an address by
John B. Lee

for the occasion of
Tower Poetry Society's 50th Anniversary
February 11, 2001

My fellow pentenarians--on this your 50th Anniversary, let me begin by congratulating all Tower Poetry Society members past and present for having achieved recognition as "the oldest poetry group in Canada." There is a certain synergy in this day of observance, for I too am in my fiftieth year and will celebrate my fiftieth birthday in November. That event will be marked with the publication by Black Moss Press of The Half-Way Tree: poems selected and new. If I am blessed with longevity and good health, I have a sense that this book might amount to a gathering together of my best work at mid career. So here we are arriving at the half-way point of our own personal century. In 1951 the Tower Poetry Society and I were conceived, begotten and born.

Let me begin my talk with a slight aside. The poem, "What Occurs in the Absence of Hands," was written this past Friday and I always like to go out on a limb and saw it off by reading something completely new. And this poem seems appropriate to the theme at hand.

What Occurs in the Absence of Hands

Let the nettles have the yard.
Let tall things thistle the field.
Let wild wasps hang their papery lamps
with a heavy hum of their hives
in the coming of thorns to the warm.
Watch how weeds might
conspire to bring down the barns.
Look to where the fence row leans in the lag
its big-bellied wire
like a fat uncle crushed by the fallen-branched oak
with the posts wormed off
by the saw of the circling earth.
See how quickly
the corn grows pale in the leaf
and the bent beans spindled
lie blanched by the bleach splash
of an over-bright sun
brilliant enough to be water-starved in the thrilling of quack.
How rapidly ancient the splashes of colour
reclaiming the ditch
as if thieves weren't measuring gold
or a blue cloth blown
hadn't been ripped from its bolt
by the day once woven
from barley and oats
from beyond our behold.
And there in that windowless house
at those lilac-thicketed casements
looming with almost-violate moods of purple regret
felt in the lonely honey-maker's May
with a dwelling of song in the dark
while a worsening shade lets drag
its flooey occurrence of a selflessness wind
in the absence of hands to the sash
while the damp floor falls from within
like the rotting of ice
on a hollowing hole
so the gone-away-ghosts of the farm
lately whiten the fallow
with seed.

And so, I am honoured to have been asked to speak to you upon the theme of 'roots.' If we all remove our shoes (and let us not do that), we would discover that we do not in fact have roots in our socks at the nether end of our legs. And yet we speak of ourselves as having 'roots,' and by that metonymy, remark upon ourselves as kindred to plants. Not birds. Not lions. Not mythical, fanciful or enfabling creatures, but plants. Why choose that metaphor to talk about ourselves as people and as poets? If we talk of our human predicament as one in which we have roots, we recognize that word 'roots' as a universal, much used, appropriately self-referential metaphor. And somehow we know it is exactly the right word. Humans do not have actual roots, and yet within our own morphology, we know and accept that we do in fact have literal roots.

If and when we think of our roots, we humans have in mind, (at least those of us living here in southwestern Ontario), a sort of anchoring and much like the roots of a tree, our human roots might anchor us in place and give us a sense of belonging and leave us with the hope that we will not simply 'blow away' like words upon the wind.

Let me sustain this metaphor for just a little longer. If as I say, we have roots, then I suppose we must see ourselves (at least within the context of that metaphor), as plants. And if we are plants, then we might ask ourselves 'What sort of plants are we?'

Are we weeds? I like the idea of us being weeds, even noxious weeds, or if you prefer since we are mostly poets here, obnoxious weeds. Let us then be weeds together, for weeds are hardy; weeds live where they are not wanted; and weeds have loveliest names. Think of Dylan Thomas. Think of Milton Acorn, Edgar Allan Poe, Gwendolyn MacEwen. Weeds all. William Shakespeare, that upstart crow from Stratford England was certainly a weed if ever there was one. Yes, if we must think of ourselves as plants, then let us be weeds together.

