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“The spirit of man is nomad, his blood Bedouin, and love is the aboriginal tracker on the spoor of his lost self; and so I come to live my life not by conscious plan or prearranged design but as someone following the flight of a bird.”
~
Sir Laurens van der Post

Welcome to Recovering Words. And the re-designed homepage! (For current subscribers to my Blog please note it is now on my home page! Below this Welcome! Also note that the recycling poetry quotes are there on the right!)

This is a site that celebrates the craft and healing art of poetry and offers details of upcoming poetry writing retreats and workshops. And includes my frequent blog on poetry!

Not just an art form, poetry can take a life in surprising directions. Very much as the way van der Post describes his bird in the epigraph above. That bird may be called many things by many people but for me it is the mystery at the heart of my life and at the heart of poetry. It’s what seems to see me more clearly than I do; seems to be what guides and writes my most lasting words.

Jane Hirschfield, the American poet captures this so clearly: The poet, pursuing a vessel to hold something known, finds what the poem may know that the poet as yet does not. A strange paradox in life and poetry.

Please enjoy my site, comment on the articles or contact me directly with any questions.

Richard Osler
2013

Grief’s Geology – On Newfoundland’s East Coast Trail with E.J. Pratt and Gerard Manley Hopkins (so to speak!)

 

Near Maher Rock, Newfoundland, looking north to Red Head on the Avalon Peninsula

Near Maher Rock, Newfoundland, looking north to Red Head on the Avalon Peninsula

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I walked along the cliff edges of Newfoundland’s East Coast Trail a few days ago near Pouch (Pooch) Cove, the most easterly community in Canada, I couldn’t help being reminded of a poem by E.J. Pratt ( 1882 – 1964).

Pratt’s poem became a lens which changed the emotional content of everything I saw as I walked surrounded by a landscape contorted by geological forces and the ever-present North Atlantic. Because of the poem I saw more than rock; I saw a woman’s face eroded and changed by grief. Because of a poem I saw beyond what I saw. I saw with unusual eyes.

Pratt may not be a household name these days outside of Newfoundland but he should be. After all he won three Governor General Awards for his poetry between 1937 and 1957. A remarkable accomplishment. His was a singular Newfoundland/Canadian voice powerfully identified with place; not Toronto where he lived for most of his life but Newfoundland where he lived until he was twenty five.

The photograph I took above captures the primeval force of  coastal Newfoundland. Every fracture, rock layer and fault line is exposed. No secrets. So too, Pratt’s poem:

EROSION

It took the sea a thousand years,
A thousand years to trace
The granite features of this cliff,
In crag and scarp and base.

It took the sea an hour one night,
An hour of storm to place
The sculpture of these granite seams
Upon a woman’s face.

E.J. Pratt from: E.J. Pratt: Complete Poems. ed. Sandra Djwa and R.G. Moyles, University of Toronto Press, 1989.

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Amounts to Nothing Short of Cultural Genocide – Justice Murray Sinclair

Fort Simpson Indian Residential School 1922 J.F. Moran / Library and Archives Canada

Fort Simpson Indian Residential School 1922
J.F. Moran / Library and Archives Canada

Today I am going to break an unwritten protocol: not to use my blog to showcase my own poems. The reason: my emotional reaction to the release of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) report on the residential school system for aboriginal children that existed for about one hundred and twenty years.

These schools subjected these children to unimaginable abuse and in thousands of cases, death. More than seven thousand survivors of that system told their stories to the TRC.

