Read This: A Spring Reading List

 

Spring is here! This week, to shake things up, I have prepared a juicy list of wonderful books by – wait for it – PEOPLE WHO ARE ALIVE! Hurrah! It’s deviant. I like it. Here’s what I have been reading. You should too.

 

Brooklyn

  1. I finished this just the other day and I am quite lost without it. Isn’t that the sign of a great book? I saw the movie (once in theatres, where I ugly-cried publicly, and again in my living room, where I could snivel in privacy). This story is so close to my heart (see my letter to Yeats – of course I am a sucker for this story). The film was a perfect creation, which made me very wary of the book – the fear being that it would sully the magic in any way. The book is not perfect, but it beautifully draws out some of the details that the movie glazes over. It’s wonderful and intoxicating and you should read it.

 

Daydreams

2. Heather O’Neill is a wizard. I only got to know her in the last year: I first read ‘The Girl Who Was Saturday Night’ and I just guzzled it – then bought ‘Lullabies for Little Criminals’ but waited three months to read it just to ration her. ‘Daydreams of Angels’ is the first short story collection by Heather O’Neill. It feels like a book of fairy tales or fables. The stories address, as she puts it, ‘the physics of the world’, often through the voices or perceptions of children. What I love most is the energy, the looseness, the joy. It is easy to read; it is funny, it is dark, sometimes sexy, and still poses beautiful questions.  She manages to say a lot about life, and the world, and us in it. I have an enormous writing crush on her. Read everything she’s written. There is no one like her.

 

 

Feminists

3. This is a teeny tiny, enormously important book. It is really a speech, adapted from her TED Talk of the same name. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie manages to break down very tricky, outdated ideologies with warmth, humour, and intelligence. It is a quick read and her voice is sharp and smart. She is also a wonderful writer of fiction.  Check out ‘Americanah’. Beautiful.

 

 

Signature

4. Are you especially interested in female American botanists of the 19th century? Me neither! I am, however, very interested in mostly everything that Elizabeth Gilbert does. This is her first novel since the phenomenon ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ and the vastly underrated ‘Committed. This is such a skillfully nuanced work about growth, travel, self-awareness. It’s beautiful. It’s witty. It’s sexy.  It’s unbelievably well researched. Everyone I know who has read this book has fallen madly in love with it. You will too.

 

 

Fifteen Dogs

5. I am not a dog person. I would not trust any person who ran up to me, smelled me and jumped on me while declaring their love (unless it was Ryan Gosling, then I would just go with it). I much prefer the retrained distain of cats. I’ve never really credited dogs with having much of an inner life: ‘Food! Friend! FOE. Squirrel! Wheee!’ This book has ruined all of that. The premise (revealed in the first page, but stop reading if you really don’t want context for this adventure) is that two Greek gods are chillin’ in Toronto’s oldest pub, bored. They make a bet that animals, if given human intelligence, would be even more unhappy than humans are. Their victims are the fifteen dogs spending the night at a local animal shelter, and what follows is a powerful exploration of what it means to be human. Yes. This is revealed through dogs. Just trust me. I have the great fortune of living in one of the neighbourhoods where the book is set (and detailed with perfect accuracy) and I simply cannot look at any dog I meet the same way any more. I also kind of want one now. Andre Alexis won the Giller Prize for this highly original piece of fiction.

 

 

Tiny Beautiful Things

6. Remember the amazing Dear Sugar advice column I talked about in my letter to Rilke? It’s a book! It’s one of those glorious little gems where you can read just one, or, if you’re me, you can binge and cancel plans so you can stay in bed to read this. This began as a column in The Rumpus and here Cheryl Strayed has written some of the most generous, clear, and compassionate advice out there for some very complicated questions. My personal favourite is ‘Write Like a Motherf****r’. When you are finished reading this and missing it terribly, you can hear Cheryl and Steve Almond (the first ‘Sugar’) on their wonderful podcast. This book is the oracle. I just love it.

 

There you go! Hope you enjoy some of these.

