After we learned to live with the plague, we learned to survive without the city’s darkness, thanks to the curfew. It is clear what we have lost in this pandemic: lives, loved ones, health, jobs, businesses, fearlessness, spontaneity, the gift of company, culture, simplicity, reasonably priced food, and affordable resources. What we lost in the curfew was just as prized and worth invoking.
When Langston Hughes writes that he is “Black like the night is Black,” he tacitly compares White skin to day and suggests that both day and night are complementary and essential, not superior and inferior or in a relationship of enmity. There is no day without night, no night without day, yet for months we lived in the eternal light of the sun and LED bulbs as if the coronavirus lurked in the starker nocturnal shadows of a cruder mind when it was just as prevalent during the day in schools, factories, posh and humbler shops, planes, metros and buses.
What I lost in the curfew was poetry without charge, the velvet hush of a foggy evening, the dreams and fertile night/mares dusk summons forth, the fading warmth of defeated humanity in bars, the silent magic of that first snow falling against the glare of a streetlight, the defiant life of mannequins in shop windows, inspiring us into desire and resistance.
Darkness matters; it is in cooling, sensual obscurity that we grow resilient against the glare and assault of aggressive light. It is in the freedom of nightfall that we imagine better days.
My father’s death defeated me; I felt robbed by it. It didn’t come as a surprise because he had cancer, lung metastases to be exact, and we were told at some point that he had a month left at most. Still, his death defeated me. He was absent during his own father’s death a continent away, so he told me one day that being there for a parent’s dying was a privilege. I didn’t understand what he meant until he passed away himself. It wasn’t just that I had wanted to see him out as he had seen me being born, or that I had wanted to be there in some foolish act of solidarity. It was that, selfishly, I had also hoped to learn from the act of dying. He had been a born teacher, as well as a university professor, and I, who am naturally inquisitive, had wanted him to teach me that one last thing as he had taught me to fight bullies, stand up for my principles, or use my first camera or computer. Instead, he went through that rite of passage on his own, which is to say very much alone, as if he had not wanted to share what I know he saw as a beating, a vanquishment, because he’d thought until the very end that he could trick death.
In “The Race,” a poem taken from The Father, the collection in which she details her father’s dying and death, Sharon Olds recounts running breathless through an airport to catch a plane so as to be at his bedside. Having made it, she “walked into his room” and, with gratefulness, simply “watched him breathe.” I remembered that poem on January 30, 2018, as my best friend drove as fast as she could through the streets of Montréal to bring me to the palliative-care hospital on time after my mother had called to say my father had lapsed into a coma. It was a Tuesday, early in the morning, and over the mountain Westmount parents were dropping off their children and double-parking their massive SUVs in front of posh schools, so traffic was stalled and slow. Unlike Olds, I did not make it on time. I tumbled out of my friend’s car and ran over the iced parking lot, through the halls of the hospital, and finally into my father’s room, but my mother, who’d arrived before me, mouthed the words “It’s over” as I stood by his bed, smiling in confusion because he still looked so life-like with his eyes open wide, his mouth agape in what seemed like wonder. Even my mother had missed the moment of his last breath.
I had no idea how to process the sovereign solitariness of his passing. Only an hour later, when a nurse told me that she guessed I was his daughter because I resembled him, did I allow my sorrow to well up through my shock in an awkward surge of uncomprehending hurt. So I did not learn a thing from my father about dying, and have few stories about that, other than that I know now it is possible to cross that threshold unaccompanied, not because we are born alone and will die alone as the cliché goes, but because sometimes the people we love just don’t make it to our deathbed on time or at all.
In “His Smell,” Sharon Olds also remembers her father’s scent before he died: he smelled “like wet cement. . . crushed granite. . . Jurassic shale. . . tang of chlorine. . . the faint mold from the rug in the house. . . .” The similes are strongly evocative of the organic and the chemical.
