These poems are close to my heart. Karen Mulhallen Karen and I are both exiles from Sowesto (aka southwestern Ontario), and the places of which she writes — Lake Erie, Port Dover, the Halton Sand Hills, Turkey Point, and Long Point — are ancestral touchstones for me as much as they are for her. For more about Karen, please see the introduction I wrote for her book Acquainted With Absence: Selected Poems. For more about the land of which she writes, see my “Long Point, A Geography of the Soul.”
Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1845)
The Fishing Poems, An Album
I have kept my Fishing Poems close by for many decades. Their essential topography began to develop in my childhood and adolescence. As a family, we often drove from Woodstock in my father’s bright red Buick on hot summer weekends to Lake Erie to the Houghton Sand Hills, or we constructed a picnic in the parks and the beaches at Long Point, Turkey Point and Port Dover. Sometimes my parents would rent a cottage, a small wooden shack.
In adolescence, when the freedom offered by the family car came into play, I went with other teenagers to hear music: Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins, Alice Cooper, Chuck Berry; they all performed in Ontario’s deep southwest.
And more rarely, but memorably, in adulthood, my brothers and I would go off to spend the day in west Norfolk at the Houghton Sand Hills, towering 250 feet in the air, ever changing, and shaped toward the east by the southwest winds which revealed potshards and arrowheads in their passage and the shadowy presence still of a look-out, aboriginal or white, gauging the approach of a stranger across the long narrow stretch of lake below. Erielhonan, Iroquois for long-tailed.
Welded with these scenes was my indelible reading, when I was thirteen, of Alain Bombard’s Naufragé Volontaire (1953). Bombard sailed across the Atlantic from France to the Barbados, a distance of 4400 km, in an open boat, an inflatable he invented himself, and which he called L’Hérétique. With only a sextant, a few provisions, and an indomitable will, Bombard epitomized for me all those other great voyages on the oceans of the world, all those heretical abandonments of the known, those searches for a new found land.
It is easy to get shipwrecked, or to drown, in the search for freedom.
In the early seventies, I lived in Toronto in a second floor apartment in a house on Brunswick Avenue. In the rear ground floor apartment was a photographer named Brian Ramer who hailed from Brantford. It was Brian who initiated my tertiary enchantment with Norfolk County as we explored our shared childhoods and talked of climbing the towering Houghton Sand Hills, white grains slithering between fingers and toes, and the shallow warm welcoming waters and sun-dappled sandy beach at Port Dover on the shores of Lake Erie.
Brian was making a living as a photographer and spending all his spare time in our back yard teaching himself solarized printing. The old buildings of Spadina Avenue with their cross hatchings of street car lines, their eccentric turrets and false façade pediments and elaborate brickwork niches would appeared in brown and the palest gold, like ancient sepia prints, on sheets of paper, spread over the weeds under the clothesline. Upstairs I’d given up Near Eastern Studies and Archaeology and was teaching myself structural linguistic analysis with an eye on those lush passionate melancholic tales of William Faulkner.
Four of us piled in Brian’s old Chevy and drove off for the day to Dover. Brian had been a couple times lately, talked to John Simple, and hung out on the beach, eating foot-long Arbors and watching the farm kids from Hagersville with their six foot inflatables, the big kings of the surf.
It was a tiny town, not much bigger than in Brébeuf’s time, although now it was all white. Brian had walked the main drag. Mr Vary still had his store at number 421 Main Street which he’d set up in 1908, when there were 1500 folks in the town.It took nearly forty years to double that. He was 87 now but his memory was good, which is what we found in everyone we talked to.
We headed up St Andrew which curves like a comma back to Main at the Water Tower. It was early, the beach mottled from the night rain, the sun rays small. For a moment it clouded over, and the sun shone through an aperture, the narrow band a hot vertical arc light. The tide was coming in, the water flashing diamonds in front of a large white yacht. A small blue sailboat cut across the bay, just behind a coral yacht at anchor. I knew by noon the whole beach would be a quilt, one blanket after another. The Blue Pickerel was still the best fish shack on the beach, “no bones about it”, but at that hour we had no inclination to “Try some for the Halibut”, despite the faded old sign, hung proudly on its front. And anyway the louvres were only partly open.
