Archive for September, 2017

I have to confess that this will be a biased piece. I have read a lot of Colleen Murphy’s plays in the last two years and fan-girled all over her when she came to Sudbury in May for Reading Town/Ville Lecture. What always strikes me about her work, when I read it and again when I see it on stage, is how carefully crafted it is. It’s the sort of work you wish you could write for the stage, and I always leave shaking my head and then checking my heart to see if it’s still there, beating regularly. Her work really is that powerful, and none of it seems to ever repeat itself, although some of the underlying thematic questions are common.

This play, “The Breathing Hole,” is one that she talked about in Sudbury in May. She said she had written a play about a bear that was five hundred years old. The play focused on the notion of a breathing hole in the ice, in the far north, in the Arctic, and would deal with Inuit culture. This idea seemed both mythical and magical, that a bear could live five hundred years. To me, that’s seductive. I love legends, creation stories, myths, and the idea of ancestry. I also love the notion of every living thing having a soul, and this is so much an interwoven part of Indigenous culture. I’m naturally drawn to being outside, in nature, and the raw landscape of northern Ontario plays a role in most of my writing.

The most beautiful parts of this play are sensual and visual. It begins with two children playing with shadow puppets, light casting shadows up on the back of the stage and telling the story of the Arctic, and colonization, and always returning to the shape of that polar bear. The first time you see the bear, it’s a tiny thing held in the arms of an Inuit woman who feels lonely. Then, it’s massive, lumbering across the stage, making noises that sound truly bear-like. It is anthropomorphic, this bear, so symbolic of spirit and culture, and it ends up being a great teacher by the end of the play. (I won’t spoil it in case you go to Stratford to see the play, which you should.) The sound of the Inuktitut language, too, when you hear it spoken, is so beautiful. Hearing it tonight reminded me of the first time I heard Welsh spoken, while I was on an Irish ferry between Wales and Ireland. It’s musical and, when I closed my eyes to listen to it, I could imagine ocean waves cresting and breaking, and then rolling back into themselves. Beautiful.

The notion of a Stratford play that has been produced in a year that celebrated the 150th anniversary of Confederation is also very telling. (I was asked to write a poem for Canada 150 in my role as poet laureate, and had a difficult time. I don’t believe in it because this country existed long before Confederation, and long before colonization. Indigenous peoples have been here for much longer.) What I love about Murphy’s play is that she has the polar bear serve as a sort of narrative image, or symbolic thread, that strings itself from the start, which takes place prior to contact by Europeans, through to the end of the piece, when we hear of oil spills and eco-tourism in the Arctic in a futuristic time. You hear it before it crosses onto the stage, its breathing and grumbling, and its big padded paws shuffling echoing through the theatre. You learn to love it, to let it into your heart.

This bear is a great teacher, as an elder would be, I imagine. The closer you come to the end of the play, the more you think about how humans are most detrimental to both themselves and the health of the natural world. Europeans have a history of destruction, of conquering with no real reason except to get more stuff–resources, land, and even to decimate and/or ‘gather’ and try to assimilate Indigenous people. There is also a reference to the ill-fated Franklin Expedition, to how pompous and vain it all seemed, trying to find and map out the Northwest Passage. (I always think of the Stan Rogers song.) Still, very little is ever told of the Inuit side of that story in Canadian history textbooks, and Murphy gets at it a bit here, in a quirky and satirical way.

Faced with the weirdness of eco-tourism and oil rigs (and spills), “The Breathing Hole” makes you think about what’s happening with global warming and how the Arctic has been the canary in the climate change coal mine. The Inuit have been warning about changes to the northern landscape for decades. They have noticed a change in polar bear and seal populations, in how plants flourish or fail, and how landscape is physically changing because of melting. The image of this great symbolic bear drenched in oil can break a person’s heart (it did mine…) but it should also make you realize that we are our own worst enemies sometimes.

This morning, we took our Grade 11 English classes to see the film version of Richard Wagamese’s “Indian Horse.” It was beautiful. The shots of the landscape around Sudbury and Northern Ontario made me get emotional. I’ve gone hiking and canoeing in those beautiful places. I’ve gone swimming out in those lakes and rivers, too. They are beautiful, in all types of light, in various seasons, and in all ‘genres’ of weather. Seeing Murphy’s play tonight made me think, again, of how much the natural world means to me. It’s why I’m drawn to the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Mary Oliver, and Wendell Berry. All three poets write of the beautiful rhythms of the natural world, and of how landscape can be one of our greatest teachers. According to Indigenous beliefs, the natural world is full of spirit. I can’t look at the sky at night without being amazed. I can’t walk out in the bush and through heavily treed areas without feeling more myself. When I’m worried or stressed, or sad, I go out into the woods. What Murphy tells us, and what Wagamese tells us in all of his work, I think, is that we need to be mindful of our environment. We are all meant to be guardians of this natural world, especially more so now that there is such a threat to the health of the environment.

