by Christine Chettle
(Firstly, apologies for no Monday Poem last week — I was sick. Fortunately, we’ve had fantastic aesthetic contemplation from Andrew. This poem is technically Tuesday rather than Monday — apologies as well.)
This poem is by Bronwen Wallace (26 May 1945 – 25 August 1989). I came to know of her when I did a course in local Canadian literature at my alma mater, Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Wallace was born in the Kingston area and went to Queen’s as well, living in the Kingston community for many years. Her explorations of the Kingston area and community can be seen in some of her writing. Her work (both poetry and short stories) focusses on many topics: violence against women and children, social policy, women’s rights, and civil rights. Before her death from cancer in 1989, she became known for exploring these issues in her writing: for example, she collaborated with poet Erin Mouré on feminist language, writing and patriarchy (published in 1994 as Two Women Talking: Correspondence 1985-1987). [Shameless plug: Erin Mouré is coming to the Leeds Centre for Canadian Studies next February.] In addition, the Writers’ Trust of Canada has established the Bronwen Wallace Memorial Award.
Here, she discusses social tensions from a community level: the origins of space and belonging. I find that sometimes the countryside can seem so foreign, as foreign as the past. It’s not a matter of surviving it (as in the voyageur tradition), but letting it work through you, almost unconsciously, until you discover that it’s part of you — or, a part of it is part of you. It’s an ideal that is impossible to access.
In this poem, Wallace explores the longing for the taste of the countryside, analysing her yearning. In the same collection (Common Magic) in which this is published, she includes a poem ‘The Town Where I Grew up’ — right before this one, in fact — which mentions the darker side of small town communities: ‘Crops withered overnight, ramshackle/barns hid two-headed cattle and young/girls bore their fathers’ children’. This is not the ordinary experience of country life in Canada — and its’ position before ‘Lonely for the Country’ makes me question just how accessible that experience is, too. Yet the two poems together balance two extremes of myths about countryside spaces: place of escape and place of abuse.
Somewhere in between those extremes, I can locate my own longing for the countryside.
‘Lonely for the Country’
Sometimes these days
you think you are ready
to settle down.
This might be the season for it,
this summer of purple sunsets
when you stand in the streets
watching the sky, until its color
is a bruised place
inside your chest.
When you think of settling down
you imagine yourself growing comfortable
with the land and remember the sunstained faces
of men like your grandfather, the ridges of black veins
that furrowed the backs of their hands as they squared
a county boundary for you, or built once more
old Stu McKenzie’s barn exactly as they’d raised it
60 years ago.
You watch the hands of the women
on market days, piling onions, filling buckets
with tomatoes, their thick, workaday gestures
disclosing at times
what you think you recognize as caring,
At least that’s how it looks
from the outside and when you think
of settling down, you always think of it
as a place.
It makes the city seem imaginary, somehow.
As you drive through the streets,
you begin to see how the lives there look
as if they had been cut from magazines:
a blond couple carrying a wicker picnic-basket
through the park, a man in faded brown shorts
squatting on his front lawn
fixing a child’s red bike.
You wish you could tell yourself
that this is all too sentimental.
You want to agree with the person
who said, “There’s no salvation
But you can’t
and you’re beginning to suspect
that deep within you,
like a latent gene, is this belief
that we belong somewhere.
What you know
is that once you admit that
it opens in you
a deeper need.
A need like that loneliness
which makes us return again and again
to the places we’ve shared
with those we can no longer love,
empty-hearted, yet expectant,
searching for revelations
in the blank faces of remembered houses.
As wide as bereavement
it renders us innocent
as mourners at a graveside
who want to believe their loss
has made this holy ground
for the earth beneath their feet
to console them.