Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sometimes I Just Need a Little Feeling of Satisfaction

I've never forgotten something my friend Kristin Bergen said one day when I came home and found her, not finishing a paper she'd been sweating over, but polishing the brass doorknob from the bathroom door: This, she said, brandishing the doorknob, is something I can start and finish satisfactorily in half an hour. My paper.....not a chance. Sometimes I just need a little feeling of satisfaction at a job well done.

What she didn't say in quite so many words, but what we all know and often fear is that--as Robert Lowell put so well--writing often feels like an exercise in humiliation. You work and work and work quietly, alone at your desk, and then after many hours you may have very little to show at all. Half an idea, poorly expressed. Some fragments tending towards a poem. An outline. A few paragraphs of a story that could be exciting, but must begin somewhere else. An essay you know your next reader will demand you rewrite completely. A careful piece of research no one will read at all. It's enough to make a body take up polishing doorknobs.

Even when you do manage to make it through all of the revisions, the polishing and perfecting, and you send off your story/poem/essay/manuscript, more often than not it seems, if it comes back--plenty of submissions simply drop into a black hole, a pit of blankness-- it's been judged unsuitable for the press or publication in question. Keep writing, the rejection letter sometimes says, better luck next time. Often things come back with no comment at all.

This is understandable when you look at incoming writing from an editor's point of view--believe me, I've been there! At any small press or magazine or for any contest the inbox volume is usually overwhelming, and often, the quality of submissions thoroughly underwhelming. After you read several hundred, you're at a loss for what to say, even about the works that you like well enough but simply can't accept for one reason or another. The business of editing unpublished manuscripts can be as bad as grading: after a day or two of wading through the boxes you get a sort of depressed glaze; impossibility and humiliation permeate your airways like communicable diseases. But oh the joy when you think you've made a find, when the words have been artfully fitted, when the overall form is striking, pleasing, the polish lustrous and fine.

And. But. Such fit between reader and writer seems, alas, rare. At the moment, I'll admit it, the rejection letters are piling up. Is it because I need to write more, to write better, to submit more work, hone it more sharply? Absolutely. No question; no end in sight to that. But I'm also certainly not knocking at the right doors (where are they? How does one find them?), not working within the compass of a large enough writer's community, not yet sorting out how to work the "business" side of this undertaking as well as I must....particularly in this recessionary, web 2.0 "crowd-powered" climate, where publishers and publications are failing at catastrophic rates and writing and editing and information production are less and less remunerative.

Some days, particularly those foggy, dusk-dark days of early summer in Nova Scotia, it can feel as if everything in the world is ranged against this writing enterprise. --I get it; that's why so many authors drink or suffer what the psychiatric professions call "mood disorders," what William Styron, in his memoir of depression, Darkness Visible, calls "worsening emotional weather." I get it; I'm in it. It's hard sometimes to have faith that this collection of fragments, these unruly impossible words will lead to anything, lead anywhere, shed any light on anything. Sometimes it feels as if the words ARE the demon cloud you're buried beneath. We're all writing. Are we all also reading? I'm less sure.

As Marike says, explaining why she's traded words for paint these days, paint sometimes provides immediate satisfaction. You can point to something and show what you've done. Even if it is full of problems, it still looks like something. When you write, on the other hand, no one glances at what you've put down and then looks again more carefully because they've been drawn in by the colour, the pleasing lines, the slash and puzzle of the form.

She's right. Reading demands more concentration than that, more commitment. When you write you are asking a reader to take something in, to make sense of it, to digest it. And if your work is still in rough form, above all if it is a large or ambitious work, it can be pretty indigestible. So it remains private, a solitary painful shame, a fragment destined to grow--and to cut you along the way until it does.

Me, that's why I cook, and why I invent recipes. It's usually a reasonably punctual undertaking--has to be done in a short time frame, with a limited number of resources. It has to be tasty, colourful, balanced, pleasing, digestible....but even there I crave impossibly complex, surprising flavours and forms....

Something anything piquant please to set against this blankness this sorrow this sunless grey day!