The gulls were swooping around a fishing boat way out there. We squinted into the sun as a yellow paper bag came floating along the horizon line,like a double- masted iceberg. Then we decided to climb up toward the drawbridge through the underbrush, dead twigs snap snapping against dusty gravel. Just then the bells began to ring.
My sandals were no good for climbing and I had to pick my way barefoot around fallen thistle burrs, old nails, and cigarette butts. The bridge began to lift cutting a diagonal right across the sky as a bird with a fish by the tail came swooping under, heading up the canal toward the river. There were three kids on the bridge, a couple of bikes dumped by the side on the gravel slope. Two of the kids had fishing poles, and there was a large tomato juice can full of minnows on the ground.
We were going to talk to John Simple in the evening about gill netting in an open boat and about dragging for smelt, and the lore of the town. We knew where the Alma would dock and I’d already put my hand down into the split car-tire buoys full of small soft spiders lining the Alma’s spot.
Brian and Tony climbed up to the top of Bank Street on the edge of the highway, just over from the big yellow fork- lift machine, while Bill and I went on another amble in the town centre. We knew we’d all end up back on the beach to make a supper out of golden orange sweet honey glow drinks, a dog and an ice cream cone at the Arbor shack, where a scoop of blueberry or loganberry was only 10 cents.
Near the dock was a mass of orange net and a pile of green and white and grey buoys. The Dover Rose slid into harbor loaded down. We picked up the boardwalk and headed to Globe & Mail Park where we all met up with Shelley and Sheri and Dougie playing on the stone lions at the bandstand steps. I figured them for 13 or so, and I wasn’t far off. We did the standard adult tack, asked them about school. “ You guys are lucky. I don’t learn nothin in school” said Dougie. “ The other kids are too noisy.” “ Is the teacher young?” “ No, but not old either. She’s got veins in her hands.” Brian’s camera was handed over and Sheri cracked a real Marilyn Monro cheesecake. “She looks sharp without the camera” says Dougie, “through it she doesn’t even look smart.”
Brian and I went several more times to Dover that summer to walk the beach, to talk to the fishermen, and to spend time in the small town library archives.
When I was growing up in southwestern Ontario, the past and its passions were everywhere present. I went to the Indian reserve at Oshweken with my father, and to farm auctions where old farm houses and barns yielded vestiges of pioneer days. In July, there were Highland Games nearby at Embro, and the Battle of Culloden was fought over and over, as children in kilts danced over swords, and the Amish families, all modestly dressed, arrived with their horses and buggies. The world champion tug-of-war team, originating in the 1870s, was a group of six farmers who lived near Embro. They called themselves The Mighty Men of Zorra, after the township they lived in. For a child there was always an odd sense that many of the rituals I encountered and the people I met had come from away. How did they get here; what was this place for them; were they really here, or were they still there?
And always beyond the early settlers and their descendants and the native peoples there loomed the distant past, a world of animal and spirit forms, manifesting themselves in nature.
While I lived on Brunswick Avenue, Lorraine Monk had published, for the National Film Board of Canada, a book to celebrate Canada’s centenary, a picture book, Canada: A Year of the Land, with poems by my friend Miriam Waddington. Brian Ramer and I were inspired by its format and began to plan our own book of text and pictures. When our book was done, I sent it to the NFB and then to two other publishers, and it has remained unpublished. Brian left 411 Brunswick and eventually I moved on as well. But before I left Brunswick Avenue I went to the Pacific Ocean where I met a sailor who had built his own trimaran and sailed south from northern California, past the Baja coast where the spirits and the winds are strong, to a small fishing village on the west coast of Mexico.
