the square bends time’s backward/forward momentum into a geometry of place, wherein “to be” becomes “to dwell”

It has been a long Winter. On August 27th, I packed my suitcases and jumped on a Winnipeg train bound for Halifax for 8 months of reading, study, and essay-writing on the Atlantic coast. Last year’s projects, including Notes from the Fort and the poetry manuscript that grew from NFTF’s keen attention to place, ended up on hold over the winter – marinating – as I like to think of it. Yet with April has come a new project, and a couple of big changes, most notably, a change of location.

This past month, I returned to Winnipeg to pack the rest of my things. Nova Scotia has stolen my heart, and a new space is opening up for me there. Yet besides the packing, I’ve been working on a new short film called “SQUARE”, which is based on a poem from my new manuscript. I’ve had the pleasure of working with cinematographer Tyler Funk again on this project, only this time we added a few other talented artists to the production, including artistic director Seth Woodyard, set designer Peter Kralik and gaffer Ben Stouffer.

“SQUARE” is the story of a room, which undergoes shifts and transformations through subtle effects of placement and orientation, effectively disrupting the viewers perception of what is. The action takes place in a square room with a window, using one actor. There is no door, though the figure inside is not trapped, nor is she troubled by the transient nature of the space. Instead a mood of nostalgia is created through an exaggerated focus on a few particular objects in the room. The transient nature of place and the distorted perspective of memory is what drives the film.

The metaphor of the square has become for me a means of thinking about the interrelation of time and space. Time is often described as a line, a road, a river, etc., all of which presuppose a movement from/to. This is obviously the case, and yet when thinking about time and place in relation, this metaphor becomes less helpful. Times occur in relation to places. We refer to this interrelation with phrases like “That time I lived in Winnipeg” or “When I worked at the bakery.” Time, here, is experienced more as an occasion, as a block of similar reality in which we dwell with others, in place, for a duration. The patchwork quilt is a useful illustration of this idea of a life made up of places. It is as if each square bends time’s backward/forward momentum into a geometry of place. And “to be” becomes “to dwell.”

“SQUARE” is based on the poem “Sigur Rós doesn’t sound the same on these speakers” and will debut on CBC television’s “Canadian Reflections” program in the 2015/2016 season.


“This is my homeland”

I once attended a workshop for writers led by Betsy Warland and Ross Laird on web-based networking, uses of social media and how to build a dynamic, engaging, online presence. I’m sure I learned a lot that day; Betsy and Ross are both fearless leaders in this time of rapidly changing presentation and consumption of text, and fingertip access to literary content online. Yet, the moment I remember most vividly from that day occurred after lunch, while the sun slanted in through the west facing windows and Betsy paused in the midst of her presentation and held up a blank sheet of paper, saying “This is my homeland.”

I write this entry on a pad of creamy paper with a black, micro point Uni-ball vision pen. My desk is littered with notebooks (pages tagged with yellow Post-Its) lying open to where shreds of poetry have been recorded. These last few weeks I have revisited these notebooks, especially the ones I filled over the past several months of travel, mining the pages for material that might be of use as I put the finishing touches on the new manuscript. My notebooks of choice for this past season were three slender, grey, 40pg Moleskine Volants and a sturdier, hardbound, blank Cahier with a wrap-around elastic closure. Why so many? As a means of creating distinction between the stops on my journey as well as offer my imagination a chance to refresh itself in the blank depths of an unmarked notebook, I decided to give each place its own set of pages, titling them accordingly: Parish of Rathven, Salzburg (et Amsterdam), Abbotsford/Clear Lake. Like a flag planted on new found land, these designations root the writing within to a physical place. Place that may be inhabited and affected by habitation.

“Belhaven Best and scampi at The Victorian Hotel in Portknockie. Wednesday, 8-May”

“Severed doll arm grappling hook”

“bay clouds spot red, spilling colour like a bag of peaches”

For a long time now, I have recognized the value of a good notebook. One that is well-made, aesthetically pleasing, functional. Moleskine seems to have mastered this, with lie-flat stitching and buttery smooth paper, adding a slim pocket and signature of perforated sheets at the back of the Volant style. The inscription on the opening page of “Salzburg (et Amsterdam)” reads “ornamentation in white”—my impression of Austrian architecture, but also a way of seeing the unmarked beauty and potential of a new notebook. A place to write, a place to enter when alone, a place to belong, to test perceptions and work out ideas, to grow, to explore, to be heard. The notebook, much like the page Betsy held aloft, is a homeland. One I take with me wherever I go.

