If you’ve never heard Edin Viso read his poetry, you owe it to yourself to head down to Ground Zero Monday, May 27, and hear the ‘Madman’ himself. He’ll be reading from Balkan Tattoo and from his new book Quatro Stadgioni (cover art by the amazing Oksana Zhelisko). I was privileged to write a foreword for this book.
Long echoed down writerly halls is the oft heard but sporadically heeded advice, don’t hold anything back. Here, in Edin Viso’s second book of prose and poetry, there is no hesitation. The qualities of his mind and the experiences of his heart are laid bare. This is spiritual writing writ large, birthed by love and discipline; midwifed by, as Edin says, “an addiction to writing.”
It may be helpful to note here that Edin’s prose style is distinctively conversational. Reading his prose is not unlike finding yourself at a table in the back room of a Beat coffee house, drinking strong black Java while listening to a friend spill out in one great sweep, ideas, memories and convictions.
Taking the work as a whole, a reader will soon see that what we have here is an ebullient Balkan poet, who—having witnessed and absorbed the ravages of his country’s demolition, having experienced, even as he fled, his own dismantling, and then his “restoration of peace”—puts it all down with blunt intensity. And it will come clear throughout that Edin’s faith plays a central role, while Hope Mission, to which the book is dedicated, plays a leading character.
Edin Viso has divided his literary house into four rooms. We are lead, sometimes straight, sometimes roundabout, through this quatrain-space, where, especially in the poetry, the quotidian meets the majestic, the visceral meets the visionary, high-flung humour meets the holy.
In the Show Room we are plunged into experiences of a dark and bitter past that admit finally to possibility. Images coil like entrails, then like green vines, as we are shown bleak flashbacks and hopeful lobs into the future. In these self-effacing and self-reflective pieces we may find ourselves torn and exposed. And yet, as in the poem Whales Turning, there are winds that blow for a better world; and “The poet wonders / What kept him?” Never far from any dark page is the mystic/romantic, incurably hopeful in the power of love.
Through the Tropic Room and Desert Room, there is progression; but it is the progression of life, never absolute—resembling a corkscrew rather than a ruler. There are poems that gaze: ask you to “Put up your face and catch the scented rain;” then there are those that grab your lapels and bring you up sharp, for the “eggshells of air are full of our very own danger.” There’s a minefield of surprising images here.
Finally, in the Cool Room, we find an extended riff on God, love, Christ, a kind of stream-of-consciousness-testimony that culminates in a tentative arrival: the recognition that God’s promised land is found nowhere other than within.
This is a big-handed, big-hearted book. In these pages a rough god goes riding. In the flow of experience subjectively described we find ourselves in the presence of a man, who having followed hard after desire (“Sense in me the crush of yearning.”) has been opened to beauty and grace and love. Unmistakably, this writing is Edin’s way of sharing what he’s found.
And as for writerly advice, this author has garnered his own: plucked from the Pentateuch where God tells Moses to remove his sandals, which Edin sees as “the most important commandment in the Hebrew Bible,” he notes, “When you are left barefoot on Holy Ground, write that!”
Virginia Woolf has said that, “Every secret of a writer’s soul is written large in his works.” In Quattro Stadgioni Edin Viso’s soul-secrets are burned onto the page. Revealed like this they become “An endless dance of small fires around the bone.”
I’m in our cabin, moodling (a term I got from Brenda Ueland), thinking that words may spring from my fingers if I sit at my desk long enough.
Except, in the middle of forming what was sure to be great thought—maybe the size of the fish that snapped my line all those years ago—a blue ball, blurred by speed, hits the under-story 30 feet from my window and sets off a small explosion of dry leaves, bits of moss and twigs.
The air clears. I see a slate-grey raptor—tall, straight, impressive, a northern goshawk, the largest of North American accipiters, it’s bird royalty I’m talking about here—with a mouse dangling from its hooked beak.
It drops the body, pins it with talons, and begins a 10 minute evisceration, unhurried, savouring—it’s only a snack, squirrels, even rabbits the main course. I see thick bright red threads pulled, see them break and disappear, and at last the tail and ribboned hide are swallowed—to be rendered by crop and gizzard.
It’s what goshawks do. Diurnal hunters, they’re made for these boreal woods. Their short powerful wings propel them between tight stands of poplar; their eyes see through cottonwood leaves.
