I didn’t hit me until I began choosing things to read for April’s Churchmouse After Hours, “Beginnings and Endings,” just how often stories end at the beginning, or begin at the end.
There’s “The Closing Down of Summer,” Alistair MacLeod’s haunting 1976 story about a group of Cape Breton men—all related—who are explosives experts for the mining industry. It begins: “It is August now, towards the end, and the weather can no longer be trusted. All summer it has been very hot. So hot that the gardens have died and the hay has not grown and the surface wells have dried to dampened mud.”
There’s Katherena Vermette’s 2016 novel “The Break.” Here is the third-to-last paragraph: “She looks up and can see a star and then another, blurry but solid. She thinks of the eagle and then imagines a new work. Her mother this time, yes, but not painted from a photograph. Something drawn, something about her hands and those wide brown wings of the eagle. Yes, something entirely new…”
Most blatant—and deliciously gripping—is Amy Hempel’s “Under No Moon,” which I had not planned to read at all, but came across while browsing the Churchmouse Bookshop before we got underway. The story’s first line: “My mother said she would die when she saw the comet.”
I suspect we write and tell our stories this way because we intuit that nothing ever does truly end. Circle of life, you know—the meaning at the heart of “Sleep,” the beautiful, lullaby-like song performed for us last month by Carolyn Wick. (Carolyn also led us through a raucous game of Name that Tune, her fingers racing over the piano keys while we shouted out the song titles.)
A taster of other fare: Pat Jameson treated us to T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”—a hypnotic poem from the early 20th Century that he rightly placed at the cusp of a new poetic era. Stephanie Khoury enveloped us with two gorgeous Brazilian guitar pieces: one about the beginning of a love affair, the other sinking into the sorrow afterward. Julie Paul shared a captivating “word sketch” from Emily Carr’s Book of Small, chronicling the beginning of awareness in childhood, and also the beginnings of Victoria—when James Bay was still countryside. Later, Julie’s partner Ryan Rock read one of her poems, from her recent collection, The Rules of the Kingdom, about him, as a child, accidentally burning down the family home: the end of my life in that house, he told us, and the beginning of my obsession with fire. Kimberly Foster’s rendition of Robert Frost’s “A Considerable Speck” was considerably commanding and memorable.
John Barton brought two poems by Sylvia Plath from her iconic collection Ariel. One of these, “Morning Song,” begins:
Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.
It’s that “Took its place among the elements” which sets a poem such as this apart. Reading the line above, you expect the “bald cry” to fill the room, your ears—and so it does both by implication. But then it shoots straight through, into the depths and outer reaches of existence. (All you poets out there will agree with me: in this moment we witness the power of the line break in action, itself a stark ending and a tilting toward a shift.)
But I digress! Robert Long, reading in his wonderful gravelly voice, brought us William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” the third line of which seems to be commonly quoted these days, for obvious reasons:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Terry Ann Carter read “Jade,” by American poet Mark Doty, from his collection Atlantis. The piece was written for his partner Wally Roberts, who died of AIDS. It's a heartrending poem, and like so much else this evening contained beginnings and endings simultaneously. Here are the first two couplets:
Of course I know it ends.
I know there’s a precise limit
where salt marsh gives way
to fogged water’s steel.
Terry Ann later told me the book literally fell into her hands while she was cleaning a bookshelf. “I began reading and then wham! There it was.” She’s now turned her mind to May, when Churchmouse considers “Belonging.” She writes, “This May’s choice is proving a challenge. A challenge I love. . .for, as I buy groceries, or pump gas, or, or, or, I’m thinking. . .hmmmm what should I read on Wed. night? What poem do I know that fits this ‘description’ or what new poem might I be reading that I could fit into this classification? Yes, choosing the poem to read is a poetic act in itself. I love this.”
Me too! Thank you all for playing this game with us at Churchmouse. And onward to May… See you, I hope, at 7pm Wednesday May 10, to delve into Belonging.
[Image: Halley’s Comet, June 6, 1910. The Yerkes Observatory. Public domain.]