To address my reaction to the report and the closing event for the TRC I attended in Ottawa I sat down and let a poem write me. I started by repeating one word, over and over until its four syllables felt too big and painful for my mouth – residential. Here’s the poem:

Hell, Yes! Say School. Say

Residential. Say it. Spit it out.
No soap, no brush, no doubt
will scrub the curses out. Pronounce it:
Residential. Province by province.
Not providential. Say it
syllable by syllable, blow by blow. Denounce
each syllable, each foreign tongue.
Residential: add it up: one
plus one, plus one, plus one
equals one hundred and twenty
schools. Or subtract it: family
less one, less one, less one
less one, equals fear
lined up in rows on steep steps,
the stopped faces of six year olds,
wearing suits and top hats made from beaver fur,
each tail-slap, each tooth-marked tree,
each under-water house –
forget, forget – forgotten
in Fortymile, Battleford, Hobbema,
Wabasca, Stand-off, Cariboo, and more.
Place by place memory scraped down
to playgrounds filled with gravestones.
Stiff collars, starched smiles
on a nun’s thin lips. Kiss me,
yes? Kiss me, not? Plant No
in fine long rows where nothing grows, no
corn, no moose, muskrat, geese,
no moon-wail nights beside a lake,
no loon-crazy cries to cast a spell –

no sunrise to break it.

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A Clearer Way to See – The Shared Poetic Vision of Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane

Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier Receiving their Honourary Degrees from McGill

Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier Receiving their Honourary Degrees from McGill

Yesterday, fleece under my sports jacket, I sat in Montreal with a few thousand others in a gargantuan white tent and listened to the convocation address at McGill University’s Spring Convocation for the Faculty of the Arts and Religious Studies. Yes, it was drafty and chilly under that tent but I didn’t notice. There are other ways of staying warm! Seeing wide inside this address was one of them!

Nothing was normal about this address. First it was a duet. Second, it was a poem! The address was given by Canadian poets Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier on the occasion of receiving joint honorary doctorates from McGill.

And let me say great kudos to McGill for recognizing these two Canadian poets whose poems are so utterly rooted in their particular geographies far from eastern Canada. To listen to the poem click here.

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Pass It On – Another Poet Passes – Steve Kowit (1938 – 2015)

American Poet Steve Kowit

American Poet Steve Kowit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notice

This evening, the sturdy Levis
I wore every day for over a year
& which seemed to the end in perfect condition,
suddenly tore.
How or why I don’t know,
but there it was – a big rip at the crotch.
A month ago my friend Nick
walked off a racquetball court,
showered,
got into his street clothes,
& halfway home collapsed and died.
Take heed you who read this
and drop to your knees now and again
like the poet Christopher Smart
and kiss the earth and be joyful
& make much of your time
& be kindly to everyone,
even to those who do not deserve it.
For although you may not believe it will happen,
you too one day will be gone.
I, whose Levis ripped at the crotch
for no reason,
assure you that such is the case.
Pass it on.

Steve Kowit (1938 – 2015) from The Dumbbell Nebula, Heyday Books, 2000

The Californian poet, Steve Kowit, died on April 2nd after heart surgery. Likely he is not well known here in Canada but a tribute poem written in Rattle Journal’s in its weekly poem series – Poets Respond – will likely pique interest. To read the poem Click here.

I knew Kowit through his poetry workbook: In the Palm of Your Hand – The Poet’s Portable Workshop. A beloved poetry teacher he gets a big blurb of thanks from American poet Dorianne Laux on the jacket of his book:  I am deeply indebted to Steve Kowit for passing on his love of the word to a young woman in a waitress uniform with tips in her pocket and poems in her heart.

Somehow it seems fitting to share Kowit’s poem now that he has died. He warned us, he warned himself, when he wrote it and now he has, should I say, lived, or perhaps, better, died, the truth of it. What is wonderful though is that Kowit enjoyed at least fifteen years of trying to live up to the gratitude he expresses in his poem. And what a great reminder it is to us.

And what a reminder his poem is to me of another great poem of gratitude that features, as Kowit’s poem does, the famous and celebrated poem of gratitude, Jubilate Agno, by British poet Christopher Smart ( 1722 – 1771).  Within this 1200 line poem is a much-quoted seventy four line section on Smart’s cat Jeoffrey. For the link to a history of Smart’s poem and a part of the section on Jeoffrey click here. It is astonishing to note that Smart’s poem was not discovered until the 1930’s!

