Rampant with Memory

Girl Power and the art of the pen


Floundering words, words in flight, people too distracted to slow to read them. Syllables flap while we bow our heads and tiresomely glide through the weeks, months, until we also head south.

Huh? What’s that you say? Death is what.

So before that sad moment shifts your eyes permanently away, clutch a fistful of fleeting words.

Maybe you think I’m demanding you read my words? One more flapping, tongue-wagging writer begging an audience? But no, not so, at least not entirely so. I am also an avoider but I am weary of it.

And so a few minutes ago I grabbed a pad of lined paper, two fountain pens, and a bottle of Shaeffer midnight blue ink and sped-walked to the closest café.

“I am an essayist,” I said to myself. “I am a poet.”

I fled from home to write and when not writing to read an Arden edition of Henry IV. Falstaff, born of the imagination of an early 17th century writer who still breathes for us.

The other day I was at the gym working out beside Jian Ghomeshi.

I checked it out with Cheryl, who works at the desk.

“Yep,” she said. “That’s him. He bought a pass last week.”

So there we were, Jian and I, two Torontonians with distinct pasts and recent media presence. I have bylined on death in the Globe and Mail and he has lived violence in presses across the country. Now, apparently, we quietly pump together.

He is short, sheepish, awkward; tiny and breakable and very, very sweaty. But here’s the thing: I lifted more than he did

And I’m only a girl.

A friend said: “You should have patted him on the bum and said ‘how do you like me so far?’

This needs to an essay, said another friend.

And so these few words introduce what I hope will be steadier writing up ahead. But I promise it will be less about Ghomeshi–none about Ghomeshi in fact–and  more about girls and strength. About writing and inspiration.

While being alive.

“You must change your life,” wrote Rilke.





A tree, a robin, and Shakespeare



The buds, the buds. The robin, the robin.

Both are of today and now let me elaborate.

It is mid-March, nearly the Ides of March and the day that, 24 years ago, I gave birth to my son Toto in Vancouver’s St. Paul’s hospital.

“A born philosopher,” said my friend Claire as she saw him wheeled out of the operating room after his emergence–squeezed like a tube of toothpaste–from my belly, born like the great emperor Julius Caesar.

Or like MacDuff in MacBeth who was “from his mother’s womb/untimely ripped.”

In Shakespeare, March 15 was the Ides of March. Julius Caesar was warned by a soothsayer not upon his birth but upon his death circa 44BC.


Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue shriller than all the music
Cry “Caesar!” Speak, Caesar is turn’d to hear.

Beware the Ides of March.

The day was correctly predicted to be the one on which Caesar was assassinated in the streets of Rome by a group of conspirators, including Brutus and Cassius.

My son, though, was born a philosopher and I love him twenty times twenty zillion times more than I ever loved the great poet or any of his doomed men.

And the buds? And the robin?

Both stepped into the path of my morning walk along the beach. I exalted in the coming of spring and remembered that on the edges of this new season is the best kind of prophesy for the Ides: a celebration of a beloved young life–a poem to me–who was, very much indeed, of woman born.



“Rage, rage against the dying of the light”


Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

According to legend Dylan Thomas died of the bottle.

His last words are said to have been: “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies; I think that’s the record.”

This is now being disputed; the main cause of his death on Nov. 9, 1953, it is believed, was swelling of the brain caused by pneumonia and medical error. That he died with inhaler at hand.

Based on David Thomas’s (no relation) recent book Fatal Neglect: Who Killed Dylan Thomas the poet was was injected with 30mg of morphine instead of being given antibiotics.

“Three times the recommended dose,” he added, and so Thomas fell into a coma at midnight. No longer able to rage.

His lungs were shot and the New York smog added to his fight to breathe. Over 200 people that winter died of lung disease in Manhattan.

“His lungs were so poor he sounded like Louis Armstrong,” said a friend at the time. He had even collapsed during a rehearsal of Under Milk Wood.

It was a medical cover-up and the myth was invented.

