Published in The New Quarterly, 2018 (Winter)
Leaving Home: Looking to Our Poetic Futures
by Jane Munro
To get to the point at Point No Point—which is on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island, the isolated wild coast—you have to cross this bridge. It’s red and supported by a log, one end of which rests on the peninsula and the other on a small, rocky island. In memory, I hear my footsteps on its timbers until I pause, look down into swirls of water and seaweed in the narrow channel it spans, south across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Olympics, and west to the boundary between ocean and sky.
I lived at Point No Point for twenty years. Wind and fog from the Pacific blew into the rain forest. It was the boonies: a twenty-five minute drive on a twisting coastal road—uphill, downhill—to the nearest grocery store, post office, gas station. Tall trees festooned with lichen. Long empty beaches. My husband’s health declining.
Leaving it was recent enough and hard enough that when I think of leaving home the images that come to mind are those from Point No Point.
I’d welcome a solid bridge under foot these days. Where we thought we were living is changing. Previously unthinkable things now seem thinkable. Our eyes go to the horizon—how will we be ourselves in the future?
Our English word “horizon” derives from a Greek word meaning our bounding circle.
Leaving home: looking to our poetic futures. The home I feel we’re leaving is not our inner self, ancestral land, or intimate relationships. The Earth itself is changing. Our world is changing. For some people, this unsettling includes loss of place, displacement from a cultural environment, and all too often, poverty, risk and trauma.
How, as a poet, to respond?
I spent most of my childhood in North Vancouver on the slopes of Grouse Mountain. It was a different era; children were free to explore and wander. I grew up fascinated by and attentive to a creek bed, forests, a river and its canyon—to my natural environment, manifest and subtle. I trusted it. I sensed it had stories, felt it could inform me, knew it was abundant. That was where I felt whole, adequate, relaxed, engaged. It became my matrix for metaphor.
My settler ancestors (including my parents) were ardently colonial—on both sides of my family. My mother’s Canadian roots reached back for seven generations in the Niagara Peninsula and southern Ontario. My father was born in England. His family moved to British Columbia when he was four. At the age of twenty-four—when I was a young mother with a BA, a husband and a baby—the three of us drove from Scotland to Turkey where we spent a year. I came back to Canada wondering if there was such a thing as Canadian poetry, changed focus in my MA studies, and plunged into Canadian literature. In the 80s—by then, a single mother with three children and a job, MFA grad and published poet, and a doctoral student—I made my first three trips to India. In the past decade I’ve returned four more times to study yoga.
Despite these and other travels and studies, the only land I know intimately remains the coast of what’s now BC. I have no other homeland.
Because I find myself unsettled by the historic and on-going violence wreaked by Canadian colonialism, I struggle, as a poet, with the question of what—in this situation—might come through my art that could possibly serve as a bridge, rustic and isolated as it may be, to healing and justice. My dreams are filled with dislocated people of all ages and backgrounds—refugees in shelters, families forced to move—making do as best we all can in turmoil, loss, confusion. Staying put—going on living here—my dreaming mind tells me I’ve left home.
How best to respond? How will we be ourselves in the future?
On April 7, 2017 as I began to write the talk I gave at the Edmonton Poetry festival (which turned into this essay), the US bombed a Syrian air base with Cruise missiles—in retaliation, President Trump said, for a chemical weapon attack. In Stockholm two days later, a man drove a truck into pedestrians, killing at least four people in a busy shopping area. Two and a half weeks earlier, a terrorist drove a truck into crowds on Westminster Bridge in London, killing five people three hours after my daughter and her family walked across that bridge.
The litany of bombings and terrorist attacks has continued. There are on-going armed conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Mexico, Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria, Yemen, Libya, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Congo, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Palestine, Philippines, Mali, Central African Republic, Iran, Indonesia, China, Angola, Peru, Russia, and other countries. As I write now, President Trump and Kim Jong-un threaten nuclear war[SS3] .
