About Charlene Kwiatkowski

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

Running to Not Forget

When I run, I go to Mountain View Cemetery. I love seeing how it changes, how it stays the same when the world around me is so precarious.

When I returned home last Saturday, my toddler announced, “Mommy, when I get bigger and older, I want to run through a cemetery.” I laughed.

Little does she know she’s been here many times as a baby. I wrote a poem about the experience of walking through here with her two years ago as the world was on edge, COVID “sweeping the world / like my father in a game of Risk.”

That military image feels devastatingly apt right now as I run past gravestones and think of Ukraine. All the suffering they have endured and are still enduring. All the lives and homes lost. All the loss. The horrific war crimes the Russian army has committed in Ukraine, particularly against women and children, has shaken me. One of the questions I keep circling back to: “Where does all that hurt go? What does a country like Ukraine do with all that grief/rage/trauma?” I don’t have answers.

I recently read an interview with Ukraine’s First Lady, Olena Zelenska in Vogue. When asked what can ordinary citizens do to help Ukrainians, she says:

The main thing is not to get used to the war—not to turn it into statistics. Continue going to protests, continue to demand that your governments take action. 

I suppose running and praying through a cemetery is one way I don’t get used to the war. There is death all around me here, including death from war. I notice how young the men are in the numerous memorials throughout the cemetery, many of them younger than me.

But I also run through the cemetery because there are signs of life all around me too: from cherry blossom trees to blooming heather, from freshly cut flowers to surprising gravestone offerings like big, juicy oranges. I need these reminders lately.

Fighting Goblins with Verse

One of my reading goals this year is to read something by George MacDonald. Many authors reference his fairy tales, which inspired Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, and Madeleine L’Engle, to name a few. So I picked up The Princess and the Goblin (1872) last month and thoroughly enjoyed it.

One of the first modern fairy tales and a precursor to modern fantasy, this book pits humans against goblins and is unconventional in its female heroine, the eight-year-old Princess Irene who rescues her miner friend Curdie from the goblins. Curdie, in turn, rescues Irene and everyone else who lives in the castle from a goblin invasion. The goblins have concocted a plan for revenge against the humans who live in the mountains above them and who, according to legend, drove them into the subterranean dwelling ages ago where their bodies began to twist and dwarf in accordance with their physical space. The goblins’ Plan A is to abduct the princess and wed her to one of theirs. Their backup plan is to flood the mines where many humans in the kingdom work, thus destroying their livelihood.

I love that a fairly tale from 1872 featured a girl rescuing a boy and where a princess does dirty work, removing rocks one by one from the mine to access the spot where the goblins imprisoned Curdie. And I love that Irene’s great-great-grandmother spins her a magical thread that leads her and Curdie safely out of the mines and back home, whereas Curdie’s rope that he used to eavesdrop on the goblins and return from the mine was found by the goblins’ pets. In a wonderful inversion, the pets reel Curdie in in one scene like he is the dog and they are the owners. 

But what I love the most is the role of poetry in the book. Early on, MacDonald establishes poetry or verse as the best weapon to fight the goblins:

As I have indicated already, the chief defence against them was verse, for they hated verse of every kind, and some kinds they could not endure at all. I suspect they could not make any themselves, and that was why they disliked it so much. At all events, those who were most afraid of them were those who could neither make verses themselves, nor remember the verses that other people made for them; while those who were never afraid were those who could make verses for themselves; for although there were certain old rhymes which were very effectual, yet it was well known that a new rhyme, if of the right sort, was even more distasteful to them, and therefore more effectual in putting them to flight.

This is yet another inversion in the book—that creative, generative, imaginative language like poetry can fight against evil. It reminds me of the aphorism The pen is mightier than the sword.

Thomas Whyte interviewed me last year about poetry and one of the questions was, “Why is poetry important?”

I wrote:

Like all art, poetry is a response to the world, and as a wise person once told me, “Response matters.” It seems that there are just as many ways to respond to the world as there are ways of being human, and that’s a mind-boggling thing. Art responds creatively, generatively, which is an important distinction from the ways we can respond destructively. Poetry connects us to place, to people (including ourselves), to worlds past, present, and future. Poetry is not fast reading or listening. It requires slowing down, sitting with, reflecting, returning. In our high-speed, consumer-driven culture, poetry is nothing short of subversive. 