Heather and I played a part in perpetuating this story.

A few years ago we drank beer surrounded by photos of Thomas. We played tourist at one of his favourite local Greenwich Village haunts, the White Horse tavern (shown in above photo with thanks to wikipedia).

Between sips we spoke of the drunken bard and how our bums might have sat where his did.

Or possibly in a seat occupied by Jack Kerouac, another inveterate Village drunk. I read that graffiti in the men’s loo includes these words: “JACK GO HOME!”

It has taken more than 50 years since Thomas Dyan’s death and 101 years since his birth in Wales but finally the truth may be replacing the myth.


Hearing voices and learning to listen



Over corn beef with a side of pickle I began hearing voices, one alive one deceased. Well, this is not entirely true and now I will spread, like a thin line of grainy dijon mustard, the whole truth as recollected from a few hours ago, when I leaned over lunch in my tiny kitchen. Alone.

Voices, yes, coming from public radio directly into my ears. Hungry for sustenance and hungry for companionship, I switched on CBC and let the words accompany me as I slid the plate across the table. It’s always random, what comes on, and I stop and start listening according to what other distractions wash me away, and there are many.

In fact, had the mail arrived at its usual time, I would likely have been sitting on the front porch flipping through Ikea flyers but it didn’t arrive, so radio filled the moment and the voices, those lovely, story-telling voices about life and about death.

The narrator was a young man who usually wore hole-y blue jeans without a care but suddenly became a husband and then a father and then he decided: hey! It’s time for suits! The show, “Men of the Cloth,” a 56-minute segment on “Living Out Loud,” grabbed me and I simmered with it for the rest of the day.

Time for suits, he decided, and his friend who runs a vintage clothing store told him that a donation of one deceased man’s custom made suits arrived for him to check out. They fit. But they did more than fit: these suits told a life story. “These were almost as if skins, that he had shed, as he got older, and I was able to put them on and…be inside his body.”

The narrator, the young man, not only slipped into the clothing of the deceased man, he also sought to learn about his life; he interviewed the man’s adult children and learned about when their dashing father wore these suits. They recalled evenings when their father emerged from the house, fresh shaven and wearing his tuxedo, stretching into his wife’s perfumed evening air.

As I listened, the voices on the radio puffed up with life, filling the clothes, stretching the limbs and living, and living, and living.

As I listened, Pablo Neruda came to mind. And now I shall task you with two things: first, listen to the CBC podcast. And then read “Ode to my Suit.”






The disappearance


Maybe it’s easier to disappear than we’d like to believe, or possibly could believe, when we are still living. He was my second cousin, this man named John, a dull name now dust. He died a couple days ago, according to his obituary, a few sentences posted into this morning’s newspaper and I read it over fruity cereal, trying to recall this John. Not possible.

This man died, I don’t know how, only that at 63 he was too young. The notice was posted and paid for by his four siblings and included fleeting references to the woman who birthed him, Mary, and also his father, an earlier version of  John.

Why am I writing it about this no-body with the dull name? Because it recalls to me the ease we think we have when young, the disappearing act they call “estrangement”–usually from those very birth-partners who “fuck you up” (thanks to Phillip Larkin), our parents. And perhaps to the siblings who don’t care enough or have enough strength.

This second cousin of mine was absent from his family almost his entire life, that’s what I remember, something about how he didn’t get along with his father. So he fled and probably it was for the best but now he is dead and I don’t know why.

I am a seeker of stories, a teller of tales, a weaver of truths sometimes glued together with guess work.

I cannot tell this John’s story other than to repeat what I was told by my Uncle Jack (a third John!) this morning, a few hours after reading the obit, when I called to say: “Who was he?”

My uncle only recalled his absence and that nobody spoke about him.

“Was he mentally ill?” (such a question wouldn’t have come those decades ago)

“I don’t know,” he said, “I was always afraid to ask and nobody ever mentioned him. He just left home.”

Was the slammed door never again opened? Were any letters exchanged? Intoxicated telephone calls in a rusty night?

