Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015
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Springsong

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Springsong

By Melanie Janisse

BARB THE WEAVER, THE DOCTORS

The chop is up. My father has just dropped me off in Leamington at the ferry dock and I am actually wondering if the ferry to Pelee Island will sail. Looking out into Lake Erie all I can see is a flurry of whitecaps, menacing skies, the winds stirring up a lake seiche that throws this shallow lake into an uproar. I recall from my time living on the island that our dear lake of the cat can turn around your plans on a dime, change everything you had in mind to another whole set of circumstances. I prepare myself for the possibility of spending the night on the mainland, but hope to make it over for Spring Song — a yearly event on the island dedicated to bird watching and the celebration of distinctive Canadian authors.

I am in the waiting area of the ferry buildings with a small leather duffel bag and a fabulous old CCM that my dad so thoughtfully purchased for me at an auction the week before. I notice a small tin plate attached to the frame that is emblazoned with the words General Motors and an image of an old car. I had heard of the bicycles that the auto industry once made for its employees and wondered if this was one of them. In my research, I found out that the Dodge Brothers began everything by designing a bearing system for bicycles (specifically for CCM) and thought perhaps these small tin plates could be a rudimentary system of copyright. I sat there in ferry limbo wondering after this fascinating and cryptic series of symbols that adorned my new bike.

The ferry, it is decided, will sail. I roll my bike along the walkway smelling the lake, feeling my shoulders come down from around my ears. My bag is heavy. I came equipped to finish reading Sina Queyras’ Unleashed, along with a bunch of other books that I had been meaning to read. I love it when books invade my life even if it is a bit of a drag hauling them and a bike onto the ferry. In the queue to board the ferry I begin to chat with a gentleman returning from a day of birding at Point Pelee. We spend the ferry ride talking of poems, specifically a translation of some Hebrew poetry by Jacqueline Osherow. Tall, alpha, outspoken — he is of an ilk of American men that I am so happy still roam in the world.

Barb's Weaving

Barb's Weaving

On the other side my new friend and his brother toss my bike in the back of their Suburban and, stogies firmly planted in the crook of their mouths, drive me over to the north end of Pelee. I feel Henry Miller, hunting pheasant and an ageless maleness from these men that leaves me feeling wistful and strangely nostalgic. I am reminded of a conversation I had once with my French friend Sylvain wherein we discussed Victorian values and chivalry as oppressive, yes, but also perhaps a measure in place to protect women from the brutality of the abyss. Not really sure where I sit on this one, but it is on my mind as I exit the Suburban and head up the lawn to Blueberry Hill — my friend Barb the weaver’s lovely bed and breakfast.

THE ANCHOR AND RAINSTORMS

The night is stormy. Trees bend and crackle under the weight of the western wind. Barb’s home is peaceful and full of samples of her weaving, the smell of fresh baking for our morning meal. I stare out the front window at the long front lawn leading towards the lake, the bushes gyrate wildly, the sky darkens to a violent black. I brace myself for a stormy walk to the Anchor and Wheel Inn down the street. I always insist on one fine dinner here (prime rib and lake perch is stunning), and tonight I crave a late supper in this truly lovely island establishment. My feet hit the already damp grass, and I realize too late that I have not packed anything appropriate for the chilly weather. I am standing in the middle of Barb’s lawn, cold feet, aware of the distant lightening, overjoyed. I break into a jog as the rain begins to come down. I make it to the Anchor just as all hell breaks loose.

The Anchor and Wheel Dining Room

The Anchor and Wheel Dining Room

The dining room at the Anchor is packed. I head through it to my true destination — the screened-in porch through the old parlor. I always sneak back here to dine and the proprietor Mark has always let me. Old tall-backed wicker chairs, a special southern feeling, the sound of crickets and cicadas in the night. Alas, the wind and storm whips too fast through the little oasis, and so I decided to sit in the old parlor, already full of men with their nightcaps. I march through the room, lined with old hunting wallpaper, pictures of ships, men, with my copy of Unleashed and my laptop in the hopes that I can finish the Mansfield review over a good meal. The men are far too jovial for me to concentrate. Talking of old sixties music, former jobs as roadies, musicians, this trip to Pelee has quickly become a meditation on masculinity, aging, wistfulness.

I give up on Sina and chat with the room. I eat perch, pickerel and prime rib perfectly done to medium rare. I enjoy the pirates in the parlor, and I let my responsibilities roll off of me in a way that only the island seems to allow. When I have had my fill, I walk alone down the now-soaked road, in the pitch of black — a black that is never seen in the city — back to Blueberry Hill. I am sleeping in what Barb calls the servant’s quarters, which is a small porch room off of the kitchen. I fall asleep to the sound of whipping wind blasting through all of the porch windows.

