Wherein a woman walks and muses. The shape of the woods sounds like birds. The stories cross oceans and wave. Writers abound. All this to try to stem the tide in her head of climate catastrophe and the rise of authoritarian regimes here, there and everywhere. Keeping a world on self-destruct at bay.
*Flaneure, a neologism, a feminist not feminine form of “flaneur” (m)
Edmonton, Alberta: Labour Day 2019
Strange to be writing for hours and hours on my first post-retirement Labour Day holiday. No union hours here. What does retirement mean for someone who can’t stop writing?
What bliss: time and mental space to write. And time to walk in the river valley. After Walter Benjamin’s study of the Paris arcades, a feminist flaneure with an “e” takes care to measure her steps in song as she moves through woods, field and street.
My neighbour Helen, an artist, invited me for a walk this morning. Earlier we examined the excavation for her backyard garage studio she is building – a project that delights her.
Helen is a remarkable builder. She plots and plans, sketches and organizes, anticipates and consults. Whereas I would be filled with anxiety at the thought of what could go wrong. Witness moi – the worst home renovator ever.
I’m thinking about how having a different architectural space will affect her art practice. The room’s 11’ ceiling end of the room will facilitate large-scale works. I can imagine the expansive new prints and paintings that will emerge.
What happens when a writer sits in a new larger room? High ceilings. White walls. Empty – save for a chair and a desk. Or just a chair. Perhaps a solitary floor cushion. And a window.
Spacious thoughts? Or not much difference in terms of production? There are only so many words on a page. But what about the space between head and hand?
What language breath passes between? Eyes a low or high place. Opens a door.
We head off from home at 9am – later in the morning than my once 6am departure time. But it is a holiday after all. And, well – what is the rush post-retirement? The object of this day is to expand its horizons.
Helen recommends one of our favourite walks. Two river bridges.
We begin ambling through the woods across the street. A glimpse of Nelly McLung Park. A ramble round settler city.
Seven minutes later we walk through the newly landscaped area east of the Kinsmen Centre, just north of the Indigenous Art Park. We’ve both visited before and vow to return to spend more time here. This small park at the top of a hillside is located on the original River Lot 11, a patch of the long horizontal stretch of stolen land granted to the first settlers who displaced the Papachase Band and Metis.
More recently the lovely Queen Elizabeth Pool once hid away here behind trees. Imagine going swimming in the midst of a city in a forest.
The address coordinates add up to one of those urban Canadian geographic long poems: a most remarkable study in historical conflict: ᐄᓃᐤ (ÎNÎW) River Lot 11∞ Indigenous Art Park, 10380 Queen Elizabeth Park Rd, Edmonton, AB T6E 6C6
Of the six sculptures in the park, one of my favourites is “iskotew” by Metis artist Amy Malbeuf from Rich Lake, Alberta.
The city’s public art website describes the work:
“iskotew is a sculptural representation of the word “fire” in nehiyawewin (Cree language) syllabics: ᐃᐢᑯᑌᐤ. …The nehiyawewin word for woman, iskwew, is derived from the word fire, therefore; iskotew connotes the sacred abilities of women, and the often unrecognized labours of Indigenous women who contributed to creating the place now known as Edmonton.”
Thinking about Indigenous women’s power here in Edmonton, a site of suffering and resilience, I’m so grateful to live at a moment of such recognition and resurgence of this creative and critical work. I’m moved by the work to rethink and feel and see this city, province, country differently.
I’m changed by the transformative writing of Marilyn Dumont whose ancestors go back to the settler factor of Fort Edmonton and Gabriel Dumont, the general in Louis Riel’s 1885 rebellion.
And if you bend to examine a buttercup
you eye will follow the rim of its inner eye
convex and pollen-swollen
then, you will finally understand
why she searched countless beads
for the right size and colour.
“Beads the Right Size and Colour” The Pemmican Eaters (2015)
Marilyn’s beading poems string together worlds. The words rehearse and teach a way of seeing.
“And if you bend to examine a buttercup” – witness the world open to its vantage point. Attend to this land. Your eye encounters the subject in nature. The lens and “the rim of its inner eye” returns your gaze.
Alert to the surprise of creative labour’s knowing hand, the poem generously shares a process – the weight, shape, shade of language.
you will finally understand…
why she searched countless beads
for the right size and colour.
Helen and I make plans to soon return to this place, to spend time with the artists’ sculptural works in situ. But this morning we are all business. Keeping pace for 75 minutes – stopping briefly from time to time for the poodle.
Circumnavigating the mound of earth in the midst of a field, Helen tells me this is destined to be the south pediment of the footbridge to be built across the Queen Elizabeth Road traffic.