Happy Spring!

xo L

 

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In the Deep Heart’s Core: A Letter to W.B. Yeats

Dear Mr. Yeats,

I have been writing these letters for a little while now. I’m enjoying it. I am enjoying re-reading works that have meaning for me, but which I perhaps haven’t looked at in a long time. There is a certain sort of magic that has filtered into this process – words are springing up where I might not have noticed them before, both in my reading and my writing. I start some weeks not knowing who I will write to, but the subjects keep revealing themselves, as though they – you – have a plan of your own.

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It has been a while since we have had a good sit-down together, and I had such a rush of nostalgia, reading you.  I knew I loved you, but I didn’t realize how much I knew by heart, how deeply rooted your words are not just in my memory, but in my core. I’ve known many of your poems since childhood, when I poured over as many anthologies of Irish children’s literature as were given to me (many) and delighted in swirling under the roots of some old tree into Fairyland. There was a dark layer to your poems, a sadness that crept in, and this fascinated me.

You were a believer in magic. Your early poetry is romantic, twilit, rooted in the mythology of Ireland that I used to read about, and in a way I suppose you always wanted Ireland to be seen and remembered for its beauty, for its poetry. There are many stereotypes about Ireland which people happily embrace, at least in my experience in the Western world. But people who really know Ireland in a visceral way know that is is divided – North and South, Catholic and Protestant, mythical and political. So much of Irish writing is burdened with this division. You knew this, you felt it. You later work reflects on this dissonance more deeply and, I think, you were able to fuse these separate worlds.

Your ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree’ is one of my most beloved poems. You described it thus: “I had still the ambition, formed in Sligo in my teens, of living in imitation of Thoreau on Innisfree, a little island in Lough Gill…” It is the ultimate dream of stillness and solitude, and escape. It is a perfect poem. My parents have it framed in their house. It is, in many ways, their mission statement.

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All of my life I have sought out such solitude. I am the oldest of four kids, and I spent my childhood carving out spaces – in closets, under stairs, under beds. When I was ten I built a platform in a tree in the woods where I could go to read and write. I am still this way. After living alone for four years, the culture shock of a house with three boys often challenges me and I seek escape for an afternoon, or a night, or a week. It is healthy for all of us that I do this. I am lucky to have a partner who understands the value of solitude, and who is glad for me when I seek it.

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Loch Gill

I learned this from my parents. My mother is Irish, born in  Co. Armagh and my father’s father was born in Bray, Co. Wickalow, and settled in Toronto in the 1950’s. My parents met teaching in British Columbia; what was supposed to be a two year adventure for Mum, but, as they say, they ‘met their fate’ in each other, married and made four brats. They have been married almost thirty-five years, and for almost as long I have watched them seeking solitude. Dad is a poet and has always had a cabin in the woods (or a shed in the driveway) where he goes to write for an afternoon, a day, a week. Mum has made it home to Ireland most years since she left, often on her own. There was never any question that it was ok for both of them to do this. For as long as I can remember they have been creating space for each other so that each could grow, create, find stillness. They have also been planning to spend as much time in Ireland as possible, once the kids grew up. They have finally arrived. All four of us have left home, they are mostly retired, and as I write to you today they are touring Co. Sligo, your stomping grounds. Mum arranged a wonderful surprise for Dad: the rental of a cabin on Lough Gill, facing – yes – the Lake Isle of Innisfree. He was kind of giddy over it. He loves you even more than I do.

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They have travelled around, they visited your grave, they have felt the poetry sweeping through the landscape. There has been much Irish poetry since yours, and I think many would agree that the purest origins of it come from you. You can hear your influence in poets since you – T.S Eliot, who refers to you in ‘Little Gidding’, Seamus Heaney, who writes in his introduction to your Selected Poems, ‘Yeats manages to create a heroic role for the poet in the modern world.’ Speaking of magic, the moment I sat down in a coffee shop to write to you, ‘Rainy Night in Soho’ by my favourite Irish band, The Pogues, came on – fairly obscure for Starbucks – and even their lyrics rang of your rhythm and influence.