This great spirit bear in “The Breathing Hole” opens a person’s heart even wider than it already is, asks you to let it in even further, has you feel comfortable enough to risk discomfort in the watching of the story, and reminds you that you have a role to play in a world that you are only really ever passing through…as a guardian and legacy keeper. (You forget, too, that the puppet bear is not real, which is brilliant. The actors inside the bears disappear and you only sense the soul of that bear.)

There’s good reason why Murphy’s play has been extended here at the Stratford Festival. It’s likely to become a Canadian classic. It’s beautiful, disturbing, clever, heart wrenching, and so damn moving. It makes a five and a half hour drive from Northern Ontario seem perfectly worthwhile.


Read Full Post »

My maternal grandmother was, really, if I’m honest, my best friend. When my mother went back to work after I was born, as a nurse and then as a social worker, I apparently stayed a lot of the time with my Gram Ennis, in her house on Wembley Drive. At that point, my dad worked in the copper refinery in Copper Cliff. I don’t remember those days, because I was very young, but I know she was dearest to me until she died when I was in my twenties. Since then, well, I think of her every day, and I envy anyone who still has their grandmother, and will likely tell them so. For me, she was the best person, the person who really raised me. My parents weren’t openly affectionate but, for me, Gram always welcomed me with smiles and warm hugs. She was the first person to give me a blank lined notebook in my teens, when she knew I started writing poetry, and then she gifted me with an old Underwood typewriter, telling me that I would be the writer in the family. Most of who I am, the best part of me I often think, is thanks to her guidance and warmth. (This is not to discount the role of my parents, but to say instead that they were not easy to comprehend as either a child or adult. My relationship with them, in my mind, was tainted, too, by my having taken care of them as they were ill and then as they were dying. It’s complex, to say the least.)

Caring for my parents, and battling the oddly structured health care system in Ontario from 2007 until 2012, when they were both stuck inside of it, led me to advocate for the frail elderly when I joined the Patient and Family Advisory Council at Health Sciences North. I thought, wrongly, that I could raise enough hell to change the world. I’m often idealistic and delusional, but I’m a poet, so I figure it’s par for the course. I thought that speaking up would change the way people perceived the elderly. I was raised in the bosom of my mother’s family, all Irish Catholic and unwieldy, so I knew older people from the time I was little, and I was taught how to converse as if I were adult.  We were never treated as being ‘little’ or ‘less than,” but were invited into big conversations and storytelling sessions. It all formed me into the person and writer I am today. It also allowed me to value older people and treat them as equals and my most powerful teachers.

Reading at Barrie Manor yesterday brought me back to the memory of all my wonderful Irish great-aunts and uncles, to my grandmother, and to my father, as they dealt with ill health in their 70s and 80s. I thought, again, of how the arts (literary, theatrical, musical, and visual) should be a more vibrant part of long-term care facilities in the province. I know there are some who espouse this, and Barrie Manor has an amazing advocate for the arts in the person of Dawna Proudman, a fellow League of Canadian Poets poet. She believes in the power of poetry and this is obvious in her passion to run such a poetry series, inviting poets from around the province to come and read to the residents of the Manor.  In my role as poet laureate, I’ve had the pleasure of reading there twice now, and I’m always  impressed by the residents I meet. (I know I won’t be poet laureate past the end of December of this year, but I hope I’ll be asked back as they are all dear to me there.)

It bothers me to see places (and I have, in the past) where people are cast off, left to stare out windows, or weep in chairs in their rooms, solitary and isolated. Barrie Manor is not such a place; it is alive, caring, and spirited in its programming and staff, as well as with its residents. Yesterday, I met an older woman who volunteers there. She struck me with her spirit, dashing around and offering people cookies, and then coming up to me with a warm smile.  “I wondered if I could give you a hug?” she asked.  “Of course! I don’t get many, so I’m always open to receiving them!” I answered, and we chatted about her youth in Yorkshire, a place I visited years ago. We talked of the Yorkshire Dales and the raw beauty of that landscape, and then she spoke of her husband, children, and grandchildren with me. Everyone has a story, you see. Every person has a tale to tell, and some only just need a single person to hear it with an open heart. And, too, every person likely feels a call to serving others, even if they might also face ill health or the challenges of ageing. I found this bright spirit in this lovely woman yesterday and it reminded me of my own grandmother, and then my heart ached for her.

Today, in Barrie, I decided to drive an hour south, in traffic, to see “Cutting Ice,” an exhibition of Annie Pootoogook’s drawings. Her story has been with me for years. I love art, all art, but am drawn to First Nations and Inuit art. I had known of her work before her untimely death last year, but I had never had a chance to see it in person. So I drove down to Kleinburg and spent a couple of hours breathing in the beauty of that place, a gallery that makes me emotional every time I visit because it is like being inside a giant tree house, with the light and trees outside of the big glass picture windows serving as another bit of art that tugs at my heart.

