A Brick Lover’s Toronto

I recently travelled for the first time since Covid—a solo trip to Toronto to celebrate my first year of motherhood (in a pandemic no less). It’s been two of both now but Covid got in the way of going earlier.

As someone who attended university in Ottawa, I had been to Toronto a few times on weekend trips and it was fun but not particularly inspiring. The destination of this trip actually wasn’t that important to me. What was more important was having a much-needed getaway (I am inclined to urban spaces) and seeing and staying with an old friend I hadn’t seen in several years.

Brick houses in Cabbagetown.

But the destination surprised me. It was so much older and beautiful than I remembered. I found myself enchanted with all the brick houses, taking picture after picture because they were all so beautiful and different and teeming with character. Coming from the West Coast where our building materials are wood and glass (Douglas Coupland nicknamed Vancouver the “City of Glass,” and it was only incorporated in 1886), there was something comforting about the solidity and permanency of brick. I wish I could call one of these houses mine.

Such love in the details here. And that red door! Cabbagetown neighbourhood.
The symmetrical, two-pronged staircase leading to the blue door is perfection. Also in Cabbagetown.
Yet another lovely duplex in Cabbagetown.
View from my friend’s condo in the Annex. It was not uncommon to see turrets. Turrets, folks!
Of course there were also turrets on Casa Loma.

Housing was on my mind as my husband and I had just learned that our landlord was about to sell the beloved house that we rent the top floor of in Vancouver. We’ve been there for three years and were hoping to have been there a lot more. Now we’ll have two months from date of sale to find a new home.

Looking back through my photos of the Art Gallery of Ontario, I noticed how many were paintings of houses and rooftops. Definitely a theme here.

A wall of Lawren S. Harris paintings in the Thomas Collection. Left: Houses, Richmond Street, 1911, oil on canvas. Top middle: Street Scene with Figures, Hamilton, 1919, oil on wood-pulp board. Bottom middle: In the Ward, Toronto, 1917, oil on wood-pulp board.
Maximilien Luce, Gisons, The Cathedral, 1897, oil on paper mounted to canvas.

These two women beside each other in the AGO also caught my eye: Saint Anne with the Christ Child (c.1645-1650) by Georges de la Tour on the left and Melancholy (c.1627) by Hendrick ter Brugghen on the right, which purportedly depicts Mary Magdalene. They look like they could have been painted by the same artist. The works share so many similarities: dramatic late-night scenes illuminated by a single candle, two women with downcast eyes thinking and feeling deeply. They face each other, as if they are made to converse about life and death. I wrote a poem about the two women the next day at First & Last Coffee. The weather was delightfully warm enough in early May that I could enjoy their wonderful patio space.

One of my hopes for the trip was to have some quiet time wandering, reflecting, and writing. I headed to Toronto’s Necropolis, because just like Vancouver’s cemetery has inspired many a poem, I thought this picturesque Toronto cemetery could too.

Entrance to the Necropolis, featuring a Victorian Gothic chapel.
The most recognizable monument in the Necropolis. Jack Layton’s wife Olivia Chow created this bronze bust.

The Necropolis is one of the city’s oldest cemeteries, established in 1850. It sits to the west of the Don Valley Parkway, which is shown in this painting below by William Kurelek that my friend and I saw the day before at the AGO. We spent at least half an hour trying to find the hidden crucifix near the edge of the trees. We gave up and googled it instead.

William Kurelek, Don Valley on a Grey Day, 1972, mixed media on hardboard.

I also took a pilgrimage to Knife Fork Book, a poetry dispensary located in Capital Espresso on Queen Street and picked up some reading material for later.

Street art of…houses, what else?

As someone drawn to architecture and its endless forms, I found Toronto inspiring after all.

O Toronto!
Nathan Phillips Square with the Romanesque-style Old City Hall in the background.
Spadina Museum (a Victorian mansion) near Casa Loma.
One of many old stone buildings on U of T’s campus.
St. Michael’s Cathedral.
Old meets new in the Daniels Building for U of T’s architecture, landscape, and design program.

When I posted some of my pictures on Facebook, a friend commented, “Who knew Toronto could be so beautiful?” Indeed, who knew?

Historic home of Daniel Lamb, business man, City Father, a founder of Toronto’s first zoo, 1842-1920.

And for those curious, I do have a poem in the works that combines my love of Victorian houses with my interest in cemeteries and my surprise appearance in Jack Layton’s Ottawa rental before he was Leader of the Opposition. Strange what memories and alignments a trip might spark and a poem might allow.

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.”

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?

Trying to Love the World: Maggie Smith’s Good Bones

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.

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.