About Charlene Kwiatkowski

A lover of cities, I write about urban spaces as visual and literary texts

The Art of Losing Part 3

Rebecca Solnit makes getting lost something to aspire to. In her collection of autobiographical essays proving there is no subject out of her reach, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, she maps out various ways to be lost. Lost in place, time, music, conversation, identity, family, society, and so on. She frames getting lost as invitation to discover new things, not least about yourself.

She explains her terms early on:

Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. There are objects and people that disappear from your sight or knowledge or possession; you lose a bracelet, a friend, the key. You still know where you are. Everything is familiar except that there is one item less, one missing element. Or you get lost, in which case the world has become larger than your knowledge of it. Either way, there is a loss of control. Imagine yourself streaming through time shedding gloves, umbrellas, wrenches, books, friends, homes, names. This is what the view looks like if you take a rear-facing seat on the train. Looking forward you constantly acquire moments of arrival, moments of realization, moments of discovery. The wind blows your hair back and you are greeted by what you have never seen before. The material falls away in an onrushing experience. It peels off like skin from a molting snake. Of course to forget the past is to lose the sense of loss that is also memory of an absent richness and a set of clues to navigate the present by; the art is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss. 

p.22-23

Solnit’s imagery of the rear-facing view on the train immediately grabbed me. (Given current COVID times, I also could not help but add “masks” to the list of quotidian things I would see stream past my window).

But her description also horrified me. She moved from household objects to people in the same breath. You don’t lose a friend in the same way you lose a key or a bracelet. And what about the loss of sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, spouses? Perhaps reading this book in a pandemic has heightened my sensitivity to these human losses that are far from romantic. Would people who have said goodbye to a loved one, or multiple loved ones, describe themselves as “rich in loss?”

Given her topic and her mention of “keys”, I thought Solnit would reference Elizabeth Bishop’s famous poem “One Art” that also talks about loss. In fact, I frequently title this poem “The Art of Losing” in my head since this line is repeated so often in the villanelle. (I’ve actually written on this poem before in Part 1 and Part 2). Bishop similarly moves from talking about insignificant objects like keys to weightier losses like places and houses until she reaches the subject of her poem, the loss of a loved one. It’s like she’s working herself up to be able to talk about the latter, as if by practicing losing keys or “the hour badly spent” will prepare you for losing someone you love. And though she keeps repeating that “the art of losing isn’t hard to master” it becomes apparent through the poem that losing IS hard to master. The villanelle form requires Bishop to repeat that line but the reader gets the sense the speaker is only trying to convince herself. In the last stanza, she falters and concedes that “the art of losing isn’t too hard to master” (emphasis mine). In other words, yes, it is hard.

Whereas Solnit’s description of loss is rather flippant and viewed through rose-coloured glasses, Bishop’s poem doesn’t sentimentalize loss. Considering how erudite Solnit is and how eclectic her references, I thought it a real miss that she didn’t mention Bishop.

I came across this reading of “One Art” by Canadian high school student Sophia Wilcott and had to share it here. She captures the struggle of the poem so well.

That critique aside, there were countless passages in A Field Guide to Getting Lost that I flagged for copying into my journal. Take this section, for example:

Sometimes an old photograph, an old friend, an old letter will remind you that you are not who you once were, for the person who dwelt among them, valued this, chose that, wrote thus, no longer exists. Without noticing it you have traversed a great distance; the strange has become familiar and the familiar if not strange at least awkward or uncomfortable, an outgrown garment. And some people travel far more than others. There are those who receive as birthright an adequate or at least unquestioned sense of self and those who set out to reinvent themselves, for survival or for satisfaction, and travel far. Some people inherit values and practise as a house they inhabit; some of us have to burn down that house, find our own ground, build from scratch, even as a psychological metamorphosis. 

p.80

Even though she puts people into two generic categories, is it not fairly accurate? (It reminded me of my niece when she was young who would go around saying: “There are two kinds of people in the world” followed by whatever she observed that day: “those who close the door and those who open the door” or “those who talk and those who don’t” and she would come up with all sorts of contrasts that were actually very illuminating). Even though it’s obvious that Solnit puts herself in the travel-far-from-home-to-find-yourself camp, I feel she is kind and even a bit in awe of those who grow up with an “unquestioned sense of self.” There is something to admire about both paths as long as they don’t lead to self-righteousness and closed-mindedness.

