Thursday, January 17, 2008

sometimes a person's hands are the only words she knows

Something new I've stumbled upon this year (one of those so-close-you-trip-over-it discoveries) is the writing of Bronwen Wallace. Born in Kingston, Wallace taught at Queen's and St. Lawrence, worked at Interval House (a women's shelter) and wrote. Wrote, wrote, wrote. Wrote her heart out, wrote till it was spilled out and wrote till it was stitched back up. She had a weekly column in the Whig during the '8os (ahh, the institutional legacy: some comfort in a past that nothing can buy out), she argued about the usefulness of language in feminism with fellow poet Erin Mouré, she wrote intelligent, angry poems about violence against women and she wrote poems about the land north of Kingston in which, through disconnected family lines and dusty county lines, I've come to find something of a home.

Wallace died of cancer in 1989, and I'm feeling the loss of her 20 years late.

If I had a god,
I'd say we were holy and didn't know it,
but I see only what we make of ourselves on earth,
how long it takes for us to love what we are,
what we offer to each other only in our best moments,
but carelessly, without shyness,
like food grown in plenty,
our mouths blessed with it every day.

--Bronwen Wallace, from What It Comes to Mean, in Common Magic, 1985

*This spring, Queen's is hosting a conference called Common Magic: The Legacy of Bronwen Wallace in March. Kingstonians, and others, look
here for more. Rumours that Emmylou Harris might be playing were unfounded--the big concert is Kate & Anna McGarrigle.

**Grace O'Connell, former writer for the Queen's Journal, a former "who" of the University's literary "who's," etc. was one of three finalists for the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers (the award was recently picked up by RBC and now comes with cashola to the tune of $15 000 for the winner). Marjorie Celona won the award for her story "Othello."

And one more:

It's never easy.
Even the effort of a few steps
from the bedroom to the kitchen, say,
or a few muscles, opening my eyes
to find you still there in bed beside me
is an act of magic or faith,
I'm never sure which.

All I know is that it's learned
by doing, over and over again,
like any other trick,
until you don't need to think about it.
Like now. Like the way I'm walking home
to you through this city I've learned to accept
as the only kind there is: five o'clock,
night coming down and rain
just hard enough
to make the crowds on the corners shove a little
when a bus finally splashes to the stop.
Outside a restaurant, two men shake hands
and a little boy holds his father's
as they watch a toy airplane turning in a shop window.
It could be anywhere. But what I want you to notice
are the women. They are wearing white nurses' shoes,
or dirty sneakers or high-heeled boots.
They carry briefcases and flowers, bags of groceries
as they hurry home to their husbands and kids,
lovers, ailing parents, friends.
We all have the same look somehow.

See: over there by the bank
how that stout woman lowers her eyes
when she passes that group of boys,
how her movement's mimed
by the blonde, turning her head
when a car slows down beside her.
Even the high-pitched giggle of the girls
in that bunch of teenagers is a signal
I've learned to recognize. Tuned in
on my own tightened muscles, jawline or shoulders.
In fact, you might study the shoulders.
The line of the backbone too; arms and hips,
the body carried
like something the woman's not sure what to do with.

I've already told you that this is an ordinary city.
There are maps of it and lights to show us
when to walk, where to turn.
What I want you to know is that it isn't enough.

On a trip to Vancouver once
I discovered clearer landmarks. Red ones,
sprayed on sidewalks all over the city.
They marked the places
where a woman had been raped,
so that when I stepped out of a coffee shop
to find one on the pavement by the laundromat
geography shifted.
Brought me to the city I'd always imagined
happening in dark alleys, deserted parking-lots,
to somebody else. Brought me home in a way,
no longer the victim of rumours or old news,
that red mark planted in the pavement
like the flag of an ancient, immediate war.

I used to hope it was enough
that you are gentle,
that I love you,
but what can enough mean any more,
what can it measure?

How many rapes were enough
for those women in Vancouver
before they got stencils and spray paint
made a word for their rage?
How many more until even that word
lost its meaning
and the enemy was anything that moved out there.
Anything male, that is.

How can any woman say
she loves a man enough
when every city on the planet
is a minefield
she must pick her way through
just to reach him?

It's not that we manage it though.
It's that we make it look so easy.
These women wearing their fear
like a habit of speech or movement
as if this were the way
the female's body's meant to be.
The way I turn the last corner now,
open the door to find you
drinking wine and reading the newspaper,
another glass already filled
and waiting on the coffee-table.

When I turn on the hall light
the city will retreat into the rain,
the tiny squares of yellow
marking the other rooms
where men and women greet each other.
It's a matter of a few steps,
magic or faith, though it's not that simple.
The way the rain keeps watering the cities of the world.
How it throws itself against our window,
harder, more insistent,
so that we both hear.

--Bronwen Wallace, To Get To You, from Common Magic


Rachel said...

Oh. Lovely.

"To Get To You" is just my favourite little poem ever.

Rachel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.