What bits of a life did his two brothers and sister find to construct their own story of this, the eldest, and now the first to die? What remained beneath his fingertips?

“He never married,” said my uncle.

Was he gay? I wanted to ask. Was that the fight so long ago?

This man’s death recalls all the times I wanted to disappear and nearly did. The long, frantic dash away from an argument, peeling off the hurt–away from the dangers of those who love. Family, is who I mean, that first family but still, the disappearance is almost always a myth until we die and are discovered by those we thought were lost.


A toast to James Pon’s grandfather

James Pon’s grandfather filled my mind during this rail trip from Montreal to Toronto last month. It was he, along with hundreds of other Chinese workers, who built this railway–although on the other side of the Rocky mountains.

Last month, I wrote an obituary on James Pon.

PON, James G&M April 17, 2013

To promote awareness of the Chinese contribution to our country, he established a group to erect a statue commemorating the unification of Canada through the building of the railway by Chinese workers.

James was actively involved and became the symbol for the Canadian Government’s 2006 Redress for Head Tax and the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act.

While researching James’s obituary I came across this Earle Birney poem. The excerpt wouldn’t work on the page in the Globe so I’ll share it here instead. And I’ll remember sitting by the window, watching the landscape shift into green, and toasting the Pons.

Towards the Last Spike

by Earle Birney 

They tickled her with shovels, dug pickaxes

Into her scales and got under her skin,

They lowered them with knotted ropes and drew them

Along the face until the lines were strung

Between the juts. Barefooted, dynamite

Strapped to their waists, the sappers followed, treading

The spider films and chipping holes for blasts,

Until the cliffs delivered up their features

Under the civil discipline of roads.

Mrs. Journalist here

ML Knight Time and Gas Collection Henry Knight

My first “Mrs.”

In my copy, I mean.

I have never been nor shall I ever be a Mrs., but the Globe and Mail deigned to snap that honorific to the woman I profiled in today’s paper. It is hard, so hard for me to bear, to see, to own up to this non-typo.

And on International Women’s Day no less!

A bit of background.

I wrote about this truly amazing, inspiring, woman-loving Toronto artist and writer named M.L. Knight.

She is another person I could have been friends with; she was someone who probably would have gone some distance in mentoring me, as a writer. She certainly performed this role for countless other women.

In her visual art, she created whimsical and evocative collages telling all sorts of stories to all sorts of people, demonstrating creativity, imagination, humour, the ridiculous–and demonstrating feminist politics.

She called one collage “Fisted Rage.”

In it, she tore ads from a women’s magazine depicting tightly wound rolls of bathroom towels in every shade of pastel.

She then drew the viewer’s eye to the similarity between this basket of rolled towels and a tightly clenched fist.

I think she was commenting on the domestic situation that demands women pay attention to such trivial details. A kind of domestic rage inspired by Martha Stewart?

She also wrote about her childhood, a little bookish girl raised by a Disciples of Christ reverend and a missionary mother in Toronto back in the 20s.

Some of the marked irreverence she later slipped into her art, I think, came from living among this fundamentalist sect.

She described churchwomen who looked kindly on shell-shocked soldiers (First World War) and the unemployed (the Depression), but not on “stupid-looking domestics.”

She outed a congregation who literally ran a suspected homosexual music teacher from town and then, in an ironic twist, offered the teaching job to this shamed man’s male “roommate.”

She describes her mother’s struggle to clean the doleful blackish carpet that had been donated by the congregation. “Into that rug one’s spirit could be sucked,” she wrote.

And so how did this enlightened proto-feminist land as a “Mrs.” on the page? My very first Mrs. as it turns out.

Because her family insisted that’s what she would have wished.

And I respected her wishes.


I suppose Nellie McClung was a Mrs. too.

Happy International Women’s Day to you all.

Elizabeth Brewster’s Joy foretold

Donald Gammon & Elizabeth Brewster on UNB campus, circa 1946

I learned something new about grief today thanks to Margaret Atwood. Not from a character in one of her novels, or a line of her poetry, but from a personal response she made to my request for an interview.