And me, I too do what I do. I watch with admiration, happy on this day I’m not a field mouse.
And that thought that was forming has swum out of my memory. But I assure you, it was grand. At least this big!
If a small band of you come together to see what Camus might mean when he said, a person’s life purpose is nothing more than to rediscover, through the detours of art, or love, or passionate work, those one or two images in the presence of which his heart first opened, you will begin to talk of epiphanies, like when you lived in Pakistan, and at four years old saw a curtain of stars rise behind the Himalayas, and even then knew that how ever long you lived you would never have a way of talking about feeling that loved, or when as a young woman, you approached a cliff edge and began to dance a new version of yourself and all the religion you were taught fell behind, and someone might describe how one evening, tempted by frog-song, like sirens, impossibly alluring to early ears, she climbed out the window of her bedroom and ran through the field to the creek, and maybe someone would recall Merton, in Louisville, on the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, sprung for a day from his cell, suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that he loved all those people, and how the destiny of being human came radiating, and how he ached to find a way to tell them that they were all walking around shining like the sun, and someone might talk of books and the way they take you sailing and bring you back weathered and rich with sightings, or the time a daughter was brought into the world, and after the pain, a new pain came, and settled-sweet into your crying and laughing arms, and how you would hold her forever, or maybe someone would talk of the first time they heard The Band sing The Weight, and how you cranked it way past the tolerance of Chevy speakers, or someone might think to describe how after an orgasm, rays of light strummed on bodies and released you both into laughter, and then memories would come sparking and shimmering of walking by rivers, of sitting on petalled patios, of music moving uphill, of running at the break of day, of driving at dusk in summer cities, of an evening, when, beside an uncommonly calm sea, you and four others climbed inside a broken gazebo, washed up years ago, and you sat in a circle smiling—hours with no words passing—only the convection of being entirely untroubled, and at the close of the evening one might look across the room out the window and suddenly say, “Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs!”
My grandmother, standing at the door, my mother enjoying a break from chores. (1930’s)
This is a slightly revised version of a piece that was published in the Edmonton Journal (Religion) about eight years ago.
The school bus drops me off at the farm gate. As I approach our house the smell of warm bread comes to me through the screen door. I forget myself and drop my books in the porch—a habit I’m to break.
In the kitchen close to a dozen loaves of white bread are lined up cooling on the counter. One loaf is set apart. Beside it is a large square of butter on a saucer and beside that, a cereal bowl full of raspberry jam. All this is for me and my sister and our foster brothers.
We cut thick slices, and with flattened chunks of butter still melting underneath hills of jam, we eat wearing broad smiles.
It’s a gilded Leave it to Beaver memory. And although it’s one that warms me, it’s not the whole picture, and not the one my mother carries.
My mother made bread every week. I remember watching her one day. As she leaned over a square twenty-gallon galvanized tub punching down bread dough, some of her hair had come loose from the comb fastened at the back of her head and damp strands hung down past her face. I watched her body strain and her face tighten as she punched down the dough with her fists.
Until that day all I knew was that a dozen steaming loaves would come out of the oven at more or less the same time each week. It came as a revelation to me that making bread was hard work.
I never knew the meaning of “give us our daily bread” the way my mother knew it.
I take bread, and most everything it references, for granted. The concept of not being guaranteed daily provision seems an unreal thing to me.
For my mother however, making bread, not buying it, was a necessity. It’s been a slow dawning, but I know now that my mother had, and still has, a keener sense of daily dependence than I. She wasn’t looking for a deeper reality through the bite of hard times. It just happened. And she chose to understand life’s contingencies through her hands, too early arthritic.
The concept—‘poverty of spirit’—has a catalogue of great minds and tomes of text devoted to its exposition, but all that is a bit of fluff beside an embodied humility that receives with gratitude and takes little in life for granted.
My mother knew that Jesus had called himself the “bread of heaven.” She had a picture with a verse to that effect, hanging in the kitchen.
This reference, for mom, had, and still has, a wide meaning. She believes that Jesus satisfies all inner and outer needs. This is a naïveté that gets dismissed readily—and often deserves to be—if not formed within a kind of “existential verification.” That is to say, I see my mother’s naïveté as a living articulation of something she would not herself attempt to preach.
