The fifteen essays gathered in Phantom Limb provide a satisfying resting and reading place for those of us Kishkan fans familiar with her other work, the poetry and fiction, and particularly the earlier collection Red Laredo Boots (New Star, 1996). It is also a useful starting place for those first encountering her distinctive voice, careful/ care-filled and apparently casual at once, and the topics that range from familiar close-ups of nature (“Autumn Coho in Haskins Creek,” and following), through the self-parodic humour of family reminiscences in “Laundry,” to the quiet but deeply moving account of the life and death of their dog Lily in the title essay.
Several of the pieces here have appeared in the BC journals Geist and The Wayward Coast, across the country in Brick and beyond in Manoa, and elsewhere. This generous scattering of her pages is reflected partly also in the places she reports on and from — to the south with two essays from Utah (“Shadows over the Red Hills” and “Drunkard’s Path”) and, with an especial richness and personal concern, to Ireland for the memories of “The One Currach Returning Alone” and the ever-increasing historic and mythical complexities of the final study “Well.” But each distance brings a kind of nearness to and for her as, for instance, the last well encountered in the Irish tour at Ceannanach “in its veil of ivy,” pointing simply back home to the familiar “source for our household, clean and cold, capped in red iron.”
Theresa’s “home” since the early 1980s has been in BC’s south coastal rainforest area, a house and property near Sakinaw Lake on the Sechelt Peninsula. Names familiar to her and that soon become familiar to us as well include Mount Hallowell and Haskins Creek, “which runs into the lake near our place, and where we walked three or four times a week.” A movement away from the coast, in time as well as space, takes us through some deftly presented history (“Erasing the Maps”) to the remaining fragments of Granite Creek, founded in the southern interior in 1885 and now found in her eloquent wonderings of when “the dead will turn in their graves . . . and smile to hear magpies again.”
Theresa shows us person. the person whoever it may be whom she calls “I,” as well as place. In this way, the most resonant and interesting pieces in Phantom Limb are new articulations of what Warren Tallman famously spoke of 30 years ago, with reference to Clifford Olson’s theories and samples, as the “politics of the place.” The idea has appeared again more recently — it has probably never gone away, at least not from west coast thought — and even more closely aligned to the voice(s) of these essays, with Jeff Derkson’s focus on “making the landscape of self” (see his article “Sites Taken as Signs” in the 1994 collection Vancouver: Representing the PostModern City, ed. Paul Delaney.)
Some of Theresa’s essayistic “scapes” can fit in the palm of one hand. Objects become subjects for her, yielding and revealing their power of becoming to and through her artistic eye. She looks, for instance, at a hand-blown paperweight, a gift from her husband, and “I imagine that something has been captured inside it, something precious and rare” (“Paperweight”). The imagining and the something interact, separate, return, as she continues to “take it in my palm and gaze into its depths, looking for something”; repeating and repeating, as the writer writes and writes; and eventually (or at least sometimes) the thing looked at is seen, in some form anyway of “the world made perfect, suspended in clear glass.”
Her active interest in, and even seeming instinct for discovering/ uncovering ever new instances of some “creative place” extends also to something apparently as domestically and conventionally controlled and controllable as the new bed cover she stitches for her daughter, and that keeps expanding, as it were — not as fabric, but as fantasy, a cluster of new sights and new stars (“An Autobiography of Stars”). As her poet husband John Pass simply and acutely observes, “you look at quilts as terrains.”
By means and with the ongoing help of Theresa Kishkan’s ability to look, to see, and to show, we can also “fashion a parallel life, a world mirroring the topography of our own lives, irregular and beautiful, geometry in service to love.” — Allan Brown
Allan Brown’s reviews have appeared previously in The Pacific Rim Review of Books. His 19th volume of poetry, Biblical Sonatas, was published in February by Serengeti Press.
A phantom limb is an amputated arm or leg that feels like it hasn't gone anywhere. At the end of a phantom arm, for instance, the fingers of a phantom hand still feel heat, the touch of another's hand, and pain. They are extremities of a ghost body that moves along with the body itself. It is the shadow body we perceive in our minds, the one we know most intimately — if not the only one we really know at all. The phenomenon of a phantom limb remaining after the amputation of a physical limb is evidence that we're both biological beings and creatures of memory that spans our entire biological lives. Phantom limbs aren't a purely physical matter, of synapses firing in a glitch of spatial representation within our minds; the complex world rising out of the points of commonality between them and the phantom selves of other people creates a phantom society moving in and through human social life. Intangible, unprovable, on the edge of perception or even past it, such phantom life is ultimately a metaphor for the depths and complexities of human social interaction and their dependency on the nurturing ground of physical space. This is the world at the heart of Theresa Kishkan's collection of essays, Phantom Limb.
