Every day, now he’s learning to speak Welsh, he finds out something new about his childhood. It’s not the need to talk so much as the necessity of diving into himself and mining his memories.
Brynhyfryd / Mount Pleasant. Pen-y-Bont / the End of the Bridge. Ty Coch / the Red House.
This latter the house in which he was born, way out of town, by Fairwood Common, away from the strafing and bombing. The war generation of his family all born in the same in-the-country Gower bed. No room in war-time hospitals not even for the birth of war babies.
Three of his brothers did not survive those rough, household births. He still bears the forceps’ scars from the moment the doctor plucked him out, head first, and hung him up by the heels, shaking him, bringing him back to life.
He bears other scars as well from the survivor’s burden of carrying three dead brothers for seventy long years, alive and kicking in the womb-warm crevices of his still beating heart.
Codes and Coding Where’s Home? (4) A continuing open letter to Jan Hull.
“Languages: they say that to learn another language is to gain another soul and another set of eyes through which to view the world.” I wrote these words on March 23, 2020, on the 22nd day of our Covid-19 lockdown. Why recall this article now? Because Jan Hull talks about Nova Scotian conversational language codes in her book Where’s Home? and her ideas rang a bell and tugged at my memories. CFA, for example, and CBC, and my own invention WAH. Then there are her coffee shop codes of Tim Horton’s and her Burger codes of MacDonald’s, and I mustn’t forget her other small town talking codes of former times and newly named places, must of which are bewildering to the outsider, aka CFA.
Why codes and coding? A rhetorical question, of course. But codes and coding are the basic elements through which language transfers thought, our thoughts. What is a code? Well, we know all about Morse Code and the elaborate codes through which spies from all countries communicate their needs. A code is a way of converting language, changing it, making it available to those initiated in the code and unavailable to those who have not received such initiation. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
When I was travelling regularly to Spain for research in Spanish libraries, my first port of call was always the local barber shop. I did this for several reasons. In the first place, my Canadian haircut gave me away as a foreigner. This is the hairdresser’s code. The barber’s shop was always the centre of local gossip. Here, buzz words changed hands, politicians were discussed, all the local news was immediately available. Each of these items was a code, a code that made an insider (acceptable) versus an outsider (not to be spoken to). I remember, one summer in Madrid, not getting served in any bar or restaurant. Check haircut: okay. Check shoes: bought new Spanish pair. Check shirt, jacket, tie: all up to date. Inspect lucky customers who are being served … ah … they are all wearing a shiny brass pin showing the symbol of Madrid: El Oso y el Madroño, the bear and the strawberry tree, as seen in La Puerta del Sol.
The next bar I entered saw me sporting El Oso y el Madroño in my lapel. Qué quiere el señor? Immediate service and with a smile. These are social codes, the codes that include the winks and nudges of the upper class, the secret handshakes and foot positions, the names dropped so gently and quietly that they never shatter when they hit the floor. There are also language codes. Northrop Frye wrote The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, a study of the mythology and structure of the Bible, and it was published in 1982. In this wonderful study, Frye showed how themes and language from the bible have influenced the structure of Western Literature, particularly that written in English. Within this code, names, themes, miracles, parables, psalms form a body of common knowledge available to all readers who are christian and whose first language is English.
But there are other codes. Think Courtly Love. Think Petracharism. Petrarch’s poetry, originally written in Italian, was widely imitated throughout Europe. Italian literature, Spanish, French, English, all dip into that code, as does Shakespeare among so many others. Think the Great Chain of Being. Shakespeare is incomprehensible in places unless you unlock this particular code. Think Platonism, Neo–Platonism, Stoicism, Existentialism … okay, so all this is academic, and I do not want to lose you in a sea of academia. So think NFL, think NBA, think NHL, think baseball, think cricket, think rugby, think darts, think all of the things we manipulate on a daily basis in our lives and think how they include some people (those who know and share our codes) and exclude others (those who are unaware of them). LBW, c&b, c. A, b. B, st. A b. B, w, W, b, lb, lbw, dec., RSP … and think of the hand gestures that accompany them! You would have to be an ardent follower of the mysterious game of cricket, as I am, to immediately understand all those letters and signs.
This is a wonderful line of discussion. It follows along the lines of micro-language and macro-language. Macro-language is accessible to all who happen to speak that language. Micro-language in its multidinous forms incarnadine belongs ONLY to those who share the micro community, be it family, household, village, town, county, region … all that is closest and dearest to our micro-hearts.