But in all of this I can’t help but think that my mother, through a kind of unconscious exchange, through her connection with Jesus as “bread of heaven,” became for me and our family, a form of Eucharist. With her fists buried deep in a hundred essential tasks, her heart navigating the rocky and changing channel between concern and control, acceptance and censure, she became broken for her children.
But in this she is like mothers everywhere. What mother, in some way, has not been broken for her children? What mother has not known the dark midnight of worry—in pregnancy, in her child’s childhood, in her child’s adulthood? And what mother has not spent herself, and would not endlessly spend herself, for her child’s safe passage?
There has never been an easy epoch in which to be a mother. How motherhood is received, learned, and carried out, is, for each mother, a uniquely layered story. But what is universally shared by mothers, even incompetent mothers, is the pull to nurture. And in this pull, most mothers, unseen and unheralded, become, like my own mother, a scattering of broken bread for the long blessing of their children.
This Sunday…think of your mom, or your wife, or partner, or yourself for that matter, because this will be a sweet show with an art-advancing cause. Oh, and there will be gifts for mothers…and prizes too!
As you can see, we’ve got the cream of Edmonton’s musicians and performers, and, well, some of my own work will be wedged in as well. Hope to see you there!
Today on the (western) liturgical calendar marks the sixth Sunday of Easter. In two weeks, after Pentecost, ‘ordinary time’ will resume. Thought you should know.
Zachariah, Peter and Sly Stone
Soon the Octave of Easter weeks will be swallowed
by the flat terrain of ordinary time,
left to graze on the greying memories of holy week.
And now I’m wondering: does sacred need profane?
Didn’t the eyes of Zechariah burn with a new light?
Gazing on those common cooking pots and horse bells
seeing ‘holy-to-the-Lord’ blaze itself onto the quotidian,
his inventory overturned, unbound, suddenly fluid.
And Peter too—in the shimmering glow
of his inclusive act, standing by his new friend,
quaking in the greening comprehension—
had cried, the dream-in-waiting has arrived,
the revelation-revolution is that you, friend, are holy.
He’d seen, at the in-gathering of everyday people
the sacredness of all breath and breathless things.
How God had sung the buzzing, blooming world,
this giant bejewelled chalice, holy.
But how hard it is to transpose this new song.
Hard to find our meaning beyond division.
Easier to stay safe on the righteous side of a conjured line,
call our exacting ability to classify and codify,
the gift of discernment.
Easier to be over and above, than to love;
easier to breach than to merge;
easier to preach than converge,
and try create a supple ‘we’
beyond the icy ‘us-and-them.’
And back at the Temple we sweep out
the odd and ungainly, the queer and the quirky,
all those mismatched colours onto the coarse ground,
keeping holy holy, and profane profane.
And now, as I write, Sly and the Family Stone
comes pop, funk, soul, rock-ing over these
cafe speakers, singing “Everyday People.”
And a girl in a red top sitting in a purple chair
starts to sing, “There is a blue one who can’t accept
The green one for living with a black one…
And so on and so on… Oh sha sha…
We gotta live together.”
First band to mix race and gender,
Family Stone climbed the stage and danced
their kaleido-delic diversity onto the human plain.
But alright, we’re still in our swaddling clothes,
needing to designate times, places, things holy,
raise to mind and stamp our memory matrices
with coordinates through which we can seize
and fuse a reality that can be rehearsed,
transcribed and coaxed, onto the cosmos entire.
And by this, should we be moved to see what we are
—we may call it liturgy.
Zachariah, Peter and Sly knew the aim;
knew that every day is Easter,
knew that all time is ordinary—and kissed holy,
that all people are everyday—kissed holy.
The backstory here, one I’m only beginning to appreciate, is that the Creative Nonfiction Collective (CNFC) is vitally responsible for the respect that creative nonfiction is now beginning to enjoy in Canada. And of the small circle who pioneered that path, Myrna Kostash stands out as provost.
It was this—surrounding talk of CNFC going into their tenth year of goodly engagement—that hit a chord for me at CNFC’s annual conference. A first-timer, I hadn’t considered how much doing it takes to undo the Dangerfield syndrome. Hadn’t considered the expended energy that’s gone on before to get creative nonfiction writers a pew closer to the pulpit; up there as an equally recognised form of literature, “amongst awards juries, news media, publishers, booksellers and the reading public.”