Friday, June 26, 2009

On Works in Progress

I. The Futility of Plans

...stumbling on the unforeseen and...unforeseeable.
Robert Lowell, 1977

Fog, then it clears, then cloud, and always high tide. Or is it that I'm getting up an hour later each day? It is hot and the bugs are fierce--we wait longingly for the wind to rise.

Last night after supper Marike and I walked up the road. Our neighbours, Phil and Susan, were sitting on their porch with the two dogs, watching dusk slip into the cove. A loon crying over by Port Dufferin. No fireflies, just blackflies.

They have a new pet, a little black duck their son Mitchell rescued his last day lobster fishing. Mother and young had all gotten split up and seagulls were carrying away the ducklings. Mitchell found this one all alone near a rocky island and brought it home. Phillip tucks it in the neck of his shirt to keep it warm; it chirps and nestles against his chest. Once it warms up it begins to preen. They feed it mussels and periwinkles live, just cracked from their shells and dropped in a small container of water. The duck swallows greedily then falls into a stupor. It is still covered in down, has short stubby black wings and huge webbed feet. It can run quickly and paddles about on the floor chirping loudly when it's hungry.

They have two cages for the duck, one indoors and one outdoors. Both contain little duck "ponds"--an old bread pan filled with water does the trick in the indoor cage.

Booboo the dachshund has fallen in love with this wondrous little creature--the only one in the house as close to the ground as she is. (The other dog, Nelson, is a handsome and utterly enormous Shepherd, far larger than I am.) Booboo cuddles the duck in her bed and chases off the cat. No one is quite sure what the cat will do so this is a good thing. Everyone guards the duck so vigilantly that the cat appears to be afraid of the duck now. Usually called Memphis, this spring the cat has been on such a killing spree--birds, mice, rabbits, squirrels, moles--the family has taken to calling him "Lector."

When the duck pooped in the bed, Booboo set about trying to tidy things up, nosing over the cushion--and the duck--so that the poop was out of sight. This made Susan, who's back to changing diapers with her grandson, laugh. It never ends Booboo I'm telling you, she says.

Five times a day the duck must be fed. Susan heads out onto the bug-infested back porch and wrestles with periwinkles for half an hour, trying to crack out ten little bits of food. Then there's the matter of collecting duck's meals every day--Phil and Sue crawl about on the beach or head to the islands to pick periwinkles from the bladderwrack.

What do ducks eat in the wild, we ask, pretty sure they don't crack periwinkle shells.

I don't know, Mama Duck Phillip says. Mussels and periwinkles are all we have. He says this while he peels a shrimp and pops it into his own mouth. This disjunction between word and deed makes us laugh. But the duck won't eat frozen shrimp--they've already tried--it's live seafood or nothing. Concentrated cholesterol.

Phillip muses, as he watches over the furry, feathered bit of his chaotic brood: We thought we'd be getting away now and then now that our kids are grown up and have moved out. But here we are, in this recession, no demand for any of our businesses, with a house full of creatures they've brought home.

Life is never what you think it will be, he says. It goes in its own direction, no matter what you plan for.

II. Writing Poetry, or "another day of humiliations"

This morning I started to read Robert Lowell's Collected Poems (2003). My pleasure in what he writes--the soundness of his lines--startles me. I had not remembered this. The rhymed enjambed lines of his first poems really work; "Colloquy at Black Rock" with its repeated mud mud mud is marvelous. (Black Rock Connecticut, is where Lowell served his parole, after doing time in federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut for refusing to be drafted into the military in 1943--Quaker roots showing like skeletal remains through his "fiery" conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1940-41.)

I like some of the details too, from a brief introductory memoir by Frank Bidart, one of the editors of the collection. Lowell, by his own account spent "hundreds and hundreds of hours shaping, extending and changing....staring, crossing out, writing in, crossing out what was written in, again and again... In time, the fragmentary and scattered limbs become by a wild extended figure of speech, something living...a person" ("After Enjoying Six or Seven Essays on Me" Salmagundi (Spring 1977)). Such sorting of fragments can, however, be very discouraging in its middle and muddling stages. Bidart recounts that after a long day of work Lowell would sometimes say, "well it's been another day of humiliations" (vii), by which he meant another day of facing, wrestling with and never besting the problems thrown up by his own projects.