“my fidgeting hands destroy the map of Austria we made from two green napkins: one whole, the other folded to ¼”

remember the old log house

remember the old log house on acres of land (all bush) acres and acres where we lived and died and married again.

Last month remember the old log house was released by As We Try & Sleep Press. This edition, a collaborative work between Peter Kralik and I, is a series of short found poems mined from a document written by my grandfather, George Elrick, in 1989. I call it an “edition” for lack of a better term. The more accurate way to speak of it is as “a new poetic work of alternative cartography” or “a geography of memory” or “a topographic poem.” Simply put, this 14″x17″ accordion-folded topographic map describes a landscape generated by text.

Inspired by Jordan Abel’s stunning piece “The Totem Pole Transported to Toronto” in Dandelion Magazine 37.1 (the “Mapping” issue) I decided to write a series of found poems using a document that Grandpa George had written to record a few childhood memories, ancestral tidbits and family history. Laid out on a 14″ square, mirror image on the backside of the page, his text (through my poems) became a terrain of rivers, roads, trails and markers punctuated by nine peaks, indicating the nine times he used the word remember. This intricate, hand drawn topography was brought to life by Peter and screen printed on semi-transparent bond paper at Martha Street Studio in Winnipeg. The result is a multidimensional reading of Grandpa George’s memories, imagined as a landscape replete with pathways, waterways and parkland. Locked into this dialogue between the map and the poetry are a number of hidden resonances that come to light with a sleuthing eye. My first mystery novel, perhaps.

remember the old log house is available to order by contacting me directly, or through As We Try & Sleep Press.



Irony & Placebo, or, The Keys to a Successful Flight

Last week I completed my 9th and final flight segment of the summer. Each time I landed well. There were no in-flight complications and the oxygen masks stayed tucked away in their overhead homes. On each flight, I carried two items with me “Folk,” a book of poetry by Jacob McArthur Mooney, and No-Jet-Lag, homeopathic jet lag prevention tablets made in New Zealand. While there were other factors that contributed to the success of these flights – pilot’s skill, well-maintained aircraft, favorable weather conditions – I owe a good portion of my ease to these two companions.

No-Jet-Lag’s contribution, in the form of a small, tasty chewable every two hours, includes an ingredient called “Leopard’s Bane” and is said to relieve tiredness and jet lag associated with long-distance flights, “symptoms caused by disruptions to the body clock, pressure changes and other factors.” I used to skirt these symptoms by choosing land-based travel such as train travel, road trips and hitchhiking. Flying has always seemed to me an abrupt and jarring way to get around, allowing too much distance to pass in too little time, leaving me scrambling to reorient myself in a new location that I did not tangibly observe my own entry into. It’s more than physical. There are psychological effects of being whisked into a sealed cavity, shot into the atmosphere and dropped in a new place where huge hurdles of currency, communication, social networking and urban orienteering need to be quickly overcome. Arriving at a slower pace, by car, ship or train, doesn’t eliminate these hurdles, but it does offer the mind a chance to perceive the changes at a human rate: tree passes by the window, then farmhouse, village, spire, farmhouse, field. I’ve always considered this feeling of profound disorientation to be part of “jet lag” along with the other physiological symptoms that No-Jet-Lag is supposed to take care of. Does it work? Well, that’s hard to say. I’ve never been very good at getting to bed on time before a big flight. At four hours sleep, it’s hard to know whether these tablets alleviate tiredness or not. I’d like to say I noticed a difference in my tolerance of the air pressure changes during take-off and landing, but I’m not confident that I perceive my body well enough to state a sure difference. I did however feel much better with these little tablets in my carry on, and dutifully and joyfully took them as directed, believing that even though I may not notice its effect, the Leopard’s Bane was working.