Phantom Limb is one woman's ecology. It is a meditation on the connections of her life, from earliest childhood to the present, through which it presents each generation — indeed, even each iteration of the self— as the ghost of the one that preceded it in time and space. In brief, for Kishkan, landscape is intimately bound with self, self is lived among others, and landscape is a social fabric. At the time of writing, she is the mother of children older than she was when she first lived her earlier selves — a girl and her horse in Victoria, a young woman in love in Ireland — that became her first phantom limbs, when she left the constrictions of non-phantom life to become her own mature and often teasingly phantom self.
Phantom Limb ultimately concerns place and attachment to place — tenuous concepts in their own right. The place is a hilltop home above Sakinaw Lake on BC's Sunshine Coast, a home built by hand and lived in for more than a quarter century, until every moment, every artifact, every tree and bear sighting, has become imbued with self. It's as if in the long living of a place, her self has become scattered further and further across the landscape; when encountered there again, in a creek pouring down to the lake or an apple tree in her garden, it opens doorways into moments shared with others, who have perhaps also left their own traces there. Accordingly, Kishkan's description of the landscape of Sakinaw Lake is an exploration of the otherwise hidden dimensions of herself — the landscape of herself. In this world view, time passes inexorably but leaves a trace — which, like a phantom limb, be comes the one world that can be seen and dreamed, however intangible it may be.
Phantom Limb is above all, of course, a book. Specifically, it is a book about sitting still and sifting through the pattern blocks of a life to uncover what has stuck to the heart and can be used now to further the quilting, to deepen the recognition of a life's pattern, to celebrate it, extend it, or even pass it on — or even to use it to make a new quilt altogether. In her writing, Kishkan continually contrasts the lives other parents (welded to machinery and propriety) and of the Mormons she lived among for a winter in Idaho (welded to duty and without interest in the natural world around them) with her own life (one curious about the natural world and open to unexpected experiences of connection). Like many writers, she has retained many of the qualities of childhood past adolescence and has used them as building blocks for her adult self. She is not childlike, however. Her voice is that of a woman, rooted in her body and at home in the world.
As Phantom Limb progresses, Kishkan draws parallels between her way of being in the world and her physical and spiritual identity as a woman — a body taking things into itself and giving birth to new life. Through contemplations of traditionally feminine arts — cooking, knitting, and quilting — she enters the phantom lives of generations of women before her, and even those of the Mormon women still living lives less open to the chance operations of the world. Quilts are patched together throughout the whole of Phantom Limb; even the book itself is a quilt. Among these, one of her favourites is “The Drunkard's Path.” As she explains, among the Mormons, this almost infinitely variable quilt pattern is a hidden story — of a trickster, an elusive life lived just past the edge of the acceptable, an otherwise forbidden life brought back into the warmth of family and love through the art of its recreation — a form of the Blues, in other words. For Kishkan, “The Drunkard's Path” is a story of the shape and art that remains after she has stumbled almost blindly through the world. It haunts her; in it she lives most resonantly, as her life slowly becomes a unity — becomes, in other words, a life.
Kishkan grounds this lyrical thread within precise, luminous descriptions of place. Biology and nomenclature are among her passions, and she names with precision the creatures and plants in the domestic and the natural worlds around her. To complete this pattern, this drunkard's path of stepping over roots and stones and around dead salmon, children, husband, and old Irish lovers, Phantom Limb contains Kishkan's essay “Month of Wild Berry Picking.” Deeply engaging with First Nations experience, the essay grounds Phantom Limb by extending its sense of personal and social place into the experience of innumerable generations who have lived on her land and the precise mechanisms by which they managed the barrier between domesticity and wildness. In dissections of both her own experience in the light of First Nations stories and traditions, and vice versa, she argues that First Nations people had delineable social rules not only for interacting with other people but also for interacting with other species on the planet — a system of etiquette caused by lives lived very close to other species. In this context, Phantom Limb is ultimately Kishkan's own set of social rules for living closely on, and within, the earth, where she has given birth to three children, who she has actively encouraged to leave — and to stay. While continuing to nurture them, at greater and greater distance, she finds herself living with her own phantom selves that return to her from her children's own experiences. Throughout, Kishkan uses her meditations to ensure the continued safety and closeness of their lives in this place, no matter how distant they stretch away from it. It's a kind of shamanistic spell that continually returns the tenuous to the physical and the physical to the tenuous, and keeps place alive through story.
