Lecture for an Empty Room
Fragments of a work-in-progress;
I no longer know what a memory is. A shifting target. A blur. I am five years old, walking the back lane with a water-filled bird whistle. I am wearing blue jean overalls. Our black Labrador mix, Heather, is running through the long grass, dipping into and out through the creek. The periodic audio tic of electric fence. The eastern Ontario sky perfectly blue.
At the point of this writing, we’ve been in this house on Alta Vista for ten years, eleven. We’ve been in this house for twelve years. The year after we married.
John Newlove spent his final seventeen years on Rochester Street, on the borders between Ottawa’s Chinatown and Little Italy, yet always considered himself a Saskatchewan poet. Across his final decade-plus he was my neighbour, less than a block between us. There was the time he mailed me a letter, thinking he would have had to walk further to get to a post-box than simply leave at my door (although he might just as easily have mailed it from his daily downtown office).
My twenty-five years as a Centretown poet, although only the final few considering this as any kind of self-description, despite the declaration David Gladstone made circa 1996 in the weekly Centretown Buzz. A sense of imaginary boundaries, especially once we landed on Alta Vista, a bit south, a bit east. A space my mother and grandparents held from the 1950s and beyond, until the last of the remaining family drifted away, into the mid-1980s.
A series of placements, of ground. My late twenties and into my thirties reclaiming my sense of foundation. My second collection, bury me deep in the green wood (1999) that sought home, or the long poem Glengarry (2004) that sought to reclaim it, a bit further along. Across the years, my considerations of home have become less of a single geographic point than a tapestry. The work of my father’s hands, and generations of stoicism. My mother’s temperament, and an experience beyond our immediate boundaries. My father, who showed me the value of work, and the value of community. My mother, who showed me the world. My birth mother’s laugh, and thick hair. My birth father’s eyebrows. My birth mother’s cataracts, re-gifted from her mother.
By the time On the Road was published, a book that set a generation of restless young men on meandering paths across America, the manuscript was a decade old, and old Jack Kerouac had not only settled into a sedentary life: he had begun to erode.