But there was no "end," no perfect revision he was striving for, just solutions to one conundrum or another. And where two versions with merit persisted or were published (for he mined and revised his own--and others'--work all his life), Lowell said, not this or that one is best, but "they both exist."

Lowell was likewise generous with his readers; for both poet and readers: "a poem changes with each inspection. Variablity is its public existence"("After Enjoying"). Nothing is static even when it is fixed on the page. As he remarks on the mutability of the past, of memory, (not knowing, surely, that he was writing his last essay and would be dead of heart failure in September 1977), "from year to year things remembered from the past change almost more than the present" ("After Enjoying").

A man of revisions but against the infinitely perfectible ideal--now that's wonderful! I love all of his "old china doorknobs," those "sad/slight useless things" his verses collect.

Here's how at one point he describes his effort to make poetry:

Time to grub up and junk the year's
output, a dead wood of dry verse:
dim confession, coy revelation,
liftings, listless self-imitation,
whole days when I could hardly speak
came plumming home unshaven, weak
and willing to read anyone
things done before and better done.

Fierce, fireless mind running downhill.....

Much of what I've cited here was "junked" verse from the first version of "Waking Early Sunday Morning," published in the New York Review of Books in 1965. (The second, better-known version opens Lowell's 1967 collection, Near the Ocean.) All the same, it still exists, and expresses well, not leaving out the agony, the struggle to undertake aesthetic acts, the moral, psychological, editorial, even physical wrangle behind each line.

Today ("willing to read anyone") I let him say it for me.

half fog over Quoddy Bay
lilacs blooming in the kitchen

Saturday, June 20, 2009

anything could happen (poem)

the air this morning smells blue it is pure and clear like the sea twisted this way and that by faraway airs

robins on the grass a foghorn out of order toots in clear sun

cirrus streaks flutter ragged flags over eastern islands (nothing but water from here to Spain )

lilies not yet but almost blooming their lily blues scent slides into yellow and blue day

blues day yellow with birdsong with orange light with robin breast with newly stacked wood (oh we are so proud so timely so neatly done before the mud comes)

meanwhile on the porch paint is peeling revealing a previous owner’s bad taste in gold tones and browns

mown grass dries in yellow drifts on the lawn pale scent of hay tumbles what is poetry for if not to notice things?

how I’d like to be able to write the sparrow’s song the swallow’s arc and chatter its looping flight the distant echo of birdsong in the acres of forest hills behind us

wind blows the hollowed corpse of a fly across the floorboards

and even this is beautiful somehow an insect again airborne after death

we could wish for fates equally fine (for postmortem elevation or at least an observing eye)

funereal screel of a rusty pulley dumps a lobsterman’s catch onto the dock a dirge a moan a pitiable squeal blue habitat orange crustacean red death

nothing ever stays the--

even the dead transformed

Garden flowers by Elisabeth Bigras

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Home again, home again, into cool green

The trip home was long and grueling: three days of travel by every sort of conveyance--car, bus, taxi, airplane, light rail, airplane, car. We crossed borders and spectra, slipped from brilliant heat and reds and yellows into damp, cooler colours: blues, greens, lake-speckled landscapes.

The bus ride from Guaymas, Mexico across the border to Tucson was uneventful, air-conditioned, well-timed. We watched Jurassic Park dubbed into Spanish, unwilling captives to its gags and tricks and fantastical-paranoid story line--can technology defeat an ancient menace, especially when technology has recreated the threat?

Even the US border crossing was simple, stream-lined, unexciting. All the border agents were bilingual. No one was removed from the bus; there were no special searches, no dogs, no examination rooms, no grilling about the flu, just an outdoor baggage xray. Then our driver discovered he wasn't carrying his US license, so we sat in a parking lot and waited for two hours while Tufesa Bus Lines found another driver and transported him to the border. By the time we booked into our hotel in Tucson, most restaurants were closed. Thus the first night ended: with good rest but rotten food, the best of the lot greasy room-delivery pizza smeared in garlic oil.

