Category Archives: Journeys

to find a ghost

Andy — today I went looking for your ghost in Wood Mountain. Rounding the last curve on Highway 18 heading east, it appears suddenly. But without three elevators, without even one to announce itself, it must be content with an oversized sign.  A grand introduction, as if to challenge the assumptions of the uninitiated that this tiny place might be unimportant.

Wood Mountain – the overlarge sign proclaims, hinting at a grandeur not immediately obvious. But, with only a smidgen of curiosity, hints of its grandiosity can be found.

First – the land itself. It was one of those days, Andy, when the sky is weighted with scattered, puffy clouds, and the wind is strong enough (stronger than enough) to send them scudding hither and thither, so that their shadows sweep up and down the hills.         It’s the time of year when the grass is maturing, ripening into yellow. Even with the abundance of rain this year, the hills mellow to burnished gold. And on them the cattle work at their eternal grazing, as tatanka once did.

The town itself is quiet and I do not linger overlong. I find nothing of you there, except echoes of bits of remembered lines. The closed up Trail’s End with the tree growing right where people used to lounge and smoke and fistfight. The tree is big enough to suggest how long it’s been since a rye and Coke or a Pilsner were last served behind the wall it now leans against.

But just south, where the land drops down into heavily bushed coulee, revealing why the place is named what it is, there is more life, and more whispers that contain your name.     The park, with its boughs of browning poplar piled atop the stands – green a few weeks ago when they shaded spectators of the Sports. Yes, Andy, the rodeo continues, when so much else does not.

People are camping in their big trailers tucked awkwardly into niches carved out of the trees. There is a brand new swimming pool, its chlorinated water a startling blue contrast to the yellowing hills and dusty green trees surrounding it. I wonder idly at the volume of water contained within its concrete walls – such a precious thing that people paddle around in. Its newness, and the money it took to build it, seem boastful compared to the aging museum beside it.

That is where I finally find you, Andy. In the Rodeo Ranch Museum. They have some of your poems in stock this time – a glossy reprint with a stylized Sitting Bull on the cover. I’m very glad to see it, though I do prefer my own dogeared copy, the one I tracked down with some effort, a retired library book sold online. The Sitting Bull on my copy is faded, like an old photograph. It seems more fitting, somehow. But if people are going to discover your poetry behind a slick, updated cover, there’s no harm in that.

I find you in a few other places, too. But more poignantly, I find the folks who peopled your poems scattered throughout the place, their names as familiar as old friends. Like Vasile Tonita, and some of the other Romanians. I find intimate details about them, like their dates of birth and the number of children they had.

And outside the wind blew through the grass and for all that has changed, I guess that one thing at least has remained the same. I did not find your ghost in Wood Mountain today, Andy.

But I was only passing through. Perhaps if I stayed awhile, let the place seep into me and I into it for a time, I would find your ghost, or it would find me. Or maybe your ghost haunts some other place, Wood Mountain too full of restless spirits already to accommodate another one, even that of a poet.

 

 

 

The things that can break your heart

The things that can split your heart wide open.

Like the young man across from me on an airplane, headed west. Overheard snippets of conversation. The man, my age or a bit younger, being asked if he’s from Regina – the polite chit chat of a middle aged couple establishing roots with their seatmate (this happens more often on flights out west, I’ve noticed).

No, the young man is not from Regina. He’s from Cape Breton, and this he says with quiet conviction. And as he continues explaining why he’s out west (work, of course), the proof of his declaration is borne out in his accent, the rolling vowels, the touches of Gaelic which remain in the pronunciation, whether he speaks a word of it or not.

Time passes, the cabin quiets down. Snacks have been munched, drinks sipped, garbage collected, and at one point I glance over and notice that the young man from Cape Breton has fallen asleep, head against the window, hands clasped neatly on the seat tray in front of him. Something about it catches me, enough to write about it. The thought of how homesick he must be right now, how it was revealed in the quick and proud way he placed himself as not from somewhere, from somewhere else. How much he must dread chasing the sunset at 30,000 feet, knowing it takes him away. That perhaps his gently clasped hands would rather be put to work back home, on Cape Breton Island.

How different it feels to be going home. How much you can tell about someone, just from the way they fall asleep on an airplane, quietly taking no more space than needed, hands one on top of the other, as if in prayer. He must be polite, respectful. And what am I, the one sneaking furtive glances from across the aisle in my own chronic wakefulness? Writing on an airplane. But I find the image so striking I can’t help but look again.

Maybe I’m just channeling Alistair MacLeod. Or maybe I recognised something of myself in him, when I used to fly back east, away from home.

Whatever it is, it breaks my heart somehow.

 

 

Things that Last

I believe only in things lasting forever.

– Andrew Suknaski

It’s like he knew me when he wrote that, me and all the others with that particular kind of restlessness that resists itself. I don’t want to be restless, changeable, mutable. I want to sit tight, burrow in, become part of something permanent. But my very nature rebels against it, especially when I try my hardest to make it so.

What holds me here? Is there anything that anchors me, anything beyond my own will, my own deep-seated conviction that here is where I must be? Even when I do not feel as “here” as I want to, as I used to.

Of course, fickle beings we are, and me as fickle as the rest, can change our minds, can get caught up in flights of fancy which soon depart, borne away by practical words carried on west winds. Or, our fancies are dulled by the routine of getting by, of doing what’s got to be done, or so we’re told, tell ourselves, believe in lieu of the alternative(s).

This land, steady and knowing beneath me, this blanket of blackest night hanging over me, hold a wisdom I want to learn, but they do not give it up easily. I ask what I should I do, where I should go, if I should stay. Not even the omnipresent wind stirs in reply.