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Even the modern American band Fleet Foxes reference Innisfree  in ‘Bedouin Dress’ (although they pronounce it wrong!). You, my friend, have built a mythology all of your own. Innisfree itself is now a part of this mythology, and in many ways it is a symbol of returning. My parents, my mother especially, have been called to return to Ireland again and again, and they always will. They are forever called towards their own ‘heart’s core’.

I love my parents in many of the same ways that all children of good parents love, but as an adult, as an artist, I love their commitment to their individual journeys. I love watching them journey together. I am so proud of them – with four kids and jobs and their hearts sometimes in different countries, they have continued to grow together. That is all you can hope for, I think. That is as much as you can ask for in a partner.

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Thank you for your magic, and your Isle,

With love,

L

 

Living the Question: A Letter to Rainer Maria Rilke

Oh darlin,

This letter is more for me than you. I know you will understand. Your history of generously responding to the letters and questions of others is your legacy.

When you were young your parents sent you to military school. It didn’t work for you – you were too fragile, too sensitive. You were a poet. You were bullied. You left. It was a formative but hurtful experience and as you moved on towards a glorious, bohemian life full of sex and poetry and great minds, you did your best to forget it. You turned towards the more interesting existential trials of an artistic life.

When you were in your mid twenties, you received a letter from a young man named Franz Xaver Kappus, a student at the same military academy where you had studied, a poet himself, and full of questions. He wanted your opinion of his work, answers about writing, and thus began one of the most poignant series of letters in literature. Your ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ are beautiful meditations on what is means to write, to create, to be human.

 

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I am always amazed by the quality of though and the clarity of these letters. You do not sound as young as you were. You sound wise and very human. You sound generous, sincere, and in some ways I wonder if writing these letters to this young guy who was living a version of a path you had been on was somehow healing. Perhaps connecting in this way to this time and place that hurt you awakened that memory and softened it. Perhaps there was a greater purpose to you having endured it.

Because of the level of awareness and mindfulness that some of your letters bring, you are often quoted and have even had a renaissance among the new age mystics. Which is why I was only half surprised when, arriving at a brand new yoga studio in a heavy funk and with a muddled heart, the instructor began the class with a quote from your fourth letter to Kappus:

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I was carrying a big question. I will not name it in this letter – my focus here is the challenges of life’s questions, not the nuance of my particular question. I have carried this question for a while now and it will probably be a lifelong companion. It is a question I thought I knew the answer to for many years – it is a common question and I figured that my answer would be as easy to reach as it is for many people. I guess it wasn’t a question for a long time.

And then it was, and it was the biggest one I’ve had to ask myself. On one side of the question was the life I had always imagined, the life I had told everyone I wanted. No surprise then, that many challenged me when I began to hover on the line. They thought they were protecting me. They thought the answer was being forced. They didn’t see as clearly as I did that on the other side of the question was a life I could never have anticipated wanting. It would be rich and full and free and buoyed by love. I chose that other life. It is so good. It is right and true and it has opened me in ways I didn’t expect and it has given me opportunities to live out parts of myself that, if I chose the other life, I would have had to compromise.

My question is unpopular. There is not a lot said about it, and there are only two pieces of advice that have resonated enough to help me in any real way:

The first is from Dear Sugar, an advice column formerly in the Rumpus, written by the the incredible Cheryl Strayed. A man had written in with similar theme to mine, asking how to know which life to choose. In her advice she references the poem “The Blue House” by Tomas Tranströmer which holds the line ‘We do not actually know it, but we sense it: our life has a sister vessel which plies an entirely different route.’  Strayed expands this to the idea that the life we don’t choose is ‘the ghost ship that doesn’t carry us’, a line I love so much, but she says the only way to honour that life is to ‘salute it from shore’. The more I think about it, the more that image of standing on shore, watching another life passing by is unsettling to me. It is more comforting to imagine, instead, two ships: the one I am on, sailing along with the realities and revelations of this life,  and the one that sails beside it, and that is the life I didn’t choose, the choices I didn’t make. And both ships are sturdy and strong and glide alongside each other. Those unmade choices haven’t escaped me. They are merely thriving in another universe.

