An Alphabet of Poets – G is for Garnett


Light beginning again in the east,
superstitions of nut hatches and finches,
heartbreak of robin’s eggs.

Tell me about that colour.

Not this mud-light tipped from a rain barrel,
this wet earth knotted into a rope,
loose twist of water,
loose twist of darkness.

No.  This other,
this speckled light,
this fawn light born at dawn,
this sun light
peeking under rhubarb leaves,
over fences and into windows.

Light of the meditative eye
reflective and peaceful,
hinged open.

Blessed wind breaks.
Blessed barn,
blessed animals.

Let Him come.

Heidi Garnett from Qarrtsiluni – An Online Literary Magazine, January 2012

Such is the power of poetry. This remembering of ourselves. This remembering of each other. This remembering of our world.

Heidi Garnett from Rocksalt – An Anthology of Contemporary BC Poetry, Mother Tongue Publishing, 2008

I first met Heidi Garnett at a Patrick Lane writing retreat six years ago. Her first book Phosphorus had just been published. Since then I have watched this extraordinary woman become internationally recognized as an exceptional poet through her successes
in countless poetry contests including: today, April 10th, announced  in Toronto as the winner of the Winston Collins Prize sponsored by Descant – the Journal ; a third place finish in the 2010 Rattle Prize in the US (more than 6,000 entries); on the short list in 2011 for the prestigious Arvon poetry prize in the UK (also more than 6,000 entries).

Heidi’s lyric power is so evident in the poem Worship; the way her metaphors and music lift her keen observations off the page and into the consciousness of her readers. Combining her lyric skill with her narrative focus, as is her trademark, Heidi also makes narrative poems that that carry a double punch. And it is good she does. She has much to punch. That’s because in her narrative poems she is now giving a voice to an under-voiced past – the shocking history of the Germans under Russian occupation after the so-called end of WWII. Here is one of her war poems.

Broken Off

The path to that landscape broken off now,
that bright path cut out of a forest
wide enough for a lance held upright,
a sign of war. Germany’s favourite son,
Thomas Mann, spoke via radio from California,
said everything must be accounted for,
the southern wing of Exeter Cathedral,
the monastery buildings at Canterbury,
the silent V2 rockets launched from Norway
at the English countryside.
Their existential effect.
Meschede, at the confluence of the Ruhr
and Henne, its slated half timbered buildings
a ten minute footnote. [20,000 incendiary sticks,
250 phosphorus canisters] At Lubeck,
Church of St. Mary, Church of St. Peter,
the Old School with its dark green glazes
and longitudinal façade of fifteen axes.
Ten minutes needed for that lesson.
There would be others
repeated for the thick headed.
In Danzig, St.  Joseph’s, St. Catherine’s,
St. Ignatius, St. James, St. Johns, etc.
The hulls of ships carved into church floors
no longer sailed their resurrections.
Scrolled cornices toppling street after street
reduced to paper and prayer,
a combustible country inhospitable to man
and unable to support memory
as we remember it.
Pray for us Knights of St. Mary,
protect us from ourselves. Pull on
your white surcoats and black crosses.
Collect the tolls and let us pass.
Quickly now
before all the cathedrals of the air are torn down,
their illuminated windows, baroque angels,
rococo altars. Quickly,
before we forget the way through the forest,
the cinder path leading to the bunkers.

from Best Canadian Poetry 2008, ed. Stephanie Bolster

Like all good writers Heidi reminds us not to forget our past, especially the one overlooked by the victors in war. And to think, history almost snuffed out her life in the awful aftermath of the Second War in Germany. Born in 1943 in a village outside of the former Danzig, Heidi, along with her mother, was forcibly separated from her father in 1945 and made to return to the eastern boundaries ofGermanywhere they were left unprotected against the “mercies” of Russian occupation soldiers. It is not difficult to imagine the horrors they endured, especially her mother.

In an act of singular heroism Heidi’s Dad made his way back to them months later, miraculously evading capture and forced relocation to Russia. He rescued his wife and Heidi from the control of a Russian soldier and in 1946 led his family and a rag-tag band of refugees fleeing the Russians, back west to Berlin.

On that journey out of Russian-controlled territory Heidi fell sick and was left near-death in a hopelessly over-crowded hospital in Berlin while her parents pushed on further west. When Heidi’s dad returned to check on her he discovered the hospital had given up on her, left her to die. He bundled her up, took her to a village near Hamburg where he and his wife nursed her back to life. They lived there in a single room until they immigrated to Fort MacLeod, Alberta in 1950.

While Heidi’s poems draw on her German history she is still very much rooted to her adopted country, to the Canadian West where she now lives in Kelowna, B.C.