Perhaps it’s not the wind’s job, nor the stars, nor the land’s itself to direct my course. Maybe I am not a sparrow in a stormy night, batted about and at the mercy of some force greater than myself. It is a thought both liberating and terrifying.

And what if some energy from some distant place is stirring within me, calling for me?  To heed it, or not?

Is it enough to be tethered, rather than anchored?

For me, nothing is ever enough.

 I’m still here and what has not changed is
my inability to change
move on
though I’m forever moving on.

– Andrew Suknaski

Dead tree
kristin catherwood|fromthegap.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stillness, Motion

I was born under a mutable sign, meaning that I am comfortable with motion, that I can “go with the flow,” that I am mercurial, adaptable, changeable. I know it’s true, but I long for the will to tolerate stillness. I wish I could just stay where I am and be content with it. Going, moving elsewhere is an exhausting thought. I dread it every time, even when it’s just for an overnight. Because it always disturbs the little nest, the cocoon I’ve built myself over the course of hours, days, weeks. Every time I leave, it’s like I’ve never lived anywhere but in the limbo between here and there. It upsets equilibrium, it tires me out, it makes me feel alive. It’s always going to be who I am. If it’s not, something is wrong. Because it’s in the motion that I find my inner stillness. But sometimes I think I prefer the inner turmoil and chaos of just staying still in one place. It never lasts long. Our natures will have their way, whether we fight or not.

What’s Lost

shugmanitou/a humble prayer to you for strength and light/to illuminate the dark faces of the lost gods among these southern hills

– Andrew Suknaski, “Sandia Man”

They never tell you about what you’re going to lose when you go away, when you get educated, when you go beyond the horizon that’s sheltered your entire life. They talk about what you will gain, what you will learn, how much you will grow. And it’s all true. But they never talk about loss, about what you can never get back once you’ve left it behind.

They never say, “once you leave this place, you will come back and know it better than ever before. But you will never wholly belong to it the way you once did. You will never feel completely at ease here again. You will never quite fit in, you will never be able to unlearn what you’ve learned, you’ll never reclaim the innocence that sheltered and protected you.”

Would I take it back? Never. Of course not. It’s better that I didn’t know what I would lose, for that knowledge would have overwhelmed the bits of courage that propelled me. I had enough inklings and fears as it was.

The more I learn, the less I know. But this I do know for sure: everything costs.

leaving home and shugmanitou/ the cry of the hounds/ drawing nearer

– Suknaski, “Leaving Home”

 

 

 

 

 

Mastery, and Truth

For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers.

                                                                          – Victor E. Frankl

I’ll never forget sitting in that crowded, humid pub on Water Street in St. John’s, open mic, a Friday probably, wintertime, and a young man done up dapper in a brown suit stepped up, opened his mouth, and sang.

Shamus leaned over to me and said, “that’s a real singer” with the conviction that only a folklorist of Gaelic lineage who grew up in the post-industrial world of Nova Scotia can have. I was new in town, new to the island, to folklore, to this pub, felt like I was new to everything, and I barely knew Shamus, a fellow folklorist who just happened to be sitting next to me.

And I remember how the hair stood up on my arms, not only because of the pure voice of the singer proving Shamus right, but because of the truth in Shamus’ statement, and his recognition of the mastery possessed by that singer. I remember the statement more than the song – like so many things ephemeral, the song rushed into me, filled me up, then departed, leaving me with only the memory of having experienced something grand, no memory of the thing itself. But I remember Shamus’ words, and the way he said them, and the expression on his face as he said that true thing.

Now I use that term when I read something so true, so full of mastery, so perfectly written, that it hurts the heart. I say it or think it to myself when I read and re-read clumps of certain words strung together by the likes of Alistair MacLeod or Richard Yates or Sharon Butala or Irène Némirovsky. That’s a real writer.

When I see a rancher settle himself in the saddle with practised and unconscious ease – that’s a real cowboy. When I see my dad duck his hand into the stream of grain flowing from the back of a truck to catch a sample – that’s a real farmer. When I see my friend lean over a tiny piece of stone with some fine-pointed tool and his eyes squint and glaze over and throw sparks altogether at once – that’s a real artist.

There are lots of good singers, lots of good farmers, lots of people good at things, but not all of them are “real” in the way Shamus meant it that night. You can perfect a craft, be a brilliant writer,  a competent artist, a skilled artisan, an experienced farmer, rancher, coal miner, professor, tailor, sailor, butcher, baker or candlestick maker, but still not reach the one step further to mastery, which comes only once you’ve managed to tap in to the vein of truth, the depth of knowing that goes beyond the immediately knowable. It only comes once you’ve realised the power in submitting to something greater than yourself. The knowing that no matter how much you practise, or try to perfect, that there’s something beyond you, out of reach, that you must submit to. Trust in and submit to.

The truth.

 

 

All of a Sudden, This. (Wroxton)

Driving on an unfamiliar road far from the Gap, yet still very much in Saskatchewan (though drifting close to Manitoba). Different landscape, different cultures who call it home, different cues to those cultures. A rich, gently undulating landscape. The land had a feeling of weight to it. Farms nestled in stands of natural aspen and birch. An abundance of water in creeks, sloughs, full-fledged rivers (the Swan and the Assiniboine) And then all of a sudden, this. A church in a community that looks to be in its death throes. But I know better than to think all tiny towns are dying. They are as full of life as the people who choose to live there still. And yet this church, this church, as well as the grain elevator peeping over its shoulder, might be nearing the end. It stands straight now, but what is its future?

Wroxton. September 3, 2015.
Wroxton. September 3, 2015.
Wroxton. September 3, 2015.
Wroxton. September 3, 2015.
Wroxton. September 3, 2015.
Wroxton. September 3, 2015.