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Take the More Tangled Route
I wrote an awful poem in 1974 that begins, "Introspection/ Reader of souls/ Destroyer of all sense". And on it drips about fortresses, penetration, virgin self-confidence, and filled vessels. Metaphors so mixed they're puréed. I was eighteen in the gothic style. My sister had died a few years before; a married man had jilted me and so I flirted with suicide after seeing Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet. My poem ends, though, with a flash of something: "Disillusion/Dissolution".
I read this as my first proto-Daphne-Marlatt moment. Though in those days I considered James Taylor profound, my morbid wordplay prefigures a high regard for Marlatt's endeavours. If only someone had turned me on to Steveston (her long poem, published in 1974), I might have started everything sooner. Instead, swallowed by a career in country music and its attending alcoholic lyricism (made uglier by renting in Vancouver's crummy bedroom communities), I wrote nothing deeper-or more playful-for almost fifteen years.
By 1988, I was stylishly complex: early thirties, single, sober, grieving, destitute, sour, skinny, celibate. I had a lot to say but couldn't extract the floodtide of words from all that muck. So I quit music and moved to Vancouver Island, where all is lush: beaches like CashStop machines at the end of every road. Bound and determined by complicated colours and trees, bruised by Oregon's hand-me-down gale-force winds, we dare the next widow-maker to plummet from the Douglas fir out back. We read rain from our first breath and thereby get started on literature.
At the end of the eighties, my literary loyalties were provincial: I had a crush on the cowboy Richmond Hobson from Grass Beyond the Mountains, all alone up there in the Algak Mountains, skirting cattle around the Great Muskeg north of Anahim Lake; Spit Delaney and Jack Hodgins's eccentrics had stood my angst on end; my favourite song was Ian Tyson's ode to seasonal towboaters in need of caulked boots, "Summer Wages". While I was drawn to stories that explored and clarified personal geography, there was something pubescent about the way I read. From beyond the borders of each book, I was always watching for the cute guy with a smart mouth. I needed to be liked by all the characters, to be the object of their desire. I didn't understand how my writing was locked up by my own corny absence.
That year, I studied Daphne Marlatt's Ana Historic in a survey course on Canadian literature, conducted, in the best musical sense, by Smaro Kamboureli. Until then, I had not experienced the rush of theories about female subjectivity. I was naive towards what women were writing and saying about their writing. Ana Historic has a labyrinthine plot and I defy anyone to succinctly summarize the relationships of all the people in it. With names such as Ana, Ina, Anna, and Annie, and Richard and Mrs. Richards, and with a span of time from turn-of-the-century British Columbia to contemporary urban academic cultures, it doesn't take a post-structuralist to recognize Ana Historic as an examination of women's identities and of how official, recorded history is elusive and illusory. Marlatt mediates opposing structures of meaning with synchromesh writing that is forceful and sometimes forced. Language-as derivation and possibility-is her way out of the infernal muck.
Once I had cracked the plot code of Ana Historic, I read like a woman, for the first time. No need to flag down the gaze of some crypto-masculine protagonist; Marlatt's women were fine company. And she writes about "what matters" (to lift a phrase from another of her books). In the voice of Ina, I found my mother's lingering beliefs that language and literature, enunciation and pronunciation can make all the difference to the social success of a young middle-class lady. Up to that time, I had experienced mostly shame and prickling, relentless anger in my relationship with my mother; Marlatt made mother-daughter border wars resonate and reverberate until they danced.
What I want to say sounds so sophomoric, now that everyone and their dog barks postmodern faux-chic insights. But here it is: history left us out. Traumatized by our official absence, Marlatt imagines women back into the B.C. landscape and back onto its historical map. With characters who negotiate the shift from British to British Columbian, Marlatt treats the history of this province with reverence, even as she dismantles and reconstructs the contentious bits. At the same time, she deletes-or opens up-the manly parentheses around women's emotional landscapes. In 1988, when she performed those rites, my own image appeared to me across the water, riding the horizon. A mirage maybe, but there I was.
And then I could write.

"Such rain here!-It rains day in and day out, a veritable curtain falling all around my Cabin. The trees weep, paths slip into small bogs, the chickens look as bedraggled as I feel my muddy skirts to be. I am orphaned here at the end of the world-yet I feel no grief, for I am made new here, Father, solitary as I am-nor am I entirely so-daily a garrulous blue-black bird keeps me company, the young Cedar spared by my front door dips to greet me. Nor do these tell me what I must be."-Daphne Marlatt, Ana Historic

Call me derivative, but my collection of short stories, Dressing for Hope, is riddled with Marlatt rip-offs and anxious allusions to her oeuvre. This could cause me embarrassment if I weren't so grateful for the gifts. And it's possible I am too alert to her long shadow across my page: another mirage. In the most blatant borrowing, I rescued Richard-that poor asshole-from Ana Historic, and wrote about his life after his researcher-wife makes off with the brainy, perky Zoe. I spreadeagled his heart in yet another troubled relationship, this time with a sexually driven woman who sells "business communication systems". Richard's mother has died, and the story, "Grief Work", maps the bereavement of both characters in her wake. No longer recognizable as Marlatt's Richard, he is wholly mine: he is a poet, quotes Hemingway, rides a three-speed bicycle called Hiawatha to work, does all the cooking. He feeds the pain of others because he recognizes good material: there might be a poem in it. Still an asshole. I've re-named him Gordon in the novel I'm working on; no-one will know it's him.
The characterization of Richard, and of all the characters I write, is motivated by what Marlatt demonstrates in Ana Historic. She shows how writing is slow and careful. Listen to the world hard enough, she suggests, and there will be a more evocative verb or a more startling syntax, a tighter metaphor for mothers and bad weather. There will always be a more tangled route to identity, and it will be the most compelling, accurate, and sonorous one to take. So take it. When I lose respect for the words (this occurs when the country music comes back to screw my brain-clichés beget clichés), I read a page from Ana Historic and find myself: there I am, riding the horizon.
I live with a writer who freelances as a labourer. Last week, Tom special-ordered a pair of Viberg caulked boots that cost him 350 bucks, his share of the rent. He works, occasionally, on the landlord's tugboat, towing logs from Jordan River to Esquimalt. Without this kind of work, his writing seizes up and he becomes exceptionally cranky. Without the right gear, he falls off logs. The boots look like something Paul Bunyan would wear to play golf.
We live at the end of the world, on the southern tip of the island, on fifty acres of old-growth Douglas fir, with some young cedar and precarious stands of alder. My writing desk-actually a table my grandparents bought the day they settled in New Westminster, coming from Lancashire in England-looks out on Juan de Fuca Strait, Race Rocks, Frazer Island; log booms often crowd the tiny bay. This morning, I took our daughter to revel in the pissing rain and we watched while Tom chainsawed two trees resting across our elderly neighbour's garage. The Oregon winds have moved on, but-we say it every year-this rain is like we've never seen. We abhor umbrellas. The chickens appear to have trench foot; our cat refuses to walk even on the cabin's softwood floors, suspecting, with good reason, that all the world will suck her down.
I came to Vancouver Island with a heavy heart. I grieved at every loss-major or minor or fabricated-and I didn't know you could write from that fetid bog. While Daphne Marlatt seems to lack my occasional tendency toward sullen bitchiness, I think she writes, as I do, from the generative spaces insulating loss-loss of history, identity, context. She listens hard to catch words fleeing absence. Some who read and write (in) British Columbia understand it this way: grief is both the end of the world, and its invention.


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