Five days before my own father died, the doctor, a young Jewish woman, took us aside and whispered, “It won’t be long. He has begun to smell of death.” She knew my mother was a doctor too, so I suppose she saw no need to be less blunt, something I appreciated. After the doctor left, I leaned over and, like a small animal, sniffed my father’s neck and cheek as I said goodbye to him that day, yet I picked up on nothing unusual and marvelled at her refined and sensitive nose. But when I got home to my parents’ house to prepare tea for my exhausted mother, I noticed a thick coating of ice on the front steps, walked inside, found a hammer in my father’s toolbox, came out again, and on my knees began furiously cudgelling the ice. Son of a bitch, I thought; you’re leaving us. And now I have to take care of everything without you! I whacked the ice so hard that pain rose up my arm, strummed my shoulder’s tendons, and the hammer’s head flew off the handle in a wide arc and landed in the snow behind me.
That evening I looked online for descriptions of the smell of dying: here science and literature diverge, for it is said to be a sweet smell—the smell of acetone, or nail polish remover—caused by changes in metabolism as the body shuts down. But I missed that too and was therefore left without my own poetic similes.
To me, my father had simply smelled like my father at that stage of his life when he was tired and letting go. He who had always appreciated the citrusy tang of fragrances by Christian Dior or Calvin Klein now felt like a slightly neglectful or musty old man. Four weeks before his death he had asked for something to make himself feel better: not a full-bodied fragrance, he had explained, but something lighter, so I bought him a modest French cologne by Mont St-Michel. He had looked lost as he’d fingered the bottle and asked, haltingly, “Where do I apply this?” What had been a sort of last wish a few days earlier had been forgotten already as death loomed nearer and instructed him to disremember everything, even the smallest pleasures. At Christmas, he had eaten a thread, a mere fibre of roast duck, just for a last taste of the meat he loved most, before sitting back in his chair as if that had been too much effort for one day, and after that he never sat at a table or ate anything again. He drank milk through a straw, and then not even that, just water now and again, and then ice chips.
Dying is an intensely material, physiological process. In cases where the patient dies a slow death, as my father did, that process is well known and described quite precisely by the medical community: the patient loses his appetite, loses the capacity to rise up from his bed, sleeps all day, becomes incontinent, breathes more shallowly and infrequently, and at the end, curiously, the toes curl up. A day or so before death, a brief period of uncanny lucidity is not uncommon. My father, who lost all his bearings in the week that preceded his death, suddenly sat up in bed twenty-four hours before he died and asked my mother when her birthday was. Even as he’d lost his appetite completely, my mother had insisted on feeding him a small meal daily, which he had rejected impatiently. Her denial was strong. Now stunned and encouraged by his sudden burst of energy and revived memory, she told him delightedly that it was to be the next day. Science can account for much, but not for these small acts of seemingly literary irony.
Neither does science account for those Wittgensteinian areas, those scientific vacuums whereof we cannot speak and about which we must perhaps remain silent—namely, the metaphysical. What happens at death? Do we cross over into some other quantic reality, some other realm?
In my father’s case, 2018 was not the first time he’d died. He’d had a first crack at it eight years earlier when he lay in the intensive care unit after a bout of double pneumonia and had a heart attack. I was there that time, and just before he collapsed and the doctors called a Code Blue and pushed us brusquely out of the room, he had a moment of being quite literally somewhere else. He stared at a corner of the room as if he were recognizing someone he’d known a very long time ago and was surprised to see again, and in the process knocked the attending nurse’s glasses off her nose as he pointed past her. He did not seem frightened so much as pleasantly surprised, as if he’d never thought he would see that person again, but there he or she was. Because I was convinced that he was seeing something of tremendous import, I looked to where he was pointing and then back at his face, but unlike him I was tethered firmly to this world and saw nothing. Then he collapsed, his heart a tightened fist.
They intubated him, put him on a life-support machine, and when he woke up several hours later, his wrists tied to the sides of the bed so he wouldn’t pull off the breathing tube, he gave the finger to whomever entered his room, and he grunted angrily, demanding to be disintubated. He had been jolted, shocked back to life, and the vision he had seen had perhaps been far more cordial, warm, and strangely human than the brutal reality of the intensive care unit.
Experiencing apparitions before death is quite typical, in fact. In TheArt of Dying, neuropsychologist Peter Fenwick outlines what dying might be like from the narratives of a large sampling of people who underwent a near-death experience. In many cases, persons on the brink of death claim to be visited by the manifestation of a dead relative who tells them that they have come to bring them over to the other side of life. In Christian communities, these apparitions are often said to be angels. I will never know what my atheist father saw before he almost died. When he recovered, he lost all memory of that moment, which raises questions about what those people interviewed by Dr. Fenwick actually remembered.