This idea only gets me so far. It works when I am enlightened and strong. It is not always thus.

The other advice, of course, is yours, this full passage from that fourth letter:

 

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Sometimes I live far out in the pastures of the life I chose. I grow things there. I thrive there, with joy and truth and passion.

Sometimes I live a little closer to the line. Sometimes the line blurs. Sometimes it is on fire. Sometimes my question throbs  deeply in me and I want to rip it out entirely. It is an extra organ I do not need. Why is it there? Did I put it there, really, or was it just included in the typical structure of what most people want? Did society force me to make this decision? My parents, bless them, didn’t. My partner didn’t. It is my own thing to live with. Sometimes, very far down the rabbit hole, I doubt myself. I was there that day on the yoga mat, and the instructor read your lines again and I found myself with tears streaming out of my shavasana and I was reminded by you, as I tend to be exactly when you want me to, that I do not need to fight my question. It does not need to be a struggle. It is a conversation, a dance. I need to love the question like it is my child, and live out the truth I have chosen, for as long as it feels true.

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If nothing else, the journey is my own.

Onward.

-L

 

Dear Sugar also had a podcast! It’s spectacular. Have a listen here or subscribe on itunes:

http://www.wbur.org/series/dear-sugar

Find “The Ghost Ship The Didn’t Carry Us” here:

DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #71: The Ghost Ship That Didn’t Carry Us

 

A Birthday Card for William Shakespeare

Dear Will,

I wasn’t planning to write to you this week, but you have sort of demanded it. I had another letter planned. I have a longish list of writers to write to, and you are among about a dozen highlighted names – the big guns – the letters that are going to need to be epic. One doesn’t just whip off a quick letter to Shakespeare.

Well, screw it. It’s happening. Rilke will have to wait his damn turn. It’s your 400th birthday, and your spirit is a-movin’. You have been in the air. In the last week you have been in my face three times. Four, if you count Google.

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First: I live with two teenaged boys. They are exceptionally intelligent kids, and I am the intellectual weak link in my family. Often, though, they will pause their usual talk of Star Wars and quantum mechanics to indulge me in conversation about musical theatre, my cat, and whatever literature they are reading at school. The younger, O, is reading Romeo and Juliet (ah, grade ten English!), and his daily updates as he discovers the play are quite wonderful. He likes it a lot better than A Midsummers Night Dream (sidebar: when I asked him what he would like his name to be on this blog his response was ‘Demetrius’. Amazing, but I’ve decided against it. Since I played Helena, it is a loaded name for me). He is enjoying the drama, the language, even, I suspect, the romance. It is interesting to observe a 15 year old boy engage with you in such a sincere way. I am touched that he wants to engage with me on the subject. R&J is actually one of my least favourite plays of yours. I don’t see it as a great love story. I see it as teen lust gone bad. I’ve outgrown that, thank God. I will freely admit, though, that when I was a lusty teenager I memorized the balcony scene and would casually recite it in the hallways of my high school, hoping to impress the football team. Needless to say, not an effective strategy. It would have worked on me…shakespeare 4

 

Second: Maybe inspired by all the breakfast Shakespeare talk  with O, I quite spontaneously booked a summer trip to Stratford, Ontario, home of the amazing Stratford Festival (and, to sully things, birthplace of Justin Bieber). Among the plays I chose is the stage version of Tom Stoppard’s amazing screenplay, Shakespeare in Love. Here, I will admit that I have replaced all known images of you in my mind with Joseph Fiennes, who plays you in the movie. Maybe you really were this hot. Who knows.

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Am I right?

The third thing happened yesterday, and I can say next to nothing about it because it happened while I was judging a student writing contest. I came upon a piece inspired by you, featuring you, and it was so clear how inspired the writer was by your work. It was wonderful to see you brought to life by a young voice, to see young people so hungry to understand who you were. I read this yesterday, absolutely randomly, and only learned later in the day that it was your birthday. You see? You forced yourself onto my radar.

