Monday, April 27, 2009

Slow Burgeoning

This morning there was fog, soft grey cool fog, defining our world. It is a fact of our lives here, that certain days with certain winds will bring fog into the harbour to envelop our neighbourhood and our own house. Sometimes, especially on bright days in June or July, you can see the fogbank waiting out the harbour, a thin grey strip slightly darker on top lying right across the horizon, and you know that as evening comes it is likely to creep in, soft tendrils moving along the water and sometimes sliding over and around the lighthouse, “on little cat feet”, as Carl S. would say, until we are covered with its cool damp presence, fogged in. That’s what it was like this morning, foggy.

I learned in Elementary Social Studies that we have a Maritime climate, that it is Temperate, the Continental extremes of hot and cold tempered by the presence of the sea, in our case, the cold North Atlantic. This tempering effect leads to weather predictions like ours for tomorrow, High 14 except 6 along the coast. “Along the coast” means places that are farther out the harbour, more exposed to the ocean, but it can also mean us. That is why this post is titled “Slow Burgeoning”, because the speed of spring’s unfolding in the microclimate of Ferguson’s Cove is restrained by that tempering cold Atlantic and its concomitant fog.

The fog briefly lightened and brightened this morning, and a fresh strip of blue showed in the sky, the promise that it would burn off soon enough and give us the clear shining day we were hoping for and help speed up that slow burgeoning of spring.

I first noticed one sign of it happening today when I watched a small sparrow pick up a tuft of dried grass and disappear into the ornamental cedar in front of the house. This bird didn't seem to care about the fog and a few moments later was flying back in with another beakful of nest material, a sure sign of the burgeoning happening around it.

Next to the cedar was the morning star magnolia with its pale grey-green buds that have adorned the bare branches all winter, and at the ends of some of these buds white petals were beginning to push outward, burgeoning slowly into bloom.

The maples that grow like weeds around our house were starting to show the swelling shapes of their red bunched flowers, and the squills where the pine trees used to be were holding up their small blue blossoms against the black earth, also burgeoning.

Late in the day was one more indicator of today’s slow burgeoning, the chorus of Pseudacris crucifer, known to us here as spring peepers, from the pond just up the lane. Their shrill songs (hear them here) let us know that no matter how much the Atlantic fog cools our springtime air, there is a burgeoning, slow or fast, of spring and with it comes the mating urgency of our tiny amphibian friends.

So the grass greens, the daffodil buds begin to nod, the robin pokes its yellow beak into the ground, and another spring burgeons around us, in spite of the foggy mornings.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sun day

The sun comes up, we say, every day and from where I sit it is true. This morning I have watched it lift itself up above the dark strip of McNab’s Island and the not quite so dark strip of grey cloud above it until it now shines on one side of my face and shoulder while I write. The sky to the north is a fresh washed blue with a scattering of small white clouds and the trees outside the window are illuminated like a manuscript. It is our sun and it has come up again.

I do know that it isn’t quite accurate to say that the sun comes up. I understand because I have been told that the sun is somewhere out there, a star in space, and that we move around it in the long ellipse of each year that passes. I also understand that we ride around on our globe as it turns on its axis once every day. A truer statement then would be that the harbour and McNab’s and Eastern Passage beyond it and the drifts and shifts of clouds are all really turning and dropping as we slowly spin around to face our golden star. It isn’t easy from this vantage point to hold that image in my mind and to understand the huge roundness of our planet turning inexorably in elation to the sun.

There, in that last sentence, I thought I typed “relation”. It was part of my plodding attempt through language to get at the notion of a huge curved surface that gradually turns from east to west bringing us into the light. I pictured the leading edge of that light moving across the ruffled Atlantic toward us and the band of shadow receding across our continent in front of it as we move from night’s shadow into day’s light and revolve toward the next darkness as the shadow comes round again. But that’s the large concepts of the physics, or geophysics, or astronomical dynamics, or whatever science it is that tries to describe our own earth and its relation to our sun. The whole earth view, important as it is for us to hold and consider, takes second place for me this morning to the particular and the local, this “elation to the sun”, the way birds wake up to sing on a spring morning and this warm shine in our room on a Sunday morning when we observe our golden star rising and climbing the sky.

It is our quotidian delight, this knowledge we build our lives on, that the sun will rise, and that the day will (we must hope) seem fresh and feel new.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Two Poems for You

Since National Poetry Month began, I have been receiving poems each day in my inbox. Here are two that struck me, both sent by the Academy of American Poets, the first arriving this morning and the second a few days ago. Check them out:

Children in a Field
by Angela Shaw

They don't wade in so much as they are taken.
Deep in the day, in the deep of the field,
every current in the grasses whispers hurry
hurry, every yellow spreads its perfume
like a rumor, impelling them further on.
It is the way of girls. It is the sway
of their dresses in the summer trance-
light, their bare calves already far-gone
in green. What songs will they follow?
Whatever the wood warbles, whatever storm
or harm the border promises, whatever
calm. Let them go. Let them go traceless
through the high grass and into the willow-
blur, traceless across the lean blue glint
of the river, to the long dark bodies
of the conifers, and over the welcoming
threshold of nightfall.