Science quits at the threshold of death. It might describe physiological phenomena, speak of the death of the heart and that of the brain, describe brain activity that, in rare cases, can last up to ten minutes after the body is said to have died, or note that genetic activity continues frenetically in the days after death, but death remains far more inscrutable to scientists than it does to authors, who paint it and what lies beyond in bold, sensual strokes: “[I]t seems to me,” Pablo Neruda writes in “Nothing But Death,” “that [Death’s] singing has the colour of damp violets.” The operatic and the cemeterial mingle here in a haunting metaphor, but above all, Neruda suggests that death is a continuance: death comes, the dying die, death sings, exeunt the dead, death sings; nothing really ends.
Others belittle death with the idea that spirit rises higher than the mouldy hand of mortality. In “Death Be not Proud,” John Donne appears quite positive that death’s power is limited and even that “poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well, / And better then [death’s] stroake.” Why then grant death such a terrifying hold over our imagination? In fact, imagination holds greater sway over death because, Donne tells us with confidence, it allows us to spook death by claiming that it too can be defeated by mere sleep. For Mary Oliver, in “When Death Comes,” the only true capacity of death consists in simply stepping forward, much like a cab driver or a concierge, while she, the dying, steps “through the door full of curiosity, wondering: / what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?” Death is but an impersonal sort of worker who ushers an actor with tremendous agency onto another phenomenal but enigmatic reality. Scientists doubt and stop at the point where hesitation stumbles into unknowing. Literature dashes forward and takes desire for a fact: death is not the end; spirit goes on and story takes over.
As my father lay on his narrow hospital bed in January 2018, I could have recalled that purple patch from Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, the one that begins: “We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes” and goes on to claim that bodies are marked with experience and become, in death, a posthumous “cartography.” But what I saw on my father’s face on the day of his death was not the intricate stamp of experience but rather innocence and soul restored. He had grown up and defied the Church that had attempted to oppress him; he had stood up to dictatorship, gone to prison, sought exile twice and become a refugee in possession of a United Nations passport, learned new languages in order to survive in new territories, tended to others as a doctor; he had taught thousands of students, trained young physicians, guided them in keeping others alive and healthy; he had struggled with marriage and fatherhood and doubted himself as a professional; he had fought his demons, and asked for forgiveness for his errors before dying.
In the last years of his life one of his sole remaining joys had been to feed the blue jays and cardinals that stopped by the crabapple tree in his backyard every Spring until they visited him with their young later in Summer, as if to gratefully introduce them to him before leaving in late Fall. In death, he was closer to infancy than to experience: he was free, rid of conventions, expectations, disappointments. He was, quite simply, done with us and with all this, and I was angry because I envied him his hard-earned, new-found, thunderous, and unchangeable peace and resented that he left us behind to fight all the tiresome, petty battles until our own time comes.
Because he had always loved bodies of water and had sailed as a young man, he’d asked that we scatter his ashes upon the waters of the St. Lawrence River. Some friends were horrified and asked if I’d have to step into the churning waters holding his ashes in an urn. Was that not dangerous? Was it wise? “No,” a friend, a playwright, admonished, “that sounds like the very formula for a tragicomedy.” But one funeral home agreed to perform this rite for us, and because I’d fought them tooth and nail so they wouldn’t read any scriptures during the funeral, the officiant turned to us in a moment of slight disorientation and, feeling that words were nonetheless necessary, said earnestly that from now on we would be able to feel my father everywhere in nature as he rose up from the waters as steam, joined clouds, rained down upon the earth, and made things grow.
Despite my customary sarcasm, I was unexpectedly satisfied with what was an uncomfortable improvisation that produced this simple ecology of death. Even today, it still seems truer to the essence of death itself than most of the offerings of science or literature. T.S Eliot was wrong, I think: there is no fear in the “handful of dust” that is death, only the tenderness of the Zen Koan known as the Original Face Koan, which asks, “What did your face look like before your parents were born?” The answer—which in classical Zen training must be grasped intuitively—is that it is the face of the universe and of original consciousness itself. There is no death, no Dies Irae, no Kyrie; there is, certainly, a transformation that allows for a return we rarely ponder in earnest, in another form entirely, but that partakes in a sort of symphony of natural systems or structures that we cannot fully hear or grasp, but that we may at times divine when we are open to it.