The next day a blur of walking in exurbs in heat then sitting in airport lounges; one cramped flight, another; Houston surprises me--it is an ocean of green. There is a night on the floor in Newark, then gate change, terminal change, the last leg home--what are the odds destination Halifax would share a gate with my hometown, Columbus, Ohio?

We arrive in Halifax, answer questions from Canada Customs about the flu: Do you feel ill? No. Do you have a fever? No. Have you been in contact with anyone with the flu? No. 110 million Mexicans, a few thousand with the flu--what are the odds? Not too high. Then we are released with our luggage into the waiting room. A big reunion with Elisabeth, then we head to the car. Not quite two hours of bumpy backroads later we are home, where we pile with the animals on the bed and fall asleep in the cool green air. Later we get up and go for a long walk by the sea, overjoyed by the damp, the tenderness of the spring.

The next day I write to my friend Mary:

Just now the wind is blowing out of the west, whipping the laundry on
the line into a frenzied dance. The sea is deep blue; new flowers are
blooming every day in Elisabeth's garden--the lupins and lilies and
lilacs all promising to emerge; seagulls whirl over a returning
lobster boat, their wings flashing and glowing in the sun. And the
swallows swoop and chatter, aligning themselves on the telephone wire
to deliver commentary on all the world below. We walk about the
grounds taking stock of chores to be done this season: barn and studio
to be painted, wood delivered and stacked, shoreline shored up. The
air is clean and clear and smells of earth and sea--a big difference
from the searing dust and too-bright light of the desert.

She writes back, pleased with the imagery:

I know this landscape so well, how it smells, how it holds a person, how it offers only straight up comfort, no false promises. The right place to be a poet.

I think she too is working at a poem--straight up comfort no false promises friable solidity of rock.

We are glad to be here, home by this other sea, so far away.

Apple blossoms, Quoddy, photo by Elisabeth Bigras
Arizona mountains, view from the airplane
Gate signs, Newark International Airport
Close-ups of strawberry flowers, lupin leaf, anemone pulsatile with bee by Elisabeth Bigras
to see more of Elisabeth's photos go to

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

To the Marina Seca

25 May 2009 San Carlos, Sonora, Mexico

Quoddy's Run exits the water today to lumber, an ungainly creature on borrowed wheels, up the highway to the Marina Seca or "dry" storage.

Boats always look naked and vulnerable as they leave the water, faintly obscene; we are not supposed to see them like this, their bottoms showing. As soon as they leave the water, they cease to be in their element, their glory.

For boat owners, too, this is a fraught, heart-stripping moment: so many things could go wrong! But the Marina Seca in San Carlos is a brilliantly conceived and impeccably run place and the trailer with movable arms that lifts the boat out of the water and cradles her as she travels the two kilometers up the highway to the dry marina is a marvel of engineering, and always expertly handled. Besides, we tell ourselves and others, to try to calm that anxious flutter in the heart, we've done this before--twice already! But you never do feel utterly, fully prepared.

Nevertheless, the moment of the haul arrives. We are towed from our too-shallow, too-tight dock to the slip at high water. The trailer is there, sunk in the water, waiting for us. Quoddy is pulled forward, gently, over and between the rocker arms, which are then adjusted and readjusted by a little remote control box.

Finally the boat is settled on the trailer to everyone's satisfaction. Slowly, slowly, the driver of the front end loader that will pull the boat out of the water backs up. Everyone watches carefully; last minute adjustments are made, and the boat inches out of the water--up one foot, another one--the eye that Dee painted on her bow to ward off evil in full view, then the keel.

There's a last minute check of all pads and arms and angles, then, thumbs up! the boat can go!

She's off, up the ramp, through the driveway, past Barracuda Bob's cafe and the laundromat and the chandlery to the highway, where--backwards!--she'll sail past the Oxxo store, a Pemex station and blooming cacti.

One turn, a long driveway, past a workshop where an abandoned panga rots, and through the gates. This is the Marina Seca, an enormous desert storage yard for thousands of boats.