I can still hear the crackle of the light blue onionskin airmail letters as they slipped through the front door mail slot bearing the beginnings of yet another version of Fishing Poems. For although my fishing poems had begun in childhood, they also now included the death, by drowning in the Tiber, of my friend Chris, as well as the end of my marriage, which had been primarily enacted by water, to a man who had been schooled on a ship, as his own father was its commander. So although I was born landlocked, I was early, or from the very beginning, marked by water.
I met the sailor on the beach in the old fishing village of Zihuatenejo. I had been to a shack for dinner where a thin, gray-haired white woman in pajamas, hands shaking, served us dishes of lobster by the light of an oil lamp hung on a peg from the roof rafters. Afterward L and I went for a walk on the beach, and then took a taxi up the hill to our hotel, The Irma, determined to move to the beach in the morning. B was on the beach that night, but I didn’t know it.
The next morning, settled in to our beachfront double room, with its louvres opening toward the sea, we took a stroll and met the crew of the Tattoo, three tall bleached-out northern California sailors, of which B was the captain.
Ixtapa was being carved out of the cliffs, south of town, and we ran along the coast in the Tattoo looking up at tiny figures crawling like white ants over the face of the rocks. We beached below the vast hive, ate shrimp cooked on an open fire by a local fisherman, then walked up to the waterfalls, and stood under the cascades, fully clothed, as the water plastered hair, dresses, shorts, and T-shirts to bodies.
The following day, just before noon, we went up the hill to the village lending library, where I showed B the diaries of Simone Weil, while the resident king parrot squawked, and then took a bite out of my finger.
In the morning, L and I took a light plane back to Mexico City. I can still remember looking out from the small porthole down on the rough field landing strip where B stood tall against the wooden shacks, his long blond ponytail still damp from our morning shower.
It would be more than twenty years before I let myself fall in love again with a sailor, and in the meantime I would have taken to the sea myself.
The Fishing Poems and the deep southwest have stayed with me and I have carried my manuscript to Scotland, to Venice, to Australia and to Toronto Island. Anyplace I went on retreat to write, the Fishing Poems went with me, always rewritten, never released. They have allowed me to write about the Caribbean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, the Baja Peninsula, the Great Barrier Reef, and that great fresh water sea at the base of the city which is my home, Lake Ontario.
I have come to recognize that my relationship with the Fishing Poems and with water is a trope writers know intimately. There is a book always close to you that you cannot finish and cannot truly let go. It is the catalyst for other excursions. If you are William Faulkner, it is your Golden Book of Yoknapatawpha County; if you are Mavis Gallant, it is your study of the Dreyfus Case; if you are Mr Casaubon, in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, it is your very Key to All Mythologies. Fictional authors or the real McCoy, there is always the book which eludes and leads us.
I have been acquainted with absence;
Neither air nor water is my element.
I have been acquainted with absence,
Moving as amphibious creatures ought.
The old woman warned me
Returning from the arroyo:
You have remained out too long, she said,
After dark is dangerous.
I am the air when full—
My heart is beating;
I am the evening wind—
My blood is coursing.
Here the wing of the fragrant fly
Mimics my flight,
Holding me in his embrace
Clasping my clasping hands.
When it is damp, the water sinks—
My eyes are flickering.
When it is dry, the fountain sprays—
My veins are pulsing;
When it is sunning, the prisms crack—
My core is throbbing.
When it is darkling, the stars shine—
Myself am waiting:
Neither fish nor fowl
Always smooth but plumed:
Myself am waiting,
Myself am curling,
Myself am turning
Toward the horizon without end,
Shore without line, sound without presence:
The voice, the touch, the texture,
….I am not Griselda, nor was meant to be,
………am an attendant slave.
The Sailor’s Letter
Nine days later, evening, becalmed,
In the waiting there are many dreams—the half moon behind the ragged clouds, the soft sparkle of phosphorescent animals, as the boat slightly rocks in what remains of the swell. Lamp-lit cabins, and companions so close we need hardly speak.