My father’s funeral in the month of May was attended by few. It was what he had wanted and asked for. In February, on the date of his birthday, I had quietly organized a Buddhist ceremony to send off his soul in wisdom and peace. I consider myself a pragmatic Buddhist; I adhere to the practice of Buddhism but shun what I cannot verify, so I cannot speak to reincarnation, but he had not always been a peaceful spirit, and I felt he probably needed the blessings on whatever journey he had entered. On the day of his funeral in May we congregated at a point where the river is calm, out East on the Island of Montréal, and laid flowers upon his ashes, which were encased in ice. The flowers, however, fell off long before the ashes themselves sank into the river although they floated along and accompanied his remains like loyal and attentive vegetal pallbearers, and I too walked and then ran along the shore for a little while to see him off once and for all, and when the block of ice tipped over into the gray waters, my heart capsized along with it, and it was a long time before I was able to emerge from that Orphic descent.
When we drove off to return home, a large blue jay perched on a light signal, and as I waved at it to acknowledge this unexpected last tribute to my father, it flew off and the light turned green. It is that very material ecology of death I wish for myself when it will be my turn: humans, plants, and beasts present to witness my next, but not my last, metamorphosis. Much more so than by literature or science, my loss is tempered by this artless reality.
In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, the fox instructs the princeling in the rites of friendship and notes that they are necessary to prepare the heart for the arrival of a friend. In Mapping Grief, the solo show directed by Nisha Coleman and presented at the 2017 Montreal Fringe Festival, writer and storyteller Gina Granter asks whether the heart can ever really be prepared, especially for the loss of a loved one. The fox, after all, is right: the heart loves certainty and stability; that’s the nature of the sentient heart.
If Granter’s Mapping Grief holds this brief dialogue with Saint-Exupéry’s iconic work, it is also tacitly wrought around an old myth, that of Orpheus and Eurydice. Both stories underline the precarious nature of love and life. Orpheus, a poet and musician, loses his beloved Eurydice to a viper’s bite on their wedding day. Grief-stricken, he composes such sorrowful songs that he is advised to travel to the Underworld, where Hades agrees, exceptionally, to allow Eurydice to return to the Upperworld on condition that Orpheus walk ahead and never turn back to look at her. The proviso proves too difficult to fulfill; doubt and temptation are too great: Orpheus looks back and loses Eurydice once more, this time forever. I have often wondered what the myth is about: does it mean to stress the necessity of faith, does it posit that free will might be our undoing, or is it a parable for the notion that fate is unalterable? On the face of it, the tale seems to suggest that nothing’s for certain: here today, gone tomorrow.
In Mapping Grief, Gina Granter explores a real-life tale of young loss. Yet without even mentioning Hades’s name, she defies him as she travels back in time to revisit and bring back from the dangers of oblivion her love story with Blake, a young man she met in Halifax when she was a student and whom she lost when he was merely 23 and died alone in Michigan. What strikes the audience instantly is that Granter, a writer of poetic prose, is more cunning than Orpheus, for she retrieves Blake for herself and us, and thus ensures his immortality through art. Perhaps the ancient Greeks didn’t get it; perhaps it takes a strong, young, vital woman to defeat the gods and beat this whole business about the precarity of things.
A student of James Joyce and of literary Modernism, Granter, who is also a professor of English, structures her story as a series of vignettes, the telling of which takes a mere hour, but the story is tensely anachronological rather than comfortably linear. Her narrative begins in July 2016 with a description of the unique flickering pattern of the lighthouse she knew growing up in Newfoundland: “Two seconds on, two seconds off,” she tells the audience, foreshadowing the very transience of Blake’s existence on this earth. From there she moves on to the sound of the chimes on a Newfoundland porch, which remind her of the chimes Blake must have heard outside his bedroom window in Michigan on the night of his untimely death. Sixty minutes later, Granter ends her narrative as she finds a meaningful receipt he had placed in a book, and which she discovers only after his death; this in turn takes her back to the plans he had formulated about living with her in Montréal and to the last words spoken by the irrepressible Molly Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses. Granter’s ostensibly unpredictable yet sly meanderings through her recollections, which take her to Newfoundland, New York, Halifax, Michigan, Ottawa, Vermont and Montréal, seem designed to confound ancient gods like Hades, who know how the story ends. Instead, it appeals most to a contemporary audience that prefers to savour the process of fragmented and lyrical discourse rather than wait for a predictable dénouement or punchline.
