To This Cedar Fountain

108 pages,
ISBN: 1896095089

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Women of Wood and Woods
by Janis Runge

Kate Braid used to find Emily Carr's paintings "dull, dark, and depressing". But two years of living in a cabin in British Columbian forest prepared her to look at them again. She found herself writing poems about them, and then also about Carr's prose. Those poems became this book.
She prefaces it with the last lines of Leonard Cohen's "Joan of Arc":

And then she clearly understood
if he was fire, oh she must be wood
That poem also says:

Joan of Arc was riding through the night
No moon to keep her armour bright
No man to get her through this smoky night.
"I'm tired of the war," she said
"I want the kind of work I had before.
A wedding dress, or something white
to cover up my swollen appetite."

Braid shares with Emily Carr an appetite for life (and its mysteries), perhaps not one quite as swollen as Cohen's Joan's, but large and spirited enough to take up the things Carr cared about.
Like Cohen's Joan, Carr-whom the West Coast Natives named Klee Wyck ("The Laughing One")-could take a joke. She could see the irony, the comedy, of the human condition (even when it was directed at herself). And she knew how to celebrate the gift she gratefully accepted: a vision beyond irony. Similar qualities inspired Braid to choose those lines as the book's epigraph.
There is something courageous for a late-twentieth-century carpenter-poet-lady like Braid to take on someone of Carr's stature. By the time of her death in 1947, she had already begun to be recognized as a major painter; the thousand pages she had written were beginning to be published, known, and revered within small but significant circles. For a long time now, critics have spoken about the clear and poetic directness in her stories and memoirs, which is like the learned discipline that informed her painting. More than forty years ago, Ira Dilworth wrote that she used words "like brushes," with great courage and simplicity. Carr's accomplishments, and indeed her life, were in many ways heroic. Partly by association, the Natives regarded as a hero one of her numerous dogs, Ginger Pop.
Carr grew up in a very Victorian Victoria, B.C. She studied painting in San Francisco, England, and France before returning to a still colonial British Columbia at the turn of the century. Despite her very serious commitment to art, she spent a great deal of her time-to make a living-practising crafts like pottery and the household skills she needed as a landlady. But she risked more than her respectability in the pursuit of life and art. Her preference for working directly with her subject-matter took her to deserted and nearly deserted Indian villages along the West Coast; often she went on dangerous passages in stormy weather. Her near-death experiences could not be counted on the hands and toes of one mortal creature.
The size of her ambition to communicate by her paintings was proportionate to her appetite for life, and was on the scale of the largess of the largely unsettled West. Braid's poem "Spring" is coupled with a telling passage from Emily Carr's journals:
"There is something bigger than fact; the underlying spirit, all it stands for, the mood, the vastness, the wildness...the eternal big spaceness of it. Oh the West! I'm of it and I love it." Nothing stopped her.
Though Emily Carr's life story is almost larger than life, Kate Braid could identify with it. Her own experiences included mastering the trade of carpentry, in a gender-challenged profession. She wrote about this in "Covering Rough Ground", which won her the 1991 Pat Lowther Award (for the best book of poetry by a Canadian woman). In the foreword, she tells us that she was "inspired by [Carr's] courage and perseverance in the face of challenge and isolation." But because Carr's life glows with the stuff of legend and myth, Braid probably knew that to write about her was to risk hagiography. Because she took that risk, To This Cedar Fountain is as good a book about art as it is as a work of art.
For Braid, with only one book of poems behind her and no life-long attraction to or knowledge of Carr's painting, it must have been almost as formidable to follow her instincts-to listen to her muse-and make a book of her vision quest, as it was for Carr herself to confront D'Sonoqua, the Wild Woman of the Woods.
Carr wrote about D'Sonoqua in her book Klee Wyck. As she tells the story, she had gone to sketch in a deserted Indian village, and saw a totem pole with an image of the Wild Woman. It almost overwhelmed her with the strangeness, the ferocity, and the depth of its mythic proportions. Then it suddenly disappeared in the mist. She never returned to that village, but for many years D'Sonoqua "visited" her, in dreams and waking hours. Some years later, at another Indian village, she came upon a different image of her. This time she was intent on confronting this figure, who, some would say, incorporated both the savage force that civilization had tamed and the moral force that poets like Wordsworth saw in nature. Carr was curious. She'd been told by the West Coast Natives that D'Sonoqua stole children, that sometimes this was a "good" thing, sometimes a "bad" one. Psychologists might name her preoccupation the fear of the unconscious, or at least of the Great Unknown. Contemporary deconstructionists might call it fear of "the Other".
"I went back and sitting in front of the image gave stare for stare," Carr wrote. "But her stare so overpowered mine, that I could scarcely wrench my eyes away from the clutch of those empty sockets. The power that I felt was not in the thing itself, but in some tremendous force behind it, that the carver had believed in."
And again:
"The rain stopped and white mist came up from the sea, gradually paling her back into the forest. It was as if she belonged there and the mist were carrying her home. Presently the mist took the forest too, and wrapping them together, hid them away."
To oversimplify, if To This Cedar Fountain were a Hollywood film script, Kate Braid would be a carpenter haunted by the ghost of Emily Carr haunted by the ghost of D'Sonoqua. But this it is not yet.
Terror is terror. I learned this more than once, years ago, when I tried to escape a major writing project and found my life literally endangered-once in the wilderness in the middle of an utterly dark night. I was alone except for the bear that suddenly arrived, quite oblivious to my desire to believe that wild animals would be frightened away by a fire. Later, intent upon escape from the same project, I found myself as the third person in a two-person canoe. The experts on either end agreed they'd made a mistake going out to black water during such high winds, but disagreed violently on the best course of action to save us all. Being an absolute amateur, all I could do was try to keep the water below mid-calf level and marvel at how like this terror was to the feeling I'd experienced so often at four in the morning, when the previous three years of writing seemed an idiotic and suicidal mistake. Feeling quite rationally certain that my life was in danger was almost a relief. I could suddenly enjoy the instant insight that, although one carries one's terror around with oneself, sometimes one finds a place where it actually belongs. Real danger rushes in, displacing the vain and indulgent terror of the hypothetical, and suddenly everything is clear and simple. Real terror confronted reveals the uselessness of terror. There are other forces more powerful and threatening. Best to put one's energy into keeping your head above water. How privileged to belong to the same species as the man who said fear was the scariest thing of all! But this happens only after a confrontation. Emily Carr's appetite for life led her to many such confrontations; she successfully communicated many of them in word and image.
Several of Braid's poems include some form of foreboding and terror. Some terror she found in the dark and mysterious forces that Emily Carr had perceived, confronted, and deliberately projected into her paintings. As critics like Doris Shadbolt knew well, the intensity and depth of Carr's commitment to communicate the majesty of what she saw in the Canadian West was in itself almost terrifying. Some of the terror is the terror of the viewer and narrator confronting the darkness of the soul, the immensity of the world outside one's alienated self, or the dark side of the enchanted forest. Some of the poems embody the terror Braid must have felt at the prospect of the project she had found herself living through.
Her poem "Above the Gravel Pit" shares a name with one of Carr's famous paintings (as many of her poems do)-the one that rivals Van Gogh's eeriest skies. Braid addresses a "placid viewer", strolling through the gallery and unsuspectingly encountering Carr's powers:

it threatens all your edges.
Hysteria is not what you came for.

Stop! You're begging now but
Emily is without mercy.

Your ribs creak under the onslaught of colour
and space. You thought only water was deep
A drum sets up a pounding.
It holds the echo of feast, of heaven
and hell. It closes in on your heart.
She's much too close for comfort...

And again, in "Forest, British Columbia", the narrator is "alarmed": "The hair on my neck rises." The poem ends with the advice:

Be you lost in Forest as she was
or don't go there at all.

Braid knew that Carr was not satisfied with pretty pictures. Carr had written, "A picture does not want to be a design no matter how lovely. A picture is an expressed thought for the soul. A design is a pleasing arrangement of form and colour for the eye."
The conceptual artists were the first to introduce the idea, now quite commonplace, of in situ art. An artist visits a given site, and creates a piece of work (painting, sculpture, or performance) specific to it. To exaggerate only slightly, for Emily Carr "life" was the natural and appropriate arena for in situ work. We learn much about the meaning of art for her, in what she wrote about her working habits:
"Sketching outdoors was a fluid process, half looking, half dreaming, awaiting invitations from the spirit of the subject to `come' meet me half way."
The degree of alienation she felt from the more formal styles of studying and making art common in her era is also clear when she speaks of her commitment to incorporate her experience into the paintings:
"Atmospheric space can not be touched or bullied like the vegetables of still lives, or like the plaster casts."