And that’s only a fraction of what’s unsettling us. Not everyone would agree, but I feel we dwell in dire circumstances:
environmental destruction / climate change / natural disasters
violently polarized politics / power struggles / greed / corruption
rapidly increasing inequities / poverty / ignorance
innumerable people displaced / fear / despair / starvation
escalating violence / terrorism / wars
… huge, abstract issues
But the material of poetry is concrete and particular. It’s not generalizations. To find our poetic futures we need to zoom in and engage with specifics. How we sense a detail. How we imagine it—in metaphor, in language. What this image and language evoke in us. What larger gestalt these specifics resonate with and represent.
Poetry is not a report. Nor is it a summing up. Art is suggestion; art is not representation. That was one of my grandfather’s sayings. He was speaking of painting—his art—but I think it’s also true for poetry.
To me, poetry is architecture for imagination. It creates a space for another to inhabit and furnish. A place someone else is moved to move into. There is an inviting emptiness in poetry. Like meditation, poetry is more about attention than intention.
The flip side of our dire circumstances is that they prompt us to break from orthodoxies and examine what we do, why we do it, and how it affects others. This is not new—over and over again, poetry and poets have challenged orthodoxies.
Twentieth-century poetry often drew inspiration for poetry in English from poetry in other languages and cultures. It gave us imagist poetry; open form poetry; prose poetry; dub and spoken word poetry; poetry happenings: poems engaged with music, dance, visual art, theatre; concrete poetry; Dada; Surrealism; Beats; mashups of various kinds; poetry dependent on technologies—any number of experiments with variations and adaptations in the form and content of poetry.
Now, I see the experimentation in poetry of the past century becoming even more widespread. Technology keeps giving us new tools. How can we see our personal horizon—let alone compose poetry within—these boundaries?
Some poets cut up, erase, and collage pieces of found text. Such a poem’s meaning may be its destruction of assumptions. Irony, humour, pathos, anger—mashup as smashup. The results are not always poetry—maybe not often poetry—but at times they can be poems.
How do we recognize the difference?
My gut tells me if something is a poem. My breathing tells me. I may get goose bumps. My whole body, of which my brain is a part, engages with a poem.
The Internet has also changed—and will continue to change—publishing. What’s more, the Internet makes previously impossible collaborations possible.
Here’s an example from my own practice. The Internet has allowed me to write for the past eleven years with three other poets. Together, Jan Conn, Mary di Michele, Susan Gillis, and I are Yoko’s Dogs. We’re each poets in our own right, composing and publishing individually, but as Yoko’s Dogs, our work is collaborative. We discuss and must agree on every detail of a poem. One way or another, we get together in person at least once a year, but most of our work happens online.
Yoko’s Dogs’ poetry is informed by traditions of Japanese linked verse. So far, we’ve published two collections and are finishing a third.
Not only do we compose collaboratively, we prefer to read our work collaboratively since we hear it as multi-voiced. Yoko’s Dogs has given me permission to share one of our poems with you.
in stillness the silver tree’s branches blow
blue-eyed grass –
what does it see
the trembling legs of a fawn
in long grass
drink the cool water
say your father’s name
A legitimate question to put to any poem is: why is this poem necessarily composed in this form?
Robert Creeley, one of the Black Mountain poets from the 1950s said: “form is never more than an extension of content.” I think this holds true whatever the poem or the era.
A traditional sonnet: fourteen lines with their volta—creates a structure of image, thought, and music that takes a turn either in the last six lines or in the final couplet. A sonnet will have this shape even if it does not abide by a traditional pattern of rhyme or rhythm.
For example, here is a non-traditional sonnet from my fifth poetry book, Active Pass, about a painting by Mary Pratt. Because Pratt’s paintings are realistic, formal, accessible, and beautiful—although somewhat unconventional in subject—I felt a non-traditional sonnet form related to them.
Salmon between Two Sinks
Gutted. Fresh. Its eye still bright. Hooked mouth open
above one of the stainless steel sinks filled with water.
Tail not in the picture though it tips the fish.
Suspended on the divider between creature and meal.
Between visible and invisible. The image a triangle
like a marriage with a third party on which the body
gets hung up. A kind of pun. And yes, a fishy trinity.