Hovering at a Low Altitude
by Dahlia Ravikovitch
translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld

I am not here.
I am on those craggy eastern hills
streaked with ice
where grass doesn't grow
and a sweeping shadow overruns the slope.
A little shepherd girl
with a herd of goats,
black goats,
emerges suddenly
from an unseen tent.
She won't live out the day, that girl,
in the pasture.

I am not here.
Inside the gaping mouth of the mountain
a red globe flares,
not yet a sun.
A lesion of frost, flushed and sickly,
revolves in that maw.

And the little one rose so early
to go to the pasture.
She doesn't walk with neck outstretched
and wanton glances.
She doesn't paint her eyes with kohl.
She doesn't ask, Whence cometh my help.

I am not here.
I've been in the mountains many days now.
The light will not scorch me. The frost cannot touch me.
Nothing can amaze me now.
I've seen worse things in my life.

I tuck my dress tight around my legs and hover
very close to the ground.
What ever was she thinking, that girl?
Wild to look at, unwashed.
For a moment she crouches down.
Her cheeks soft silk,
frostbite on the back of her hand.
She seems distracted, but no,
in fact she's alert.
She still has a few hours left.
But that's hardly the object of my meditations.
My thoughts, soft as down, cushion me comfortably.
I've found a very simple method,
not so much as a foot-breadth on land
and not flying, either—
hovering at a low altitude.

But as day tends toward noon,
many hours
after sunrise,
that man makes his way up the mountain.
He looks innocent enough.
The girl is right there, near him,
not another soul around.
And if she runs for cover, or cries out—
there's no place to hide in the mountains.

I am not here.
I'm above those savage mountain ranges
in the farthest reaches of the East.
No need to elaborate.
With a single hurling thrust one can hover
and whirl about with the speed of the wind.
Can make a getaway and persuade myself:
I haven't seen a thing.
And the little one, her eyes start from their sockets,
her palate is dry as a potsherd,
when a hard hand grasps her hair, gripping her
without a shred of pity.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A small and certain happiness

Last April we went to Jordan to make a photograph. The place, called Makawir (or Mukawir, or Mukuwir depending on which road sign you look at along the way from Madaba), is the site of Herod’s palace, set on the flat top of a steep hill overlooking the Dead Sea. When you get close, a notice tells you that you are coming to the shrine of the death of the prophet Yahya, also known as John the Baptist, whose life ended there, we have been told, when Salome asked for his head on a platter as a reward for her particularly beguiling dance performance.

On our first visit to Makawir, back in 2004, it was a January evening and there were no photographs taken, just our amazement at the grandeur of the site with a few tiny columns standing against the desert sky at dusk with a full moon rising and steep wadis that sloped away toward the Dead Sea. We climbed down the stone stairs from the pilgrims’ parking lot to the beginning of the ancient road that wound up the side of the hill and made our way to the palace ruin in the still evening with nothing but the sounds of goat bells and a single dog somewhere in the distance. At the top we picked our way by moonlight around walls and columns and wondered where Salome had danced. Looking out we were moved by our very first view of the distant lights of the West Bank and possibly Israeli territory. It was clearly a place to come back to.

Over the intervening years the idea of making a photograph at Makawir never really went away, and it, along with the need to go to Jerusalem and Syria for another photo series, was a main motivating factor for being back in Jordan a year ago (though no one should ever need a practical reason to go to that fascinating and friendly country). Again we drove from Madaba, the best place to stay in northern Jordan, out towards Makawir, only this time it was late afternoon so that we could be sure to get set up in time for the magic light for photographing, just before sunset. We were fortunate that it was late enough in the day that there were no pilgrims, Muslim or Christian, or their buses or cars in the parking area, and no tour guides; in fact, there was no one else at the site as far as we could tell.

We packed our gear and made our way down to the beginning of the ancient road that led up to the palace. It was warm and quiet. As we started to climb I noticed a bird working its way among rocks along the side of the hill. I was struck by the black and white patterning on its back, the curved bill it poked the ground with, and the swept back crest on its head. I am not an expert birder, but I do notice birds and browse bird guides on occasion, so I was able to guess that it was a hoopoe, the first I had ever seen.

We walked and the hoopoe worked, keeping a reasonable distance, until we climbed the final steepest part and ended up at the summit where we scouted for a site and set up to photograph. We watched a small falcon working the slopes below us as we made the photo, though we didn’t know we had it until film was processed and scanned back in Istanbul, packed up tripods and cameras, and walked back down from Herod’s palace in the desert quiet.

That’s really all there was, a small magic time in Mukawir, a sighting of a hoopoe, and, later, a photograph that captured, after four years of waiting, some of the magic and mystery of the place. Not a big thing, perhaps, but enough for a small and certain happiness.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Celebration (a draft)

What is there for us to celebrate today?
Here some fresh blue is showing in the western sky
but Gaza still wears a face of misery
and cars keep blowing up people in Baghdad.

Last week a man killed all his children
before he shot himself in his parked car
and another took his gun to the immigration centre
because of a difficulty with the language.

