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Stone Soul Picnic

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

But that’s where your soul lives!” she said.

I had just told her, this friend, a student from my early days as a university teacher, that, as I mentioned in an earlier column, I had sold the old house on Wolfe Island, opposite Kingston, Ontario — at the point where Lake Ontario flows into the St Lawrence River. Wolfe Island is a large outcropping of land, with many farms, a village, a large summer population. While my friend must have known the island from her days at Queen’s University, she had never seen the house. But she knew what I had written about it in my books and obviously had drawn conclusions about its place in my life.

It was last summer that this conversation took place, and I’ve been thinking about it since.

The place where my soul lived: perhaps it was that.

One of the memories that returns involves the placement of the stones. The old house, built sometime in the nineteenth century—post and beam construction, a hand-hewn post revealed when I was renovating—stood only a few feet from the shore of the lake, and one summer day something impelled me to haul stones out of the water and set them on the back lawn—found sculpture.

I put on a bathing suit and cheap canvas shoes to protect my feet, and waded in, prospecting for rocks. The first one I found, in perhaps two feet of water, was a large, oval boulder of pink granite. Immersed in a fluid, lifted by the buoyancy long ago defined by Archimedes, the rock was not too difficult to move along under the surface, but when I reached the shore it was suddenly impossibly heavy. But I was determined, and I heaved it to the edge of the low bank and rolled it up, a few inches at a time until I reached the flat lawn, where I set it in place. Then I waded back into the water and found a more or less matching rock, more spherical, a little smaller, and hauled it too up to the lawn, where I situated them, close together but not too close.

I was living alone in those days, in a state of some psychic dishevelment and recalling it all now, it seems to me that the struggle to find and correctly place those stones, to bring something into being on the shore where the lake and river meet, was part of recreating myself in my solitude. Not far from my two granite boulders I dragged up pieces of an old ferry dock which had drifted ashore nearby, slabs six inches thick, soaked with creosote or some other tar. A couple were set in place on a flat limestone outcropping, an eight foot beam stretching across the space, an irregularly shaped slab nailed upright at one end. The beam was a convenient place from which to look out over the water. I sat there to eat my breakfast. I called it my surrealist picnic table.

All this was a way of defying folly and depletion, not to piddle about with words and feelings, but to build anew, eccentrically and with the strength of my arms. Inside the house I drew on the wall a single large observing eye, and all around it small moths and spiders, life-size, as realistic as I could make them. Photographs were linked by strands of vine with curling pointed leaves. Growing older, I was building, or rebuilding, my soul. The psychologist C. G. Jung created for himself a round stone tower, inscribed words on tablets of rock. Or so I’ve heard.

Finally, when I had nailed new clapboard siding on a back wall, I hung on it two tall, slender wooden forms, a found  king and queen, I decided, or a god and goddess. In their silence these totems watched over my stones and my new bench, spirits of the water’s edge, guardians of my soul’s labour.

Over to The Maggies

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

We’ve been talking about it for thirteen years, ever since my daughter and son-in-law came to visit PEI for the first time and went on to visit the Magdalen Islands. “We should do that,” we said, but somehow the years went by. I owned an ancient, magical house on an island opposite Kingston, Ontario, and each summer we drove up there, and stayed for three weeks, slept in a bedroom just a few feet from the lapping water. But for various reasons I sold that house last year, and so this summer we found ourselves on the large ferry to the little archipelago in the Gulf of St Lawrence.

Human beings go to new places partly in the hope that the place will make change us, will provoke new perceptions. The Grand Tour of Europe was a fashion for young men from families sufficiently well-off to pay for the adventure. Nowadays tourism is a commonplace: there were dozens of others on the ferry making the little pilgrimage across the gulf to the closest outpost of the province of Quebec. Five hours the trip takes, but there are lounges and restaurants and open decks, and ways to pass the time.

PEI disappears from sight before the Magdalens have appeared, and there is nothing on all sides of the boat but water. Perhaps the first new perception, rising with the first site of the archipelago, is that we are on our way to a tiny crescent of islands entirely surrounded by ocean—a sense of the frailty of it all.