Some background: A couple months ago I wrote an obituary on Canadian poet and publisher Raymond Souster, Atwood’s first publisher at Circle Press. She retweeted me about him almost immediately and I was thrilled: my first-ever retweet and it was from one of Canada’s national treasures and a writer whose work I adore.

My piece ran in the Globe and Mail and maybe Atwood read it. And then, yesterday, I contacted her again for another comment about another recently deceased poet. This time it is Elizabeth Brewster‘s life I am trying to write about as sensitively and as professionally as I can.

Since 1953, Brewster has published 23 books of poetry, two novels, three books of short stories, and two volumes of memoirs. Most people haven’t heard of her; that makes me even more determined to write her story, to quote her verse.

Brewster suffered powerfully during the first half of her life and once almost drowned herself. But she survived and chanced to meet up with a young Atwood at the University of Alberta in 1968.

Atwood was into tarot readings back then and turned the cards over for Elizabeth.

This reading was transformative to Brewster, a friend of hers told me, because it foretold joy as a replacement to sorrow. And much writing ahead. And because she believed in this young, wild-haired psychic of sorts, maybe more in the young Atwood as an individual and writer than in her skills as a clairvoyant, her life unfolded with more promise.

I’m not making this up.

It’s what Elizabeth wrote in autobiographical musings a few years ago.

So I wrote to Margaret Atwood looking for a comment.

“I knew Elizabeth well when we were both living in Edmonton in 1968-70, and kept up with her after that. She was an honest poet, very open, very clear. She kept up her interest in poetry all her life. I’m sorry she has died.”

At first, I was annoyed Dame Atwood said so little.

But then someone I love nudged me towards greater compassion and that always necessary damned diminishment of ego.

Maybe, said this person I love, maybe she is just tired of people dropping dead all around her. Maybe her grief is a quiet thing.

Sometimes I carry with me shades of the reaper, all these requests to speak of the dead when maybe people just want to be left alone. Please, just leave me alone.

But thanks to Margaret Atwood, at least in part anyhow, I’ll be able to write about Elizabeth’s joy.

Virginia and Roger

Roger_Fry_-_Virginia_WoolfI have lost friends, some by death… others through sheer inability to cross the street.

In this madly slap-dash way we’re living, with twisted wires limply cascading from our ears and the steady thrum of recorded voice pressing against our temples, rarely affecting our hearts, I have decided to channel V. W.

Years ago, when I first read The Waves and encountered this line, I was young with all my friends intact. And I believe that I did cross the street. Yes, yes I flew at them and pushed on with rising excitement toward the next adventure! Friends and I were tight, back then.

Slap-dash and negligent. We’ve begun to de-value what most deserves our attention while damnably circling around erroneous priorities. People are priorities; friends are priorities; they are what count not niggardly checkmarks in our calendars.

We have become stapled to the mundane and inconsequential. “The world is too much with us,” to quote another fine poet.

Is it the age? Is it my age? Look sharp, I say, and replace the waste. The waste of time on other-than-friends.

This is not an optimistic Christmas greeting I am now writing. I don’t much care about it being Christmas. I find that the weight of these several days lays waste our powers even more. I just want to tear away the interruptions to what is beautiful before the beauty dies.

I was strolling–yes, actually strolling–along my street earlier today when I glanced up and saw a sprig of lilac buds taking shape. This, on December 17th, when I ought to be squinting against snow flurries and bucking wicked winds.

Across from where I now write there are red geraniums growing.

It’s just not right, said my partner, and I snippily said: “let the next generations worry about it.”

But I do worry and so…

What I’d really like to do now is leave my desk and meet a friend. To slide away from the labyrinthine keyboard on my Apple and find someone to toast instead.

I wish to frequently look both ways then step into traffic; offer or receive a generous elbow and a story or two from someone who knows my name and likes to use it.

