By Rick Patrick
Whoever said that you can’t go home again was only partly right. You can go, but only if you dare. And only if you are prepared to find the scale of your life there diminished and forever changed.
From April 10 to April 12 a friend and I ventured north from Madoc (about 30 km north of Belleville) to promote my new book, The Stonehaven Poems. The friend, David Maltby, is an independent film-maker who has worked in 32 countries on various film projects. We met through my wife Bonnie Sallans, who is David’s piano teacher. One day we were talking about the poetic process, and how a kid from a northern steel town, with no literary past and no family support, becomes a poet. We agreed that it might be useful artistically — and fun personally — to make a documentary, and so off we went.
David did some preliminary work last fall, filming me at Stonehaven harvesting garlic, chopping wood, playing with our two Alaskan Malamutes, Thunder and Nico. He also did an on-camera interview about the development of my interest in poetry. The trip north was to be an extension of this, and was designed to add footage from the readings and from the physical and spiritual landscapes of my past.
We set out on a Saturday, headed for Sudbury, our first stop. Sudbury is the home base of Your Scrivener Press, a small literary press with a mandate to serve the writers of northeastern Ontario. The heart and soul of the operation is Laurence Steven, surely the busiest man on the planet, and a professor in the English Department at Laurentian University. He normally publishes four titles each year, two in the spring and two in the fall. The Sudbury event was to be the beginning of the spring launch of The Stonehaven Poems and Welling, a new book of poems by Margaret Christakos, who arrived by bus from Toronto to re-visit her former hometown.
The event attracted about 35 people and was very successful. The venue was a place called the Fromagerie Elgin, a casual dining spot with the best selection of international cheeses I have seen anywhere, including France and other European countries I’ve visited. I was the opening act for Margaret who was the headliner in her old hometown. We each read for about 30 minutes and then chatted with the audience and signed books. Everybody was happy, relaxed and very complimentary about the poems. We all headed off in a good mood shortly after 10:00 p.m., to be up in good time and on the road to Sault Ste. Marie — my old hometown and the second and final stop on the tour.
The Soo (as we expatriates affectionately call it) is about three and a half hours by car due west from Sudbury. The event there was scheduled for 2:30 p.m. the next afternoon, so we needed to get away early — and get a good night’s sleep first.
Why is it that when you’re in a hotel / motel on the road and have a big day coming up, the fates always conspire to put you in a room next to people who want to party all night? After lights out at about 11:00, I heard David start to snore ever-so-gently, and then I too drifted off — to be rudely awakened by our noisy neighbours shortly after. As far as I could tell they actually had a room to inhabit (directly across from ours), though they much preferred the hallway. And so it went for an hour or so untiI I lept out of bed – just ahead of David who was on a similar mission — to open the door and confront the pests. As polite as I could manage to be, I reminded our neighbours about the volume and duration of the noise, which impressed them not at all. One young man in dreadlocks looked at me as though I were a lump of cement and snarled something like: “Hey, man, chill. We just got here.” Oh joy, I thought as I slammed the door and headed for the phone to reach the front desk. It appears, however, that the Gods of Poetry were on our side on this occasion and the noise in the hall moved inside a room somewhere and subsided.
Both The Stonehaven Poems and my first collection Histories (BuschekBooks, 2005) deal in part with my past self, including the death of my father on a moose-hunting trip north of the Soo in 1957. I was 11 years old at the time and his loss was a seminal event in my life and in my poetry, as was the eventual loss of the family cottage and property at Lonely Lake, near the Soo. The cottage was built by my father out of the bush and had been in our family for over 50 years. When my mother died in 1998 it was inherited by my oldest brother, who promptly sold it to an American. That brother died a couple of years later and is also the subject of poems in both books.
You can, apparently, run. But, equally apparently, you cannot hide.
Part of the plan was to return to Lonely Lake and film the place. But now that it belonged to someone else, I’d be on the other side of the gate, looking in. If the new owner was there, how would he react? And how would I react if he was hostile? I pictured myself resorting to mayhem, or totally at a loss. When we found the place empty, and the lake beautiful and blue in the April sun, I was grateful and relieved. To my further relief and delight, a neighbour whom I had known for years was home next door, so I headed over there to say hello and announce our presence. True to form, he was very gracious and seemed genuinely happy to see me after many years.
We had much to say to each other but not much time in which to say it, since David and I were due in the Soo shortly after. Our former neighbour John said we should go through the gate and do our filming. When he next saw the owner he would explain what happened — he didn’t think complaints were likely. And so David filmed me driving up to the gate, standing looking out at the lake, walking around the house, looking and leaving again, no doubt for the last time.
It was a sad parting but a necessary one, and one that provided closure. It’s a much overused word these days, but I can’t think of another quite as appropriate. I will remember the place in the bright April sun, with the deep blue of the lake behind. The property has been fixed up and lovingly cared for by the new owners, just as I have tried to do with our new home at Stonehaven. We never own these pieces of earth, of course. They own us, and when our time in the human world is finished, we return to them. As it should be.
A few hours later, at a wonderful club downtown called Loplops, I read and David filmed. I had several single-malt scotches, along with warm embraces from relatives and friends who came to show their love and support. I read for them, and for the past, and for the dead: my brother, my mother, my father and the lives we had together. I read for a past that’s gone forever and yet not gone at all. These places and these people remain in the poems, and so the poems become the most important accomplishment of my life.
I am back at Stonehaven now and David is off working on his other projects. Time and change are relentless. In a few weeks I will be 64 years old. The world that I have seen is an incredible place, full of misery and selfishness and pain, yet full of the possibilities of redemption, full of opportunities to learn and find oneself and uncover the meaning of it all. As I set out for a walk in the woods with Bonnie and Thunder and Nico, I re-enter a world redolent with the great gift of poetry, in which all our other living can be done.