What to write about.... The eternal problem of the empty page.
Last night I went to the Poetry London readings, and everyone who has that problem should have been there. Paul Vermeersh read poems about everything and anything. Koko the famous signing gorilla led him down dark historical paths through the fierce strength of monsters and the delicacy of Koko’s arms protecting that little kitten. We found ourselves sloshing around in deep human undercurrents. All of us could easily have started a poem with Koko, but last night we got to see where a really open mind could go. Pick an animal, he said. We picked the coyote. In
I really wanted to get home and start writing. I didn’t know what, except that for sure by the time I sat down I would be flying.
The other reader was Karen Solie. What an incredible contrast. No flights of fancy. She described the complexities of the life she actually saw. After Vermeersh, her verses at first seemed pedestrian and boring. But the content of those poems had the pull of reality and we were soon there with her. If she had used impressive poetics, demonstrating her fancy fingerwork on the frets, she would have destroyed the world she was showing us. What she tried to do was describe it perfectly. So we couldn’t miss seeing what she saw exactly as she saw it. AND in a poetic way. Well, she’s from Saskatchewan. Of course. How could a writer like that come from anywhere else? And some of her poems brought a little of the airy prairie into the room with them. I could feel it. I know what it feels like. It’s a big part of my own life.
By the time I got home, I knew what I wanted to write about. It had never occurred to me as a subject for a poem until Vermeersh opened me up to it and Solie delivered it on a plate.
Back in the 1980s, when I was walking across the prairie, there were still grain elevators in every town and village. And as I plodded along, finally after three months fairly comfortable under my heavy backpack, I began to notice that the towns and villages were evenly spaced. But from my vantage point, on foot, it was the grain elevators, not the towns, that were evenly spaced (and of course they were the whole point because they had been built to be not too far away from farmers travelling with horses). For something to do, I began trying to pinpoint the exact midpoint between the elevators by swinging my head rapidly back and forth and walking until the tiny images of the elevators in both towns were exactly the same size. There was a space of about ten yards where I couldn’t see any difference. I would step back five yards and stand in the exact midpoint, a point centered on the flat plain of the prairie that separated the endless air from the endless earth. I would stand there and look around satisfied.
There were very few people out in that country, not counting the occupants of cars passing by. Which was fine with me, the shy country boy that I was. Occasionally the wheat fields would give way to a pasture and as I passed I would watch a herd of cows standing around, or laying there chewing their cuds. Sometimes I would hide myself as best I could and cry like a young calf in trouble. One cow would get concerned, then more and finally the whole herd would be running toward me. Until they saw it was only me. We were all disappointed.
On my way through the town of Pense, outside Regina, I found a phone booth and looked up Joe Fafard, my favourite sculpor. I had read that he lived there and
all the way across the prairie I had hoped that when I finally got there I would have the guts to call him. I used a role I had discovered, that of a guy out on a great adventure, trying to walk across Canada. It sufficiently impressed him that he invited me over for supper. He talked a lot. He had to because I could
hardly squeeze a word out. I think the prairie had made me even shyer than living in the city had. I was a moving hermit. Anyway, I don’t remember much of what he told me, except about this big cow he was working on. I had seen a lot of his cows: photos in magazines, actual little sculptures in museums. They were all perfect.
I knew how they should look. I had grown up with cows. Bringing them home to be milked. Milking them by hand with my dad. Once I very carefully laid back in against the curved neck of one of our big, powerful Herefords, feeling like she was my mother, watching as she swung her head around and looked back at me out of the side of that huge transparent hemisphere of an eye. Then went back to chewing her cud. Once, having watched calves playing all my life, I got down on all fours and approached one, a calf larger than I was. I was amazed when it didn’t move away as I bunted the top of my head against it’s own head, and I was even more amazed as it began to push back against me and then me back against it. We had so much fun. Me and him. I felt like a calf and he felt like a boy.
Joe Fafard showed me the projects he was working on in his studio, a building sort of like a little barn. A few were cows but he had small people there too, and other things. But I finally had to ask him about the cow in front of his house that wasn’t yet finished. It was life-size, welded together from rebar. It wasn’t finished but what was there was the perfect big old cow shape, laying there on the yard, belly full of grass. I couldn’t grasp how he could build it with rebar. I asked him. Do you use a drawing? Figure out exactly how long each piece should be? And what angle to bend it, before welding. What if you get it wrong? How do you redo it? The answer was simple. It’s all in his head. His eyes hold the finished cow and all the parts. He had grown up with cows. Cows are part of the prairie landscape. Of course they were inside him. He couldn’t not build a perfect cow. The prairie is too simple to get wrong. Its simplicity is part of
its perfection. And a cow is the perfect animal for that prairie. The comfortable way it stands, walks around. How its mouth opens on the grass at its feet with no strain, how it lays so restfully chewing its cud. People have to smoke or eat or peddle bikes or talk. Cows chew and gaze, half inwardly half outwardly. Time passes slowly around them like the breeze.
Joe lived in amongst this perfection. It was part of him, so he could not help but sculpt it, and of course perfectly. I live in the city and there is no perfection here. The only route to anything resembling it is inward toward the mental world, the only perfectable world we have. Poetry. I have this strong desire.