The islands begin to appear on the horizon, but since the low dunes joining them are invisible at a distance it’s hard to get a sense of which island is which. The first one to be seen from close up, dramatically lit by the evening sun, was L’Ile d’Entrée, a hilly island not attached to the others. Watching it go by we found ourselves sitting next to a woman who had been raised on that island and was returning for a visit. It’s a very isolated place, with a population largely English speaking, school going only to Grade 8. After that students have to leave the island and board somewhere else to finish their education. Many who leave never come back.

This anecdote, told on the deck of ship moving through the evening twilight, a strong wind blowing, a few cattle seen on the hills of the nearby island, offers a sense of another life, another place, another time.

The next day we were up early and began to explore. The long stretches of dunes with sandy beaches on each side, one facing a lagoon, the other the open ocean, were like a many times multiplied version of the causeway to Panmure Island. A walk through the dunes, where blueberries and cranberries grew in the inhospitable soil suggested the beaches of PEI’s north shore—typical landscape of a maritime island. But the shape of building and landholding on the Magdalens was different, more French perhaps, the brightly coloured paint on the houses a rebellion against the inevitability of a long and isolated winter, no boats arriving for five months.

In the afternoon we found ourselves driving across the island called Havre aux Maisons, where we took a road into the hills, stopped, and walked up a steep path. As we climbed we noticed that the land was unexpectedly like a mountain meadow, clover, wildflowers, nothing growing more than a foot tall. The only sound was the humming of bees, and butterflies fluttered everywhere. Yet we knew if we climbed to the top of those hills, we would find dangerous steep cliffs facing the Gulf.

A small summer moment, standing high on a hill on a small island, yet in its own quiet way it expressed the strangeness of a new place, made us see with new eyes.

What we travel for.

One of Canada’s most highly-regarded writers, David Helwig presently serves as the Poet Laureate of Prince Edward Island. He lives in Eldon, PEI.

Shifting Values

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

I remember from years ago a conversation with a journalist who was interviewing me. I asked him about the new arrangements in the local newspapers, two papers rolled together into one, I think it was.

“Well,” he said mournfully, “I don’t like change.”

It seemed an odd attitude for a man whose business was documenting the day by day alterations in the way the world went on, but probably we all feel uneasy sometimes about the hurly-burly displacements and reversals that we face in our lives. Traditionally those growing older complain that things aren’t what they used to be. And of course they never are.

All this passed through my mind one day when I heard an item on the CBC about a local dispute in Eastern Ontario having to do with the historical reconstruction at Upper Canada Village. It’s a little like Orwell Corner on PEI, a reconstruction of nineteenth century life. It began when some old settlements were to be drowned as the St Lawrence Seaway was being built in the 1950s. I was very aware of it because my father was then in the antique business and he sold some pieces of furniture to the woman who was furnishing the old houses.

What has happened over recent years is that attendance at Upper Canada Village has gone down, and those running the place have come up with various devices to catch the interest of new generations, things like food stands and a medieval festival. Local historical societies have objected.

Behind the dispute lies a contemporary war of attitudes between those whose highest value is education and those whose assumptions are based on commerce. Are such historical reconstructions attempting to pass on an accurate sense of how things were or are they trying to give people what they believe they want? Anyone with any sense of history will be put off by the idea of a mediaeval fair at a site meant to document life among British settlers in the Canadian woods in the nineteenth century. Those who merely care how many people are drawn in will see nothing wrong with evoking the romantic falsities of contemporary fashion. If they want the Romance of the Middle Ages, who cares about the details of the operation of the blacksmith’s shop?

Some of the same issues probably lie behind the changes to the CBC over the last thirty or forty years and the responses to them. The same battle may well lie behind many developments at universities. The CBC started, like the National Film Board, with a commitment to what was called ‘adult education.’ The world was one in which few people attended university, and it was assumed that there was an audience of serious grown-ups, who would sit still for a good deal of fact and analysis. CBC Ideas still exemplifies this approach.