Quoddy's Run is parked between two sets of "hurricane poles"--steel poles set in concrete, secured with jackstands, and sprayed down--that's it for the barnacles and seaweed collecting on her undersides. They're gone!

Marike pulls her enormous covers over the boat; we stuff all of the through-hulls with scotchpads, put foil backed insulation material over the windows, close and batten down the hatches and port-lights, place open buckets of water in the cabin--an effort to keep the teak from cracking in 140 degree F summer desert heat, remove the rest of our bags and lock up the boat.

Back down the steep ladder to the ground, and that's it for another year.

One backward look--Quoddy we'll miss you!--she really is like a live creature; we feel we owe our lives to her...

Wait, we can't leave yet. One more backward look--how will we ever find her again?

Now we're ready--off to an air-conditioned condo with hot running water, a pool, a bed that neither moves nor slopes at peculiar angles, wireless internet access, cable television in three languages....too bad we're staying just one night...

Panga at shop near Marina Seca
Hauling Quoddy's Run--from water to highway
Quoddy's Run in the Marina Seca
Marina Seca view from the deck--boats as far as the eye can see
View from Condominiums Dorado, San Carlos
Cool Mexican condo humour--polar bear plates

Adventures at Dock

24 May 2009

San Carlos, Sonora, Mexico

Back on land—or almost on land; some of the time on land, sometimes unwillingly, unwittingly.

We spend our valuable time at dock tearing down the boat—cleaning, patching, folding, flaking, polishing: it is a huge labour to put a boat to bed for some months. When I tell my mother what we’re doing, she writes, “Sounds like you two are doing a massive "house cleaning"--which we can never

get free from, no matter where we are located.”

So true, alas. Bougainvillea and ocotillo in bloom all around; swallows nesting in the cliffs, warblers hiding in the sails, pelicans staking claim to sections of the docks and fishing, lazily, in the shallows—it is utterly beautiful here. The landscape is magnificent. And we are so busy we hardly see it.

We make lists: of jobs still to be done; of things to be left on the boat; of things to be brought home; of medical items that must be replenished or brought when we return; of all sorts of products we’ll need next year, from fuel filters and head repair kits to a large spool of braided string; we make a wish list for the rigging, then handling devices; spell out possible alternate deck arrangements; note which canvases will have to be replaced; try to sort out where we can stay overnight in Tucson when we arrive on the bus from Guaymas, and so on.

The days are long and hot. We get up with the sun—by 6 am—and work until it goes down after 8 pm; then we light mosquito coils, set up the bug screens and mosquito netting and eat supper. Every part of us aches—feet, hands, legs, fingers, arms; each day is an unending exercise routine: lifting, pulling, shoving packaging, twisting, stowing. If I had the energy, which I don’t, because I’m sapped by heat and chores, I could make up a little dance for us: the putting the boat away dance. It would have to be a marathon, punctuated by liters of lukewarm Gatorade—an essential supplement in these latitudes.

When we can finally lie down, sleep comes quickly.

Today we are particularly tired because we awoke at 4am to the stench of diesel. Our berth and boat were tilted towards the dock at an angle of 15 degrees or so. We were on the hard, and not in a comfortable way!

We’d gotten the last available slip, known to be a bit too shallow for a boat like Quoddy’s Run that draws (requires) 6.5-6.75 feet of water. We took the slip anyway, thinking, well, we have a big full keel; it won’t hurt the boat to stand on the keel once or twice a day at low water. But it is disconcerting to be heeled over on the land!

Line drawing of Kelly-Peterson 44, showing keel and rudder below the waterline

The angle was sharp enough that it was impossible to find a comfortable position in which to sleep. Too, the vents to the port side fuel tank were, since the tank was full, weeping. When we got up at first light a litre of combustible, as diesel is called here, pooled on the deck, up against the bulwarks. Mmm, delicious, the smell of diesel before breakfast!


Quoddy’s Run at dock in Marina San Carlos

Line drawing of Kelly-Peterson 44, showing keel, from the Peterson Cutter website:

Desert plants in bloom around the docks and along the highway