Time is the spoiler in this world. On the one hand, it is a positive force, embodied in Kishkan's attempts to act against disintegration by creating a sense of language and attention that can map and maintain all her phantom lives and set them up as meaningful ways in which other people can interact with the human and geographical worlds around and within them. On the other hand, time here is a disturbing, negative force. It reveals itself most openly in Kishkan's exploration of the town of Granite Creek, a gold-mining boomtown in BC's Tulameen Valley, a century past its heyday. In her essay, “Erasing the Maps,” she meditates on how this town, that seems to have completely vanished, is still alive enough in memory that people will want to be buried there, as indeed they are. She meditates on what exactly will remain once the place returns to wilderness, and whether allowing it to return to silence and forgetfulness is indeed the best way of honouring the human lives lived within what people defined once as a place — to return them to the land in a way parallel to that of salmon spawning in the stream in which they hatched. To this question she has no answers, as she should not: an answer would betray the drunkard's path. It would wander off the quilt. It would be death, stumbling into life and demanding obedience.
— Harold Rhenisch
LP: You’ve had two books of essays published Red Laredo Boots ( New Star Books ) and Phantom Limb ( Thistledown Press ). What is it about the essay form that interests you as a writer?
tk: I have a curious and undisciplined mind. I’m interested in the details of a place, a time, the layers that make up a particular history — geological, regional, human, natural; and how they fit together. I’m interested in long meditative lines that I somehow couldn’t make work in poetry, lines that take their inspiration from roads, the shape of hills against a wide sky, how a formation of sandhill cranes scribbles its name over Nicola Lake on a late September day. And the essay form is generous and flexible, capacious enough to hold everything that comes to mind, to heart.
LP: How do you these pieces start, do you keep detailed journals/notes?
tk: Something will agitate for my attention — a fragment of song, a building, a phrase, a moment in which I sense a particular potency. And then I follow this to wherever it might lead. Often I’m not sure exactly what it is I’m looking for but I know when I’ve found it. A name might speak from a page, a plant will appear with the most evocative family tree, or a photograph will show me a place, or a family, or a moment in history, and then I’ll get out my maps, my field-guides, and try to put something together to give a shape to what has until then been a series of notations, maybe, that I hope will accumulate until I have the critical mass that acts as a first draft. I used to keep journals but don’t any longer. I always have a notebook, though, and use it to make little cryptic notes that I have trouble deciphering afterwards.
LP: Many of the essays have history and historical events woven into them. Do you have to do much research for those pieces or that information?
tk: I am devoted to research, though as I confessed in my answer to your first question, I am not very disciplined. I think I begin with the best of intentions and am sidetracked by interesting details, like a magpie taking bright objects back to its nest. I do build my work from an accurate or actual ground, though, and think of this as a kind of anchor, or ballast. And we find ourselves in history, don’t we? We see aspects of ourselves as the past shifts slightly to accommodate our presence there. Reading letters in an archival collection, we suddenly hear our story. Or looking intently at old photographs, we see a familiar cheekbone, the ghost of a smile.
LP: While the writing in both books covers everything from travel to personal reflection ultimately they form a personal history of your family. We see your children grow etc. Any thoughts on that?
tk: Years ago I read something by Annie Dillard that has served almost as a raison d’être for me. Writing about her journals and notebooks, she said that when looking at them, she has the sense that time has not simply passed but rather it has accumulated. I think of my essays in the same way. Although they can’t be read exactly as a precise record of our lives here on the Sechelt Peninsula, they contain much of what has been significant — the shifting seasons, the passages, our pleasures, and some of the sorrows too. The other day John and I were walking over by Ruby Creek and we saw the dark forms of fish in the water. These are one of only two known fall-spawning populations of cutthroat trout on the Coast. One year our older son conducted a census of the spawning trout as a science fair project – he was 12 that year — and every day for about a month we’d go over to the creek after school and count fish. So of course the shadow of that boy was present at the creek the other day, the shadows of those earlier days, when we were accompanied by a dog now long dead. And that boy is now about to defend his PhD dissertation in Canadian History so how time does accumulate!
LP: The details of the natural world really jump out in the work. Do you feel particularly close to the environment/landscape?
tk: I’m enraptured by the natural world, constantly in thrall to what I find there. It’s important to me to be able to “read” the landscape, its intricate narratives. And those change, as anything changes; new versions or idioms emerge just as older ones surface too. I’ve become fascinated by the fossils of the Tranquille Shale, between Kamloops and Cache Creek, and the amazing stories that are told in those layers. Tiny pre-salmon, sequoias, maple samara: the quotidian details of a lake bed 51 million years old!