Against this, ‘The New Snobbery,’ which concentrates only on the current, the flashy, what is believed to appeal to the young—who are presumably prepared to spend money. What will sell must dominate some areas of life, but not all. One might see the battle as coming down to a conflict between fact and desire. Facts exist. Though we don’t know everything, we do know some things, and it matters.

Things change. In the 1950s the pioneer nineteenth century was closer in time, and still seemed of central importance to a society that was, in most of the country, white Anglo-Saxon, and protestant. Nowadays in a different Canada the literature of the Indian diaspora or the sociology of Chinese immigration are subjects of great interest, but they too should be presented with the facts correct and the interpretations disciplined. In my own life I have seen the passage from an old crank telephone to email, but however much change is inevitable, intellectual curiosity and the discipline of precision have lost none of their value.

David Helwig presently serves as the Poet Laureate of Prince Edward Island.

Splendour and Vigour

Angèle Dubeau and La Pietà

by David Helwig

As I sat waiting for the concert to begin I glanced at the Stations of the Cross, the altar, the religious statues, and reflected that they will soon be gone. The Roman Catholic diocese has announced that the William Critchlow Harris church at Indian River is to be deconsecreated. Attending one of the concerts that have become a significant feature of summer on PEI, I couldn’t help speculating on the future of the church and the Indian River Festival. Presumably there will be an attempt to purchase the church for the Festival, but the costs of purchase and upkeep will inevitably pose problems for a festival which takes place in summer in a community as small as that of the Island.

The featured music for the weekend of July 11 and 12 was fiddling in many of its varieties, and the Sunday night concert I was attending was a performance by the celebrated Canadian violinist Angèle Dubeau and her chamber orchestra, La Pietà, a small group of women performers, all young Québecoises. The group is made up of a string octet with piano, Angèle Dubeau as leader and featured soloist. The music on the program was all more or less contemporary.

To make it all more of an adventure for the reviewer—this one at least—the music played was, much of it, not the music listed.

The performance, presented under the title Myths and Legends, opened with a Phillip Glass Overture called Beauty and the Beast. Sitting further forward than usual, I was more than ever struck by the remarkable acoustic of the wooden church. The textures and perspective of the string sound gave the music a wonderful lyric richness.

From the minimalism of Glass, La Pietà moved on to a work from 1977 by Montreal composer François Dompierre, called Les Diableries and finding some of its inspiration in the legends of the diabolic inspiration of the great Italian violinist Paganini. Les Diableries, if I understood correctly Angèle Dubeau’s introduction, was written as a test piece for a violin competition, and in playing it Dubeau exhibited some of the brilliance of her technique.

Then came a piece in three movements by Armstrong Gibbs, based on the book Peacock Pie by Walter de la Mare. Ms Dubeau understandably took that name to be, as it appears, a French name and pronounced it so, leaving me, if not others momentarily puzzled about who was being referred to.

Next came Manuel de Falla’s El Amor Brujo, usually played by full orchestra, here in an arrangement that de Falla himself had made for chamber orchestra. It was played with fire and rhythmic zest, and the phrasing was acute and shapely, though the arrangement occasionally sounded a little thin—the piano having to stand in for a lot of other instruments.

After the de Falla the group moved on to a work by the Argentinian composer, Astor Piazzola, called simply Piece for Chamber Orchestra. For me this was the highlight of a fine evening. The first of the two movements was driven forward by repeated ostinato passages in the lower instruments with much passionate melodic writing above them. The second movement began with a powerful melody in canonic entries and developed from there. I had known Piazzola only as a tango composer, but this was energetic and moving work of another sort.

The program went on to more Phillip Glass, and then to a couple of pieces with significant jazz influences, one of them a set of variations for Friday the 13th, a tune of thirteen notes, heard in thirteen variations and written by the Montreal jazz pianist Lorraine DesMarais.

Members of the audience were quick to rise to their feet at the end of the final piece. All the playing had been lyric, decisive, and impassioned, with fine ensemble playing and extraordinary splendour and vigour in Angèle Dubeau’s solo passages, as well as some excellent solo playing from the cellist and pianist. The encore was two lyric melodies by Ennio Morricone. To cap the night’s evocation of the marvellous, there appeared, toward the end of the piece, the sound of women’s voices in unison with the solo violins. The performers were singing as they played.