My second companion, “Folk,” was a book of poetry about/around the crash of Swissair Flight 111 off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1998. Mooney is a talented writer with an entertaining, yet sober style. He guides the reader into an imaginative retelling of this horrific incident allowing just enough distance to maintain a sense of security. It’s like he’s got a hand on your shoulder as he shows you the edge of a very, very deep hole. I chose this book as a flight read in the hope that the limits of irony would protect me as I flew. Akin to testing the limits of Murphy’s Law, I read a segment of “Folk” during each flight, pausing now and then to chew a No-Jet-Lag tablet and mark our progress from the window. On my final flight, last week, I noticed that WestJet has also taken to using the cloak of irony as a means of enhancing their flight safety. Flipping channels, I came across a documentary on the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 409 in 2010. I put down my book, put on my head phones and reached a whole new level of relaxation.

log house: paper fort

loose leaf taps on the window: wind in the sheaves. enter paragraph return of rafters:

stanzic peak, corners drawn in graphite: smudge. inside, a stack of pencils (bark-rid) hint hexagonal.

pale blue floor ruled between log margins. inset: stationary window, watermark cloud.

a lace of black characters cross pressed creamy pulp: each line a captive fir punctuated with knot wells.

whole thoughts felled: a forest stripped of gesturing branches (it is as it is as it is).


the map of retreat

It appears that a distance of 2.5 kilometers away from the internet produces serious internal doubts about my ability to survive. Reports of black bears, lynx, cougars and moose greeted me upon arriving here at the cabin on secluded Deep Bay, in Riding Mountain National Park. So far, all I’ve seen is a resident hare I’ve named Peter Králík (Králík being the Czech translation of our beloved surname “Rabbit”), but these other hidden residents haunt my dreams and my peripheral vision. The wilderness is a cage, a desert island. How am I supposed to do my banking, check the mail, like my friends or say what’s on my mind when the world is made of chlorophyll, plant fibre and various distillations of water vapour? Hidden birds keep repeating the opening notes of a song I can’t remember the lyrics to, and I can’t even use SoundHound because the iPhone doesn’t get reception this far into the sticks. Now and then, other humans walk past in their hot pink dry-fit and Lu Lu calf-slit capris on their way to the dock, which extends out over the water of the bay: a clear view to the bottom. Oh look! A fish!

Is this the world? Is this the world of humans? All around the globe, in beautiful places with excellent views and often a water feature, humans have built Artist Retreats. These settings are serene and unreal, a good old-fashioned kickback to simpler times when we still understood which way was north and the road was a progression to a better place. We can’t own this place (theDSC01456 best we’ll get is a 42-year perpetual lease), but we’ll send the artists out there to write/paint/sing about the world of yellow butterflies and lingering June twilights. Then, we’ll consume their work and reap the psycho-nutritional benefits of withdrawal, escape, contemplation and presence. It is too late for us collectively. We can no longer “Go forth!” into the wilderness. We do not have the proper maps.

Out here, my maps are made of deet and cellular sweet spots, of electrical outlets and device chargers, of a two-tier refrigeration system that can keep the wine chilled while making ice for an afternoon Pimm’s cup. These maps are certainly not leading me deeper into the woods or into the animality of my humanness, they are dragging me steadily away from the full-sense physicality of the world, making these basic, organic places as foreign as a 19th Century historical romance novel.

Why retreat? To get a better view. Of the lake? Sure. But also of the place I’ve just retreated from. Airports and cobbled Europe, most recently, and the amply cross-connected network I am part of in Winnipeg. Then, of course, there is the extreme immediacy of my internet life, which goes so far as to surpass the physical present. I keep up at a jog behind the evolution of the urban human habitat, following my maps, downloading updates as I go. My discomfort warns that I am out-growing the habitat of my evolutionary origins. Is this actually possible? Or have I unwittingly subscribed to a delusion that existence begins in the mind and grows in the imagination? Every time I eat, take a shit, slap a mosquito, I am reminded of my body, it’s 3-dimensionality, and the ability to see it without red and blue paper glasses. I look to the mirrors of my form – bears and trees, the wetness of the lake and call of the nuthatch – and wonder where the maps I follow will lead me. To a museum of man and nature, complete with QR coded interpretive stations and a walking tour downloadable to smartphone? Oh look! A human! Only there, the cage is knowledge and the lock, convenience.