This particular open space has a special memory for me. And as Helen and I walk, I become lost in silent thought about how, once upon a time, soon after I arrived in Edmonton to work at UofAlberta in 1987, I was right here with poet Phyllis Webb.
In fact, I idolized Phyllis Webb. Our first meeting in 1983 had been unforgettable and a bit complicated. In preparation for my PhD dissertation, I travelled to Salt Spring Island to interview Phyllis and also Daphne Marlatt who lived on the island at the time with Betsy Warland. I developed a huge crush on Daphne. A ferry ride away in Victoria, I would interview the elegant P.K. Page.
On the West Coast, I swam in woman poet heaven. My face felt perpetually flushed with excitement. This literary journey made my doctorate feel more like a fabulous adventure than a programme of work. (These first interviews would inform my thesis and then become the beginnings of my Sounding Differences: Conversations with Seventeen Canadian Women Writers (U Toronto P, 1992). But I didn’t know that at the time.)
Before my visit to Phyllis Webb’s home, I repaired to a nearby small private beach. A few yoga warrior postures and some pranayama by the sea would calm my nerves. When I arrived at her front door, Phyllis was reading Paul Celan.
She was imposing, regal even. Graceful with her long neck, slim wrists and slender fingers. Her eyes looked with some intensity. She had a furled intelligence, waiting to spring. At first, I was intimidated. Not so much by her as by the encounter itself. What did one say to the author of the words on the page? How could this everyday live up to the intensity of my encounter with her work?
She put me at ease. She had a wry way about her. After a brief conversation, we began the interview on a shaded deck.
In the middle of this initial Salt Spring interview, I secretly basked in my sense of a job well done. Here I was sitting under the wisteria tended by Phyllis Webb. I was especially pleased. A neophyte interviewer and a beginning PhD student – I knew how elusive Phyllis could be.
All was well until I noticed my bulky tape recorder had malfunctioned. (Alright – I forgot to press ‘Record’.)
Frozen with despair, I asked, “May we begin again?”
And generously, she did.
Meanwhile fast forward to navigating Edmonton in 1987: I found myself lost while driving near the old Walterdale Bridge. A poet was in the passenger seat: Phyllis Webb. A remarkable poet. One of my favourite poets – alright, my favourite at the time. I was driving the distinguished visiting poet across the river to or from a reading. I can’t recall where we were going. I adored her work and was entirely enthralled by her presence.
Unwittingly I turned the wrong way up the winding one-way Queen Elizabeth Road. Even then, cars descended down the hillside at quite a clip.
Over-focusing and oblivious to approaching vehicles, I fell into the depths of exposition about how my recently completed PhD thesis chapter examined in detail the title poems of her collection Wilson’s Bowl, an extraordinary exploratory critical tale of twin suicides.
I confessed that part of my inspiration was my father’s suicide.
At that very moment, I noticed Phyllis looked alarmed.
In a flash, I caught the line of cars speeding towards us out of the corner of my eye. Deftly I detoured left into the open field – a quick exit averting certain death – or less dramatic serious injury.
To Enter the Open Field.
Wasn’t this in retrospect a performance homage to Charles Olson’s “open field” poetics – “the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE / the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE.”
HEART. BREATH. LINE. Had I not looked up that Queen Elizabeth Road, wouldn’t I have been the most notorious new English Professor hire – the author of a one-way car crash and Phyllis Webb’s early demise?
I reread the “Foreward” to Wilson’s Bowl. And remembered it began with a favourite quote:
I am both too big and too weak for writing: I am alongside it, for writing is always dense, violent, indifferent to the infantile ego which solicits it.Roland Barthes A Lover’s Discourse (1978)
Phyllis doesn’t quote Barthes’ next line: “Love has of course a complicity with my language (which maintains it), but it cannot be lodged in my writing.”
I remember Charles Olsen’s sense of things: “”A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it . . . by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader.”
And I feel that thrill of Phyllis Webb’s language thrumming. The wind in taut strings under my skin.
Detouring back to this morning’s Labour Day walk, dear reader. I remind you we are on a path towards the new Walterdale Bridge, a 230m structure spanning the North Saskatchewan River with a 50m high arch. This pedestrian experience is so very beautiful at any time of day or night.
The bridge passerelle – the word connoting a feminist flaneure if there ever was one – features a wide deck subtly divided into biking lane and walkway with a long curved bench sheltered from the breeze and perfect for river-view dawdles. I like to think of this as our little sister to Passerelle Simone-de-Beauvoir over the Seine, the 304m elegant lenticular Paris pedestrian and cyclist bridge dedicated July 13, 2006, to a favourite feminist writer and philosopher.
