by JEFFERY DONALDSON
“Two Kinds of Light”
Earth Day in Leith Churchyard: Poems in Search of Tom Thomson
by Bernadette Rule
[Seraphim Editions, 2015]
Virginia Woolf was once watching her sister Vanessa dance. Being I suppose somewhat awkward on her feet, she was admiring but not envious. She said something like: “I can’t dance as well as Vanessa, but maybe I can write as well as she dances.” The anecdote goes to the relations between the arts, how we look to find among our personal talents a fit response to the achievements we admire in other forms. The work of cross-fertilization goes on among all artists and raises questions about each form’s native strengths and constraints. The intersection of poetry and painting — a personal favorite — has beguiled practitioners in both forms for millennia. Criticism has named an entire tradition that has risen around it — Ekphrastic verse — a type of poem that is alive and well in contemporary practice. Our own Bernadette Rule’s recent Earth Day in Leith Churchyard: Poems in Search of Tom Thomson is a worthy and suggestive contribution to the field. Thomson is often credited with putting the Canadian wilderness on the world map as it were: those hundreds of small wooden boards with their almost expressionistic plein-air dramas of splotch-and-run represent his own searches for a sense of place and belonging. The story of his wanderings and mysterious death are iconic for the purpose. You can intuit in Rule’s poems something of her own exploration of home and Canadian place — she has lived in Hamilton for thirty years, while her roots are in Kentucky. “What is a border when you cross it?” she asks. For Rule, the limits of the canvas stand in for other borders that can be both transgressed and respected.
The title gives us a clue to Rule’s approach. Poems go in search of paintings that are gone in search of place. We see Thomson in these poems continually heading off, setting up, getting started. “I’ll waken … then strike out for the deserted / lumber camp near the river’s mouth.” Every poem a departure. But how do poems actually search? I think of someone lifting a mattress to look for a lost sock, rummaging through a jewelry box, or on a grander scale, leveling binoculars over untrodden mountains. One of our grander metaphors in the arts is that art is a form of journeying: it is the idea of a thing missing, not here, whose traces draw us after it to find out what it was. In Rule’s suggestively titled “Getting There,” we have:
The deer path barely parts these tall grasses
I can smell their bodies, see their beds
& know they slept here just last night
How to paint that smell, the call of birds,
the warmth of sun across my hand
as I lift a fresh-dipped brush to an empty board
Rule tunes in on a certain frequency in Thomson, the trace of his own presence in the scenes he painted, and his own searches there. The painter stumbles upon the traces of something living and almost there, but recently vanished. The poem itself reaches after the painter’s response and leaves its trace. So it captures in its own painted scene, all at once, 1) the remnant impression of a Thomson painting, 2) the painter himself reaching after a similar fugitive impression in the grass, and 3) his present/past act of trying to render that impression by making a painting, just as the poet does. A tidy achievement.
About a third of the poems in the book are titled after Thomson paintings and the inference is irresistible: the poem is the painting in its attempt to “do” it. The traditional name we give to poems about paintings — Ekphrasis — derives from the Greek that means “to make speak out.” Virginia Woolf referred to the visual arts as “that silent kingdom,” where its tacit renderings call out for more, an actualizing of the voice that lingers within the pictorial. Voice in painting is like the lingering scent of the deer in the poem above. It waits to be spoken aloud. We have in these poems then a voicing of Thomson’s paintings in the imagined voice of Thomson himself trying to figure out how to paint:
The canoe is a leaf on a silken sleeve
all glisson & sweetly weightless
sky & water silver on silver
small gulps at the prow
dripshine off a paddle
In silent thrall
I’ve slipped sideways
between two kinds of light
Language texture is certainly one of the tools a poet has in her tool box in “doing” the textures of paint. Try on all the sibilant s’s in this poem, their slip and slide giving us metaphoric features of water and sky in a verbal form. Hence the two kinds of light that these poems slip between, the painter’s and the poet’s.
Colour is another matter altogether and Rule is deeply inquisitive. There is the painter’s palette of colours —
these stones hold
in their grey embrace
all the colours of the world
Beneath the lake they’re purple
orange pink green blue
Drying on the shore
they dream the spectrum still
behind closed eyes
— and there is the poet’s palette of colours: purple, orange, pink, green, blue. One palette strikes us as original, the thing itself, while the other is mimetic only (words are colours “behind closed eyes”), but the painter’s palette is at least like the poet’s in this respect, that it too is representational, in how it sees the world again in the mind’s eye. Rule picks up the gauntlet — “Each day my palette / blossoms with more colour” — partly by exploring her own palette, but partly also by reflecting on herself (in the painter’s voice) doing so: “All we have / for colour on this / white page / is the blue ink of shadows / It’s enough.” Crafty puns abound: “Even winter birches cast a spell / of pink light”; “The wind’s penmanship / is legible in these cursive trees, / copper plate script of waves, / chorus of scrawling cloud….” There is metaphor of course — “You’ve reckoned it perfectly: / the pin oaks’ copper; / the rolled nickels and dimes of the coming storm; / the unspent gold of the tamaracks — where a kind of mental shape-shifting can dial up aspects of colour and image in painting. And there is form itself, where something of the preliminary or experimental in Thomson’s plein-air sketches is repeated in Rule’s unassuming lyrics: an effect of the provisional and immediate in her poems grounds our sense of lingering presence in both artists.
Let me close with one of the finest poems in the book, as I see it. It is as patient and moving an evocation of our search for Thomson as Thomson’s work is like to enjoy:
“Canoeing the Rapids”
This is as close as I can come to being
salmon, the river’s silver soul
& as the white spray rises round me
I know what it is to be
the object of the fisherman’s desire,
the subject of the artist’s flying brush.
Rule uses a dexterity in syntax and lineation to play with the difference between our search for another’s being and our ceasing to search by being at home in our own. The fisher strives to catch what it seeks, and in catching, to be what it catches. Just so, the poem casts its baited lines towards the painter, and waits. The split lines — “close as I can come to being / salmon”; “I know what it is to be / the object …” — move invisibly between being oneself and being something other, between seeking and “letting be” what you seek. As Bernadette Rule’s Earth Day in Leith Churchyard shows, it is a fine line.
Jeffery Donaldson was born in Toronto and educated at Victoria College, University of Toronto. He teaches poetry and poetics, American literature, and Inquiry in the English Department at McMaster University. He is co-editor of Frye and the Word: Religious Contexts in the Writings of Northrop Frye, and author of four books of poetry: Once Out of Nature, Waterglass, Palilalia, Guesswork, and Slack Action. A collection of essays on poetry and poetics, Echo Soundings was published by Palimpsest Press, 2014. Donaldson received the City of Hamilton Arts Award for Writing in 2011.