Authors: Eve Joseph
I did not start this book thinking it would be therapeutic or that it would lead me to my brother; I wrote, as Joan Didion says, to find out what I was thinking. Along the way, I was surprised.
I ARRIVED AN HOUR EARLY AT GREEN COLLEGE. IT WAS A COOL
November evening, the ground was littered with red maple leaves; a few students were crossing the campus on their way to night classes. With time to kill, I thought I’d take a stroll. Not knowing the UBC campus, I decided to walk in a straight line, down the East Mall, so that I wouldn’t get lost.
How do we find the things we’ve lost? Do we find them by design or by chance? Do we find them or do they find us?
After walking for twenty minutes, I stopped in front of a well-lit building, and when I asked a student passing by if there was a library nearby, she said, “You’re standing beside one.” I went in, walked up to the second floor and waited while the librarian helped a young woman. Who knows about timing and chance? Who knows about the Three Princes of Serendip who, upon returning home after a number of years of travelling, created a word to tell their father and his court of all the wondrous things they had seen and experienced, and who knows why I would find myself serendipitously on the campus where my brother studied some fifty years earlier, at a symposium on mortality?
“Can I help you?” the librarian asked.
“I’m not sure,” I said. I told her my brother had been a student at UBC in the early sixties and I thought he’d written a thesis but I wasn’t sure. That’s all I had.
The past seeps into the present like groundwater seeps into the empty spaces and layers of rock upon which we build our worlds. There is no final resolution to loss, but once in a little while some unexpected resonance prompts memories to rustle to the surface, then settle back in a slightly different arrangement—a better arrangement, if that’s possible. “Closure,”
says a friend of mine, “is a crock.” We go on with the dead inside us. And sometimes, although it is impossible to explain, it seems they reach out to us.
The librarian found Ian’s master’s thesis, “The Renaissance Sonneteers,” that same night. It was the work of a scholar. I didn’t know he’d studied poetry and fallen in love with Wyatt and Surrey, Spenser, Sidney, Shakespeare, Donne and Milton when he was twenty and I was four. I didn’t know much; I knew his ghost more than I knew him. I knew the stories I’d been told: how he held court drunk, beautiful, unfit; how he flew planes hundreds of miles off course; how he burned like a brief, brilliant light and was buried in a sky-blue casket on a rainy day when the world as we knew it ended. And the work of mourning—which is the work of remembrance and myth, presence and absence, longing and unanswered questions, serendipity and coincidence—began.
When I saw his signature on the front page, I remembered copying those elegant loops and scrawls in a lined notebook for pages on end when I was a child. Writing my way towards him then and continuing, as it turns out, through the years to the present day.
says the Irish writer Colm Tóibín, was not a word that was used in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, when he was growing up—there was only the unspoken experience of it. Poetry, he said, was the language that allowed grief to be expressed. I wrote my first poem shortly after Ian died and gave it to my mother. Where I had no language, poetry spoke for me.
It was clear, reading Ian’s thesis, that he had a way of relating to those dead poets, as if he knew them well; sounding at times as if he was in a bar with friends. He was just
hanging out with a different crowd. I can see him with John Donne, walking the streets, debating about God and life, writing about him as if he were right there speaking, and then stopping and quoting the poet’s pressing question:
What if this present were the world’s last night?
Joan Didion once famously said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” She might just as easily have said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to die.” I grew up thinking Ian died when I was twelve—not quite an adolescent but not a child either. I believed he died when the world was coming alive. Nineteen sixty-five. The old order was breaking down. A hundred and twenty-five miles above the earth, Aleksei Leonov opened the door of his spacecraft and stepped out; on the ground, twenty-five thousand civil rights activists marched from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery; the Beatles played Shea Stadium in New York City and Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival. The old order was breaking down and Ian would have loved that.
It was only in the writing of this book that I discovered he actually died in 1964, when I was eleven. This book started with a lie. We make of death our own mythologies. Did I give myself one extra year with him? Did I give him an extra year so that he too could be in that New World?
“You were twelve,” my mother told me.
We all needed to be a little older.
We all needed a little more time.
The Egyptian god of writing, Thoth, has the head of an ibis and carries a writing tablet.
The god of writing I pray to, just in case, is roaring in the heavens, bent over, holding his belly. “You can’t
?!” he asks incredulously.
I explain to him, patiently, as if I’m explaining something to a drunk, that I don’t know how to end this.
“Let me get this right,” he says. “You’ve written a book on death for which there is no ending?”
“That’s about it,” I mumble. “You do it.”
“You’re on your own with death,” sighs the god. “It’s as big a mystery to me as it is to you.”