Throughout Mapping Grief, Granter refers to a considerable number of artistic works that seem to have their place in her narrative as witnesses to the enduring powers of life, youth, love, urgency, innocence, and artistic timelessness. From Bruce Springsteen to Phish, from PJ Harvey’s “A Perfect Day, Elise” to Leonard Cohen’s The Favourite Game, from Sir Frederic Leighton’s Flaming June to Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, from Joyce’s Ulysses to The Little Prince, and from Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear series to Patti Smith’s Just Kids, these allusions remind the audience that art may be a marketplace commodity, but it is also a gift of the spirit; as such, it is the least complacent of commodities and it tends to last longer than most man-made products. In Mapping Grief, these works stand guard along the way and allow us to pause and meditate upon our own life and its artistic landmarks. Just as importantly, they warn us that the golden-haired, green-eyed Blake himself is being shielded from erasure.
But the voyage out of darkness is far from easy. Granter’s Underworld is a chamber of echoes as one memory and sensory stimulus invites another: chimes echo chimes; a redwood sauna in New York reminds Granter of another redwood sauna in a different state where she hid during the wake that followed her lover’s death; Granter’s fondness for bear lore is serendipitously shared by the young Blake, whom she has just met; he happens to play the Irish music Granter grew up on in Newfoundland; Molly Bloom’s heroic and sublime final words reverberate Granter’s own open acceptance of Blake’s offer of a first kiss and a veggie burger; and just as Granter’s favourite painting, Flaming June, lies curled up in a sensuous nap, Blake dies curled up in his sleep, oblivious to his own dying. Although we cheer Granter when she bravely brings Blake back with her and makes him real for us in all of his quirkiness and decency, it is almost impossible not to flinch at the way in which she valiantly bruises her own heart as she collides with one exacting yet delicate memory after another.
Granter, it’s true, is adept at dramatic performance. The stage during Mapping Grief is mostly bare of props, save for a set of wind chimes and a large trunk that contains books and bookends. Director Nisha Coleman has led Granter into using those few props in expressive ways. The trunk becomes a seat in a sauna, in a plane, in a bus, as well as an armchair during a hallucinogenic mushroom trip. The chimes create random melodies, and the books evoke the coziness of Granter’s student days as well as Blake’s own bookshelves when they first meet. In addition to those few but well-used props, Granter’s performance is joyfully physical, which at times tempers the deep sorrow of her loss. Her skittish glee as she recounts discovering that Blake loved bear stories as much as she is surprising and galvanizing at once. Similarly, a memorable scene in which she tells of dancing to Phish after smoking half an old joint found in the pocket of an outrageous hand-sewn dress while thinking that her adult life is just beginning and that the future will always be bright induces laughter in an audience that has likely erred in similar ways, but it also stirs up genuine sorrow, because Blake’s early, unjust demise was narrated in darkness just moments before she performs her goofily graceful, carefree, stoned-out dance.
Granter’s genius, then, lies not just in the clever anachronology of her narrative, but also in the way in which she brings the audience to tears and succeeds in making it laugh a moment later. As we greet her out of the shadows while she firmly holds on to the memory of her beloved Blake after having woven her way back and forth between the United States and Canada, we smile, chuckle, laugh out loud, cry a little, sit up straight, hold our breath, lean forward to share her grief, and sigh with a sense of relief that she is now okay and has found love again, but also that her heart still retains a place for Blake, who is now safely out of the murky Underworld and has joined our summer.