A place where such things can be heard must somehow be kept available for them to be heard again.

Art of Darkness

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

Darkness: I’ve been thinking about it recently, began as I was rereading Thomas Hardy’s novel The Return of the Native. The story takes place in the west of England early in the nineteenth century, on and around a large area of wild country that Hardy calls Egdon Heath, an almost uninhabited stretch of land where Eustacia Vye, the book’s main female character, finds herself trapped in an unhappy isolation.

Here’s the passage that caught my interest. “Eustacia stood just within the heath, straining her eyes in the direction of Mrs Yeobright’s house and premises. No light, sound, or movement was perceptible there … She strained her eyes to see, but was unable. Such was her intentness, however, that it seemed as if her ears were performing the functions of seeing as well as hearing.”

As I read Hardy’s lines I was reminded of another book I read a year or so back, At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime by A. Roger Ekirch. The book is an anecdotal but scholarly history of the night season of human experience in the period before the Industrial Revolution. It describes a variety of religious and superstitious, poetic and practical responses to the realm of darkness.

Early on in the book Ekirch quotes the adage “The night is no man’s friend,” and he goes on to recount the common disasters that could take place while travelling on foot over dark countryside. Lying in wait were ditches, wells, precipices, even newly dug graves, and there are many anecdotes about travellers coming to a bad end when they walked on blindly, especially if the lowered metabolism of late night was augmented by alcohol. “Drink less and go home by daylight” goes another old saying.

The plot of The Return of the Native is much influenced by darkness in a wild place—conversations overheard, connections missed—to such an extent that night and the heath might well be considered characters in the story. They are aspects of the oppressive sense of fatedness that haunts Hardy’s novels.

Though night still has something of its magic—think of the use of curfews during periods of public disorder—the development of an industrialized society has lessened the power of lightlessness. Only a long way into the country do we experience darkness, and even there we are likely to be arriving by car or boat and bringing light with us.

The house where I live now, though it is in the country, is on a corner with a streetlight, and two of my neighbours are in businesses that require generators, but in spite of that, one winter night with the power off I came close to breaking a toe when negotiating my way along a dark upstairs hallway.

I once owned an old house on a back country road in Eastern Ontario, the whole area forested, the nearest neighbour a single house perhaps a half mile away. I recall going out into the night and walking away from the darkened house toward the road, around me no human form of light. Nothing but blackness. But even there, if I stood still long enough, the eyes would adapt and discover a bit of ambient light, from the stars perhaps, and out of the blind blackness vague shapes would begin to form themselves.

Such experiences are rare in contemporary life. The poetic narrative in the book of Genesis has creation beginning with the command, “Let there be light,” and we technological humans have taken that command seriously. A year or so ago I was in New York and saw the new version of Times Square where night never falls, and a million coloured bulbs flash and glitter. It has a barbaric splendour, all that incandescence, that place of urban celebration, but now and then most of us would probably like to have our senses refreshed by at least a few minutes of absolute black—and perhaps its concomitant, utter silence.

One of Canada’s most highly-regarded writers, David Helwig presently serves as the Poet Laureate of Prince Edward Island. He lives in Eldon, PEI.

The Future of Music

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

Most years Judy and I try to get to at least one evening of the local music festival. Judy is a schoolteacher, and I think we may have begun attending on occasions when some of her students were competing.

The festival is an event organized mostly for those with a close connection with the young people who are participating—family, friends, music teachers. Each year we have a struggle to get information about when the events are taking place, which competitions or award winners’ concert we might like to attend, and now and then we find ourselves at the wrong place or at the wrong time. But we persist, and this year we found ourselves at an awards concert at Park Royal United Church.

Why go to all the trouble? Well, it’s exciting to hear talented young people presenting serious music. Perhaps those who love pop music chase around to catch up with the latest garage band that may be ready to break out. I’m a great believer in the polished professionalism of professionals, but there is a glitter and zing about the young who are just beginning to realize what they might be capable of. Sometimes their nervousness is evident, sometimes they are not altogether at ease in front of an audience, but much of the time there is a wonderful innocent passion as they find the music in themselves.

