oh the woods are dark and deep
the snow, the ice, steep river banks
and you, and you, lead me through
though I can barely walk though I
can barely, breathless talk, the winter
woods, so silent but for river rock
then river talks, it talks, we walk
through cedar, fir, the path so steep
the day is dusk, you give your hand,
until my stick appears, in duff,
I pick it up, then I gain strength,
then walk and walk til the opening,
hot springs, little canyon pools, so hot
and mud heat-heals my heart, in woods
so dark and deep, on a bridge we kiss
and we have miles to walk then loving sleep,
to keep, and so much more, of lovely sleep.
oh the woods are dark and deep
the closing in, the opening up
of memory, yours, of you
and how we waited, waited
for you to never arrive, never
o our daughter, beloved of us
all, still, you are still, tho November
the ocean’s high sea haunts us
your mother cannot sleep now
it was the closing of them, us
it was the closing of us all, then
the terrible imaginings of broken
mast, broken sails, broken hull
it is the high winds, the North
Atlantic, too grey, too wild, too
much for us to begin this
our green-hued sea grief
and here it is again, November
and the terrible ocean
goes on and on and on
and still, we cannot see you.
Forget the absurd reference to Frieda Kahlo, Emily Carr has zero in common with Kahlo with the exception of female physique. Just as last week in another review Carr was described as “Canada’s answer to Van Gogh,” I find it pathetic that the “old world”, Europe and the UK that is, needs to see Carr’s work in relation to other greats from “anywhere but CANADA”… the colonial attitudes are getting more than tiresome. Our country has been independent for over 140 years. That makes it technically older than Great Britain, Germany, Russia etc… all the countries of Europe who have drawn and redrawn their borders so many times.
Carr was, and continues to be, revolutionary, and more than overlooked. Here we have a woman working ALONE in isolation, in the twee city of Victoria, hiding place of “colonials”, a place where they could go and with a tuned-up English accent, remake themselves. And Emily, stood out as a giant amongst them and for this she received much scorn and mockery for being an artist who happened to be a woman. An artist, who did this all alone without a cadre of acolytes, male and female, or a spouse – why what man would be secure enough and brave enough to stand quietly in the shadow of a giant?
Carr was “headstrong … a tomboy, who preferred animals to people”… well no kidding. Her eldest sister, the head of the family, refused to give her the money she needed for art training in San Francisco, then in Paris and London. Finally she convinced the head of the family trust to fund her studies. But not after a fight. She studied abroad, but eventually had to return to the artistic isolation of twee Victoria, BC (it still has a twee faux-English flavour, including people who are born there but who speak with a slight English accent for heaven’s sake), where she opened a rooming house in order to fund her painting. From this experience came some really well-written books – she was as good a writer, though not as experimental, as she was a painter.
Carr eventually organized a show of her own paintings in Vancouver. Again, what male artist of her calibre would have to do this all alone? Her subject matter, beyond our great forests, and oceans, was that of the First Nations People, whom she recognized were the artisans of the “new world”, akin to what the ‘ancient Briton’s relics are to the English.” Recognizing that in the official government policy of what we now know as cultural genocide, that is, assimilation, Carr warned that the art, architecture and ritual of the First Nations in ‘only a few more years … they will be gone forever into silent nothingness.’ I have often thought about this, and how woefully inadequate the conquerers were at recognizing the 10,000 year cultural heritage of the First Nations has been. How wantonly sacred spaces, ancient weirs, the great forests filled with the symbols (petroglyphs e.g.), traces every bit as worthy as a Sutton Hoo, are destroyed, continues to be one of our country’s greatest shames… just a month ago petroglyphs that were 5 or 6 centuries old were blown up for a road building project in Nanaimo BC. Carr would have been appalled. I am appalled.
After her art show in Vancouver, Carr was totally demoralized by reviews which denigrated her work, especially the paintings of First Nations ‘relics’, decidedly unsuitable for the times in which the First Nations were not even second class citizens. (Shame #2 – it wasn’t until 1963 that First Nations peoples were given the democratic vote… tell that to the First Nations, the Inuit, veterans of the First and Second World War will you??? I guess we Metis were “white” enough to be allowed to vote). Carr packed up her paint brushes for 15 years and never touched a canvas with paint. Instead, as the article states, she became an eccentric, ‘crazy old lady’ with a band of creatures, including her grumpy monkey.
The story ends, if not happily, but better. Lawren Harris, a First World War artist btw, invited Carr to exhibit with him and come to Toronto (the CENTRE OF THE WORLD don’t ya know!). She came, she conquered, she returned to B.C. for the final go at paint, and the rest is, as they say, modernist art history.