The first exhibition was of the work of Tom Thomson and Joyce Wieland, and titled “Passion Over Reason.”  I found the description on one wall quite funny. Both artists were unique, it read, because Tom Thomson had never married, and Joyce Wieland had never had children. Then, eavesdropping on an older couple as they discussed the panel of information, I heard the husband say to his wife, with certainty, “Well, you know…artists…probably why this is a good exhibit.  They’re too odd to be with other people, aren’t they?”  I just shook my head and thought of all the artists and writers I know who manage to be in relationships and still produce brilliant creative and artistic work. Both Thomson and Wieland had romantic relationships, so it’s not like they were that odd, but perhaps just that they were not conventional for their time(s).

The first time I got teary was seeing a wall of small Thomson canvases. I love his work, as well as the work of the other Group of Seven painters, because it speaks to me of the raw landscape I know very well. Views of Georgian Bay and of central and northern Ontario bush always tears at me inside. These are views I’ve grown up with, views that pull at me from the inside out and make me grateful to have been raised in places where the landscape is stronger than human intervention. Other parts of the province, I often think, while less intimidating geographically, in terms of weather and physical challenges, have no notion of how survival plays into a person’s spiritual upbringing and personal development.

Then, moving into the Pootoogook exhibition, I felt unbelievably sad. The film of her life, shown in a tiny theatre room with classroom chairs, made me sit still and start to get teary-eyed. There, on a lit up wall, she spoke of how Cape Dorset formed her, and the landscape moved across the wall. Then, in the mid-2000s, she had had some success with her work and was heralded as a new artistic voice for Inuit art. By the time she died in 2016, she had somehow been caught up in addiction and had lost touch with her art. In the short documentary on her life, she spoke about how she was a third generation artist, and that got me to thinking again about how women connect with their mothers and grandmothers, how a female lineage strings itself through the emotional region of the heart, but also through physicality and familial inheritance, and through the gift of storytelling, whether with words or with visual art.

When I heard of her death in September of last year, of her having been homeless and living on the streets, and of her battle with addiction, I thought of how this country’s ignorance of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) continues to astound me as a woman. How can anyone just disappear without notice? Why do people (especially women) from communities in the far north of the country feel they have better chances in more major urban centres? The stories don’t usually have good endings. Again, I’m left thinking that there is a sort of apartheid that exists between urban and rural Canada, between the far north and the southern parts of the provinces. It’s about racism, too, whether or not people want to admit it openly.

In the film, Annie Pootoogook says “I wish I was born in the past…but I was not.” I get that. I often feel I don’t belong in this time period. It’s not about romanticizing the past, but of just not feeling that you ‘belong’ to a place or time. I don’t know if this is common to all artists or not. I’d like to ask a few friends, and then I’d like to know if they feel as separate from others as I do.

When you create art, you connect to a different energy, I think. It’s alive for you, inside of you, and you can hook into it, in a sort of mystical way, and it can feed you, if you feed it properly. But it can be very lonely, too, and I felt this in the ache of Pootoogook’s work today. Knowing she had been killed and that her body had been left in the Ottawa River shadowed my experience of the exhibition.  I just kept seeing the two big black and white photos of her face in my mind as I went through and looked at her drawings. It made me tear up.  She shouldn’t have died at 47. She shouldn’t have died after a ten year struggle with homelessness and addiction. It’s a loss of the highest order.

I’m not an art scholar. I’m not Indigenous. I love art and stories, and I love to learn about women artists and writers. They help me to find my place in the world, when sometimes I feel a bit lost inside myself. That she was taken as she was, so violently, and with the promise of more art hidden in her heart, breaks mine.

If you don’t know about her, you need to.  You can watch this little documentary…and then you can go and see the exhibition at the McMichael Collection of Canadian Art in Kleinburg.  It’s well worth battling the traffic on the 401.

No person should go missing and no one should be found in a river, far from her home, forgotten and cast off like rubbish. She deserved more. I know that much.











Read Full Post »

Am always honoured to have work accepted for publication.  Both Mary Oliver and Gwendolyn MacEwen are dear to me, in terms of influencing my work as a poet, but also just as a reader and lover of poetry.  Some writers (like people) come into your life and never leave.  These two women are like that, in my heart and head.

With thanks to rob mclennan, for liking this essay, and wanting to share it on Many Gendered Mothers.  (I am a huge fan of the site!)

If you’d like to, you can read my reflective piece here…but you should also read some (MORE!) of Gwendolyn MacEwen’s beautiful work.  It was, and still is, a great loss that she left us much too early, in my mind.






Read Full Post »