Or maybe it’s just that you are still everywhere. There are debates as to whether you are still relevant. I don’t understand this. I think that most people would name you if asked who was the greatest writer of all time. At the very least, your legacy has been vibrant and lasting. 400 years and high school students are compelled to write about you. 400 years and we are still scrambling to get good seats to your plays. 400 years and you are revisited, reimagined, you are inspiring new works from today’s artists. 400 years and we are as enchanted as ever. You should know that your birthday overshadowed the Queen’s. I think that would please you.

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The truth is, we don’t know what day you were born. You were born about 453 years ago. What we are remembering on April 23rd is the anniversary of your death. What we are celebrating are your words.

We have much to discuss. Everything, really, when you surmised such a clear and poignant understanding of what it is to be human. We will speak again.

Happy Birthday, you bloody genius.

With love,

L

Faith and Chance: A Letter to Emily Dickinson

Dear Emily,

I didn’t plant crocuses.

I have nothing against them. I actually adore them – they are the first, fierce little signs of spring, and are always a welcome sight. I should plant some. I would like to. But I didn’t.

I am certain crocuses never grew there because I made that garden from scratch last year. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just wanted a garden. I was living in a new home with my love and his sons, and I was craving solitude. I needed to escape them sometimes, and an outdoor project, a creative, life-giving one was perfect in many ways. It had been a challenging year. I wasn’t well. I wasn’t quite myself. I loved the order of earth in my hands. I felt in control, which I often need. I felt sane and secure and silent.

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It’s funny, Emily, how gardening helped me make sense of my world. It was easy to get lost, to surrender to the simplicity of what I was doing. It is such an act of pure faith, growing something. Especially when you don’t really know what you are doing. I researched, I asked other gardeners, I spent hours at the garden centre and what started as a little idea took over. A front flower box turned into a 20 foot border, which turned into a winding rock bed in the backyard (built after two glasses of wine at 9 pm in the rain), which turned into a flagstone path. My little urge grew and suddenly my small patch of the world was in bloom. I spent the summer in my garden and grew back into myself a little bit. Then, it grew cold. I wrapped my shrubs in burlap and cut things back in time for the frost, and I left it.

Today was the first glorious day  of Spring. I found my gloves and my trowel, took myself down to my garden, and got to work. Under leaves and bits of trash blown in from the street and the twig-dry remnants of last years flowers… was life. It was all there. It was creeping up and out and ready to return to me. I hadn’t planted crocuses. But there, brazenly standing in the midst of the dead forget-me-nots, was this:

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I did not plant it, but it grew.

A garden is full of secrets. We can plant and weed and prune, but we do not know what seeds sneak in, we do not know what gifts will be revealed, with or without our willingness to receive them. You know this. You were a gardener. You had a gift and knowledge of flowers that I am only learning, and you often sent gifts of posies to dear ones with little verses attached. Your verses were gifts, and only as part of something larger – a bouquet, a letter. No doubt they were carefully created and thought upon, but it is possible that much in the way I see myself as a garden enthusiast, rather than a real gardener, you may not have regarded yourself as a real poet.
Many of your papers were destroyed after your death, at your request. Many, but not all. It is clear you were a passionate and deeply intelligent person. You were educated, you were among the first educated American women. You were lucky to be a product of the Massachusetts in the mid 1800s society paved my Emerson and Thoreau that opened the doors of existentialism. Despite your Puritan upbringing, you were able to become quite well read. You loved Shakespeare, the Brontes (it blows my mind to think of you, so far away from me in time, also being influenced by books that I have read and loved. Ah magic, ah reading!) Your father, noticing your affinity for words, bought you books, though he discouraged you from reading them, lest they ‘joggle the mind’. Louisa May Alcott famously said something similar – funny, since she is also of your place and time. Perhaps your progressive society was not so progressive.