And if we must be weeds, what sort of weeds shall we be. I think of the weeds of my mother's vegetable garden--pigweed, creeping Charlie, lambs' quarter. Uprooted. Hoed out. Left to wither on the earth, yet returning with every subsequent rain. Shall we be ditch weeds--ragweed, goldenrod, chicory, queen Anne's lace. Shall we be weeds in the corn row--milkweed--ambrosia to the beautiful migratory monarch butterfly. Shall we be Dogbane in the beans, sow thistle in the sheep meadow, mushrooms in the manure pile, quack grass in fallow ground, nettles in the cattle yard? Shall we flourish wherever we land, sinking our roots in stone, sand, swamp water--wherever the wind might blow us.

If not weeds, then what? Perhaps we're a little too delicate, a touch too cultivated and cultured to trust our roots to the whim of the wind. After all, certain of us are more likely to be found in a library window seat like a potted geranium, rather than striding like purple loosestrife across the difficult ecology of a ruined swale. Think of T.S. Eliot. Where but in a library might he thrive? Think of John Milton. Ezra Pound. Refined. Cultivated. Cultured. Nurtured and never to be uprooted or hoed away.

If then our culture is 'agriculture' and we are more akin to cultivated crops, then what crops are we? Are we corn, beans, oats, wheat, barley, rye or hay? These were the crops of my father. I know I'm not rice, not flax, not rape, not hemp, not cotton. If I am crop, then let me be thought of as the rain-heavy green of uncut hay, the rotten gold of over-ripe wheat, the windy rustle of tall corn at the height of summer, or the November rattle of a lazy farmer's late-fall harvest. I'll gladly take root there in that music, for to take root there is to take root in memory. To take root there is to take root in what I know. Raymond Knister. Archibald Lampman. Wilson Macdonald. James Reaney.

Perhaps we're not a crop. Perhaps we are a garden. Emily Dickinson seems a garden unto herself. My own flower garden is the one I see just beyond the window of my study. In summer it shows me morning lilies, purple lupines, sweet pea, foxglove, Russian mint, hen's foot, meadow sage, yarrow, mock rose, Canterbury bells and more. My fish pond is glorious when the water lilies float their blooms. By times my yard is redolent of lilac and chestnut. Perhaps we are a garden; perhaps a greenhouse. My grandmother used to describe herself as a 'hothouse flower' when she donned her plastic rain cap with its silly looking chin strap. Her crushed hair did resemble grey pot roots pressed beneath the transparency of her plastic cap. And my grandmother's garden was one of the loveliest in town. If I am not a garden, then at the very least I contain a garden.

If as I have been saying, we have roots and are akin to plants, then perhaps we are something larger on the landscape. Perhaps we might be trees. Outside my window in the near ground I can see Chinese elm, horse chestnut, cedar, blue spruce, northern pine, Japanese maple, Manitoba maple, red maple. And through these trees, I see in myself a little of the death-burned elm, the old and seldom evil oak, the weeping willow sweeping her green skirts in a sweetheart dance. Yes, if I have roots, as a human and as a poet, and if I must think of myself as a plant, I suppose I have most often thought of myself as a tree.

I was once having a discussion with my cousin Steven Kay who is a furniture maker by avocation. He was telling me that he plants a tree for every piece of furniture that he makes. The species of the tree he plants depends upon the wood he chooses for his construction. If he is making an oak table, then he plants an oak tree; if a cherry desk, then a cherry tree and so on. He sees himself as honouring the world through both his craft and through his having returned something to the earth from which his material was taken. I loved his ethic, his anti-Home depotism if you will. I was inspired by our conversation to write the poem "My Cousin Sings of Wood." This poem says a great deal about how I see myself, and how I see the craft in which I toil as well. It says quite a bit about the sort of tree I am.