Those are just a few thoughts I wanted to pull out from this meandering but delightful book. (When you’ve flagged so many passages in a library book, it feels necessary to just buy it). Here’s an actual review of the book by Josh Lacey in The Guardian for those of you whose appetite may be whet and want to know a bit more about it.

Love in the Rain

On our first night in Paris, my husband and I took an open-top boat ride along the Seine. It wasn’t long before the sky dumped sheets of rain on us and the wind gusted so strongly it flipped our MEC umbrella inside out, rendering it useless the rest of the trip. We were soggy, jet-lagged Shreddies arriving home to our Airbnb. Welcome to Paris.

Before the rain…(I don’t have an “after” photo).

One of the many bridges we cruised under was Le Pont des Arts, more commonly known as the “love lock bridge.” Many cities have their version of a love lock bridge, but Paris is perhaps the most famous. With close to a million locks hanging from the grilles, the City of Paris decided to remove them in 2015 after part of the railing collapsed under the weight (about 45 tonnes). They replaced the grilles with transparent panels.

Above you can see the transparent panels, but you can also see people’s determinism to continue the love lock tradition, which started in Paris around 2008. (This photo was taken in 2017.) Although you would think Paris would be the origin of this tradition given its moniker as the City of Love, it actually began at Most Ljubavi (“Bridge of Love”) in Serbia during WWI. You can read the story here, which is actually more tragic than romantic. Now locals and tourists alike attach padlocks to bridges around the world and throw the key into the water—a contemporary urban ritual for couples to declare their love and its permanence.

(FYI, it is illegal to put a lock on a bridge in Paris, though how strictly this is enforced is debatable given the picture I took above. For the record, we did not add one.)

A year after the grilles on Le Pont des Arts came down, a love lock sculpture in Vancouver went up. Couples had been affixing padlocks to Burrard Street Bridge, and for the same structural reasons as the City of Paris gave, the City of Vancouver also said no, this can’t go on. They did; however, provide an alternative: a public art sculpture that could hold the weight of thousands of padlocks.

You can see Love In the Rain (2016) by Bruce Voyce if you visit Queen Elizabeth Park, the highest point in Vancouver at 125 metres above sea level. The public chose this location from a number of recommended sites and it seems symbolic of love at its peak. (I’m sure this has been the setting of countless proposals—the first lock attached began with one).

Best view of Vancouver from Queen Elizabeth Park
Incidentally, my parents took their wedding photos in this park.

Four sets of couples embrace under umbrellas—their stainless steel frames the hooks on which the locks hang. A receptacle is located on site for people to throw their keys into (very Vancouver), with the purpose that the metal will either be recycled or melted down to use as part of another public artwork.

The human forms are meant to be ageless and genderless. The work “celebrates the shelter that love brings and the union that it forms,” according to a Park Board press release. On the artist’s website, Voyce writes that his sculpture “embodies love in the temperate rainforest.”

The umbrellas make the piece, in my opinion. Not only do they add height and visual interest, but they contextualize the artwork, answering the question, why this public artwork here? If Paris is the City of Love, Vancouver is the City of Rain.

I cannot help but think of a line in my own wedding vows: “to shower love and forgiveness like Vancouver rain.”

Now I am wondering for how many other couples is love linked to rain, fitting together like lock and key?

Do you have a “love in the rain” story?

Desire Path

My dad loves to remind me that I once described Langley, where I grew up and where my parents still live, as “the place where romance goes to die.” Needless to say, I am not a fan of the suburbs. As a poet, I love writing about place, but these places are always cities. I have one poem about my hometown and it reads more like an instruction manual: “leave suburb / make new home.”

So I came to Taryn Hubbard’s debut poetry book Desire Path published by Talonbooks in 2020 with curiosity, aware that it’s about growing up in Surrey, BC, and I was impressed. A whole book devoted to the suburbs—that’s commitment. I couldn’t do that for Langley. I kept looking for the speaker’s attitude towards the suburbs, towards this awkward adolescent place rapidly changing from rural to urban, and it wasn’t obvious. Sometimes she felt critical, other times accepting, and in this evocative description from “In the Afternoon,” mournful:

Commuter hearts
start like the engines of diesel
trucks when field across
station, free for all-day parking
gets dug up.