From one year to another kids reappear, and we see the development of talent. At times the improvement is what you’d expect, but there’s also the chance that someone will have taken an unpredictable leap ahead, got a grip on something bigger, a new sound, a more vital technique. Or a young musician may present a virtuosic turn on an unexpected instrument, viola, or saxophone or trombone.

Word gets out, among musicians and teachers and accompanists, about the exceptional talents. During the time I was on the PEI Symphony board, there was usually a strong suspicion ahead of time about who might win the Suzanne Brenton Award and appear with the symphony the next year. The Canadian musical world is a small one, and word from adjudicators spreads from place to place.

Listening to the young musicians, one wonders, sometimes, what their future will be like. That’s part of the fascination of young people in any time and place. Their lives are all unlived, but in the case of talented musicians, a road is beginning to appear. It’s fifty years since I competed in the Kiwanis music festival in Niagara Falls, Ontario, as a young bass-baritone. Music was never more than an avocation for me, but a decade ago I made an appearance in the Charlotttetown music festival with a church choir. Life takes its winding ways.

I met the well-known Canadian pianist William Aide at the University of Toronto when I was a student there in the 1950s. He married a young woman who had been in classes with me. Then he went on to study at Julliard in New York city and make a career as soloist, accompanist and teacher. He has played in Russia, all over Canada, has accompanied soloists as eminent as Elizabeth Söderström, and he taught generations of students in Winnipeg, London and Toronto. In his memoir, Starting from Porcupine, he gives an account of how he—whose father was a miner and who lived in a small northern Ontario community—began his performing career in the Kiwanis Music Festival in Timmins, Ontario, more than once winning the silver rosebowl.

Perhaps one of the musicians that we listen to in a Charlottetown church will go on to career like that. Some seen to be on the way. ‘I heard her when she was just a kid,’ we’ll be able to say. Or perhaps the young man or woman we are listening to will go on to another kind of life, with music as only an avocation. Anything is possible.

One of Canada’s most highly-regarded writers, David Helwig presently serves as the Poet Laureate of Prince Edward Island. He lives in Eldon, PEI.

The Artist’s Brain

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

I am reading a book about the great French Impressionist painter Claude Monet, struck by his situation late in life as he began to have eye trouble. He was 71 and his second wife had just died when a Parisian specialist told him he had cataracts, and now, although he had always taken pride in his physical hardiness—setting out to paint in all weathers—he was to be increasingly affected by his deteriorating sight.

From this time on his only subjects were to be found in his own gardens. This was the period when he created the huge and astonishing waterlily paintings, most of which are now on display in the Orangerie in Paris. In 1914 he drew up plans for a new studio, large enough for the outsized paintings he had in mind, and the project occupied him for years.

But with the advance of his cataracts, Monet explained to a friend, he found that his perception of colour was less subtle and intense than it had been. Then he discovered that this was true only from close up. If he looked at his paintings from a distance, and at certain hours of the day, his colour perception was as good as ever.

“I adjusted my work methods to my sight,” he said, “and most of the time placed the tone at random, relying only, on the one hand on the labels on my tubes, on the other on the invariable order that I’d adopted for setting out the paints on my palette.”

What I find most fascinating in this is the sense that the artist was working in the visible world, and yet at the same time was creating something that had its primary existence in his mind. After more than fifty years of painting, he knew from the colours on the tube and the arrangement on the palette what the effects of the colours must be, and in some part he was creating visionary paintings which he would then try to perceive by looking at them at various distances and in various lights. Years back I wrote an essay about the waterlily paintings, and the sense that large as they are, subtle and textured, they exist differently at different distances. Close up—at the distance where Monet stood to paint—they are quite abstract, at a distance, much more representative. There is no hint that the artist might be a man with failing eyesight.

In 1923 he had surgery on first one eye and then the other, and once again he went on painting, though his vision was very imperfect. In the Musée Marmottan, also in Paris, there are some very late paintings of the Japanese bridge. These do suggest an old man wildly spreading bright pigments in defiance of his encroaching blindness.