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The Poem Is a Lung – National Poetry Month: Poets on Poetry #3 – Catherine Owen

Canadian Poet Catherine Owen at the 2011 Edmonton Poetry Festival. Photo Credit:Tracy Kolenchuk aka Tracy O'Camera

Canadian Poet Catherine Owen at the 2011 Edmonton Poetry Festival. Photo Credit:Tracy Kolenchuk aka Tracy O’Camera

The Lung Poem

The poem breathes for you some days
It’s okay
The poem never says he isn’t, entirely,
Coming back.
The poem has too many lungs to accept
Death completely
The poem, as it sings its dirge, notices
A poppy
Opening like a soft heart in the sun
The poem
Cannot tell you with finality it’s over
The poem takes your breaths for you
Some mornings
The poem is a Lung

Catherine Owen (1972 – ) from Designated Mourner, ECW press/a misfit book, 2014

When Catherine Owen’s crack-addict spouse died in 2010 of complications from his addiction she breathed herself through her grief and loss with poems. Many of those poems became part of her elegiac collection, Designated Mourner, published last year and dedicated to her former spouse Chris Matzigkeit.

In a 2013 interview in Lemon Hound Owen says: I love how the elegiac impulse, amid the starvations of loss, can provide this generosity, this feast of forms into which the hell can flow. And what a hell Owen needed to flow through her. The hell of living with an addict who in spite of all attempts couldn’t break addiction’s grip. The unspeakable hell of his death.

Make no mistake: Designated Mourner is a walk with Owen, hand in hand, through the topsy-turvy madness of grief: its fierce exultations, raw angers and on-the-knees lamentations. But more than a walk, the journey through Designated Mourner and Owen’s grief, is a harrowing example of poetry bringing someone back from the brink of grief and despair. Of helping them survive it. And the closest Owen gets to saying this is when she writes:

The poem takes your breaths for you
Some mornings
The poem is a Lung

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National Poetry Month – Poets on Poetry # 2 – A Poem by Stephen Dunn

American Poet Stephen Dunn

American Poet Stephen Dunn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poet and priest were one in the beginning – only later times have separated them. The true poet is however always a priest, just as the true priest has always remained a poet. Ought not the future to bring back this ancient condition of things?

Friedrich von Hardenberg-Novalis quoted by Chris Bamford, Temenos Journal #9, 1988.

I don’t deny” he said that there should be priests to remind men that they one day will die. I only say that at certain strange epochs it is necessary to have other kinds of priests, called poets, actually to remind men that they are not dead yet.

G.K. Chesterton from Manalive, Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1912

This idea: the kinship of priest and poet has rattled around the bone-bars of my heart for countless trips around the sun. Maybe it’s because of my conviction about how poems as we write them seem to come from some otherness that in moments of vulnerable clarity I call the divine.

Some poets aren’t shy about the link between the divine and poetry which makes a link between poet and priest more obvious:

Robert Cording (American poet): a poem is a form of prayer, an act in which the poet attends to both God and to what is before him.

Li-Young Lee (American-Asian poet): …when we’re working on a poem, we’re connecting or linking or yoking ourselves to our most complete nature which is God.

Christian Wiman (Poet, former Editor of Poetry Magazine and now professor at Yale Divinity School): ….I have at times experienced in the writing of a poem some access to a power that feels greater than I am, and it seems reductive, even somehow a deep betrayal, to attribute that power merely to the unconscious or to the dynamism of language itself.

Stephen Dunn (1939 – ) is an enduring treasure of American poetry whose curiosity won’t let him be shy about  anything as far as I can tell. Especially about embracing certainties like the poets I have cited above!

Dunn has written sixteen poetry books (including his latest collection Lines of Defense published in 2014)  and he won the Pulitzer prize in 2000. His poems which appear effortlessly conversational (almost chatty) and casual, are the product of a mind obviously curious and quick and not married to certainty. His intelligence seems so understated in his poems that I  realize just how hot it burns when I see the scorch marks on my hands after I put down the book of his I am reading at the time.