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You wrote in secret. This is the incredible thing. You wrote and you wrote and you wrote. Yes, you published perhaps a dozen poems, and yes, you made inquiries and developed long correspondence with admired literary critics, but your name was unknown in the literary world. Oh, it was whispered in your community as you became more and more reclusive, wearing only white clothes, speaking with visitors only from the other side of a closed door. You were as enigmatic in your life as in the single, smirking picture of you.

 

Nowadays, we have labels. Anxiety. Agoraphobia. Depression. We are working to lift stigma. We are becoming accepting of the oddities that you struggled with. You could not even leave your room to attend your father’s funeral in the parlour downstairs. You were obsessed with death, immortality, and yet also so feverishly in love with life. How bittersweet that you lived so little of it.

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You formed strong attachments to men who you identified as ‘teachers’, ‘masters’, you wrote many letters, you put great stock in their opinions of you and your work. It seems you almost enjoyed submitting to them. You were not well able to empower yourself, it seems. You enjoyed guidance. You believed it. You believed it when the few poems you eked out into public were brushed aside, not further encouraged. You knew, though, as we always know, what the most sacred part of you was, in your case, poetry.  While you perhaps lacked the tenacity to push for its manifestation in the real world, you cultivated it so preciously for yourself.

You lived at home with your mother and sister, whom you had made promise would destroy your papers upon your death. When you died after a fairly sudden illness at 55, she went through your things. She found 40 volumes of poetry, each lovingly and meticulously written out, folded and sewn together, containing over 1800 poems between them.

What a find. What a gift!

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You were most productive when withdrawn from society – most prolific when isolated. True, you had passionate, intense friendships mostly through letters, and you formed deeply felt attachments to people. You took it very hard when you lost them, whether through death or other circumstances. But you preferred to be removed. I wonder how you would feel today, when it is so easy to live behind a computer screen. I imagine you would have had an enchanting Instagram account. You might have thrived in this insular, technological world we have now, though you would likely find it sometimes so shrill, so throbbing with life that you would return to your place behind the door, alone in your room. I envy you for that. I do not have a room of my own, a door I can close, and sometimes life, family, even love pulse too hard and I need an escape. There are days I would live better behind the door.

Perhaps you would have published, if you had had the right support, if one of your ‘mentors’ had seen your brilliance. For whatever reason, although you loved your poems enough to bind them into books, you wished to destroy them upon your death. But we don’t always get to choose our legacy. Your sister had them published and you will go down in history as one of the great poets. That’s what happens when you have the faith to plant something. What grows there isn’t up to us.

I will plant some crocuses for you this spring.

 

 

-L

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The Fever: A Letter to John Keats

 

Dear Mr. Keats,
There is much you do not know about yourself. That is true of many living people, but you in particular left this world with a skewed vision of yourself. You never knew the impact of your art, and for one so devoted to it, that is a true shame. One of my favourite sonnets is yours, and I am fascinated by your letters, but it isn’t so much your work that has always struck and inspired me. It is you, your life.

Maybe it is your struggle that moved me. You are considered one on the great Romantic poets, one of the greatest poets of all time, perhaps. I knew that you were brilliant, famous, vital before I had read any of your Odes, considered by some to be your greatest hits. It was the Jane Campion film ‘Bright Star’ that put you on my radar. It is a beautiful film, real and lovely and passionate, and yet, watching it, I found myself stopping many times throughout, pulling books from my shelf, discovering that in my book hoarding madness I had your selected letters, several volumes of your poetry. It took me four hours to get through the movie because a door had opened up. A fever was renewed in me.

You died an utter failure. That’s what you believed, anyways. You felt this so strongly that you had your grave inscribed ‘Here lies whose name was writ in water’. You felt that you had made no mark. Writing was all you had spent your life on – not money, not fame, not even really love. You wrote, you were unappreciated, and you died in a small room, far from home, with nothing to your name. It was small, but had a lovely view.

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Rome, the Spanish Steps, from where Keats’ bed was placed.