Virginia Woolf’s good friend, Roger Frye painted her portrait. 

Roger Frye died in 1934 .

Roger Frye’s good friend Virginia wrote his biography in 1940. 

One year later, Virginia Woolf was dead.

Voices of the “untongued dead”

I recently came across an essay by Matthew Skelton, a teacher of book history in Mainz, Germany. He describes sorting through a collection of old books and papers left by an obscure librarian named Elma Mitchell after her death in 2000. Mitchell was also a feminist poet who confronted Ruskin with the truth about women (see her poem below.)

“We did not know whose body of work we were exhuming. Neither of us had noticed the obituary in the newspapers,” Skelton wrote. “We shook our heads at the pile of dust her lifetime of reading, writing, and book collecting had amounted to and set to work on her remains.”

More than 20 boxes of books were scattered around the library. Skelton and his assistant became Mitchell’s literary executors and in an afternoon they tried to reassemble her.

Spiders had spun webs inside some of the boxes and many of the books were damp and misshapen, hoary with mould.

This woman’s life included books on art history, foreign-language dictionaries, and most of all poetry. Hundred of volumes written during the 1970s and 1980s by forgotten poets. “The untongued dead,” was how she had once described these writers.

Back to Skelton: “The spines were brittle and snapped in our hands like old bones. The pages were withering. Each poem was a skeleten of ink, its lifeblood sapped.”

He also found buried treasures. One box held a small, devotional volume of Milton; in another, an early Seamus Heaney and a pristine copy of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel.

“Curious, we skimmed through the occasional text, searching for a clue to [Mitchell’s] identity, a link to her past.”

Some books had personal inscriptions, reminiscences of readings, notes from friends, for instance this one: “To remind you that I have existed, and do exist, which implies that I love you.”

In conducting this forensic bibliography, they found spiders flattened against the sides of boxes, and pressed flowers and seed head emerging from AAA guides “like bookmarks from summer afternoons long ago, wine stains purpling the margins, moments of romance in the folded maps of France.”

There were shopping lists wedged into books, notebooks with indecipherable handwriting, and even a card for a hairdresser appointment made 35 years ago.

“Her books were indeed a form of autobiography, but they were incomplete. They needed a body, blood, a voice, to incarnate them, to make them speak.”

As Mitchell herself said: people disappear around the edges of words.

And now, her take on why women remind her of blood and soap.

Thoughts After Ruskin

by Elma Mitchell
Women reminded him of lilies and roses.
Me they remind rather of blood and soap,
Armed with a warm rag, assaulting noses,
Ears, neck, mouth and all the secret places.
Armed with a sharp knife, cutting up liver,
Holding hearts to bleed under a running tap,
Gutting and stuffing, pickling and preserving,
Scalding, blanching, broiling, pulverizing,
— All the terrible chemistry of their kitchens.Their distant husbands lean across mahogany
And delicately manipulate the market,
While safe at home, the tender and the gentle
Are killing tiny mice, dead snap by the neck,
Asphyxiating flies, evicting spiders,
Scrubbing, scouring aloud, disturbing cupboards,
Committing things to dustbins, twisting, wringing,
Wrists red and knuckles white and fingers puckered,
Pulpy, tepid. Steering screaming cleaners
Around the nags of furniture, they straighten
And haul out sheets from under the incontinent
And heavy old, stoop to importunate young,
Tugging, folding, tucking, zipping, buttoning,
Spooning in food, encouraging excretion,
Mopping up vomit, stabbing cloth with needles,
Contorting wool around their knitting needles,
Creating snug and comfy on their needles.“Their huge hands! Their everywhere eyes! Their voices
Raised to convey across the hullabaloo,
Their massive thighs and breasts dispensing comfort,
Their bloody passages and hairy crannies,
Their wombs that pocket a man upside down!“And when all’s over, off with overalls,
Quickly consulting clocks, they go upstairs,
Sit and sigh a little, brushing hair,
And somehow find, in mirrors, colours, odours,
Their essences of lilies and of roses.
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