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National Poetry Month – Poets On Poetry # 1 – Tomas Transtromer 1931 – 2015

Swedish Poet Tomas Transtromer. Photo Credit: AFP PHOTO / SCANPIX

Swedish Poet Tomas Transtromer. Photo Credit: AFP PHOTO / SCANPIX

 

from Morning Birds

Fantastic to feel how my poem grows
while I myself shrink.
It is growing, it takes my place.
It pushes me out of its way.
It throws me out of the nest.

Tomas Transtomer, Trans. Gunnar Harding and Frederic Will from Selected Poems 1954-1986 – Ed. Robert Hass, The Ecco Press, 1987

 

From March ‘79

Tired of all who come with words, words but no language
I went to the snow covered island.
The wild does not have words.
The unwritten pages spread themselves out in all directions!
I came across the marks of roe-deer’s hooves in the snow.

Language but no words.

Tomas Transtomer, Trans. John F. Deane from Selected Poems 1954-1986 – Ed. Robert Hass, The Ecco Press, 1987 p.159

April 1st, 2015. The start of another National Poetry Month. It seems fitting to dedicate this first day of this month-long celebration of poetry to the Swedish Nobel Prize laureate, Tomas Transtromer who died almost a week ago on March 26th just a few weeks short of his 84th birthday.

In addition to being a prolific poet, Transtromer was also a practising psychologist for many years. In spite of a debilitating stroke in 1990 that took away his ability to speak coherently and confined him to a wheelchair, Transtromer continued to write and to appear at major writing events. He even managed to keep playing the piano, one of his passions, but with just his left hand. In 2007 he flew to Toronto to accept a Lifetime Recognition Award for Excellence in Poetry from the Griffin Trust. For a video on Transtromer from Bloodaxe Books click here.

I choose, also, to feature Transtromer in this post because of the theme I want to explore this month: poets writing poems about language and poetry.

The final stanza of Transtromer’s poem Wild Birds featured above captures the utterly mysterious nature of the poetic process. Do we write the poem or does it write us? Transtromer in his poem seems to be saying it writes us: fantastic to to feel how my poem grows/ while I myself shrink. Jane Hirschfield, the American poet and essayist echoes Transtromer in these comments from an interview in the Atlantic Monthly in 1997:

When I write, I don’t know what is going to emerge. I begin in a condition of complete unknowing, an utter nakedness of concept or goal. A word appears, another word appears, an image. It is a moving into mystery.

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Something Not Sayable – A Post for Heidi’s Mother

Canadian Poet Heidi Garnett

Canadian Poet Heidi Garnett

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Mother’s Foot

The main door into the nursing home slides open,
an exhalation of stale air. The gift shop
still has hand-knitted toques and scarves for sale,
though it’s the first day of Spring. There is a leather chesterfield
and matching love seat. There are people
foot pedalling their wheelchairs in the hallway.
I walk around them.
There is the nurses’ station to pass
and the gathering room, a maze of wooden tables and chairs
and artificial flower arrangements,
the fluorescent lights too bright, too harsh
for anything real to grow here.
I drop a nasturtium seed at each turn.

You are where you always are, watching Turner classics
in your room with the door closed. I knock
and enter without waiting to be invited in.
You’re propped up in bed and say you were at a party
where you danced with Fred Astaire.
You were still walking then and your foot hadn’t blackened yet.
You sound different,
your voice sticking to the floor
like the fruit cocktail you spilled. Outside your window
crocuses and daffodils, but I’m thinking about summer
and day lilies, their upraised shrivelled fists.