After you slipped across the bar your friend, the artist Joseph Severn who had accompanied you to nurse you, sat in vigil and sketched your face in candlelight, damp hair melting on your face, a strange expression of pain and release, as though you had at last exhaled yourself out of this world, into the next one.
I have been to that room. I sat there and summoned you. I came to Rome with my uncle and cousin at the very height of a broken heart. My uncle planned a beautiful trip for us – cathedrals and galleries and piazzas, and the thing I wanted most to see was a small museum devoted to an English romantic poet at the bottom of the Spanish Steps.

It felt holier to me than any cathedral. I so hoped that your spirit still pulsed there, waiting to flood the veins of a sad young Canadian girl. Maybe there was something to glean from that room, a shred of the fever that took you. Really, if you lingered in Rome at all you would more likely be out on the steps in the sunshine, watching tourists, maybe nursing a pistachio gelato. But I sat in your room and imagined you there with me, nudging me.

I had lost myself, a little bit. I had come from four years of unlimited, uninhibited creative luxury in university to a sudden shift – teacher’s college, then the job hunt, and then the job, all rich and new but draining. I had been living in the suburbs for a teaching gig, and they sucked my soul. And, I had just been left by a boy who was good and kind and who was utterly wrong for me. All of this, the jarring shift into a new job, new town, a misguided meander down a romantic path had left me spent, unsure of what I was doing, and creatively starved. I blamed the job. I blamed the sub-division. I blamed the boy. And then, the contract ended, the lease ended, the love ended, and I was back in the city, looking for a new job, heart aching despite the new freedom. I felt that I had been given a second chance, an opportunity to re-focus, and yet, I couldn’t write.

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So, I found myself with a few minutes alone in your room. I felt that there must be some magic there. I thought of you there, gasping out the last of your life, only 25, a year younger than I was, having devoted it all to writing, and I made a promise to us, myself and you, that I would write. I would write as long as I was well and able. I would write if I was rejected, if I was unnoticed, if I was a failure. You were a failure again and again, and you left certain that your work had been for nothing. But you had fought fiercely for your failure. There is such dignity in that.

I bought a notebook of fine Italian paper, covered in a print of the ceiling tiles you must have stared at on your deathbed. The next morning I slipped out of my room at 6 am and onto the hotel rooftop where I could see the whole city. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. (I also managed to get myself locked out up there, and had to wait until an obliging valet passed by to let me back in). I came home from Italy awakened, and that summer words came so quickly that sometimes I woke in the middle of the night just to get them down.

 

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I made that promise to you, that I would write, with a very heightened heart, in a far away city, in another time. I have not always upheld it. Sometimes my heart is too full or too still. Sometimes my life is vibrant and stable or unstable and I am living well or too hard. Sometimes there is only a thin stream of words bubbling in me, and it is a huge struggle to gather them up before they pass by. Often, they pass by. Lately, though, I have been fighting harder for them. I need to.

Life wasn’t very fair to you. You had lost both of your parents by 14, and the keepers of your inheritance ‘forgot’ to inform you of it. You had a lifelong struggle for finances. Your youngest brother contracted tuberculosis, and you were left to nurse him, care for him until his death. You were going to be a doctor, you could have had a placid, stable life, but your need to write was too strong. You left medicine. I sometimes wonder if I would ever have the courage to leave teaching – I love it, but it is not enough to sustain me.

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You likely contracted tuberculosis from your brother. We know a lot more about it nowadays, and it is much less common, but in the early 1800s, it was very commonly stigmatized. It was associated with weakness, repressed sexual passion, even. In your case, the doctor also cited mental exertion. Your desire to write was so strong, and your need to succeed so desperate – founded not in your ego, but in your dire finances – that perhaps the pressure got to you.

And yet, you were always aware of your mortality, even before you were ill. It was almost as if you knew your time would be brief. You knew the work needed to be done and you approached the work with feverish commitment. You were consumed by it.

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In one of your final letters to your friend Charles Brown, you say ‘I have a habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence’, as though you were already dead. True, you were leaving England, leaving your love, Fanny Brawne, leaving everything you were attached to. You knew you wouldn’t return.

I wish that you could have witnessed your real posthumous existence. I wish you could have seen how you thrived, how you lasted, how your love of beauty and nature and life itself has lived on in your work.