Carr was a miracle in our midst. It’s taken a century for the “old world” to find her. Why? Oh let’s not go there shall we… (gender politics, colonialism, collective guilt for the maltreatment of the First Nations from basically an old world model of governance…). As the article states, hers ‘is not so much a macho story of discovery and conquest, but a haunting and occasionally erotic reminder of mystery.’ Indeed, her forests are gorgeous renderings of the sensuality of the living, breathing west coast. Anyone who has walked through the great old growth forest (that which hasn’t been utterly destroyed, in a manner that looks, quite frankly, like la bataille de la Somme), with the Great Pacific battering the coastline nearby, knows the utter potential, the fecundity of the greenness, the scent of the sweet duff, the rotted cedar and fir, the nursery trees, the sheltering of the ferns, a forest bed in which to lie etc. etc…
I celebrate Carr and always have. She was so brave, a visionary who foresaw the environmental cataclysm, and the cultural genocide. The First Nations, by the way, named her Klee Wyck which means “Laughing One”… so what did the First Nations see in her that her own people clearly could not?
Margaret Atwood writes, “Her canvases are so green: she takes you into the middle of the forest.” Atwood is absolutely wrong in this, but then, one can’t blame her, she has never lived in British Columbia for any length of time I believe, and has not grown up in the rain forest as some of us have been lucky to do. No, Carr’s canvases do not ‘take you into the middle of the forest’, they actually transfer one into being of the forest, being one with the forest and landscape. It wasn’t until I was ‘exiled’ in southern Ontario, flat, treeless, doing my Master degree, that upon seeing Carr’s paintings at the McMichael gallery that I finally understood Carr. I looked at this,http://www.kinderart.com/arthistory/emilycarrstrees.jpg , and I finally understood, with tears running down my face. As with all great artists, she takes us home.
Reading further through the major Guardian interview with Margaret MacMillan, Oxford warden and don, I feel compelled to continue this Sunday’s “Sermon”.
Simon Moss, the interviewer d’un age certain, somehow needs to include in his article about this magnificent scholar, her relationship to her MALE ancestor, Lloyd George (no mention of the other half of the genetic equation). When he asks her why she hasn’t traded on this personal history MacMillan responds that she wants “to be seen as myself”. Besides, she says, she’s Canadian.
An academic for a few decades in “a vocationally oriented institution” (Moss’s put-down of Ryerson, a top-notch Canadian school), he asks MacMillan why she hadn’t gone “off to some top-notch university… in the United States?” – ah I guess there aren’t any top notch universities in Canada Mr. Moss.
“I didn’t want to,” she responds, “In many ways it was the best thing to happen to me. I started out teaching history to nurses, engineers, journalists, public health inspectors. A lot of them thought history was a waste of time and they didn’t want to be there, but I learned how to teach and there was a great deal of satisfaction.”
Imagine! Wanting to teach to people doing real jobs? Nurses (a predominantly female profession, what a waste of time Mr. Moss implies)! I mean what could a public health inspector possibly get out of learning all about the Public Health Act of 1848 or 1875 for heaven’s sake??? (plenty in fact).
Indicative of the subject at hand (The Vindication of Women Writers Part 2), MacMillan wasn’t “successful”, as inferred by the interviewer, until after her book on the 1919 Paris Peace talks, “Peacemakers” (2001) was published. This, says MacMillan, was a book about “a bunch of dead white men sitting around a table talking about peace treaties [about a war started by the same constuency]” and she has a drawerful of rejection letters testifying to her commitment to seeing it published. It was after it became a bestseller that she hit the big time academically and as a writer.
Moss the interviewer digs at her and, contextually, at mature women writers and scholars I believe, when he asks her, “Why the relative dawdle?”
MacMillan responds, “I was married at the time, and had a job.” Imagine had she answered, “I was married and had a job raising children” – quelle über-dawdle!!!
The interviewer asks if MacMillan sees her “elevation” (my emphasis) to Oxford don as being a “late flowering”. She responds,’Yes. One of my brothers said, “we’re all on the racetrack and you’re the horse that is ambling along and not doing much. Then suddenly you get a burst of energy as you come round the clubhouse turn and go whoosh”. Again, look at the language even HER BROTHER USES… he implies that being a wife with a job and teaching history to non-academics, that she is ‘ambling along’ and that she is ‘not doing much’. Really? Then too, how he sees their lives and careers as a competition. Proud I am guessing, but possibly threatened by this success? It’s difficult for some men to experience being husband or brother of, rather than the opposite.
The interviewer concurs with this view and continues with the metaphor… “She makes a gesture that suggests a horse surging through the field to win the race, which is just what she’s done.” In other words, MacMillan has “won” the race of life by becoming an Oxford don and being a publishing darling. Well 20 years ago I bought her book, “Women of the Raj” and found it engrossing, well written, informative. However, the subject was on WOMEN, ergo, a nice “ambling along” project of little worth to Moss et al. I guess.
The blatant sexism of this article is SO UNWORTHY of Professor MacMillan who is a good and even scholar, and equally of importance, respectful to her audience.