My Cousin Sings of Wood

Of Shagbark hickory, of pignut
mockernut, butternut and all
the other hard choices
that bring us beauty leaving
and the kind of cherry desk
that makes you sigh
and forget the jealous
conspiracy of poets
with their selfish little whisperings
of lead
and know the large soul
is yearning at the drawer locks
of a private life
the one that keeps the sternum true
the one that shuts the sex away
in secret longing
the one like a phylactery
sliding open from the skull
above the eyes
a dreamy Dali drawer
to keep the night mouse in
some aromatic magic resin
rubbed against the bone
like the sea salt of desire
melted in the flesh.
And he plants a tree
for every tree he takes.
And so his table is the father
of an oak.
And so a golden cabinet
is mother to a river shade
where lovers sleep
a hundred years away
lost in the doweling of a distant afternoon.
And I and he lament a box and paper age
where I'd emblazon Dante's warning words
above the depot doors
then walk the other way
out into the genius of trees.

Yes, if we are to be trees, then let us be part of the natural cycle of things. Let us as makers honour the earth as my cousin honours the earth by returning something to the earth from which he receives his boon. And if I am a tree, am I the one which took root on the farm of my boyhood? If I am that particular tree, then I am perhaps the tree no longer there for I do not live on the farm where I was born, but rather I make my home in Brantford as a tree transplanted, a tree in voluntary exile, a non-indigenous tree. I am perhaps both the tree no longer there and the half-way tree, the almost fifty-year old poet tree which stands before you. This brings me full circle to The Half-Way Tree and the poem of that title. It is a poem with one tree and two stories.

The one story involves my mother as a girl walking to and from school. She lived as a child on a farm a mile or so from the railway stop known as Mull. When she walked to and from school, she had in her mind a half-way point. That half-way point was marked by the presence of a tree. She referred to that tree as the half-mile tree. Arrival at that tree meant that she was either half-way to school in the morning, or half-way home in the afternoon. School was either a prospect or a memory. She was on a child's journey, and that tree was either ahead, beside or behind her. Whatever the case, the real tree took root in her imagination as a way of measuring her journey and thereby marking her place in the world at least for a while. The half-mile tree was never a destination, rather it loomed on the path in the middle of her going and at the centre of her having gone.

The second story which gave rise to the impulse behind the poem, "The Half-Way Tree", involves the day about a year ago when my mother and I drove the concession roads around Mull in search of her childhood. What we discovered to her surprise and sorrow, was the fact that everything had changed even there in that slow-to-change rural place. Her roots were gone. Schools and churches had been either torn down or transformed. Houses had been demolished and new ones erected in their place. Pastures had disappeared, fence lines shifted and everything seemed either obliterated or put to a different purpose. Most importantly, the half-mile tree was gone and entirely absent save the vivid and poignant recollection of my mother. In her mind it still lived, in that it was rooted in memory, and through her memory brought to life, and in my imagination transformed through language into the tree taken root in the poem. The actual tree--the tree of my mother's memory, the tree no longer there has been preserved as the central poem of the central book at the central moment of my life as a poet.

The Half-Way Tree

The half-way tree divides the walk
between the house that's gone
and the school no longer there
and this, the corner
of the church that was
and this, the windmill strut
upswept that held a disappearing blur
propelling water from the earth
and as we drive the squared mile
through the blink of Mull where old dogs mourned their lonely names
within grey barns
and down the gravel shoulders ditch by ditch
in a trail of smoke we come
two smokes long
my mother's memory
could build an elm
into a shade so large
it held cool service
on the orchard grass
a stain too deep for sunlight
to remove
in its scouring round a stony clock
and there my aunt would stray
meandering home among the cows
and of the fifty country lads and girls
beneath the bell
some thirty mothers
aging in the gong
some twenty fathers
living in the knell
and beyond the toll of morning
as we move
the ancient elm
that warmed a winter when it fell
has cast its scattered leaves about the air
and sunk to nothing in the snow
but that brief fire
in a child and if you lean against that ghost of wood
you shake tall branches
and send blank birds away
to the wind in wisps of how it was.