A Hundred and Fifty Kinds of Grasses

The town ends at Pearl’s place,
a rough plank four room shack,
half an hour to school walking
if you cut across open prairie.

Pearly, pearly-white, pearly everlasting,
a head taller than the boys in the grade one classroom,
a p-p-pretty girl, raggy through,
like the scrub ponies roaming the Porcupine Hills.
You had to approach her slowly
                                     hand out palm up.

I think Pearl recognized something of herself in me,
the little refugee girl who couldn’t speak English
and cried when her father brought her to school.
It was April and the sun’s long processional had begun:
violets, shooting stars, pussy toes, wild roses.

a hundred and fifty kinds of grasses,
beak grass, fox sedge, purple love grass, silky wild rye
and big bluestem tall as man’s waist.
We’d push the grass aside
and wade into the middle of a wind tossed lake
               where no one could see us.

In summer,
the cemetery became our playground,
a tangle of corms, rootstalks and headstones,
how the dead inscribe themselves on the living
though we didn’t know how deeply
until years later. Sadly missed,
my father with his brain tumour and your mother
so obese she sat in double seats
reserved for smoochers at the Empress Theatre.

When I think of Pearl now I see her
married at sixteen, five children in seven years, a husband
who later drank himself to death. I see her
running across the prairie to meet me halfway
I see her running as if her life depends on it.

from RATTLE, Summer 2011, The Canadian Issue

Water Rituals

(for N.G.)

My daughter stands on the banks of a river,
slow and meandering on the surface,
but snarled below with deadheads and undercurrents.
She takes off the bones of my life draped so carefully
over her shoulders and hangs them on the branches of a tree
to dry and twist into driftwood. She wants
                  to dive in naked,
                  to find her own ground
and let the river clothe her, to swim the river
in herself. I have my own water rituals,
a lake so deep you can’t always find bottom,
much less see it. Occasionally, those missing for years
will float to the surface, recognizable as the day
they leapt from the bridge.
No one knows why they sink so far
or why the tension cutting the lake into cold and warm
holds and preserves them. But,
when they are given back to us, we say
the lake has turned. We say it has given up its dead;
given us back to ourselves.

from Arc  Poetry Magazine, third place in the Arc Poem of the Year Contest

Heidi says, I am still trying to make sense of my past and much of my writing is around war and atrocity.  Three years ago I returned to Gdansk (formerly Danzig) and felt privileged to visit my birthplace.  Out of this visit have come many new poems and the beginnings of a novel based on a tape my father left to be listened to after his death.

And in the poetry anthology Rocksalt published in 2008 Heidi explains her poetics so memorably. “Forgetting remembers itself into poems, images like birds tied by the thinnest strings to our fingers, that unconscious tugging…..For me, each poem is like one of those birds, hardly visible, hardly believable, the way they hover at the edge of understanding, yet once they’re grounded by words, they become more real and revealing then we ever imagined. Such is the power of poetry. This remembering of ourselves. This remembering of each other. This remembering of our world.

Oh, and how Heidi remembers and enables us to remember. Here is her third place poem from the prestigious 2010 RATTLE Poetry Prize. sponsored by the Californian-based RATTLE poetry journal.

Sins of Unrequited Love

We had the problem of youth, the problem of desire,
our testicles pulled tight as empty purse seines,
the starved musculature of the heart.
We watched the sky, but with no real avidity.
Clouds moved from east to west. The sun rose and set.
We ate three meals a day, slept seven hours,
washed and shaved, made our beds. Mostly,
we did what we were told, though some afternoons
desire stalked us in musty theatres called Roxy or Empress,
a film noir starring a blonde bombshell
who wore a tuxedo and sang with a voice like a grenade,
its pin pulled. She couldn’t sing worth a damn,
but who cared. She looked dangerous and life then
was all about severity, the sharp angles of cheekbones,
a chalk outline drawn around a body lying in a pool of blood,
the spasm of detonation. We said less and less
and spent our days drinking schnapps and imagining
our imminent deaths; but this problem of wanting,
wanting to stay, to get married and have children,
to plant potatoes and raspberry canes, to celebrate birthdays
and baptisms, to stare at things as if they matter.

from RATTLE, third place in the RATTLE Poetry Prize

Heidi, now 68, only began her writing career eight years ago after she retired from a 31-year career as a teacher. She has learned the craft from the bottom up, by voracious reading, attending countless writers’ retreats and by writing almost every day since she retired. She also graduated with an MFA from UBC – Okanagan a few years ago. I have been inspired by her singular focus and work ethic. Good poetry comes with utter dedication. Heidi is proof of that.

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