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 ‘LetUs 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.”
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. 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.
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?
I, and others I know, have been searching for poetry collections about motherhood—not with clichés or Pollyanna sentiments, but with intelligent, fresh poems that speak to the nuances of what it means to mother.
Maggie Smith does this with Good Bones(Tupelo Press, 2017). She walks the thin line between darkness and light. Maybe you’ve read her titular poem that went viral in 2016 featured on Poetry Foundation.
She’s not afraid to name the darkness: darkness in the form of miscarriages; of an absent father; of a child’s picture book that reminds her of a friend’s suicide; of pedophiles luring children into panel vans, of a mother who jumps from a high-rise building with a baby strapped to her chest; of a world that is “at least fifty percent terrible.”
Lest she be overwhelmed by all this darkness, she reminds herself in “Let’s Not Begin” to make a list of “everything I love / about the world” for the sake of her daughter. “I’m trying to love the world,” she writes with an honesty that guts me. This collection reads as her aspiration to love the world.
Let’s begin with bees, and the hum, and the honey singing
on my tongue, and the child sleeping at last, and, and and—
If I had to put a theme to this book, I would say it’s about a mother trying to reconcile bringing children into a broken world. I wish I didn’t like these poems; I wish they didn’t ring true. I’ve written some poems that similarly ask: How much do I keep from my child? How much do I share with her? How much can any mother protect her child? As Smith says in “Rough Air:” “’Motherhood / never kept anyone safe.”
The book invites the question: Where does darkness come from? It seems that some people are more burdened by it—they have a greater sensitivity to suffering. Smith reveals to her daughter that she is one of these people in “At your age I wore a darkness:”
several sizes too big. It hung on me like a mother’s dress. Even now,
as we speak, I am stitching a darkness you’ll need to unravel,
unraveling another you’ll need to restitch.
Do future generations inherit darkness? Later, in her poem “What I Carried,” she writes:
I carried my fear of the world to my children, but they refused it.
These lines give me hope. Every mother I know worries about passing something awful down to her child—anxiety, depression, fear, anger, resentment, impatience, you name it. But children don’t necessarily accept our “gifts.” Thank God.
As much as darkness hovers like the hawk that flies over the girl in many of the poems, Smith’s attention to ordinary things—to language and colour— is an act of beauty in itself, of paying attention and naming what is, of being present.
She takes her daughter’s questions (what is the past? what is the future? how do leaves fall off the trees? does the sky stop?) and engages with them via poems. You feel like you’re eavesdropping on intimate, tender conversations between a mother and child. The daughter’s golden baby curls become bedding for the hawk’s nest; in another poem, the mother knows the curls “will darken” “like honey left too long in the jar.” (“Lullaby”)
This change of colour—from blonde to black—found throughout the book charts the movement from innocence to experience, wilderness to city, childhood to adulthood. I can’t help but think of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. The girl and her mom live on a mountain (the man is away for long periods of time) and the hawk’s presence is akin to that of a pet on a leash: “They are tethered, an invisible / string between them.” (“The Hawk”) And yet of course a hawk is nothing like a dog.
In one of the last poems, “Mountain Child”, Smith writes:
When the girl leaves the mountain she is no longer a child
but she has not outgrown the hawk. She wears its shadow on her shoulder,
an epaulet. It bears the weight of allegory.
What began as a mother’s journey becomes threaded with her daughter’s journey towards knowing and loving the world. If the hawk represents the wild, untamed, and dark side of life, it doesn’t go away with age. Perhaps it’s a weight you get used to, or at least counteract. It doesn’t have to be an albatross.
Smith concludes her collection with a poem that poignantly gathers all these ideas. I find it incredibly fitting that it’s called “Rain, New Year’s Eve” because it reads like a resolution, something hopeful to carry into a new year.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I fell in love with Prufrock as much as the next budding English student swept away by the angst of modernism. This poem and The Waste Land were taught as Eliot’s crowning achievements, as if that was all there was to the man. It wasn’t until this year that I read his entire collected poems and realized if you just stop at his early works, you rob yourself of the bigger, more complete picture of who this famous poet was.
There’s no doubt T.S. Eliot is intimidating to read. He can throw down references to the Baghavad Gita as easily as the Bible, and there is a level of erudition from the reader his poems require. Every word and image matters, and there are so many layers to his work you could be peeling the onion forever.
One of the biggest differences that struck me in comparing his earlier poems to his later poems is the emergence of hope in the latter. Prufrock and The Waste Land are notable for their lack of hope—the despairing landscape they paint after World War I. A recurring theme in Eliot’s work is the failure of words to adequately describe human experience.
We see this in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:
And would it have been worth it, after all, Would it have been worth while, After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets, After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor— And this, and so much more?— It is impossible to say just what I mean!