Curdie is the poet in The Princess and the Goblin. His rhymes are funny, disarming, and truer than they seem at first listen. Except for when he is grossly outnumbered, Curdie’s rhymes work. They repel the goblins. They keep him company when he is held captive:

There was nothing for him to do but forge new rhymes, now his only weapons. He had no intention of using them at present, of course; but it was well to have a stock, for he might live to want them, and the manufacture of them would help to while away the time. 

There’s a lot of destructive activity and speech in our country right now. I’ve long been a fan of Canadian spoken word poet Shane Koyczan who wrote the poem “A Tomorrow” when the pandemic arrived early 2020 (incidentally, I first heard him perform in downtown Ottawa when I was a university student). I was recently made aware of this poem and have been thinking more and more about this generative response in light of the vitriol we’re hearing from both sides of the vaccine mandate debate. As he asks in the poem, Where do we go from here?

While I’m not naive enough to think that poetry can solve all our problems, I think it can do something like slow us down, quiet the noise, maybe help us see and live in the tension of the here and not yet, of who we are and who we could be.

On this note, I’ll leave you with one of my favourite scenes in the book between the Princess and her great-great-great grandmother that could have been written for today and which pierced me sharper than any sword.

 “But in the meantime, you must be content, I say, to be misunderstood for a while. We are all very anxious to be understood, and it is very hard not to be. But there is one thing much more necessary.”

“What is that, grandmother?”

“To understand other people.”

“Yes, grandmother. I must be fair—for if I’m not fair to other people, I’m not worth being understood myself I see.”

The Great Empty vs. The Great Filling

As a UVic alumna, I receive their Torch magazine whose recent cover article features cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Robin Mazumder and his research on how cities affect our mental well-being.

For his PhD in psychology, his research focused on stress responses when people were dropped via virtual reality into two separate locations in central London: 1) next to a high-rise building and 2) next to a low-rise building.

I imagine the participants of the study being dropped into a high-rise scene like this for the first location. (Photo of NYC by me)

Not surprisingly, author Michael Kissinger summarizes:

What he found was that tall buildings make people uncomfortable when they’re surrounded by them. Conversely, people have less of a stress response when they’re in environments that are built at what’s considered “human scale,” or the European model where buildings tend to top out at five storeys. 

Reading this brought me back to my literature courses in university. In the early 20th century when the development of urban spaces was accelerating at a fast pace, German socialist Georg Simmel was similarly concerned about the affect of the city on an individual in his landmark essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life” from 1903. In fact, he was the one who coined the term blasé, which Merriam-Webster defines as “apathetic to pleasure or excitement as a result of excessive indulgence or enjoyment.” It’s a paradox: to feel something so strongly that you end up not feeling anything at all.

Many moving parts on a typical street in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris.

Simmel says that the extreme excess or intensification of stimuli in the city “agitates the nerves to their strongest reactivity for such a long time that they finally cease to react at all.” Examples of stimuli he gives include “the grasp of a single glance . . . each crossing of the street . . . [and] the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life.”

Bryant Park in NYC. Love this dynamic park nestled behind the public library.

I have to admit that I am a city lover. I sang New York’s praises after visiting it for the first time (well aware now that living there would likely be a very different experience). In BC, I once had a job in what some would consider an idyllic pastoral setting where sheep and cows grazed in fields outside my window, their bleating and mooing a lunchtime lullaby. But I longed for blinking streetlights and fast-moving things: cars, bikes, people. Looking back, I think I was drawn to what those fast-moving things represented: opportunities.

While I don’t live downtown and am not surrounded by high-rises, I do live in a city and enjoy venturing downtown because of the different pace of life it offers. When Vancouver was shut down early in the pandemic and on and off since then, I looked forward to roaming around Gastown only to be dismayed at how empty it was. The photographs from around the world in this New York Times article “The Great Empty” capture that melancholy well.

Gastown’s famous steam clock (photo by me). What is time anymore?

If I were a subject in Mazumder’s study, I wonder what my response would have been. If he had conducted his study both pre- and post-pandemic, would there be a significant difference? Would the long amounts of isolation and at-home time make a bustling city scene more attractive than normal? Would we be less stressed and more excited? Or would the long absence of this hustle and bustle trigger anew the anxiety of crowds and stimuli that we had forgotten we were used to?

Grand Central Station, NYC, back in 2011.