We see these stories and the bodies are counted,
the armed and angry men are named and then forgotten
as society's fabric unravels around them
and we wonder who next where next.

Last summer we touched down briefly in America
pausing between Istanbul and Toronto
long enough to change airlines, long enough
to witness the strictures of Homeland Security

and the chaos the madness the fear of a system
breaking down around us. Poor Fortress America,
I thought, so lost in today’s world,
and we got out as soon as we were allowed.

The next morning on a leafy street
we listened to Garcia singing
I’m goin back to New York City
I do believe I’ve had enough

and I was thinking I have too
but I ain’t goin back to that place,
not if I can help it, I’ll stay right here
and I'll find something else to celebrate,

I’ll wonder at the brave health of my able son
at the generous intelligence of his dear beloved
and at the shining presence that summer day
of a three week being sleeping peacefully

in a small wooden cradle next to a window
and I will celebrate that any day
and hope and wish the same for anyone
anywhere and anytime.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The colour grey

There is another heavy rainstorm coming, supposed to start after midnight, but around suppertime the air was calm and the harbour was grey and still. The clouds on the other side were in soft white and grey layers with some small patches of pale blue showing through. The light from the west was diffuse, there was no wind, and the whole scene made me think and feel, pearly grey.

There is something to love about certain phases, shades, or modes of grey. It can provide a setting or background for other more dramatic displays of colour, like a lowbush blueberry in fog, and it can be its own thing, a subtle statement of a place on the grey scale, like my friend Stephen’s short grey hair when he wore his (also grey) polo shirt.

My eldest granddaughter likes to ask me what is my favourite colour – hers are green and purple right now – and I usually tell her yellow, though I am not at all sure it isn’t grey.

Garry Neill Kennedy – a piece of his work, Simple Functionalism, is shown above – has explored the shades of grey used to paint naval ships and ship numbers. It makes me think of battleship grey, though Garry’s work shows that there is not just one of them, but many variants of the shade in various navies around the world.

Here are some other (non-military) greys for you to imagine:
• dove grey
• grey wolf
• pearl grey
• grey whale
• shingle grey
• grey dawning
• gull grey
• grey birch
• pussy willow grey

And, for this grey April day, here is one of Yeats’ loveliest:

When You Are Old

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

National Poetry Month

This is the first day of National Poetry Month. If you are interested, you can receive a poem by e-mail every day of the month, from either The Academy of American Poets (sign up here) or Alfred A. Knopf (sign up here). I am sure there are other sites – in fact, some years ago I sent out a poem every day throughout April to a small list of people – but I have found these two to be particularly interesting and rewarding; for example, the Academy’s offering today is a fine small piece by Jack Gilbert called Summer at Blue Creek, North Carolina about the memory of getting water from his grandfather’s well, while Knopf sent one of Updike’s recent poems Half Moon Small Cloud. If you check out the sites, you’ll be able to read both of these works.

My choice for today is actually a song by Conor Oberst, and it is worth a read first:

Landlocked Blues

If you walk away, I’ll walk away
First tell me which road you will take
I don’t want to risk our paths crossing some day
So you walk that way, I’ll walk this way

And the future hangs over our heads
And it moves with each current event
Until it falls all around like a cold steady rain
Just stay in when it’s looking this way

And the moon’s laying low in the sky
Forcing everything metal to shine
And the sidewalk holds diamonds like the jewelry store case
They argue walk this way, no, walk this way

And Laura’s asleep in my bed
As I’m leaving she wakes up and says
“I dreamed you were carried away on the crest of a wave
Baby don’t go away, come here”

And there’s kids playing guns in the street
And ones pointing his tree branch at me
So I put my hands up I say “enough is enough,
If you walk away, I’ll walk away”
And he shot me dead

I found a liquid cure
From my landlocked blues
It’ll pass away like a slow parade
It’s leaving but I don’t know how soon

And the world’s got me dizzy again
You think after 22 years I’d be used to the spin
And it only feels worse when I stay in one place
So I’m always pacing around or walking away
I keep drinking the ink from my pen
And I’m balancing history books up on my head
But it all boils down to one quotable phrase
If you love something, give it away

A good woman will pick you apart
A box full of suggestions for your possible heart
But you may be offended and you may be afraid
But don’t walk away, don’t walk away

We made love on the living room floor
With the noise in the background of a televised war
And in the deafening pleasure I thought I heard someone say
“If we walk away, they’ll walk away”

But greed is a bottomless pit
And our freedom’s a joke
We’re just taking a piss
And the whole world must watch the sad comic display
If you’re still free start running away
Cause we’re coming for you!

I’ve grown tired of holding this pose
I feel more like a stranger each time I come home
So I’m making a deal with the devils of fame
Saying “let me walk away, please”
You’ll be free child once you have died
From the shackles of language and measurable time
And then we can trade places, play musical graves
Till then walk away, walk away

So I’m up at dawn
Putting on my shoes
I just want to make a clean escape
I’m leaving but I don’t know where to
I know I’m leaving but I don’t know where to

and after you read it, give it a listen – enjoy!