Hubbard pays attention to Surrey. Even the gas stations, parking lots, and fast-food joints—things that don’t often make it into my poetry. I once had a writing teacher say that “parking lot” isn’t a very poetic phrase to put in a poem so Hubbard’s book feels like a middle finger to that teacher. Yes, she can write “parking lot” in a poem and do it well. She can write an introductory poem (“Heirloom”) that begins, “I was born across from the first / McDonald’s in Canada” and hook me immediately. Hubbard can use a ubiquitous landmark to anchor her self and her work.

Over the past couple decades, attention has shifted from major metropolises like Vancouver and turned towards outlying cities growing up in their shadows like a younger sibling. After Hubbard’s debut, there can be no talk of a body of literature about Surrey (from a growing coterie that includes Leona Gom, Kevin Spenst, Veeno Dewan, Phinder Dulai, Fauzia Rafique, Heidi Greco, Renée Sarojini Saklikar) without mentioning Desire Path.

Construction near City Centre Library, Surrey, in 2011. Photo by Charlene Kwiatkowski

Hubbard summarizes the plight of the suburb in her poem “Wayfinding”:

it’s hard to find
the idea of here
and there
from a form
that grew only
with the idea of
car & home

For this reason, the “here” of Surrey could be the “there” of Oshawa, for the nature of suburbs is wash, rinse, repeat, something echoed in the structure of Hubbard’s collection that has four repeating poems aptly named “Repeat (I) (II) (III) (IV).” The poet has a hard task cut out for herself then in writing a whole poetry book about the suburbs and maintaining the reader’s interest. In “Markers,” she writes:

“The streets are empty, the houses are far apart including the empty lots saved for a rainy day when it will be more advantageous to redevelop them into something with suburban density, which is code for a strip of three-story townhouses cut apart like pieces of bread.”

Fortunately, Hubbard largely avoids the suburban cookie cutter (or shall I say bread cutter?) fate by varying her poetic forms. She scatters prose poems between free verse poems while also including a fifteen-page poem of fragments called “Attempts” near the end, about being pregnant during wildfire season. The poems that are most successful in standing out from the rest are ones where the speaker removes her distance glasses and gives us more personal details linking her to this no-where/every-where. For this reason, “Heirloom,” “Weighted Keys,” “Dear 203B,” “Shadeless,” “Boarded-Up Strip Mall Church,” and “Little Holubtsi” are my favourites. 

Overall, Desire Path is a tight collection that boldly asserts a place like Surrey is worth paying attention to, not in spite of, but because of its contradictions; its tension between past and future, rural and urban; its identity crisis; its complicated role in shaping a speaker from here to there, then to now, child to mother.

There is something to be said for really knowing a place, for taking the time to pay attention to it. It’s a form of love. This love is perhaps most evident in “Flagpole” where Hubbard begins: “One summer I walk the same path each day with the idea of creating a folded corner on a very specific patch of grass.”

I dog-eared a few poems in this book, folding back the corners of the pages like she folded the grassy path that led us here.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

Things have changed since having a baby: I like going to the dentist. I go alone; the hygienist introduces me to The Great Canadian Baking Show and I watch two full episodes as she cleans my teeth. My mouth waters looking at all the things a dentist would say don’t eat: chocolate ganache, lemon custard, crème caramel, black forest cake. I am the very hungry caterpillar I read to my daughter at night. My body has changed in ways I’m not sure are reversible. The caterpillar bursts into a beautiful butterfly but all I seem to do is burst. I’ve ripped two pairs of jeans buckling my daughter into her car seat.

I am naming parts of the body when we dress, bathe, play. I show her my belly button—a deep-set cherry in a sponge cake. Lots of bounce back, the judges look for. Her finger finds it with a pirate’s enthusiasm when landing on buried treasure. Every diaper change, she lifts my shirt. Then we find her belly button—a bulbous thing like a door handle splattered with a café au lait. My mouth homes in on it. 