After a successful run at Montréal’s Fringe Festival in June, Granter hopes to restage Mapping Grief in future months. Every Montréaler who is a sucker for a good love story as well as a nakedly honest performance and magnificent writing should catch Granter’s show when it reappears. It takes courage to tell such a personal story and it takes talent not to sound maudlin telling it. What ensures that the show is not self-pitying is Granter’s knowledgeable use of music, art, literature, literary techniques, and a physical fearlessness that delights all the way from obscurity into the light, all the way from crippling precariousness into faith, and all the way from fear to audacity. Watching Mapping Grief, one cannot help but lose one’s fear of love. And that’s an arrow shot right into the cowardly heart of instability.
Cope, Karin. What We’re Doing to Stay Afloat. Pottersfield Press, 2015. 96 pages
Persephone in Canada
Karin Cope, a poet, blogger, photographer, videographer, activist, and sailor works in Halifax, where she teaches, and lives several miles outside the city’s limits on a large property facing the ocean. Her first collection of poems, What We’re Doing to Stay Afloat, is promoted on the back cover as the interweaving of, among other things, “melancholia and surrealism,” monologues that “become dialogues,” and “want ads and Facebook posts” that are “recycled into intimate domestic conversations,” which gives readers the impression of a postmodern assemblage of found poetry and texts that might tell us “where we are . . . gives us light to row by, perhaps long enough to sight an approach to the next harbor.” The description is accurate, as short conventional poems succeed amusing, elliptical narratives, which precede a well-crafted, self-administered interview, itself followed by a complex layering of voices in a long poem titled “Blind.” Cope is thorough about the influences and voices that inform her work, all of which are documented in the book’s notes. This proliferation of genres and sources is one of the manifestations of postmodernism, and nowadays it is prevalent, yet Cope’s collection of poems lends itself just as well to a less fragmented reading.
As poems rooted in winter, ice, and darkness herald a thankful ascent towards warmth and light, Cope’s implied persona in What We’re Doing to Stay Afloat might well be that of Persephone, the maiden abducted by Hades, king of the underworld. Subjected to spending six months below earth and six months above, she personifies harvest or nature itself, retreating in winter to shoot forth again in spring. Despite its nautical title—a metaphor for our need to survive life’s precarity—solid ground is present in the poems as often as not, and speaker after speaker, trapped in winter, waits for sunlight to appear, for fog to disperse, for ice to melt.
What Cope makes clear from start to finish is that staying even-keeled in today’s world isn’t a given: the book’s title itself suggests that leaks and all kinds of brokenness are inevitable. The labour needed to avoid the shipwreck of a life is defined throughout the book, for the speaker in each poem cannot lie: life as we know it, life in a world gone unstable, where the weak keep getting more vulnerable, is as occasionally wondrous as it is, well, hard. The exotic delicacy of a “doe’s nose” and of “otter prints at the water’s edge” coalesce with cabin fever and disconnection. Cope, who hails from Ohio but has lived in Canada for a little over two decades, isn’t shy about adopting the tropes that have made Canadian literature what it is: those of Northrop Frye’s garrison mentality and of Margaret Atwood’s sense that our literature is above all about survival. Wintry, Nordic withdrawal leads to temporary madness, lurks on the periphery of several poems, attacks the speakers’ brain and tongue, leaves them and us waterlogged, wind-battered, and frozen. But none of this occurs without moments of euphoria and a will to—as William Faulkner liked to put it—endure and prevail, something that Atwood once deplored was missing from our literature.
What We’re Doing to Stay Afloat, which I read here as a Persephone-like quest, begins with a poetic epigraph that refashions a friend’s letter to Cope written upon hearing that she was devising a book of poems. “[C]an we be patrons?” her friend writes, amused, as she proceeds to list a number of sensual requests: she would love to read poems about lines crossed unawares, picked berries and warm pies, meditations on music and chocolate. Cope obliges her patroness, but does it her way. No berries or pie here, no chocolate; instead she launches into a series of poems in a language at times less optimistic than that of her expectant patroness: that of a persona who struggles every day against the slow and worried sinking that life commands of those who try to escape the grind but find that it is part of the human condition.