DSC01454I have no idea what these butterflies are doing. Twenty or so have congregated on a four foot stretch of beach. They have formed a line, and periodically swap places, alighting with a few erratic flaps of their yellow and black wings. They were here yesterday, too. I am curious about their habits, their genus, which worm they metamorphosed from. Have they been hanging out since larvae-hood? Or is their camaraderie something that came with the wings? (I’ll have to google it later.) For now, their company is enough.

bronzing by rote

Sound travels up from the foot of the mountain, along gentle carvings of switchback and grade, to the rock-terraced garden below the balcony where I sit, baking in the sun. A young doe and buck paw cool, red beds in the cedar mulch, then kneel and lie under the Japanese maple. Their ears turn like small, articulating satellites: weed whacker, school bell, the raw wind chasing trucks on the byway.

I moved through this morning in the usual way: ate breakfast, stepped out to the balcony, drank tea in the sun. The perfume of the garden mixed with the fresh salt musk of my skin is a scent as familiar to me as my own name. Now, I recline in the heat and listen to the valley while the sun beats down. Abbotsford says “hush, sit, tan.” I turn my head and press my nose into my shoulder. Scent of Nancy Drew and summer vacation, bikinis at the flooded quarry, drugstore hair peroxide kits, my sister icing her arms with oil, 20 minute reposition of straps and strings. I turn around, my back to the sun-heft of noon. Keep an even rotation of figure on ground. My skin, marked in fine wrinkles and white dots of lost pigment. Brow squint. Tack of hot vinyl decking. This place blurs into a homogeneity of past particulars: a sense, a whiff, a feeling, a “you know, like…” both now and remembered, at once. I really have no choice but to sit in my tube top minidress and my feet up on the seat of a chair. Rote compels me. No effect of years can alter my track through the door into the sun with a book in hand. This place has programmed me into a pattern of behavior and all I can do is follow and listen, sip and wait.

When it comes to my leaving, there’s no why? in my mind. There is only a monosyllabic, arch-browed wonder lashed abreast an encyclopedic because. It is a question I have answered so often, I have five tiers of reasoning to use at my discretion, depending on who is asking. I left because I wanted a change. Because I wanted to change, and felt that wasn’t possible in a place that had become so familiar, so dictatorial. It sounds simple on one hand, on the other, it is the most complex and puzzling decision I have ever made. The only thing simple about my leaving was the route of the VIA rail car departing from Mission Harbour on the north side of the Fraser river, then tracing it’s tracks east through the mountains onto the dawn spread of prairie, arriving two days later at the foot of Broadway, white and blue in the snow and lights of January, 2007.

If I were to continue, this would quickly become memoir. My real interest is actually the bodily memoir – the habitual activities inherent in places. Stories, recollections, mental deductions only give partial views of a relationship with place. To truly document place I must be in it, and observe myself engaging with it. Do I notice anything? Or has all of the particularity rubbed off from excessive use? Bottom line: it is more difficult to write the familiar that the unfamiliar. Here, in Abbotsford, my senses are on vacation. I can get to the upstairs bathroom with my eyes closed and drive through the city without thinking about traffic. The view from this balcony is just…well…look at it. There it is. The view.

The ability to auto-pilot is part of the practical essence of home, which has nothing to do with value, but comes about as a simple result of time. The soup wells below the food service shelf in the kitchen of The Yellow Dog Tavern. The piss-stinking stairwell to the Portage & Main underground on the TD Canada Trust corner. The clutch, gearshift and steering mechanisms of Dad’s 1994 Corolla. None are places I’d like to live, yet each feel like home. Here, the familiar is so overwhelming, it actually effects my behavior (when entering the house, proceed to the kitchen and open the fridge, if there is salami, eat it). Even the deer are DSC00973suffering. Having lost their wildness to development, they feast now on a landscaped smorgasbord of succulent perennials and designer shrubs. They don’t even remember how to fear, only to be wary, and even that is fading. Place domesticates, and each does so differently. Here, I tan.