Light falls in stripes through Venetian blinds
onto the salmon and the sink itself—metallic,
not attached to what goes on within it.
Like life. Like death. Silver scales stretched
over crimson flesh. The gape of gills.
Dependent drape of slashed belly: labial slit.
Food. God. Sex. It slips. Sticks. Works like a dream.
Poetry’s roots are in oral cultures. It has always been a form of music—rhythm, rhyme, cadence, phrasing, and voice help make poetry meaningful and memorable. Traditionally, poetry was often sung or chanted. We saw Bob Dylan win the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature for his song lyrics. And Leonard Cohen—who was a poet before he became a singer—gave us lyrics that I think of as poetry. Like the visual, syntactical, and thought structure of a poem, its aural or musical form is part of its content or meaning. These work together and influence one another.
In recent decades we’ve seen the growth of spoken word and performance poetry. Now, poetry slams have an enthusiastic following and engage listeners with their energy, accessibility, and contemporary relevance. I’ve been moved by the passion and polish of some spoken word performers—and see them as practising a form of dramatic monologue. There’s also an ancient link between drama and poetry—probably as old as the link between song and poetry.
But there’s more than its aural dimension to poetry. For me—poems need to be heard, but it’s often at least equally important to enter a poem on the page. There, I can dwell in it. Come back to it. Understand its dimensions.
Poems can sink into memory like stones that some low tide may later uncover. Sometimes the poem’s beauty and intelligence then unfold in yet another way from what made it memorable in the first place.
A poem may have a long gestation. Given this often extended process, how do I know when it’s finished?
Once again, viscerally. It’s not a cognitive knowing, even though I make use of cognitive skills in the process of composition. What tells me the poem is done is a visceral click. A gut sensation. Something more ancient and embodied than analytical thought.
For me, a poem often begins from a dream. Keeping track of dreams helps me connect with layers of consciousness below daily cognitive processes. Perhaps Jung was right—we may share a collective unconscious—or perhaps what we share is DNA that also shapes other forms of life, from plants to animals.
Something I haven’t mentioned yet is study. When I was working on my MFA one of the best pieces of advice I got was “Fill your mind.” Being a writer allows you to study anything—whatever—you find interesting. A full mind is a valuable resource. It can produce interesting conjunctions—vocabularies—metaphors—contrasts—tensions—stories.
I’ve been studying and practicing Iyengar yoga for more than twenty years. Here is a poem I associate with a 2014 visit, while in India, to the Ellora caves. Blue Sonoma—with this poem—had been published that spring. We got up before sunrise and had one of the larger caves to ourselves—except for a yellow dog who’d followed us in. When I sat, closed my eyes, and began to chant Aum, I felt a gentle lick sweep up my cheek.
She wasn’t the particular yellow dog I’d mentioned in this poem but like that one, she was nobody’s pet, a pariah dog. Later we saw her nursing five pups.
In the slow spin of stars, a dancer turns
He wears a tall hat. His arms stretch –
one out, one up. His robes flow.
In the slow spin of stars, a woman sings.
Her voice floats on her breath.
She opens her mouth and words emerge.
In the slow spin of stars, a boat glides.
It rides the currents.
It is made of glass. It carries the sun.
In the slow spin of stars, a yellow dog
lies on the pavement, her nose in her groin.
She is a bitch, a cur. She has tits and pups.
In the slow spin of stars, a tree grows.
Its branches curl up and are wrapped
by two vines. It’s a pillar of greenery.
In the slow spin of stars, crystals form.
All the elemental glyphs.
To me, composing poetry is akin to practicing yoga. In my 2009 interview with him, B. K. S. Iyengar said that in his practice he spreads intelligence to every cell in the body, listens to every cell—“not just as a physical exercise, but as a seeing.” He said, “I let my soul spread in the body like I spread the carpet in my room.”
In composing poetry, my challenge is to spread intelligence to every syllable and spread soul throughout the body of the text.