Captain Alexander McNeilledge
Captain Alexander McNeilledge committed suicide at the age of 83.
This is the last entry in his diary, 20 August 1874:
I last saw my mother on July 12, 1806, when I left Scotland expecting to be gone 3 or 4 months.
I was shipwrecked, and did not return to Scotland for 40 years.
They were all shipwrecks, maddened, these men,
gathered in that village in the wood, dreaming of prosperous towns,
perchance a great city, other civilizations,
the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond.
One log house, the Birdsells, halfway to Van Allen’s place;
a small house on Prospect Hill, where Silas Knight the lawyer lived.
A school was raised; and at the mill, a small store,
kept by John Kirkpatrick and Colin McNeilledge—
And that mill, The Granary, haunted by Rob Roy, on its fascia mounted
the figurehead of the schooner called Highlander
wrecked on the treacherous sheet of water,
painted in Campbell and MacGregor colours,
and each 30th of November, St Andrew’s night,
Scots gather at Sandy’s Tavern in Dover,
raising a glass, drinking a dram, crying aloud
with haggis and pipes, and all the accompaniments,
skirling their longing,
Red Robert, Red Robert,
Rob Roy, Rob Roy
Children at the Beach
Take thy bliss, O Man!
And sweet shall be thy taste & sweet thy infant joys renew!
William Blake, Visions of the Daughters of Albion
Where the water tower stands
St Andrew Street like a comma
curls back to Main.
Remember mottled wet beach like this after the rain?
No, but I remember morning beach when the rays were small.
When you came here with your family
and you were twelve and you were starting to look
and starting to get together and tell your jokes
and a couple was behind the high school
and a policeman finds you and you says you’re only necking
and he says, well, put your neck back in your pants
and get outta here.
You can get smashed by this lake,
but I don’t know what this means.
Diamond flashing water coming into shore
before a large white yacht.
Days when through the cloud
a narrow band of sun lights.
Farm kids from Hagersville
with their 9′ inflatables—
the big kings of the surf.
Remembering: days when there is just one blanket
after another—the whole beach a quilt.
Seeing a fishing boat with gulls
behind a yellow paper bag
floating like a large berg on the horizon:
a double sail.
Ladies and Escorts
presenting Mr Bruise B.
Mr Bruise B,
loves like a bee
kisses like a wasp,
Mr. Bruce B.
oooooh eeeee—Mr Brian R.
mouth like a bar
when he does he goes up far
wally wally bing bang
ting tang tanga
wallywally bing bang
Stevie Crozier—here he is
waiting for his hard on to go down to piss
while pencilling on the wall seven foot tall
John and Mary up in a tree
first comes love
then comes marriage
then comes Mary
with a baby carriage
went to the doctor
doctor wasn’t in
went to the nurse
nurse had the curse
oh oh Tiny Tim
Rain on the River
In the fog we drift hither and yon over the dark waves.
At last under a maple, our little boat finds shelter.
Above the veil of mist, from time to time, there lifts a sail.
We rowed ashore. Early this morning we took a tour along the coast of the bay.
It’s all a montage now, looking back on it.
You are in my mind here, Sarah, your presence.
Two white birds in a windy sky.
…what is it ? The dream began it. The writing started then.
Any point to this is there, blowing all through it, invisible, yet heard.
I am afraid to say like the wind in the trees.
Tonight the dream came again, and a healer touched me with his index finger,
just below my clavicle, saying pain is serpentine —here is its point of entry—here
is its point of exit. As he touched me all the pain of my life came rushing out,
and you were there, watching, as it left.
That’s all for now.
Until we see each other again, carry my love with you,
These poems are excerpted from the book Fishing Poems (Black Moss Press, September 2014).
Karen Mulhallen has published 16 books (and numerous articles), including anthologies, a travel-fiction memoir, poetry and criticism. She has edited more than 100 issues of Descant magazine. She is a Blake scholar, a Professor Emeritus of English at Ryerson University, and adjunct Professor at the University of Toronto.