So what does this little slice of autobiography say to us about the art of poetry? How might it be construed as helpful to fellow poets?

If as we say, we are rooted, then we are rooted in memory. Rooted in imagination. Rooted in story. And we need to know our place in the world and have the language to express that sense of belonging. Something in me remains the tree of my childhood, the tree no longer there for I have written no less than six personally important books about life on the farm where I grew up. And yet I left that farm behind when I was but a boy of 18. That life which I once knew has become the tree of the way it used to be, a tree whose roots I pulled, willfully and meaningfully when I left home. Yet something of who I am remains sunk deep in that storied earth of my childhood.

And then there are my genealogical roots as well since I am fifth generation on that land. Much of my writing has taken sustenance from the roots of what went before me beginning in consanguinary roots of a ghosted landscape and culminating in ancestor worship. I sometimes think of the earth where we live is an ever-deepening tell. I think of the past is a place we might visit. Not a physical place, but rather a place we might carry within us, a place taken root in the mind. Now, we're no longer removing our shoes to regard our toes as roots, but rather we are trepanning the skull and seeking there, the writer's madness we share. We are looking to the dreamer, the pattern maker, the singer, the story teller, the one with the capacity to imagine the past, to live in the present, and to remember the future--all the time paying attention.

It seems apt to quote an early poem of mine taken from my second book, Love Among the Tombstones.

My Grandfather Lee

wasn't a tree
though he thought
he could have been
in the right soil
just a little water
good care
and limbs would come popping
out from his hair
like antlers.
Though he wasn't a young buck
when I knew him
he should have been
I would have loved him
like a sapling
if he'd let me,
wanted it,
but he wasn't up to being love
just thinking
of putting down roots
at 89
in a bed
flat on his back

That poem represents a first attempt to deal with the memory I had of my grandfather. It did not make it into the book of poems and short prose pieces I wrote about his life, "Variations on Herb". It also did not make it as a personal selection for The Half-Way Tree. But it does fit the theme of this talk. It represents an early impulse to write about the people I know and to see them as rooted somewhere in the world and in my mind and finally in a poem. "Variations on Herb" represents a considerable improvement on that simple poem which started me off. It begs the important question all writers must ask: 'What stories are mine to tell?' Or to put it in terms of my theme-- 'Where have we taken root and what has taken root within us?'

When I wrote "Variations on Herb", the story of my paternal grandfather and the patriarch of Leeland Farms, my publisher said, 'there's nothing about your grandmother. Wasn't he married? Shouldn't you write about her too.' All I could muster at the time was a single tiny passage in which Herb acknowledges her death:

When his wife Stella died after forty years of marriage, he said
'Is she gone then?' Spoke that simple grieflessness, as if she
had merely stepped out of the room for a moment.

I had to wait almost a decade for her story to mature in my imagination and in the absence of personal memory, for I barely knew her in that she died before I was three. Until that story took root, I could not write it. And when I finally got around to sitting down and felt a readiness, the book about my grandmother would prove to be in my opinion, my own best and most mature book to date. That book, Stella's Journey is the first and only book I have written which seems to have taken root in the sky.

If I ask myself why I could not write the book when it was first suggested to me and why I needed to wait a decade for the book to take shape in my imagination, I suppose I would have to answer that I could not write the book about my grandmother when I was twenty something because I was not old enough to know the things I needed to know about life in order to make the poems true. I think it was a matter of readiness, maturity, and ability. My roots may have been sunk deep in the land, but the stories given me to tell at the time did not include the matriarchy. At least not yet. I did not know the role of mother, grandmother, as a storied place. To me the earth was masculine and sentient dust. It was Adam as breath of God. Not yet Eve's engendered ground.