Her patroness’ call for a poem about lines crossed without realizing it, for instance, generates an oddly satisfying narrative that seems culled from a news story or a state trooper’s retelling. It features three characters: Piper, his childhood friend Tek, and Piper’s wife, all of whom hurt and shoot one another dead or are shot over a period of roughly twenty years in one dumb, thoughtless moment after another as the law, which has the last word, comments on both their lack of judgment and its own impotence with a dumbfounding lack of self-awareness. Not once, however, does Cope sacrifice poetry and rhythm to the altar of the absurd. When, “for a lark,” Piper ties Tek to the hitch of his truck and drives off, “rivulets of stone rake [Tek’s] pretty face twenty feet of gravel rub him raw.” Cope’s ear is faultless. Likewise, “Unfreeze (not quite a valentine)” describes a domestic quarrel that takes place as the sea is “covered in ice” and cars are encased in “brittleness.” Incongruously, a chair is “flung down / bounces and does not / break.” Ice here does not melt; furniture fails to fracture and end the tension. The line between the quotidian and sudden violence is almost invisible.
Yet as each wintry poem files past our eyes, mind, and spirit, we begin to understand that Cope’s implied persona is on a quest of sorts, a poetic one for another horizon she can explore, one that will finally yield radiance, warmth, freedom, and desire. Her journey is accomplished cyclically, again and again throughout the collection. Darkness and light chase each other to the end as the imperious patroness’ wishes are minded, but always with an element of surprise. Where the latter asks for a poem about a “world in / black and white,” the embattled speaker offers a stunningly sensual poem titled “In the company of painters,” which lists the “names of colours,” insisting: “let us repeat them (Blue Phtalo, Venetian Red / Burnt Sienna).” Yet Cope nonetheless abides by her patroness’ rules in listing the phrases painters tend to utter: “(Gather your whites)” or “(Don’t scatter your darks).” As she knows, her persona’s very quest is etched in the blacks and whites of winter as well as in the colours of other seasons.
Persephone’s voyage into winter soon meets its mandatory initiation in the savagery of the subterranean world. In “Hurt birds (on the politics of blame),” perhaps the most startling poem of the collection, the speaker dreams of small birds huddled on a table. “I’ve been plucking feathers from their / wings,” she confesses. “I don’t know why I do it” (but we do, of course; it is because she herself is still forbidden flight from Hades, so why would others be allowed to fly off or flee?). She tries to blame the cat for her own graphic dream, as she half-believes she has been channeling its sadistic fantasies, but in a final moment of affecting lucidity, she forces herself to name her own heartlessness. This sense that we are all responsible for the pain that is in the world, which is a reflection of our own, is one of the lessons Persephone brings back from her cold underworld and it finds an echo in “Blind,” in which one of the many voices weaving their way through it cries out in a moment of terror as she attempts to rest, but can’t because news of the world assails her conscience. For a while, it seems as if staying afloat is impossible.
The poet’s patroness might be her guide through this mythical journey, even if her demands appear to be arbitrary. Still, they seem to remind the author’s persona of the difference between her immediate needs and her dreams of freedom from winter or from the necessity of survival. The invitation to a verse about chocolate instead produces “Pocket full of rusty nails,” a short poem in which the speaker’s drained voice hopes that on the other side of a pocket full of rusty nails and grocery lists that engender “mouldy pears” will be a different mouthful, “round & full” this time. Hope, then, is present, but for desire to dare speak its name, it must first confront the reality of daily routine and “endless lists of tasks.” In “When last I died,” an interview the author inflicts upon her poetic persona in the manner of artist Sophie Calle, the implied Persephone describes her life as one of established unemotional deprivation: “I wear others’ castoffs, and can hardly remember a new pair of shoes,” she states plainly. Survival isn’t a catwalk. Accordingly, she trains her mind against the longing that might weaken her endurance.
Anticipation, however, grows bit by bit. “Nothing lasts,” we are told, not even the cold or the wind. In another poem, the sun “comes and goes like emotion,” and in “When I last died,” Cope’s persona completes the interview by listing joyful estivate yearnings: “[p]eaches. The scent of dog’s paws,” for “desire is everything.” And suddenly, spring arrives and sparrows appear; Persephone is almost ready to emerge from her frozen domain. Earlier, she dares imagine the feeling as being akin to flying and competing with an eagle for airspace. ”I’d stare her down,” the speaker dreams, feminizing the eagle in a moment of sisterly bravado conveyed through one of Cope’s many happy enjambments, “I’m here: don’t bother me. Go / find your own air.” Cope’s persona suffers an important and defining setback, however, as she wonders what madness makes one forget that “with heat, comes fog,” and the sublime long poem, “Blind,” launches Persephone back into a Hades of fog, shadows, and braided voices, from which she finally arises on her way to transformation. Cope’s last poem, “When first you set out,” reminds us of her questing predilections but also of the lessons learned. “Why are some days so full of light?” she asks, now alive to the splendor of ordinariness, and “[w]ho cares about perfection?”