A woman I know grew up in Alberta. Although she now lives in BC, she and her husband have acreage and a cabin on Amisk Lake north east of Edmonton. Recently, they spent a week there.
One day, her husband came in for lunch and—as soon as he saw her—patted his ears and exclaimed, “Oh no! I’ve lost my hearing aids!”
He’d been out with a chain saw all morning cutting down a couple of trees and clearing bush. His hearing aids cost six or seven thousand dollars.
He said, “I have no idea where I dropped them. Maybe, when I was bucking up the big tree,” and turned around to go back out to search.
“Stay inside,” she said. “I’ll find them.”
She knew she could. She also knew she didn’t know—then—where they were but that what she had to do was clear her mind: really clear it.
She went out—and remembered noticing him bucking up the bigger tree. Sawdust all over the place, from one end of it to the other. Rounds on the ground. He’d stopped for lunch in the midst of his work. She emptied her mind. Let her feet take her. When prompted, squatted down. Waited. When she felt a visceral impulse she reached out a hand, dove into the sawdust, and closed her fingers on a hearing aid. The first one.
She repeated the process. Once again, when she felt the prompt and reached a hand into the sawdust she came up with a hearing aid.
It actually hadn’t taken all that long.
She says, “I’m absolutely clear it wasn’t me who found them. My body was just an agent.”
While I was reflecting on her story, I read on the BBC news website a report of an interview with a cognitive scientist, Daniel Dennett. He believes our brains are machines made of a hundred billion tiny “robots”—our neurons, or brain cells—which it would take more than 3000 years to count. Dennett says “Intuition is simply knowing something without knowing how you got there.” He argues that human genius is the result of millions of years of trial and error—throughout the evolution of life—and that consciousness is the brain’s “user illusion” of itself and no more real than the screen on your phone.
I don’t think it matters to a poet how she or he explains what is going on in the often mysterious process of composition.
But I like this parable: how to find lost hearing aids—so we can attend to one another and hear what is not produced at the level of habitual mental ruts. Yogis call these ruts samskaras: the subtle impressions of past actions that are so ingrained in us they alter our body chemistry.
Five years ago, I left Point No Point and returned to Vancouver. Dementia had been erasing the life closest to me, frame by frame. By then, my husband needed ongoing medical care. He spent the last year of his life in a nursing home in Vancouver.
We live in a time of dementia—its tsunami hitting persons we know—society’s forgetfulness—even the Earth losing mind with the extinction of species—and I was forced to wrestle with every layer of myself. From this came the poems in my sixth poetry collection, Blue Sonoma.
Listening for poems and composing them allowed me to feel whole and still myself. I didn’t consciously plan these poems: my job was to listen.
Old Man Vacanas
The old man
to whom I’m married
hits the sack again
A black bear
out in the rain
on Blueberry Flats.
Is it too wet
to hibernate? The muddy creek
By lunch, he’s up.
The sky’s no lighter – candles
with our tea.
Tell me, can a soul
fatten up for winter?
The old man who picks up the phone
does not get your message.
Please call again.
The cats leave squirrel guts
on the Tibetan rug.
Augury I cannot read.
You’ve got to talk with me.
I scrape glistening coils
into a dust pan,
spit on drops of blood and spray ammonia.
The blood spreads into the white wool.
I am so sick of purring beasts.
Don’t tempt me, old man.
Today I have four arms
and weapons in each hand.
The old man
takes his choppers out
when chicken sticks to them.
He parks them in a glass
of blue fizz.
DNA from fossil bones
tells us we’re siblings to Neanderthals—
and the small arrangements
we make? Language, travel, art? Props
in a little, local, theatre of light.
Curiosity. Attention. Passion. Practice. Discernment. The fierceness of constant growth. Love. An absorption in making: in doing the work—simply for the work itself—even though you lose track of time and disappear into the poem: how strange that I feel most alive—most myself—when I am the least self-conscious.
The hard thing—as a poet—is to know and accept my limits, my horizon—and then make the best poems only I can make. To bring to that work the finest resources I can bring. And to do this while surrendering the outcome.