I have a chapbook out now called ‘Let Us Go Then’ that alludes to T.S. Eliot’s quintessentially modernist poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that one could argue features a speaker (Prufrock) desperately trying to overcome the blasé. The first stanza of his poem comes to mind when I think about “The Great Empty.” Obviously Eliot is writing in a very different context than our current pandemic one, but he is addressing emptiness of another kind: emptiness with modern living and all of its “fillings” as I paradoxically call them in my final poem of the chapbook.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question ...
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

“A patient etherized upon a table” and “half-deserted streets” strike an eerily familiar chord. I find a degree of solace in this world-weary speaker who presents as an urban, educated individual who is painfully unsure of the world he finds himself inhabiting (and where he fits in, as a result).

The speaker is longing for emotional, spiritual, and physical connection.

I joke that I never knew I was extroverted until the pandemic hit. Give me people! (another Paris photo)

This longing ties into Michael Kimmelman’s introduction to that New York Times article showing mesmerizing photographs of empty public spaces:

Their present emptiness, a public health necessity, can conjure up dystopia, not progress, but, promisingly, it also suggests that, by heeding the experts and staying apart, we have not yet lost the capacity to come together for the common good. Covid-19 doesn’t vote along party lines, after all. These images are haunted and haunting, like stills from movies about plagues and the apocalypse, but in some ways they are hopeful.

They also remind us that beauty requires human interaction.

Burrard SkyTrain Station, Vancouver.

Human interaction indeed. That’s what Robin Mazumder comes back to in the UVic article: designing cities that are at a human scale, where most necessities are met within a 15-minute walk or transit ride, where spaces foster mixed uses and diverse users that create opportunities for community—a good kind of filling, maybe even a great one.

A mixed-use space (Woodward’s atrium in Gastown, Vancouver) I wrote about for my Master’s research.

Highway Guardian

Last December, I closed out the year on here with an Advent poem by K.D. Miller. This year, I thought I’d share one of mine. It’s published in CRUX (Winter 2020; 56.4), a journal of Regent College.

I think this is the only Advent poem I’ve written, and one I had the opportunity to read at church. It’s also probably the most theological poem I’ve written, attempting to bridge (pun intended) the story of Christmas and Easter in the short form of a Petrarchan sonnet.

As I state in the poem, my reflections are borne from “this common world”: my commute from Vancouver to Surrey where I notice a bird’s nest on the S curve leading to the Alex Fraser Bridge. The associations spin off from there, much like the cars on this dangerous stretch of road.

It is this common world that strikes me anew in the Christmas story; that strikes me in another year of getting through. We are weary. In need of rest.

I also invite you to read “The Pulley” by George Herbert, which you may hear echoes of in my poem.

Merry Christmas all.

Nostalgia for Moving Parts

This latest poetry book by Diane Tucker makes me glad I am old enough to remember using a payphone. The title poem recounts in detail the speaker’s process of making a phone call on this antiquated device, this relic of a bygone era where “cold square buttons resist pleasantly / my index finger’s pressure” and where the handset makes “a real click” when put back on its cradle, none of the “digital ping” today’s phones bring. Yes!

You can tell the speaker takes pleasure in revisiting old things—whether objects or memories. I am too young (or uncultured) to know many of the other references she makes such as The Lawrence Welk Show, Eva Gabor, Three Dog Night, Gerry Rafferty, Pablo Cruise, Brigadoon, to name a few—but that didn’t stop me from enjoying her poems. In “Beautiful grade four teacher,” one of the early ones, she lists what was in fashion in 1974 and this gave enough context to situate the speaker in the world she is conjuring.

While Tucker highlights “golden-hour” memories like playing badminton in her East Van backyard with her brother in “As we leapt”; riding a merry-go-round in “The horse is a cathedral”; falling in love with theatre and its stars in “Brigadoon, 1979″ and “The star”; or listening to a mesmerizing busker in “Blue melodica,” she doesn’t just see the past with rose-coloured glasses. In “Dream of Old Vancouver,” the (day)dream comes to an end with the sobering realization:

This was how a woman earned her safety:
the workman noticed you and bought you drinks.
You played the well-liked woman; you went along.
You threw the dice of yourself and hoped you’d win.

Nostalgia, like memory, is complicated. “Love the sad men” is a beautiful yet bittersweet tribute to her father who showed his love in “scroll-sawed shelves to hold phalanxes of dolls” but just before, in “Tiny Dresses,” the speaker admits:

I saw the calendar ladies on the garage
wall not covered enough with pickle jars
of nails. Dad would give me long wood
shavings, curls as golden as Eva Gabor’s
hair. I guess I put two and two together.
This is what beautiful ladies are like.
This is what men like ladies to be like.”