We find a similar sentiment in East Coker, the third poem in the Four Quartets, and yet there’s a twist. I’m including this whole passage because it’s my favourite in the Four Quartets:
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years— Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres— Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure Because one has only learnt to get the better of words For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate With shabby equipment always deteriorating In the general mess of imprecision of feeling, Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer By strength and submission, has already been discovered Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope To emulate—but there is no competition— There is only the fight to recover what has been lost And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss. For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
My friend posited that the early T.S. Eliot would have stopped after “by men whom one cannot hope to emulate”, and I tend to agree. But this T.S. Eliot didn’t. Hope is the difference. You wouldn’t keep trying if you didn’t think it was worth it, after all. There is a significant change in his worldview.
I love this passage not only because it speaks to me as a writer, but also because I sense this is actually Eliot talking, not the speaker. It’s rare to get these vulnerable glimpses of the man behind the poet, and it draws me closer to him, hearing him wonder on the page if he wasted twenty years, if his work matters, if he matters.
T.S. Eliot may be intimidating, but the irony is that he’s so human in his questions and observations. There are passages in the Four Quartets that completely stump me, and others that make me laugh out loud with how in touch he is with human behaviour:
The tolling bell Measures time not our time, rung by the unhurried Ground swell, a time Older than the time of chronometers, older Than time counted by anxious worried women Lying awake, calculating the future, Trying to unweave, unwind, unravel And piece together the past and the future….
Perhaps the biggest joy I had in reading the Four Quartets was discovering he was the author of a phrase I had heard before and cherished, and never knew it was him who had penned it (it’s not the Julian of Norwich reference, but the first four lines). This is the stanza that ends the Four Quartets and which I never would have guessed came from the T.S. Eliot I studied in school. People change, and all his searching, questioning, and exploring led him to a beautiful place.
We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time. Through the unknown, remembered gate When the last of earth left to discover Is that which was the beginning; At the source of the longest river The voice of the hidden waterfall And the children in the apple-tree Not known, because not looked for But heard, half-heard, in the stillness Between two waves of the sea. Quick now, here, now, always— A condition of complete simplicity (Costing not less than everything) And all shall be well and All manner of thing shall be well When the tongues of flame are in-folded Into the crowned knot of fire And the fire and the rose are one.
This Advent season, my husband and I are reading through poet-priest Malcolm Guite‘s book Waiting on the Word, which offers a poem a day from classic or contemporary poets accompanied by Guite’s reflections.
We started yesterday for December 1 and it is exactly what we need right now. I don’t really know how to explain it other than I think art/poetry offers a balm for our aching hearts.
When first thy sweet and gracious eye
Vouchsaf’d ev’n in the midst of youth and night
To look upon me, who before did lie
Weltring in sinne;
I felt a sugred strange delight,
Passing all cordials made by any art,
Bedew, embalme, and overrunne my heart
And take it in.
Since that time many a bitter storm
My soul hath felt, ev’n able to destroy,
Had the malicious and ill-meaning harm
His swing and sway:
But still thy sweet originall joy
Sprung from thine eye, did work within my soul,
And surging griefs, when they grew bold, controll
And got the day.
If thy first glance so powerfull be,
A mirth but open’d and seal’d up again;
What wonders shall we feel, when we shall see
Thy full-ey’d love!
When thou shalt look us out of pain,
And one aspect of thine spend in delight
More then a thousand sunnes disburse in light
In heavn’ above.
Guite opens his reflections on this poem for December 1 with the question:
“What might this moving and mysterious little poem have to offer us as we come to dark December and begin our Advent journey together?”
That phrase “as we come to dark December” has stuck with me. Indeed, it feels dark and heavy. For those of us in Vancouver, we haven’t seen the sun for two months. I normally don’t mind the rain but it has definitely affected me this time. And recent world events add a lot of darkness to our lives, leaving us uncertain, afraid, and confused about the future.
I don’t know if this is why I’m feeling less ready and excited for the Christmas season than usual, but I do find myself struggling to embrace it. Reading that someone else called this month “dark December” made me realize that I am not alone in feeling this way. And so I have offered up a found poem in response to George Herbert’s, that is true of how I am feeling and may be true for you too.
Poem for Dark December by Charlene Kwiatkowski
We are tired
The days are dark and long
The sky is a faucet that refuses to shut off
There is no twinkling of stars
Many a bitter storm our souls have felt
but we are in the season where the soul felt its worth
—because he appeared.
His sweet and gracious eye looked upon us
from the wood of a manger to the wood of a cross
Our hearts overrun with surging griefs
A thrill of hope seems farther away
We are waiting on many things
We are a weary world
Open the mirth that has been long sealed
Look us out of pain
We are desperate for your full-eyed love
Desperate to delight again.