Off the Grid: Gwendolyn MacEwen

Do not hate me / Because I peeled the veil from from your eyes and tore your world to shreds, and brought / The darkness down upon your head. Here is a book of tongues, / Take it. (Dark leaves invade the air.) / Beware! Now I know a language so beautiful and lethal / My mouth bleeds when I speak it. --But

Welcome to the inaugural post of Off the Grid. I was very torn about what to talk about on this first post. I wanted something spectacular--something that would make you come back again and again to discover new things. I considered graphic novels--ones that I will probably still talk about later--and short stories and novellas.

I rolled through my usual angst: what if no one likes the post? Which essentially translated to: what if no one likes what I like?

We're all searching for commonalities, even me. 

But the more I thought about those questions, the more I realized that's kind of the whole point behind Off the Grid. The series is meant to express our love for the artists or a particular work which we passionately want to champion, but we don't see others discussing. The series isn't about selling new books, but about finding new authors and stories that inspire us for various reasons. 

I didn't realize I was passionate about Gwendolyn MacEwen's poetry until I read a portion of the poem "But" and couldn't get it out of my head. I went around for days with "... a language so beautiful and lethal / My mouth bleeds when I speak it"  rolling through my head. So I went online and found one other quote on Goodreads:

But it is never over; nothing ends until we want it to. / Look, in shattered midnights, / On black ice under silver trees, we are still dancing, dancing. --Late Song

Now my days were filled with shattered midnights and black ice to accompany a language so beautiful and lethal, and I knew why her mouth bled. Gwendolyn MacEwen (1941-1987) was a fearless Canadian author, who lived in Toronto. As a matter of fact, she and Margaret Atwood met at the Bohemian Embassy in 1960 and became friends. Atwood even wrote the short story "Isis in Darkness" as a fictional tribute to MacEwen.

MacEwen had a thirst for knowledge that led her to travel alone to Israel while she was in her early twenties. She studied gnosis, Hebrew, and Egyptian culture. After dropping out of high school, she attended Congregation Knesseth Israel synagogue so she could learn Hebrew. She decided that if she was to read the Bible, she would read it in the language in which it was written. Her life is as fascinating as her written works.

Her gift for language is embodied in her poetry, and her poetry is in her stories, and her stories are powerful juxtapositions of darkness and light. She believed in magic, and in stripping away  the "glass barrier between" herself and the unknown. She called poets "magicians without quick wrists."

And MacEwen cast her spells with beautiful, lethal language in both her poetry and her stories--flash fiction written long before the Internet gave it a name--with stark eloquence. In "Letters to Josef in Jerusalem," she shows the city of Jerusalem as only someone intimate with the city's geography and people can:

Josef, twenty years have passed since we sat in the cemetery close to No Man's Land, on somebody's gravestone, in a garden of death in Jerusalem, and the ancient night contained our youth. Though we were younger and older than death, and wise as the night was. All wars, we said, are born here in the City of Peace, and Jerusalem is not a city but a whore; thousands have taken her but she has only changed hands.

Do you remember

How the moonlight slayed us, its light a knife between our ribs, and our knees and elbows gathered silver as we bowed down. Yet we would not kneel in that most unholy of cities; we sat on the eloquent stone watching the cats pass, apolitical, into No Man's Land. Only they ignored the borders, only for them had the city never been divided. The washing which had hung for centuries on the clotheslines was still not dry, and

The Hebrew God was a string of names in the night ...

--Letters to Josef in Jerusalem

Her one novel, Julian the Magician, is still available from Insomniac Press. I haven't read it yet, but I understand it evokes a world similar to Bergman's in The Seventh Seal, one of my favorite movies.

I was fortunate enough to snag a book of her poetry and stories, The Selected Gwendolyn MacEwen [edited by Meaghan Strimas]. Among the poems are pieces of flash fiction, including "The Man with Three Violins," which is the story of a man who travels along Bloor Street, carrying three black cases. His eyes are "full of lonely, an archive of nothing."

"The Transparent Womb" is a litany of the mistreated children MacEwen sees why all the world's children are really ours:

... and at Halloween the poor kids come shelling out and one boy wears a garbage bag over his head with holes cut out for eyes and says does it matter what he's supposed to be, and his sister wears the same oversize dress she wears every day because it's already a funny, horrible costume, hem flopping around her ankles, the eternal hand-me-down haute mode of the poor, because

They wander into my house all the time asking "got any fruit?" because their parents spend their welfare cheques on beer and pork and beans and Kraft Dinner and more beer, they won't eat vegetables with funny names like the Greeks and the Wops, so the kids are fat, poor fat, fat with starch and sugar, toy food, because

The kids in Belfast in that news photo were trying to pull a gun away from a British soldier in a terrible tug of war where nobody won, and ...

--The Transparent Womb

Remember, she asked that you not hate her for peeling the veil from your eyes. Throughout all of her works, her use of language and form is both sublime and brutal.

I'm sorry that so few of her books are available now. The copy I purchased is used and all the more valuable to me, because it isn't in print anymore. If you can find one of her books of poetry, I suggest you try it. I hope that if enough people begin to talk about her work again, her poems will be published outside of academic texts.

I always recommend reading poetry to sharpen writing skills, because poetry teaches the economical use of words and imagery that is easily translated into prose. Poetry teaches rhythm and cadence, and shows us how to take a moment and stretch it into a memory.

I have several poets whose works I enjoy, and sometimes read poems before I go to sleep at night. Pablo Neruda and Federico Garcia Lorca are two favorites.

Now I take Gwendolyn MacEwen's beautiful, lethal language down into my dreams.