‘A happy love. Is it normal?’

‘A happy love. Is it normal?’

[PLEASE NOTE! Our next Churchmouse After Hours Coffeehouse is Wed, April 26. 'Endings and Beginnings'. See info below.]  

Of course love is the heartbeat of humanity. But why? How? I for one, came away from March’s ‘Churchmouse in Love’ After Hours coffeehouse with an even deeper conviction that love is inscrutable. Love leaves us wondering, grasping at understanding. Maybe it’s this confusion and helplessness as much as the force of love itself that makes it the impetus for so much literature and song. We create when we are trying to figure stuff out. 

We began with a celebratory poem by American poet Richard Wilbur, “Love Calls us to the Things of this World,” which happens to focus on one of my own favourite images to write about: a laden clothesline. Here’s the beginning:  

         The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
                     Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.  

Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks, but truly they are there.  

We had, of course, a love sonnet—how could we not?—shared by an audience member. Another read a hypnotic A.E. Housman poem. Kim Foster read a stirring passage from Ulysses, and Craig Hiebert shared a touching fable about two leaves in love by Isaac Bashevis Singer. I wove in local poet Patricia Young’s “July Babies” (dandelion procreation!); Molly Peacock’s “Picnic” (from Second Blush); and Carmine Starnino’s ode to an infant son, “Courtship,” which appeared in The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2014 (edited by Sonnet L’Abbe) and in his own recent collection, Leviathan. Leonard Cohen, of course, joined the fray. Impossible not to bring in that voice. I chose a piece from an old gem of an anthology of Canadian poetry: Love Where the Nights are Long, edited by Irving Layton.  

Local musician Carolyn Wick played piano while she sang, in her soaring, powerful voice—what joy, to hear her!—how love can be like garlic, permeating everything. Indeed. In another winningly witty original piece, she addressed the question: how far would you go for love? Wick drew the line in reasonable places, our delighted audience thought, for example: “I wouldn’t hijack a plane for you.”

James Bay author and journalist Moira Dann told a personal love story, about getting married twice to the same man: once for the tax man, and once for the pope. And then she read from the gorgeously sensual Song of Songs, which at the time of her “pope” wedding, she was surprised and pleased was actually permitted to be read in church.  

I brought some lines by the late Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and one of the most boldly plainspoken poets I have ever read. A sampler:  

A happy love. Is it normal,
is it serious, is it profitable—
what use to the world are two people
who have no eyes for the world?  

What might be my favourite moment of the evening came when local editor Chris Fox shared a poem by Tanis McDonald, also a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario (@PoetTanis). Tanis kindly gave permission for me to reprint the poem here in full. I will let her words close this blog, but not before saying that when Chris read the poem she fought welling tears—this has happened to me while reading aloud before as well. At the time, attempting to comfort me in my embarrassment, an audience member told me it was a generous moment: it meant for her that I was truly engaged in the words I was sharing. Being on the other side of such a moment, I now have to agree. What Chris gave us in her honest reading was, I’m sure, a form of love.  

Love: Step-by-Step Instructions  

BEGIN WITH WHAT is before you:
    a cat. A perfect square of blue.
The luminous finish of a book.
    Evenly buttered toast.  

Spend some time with your subject:
    watch carefully, everything changes.
The cat will shed, the blue deepen to indigo
    or fade to mauve,  

the prose will begin to irk you
    with its neatly tended plot,
the toast will cool, congeal, harden.
    Stay steady.  

When you feel ready, switch your attention
    to human beings. (If you feel
thwarted by the toast, repeat.
    People are more sensitive than bread.)  

Begin again with whoever sits before you,
    with whoever you find
right here. Don’t plan it, don’t try
    to trick your eye.  

Love that person for one minute. Time it.
    Remember the backs of the ears,
imagine the occasional bad haircut.
    Remember fits of pique  

and long silences. Remember others have loved
    them, for at least a minute, before you.
Let the attempt humble you, let it scrape
    against organs like a pumice stone,  

and love them anyway. When you have loved
    30 people a day for a year,
locate the Object of your Affection. (You’ll
    find it harder now to separate  

dross from gold, but persevere.)
    Sit the person down and look.
If they ask why you are grinning,
    tell them the truth.  

Tell them it takes eyes and mouth
    and hands and a supple wrist to love.
It takes three meals a day and a sheet
    of bus tickets. It demands detail,  

and incredible gall. It takes
    the best part of you with no
guarantee. Practice is important.
    Pay close attention. Try this at home.  

From Holding Ground

Coming Up at Churchmouse After Hours   

Churchmouse After Hours April edition:

  • When: Wednesday April 26, 7 pm
    Theme: ‘Endings and Beginnings’  
  • Churchmouse After Hours May edition:
    When : Wednesday May 10, 7 pm
    Theme: Belonging 
  • Churchmouse After Hours June edition:
    When: Wednesday June 14, 7 pm
    Theme: Salish Sea (in honour of Orca Awareness Month

All are welcome to participate or just come listen. Please contact us at [email protected] if you have questions, suggestions, or you know for certain you would like to contribute to an upcoming coffeehouse event. Thank you!

[Image: "'A Woman's Work' (1912) by John French Sloane (1871-1951). Cleveland Museum of Art". Source]