My final comment is the ridiculous tag line on the article about this very serious and mature voice who is guiding us into the centenary of the war years with her book, “The War That Ended Peace” (2013). It reads: Margaret MacMillan “Don’t ask me who started the war or I’ll burst into tears”. Of all the erudite quotes he could choose from, he chooses this one, and with one fell swoop, reduces this mature, sane voice, to being an emotional, ergo untrustworthy, woman.
When will the Guardian retire the old goats who are really incapable of hearing what women have to say?
I am reflecting upon some comments made by the poet Sean O’Brien at the Robert Graves Conference in Majorca. O’Brien gave a rather good paper, ‘Missing, Presumed Dead? Graves and Contemporary Poetry’. But he marred his presentation with cheap digs at Laura Riding, Graves’s lover and collaborator for 13 years, and who, I believe, may have saved his post-war sanity if not his life (then the opposite too but that’s another story for later!), and certainly was a HUGE influence for the good on his work from 1926-1936. Worse though, were O’Brien’s comments about “older lady writers”, and his caution to poets who give workshops to ignore them “at your peril” [these “hobby writers” are the bread and butter i.e. a necessary evil]. He received the cheap chuckle from the audience he’d anticipated.
Well after enduring an opening lecture by another male poet of an age, in which misogynist clangers were dropped left and right, and the de rigeur digs at Riding (cheap laughs to a chapel already half-converted), I felt like getting up and walking out, but in both cases I didn’t. Why? Because I didn’t want to be rude to my host, the very kind and generous William Graves, the poet’s son, but a person in his own right entirely.
Still, I am compelled to write about those two male poets of an age, after reading an interview, in today’s Guardian, with Margaret MacMillan, Oxford don, historian, author of several big history books, the most recent being “The War That Ended Peace”. I met Margaret at a reception Canada House this year in London. She’s Canadian and is the head of an Oxford college. She is, to put it mildly, a brainiac. A soft-spoken, approachable and thoughtful scholar is she, and respectful… repeat, RESPECTFUL to her audience.
Well reading her interview today I read that her breakthrough as a writer came when she was in her 50’s. And I thought about all the amazing women who began writing in their 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and even 70’s, and I thought about those cheap remarks made for cheap laughs that O’Brien et al. dropped on us. I contend that for many, many women, it is not until their childbearing and childrearing years are done (even if women don’t have children their years and bodies are somewhat concerned with this, thus the wonderful phenomena of “post-menopausal zest”), and the bulk of their husband-sitting is done (i.e. anchoring the home while he makes his big career in some cases… it’s observed in some widows too, a surge of creativity and sparkle once their grieving is done), that there is little room in which the woman has space to write – literally and figuratively, most importantly, emotionally and psychologically.
Many women do not have the confidence to write until much later, or in some cases, it is only later in life that they have the time to formulate what they need to say, and how they wish to say it. So to poke fun at new writers who are women in their 60’s and 70’s for example, is blatantly wrong.
“A Room of One’s Own”, wrote Virginia Woolf, is what a woman writer needs. She adds too, that a personal income of approx. $50k is necessary. She also needs a partner who sees her work as work, and not a hobby, even if it doesn’t make the big $$$, and a partner who does not feel threatened by her success.
Well Mr. O’Brien, what I say a woman writer needs, is to have respect given to her for the wisdom of a woman’s life lived. A boy is encouraged to speak out. At 60 or 70, or 80, our elders lived through a time when this was discouraged, and they deserve to be listened to, whether in poetic form, or otherwise.
Here endeth the sermon.
late September. a bridge. half-moon slippery wood. rain. the faces of two. look down into water. lilies. Lost Lagoon. surfaced, a Seurat, of tiny green points. O painter who makes this. perfection. they. look down into water. see. two faces stare back. nineteen again. when first he says “I love you”. but then. she had been. too young. to hear. him. future. looked away. now September. late. blows tiny wavelets. fresh water stirs up mud. September. decades cool. west coast mist. on her face. on a Japanese bridge she. he. clean. new. look down. beneath the surface. the last silvery fish of summer. look up. look up. taste the autumn. taste of love seasoned. taste of another. first kiss.
where is the mercy in these black, wet, streets
Downtown Vancouver, Lower eastside,
condos creep out those
for whom the world won’t weep
for whom the world won’t weep
these children in wasted adult-size
bodies, uncradled, cold, cold, cold,
wrapped in rain, wrapped in shame,
wrapped in rain, wrapped in shame
needled, crack cocaine, tricks
but no treats, o where o where
is mercy on these black, wet, streets?
here is mercy
you hold my hand tight, so tight
your life-pulse, warm, guide
me, I am cradled, I am a girl in
warmth, your tallness, your capability,
you walk me through these black, wet streets,
protect me, cloak me, free me to pray
o pray, how I want to pray
for those for whom the world can’t,
or simply will not weep,
your hand holding mine strong,
frees me to pray and pray.