After the dentist, I shop. Gone are the days of rushing back to nurse her, the anxiety of growth curves. She drinks cow’s milk now—another change that is irreversible. I push a cart through Winners. It is lighter than a stroller and doesn’t have snack cups or water bottles flung from the sides. I buy jeans that fit, taking my time trying on this pair, then that one, going back for a second look, smiling. I’ve pulled off a great disguise. 

In the car, I welcome every stoplight, belt out an adult song and take the long way home.

That’s a Wrap: A Poem for Myrrh Bearers

I want to close 2020 on here with a poem I read recently by K.D. Miller in The New Quarterly, which is becoming one of my favourite Canadian Lit magazines.

I am reading an interactive children’s book of the Christmas story to my daughter for Advent. She presses buttons to go along with the reading. One button plays “We Three Kings” and her tiny finger repeatedly presses it and points out the bold yellow star on the page. The detail that has stayed with me from this story since I was a child is how this star was unlike any other star. It was bigger and brighter, otherwise how would the wise men know which one to follow?

Image by Jago from Jesus Storybook Bible: A Christmas Collection.

But Miller starts her poem saying, “The star looks just like any other”, immediately inverting the familiar story many of us have to come to know through images like the one above. There’s a tone of disillusionment, fatigue, and disappointment.

The speaker (who I’ll call “she”) goes on to say, “The story sounds more absurd each year.” Is it absurd because if it was just a regular star, how could the wise men find it (and thus the implication how could the reader believe it?) Or is the story absurd because the star takes on epic proportions?

Absurd is a good way to describe this year, from pandemic lockdowns and toilet paper shortages to undemocratic democracies, to name a few. But the speaker keeps on, bearing her gift. I love the double meaning of “bear” here—to carry, but also to endure. How many times this year have you felt like you’ve been barely bearing?

Given the poem’s confident title and the lead-up to her gift by the end of the first stanza, I assume the speaker will go on to talk about myrrh, a sap-like substance used throughout history as perfume, incense, or medicine.

myrrh a yellowish-brown to reddish-brown aromatic gum resin with a bitter slightly pungent taste obtained from a tree (especially Commiphora abyssinica of the family Burseraceae) of eastern Africa and Arabia

Merriam-Webster
Myrrh. Image from timelessessentialoils.com

But she never names myrrh in the lines that follow. In the second stanza, the speaker self-deprecatingly lists four non-tangible things she brings that, by the end of the stanza, don’t really seem like gifts at all:

She “bring[s] an eye that squints through doors / cracked open.” (fear, scepticism?)

She “bring[s] a step reluctant to be taken.” (wavering commitment?)

She senses death “in every new beginning.” (pessimism/realism?)

She brings “the argument that clouds the clearest word.” (a cantankerous spirit?)

The speaker reminds me of the proverbial kid on a long car ride asking, “Are we there yet?” But unlike a kid, she’s travelled this life road for a while—years actually. So perhaps all the stars are starting to look the same now; perhaps there is less anticipation and more fatigue. She’s ready to call it quits. Ready for this year to be the last. Ready to give up.

“Then doubt, my oldest friend, puts out a hand.”

This last line is not what I expected, and that’s why this poem grips me so much. The speaker indicates a turn or shift with the word “then”, but rather than hope, faith, love, or something of a positive nature putting out a hand, doubt does. DOUBT?! Because of the shift in language, I don’t think she’s being sarcastic. I believe her that doubt is an old friend but how will doubt help her carry on?

She doesn’t say. (An aside: my mark of a good poem is that it leaves me wanting more). All she says is that doubt puts out a hand, with the implication that she takes it. Can one travel with doubt so long that its presence actually comforts? Is the presence of doubt evidence, in fact, that its opposite exists?

I have shared this short video before but I am still drawn to the late Roger Lundin’s words about how doubt is intrinsic to faith—not separate from it, not a precursor to it, but a companion along the way.

Roger Lundin: Modern Literature from Regent College on Vimeo.