THE HERITAGE MUSEUM AND CULTURAL TOUR

The next morning, Annemarie from Explore Pelee picks me up to join her on a tour of the island she is giving to a visitor. Annemarie has asked me along to read from Orioles in the Oranges when the tour stops at Sheridan Point - the location of Hulda’s Rock. She intends to read an older lyrical poem written on the subject and has asked me to read some of mine as well.

We begin the tour with a stopover at the Heritage Museum. Leaning up against the wall of the breezeway of the Heritage Museum is a beautiful set of framed bird-sighting lists. Simple and old fashioned, these tablets are the central focus of the Spring Song gathering on Pelee, as they are used to tabulate the team’s overall bird sightings. Ron Tiessen is, as usual, behind the counter up to his eyeballs planning for the event later that night. The ferries, we discover, are not going to run at all so there is a last minute scramble to release the tickets of those who are stranded on the mainland to those who are already on the island.

Ron Tiessen in the Heritage Museum

Ron Tiessen in the Heritage Museum

A visit to the Museum is always such a pleasure for me. I recall hours spent, now six years ago, mining the strange and fascinating artifacts for any clues to my manuscript. I always think fondly upon the writing process when I enter the doors here. The endless hours of research, the stuffed foxes, the arrowheads, old quilts. Pioneers, Ojibwa. My own wonder and loneliness as I dare to live alone on a small island, with thoughts of Susanna Moodie, Atwood, bluestockings and Métis women. So much fondness and courage folded into this old place.

Arrowheads on Pelee

Arrowheads on Pelee

After a small chat we leave Ron behind to tie up the loose ends of Spring Song and continue on. It is such a pleasure to see the island through another person’s view, especially another young woman who is passionate about the local history and natural history of the island. My highlights from the tour:

1. Sitting in a car parked in front of the old Vin Villa winery ruins, reciting poems into the green/blue of the day, weaving together a story of love, loss, courage. Two women’s voices reedy and shy connected to each other through another woman’s tragedy.

2. Walking along the limestone beach — a giant rock jutting out into the lake for miles, looking at glacial grooves. I find a fossil of a shell and commit to sending it overseas to a special Belgian. I am suddenly awash with how stories can become so ancient.

3. Listening to Annemarie in the Alvar speaking of island trees. I fall in love with Shagbark Hickory, Chinquapin Oak, mostly because of the tender descriptions of the orator.

SPRINGSONG

On my way into the Winery, in a fine silk Diane Fres dress, I run into Martha and Bev — two queens of Pelee Island, Martha is one of the oldest female residents and has spent most of her life on the island. She is a wealth of information and knowledge when it comes to farming, island social history, cooking and canning. She is also a wicked card player, and I have spent many evenings at her place getting beat at canasta, poker, everything. Bev is a long-time summer resident of the island, living the other part of the time on the coast in Spain. She reminds me of Hepburn. Her beauty is so classic, so of another era. She has arrived in a cashmere sweater, belted at the waist and a mink coat. Not sure how it all happened, but they wound up being my guests at the authors' table, which was fortunate indeed. Bev proceeded to charm Stuart McLean with her fascinating tales, while I alternated between chatting with Martha and Graeme Gibson Jr. and Sumiko about their species-tagging efforts at Fish Point.

Martha and Bev

Martha and Bev

Paul Vasey — an ever-charming host — wound us through the award ceremony for the birding teams. I found it heartwarming that two teams consisted of parents and their young children. Birding is such a gentle project, one of appreciation, respect and joy. My entire weekend was punctuated with soft-spoken folks telling me of their sightings, providing me with bird books and references to their species. In some regards, I find this combination of birding and literature so perfectly suited, as they both require skills of observation, discernment and patience.

BRIAN BRETT

Brian Brett

Brian Brett

Brian Brett is a jovial man in a pair of suspenders, a black leather vest. He is the featured reader at the gala and comes bearing traces of his Salt Spring Island life. He looks like he just rolled off the coast. I am reminded of my time on Anderson Lake living amongst the farmers, old hippies and characters. Free-spirited, hard working, bratty, Brett is of an ilk that is not easily found in these parts. His reading from Trauma Farm was truly a special affair. His stature most Dylan Thomas-esque, his booming voice, his ability to capture the chaos of living "in" a farm is worthy of all the accolades that he has received for this memoir. He is able both to capture the comedy of errors of farm life and to convey his deep beliefs and hopes regarding the food movement and eco-farming. He switches into poetry mid-way through his reading with a poem about bread. It is one of the most beautiful poems I have ever heard as a recitation. I wish I could have found a link to it somewhere to share here. I catch up with him the next day at a pig roast and we discuss his bird-themed vintage shirt. We discover a strange bird mascot at the campground and all take a pose with it.