The collection is divided into 4 sections: “The Child Is Still Kin,” “Tidal Volume,” “Keep Walking,” and “Though I am Tattered.” The first half delves more into the speaker’s memories of childhood and memories of her own children while the second half predominantly draws from nature and seasons in Vancouver to reflect on what lies ahead: life without her parents, her own aging body, mortality.

A recurring image throughout the book is that of a tree. In “World wall,” the speaker remarks:

A tree
seems able to stay rooted and yet rise.
How lovely it becomes, torso ridged

with strength. Crown full of mosaic light,
branches all airy elbows. All it receives
it wraps in rings around itself. Am I patient
enough to somebody be a tree? I want to try.

This wish, expressed in the last poem of the second section, surprised me, but perhaps it shouldn’t have. After all the glam and fascination with moving things in the first part of the book, the speaker aspires to be something that stands still, solid, rooted and steady. She’s moved from the 1970s into present-day Vancouver. “Imagine being planted long enough / that your roots grow up through the earth” she begins in “VanDusen Garden in October” and later muses, “I ache to be the maple / outside my father’s hospital room window. / Just standing there, she ministers healing / and need never worry about where to be / or what to do with her slender dark arms.” (“The day before my father died”)

When I read back through the poems, I noticed this tree image appears in the very first poem, too. Tucker describes her aging body holding a yoga position called “Child’s Pose” (the poem’s title) with her “small spine / a path from darkness to darkness” / arms twin tree roots cradled in earth.” The very last poem, “I’ll take the answer,” complements and contrasts this imagery with the speaker invoking the lullaby-prayer “Now I lay me down to sleep” where in the darkness of night and even in unanswered prayer, the Fingerprint of a Creator burns, “making my body a light that cannot be hidden.”

The poems in Nostalgia for Moving Parts speak to a poet who’s in love with the created world and who describes it so poignantly and concisely. One of Tucker’s favourite methods to quickly set a scene or mood is a compound adjective, especially when it comes to colour: “rust-orange carpet,” “blue-black air,” “blue-boxed breath,” cartoon-red beefsteaks,” and by far, the winner for this reader: “”February skies hang rodent-grey.”

There is so much colour in these poems, so many news ways of looking at old things (for example, “slow ducks ink themselves in”), and so much courage from her aging, gaping heart she calls a “begging bowl” that is still open, ready, and waiting to be filled even when venturing from the known past to an unknown future.

‘Let Us Go Then’ Chapbook Announcement

Ever since arriving home from a Europe trip with my husband in 2017, I got the idea to write a poem for each place we visited. Four years later, these poems are going to be published in my debut chapbook titled ‘Let Us Go Then’ coming out this December with the Alfred Gustav Press as part of their Series 26, which includes three other people’s chapbooks. For those unfamiliar with the term, a chapbook is a very short publication or the literary equivalent of an EP.

Here’s the back cover blurb:

“Let Us Go Then invites you down European streets into scenes framed with art. Like parallel trains travelling through space and time, the poems map a trip alongside a marriage.”

If you’re interested in ordering, here’s the link with details. Note it’s a subscription-only press so orders must be placed by October 1. http://d-zieroth.squarespace.com/the-alfred-gustav-press

Signing the contract for my chapbook in 2020. A long-hoped for day.

I have loved writing and editing these poems and I can’t wait to have them out in the world, in friends’ and families’ (hopefully even strangers’) mailboxes before Christmas. Not every poem/place could fit within the scope of this chapbook (sorry Florence, Vernazza, and Munich), but the 10 poems that did make the cut give a good sense of the month-long journey that I feel incredibly privileged to have taken and grateful as to when I did it. Sights include Paris, Monet’s Garden (Giverny), Nice, Rome, Venice, Neuschwanstein Castle (Bavaria), and Amsterdam. Some poems were written on location (though morphed into very different poems through the editing process); others were written soon after arriving home; and the most recent were penned in 2020 after rereading my travel journal.

I did a lot of writing on the train. This is somewhere in France.

In anticipation of the book’s publication, here are some photos (taken by me) that capture scenes addressed in the poems either overtly or subtly. Think of these photos like easter eggs in a Taylor Swift song. Can you guess where they’re from?