LP: A few of the essays, especially those dealing with death, The Road to Bella Coola and Phantom Limb, are intensely personal. They must have been difficult to write and possibly even more difficult for you to re-read.
tk: Language and form allow us to shape our grief and lend a formality to what might otherwise be wild and chaotic. “The Road To Bella Coola” has as its epigraph a line from a poem by Stanley Kunitz: “How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?” That’s the central paradox, isn’t it? That we are nourished in some deep way by the rituals and ceremonies associated with death. It’s the way human beings can attend their dead with respect and dignity.
LP: You also write about the loss of things, Erasing The Maps (places) and Autumn Coho In Haskins Creek (salmon) are two that come to mind. Do you think writing is a way to make sure those things don’t disappear completely?
tk: Writing is an act of commemoration. Think of what we know because someone has written it down! So I try to pay an attention to what matters to me and to explore it, adore it, praise it. And sometimes that attention takes the form of elegy, I suppose, or threnody. It conspires to remember. Memory itself is such a complicated entity. I’ve been reading Cicero with reference to his Method of Loci and am intrigued by his system for the ordering of memory. In some ways I think of my work in this way — the attachment of a particular body of imagery to a specific locus as a way of remembering.
LP: Are the essays something you work on all the time or do you write a series all at once?
tk: I’ve always written essays along with other things. While working on a novel, I might find myself wanting to explore something that I’ve come across in research or on a trip or as a result of reading or some unresolved personal issue. It’s a wonderful luxury to break away from an extended work, a novel, to write an essay. (I’m reminded of the pleasure of taking an unexpected side-road while travelling!) I usually have several in various stages of completion and some of them never really find their true shape, remaining as drafts for years. Working with an editor tends to help me identify particular thematic connections and so I’ll shape a manuscript by concentrating on a specific group of pieces, leaving others out. I’m currently at work on a book-length series of connected essays. Right now each one is discrete, devoted to a particular set of materials. When I’ve finished the whole series, I may in fact decide to create a kind of connective tissue to draw them together into a single body. I’m not sure yet and don’t want to second guess not only myself but the material I’m immersed in by predicting the final form this work will take.
LP: You’ve had several books of poetry (six) and two novels published. Can we look forward to a new book in either of those genres soon?
tk: I’ve recently completed a novel, The Age of Water Lilies, which I hope will be published next year. It’s set partly in the community of Walhachin on the Thompson River just before the Great War and partly in Victoria in the years just after. And I’m at work on a memoir called Mnemonic: A Book of Trees. I’d love to write poetry again but haven’t been able to find that voice, that concentrated sense of language, for some years.
LP: You operate High Ground Press with your husband, the poet John Pass. Can you tell us about that endeavor?
tk: John and I bought a late 19th c. Chandler and Price platen press in 1980 and we use it to print mostly poetry broadsides. This is letterpress printing in which we hand-set the work and then print in very limited editions. We’re presently working our third series of broadsheets; this one we call the Companions Series. We’ve asked a number of Canadian poets to respond to another poem — preferably one for which we don’t need to get permission to reprint – and we print the two poems on a single sheet. So far we’ve printed work by Bill New (responding to John Clare), Maleea Acker and Wallace Stevens, Sue Wheeler and Don McKay, Joe Denham and John Thompson, a version I did of a recently discovered poem by Sappho, George McWhirter and John Donne, Russell Thornton’s bow to Juan Ramon Jimenez, and John is just setting Chris Patton’s response to a passage of Ezra Pound. Several more are planned for this series. We’ve also printed a couple of chapbooks over the years as well as ephemera — Christmas cards, keepsakes for the Alcuin Society Wayzgoose, etc. To be honest, John does most of the work because when we began to learn to print, we had a baby, quickly followed by two more, so he was able to go out to the print shop – it’s a building of its own, away from the house — more than I could. But we plan the projects together and design them together and I think we both see the work as a congenial adjunct to our writing lives.
LP: Did you ever buy yourself a pair of red Laredo boots?
tk: I did. A few months after I’d written the title essay for Red Laredo Boots, I sold a different essay to the Vancouver Sun. The payment was exactly the price of those boots. So the next time I was in the Nicola Valley, I went to the Quilchena Store and bought them. I still love them. There was never any discussion of an author shot for that book. The boots went to Vancouver for their own photo shoot, packed in their box with a coyote yipping at the moon and came home with soft blue flannel from someone’s old shirt (maybe even Gary Fiegehen’s as he was their photographer) tucked into them to give them the demure shape they have on the back cover of the book — Interview by Don Denton