MARGARET ATWOOD (THE DISAPPEARING MENTOR) AND RUBBER CHICKENS

Margaret Atwood is an individual I truly admire. I recall my early university studies at Concordia studying feminist literature and poetry, where I read my first Atwood collection of poems, The Journals of Susanna Moodie. I loved this book of poems for its interior descriptions and for its psychology of a pioneer woman in Canada and have treasured it over all of these years. Needless to say, I have always wanted to meet Atwood. The really funny thing is that I have never been able to do so. I have about ten stories of almost meeting her that all make me chuckle. Once at a Barry Callaghan Christmas party, I looked for her everywhere to sign my copy of the Gwen McEwen collection Barry, Rosemary Sullivan and Atwood had co-edited. She had already left. Another time I served her pasta at a friend’s gala on Pelee. An acquaintance of mine at the table pointed at me with my tray of spaghetti and exclaimed: "Now there’s a great poet," to which Atwood just kind of stared at me as I served her a spaghetti meal.

When I was invited down to Spring Song to sign my book, I was looking forward to finally be able to meet Margaret Atwood. I wanted to tell her of my love of her poems, my Essex County anthology that I am co-editing, the appreciation I have for Pelee Island. I imagined that we would have a decent conversation. I began to picture how we would hit it off, become fast friends. But alas, she was nowhere to be found. Atwood was in Israel to accepting the Dan David Prize and would not be attending the gala this year. In her wake, I am left with a bandy collection of rubber chickens (that she purchased wherever she traveled the year prior) raffled off to ticket holders. I cannot think of a more perfect not meeting. In fact, I am beginning to enjoy not meeting Margaret Atwood as it becomes more outrageous and entertaining.

THE BIRDS

I asked Ron Tiessen which birds were the most rare that were spotted that weekend on the island. Here is what he told me: "The Blue Grosbeak was the best bird of the weekend, to be trumped by the sighting of a Western Wood-Pewee after the weekend's guests departed. The total species seen during the Botham Cup Birdathon were 135."

I couldn’t help but attach the sound of their calls and a photo. After all, they are the stars of the show.

The Blue Grosbeak

The Blue Grosbeak and its sounds
The western Wood Peewee

The western Wood Peewee and its sounds

ZANE HOOPER

Zane Hooper

Zane Hooper

I want to end my tale of Spring Song on Pelee Island with a small nod to Zane Hooper. In many ways Zane embodies everything I have written about in this story. At eighty-three, he still cares for his own row of white cottages along the majestic shore of Erie. He can often be found on his mower keeping the grass on the property ever pristine, or in his garage dealing with the metal scrap or old bikes that he rescues from the dump and fixes up. My old black Schwinn is a Pelee Island special that I got off Zane last year. I am ever reminded of Pelee Island as I ride around Toronto. I bump into Zane on my last morning on the island at Conorley’s the local island bakery. I had an opportunity to sit and visit with Zane. We speak of poems (he has published his own), farming, cottages and tapping maple syrup (which he still does every year). As he tells me step by step how to tap a tree and boil down maple syrup, I am reminded of an excerpt Brian Brett read the night before about how with each person who dies all of their knowledge of farming, fixing, making dies with them, to a large extent. Zane is a wealth of this island, its stories and customs, and as he insists upon treating me to the lunch I have just shared with him, I am grateful for one more opportunity to share in his wondrous knowledge of the earth. I leave him behind with his twisted suspenders and loads to take to the dump and head on my way to the ferry. I return to home, or is it that I leave my home? I am never sure.

Oh, by the way, I left the old CCM on the island. If you are ever there, just ask Annemarie if you can borrow it for a tour. I promise you will enjoy the ride.

Melanie Janisse

Melanie Janisse is a native of Windsor, Ontario where she retains memories of old docks jutting out into the Detroit River and the smell of hops. Melanie began her education by leaving home early and wandering around the abandoned houses of inner city Detroit, and then the intense forests of the Canadian West Coast. Formally she holds degrees form Concordia University in Communications and Literature and from Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Photography. Melanie has resided in Toronto for the past nine years, keeping active as a visual artist, poet, designer and shop owner. Her work has appeared in Luft Gallery, Common Ground Gallery, Artcite Gallery, Dojo Magazine, Pontiac Quarterly, The Scream Literary Festival, The Southernmost Review, The Northernmost Review and The Windsor Review. Her first poetry book Orioles in the Oranges (Guernica Editions) tells the tale of on old Metis legend, allowing it to dovetail with Detroit's gritty modernity in an unforgettable series of prose poems. Melanie is happy to be a part of Open Book: Toronto ruminating about books and book-like things around Toronto.

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