What We’re Doing to Stay Afloat provides us open-handedly with something we must all learn, the poet first of all: to be trained in the lessons of modest grace, of everyday endurance, of imperfect triumphs, of a beauty we may only seize in passing, instead of summoning it. Cope’s poetry reflects this hard-earned understanding. It is perhaps the secret to staying afloat, and it makes one wish to go back again, like Persephone into Hades, to revisit Cope’s version of winter and face it with greater fortitude now, the sinking back into the underworld of ice and waiting surrender at last.
2. Red Boats
I hesitated to add this second part to this review, but a more personal perspective on Cope’s work as well as on her reviewer might shed additional light on What We’re Doing to Stay Afloat. Hailed as a brilliant young mind with degrees from Yale and Johns Hopkins, Karin Cope was hired at McGill University to teach English in the early 1990s. But what happens when on the face of it you have it all, and then one day you decide to pack up and leave? In 1998, Cope did just that. At a crossroads in her life, she left the profession for terra incognita both professionally and geographically. She landed in Nova Scotia, where she began to write poetry, winning the Antigonish Review’s Great Blue Heron Poetry Contest in 2002, and engaging in a new life as a visual artist. She also returned to teaching, as Associate Professor at the Nova Scotia College of Arts and Design (NSCAD) this time, where she mentors students in how to think about and write for the arts. This past fall, her photography and video exhibit, Flows (Given Water), opened at the Anna Leonowens Gallery in Halifax at the same time as What We’re Doing to Stay Afloat was published by Pottersfield Press.
In many ways, Cope’s poetry collection answers the question above—a version, perhaps of the question we ask ourselves at one time or another: what if there were more to life than this? What if I left my job and joined the circus or became a waitress at a diner in Reno, Nevada, or settled in Paris or a couple hours outside of Halifax and started again? And what if, instead of the perfect new life I’d hoped for, everything is as it was before, complete with victories and trials, except just slightly different? “Who can bear how winter clings and stops us / at the root?” Cope asks. “Colour is something memory finds / a gap, an aching loss.” And so what if, instead of acquiring a shiny new life, I unwittingly realized that living requires that we serve some serious time in darkness? What then? What We’re Doing to Stay Afloat is also, perhaps, about such meanders and turns.
I suspect this to be so because I know Karin personally. I was one of the doctoral students who registered and sat in her Modernism class in winter 1998, just before she left McGill. Though she was my teacher and I her student, we are of roughly the same age and became friends several years later as we began corresponding, her insights always vibrant and inspiring. Little did I know that, in my own way, I gave her pause for thought. It was a surprise to me that I feature in What We’re Doing to Stay Afloat as her poetic “patroness”: “A poem about” borrows my words in an email I’d sent her upon learning that she was going to write a collection of poetry. She refashioned my “orders” into a poem that became her book’s epigraph. Perhaps the reason she did so is that my playful requests, very much like her poems, are wagers we all make as we create our path amidst corrupt governance, ham-fisted contractors, old age, the price of eggs, and Canadian winters. Every day, the choice is there: to sink or to stay afloat by reaching for bliss, affect, greater self-determination, principled conduct, love. Every day, something reminds us that we find ourselves through adversity as much as we do through pleasure.
Similarly, we all feature in Karin Cope’s “Red boat haiku”:
Thin skim of sea ice –
The small red boat rocks at dock,
Tethered to summer.
Karin may be partly wrong when she writes that “[n]othing stays; nothing lasts.” What characterized her in the years I knew her in Montreal and what characterizes her now in What We’re Doing to Stay Afloat are the exact same qualities: a discerning mind, a gentle sense of humour, an immense generosity in providing the solidarity needed when there is little strength left to remain buoyant. None of that has changed, and our world remains buffeted by harsh winds. And so may you too find the spirit to tether yourself firmly to summer after you read Karin’s finely wrought words.