When I was in Moncton (2015), at the Auberge Msgr. Henri Cormier, I spoke French on a daily basis. Being an academic and a linguist, I was fascinated by the levels of French that were spoken in that small community. Here are the levels I identified: (1) LFI, Le francais international, the central French language that I spoke and everyone understood. (2) Acadian, a beautiful language with regional variations, a different accent and rhythm, and some very different words and phrases. (3) Chiac, the mixed English-French used by the citizens of Moncton, whose wonderful poets are trying to get it established as a literary language. (4) Community French, five families from Paquetville were there and when they spoke among themselves about their home town, references, history, culture were all barriers to those who did not come from Paquetville. (5) Family Groups, and this is easy to understand, for all families have their in-jokes, their coded speech, their conversations that keep the outsider outside of the family group.
It is a fascinating study, that of coded languages, and I thank you, Jan, for re- opening it and reminding me of it.
Right from the address on the envelope where you gifted me a knighthood, calling me Sir Roger, I was captivated by this package.
I opened it at the Beaver Pond in Mactaquac and started to read as Clare did her daily walk, widdershins round the pond. Alas, I missed the great blue heron flying. Ditto, the osprey and the kingfisher. I heard all about them later.
Only you, Jan, only you. You are truly unique. Your words jump off the page, lean across the table to me, and offer me bread and wine. I do hope that this book is the first of many. Your words brought tears to my eyes and hope to my heart.
So many themes that touched me deeply. The loss of language and culture: in this case, French and Gaelic, in my own case Welsh, a forbidden language when I was growing up. It is only now, at an advanced age, that I have started to learn it. What memories it brings back.
The sending of indigenous children to residential schools: in my own case, starting at age six, I was sent away to a series of boarding schools and never escaped until I was 18 years old. Good-bye family and culture: hello loneliness and solitude.
The enforcement of religion, top down, with the vicious punishments that accompanied doubt, unbelief, or non-acceptance. The brutal separation from family, with the whole experience of reintegration into a now-become-foreign world, relocation, loss of roots and culture, the difficulties of not belonging to the new communities.
There is a brighter side too, and I will get to that another day. Meanwhile, congratulations on this book, Jan. May it be the first of many and a delight and revelation to all.
I am not worthy
to be called her sun,
and yet her world
revolves around me.
She spins in my space
her own life to make
mine more livable.
I’d like to say ‘joyous,’
but tears are in all things
(sunt lacrimae rerum) and
death touches mortal minds ( et
mentem mortalia tangunt).
The best I can offer:
a salt water world,
filled with inadequacies,
drowning us in tears.
Comment: Several things of note in this poem and the voice recording. Should we mix languages in a poem? Why ever not, so long as we explain them. This Latin tag goes back over 2,000 years and links my poem (Intertextuality, remember?) into a long Western tradition. Am I worthy of that tradition? Is my poem? Well, that is a totally different question. However, I am linked in, as you might phrase it. A second question: does my reading of the poem affect your understanding of the poem? If so, how and in what way? Does the phonic word play sun / son affect your understanding of the poem? If so, how? And how does the double meaning of ego work on your mind? Does the Freudian Ego / Id stand out? Or does the schoolboy “Quiz?” “Ego!” spring to mind. Or do you immediately think of the first person singular (Latin) ego as in ego sum lux, via veritas? More important: are you aware of any of this or does the poem disappear into a desert landscape of nothingness with no apparent strings attached? Good questions all: I invite you to think about them all. Blessings and best wishes. Keep safe.
The origin of the world and where I came from,
her deep, moist cave that cast me from dark to light.
She loved me, she said, depriving me of her warmth,
leaving me to go back to her lover, loving him more.
Was it guilt that drove her to drinking whisky?
A forty-ouncer a day at the end, sometimes more.
She would wake in the night, wander the house,
banging against chairs, tables, walls, and doors.
She ran up bills in local shops, and the keepers
would dun me for the money she owed. She also
borrowed cash and some days her fingers were bare.
She left pawn shop IOUs on the table and I drove
into town to redeem her rings. Once, in a drunken
frenzy, she cursed her only child. A mother’s curse is a
terrible thing. A living albatross, it claws lungs and heart.
Its weight drove me to the bottle. I too sought oblivion.
Reborn each day, mornings cast me back from dark to light.
Joy came when blackness descended, the albatross flew,
amniotic waters rocked me in warmth and comfort,
and my body’s boat floated once again on an endless sea.