Clearly, this genre’s time has arrived. Sitting in (and taking part) in last Friday’s cabaret, feeling flush from listening to the formidable pool of talent, from Halifax to Victoria, was pure church. Besides this, remembering that we were here due to an idea spawned by a creative cadre with a prodigal daughter at the prow had me at the crest of a religious experience.
Hard to follow the cabaret, but the next day’s sessions, offered up by Kate Braid, Tyler Trafford, Lynne Bowen, Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail, Marcello Di Cintio and Glenn Dixon, from found stories to stories of perspiring through 10 years of research, shows the kaleidoscopic range of the “beloved genre.” And didn’t you love looking through a kaleidoscope when you were a kid? This was better.
Then came the keynote—New Instrument, Another Music: Moving from Fiction and Poetry to CNF: Karen Connelly is hard to pin. You don’t listen to her so much as undergo her. If my father was still around he would have summed her up as a livewire. I’m good with this if you take off the busy ascriptions this can conjure and just go with the suggested live-energy, wired-in humour, a certain magnetism and intense conviction.
Perhaps the other thing that drew me in is that she too is a recovering fundamentalist. No, that’s not right, she seems fully recovered. You can tell. I picked up—and this is something always remarkable when spied in people—that she is hitting on that critical balance between rebel and mystic. (Something foreign to both fundamentalists and mere subversives.)
It’s important here to mention, and thank, Don Sedgwick of the University of King’s College in Halifax. He’s the Executive Director of the new MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. Also appreciated his facility and wisdom with “What’s going on in the writing industry.” The other thing that’s important to remember is that Don brought the wine, I mean, King’s sponsored the reception.
Later that evening, we participated in selecting the Readers Choice Award. Nine nominations from across the map—this is no insular group. All provocative pieces. All daring, all deserving.
And finally, the following morning: what would a conference be without a business meeting? Well, yeah, a party. But think balance. ‘Cause it’s grindstone stuff that put this all together, and it’s grindstone stuff that has, and will, spur the collective and nurture the genre. Something the board knows all too well.
And at the end, more fitting than re-renaming The Banff Centre to The Banff Centre of the Arts, (either way, a glorious place for a conference) was the standing ovation for Myrna K., honouring her near ten years of service, seven as president of the CNFC.
Conference conclusion? The beloved genre is blooming.
The folks at Bleeding Heart Art Space…
curate a context for conversations, connections and creativity centered around art, faith, hope and love.
They are tied in with the Art’s revitalization on 118 Avenue, a community they live in and love.
Bleeding Heart is art space, sacred space and community space all in one. Words they use to describe themselves are: engaging, inclusive, redemptive, local, artistic excellence, awestruck.
A few evenings ago, for their ‘sacred space’ event, Speak my Language, I was honoured to be invited to write a couple poems to present on the theme of language. The first poem was to be something just to get us thinking about this mysterious ability and aptitude for language, this vertical world, as far as we know, unique to we humans. And so the following:
Consider the mechanics:
your thought, a lexical chain,
turns wheel, pushrod presses diaphragm,
air rushes from lungs to trachea,
excites larynx, passes over vocal folds,
periodic pulses of glottis, fashions phonemes,
for post-throat conditioning,
and in the roll and yaw of mandible
tongue clicks free from its cavity,
flings phonemes through caves of mouth
and nose, past teeth to lip aperture,
and you pray, that this phonetical filament,
in resonance of pitch and tone,
might bear some similarity
to your original thought.
If language was used less,
it may last longer.
But tell that to the tongue.
The tongue, impatient,
conceives its own path,
This fine looking group of volunteers are from DDB. You may have heard me talking about this organization before: having harnessed their creative savvy and exquisitely applied it in refreshing Hope Mission’s look and brand, then, handing it all over gratis—leaving us ever grateful, and glowing-at-the-centre—have also plunged in, hand and limb, to serve meals…along with those bright smiles.
But its not only DDB that I want to acknowledge here on this 71st anniversary of National Volunteer Week: because Hope Mission has an entire village of tried and true volunteers; (Per week, something like 200 contributing over 600 hours of service!) without which, the spreading and sharing of hope would be hampered and hamstrung. For you see, our volunteers bring along their hearts with their hands, adding inestimable soul to the work of Hope, which—as the new logo conveys—embodies our Mission.
And now, to all volunteers, not only those at Hope Mission, Grow Mercy sends beaucoups of bouquets!