Every two weeks or so, a friend organizes poets. She is living with cancer, and the poets were an idea to keep social during what can only be classed as difficult days.
The poets used to be in the habit of meeting in person once a month for a reading and open mic session hosted by a small press at the local arts centre, followed by a social spell in the café bar downstairs. I discovered the poets when I first moved to town five years ago, and they were a great first step in feeling at home in a new place. With a squint and a little shuffle, they made space for me and my prose, and I started to put down roots. Now, with the pandemic and constantly changing lockdown regulations and the friend’s cancer added to the mix, we needed a new habit. Something to connect us and keep us going.
A national poem?
The Zoom invitation arrives with a theme. This month, it was Poets Laureate, which meant an inevitable flood of British and American voices. The position of British Poet Laureate dates back to 1668 when John Dryden was appointed. The American role began in 1937 with Joseph Auslander. Canada came late to the party in 2002 with the selection of George Bowering, so there are not so many voices or poems to choose among, but I was determined. I take every opportunity I can to include CanLit.
As well as sharing good verse, we wanted to look at the role and motivations of a poet laureate as well as the public’s expectations about such a role. Is the position an honour given to an established poet or should the poet feel responsibility to write about events of national significance? What would a national poem be? There are likely as many answers to these sorts of questions are there are poets, let alone poets laureate, which meant we had a good conversation about the whole issue.
The poem I chose was by Georgette Leblanc, Poet Laureate 2018-2019. Her poem untitled – fieldnotes commemorates the first anniversary of the death of Gord Downie, lead singer and lyricist for The Tragically Hip. When Downie shared news of his terminal brain tumour, the news shuddered through Canada. That summer, the band toured Canada to support Man Machine Poem, their 13th studio album, and the final concert was broadcast and streamed live by the CBC to an estimated audience of 11.7 million people. Gord Downie died in 2017 at the age of 53.
Leblanc’s poem touches on the grief of a country mourning its poet. She writes:
the first year they, we
told your story . . .”
When I first read the poem, I loved that broken pronoun – they, we. It is descriptive, inclusive and raw, expressive a collective grief. But this is the translation; Leblanc originally wrote the poem in French, before translating it herself. The French version is moving in a different way.
la première année que j’avons
raconté ton histoire . . .”
Here, the pronoun is singular, but the verb conjugation plural. J’avons is grammatically wrong, but poetically precise. I becomes we, singular becomes plural. When we tell stories of absence, grief and loss, we break down loneliness and the community grows wider.
The earliest church in those first post-Easter days knew about they, we and j’avons. They learned to lean together in grief and fear, and in doing so, experienced comfort, joy and resurrection hope. I picture their crowded meals when the community was growing and hear the communal storytelling that sustained and strengthened them together. They met together in sheltered places, and Jesus appeared among them. I hope, that after this year of keeping apart and isolation, we can lean together to share our griefs and find new connections and mutual strength to draw us into tomorrow.
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