But why did the city name the new bridge after the old Walterdale Bridge, an homage to John Walter, the ferryman who plied the North Saskatchewan waters in early settlement times. This new bridge was imagined pre Truth and Reconciliation Commission that visited Edmonton in the spring of 2014. Would we have imagined an Indigenous name had it been built at this point in time? A new mayor, a new vision of reconciliation? Or more of the same?
This thought crosses my mind as we pass by the burial ground just east of the northern exit form the bridge. Chief Papachase is buried there along with other First Nations, Metis, Scottish, English and French. Renowned for his generosity, this chief cared for his neighbour’s family. A local Metis leader was incarcerated for his political work, but his family was cared for by this chief.
What lies beneath? I ponder as we continue our walk west along the River Road pathway.
Our trail leads under the High Level Bridge, its dark metal girders so much a part of a 19th century cityscape to my mind. The structure embodies working men scaling the struts, landing the rivets in preparation for the first train to cross the uppermost span in 1912 accompanied by parallel streetcar tracks while below a two-lane run for automobile traffic was bordered by twin pedestrian walkways. This bridge has an important history too long to tell in this morning’s tale.
We circle up the curve of the blue staircase and across the walking bridge strung between River Road and Walterdale Park just east of the University of Alberta.
Further along, and a ravine dweller’s blue roof peeks out of the bush with the best riverside view in the city.
A walk through the park skirts the John Walter settler cabin where children’s activities are organized by the city. Finally we curve back through the park towards Skunk Hollow and then home.
This morning’s walk was painless. New shoes added to the bounce in my step. But the origin of my springy good cheer was simply this very day filled with contrasts. Mottled sun breaking through dark scudding clouds. The breezy chill interwoven with the next footfall’s sunlit warmth. A slivering of the river below and dotted flights of birds above. The neighbour’s chipper yellow gold snapdragons. The scattering of leaves on the brick pathway to my back door.
A perfect day.
A haunting wind.
Very prairie Bronte.
But I digress.
A Catastrophe Coda
All this is to try to stem the tide that swirls in her head of climate catastrophe and the rise of authoritarian regimes here there and everywhere. Keeping a world on self-destruct bay.
In the back of my mind is the news that arrives before, after, and between walks. One can’t write about space and place without a reminder that worlds away, the worst storm ever, a catastrophic category 5 hurricane with 23-foot ocean surges and days long hover over Bahamian islands where children drown, waves batter windows, and winds rip off roofs. Five deaths have been reported so far. Haitian immigrants and native Abaco Islands are especially vulnerable.
In a press conference the Bahamian Prime Minister weeps for his devastated islands and people. On Grand Bahama Island, the Ariculture Minister stands on the stairwell of his house and documents the crush of waves against his windows. Circling from dining room to living room and front doorway. The sea surge is more than twenty feet high. He states the obvious: the poor will experience more harm. Elsewhere a family stands in water on their second floor, the roof blown off and no aid on the horizon.
Taking his time, the U.S. President announces he is unfamiliar with Category 5 storms, doesn’t believe they exist, a fact that alarms those in charge of the emergency. Later he tweets this: “In addition to Florida – South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated. Looking like one of the largest hurricanes ever. Already category 5. BE CAREFUL! GOD BLESS EVERYONE!” And Americans correct his geography again and again and again.
Meanwhile across the pond — the catastrophic synergy of Boris Johnson and Brexit endure:
And here in Alberta, Jason Kenney’s brutal and deceptive UCP finance report is released. The outcome is predictable. Neoliberal austerity budgets that stuff the pockets of the rich and starve the rest. Health care, education, post-secondary education, the poor, etc. All will be slashed and burned. Class warfare has never been so brutally clear.
AND THERE IS MORE APOCALYPTIC NEWS… (But Dear Reader: I will spare you a catalogue.)
Instead to soothe my electric brain and dull the pain, I read Donna Haraway.
The task is to make kin in lines of inventive connection as a practice of learning to live and die well with each other in a thick present. Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent responses to devastating events, as well as to settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places.Donna J. Haraway. Staying with the Trouble Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016: 1.
Haraway teaches me self-care. Share potlucks in the private sphere. Find family in friends. And in the public sphere, she teaches me to respond effectively in the public sphere. (To each her own.)
I contribute to the campaign to aid the Bahamas.
I canvass for my local federal NDP candidate – a candidate who will hopefully replace our great NDP MP who is retiring. Sadly the NDP may lose here because the Green Party, ass that is, decided to run – for the first time here – a credible candidate. In this constituency, they will split the vote ensuring a CON win.
But I digress…
Read Donna Haraway. May she soothe you too. Enough to share in making trouble. Together if we can.