Heidi Garnett, March 2015, Unpublished

This post is dedicated to the Canadian poet, Heidi Garnett and her mother , Bruna (Brunhilde) Wiehler, who died yesterday in Kelowna at the age of ninety one. And, also to her father Horst, who died in 1997 at the age of seventy nine. Heidi’s poem, the epigraph for this post, was written just a week ago. What a difficult ending to a difficult and extraordinary life few of us could imagine. A life that included harrowing months alone with Heidi, her three-year-old daughter, in the far eastern reaches of Germany at the end of the Second World War in territory, occupied by the Russian army, near what was Danzig, now Gdansk, Poland.

I have been privileged to follow Heidi’s poetry career for almost ten years. Her poems have won or been short-listed for numerous poetry contests in the U.K., Canada and the U.S. But my greatest privilege has been to watch Heidi grapple with her painful family history through her poetry. Trying somehow through memory and metaphor to make sense of the senseless waste of war. To come to peace with what no three-year-old should have experienced.

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Mercury Dangerous – The Quicksilver Wit & Click of Micheline Maylor

 

Canadian Poet Micheline Maylor

Canadian Poet Micheline Maylor

What I would give to you

are secrets told in textiles,
pillows for your sofa made of clothing
slid from my body on sultry afternoons.
Are you thinking now of hands and buttons?

Are you thinking of Fridays?
These are impractical gifts now that you are alone.
A roaster oven would serve you better
than some erotic reminder of me
fashioned of gold silk, and piped with lace
propped in your living room.

This is the thing I now want to do with my fingers
as idle as they have become
without the thread of us, without the needle.

Michelene Maylor from WHIRR & CLICK, Frontenac House Poetry, 2013

For many years I have enjoyed being part of a tribe of poets whom I have met through Patrick Lane’s retreats held on Bowen Island, and on Vancouver Island near Sooke and at Honeymoon Bay on Lake Cowichan. There is nothing like having to write six poems in three days to create life-long friendships! It takes a certain kind of person to enjoy or should I say, endure (sometimes) that pressure.

One of the poets I have met through these retreats is Micheline Maylor, a self-described “certified poetry fanatic”. It makes sense: she is editor of FreeFall literary magazine, teaches literature and writing at Mount Royal University in Calgary and has published a poetry chapbook and two full length poetry collections including WHIRR & CLICK in 2013 which was nominated for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award. These are all reasons why I take serious note of Michelene Maylor but it is an unforgettable line of poetry written at that Patrick Lane retreat that has engraved Maylor permanently in my memory: Rabbit, you fucker... Don’t let the obscenity throw you off. It has at its heart an existential complaint that echoes through her poems. Gives them such resonance and bite.

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Tonight She Wants Wheels – Two New Books (Poems and Essays) from Jane Hirschfield

American Poet and Essayist Jane Hirschfield

American Poet and Essayist Jane Hirschfield

from Fifteen Pebbles

Opening the Hand Between Here and Here

          On the dark road, only the weight of the rope.
          Yet the horse is there.

Jane Hirschfield (1953 – ) from Come, Thief, Alfred A. Knopf, 2011

 

 

 

 

from Twelve Pebbles

                I Know You Think I’ve Forgotten

but today
in rain
without coat without hat

Jane Hirshfield from The Beauty: Poems  Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, 2015

Jane Hirschfield is a lay Zen practioner and it shows in the silence that is the mortar between her words and her lines. What we don’t hear. What we don’t see. I heard Hirschfield recite the first small/huge poem above in Key West, Florida two months ago. The second poem above, I read today from her latest book.

The unseen horse in the first poem, whatever it stands for, haunted me as I left her reading. What is the weight we carry, tied to the invisible, I wondered, as I lay alone in my motel bed that night? These are the “big” questions which are Hirschfield trademarks. The second poem startles me with who isn’t there. And the shockingly simple images for grief. Grief like standing drenched, no coat no hat!

The unheard, the unseen. These all loom large and loud in the poetry of this cherished American poet whose latest publications were released today: The Beauty, a book of poems and Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, a book of essays. For an interview with Hirschfield on these books from NPR in the U.S. click here.

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