A week after I wrote to you, I found a beautiful tree outside of my yoga studio with dozens of quotes attached. I reached for the first one I saw, and there you were:

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You see? You name was not writ in water. It is bound to the very trees.

 

-L

 

Take a walk through Keats’ house here:

http://www.keats-shelley-house.org/en/video

 

Where the Words Came From: A Letter to Al Purdy

 

 

Al Purdy 1

 

Dear Al,

I am writing to you first because in many ways it all comes down to you.

I met you in my OAC writer’s craft class in 2001. It was the year  after you left us, and the collection ‘Beyond Remembering’ had come out. My teacher was my father (the luck of a small town, and my inclination to take all Lit classes possible resulted in my being in his class thrice). That was the year after my Grandpa died of lung cancer, as you did, and there was a sort of comfort in this. A great admirer of yours, Dad brought the book into his class.

Seeing the sky darken & the fields
turn brown & the lake lead-grey
as some enormous scrap of sheet metal
& wind grabs the world around the equator
I am most thankful then for knowing about
the little gold hairs on your belly

-Winter at Roblin Lake

 

I had never read poetry like this. It was… unpoetic. And poetic. At turns, breathtaking. You sounded like a real person. I didn’t know you could just be a real person and write like that. I could hear the hammer across the lake in your voice, taste the tainted beer. It was a liberating thing, to realize that poems didn’t need to live in life’s most gloried moments, but in the real throbbing thing, life, stirring in the moments between the moments I wrote poems about.

Al Purdy Quote 1

You weren’t always good. That slays me. You didn’t hit your stride until you were 40. That thrills me. That buys me a decade. So many artists peak early, and it is easy, at 32, with a few poems published, and a couple of plays only whispering around stages to feel unprolific. I have always bragged that I am not ambitious, but that is a lie; I am afraid. What if it all goes badly? Where did you find the courage? What clicked in for you, at 40? How were you able to sit down in your back room and read and read and write and write, how did you spin your strands of words to gold?

I ask, but I know. I know how the beast can stir in your belly and rise up, breathing out the true you. Some call this the muse. Some call it God. I call it the spark. It’s an elusive bastard. You know that.

‘We made our speech from moving water

a sound that seems to ache

when there is no pain

whispering faintly in the heart’s darkness…’

– In the Beginning was the Word

 

In a way, you are the inspiration for this little experiment:

I studied Creative Writing at York, and one glorious day my poetry professor brought us up to the archives, where they had pulled out some boxes that might be of interest to us.And there you were. Holy hell. There were drafts, handwritten, by you, Al. I might have accidentally cried on one. I’m sorry about that. But the thing that really got me were your letters. There were so many. There were so many relationships and friendships and worlds built between your typewriter and somebody else’s. That doesn’t exist anymore. That’s kind of sad. So much has been lost in our new digitized world. I don’t think you would have liked it.

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I read your letters to Margaret Laurence, watched appreciation bloom into friendship. I watched you relax with each other, saw your words loosen and become more personal. I watched you both struggle and succeed, and (somehow this hadn’t completely registered for me until then) underneath the incredible talent, the literary fame,  I saw two people who worked damn hard, felt doubtful about their work,  and encouraged each other. I saw diligence. I lack that. This is an exercise in diligence, I guess. And, I need to admit, in resilience.

We will see what happens.

You’ll hear from me again,

Yours,

L

 

Recommended Reads:
Beyond Remembering: The Collected Poems of Al Purdy
Ed. Sam Solecki
https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/beyond-remembering-the-collected-poems/9781550172256-item.html?ikwid=al+purdy&ikwsec=Home&ikwidx=0
Room For Rent on the Outer Planets: Selected Poems 1962-1996
https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/rooms-for-rent-in-the/9781550171488-item.html?ikwid=al+purdy&ikwsec=Home&ikwidx=1
The Al Purdy A-Frame Anthology
https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/the-al-purdy-a-frame/9781550175028-item.html?ikwid=al+purdy&ikwsec=Home&ikwidx=4