The Guest Poetry Blog Series #3 – Introducing the Third Contributor, Canadian Poet and Sommelier, Tonya Lailey – Part One of Two

Calgary-based Canadian poet Tonya Lailey

The Cat Comes to Me

—after Heather McHugh

The future looks like death to me from here
standing behind you, in the musty basement
where the cat is cornered.

You think on your feet, quickly
engineer a noose from a sponge mop and silicone rope –
medieval design, cheap modern materials.

The cat protests wildly, we call it crazy and laugh,
but it knows its boundaries. Instinctively,
it knows this is cruel.

I ask you to wait, to let the cat be calm,
to approach it later, gently, with kindness.
I do it later myself, alone in the house.

The cat comes to me easily,
I hold it for a bit,
then give it out to the neighbourhood night,

quietly out,
like I had been wanting to do
and would much later, finally.

Tonya Lailey, 2015

I came, truly, to poetry on my knees in my forties, having forgotten a lot about myself, having lost the belief that I could love what I loved, could live that way. I was in a week-long program at a drug and alcohol recovery center: the Discovery Program at Cedars at Cobble Hill in B.C. I went there to begin to learn to recover from my addiction to the addict in my life – my former husband, the father of my two daughters.

Here I met others in similar states of codependence, bearing broken relationships with themselves and others. I also met a man with wild, curly white-grey hair, dramatic arms and a regular HA! that leapt from him with the punch of a Pop Rock’s explosion. His whole being seemed to bounce – with joy and love for what he was doing. What he was doing was sharing poetry and providing the encouragement and safe space for us to write our own poems, an exercise that might encourage our healing. This man, HA!, was Richard Osler.

The epigraph poem above is the main one I wrote in that session with Richard during the week of November 29, 2015. The poem still makes me cry, which tells me how much work it did and is still doing for me. It was the first poem I had written in probably ten years and one of the few I had written at all.

Richard’s prompt was a line – the last one – from Heather McHugh’s fabulous poem: From 20,000 Feet. That line: The future looked like death to it, from there. I adapted that line at the time for my purposes. Here is Heather’s poem:

From 20,000 Feet

The cloud formation looks
Like banks of rock from here,
though rock and cloud are thought

so opposite. Earth’s underlying nature
might be likeness – likeness
everywhere disguised

by wave-length, amplitude and frequency.
(If we got far enough away, could we
decipher the design?) From here

so much goes by
too fast or slow for sight.
(Is death a stretch of time in which

a life is just a flash?) Whatever
we may think, we only
think that we will lose. The foetus,

expert at attachment, didn’t dream that
cramped canal would open

into sound and light and love –
it clung. It didn’t care. The future
looked like death to it, from there.

Heather McHugh (1948 -) from Hinge & Sign, Wesleyan University Press, 1994. (McHugh, a much celebrated American poet, nominated for both the Pulitzer Prize and a National book Award has written thirteen books of poetry, essays and translations. She also won a Griffin Poetry Prize in 2002 for her co-translation of the poems of Paul Celan and in 2009 was awarded a prestigious US $500,000 MacArthur fellowship or so-called genius grant.)

The images that surfaced for me that day when asked to write a poem, spoke an emotional truth I didn’t need to dissect. Potent indications of a relationship gone musty, gone dangerous. A woman cornered by hostility – her own toward herself and that of a man whose love she so desperately wanted. I hear, see, feel the tenderness and patience it would take for this woman to feel safe again. I recognize the quiet, the stillness in the neighbourhood night, the inky presence of the unknown, the courage to trust that going out that door would be the very best thing, the conviction that it didn’t have to be violent, that she could do it with love – for herself.

Something else, too. The act of having written a poem and shared it. The utter joy in that. Joy! And the possibility of more poems in me, waiting to be written. So, yes, poetry came to me in a dramatic fashion that week in 2015. But my life had been preparing me for this moment for years.

As a kid, I imagined myself to be an artist. I drew and painted. I wrote what I figured were deep thoughts in my journal. I worked with pastels – spaceship pictures mostly. It was the late 70’s. I hawked my artworks to my parents’ friends after they’d had a few drinks. And I dressed the part as I pictured it. In grade seven, I wore a long dark green leather coat that had been my mother’s. It had pointy 60’s lapels and stank like a dated floral fragrance. I wore a beret and scarves, lots of scarves. Scarves seemed key to being an artist.

Then, when I became a competitive swimmer, from age twelve to my late teens, much of my artistic expression fell away. I didn’t have the extra energy to dream and play. I left the sport when I left high school. I went to King’s College in Halifax. Reading The Epic of Gilgamesh on the lawn in the quad, under a tree, I got dreamy again. I stayed dreamy those years, was enamoured with the writings of Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Simone de Beauvoir – the French Feminists.

In my fourth year, a professor gave me a gift, one of the important sort that can help a person orient themselves in their own life, line themselves up with their loves. She said: You write like an angel; you have to write. I wasn’t ready to receive it. As I look back perhaps life needed me to become a kind of fallen angel to fully know I did have to write!

But before that week at Cedars and after various university studies I began to learn another poetry. The poetry of terroir and wine. I started a winery with my parents and siblings. The beginning of an intimate history with the 20 acres along the Niagara River, where I grew up working in the vineyard and where my parents had farmed for decades, my grandparents before that.

I loved the whole region, still do. I was free to roam around as a kid, under and up its trees, about its contours, along and through its waters, with its bugs and bushes and creatures and smells – even the toxic chemical sprays can make me nostalgic. I was compelled by the prospect of helping to create something from there and sending it out into the world. I enrolled in George Brown College’s sommelier program, got the certificate, the pin.

The winery project came with complicated family dynamics. It also brought me deeper into a relationship with that parcel of land. Sensually, it woke me up again. The way, through smell, we come into memory. Or, rather, the way smell calls memory up in us. How a whiff of Pinot Noir is at once the perfume of my mother’s former rose garden, the thorn-snag on my forearm, the crunch of cocoa bean shells under my flip flops, the release of the dark bittersweet smell, a jalopy revving in the distance. Wine preserves collective memory too, remembers a growing season for us – its rain, its sun, its heat, its hail or the acidic wire of its chill and brevity.

So, now, here I am writing a guest blog. I’ve done a lot of recovery work, and poetry work, since that first week at Cedars and I have a lot more to do! But that workshop with Richard was a turning point (I wrote turning poet when I first wrote this sentence!). That’s when I decided to honour my love of poetry and to support that love. In 2017, I signed up for Richard’s ten-day poetry retreat at the La Romita School of Art in Terni, Umbria, Italy. What a wonderful collection of people, many of whom remain close. And I went back in 2019 and 2022!

In 2018, I applied to UBC’s optional residency MFA program. I graduated this spring. I’m working on my first manuscript. And my poems are being published. In May my poem La Belle Epoch of Goldfish was featured in California-based Rattle’s weekly Poets Respond feature. And most recently Richared featured a poem of mine in this blog post and I won the 2021/2022 Freefall Poetry Award for my poem: The Garden Gnome Falls for a Northern Flicker.

Of course, we don’t know what’s going to happen to us in our lives. And when I was in my deeply troubled time, I didn’t dream, to paraphrase other lines from McHugh, that that cramped canal I was in would open up into sound and light and love – but it did.

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