Heather Fox, Elizabeth Causton, Marg Cooke, Mags Johnston, Susan Auld, Lorna Ross, Lorraine Fracy, Bill Pechet, Claudia Haagen, Don Hannah, Kristin Watson, Eleanor Vincent, Chris Welsh, Joan Tuttle, Beth Shore, Mike Collins, Ivan Pigott, Mike Matthews, Carol Reid, Jamie Reid, Marilyn Lerner, George Bowering.
A special thanks to Michelle Dale for her exquisite thoughts on death and to Alayna Munce for her brilliance.
Patricia and Terence Young for the use of their cabin in the woods and Andreas Schroeder and Sharon Odie Brown for their cottage in Robert’s Creek.
Leigh, Lee, Saul, Pauline, Sails, Spencer, Niko, Elisa, Marijke, Pedro and Jonah. Welcome Ava Rose.
First readers: Thea Gray, Scooter Bill, Carol Matthews, Jennifer Fraser, Patricia Young, Lucy Bashford, Dede Crane, Janice McCachen.
To the doctors, nurses, counsellors, volunteers who continue in the work. And to the dying with whom I worked and the dead who are never far away.
Thanks to the B.C. Arts Council and Canada Council.
Thanks to Noelle Zitzer and the staff at HarperCollins, and a special thanks to my superb editor and friend, Patrick Crean.
To my agent extraordinaire, John Pearce, thank you.
And to my partner, Patrick Friesen, for our conversations about death (and everything else) out of which the form of this book emerged. What we started talking about in a doorway those many years ago, and what continues, has deepened my life beyond anything I could have imagined.
In a discussion with the late poet P. K. Page, shortly before her death, we talked about how metaphor, the engine of poetry, is also the language of the dying. She was intrigued and asked if I had written about that. I hadn’t. This book is my response to P. K.
W. H. Auden, “Musée des Beaux Arts,” copyright © 1940 and renewed 1968 by W.H. Auden; from
W. H. Auden Collected Poems
by W. H. Auden. Used by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
Charles Baudelaire, “Meditation,” from
Les Fleurs du mal.
Translated from the French by Richard Howard. Reprinted by permission of David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc. Translation copyright © 1982 by Richard Howard.
George Bowering, “Far from the Shore,” from
Touch: Selected Poems 1960–1970.
Published by McClelland and Stewart. Copyright © 1971 George Bowering. Reprinted by permission of George Bowering.
Patrick Friesen, “pa poem 3—standing the night through,” from
Copyright © 1984 Patrick Friesen.
Thea Gray, translation of Homer’s
, Book XI, ll. 250–254. Reprinted by permission of the translator.
Jane Kenyon, “What Came to Me” and “Reading Aloud to My Father,” from
Copyright © 2005 by The Estate of Jane Kenyon. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc. on behalf of Graywolf Press.
“Touch Me.” Copyright © 1995 by Stanley Kunitz, from
The Collected Poems
by Stanley Kunitz. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika
by Tony Kushner, pp. 141–42. Copyright © 1992, 1994, 1996 by Tony Kushner. Published by Theatre Communications Group. Used by permission of Theatre Communications Group.
Gwendolyn MacEwen, “Water,” from
The T. E. Lawrence Poems.
Copyright © 1982 by the estate of Gwendolyn MacEwen. Reprinted by permission of author’s family.
Pablo Neruda, “Only Death,” translated by Donald D. Walsh, from
Residence on Earth
, copyright © 1973 by Pablo Neruda and Donald D. Walsh. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
Kay Ryan, “On the Nature of Understanding,” copyright © 2011 by Kay Ryan. Used by permission of Grove/Atlantic, Inc. Any third-party use of this material, outside of this publication, is prohibited.
F. Starik, “N. N. (Nomen Nescio),” from
De Eenzame Uitvaart.
Copyright © 2005 Frank Starik. Poem aired on the documentary
The Lonely Funeral
, first broadcast on BBC World Service 14 May 2010.
Tomas Tranströmer, “Madrigal,” from
For the Living and the Dead
, translated by Samuel Charters. Published by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins.
William Carlos Williams, “Tract,” from
The Collected Poems, Volume 1:1909–1939
, copyright © 1938 by New Directions Publishing Corp. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
first book of poetry,
The Startled Heart
, was nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize.
The Secret Signature of Things
was also nominated for the Dorothy Livesay award, as well as for the Butler Book Prize and the Acorn-Plantos Award. She is also the recipient of the P. K. Page Founders’ Award for poetry. Her nonfiction has been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Prize, and her essay “Intimate Strangers” was nominated for a National Magazine Award and won both the
’s Creative Nonfiction Prize and a Western Magazine Award (Gold category for B.C. and Yukon). Her work has been published in a wide number of Canadian and American journals and anthologies.
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Cover Design: Lisa Bettencourt
Author Photo: Jasmin Elizabeth Jackson
In the Slender Margin
Copyright © 2014 by Eve Joseph.
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