What do you see when you look at a tree? A glass of wine, a painting? What do you say? Once again, To This Cedar Fountain works in mysterious ways. One way is to document the special kind of vision quest it was for Braid.
One sees the complexity in Braid's task when one remembers that Carr's paintings had been understood as being narrative, in the peculiar sense of "narrative" employed by early modernist critics. Much that we can learn about her life and her paintings is also, of course, narrative, written by Carr's own hand. To complicate things even further, she did most of her writing when she was in her sixties. One of the motives for writing was to re-live the painting adventures after her doctors had banished her to an armchair life. Carr even wrote about using writing as a useful method for focusing and perfecting her painting. Just as Dilworth spoke of "seeing" Carr "peeling" the meaning of words, we can almost feel Braid searching the pictures for their underlying layers of narrative meaning. By custom, a Native youth on the verge of a new life would go off into the wilderness in search of a vision for insight, guidance, and protection. When Braid wandered into an art gallery and rediscovered Emily Carr, she
didn't think she was in search of a vision. She says she was quite suddenly "smitten", and found herself in communication with the spirit of Carr's paintings over the next few years, when "the poems came from everywhere." Her rediscovery of Carr seems to have been a discovery of both the actual visual artifact and the underlying narrative-a "vision" in the wide sense that incorporates spirit and meaning. One could say as well that Braid learned to understand a vision in the Blakean sense that "all we see is vision."
Braid's poems communicate a deep and personal, a sisterly, affinity with Carr, the painter, the writer, the woman. It's clear that Braid identified with her on many levels. One of them is the level, evident in several poems, of sympathetic understanding and respect for the alienation that Carr felt from her culture and her family. Carr often wrote about her isolation from any artistic community. She was ecstatic when she discovered the Group of Seven in middle age, and particularly Lawren Harris (with whom she corresponded for many years)-she was almost deliriously happy when he told her she was "one of us". Braid quotes Carr as saying, "It is funny how I swung out into the open, how I sought my companionship out in woods and trees rather than in persons. It was as if they had hit and hurt me and made me mad, and cut me off, so that I went howling back like a smacked child to Mother Nature." Braid acknowledges this sentiment with a poem she calls "Old and New Forest", which ends with the line "Something in her wants to weep." Elsewhere in her journals, Carr wrote, "I haven't one friend of my own age and generation. I wish I had...Oh Lord I thank thee for the dogs and the monkey and the rat." In a similar sentiment, Braid includes a passage that begins with the line "I don't fit anywhere," and couples it with a poem called "Totem by the Ghost Rock", which ends in a line declaring Carr's ultimate victory: "She sets her own patch on heaven/ It shines like a shadow on the sun."
Emily would have much preferred Kate as a sister to her own stuffy authoritarian sisters, none of whom ever liked her paintings, and were most often angered or embarrassed by them, as they were by Emily's marching down the streets of Victoria with her menagerie of monkey, dogs, cats, and sometimes rats and parrots. Braid brings her sympathetic understanding to the surface in several poems. In "Afterword: Self-Portrait", for instance, she has Carr say, "every walk/ down Government Street was a protest."
We also sense in the poems a deep respect, an awe, sometimes a transcendent fear of the lessons that Emily's work makes available for the learning.
Braid's foreword says about her Emily Carr poems, "They were about her work, out of her work, for her work, or just written from a perspective I imagined Emily might have held when she painted them." It is almost as though she had found her totem or guardian spirit force in the paintings and had been smart enough to allow the poems to be the medium through which those spirits flowed.
Like all vision quests, Carr's and Braid's involve much more than terror confronted. Carr's writing and painting display a simple joy in life, especially in natural beauty. For instance, she wrote in the same story that describes her meeting with D'Sonoqua, "In the brilliant sparkle of a morning when everything that was not superlatively blue was superlatively green."
Braid must also have identified with Carr as someone who had lovingly worked with wood, and now was discovering someone else who knew and loved trees before they were made into carpenter's supplies. One is reminded of Carr's "natural history" of the totem pole. That little story, "Greenville", spoke of the poles as having "once... been forest trees, until the Indians mutilated and turned them into bare poles." If I had to make one negative criticism, it would be that the poems do not really enter into dialogue with Carr's work on the relationship between creation and destruction .
It is to Braid's credit that she demonstrates an understanding of the lighter, the more expansive, and the joyous qualities that she found in Carr's work. Several of her poems also communicate playfulness and visual experimentation, for example, "Swaying", "Pines in May", and "Dancing Trees". And "Afterword: Self-Portrait", in which she seems to give the image of Emily Carr "stare for stare", is a fine conclusion to This Cedar Fountain.
Although we do say we see when we mean we understand, the vision quest metaphor can seem a little vague and mystical to the urban Western mind. Not so to the Natives, from whom Emily learned so much, and whose wisdom she admired, lived with, and cultivated over many years. And not so to the Far Eastern tradition, in which poetry and painting are much more integrated. An aesthetic in which the poet is painter and the painter a poet expresses a deep understanding that, although we may learn techniques that will help us to document the look and feel of things-whether with words or brushes-the real art is in creating an empty space where the viewer or reader can re-live the experience that inspired the artist to create the work. Zen potters, for instance, speak of the vessel actually "vanishing" to be replaced by the emptiness necessary for the viewer's vision of that experience.
Braid's poem "Wood Interior" speaks to this aesthetic, and demonstrates the affinity she felt with Carr as "another woman who knows wood":