Comment: The photos show light shining through bottles in The Bottle House on Prince Edward Island. There is something very special about sunlight shining through stained and colored glass. Color distorts, speckles hands and face with a pointillistic magic, and the circular framework becomes a sun in its own right. As for Courbet’s painting, it still has the power to shock the viewer as it sets the eternal conundrum of the power relationship between the viewer (male) and the viewed (female). And remember: El ojo que ves no es ojo porque lo ves, es ojo porque te ve / the eye you see is not an eye because you see it, it is an eye because it sees you, as Antonio Machado tells us. As for the poem, it stands or falls on its own, as does the painting. Visual shock or verbal shock: take your pick, but I hope you do not walk away unmoved.
A carton of eggs
abandoned in the supermarket.
Her cousin’s face, her daughter’s name,
the parking spot where she left the car.
Forgotten phone numbers.
Birthdays of family members
“What day is it today,” she asks,
for the third or fourth time.
Her programs no longer work.
Many files now inaccessible,
are written in coded jabberwocky.
I show her photos but to her they are
blank spaces, gaps in her photo album.
“I recognize your face,” she says to me,
but I can’t remember your name.”
Comment: Towards the end of her life, my grand-mother started to lose her memory. I penned this poem a long time ago, then recovered it from my poetry discards. Some years ago, a virus entered my computer system and destroyed many of my files. I had backed them up, but I never really accessed them all when I bought this new computer. Now, in this time of much sitting and screen viewing, when friends no longer knock on the door to share a cup of coffee or tea, time weighs heavy, and I can look at those old files again. This also what I have done with my chess, breaking out the first travelling chess set I bought back when I was nine or ten years old, and re-playing favorite games with its red and white pieces in their cardboard box. I haven’t played serious chess since I came to Canada and, as a result, I have forgotten the openings, mislaid the combative combinations of the middle game, and can now plot only the simplest of endings. This too, in its own way, is a sort of memory loss. Yet as I replay the Fischer-Spassky series of 1972, so much comes flooding back. Memory loss: some things do return, but as I age, I wonder if that other memory loss, the more fatal one, will one day grip me, as it gripped my grand-mother, and leave me damaged and un-repairable. I wake up some mornings, confused from sleep, and wonder whether this is what awaits us all.
A scorch mark
still scars this woodland
where deer grazed
until spring grass
fed the flames
sown by an unknown hand.
the lower road,
directed us to detour
up and away.
Below us we could see
smoke, no flames,
The acridity of ash,
filtered through the car
making us cough.
No more will the deer
roam this particular place
until wounds are healed
and all trace of the fire,
like them, has fled.
Comment: Driving to the head pond at Mactaquac, a week or so ago, we met an RCMP roadblock and were diverted by the officers. We ascended Mactaquac heights, and came down the other side, rejoining the lower road which was blocked by another set of RCMP cars. It was the week after the shootings in Nova Scotia. All we could think of was the respect we have for the RCMP. The knowledge that, if someone drove a police cruiser, stolen or faked, and wore an RCMP uniform, stolen, faked, or genuine, and flagged us down, well, we would have had no doubts and we would have obeyed that person implicitly. This was apparently what happened in Nova Scotia when the gunman, dressed like an RCMP Officer, flagged some of his victims down, then shot them as they sat in their cars. I guess the wounds of forest and deer will heal more quickly than those of the victims’ families. Pax amorque / peace and love.
The wind at the window
scratches tiny notes.
I can no longer hear the tune
nor read the words.
Who walks beside me
as I pace my lonely path,
abandoned in this empty house.
stares back at me:
a splintered selfie,
framed in a sliver
of silvery glass.
a monkey moon,
that itinerant tinker,
walks a fractured way
over broken glass.
The knapsack on his back
is cobbled together
from cobwebs and clumsy
veils of drifting clouds.
Comment: Another Golden Oldie from that same throw-away manuscript that I discovered a couple of days ago. I wrote this one the year after my mother’s death. My father was in hospital and I had flown back to Wales to visit him. When I was not with him, I wandered alone in a large house, empty of people, but filled with memories. The whole experience was rather surreal, just like the imagery I conjured up to describe it. Early spring, but a cold one. After hospital visiting hours, I wandered an untidy house and an unkempt garden. My mother had departed. My father was on the way out. I was alone with a life-time of memories. “No hay pájaros en los nidos de antaño” wrote Cervantes in the Quixote. “There are no birds in last year’s nests.” With no brothers, no sisters, no close family, and no friends left in Wales, I found that out the hard way. Those days of wandering, ‘upstairs, downstairs, in my lady’s chamber,’ taught me that most difficult of lessons in the hardest of ways.