My writing of the book about my grandmother finally began with the notion that she was in fact a strong woman and worthy of deeper attention. When I began to think I would write this book, I inquired of those who knew her. My mother said of Stella, 'she was a light on the farm, and when she died that light went out,' and her name 'Stella' means star. That simple realization got me started. If you read the book from beginning to end you will find there is a natural recurrence of imagery of light and darkness. And one of the poems of that collection reveals a yearning to see what lies beneath the surface of things. It actually had its beginnings in Mexico where I was snorkeling. If you look at the surface of the ocean, it appears to be a sort of empty blue reflection of the sky. But when you touch the mask to the water, it reveals itself to contain thousands of brilliantly coloured fishes just beneath the surface. That fact amounted to a wonderful metaphor for what I was after. Much of Stella's Journey as a book acknowledges meaning arising from deep regard.

The Mind is a Glass-Touched Ocean

I want to hold time fast
and gentle
as a beetle does a crumb
and in the grand simultaneity
of the past
where birth and death
are overlaid
like the incidental blending
at dusk and dawn
when the words moon and star
and stone and human
meet as in the kissing together
of pages
in the movement of breath and lips
and I feel the past in my own oldness
at the centre
of what was and what is yet to come
though others see my face
without the boy
and I think of grandmother Stella
and say the word girl
and see her
plum-smooth and naked
bathing in her mother's kitchen
the wet sheen of a child's beauty
in the shiny soap light
where bubbles break
like someone weeping softly to herself.

And if I say the word
woman once and first
I see her
eyes fixed on her studied hand
the small teacher-driven movements
of a shifting pen
the coffee flavour of the hour
fading where daylight
throws itself like clear water
in the air.

And over a life of nouns
from bride to wife to mother
birthing in the blood-wet bed
to mother
sending her children to school
launching her elder son to war at sea
dying into memory
with the mind become
a glass-touched ocean
where the wonders can't be seen
beneath the beautiful
light-wet surface of the waves
though there's bountiful colour below
the here and now
in the now and then
if you touch your face with open eyes to the blue.

If we would fix our place in the world, then we must think what stories are given me to tell, what roots hold those stories in place, what roots have they sunk in the mind, and how might we find the language to release those memories, those imaginings, those patterns of inner truth.

Let me conclude with two poems. One a haiku, the other a recent poem on our oldest ancestor, Adam.

The Writer's Dilemma

the flower
in the mirror
smells of glass


Adam's Memory

Full born
out of earth
and breath
at the delta of the fourth river
set in the clever clockwork
of his own garden
and lost in the loneliness
of his onomastic task
such things took flight
as if formed from the sparrow flutter
of his naming tongue
though Adam remembered nothing
of himself
until that first sleep of stolen bones
and then from a flood
of inner appetite
became remembering dust
wise darkness
a sentient wind...
how then to know God's meaning
without the presence of the dead
in that ghost-lonely landscape
so pastless and loveless
the dark milk of Adam's memory
has no mother
to grieve
no father to lament
no stones to bless.

When he is gone
the rain
invents a metaphor.

However high-minded I am, my wife will tell you, I'm not this rooted man who stands before you, but rather a grump in waiting. I am in fact, "The Curmudgeons Apprentice."

The Curmudgeon's Apprentice

I am on the verge
of an expert disgruntlement.
I have perfected the deep twelve-toned harrumphs
of the river hippo.
I whisper epithets and imprecations
beneath the breath of love.
As it is with disappointed priests
and disapproving vicars, I moralize
my voice, low and lugubrious
as a parlour gramophone
dying in a groove.
I have managed the bitterness
of old tea
the dark tarnish of unattended silver
and the waxy orange match ends
of farmers
ruttling their ears in the evening.
I am living
at the existential rag's end
of all arguments.
I share a pessimism with the newly dead.
I practice hurling stones
at the dogs of the heart
to see them fly like barking birds
to hear them on the wind
howling above my words.

And so the final stage of my journey begins. And I thank you.

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