...your spirit stares
and sees what is between the trees joining them.
A space
any carpenter would understand.
It is the reason we build things.
Looks like air to some,
fresh breeze, a touch of chill
or fog.
It is the spirit of the tree
In that context it is almost mundane to say that the most powerful poems are those that transmute Carr's direct, often universal, experiences via Braid's specific vocabulary, and the intensity of her own vision quest.

To This Cedar Fountain is a book built by a carpenter. But, please note, a carpenter who knows that Emily Carr also knew the ocean and the watery element outside the door of some of her favourite forests. It is structurally sound as a dialogue that pairs descriptions of the impact of "meeting" her through her paintings, with Emily's own voice in her journals. If To This Cedar Fountain were an ancient Chinese poem, it would also be a painting. If it were an architectural drawing with coloured acetate overlays that indicate different operating systems or constructs, one could clearly see how dialogue is built into the book. I don't know enough about carpentry to say this, but the dialogue appears to function as the basic wooden frame that allows the "house" to stand alone.
The book was intended as an explorative dialogue, as a way of "getting to know Emily Carr." Each poem, by, about, or for Emily Carr, is faced by a page that contains a passage selected from the thousand pages that Carr had written. Though most of the poems were written before Braid had read much of Carr's prose, the "match" between the poems and the prose passages is often uncanny. Some pages also contain reproductions of paintings. Braid is economical and insightful in her choice of passages as living artifacts of Carr's multidimensionality. At the same time, the selections provide a good sampling of "issues" that Emily Carr critics have identified and written about over the years.
There is no danger of appearing derivative because Braid has added, totem-pole-like, her own specific spin that reverberates with Carr's words, in the way a spirited dialogue would. For example, "National Gallery, Ottawa" is a poem facing Carr's short journal entry that proudly quotes Lawren Harris's telling her, "You are one of us." "National Gallery" has a little fun with the sublimated erotic imagery that earlier generations of critics focused on. Braid uses it to remind us that Carr was perhaps more revolutionary than the Group of Seven, and not at all intimidated by anything that would hint of male superiority.
Similarly, Braid is familiar with the criticism that spoke of Carr's search for religion, her "animism", "pantheism", her temporary pursuit of the transcendentalism that had inspired her mentor, colleague, and friend Lawren Harris. Carr herself said that for both of them, "Religion and art were one." Braid's poems have somehow managed to update the content of the critical speculation about Carr's "religion", and her "sublimation", and allow us to see Carr's spiritual concerns in a more contemporary light, and to appreciate what was genuinely original to her.
Her poems sing a rich repertoire of songs, engaging a small chorus of voices that enable her to invoke as wide a range of feelings, insights, and responses as Carr did in her rich life. Like Carr's work, polished in design and composition to allow for the expression "of thought for the soul," Braid's work has an urgency in its incorporation of the broad and complex tapestry that draped the shoulders of the worlds that Emily visited and inhabited.
Braid graciously, cleverly, and accurately claims she only borrowed most of the titles for her poems from the paintings. And this brings us to the more abstract structure that helps the dialogue to work in mysterious ways. I'm referring here to the mediaeval Spanish court poetic form of glosa that Braid uses in her poem "Rushing Undergrowth", which follows the found poem "Green Sea". It takes all the lines the first stanza from that found poem, and turns them into the concluding lines for each of its own four ten-line stanzas: the glosa, or gloss.
Magic is afoot here. These two poems taken together come close to being an invisible kind of brush, painting with words that brings us face to face with the world before the dream, before the "vanishing" I spoke of earlier. They are like a crystal that reflects and refracts the spirit of the glosa, as it resonates throughout the entire Cedar Fountain.
Interestingly enough, it is not until the final poem, "Afterword: Self-Portrait" that Emily is made to literally speak to Kate Braid. One of the first things she says is: "It wasn't easy." The last, in answer to the narrator's request to come back, is "I never left." And that poem graciously ends with "a smell in the air of pine".


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