If I say, my arms cast out in this southern exposure,
this is all we have for making: sudden grace or lack thereof,
the skin that covers us in its thinness, a flush
that starts high on the cheekbones, a span of warm hands,
this is all of it, our tenacity, the stripped-down caravan
we found in a field, the pillowcase we hung across the broken window,
the floor coming up in the kitchen.
And like a book already written we consider how to hold memory
in the mouth. We hang our heels over the lowest slat of the gate
and swing, looking as far down the road as we can.
This is what I know of transience: that you will never see me
this way again, that the light will touch the leaves of the alder tree
this way only once, that we cast ourselves out of the past
like human cannonballs because of the darkness behind us.
But listen, there is music, and the steady thread of our breathing.
Even here, in this place, miles from anywhere.
About this poem
The Scotland Canada Exchange 2006 – 2007, in partnership with Canada's poetry magazine Arc, features Scottish poets introducing the work of their favourite Canadians, and Canadian poets presenting the work of their chosen Scots.
John Burnside introduces Canadian poet Aislinn Hunter:
There is a poem of Aislinn Hunter's entitled 'Everything Lost is Found Again' that is both short enough, and deceptively simple enough for me to quote here in its entirety:
the ring that lay for months behind the dresser,
the book finally returned by a friend,
apples reborn in the boughs of an old tree
and the years appearing suddenly
ripe fruit in the open hand.
The brevity of this poem is important, because it highlights Aislinn Hunter's gift for poetic economy (which is not to say that her poems are always short; rather, that she is one of those poets who has an uncanny ability to say exactly as much as she wants with the most economical of means). What matters more, however, is the deceptive simplicity: Hunter is forever taking us into what we think of as familiar territory - whether it be familiar images, familiar ideas, seemingly well-worn philosophical notions - and revealing what was missed, in all that supposed familiarity: what we took for granted, what we didn't want to acknowledge, or even - as in this poem - what we gave up on too soon.
Here, a familiar notion - what goes around comes around, perhaps - is taken that inch further, till it becomes a test of faith, (we never really believed that everything lost is found again, did we? we thought, all well and good, but mostly what is lost is lost; now we see a little further into the possibilities).
This experience - it is so fine, at times, I want to call it a micro-experience, a form of realisation that is almost homeopathic in its doses, but is beautifully far-reaching in its effects - this moment of opening up to a world beyond the one we are used to taking at face value is one that occurs again and again in Hunter's work and, every time it does, it demands something from the reader. Not in some noisy polemical or didactic way, but subtly, fleetingly (and the subtlety and fleeting quality are, in themselves, additional challenges). For example, here, in 'Enter Anywhere, Reply to Anything':
A diagram of excess. The lavender outside the door
bolting out of the ground again. The paraphrase of the wind.
Hours, rehearsing 'evening'. Counting what I would withhold
from anyone. A catalogue of how little is nailed down.
So, let anyone enter the story.
Or here, in 'Here, Or There, Or Elsewhere':
The world gathering at the platform of a busy station.
Progress lifting her chin: I am here, or there, or elsewhere.
Everywhere children burrowing into their mother's skirts,
Small ivory globes in carved wood stands.
We are all these things: trinkets, lace, spoons, ephemera,
Stamps drifting off the edge of letters.
Wonder a private thing, high-ceilinged. A transept filled with harps.
And also a quiet. The hush of possibility.
The sound of the woods at the start of a fable.
So many birds we have never seen.
Everything you need to read an Aislinn Hunter poem is contained within the poem: all that is required is the surge, the flare of attention necessary to put it all together. If the lines can sound, at times, like entries in an inventory or a catalogue, it is because the usual modifiers, the usual signifiers of relationship have already been called into question. 'The world is everything that is the case', says Wittgenstein; but that is the easy part: what matters, the challenge to our being, is the massive interconnectedness of what is. That interconnectedness is what lights up a world that we could, and so often do, mistake for the banal – and what Hunter's poetry seeks, as it sets about waking us up to the richness of that world - to the richness of possibility - is a new understanding of how time works, in a vision of life's radiance that is neither sentimental, nor intellectually formalised. What she wants us to discover, in fact, is exactly, 'the sound of the woods at the start of a fable', what she wants us to see, beyond what we already know, is 'the absence of comparison, so purely itself it can't be framed'. She is constantly taking about what is outside the frame, what is not altogether remembered, even as it continues to happen in us - in our bodies and our minds - making us what we are, and what we will become.
At this point in our history - in human, rather than natural history – the most urgent questions are ecological: questions about how we dwell in the world, questions about what we leave for our children, questions about 'quality of life' in the most urgent sense. Yet, strangely, the most effective tool we have to defend the environment - from ourselves - is not polemic, or statistics. What matters is that we stop taking the world for granted and begin to see where it is we live. What matters is that we find a new way of thinking about, and feeling, and appreciating the world. This new way of thinking depends, not upon understanding and so taking possession of everything we experience and encounter, but upon making space for the mystery - making space, and participating, in all humility, in a Being that is, as Sartre says, haunted by nothingness. Reading Aislinn Hunter, I find a poet committed to that quest: a quest, not for authenticity, so much as immediacy, a quest to partake of the eternal through a more vivid engagement with time. If that sounds airy-fairy or pretentious, the fault is mine. All I really want to say, here, is that Hunter's poetry, her quest, is just - which is to say that it is what poetry calls out for, at this point in its history, and what our thinking calls for, at this point in its development. Much as I might wish to, I cannot paraphrase or summarise that quest - a quest, one might say, to keep going beyond the point at which we usually stop - all I can do is point to a passage such as the one that closes the poem 'Attempt to Know the Future' and, in so doing, concludes Hunter's beautiful 2004 collection, The Possible Past. When it comes to saying what we know, (and remembering what we do not), the poet should always have the last word; here it is:
Barthes spoke of the interstice of bliss
but I am interested in what comes after -
scars, bone-catacombs, marginalia.
A place that casts no shadow.
Are you still with me?
How can you be?
We are nowhere we have ever been.