I think of Beethoven, beginning to go deaf at thirty, and for the later years of his life, no longer able to perform as a pianist, writing music that he would never hear, except in his own head. Beethoven had been immersed in music, as Monet was in painting, with a total commitment for many years, and for these artists the links of hand and eye and ear and mind were of a richness and subtlety not to be conceived by most of us. The brain of the artist had been trained far beyond the levels of common usage. I’m not sure, thinking about it, if there is a word for what must have been going on in the artist’s brain. Metaperception?

I suddenly remember the story of how Glenn Gould, facing problems with the performance of a piece of music, would sometimes turn on two loud radios so that he couldn’t hear the keyboard and would then practice, fingers and brain connecting without the intrusion of the ear.

What we mean by genius, I suppose, such unique and mysterious ways of apprehending and recreating the world.

—One of Canada’s most highly-regarded writers, David Helwig has been publishing works of fiction, essays and poetry since 1968. David presently serves as the Poet Laureate of Prince Edward Island. He lives in Eldon, PEI.

Gehry Revisited

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

Late last year on a trip to Toronto I made my first visit to the new Art Gallery of Ontario. I liked what I saw, and this spring I was in the big city again and went back for another look. Unlike the National Gallery in Ottawa the AGO is not located on a significant and dramatic site. The AGO fills one long block of Toronto’s Dundas Street, just east of the Kensington market and the clatter of Chinatown. On the other side of Dundas are handsome but unremarkable old houses. The Dundas streetcar passes by every few minutes. This is the centre of the city. Behind the Gallery is Grange Park and down the narrow street beside it is the Ontario College of Art, which looks like a painted matchbox supported on a handful of pencils.

Frank Gehry, the architect who designed the new AGO, is now widely celebrated for his Guggenheim Museum in the Spanish Basque city of Bilbao, a wildly inventive structure in titanium, with piles of torqued and curving panels set to catch the light. Gehry was brought up in Toronto, in a neighbourhood not far from the site of the AGO, and his experience in creating the new building there was perhaps a typical Torontonian one. He had to work under the pressure of constant demands and complaints from the local community and from the gallery’s major donors. The elegant Grange building at the back of the site had to be retained. And the new structure came about, in part, as an element in the negotiations between the gallery and the late Ken Thomson, who had spent years amassing a huge collection of Canadian and other art and was prepared to leave it all to the AGO, but under certain provisos and limits.

What Gehry faced was not an easy job. It was clear that the building was not going to be a huge and startling invention like the Bilbao Guggenheim, nor an explosive reinvention like the Crystal that ate the Royal Ontario Museum. The most insistent feature of the new building is the long, glass-clad gallery that is suspended along the front. At some angles the glass is reflective and creates a long curved screen that mirrors traffic on Dundas Street. From other angles the glass is transparent and reveals the sculptural framework of Douglas fir, the ribs tall, curving and strangely angled, reaching from the sidewalk overhang to the top of the curve. Long and sleek, it seems as you walk past like a slice of a dirigible or some great imaginary fish.

Inside this shape is the long, narrow Galleria Italia, its construction supported by donations from corporations and individuals who are part of the Toronto Italian community, the children and grandchildren of all those Italian labourers who built the new Toronto after the Second World War.

Douglas fir is a favourite material for Gehry, and within the new gallery the levels are tied together by a curving staircase shaped out of bent fir plywood, the staircase hanging above the neoclassical Walker Court, then spiralling upward into the rafters. Fir plywood is also the material for bentwood seats and baseboard trim. From the interior spiral staircase—and a higher titanium staircase hanging on the rear wall—it is possible to look out in a number of directions over the rooftops of the city, the building not hermetic but welcoming. In the much enlarged display spaces more of the gallery’s holdings of contemporary and Canadian art are on display alongside the 2000 works given to the gallery by Ken Thomson.

Gehry’s new design for the building, created on a limited site and under a good deal of pressure, seems to me elegant and persuasive. Not a pretentious attempt to create a monument, or even to imitate his own most spectacular work, it fits into its cityscape with a certain ease, and not without a good deal of delight.

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