I picture the wise men making the journey to the Christ Child, travelling not only with each other, but with doubt—wondering if they’ll ever get there, if the story is true. Miller’s poem leaves room for faith and doubt to walk hand in hand. After reading the ending, I revisit the second stanza and wonder if “an eye that squints through doors / cracked open” is a gift, after all—a gift of choosing to see, to look for that star even through the smallest gaps. And her title “Myrrh is Mine” is a way of claiming this gift; a mantra she needs to repeat again and again to believe it is true.

Speaking of wise men, I would be remiss not to link to T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi“. He and K.D. Miller share the same squinted vision where faith and doubt blur in the wood of the manger/the wood of the cross. Christmas ushers in Easter. Birth and Death.

Compare these two lines from each poet:

“The death I sense in every new beginning.” (Miller)

“…were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.” (Eliot)

Boy, we do ever feel death (in universal and particular ways) as we say goodbye to one hell of a year and greet the new one.

So maybe we too, like the speaker in Miller’s poem, are bearing myrrh. Our gifts feel bittersweet this Christmas. We are drawing towards 2021 with squinted sight and half-hearted belief that it will be better. We hope, but who knows? But if a bitter-smelling gift was acceptable to greet the Christ Child so many stars ago, it is surely welcome now. And maybe one day, in the not-so-distant future, our myrrh will transform into mirth, thick and sweet and pouring down our faces.

A Tale of Two Trees

I live near Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver. When my daughter was young enough that she was taking her naps on me, I often walked its paths, reading the odd gravestone, admiring the beautiful trees, composing poems in my head. Now my daughter takes all her naps in a crib and I leave her with my husband to run those paths, admire the beautiful trees (especially this season), and compose poems in my head.

While there recently, I ran by some art installations that compelled me to stop. Two trees: one dressed in red, the other in white.

The first tree is called REDress and brings attention to the 1200+ missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. It’s a response/continuation of artist Jaime Black’s REDress project, in which she hangs red dresses in various public settings. She writes on her website:

The project has been installed in public spaces throughout Canada and the United States as a visual reminder of the staggering number of women who are no longer with us. Through the installation I hope to draw attention to the gendered and racialized nature of violent crimes against Aboriginal women and to evoke a presence through the marking of absence.

It is not an accident the dresses are red. Red is for blood. Red is for love. Red is for anger. Red is for warning. Red is for stop, look, pay attention.

The other tree’s branches hung with white baby carriages, fabric stitched taut over stick frames, weightless and rocking in the wind. The installation was next to the infant’s cemetery, where each stone in the river commemorates a baby lost. There are many stones in the river. The oldest one I saw was inscribed with the date 1902.

It is not an accident the carriages are white. White is for innocence. White is for milk. White is for purity. White is for a fadeout screen in a film. White is for ghosts. White is for baby shoes. White is for a blank page, an empty photo album.

Two trees dressed in grief. People have remarked that running through a cemetery is creepy. I have never experienced that feeling until the day I saw those red and white trees in broad daylight. They were haunting.

They have become more haunting after reading theologian James Cone’s 2011 book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Cone connects the cross Jesus died on with the trees that thousands of Black people died on in the United States because of white supremacy. Cone writes:

The conspicuous absence of the lynching tree in American theological discourse and preaching is profoundly revealing, especially since the crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching. In the “lynching era” between 1880 to 1940, white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus.

While not ignoring the historical and theological differences between the cross and the lynching tree, Cone concludes:

The lynching tree is a metaphor for white America’s crucifixion of black people. It is the window that best reveals the religious meaning of the cross in our land. In this sense, black people are Christ figures, not because they wanted to suffer but because they had no choice.

These are powerful, haunting words. Reading Cone’s short and accessible book (for non-theologians like me) was illuminating, horrifying, and necessary. Just like the red dresses and white carriages render presence through absence in Mountain View cemetery, Cone writes for America (particularly Christian America) to remember what it has all too easily forgot, ignored, or even justified.

He reminds us of the strange fruit hanging from trees that Billie Holiday inscribed on the ears of anyone who listened to her sing this indictment.

Listening to the song and looking at the cemetery tree photos, I wonder what the late Cone would say about Canada’s collective violence towards our Indigenous peoples, people we have sought to kill, assimilate, dehumanize. We have our own strange fruit, our river of stones, our Highway of Tears to reckon with.