Area Resident Examines His Life Through the Poetry of Laurie Graham

J. Slavin. Little Creek, North Branch, Millbrook ON

JIM SLAVIN – On the cover of Laurie Graham’s long poem Fast Commute (McClelland & Stewart, ISBN 978-0-7710-5197-5), Jan Zwicky writes: “Graham has set herself a vital moral task: actually to see the fantastic violence of resourcist culture, its appalling and unremitting abuse of the land, and to name the cultural forces that render that vast degradation almost invisible, reduce it to a blur on the edge of our fast commute.”

As I read, I am moved to record how I experience her writing.

I am a colonist and the grandchild of a colonist. My mother’s father homesteaded on Stone-Age Saskatchewan prairie in 1904, then brought over his parents from Cockney London. Twice in my life, I have cleared second growth forest, once First Nation land, to build a house. And then Laurie writes:

Instead of ancestors, I have great-grandparents
subject to ad campaigns, who set down
in the broad middle of a new country,
the why rarely coming up

I was raised in colonial United Empire Loyalist country. At twenty something, I homesteaded a bush lot near Renfrew – canvas tent, chainsaw, grub hoe, axe, camp fire. And in that primeval, glaciated mountain world of bedrock and pine, peaty marsh and highbush cranberry, and only one invasive species, me, I learned the true meaning of wind, silence, cold, black flies, animal trails, bear scat. At first I missed Southern Ontario topsoil. Then, with time I came to see myself,

[…] to know the place you’re living,
to feel the place you’re from growing into your past,
a part of you receding
as you learn new plants and trees,
mute and teacherless,
before a backdrop of extinction

So green. So happy to have been set here,
though you never do sit, you know now. You have
what they told you. You know what that dream was for.

To understand that I am present here,
That I am sensed, that the soil feels me,
That the mourning dove knows my species
Better than I know its species,
And with this understanding to start to hear –

It is unusual for me to fall so deeply into poetry, but Laurie Graham’s poem speaks to where I come from, who I am today. I too have observed the contrasts, felt the guilt, wondered at nature’s indifference to me, understood extinction.

cement trucks turning, set back from the action,
and the butterflies move differently,

in the shape of a question, hooking off
in another direction once the asking’s done –

My new neighbour, owner of the next door village bush lot, is building this fall. The digger clears poplar, black walnut, maple, buckthorn, pagoda dogwood, and finds drainage for the first colonist’s 1875 tennis court. He does what all colonial villagers do.

[…] stripped to clay and laced with streets
named for British lieutenants

or for what’s been dozed away –

walking trail, chainlink, fence board,
walk-out basement, facades of stone
Hawk precarious on a fencepost
as the grabbing machine
raises its fork to a tree
by the side of the highway,
the other tree, in its last
moments, next

Graham paints a Ukrainian egg…

The earth without its oceans is not round
like this. It’s a knee joint hurtling through a window

I think of Peterborough’s Jackson Creek…

They paved or buried the creek beds.
Moving past them all too fast to earn a paycheque,
Upturned leaves in the periphery.

Then Graham shows us the tipping point, where colonists forever mistake for abundance nature’s determined struggle to grow back, to resist us. We have

A sense of profusion – the birdsong, the seeds –
but no longer profuse

The sky on the way home told me something
its gold through the clouds

Yet how do we respond?

The people around you look up and cower,
floor it past this receding stand of trees,

the roots with less and less to hold on to,
yet bird and human seem after the same thing:

warmth, safety in numbers, and unperturbed sleep.

Look how much farther the humans think
they need to travel to find it.

Graham answers the butterfly’s query…

going it alone with the weeds again, gathering what food’s there,
ripping out the rest, how it’s in the bones to panic, why
industrialization was born, the sure bet, the pacifier

Spruce, tamarack, poplar, birch
     The need for drought,
the need for fire and flood
     Constancy’s the killer

In her last lines, she directs me.

Listen for the mouse, its burrowing,
its foundation path, its tasting

the depths of coming winter.
Be this mouse, if you can.

Feel where the warmth resides.
Make home of the larger forgetting.

Jim Slavin lives in Millbrook with his wife Elizabeth, two cats and a trout nursery stream babbling cold all year beside their lot. Now retired from a career coaching environmental-sector leaders, he has lived a life of landscape stewardship, personal and professional. Jim is a songwriter, gardener and backyard curling sheet afficionado.

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