Financially, too, yes. And anyway, a creative person doesn't ever want to feel necessarily, that they've made it. Though I guess you could say someone like Margaret Atwood has 'made it.' But most of us writing, don't, per se. 

There's comedy in all this, of course. After writing for nearly 30 years, you get a tiny bit of attention, and someone is standing there saying, hey, don't think you're anything special. This is actually good, right. I like to keep my perspective on things, and this made me smile. It seemed to me a kind of recognition of how things are rather than a put down. 

Well, let's head into the trees now.

"Few things are more directly beautiful than winter trees: stripped of all ornament, clearly etched against the changing sky, moving in the stiff manner of wood into and then back against the wind. If leaves can be compared to clothing, then the deciduous tree in winter is naked. If clothing can be deceptive, then the tree in winter is true. If leaves represent an extreme profusion of form that is more finally articulated than the eye can register, much less language describe, then the form of the tree in winter is stark, particularly against the steel gray monochrome of the sky as snow comes.

But the form of a winter tree, though it may be stark and withered, is liable also to be extraordinarily complex. The bare bark is channeled and cracked, and the directions of growth frozen into the form of each branch include saggings, twistings, splinterings, angles at which the branch has reached out or up. The form of the tree is a register of its history. The coloring, too, becomes as subtle as our approach is proximate: all the grays, blacks, and browns of wabi, with perhaps the weathered white of dead lichen or the blasted green of last year's moss."

-- Crispin Sartwell,  Six Names of Beauty

A Stillness Expanded

by Karin Boye

A stillness expanded, soft as sunny winter forests.
How did my will grow sure and my way obedient to me?
I carried in my hand an etched bowl of ringing glass.

Then my foot became so cautious and will not stumble.
Then my hand became so careful and will not tremble.
Then I was flooded over and carried by the strength from fragile


I came upon this tiny feather, frozen, near the edge of one of the stands of trees near the utility corridor. And the line, 'a stillness expanded' is perfect to describe the way one gets lost in trying to capture a small and delicate thing, in the cold, in the sunny winter forest, such as it is.

I swung the branch around and tried to come at it a couple of different ways. I think this next one is my favourite. The silvery light, the mood.

Just a little way down from the feather, these guys, sunning themselves:

And then, this happened. The sun pouring down golden through the gorgeous green of the fir trees. How amazing the colour green seems at this time of year.

Another day. After a snowfall. A minimalism.

Looking toward the highway:


In the low and swampy area in the middle of the stand of trees by the highway.

And then, humour me, a tiny obsession with capturing the small flakes, clinging, the graceful branches and their quiet ballet. 

On the way back home.

Right in my front yard.


The return. 

(And wishing you all a lovely calm week. May your souls be fully lit.....)

P.s. If you'd like to read a recent interview I did with Open Book Toronto on the theme of titles, you can find it here

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