Even though she has lived on Vancouver Island for close to 30 years, Swift Current born poet Lorna Crozier still writes about the prairie and remains influenced by the landscape of her childhood. The Governor General’s Award for Poetry recipient reflects on the nature of place and how it has shaped her writing.
Drenched in light. Invaded by light, startled into being by light. This is what it means to grow up in southwest Saskatchewan, the country of my birth and my childhood. Though I’ve lived a thousand miles away for over twenty-five years, in the blink of an eye I place myself, notebook and pen in hand, in the centre of a vast plain where no trees or hills or towering buildings hold back that luminous deluge from the sky.
Eudora Welty, the world-renowned fiction writer who grew up in Mississippi and who left her mother’s house only for a short time to return and eventually grow old there, said, “Every story would be a different story if it happened somewhere else.” The same is true of people and poems. If I’d grown up where I live now, on the edge of the ancient rain forests of Vancouver Island, I would be a different person. My writing would be different too.
It wouldn’t be simply a matter of west coast plants invading the space in my poems where prairie vegetation once grew; it wouldn’t be simply a matter of birds native to this region chasing meadowlarks and redwing blackbirds from my lines, or wind sifting the yellow pollen of giant firs instead of dust onto the covers of my books. Something intrinsic would change. Something that comes from the particularities that define a habitation and shape the characters who thrive there, even those like me who moved away but continue to set their poems and stories in their original place.
What is it about the land of my birth and upbringing that influences the sensibilities of a writer such as me? The plains that surround my hometown of Swift Current confound those who first encounter them. In all directions the grasslands stretch far and away like a desert. Shadows from the clouds swim over the wild grasses and heads of wheat. The rills and shallow coulees shape-shift as daylight declines. With the dry land, the spare rain, come no sounds of rushing water, no stands of trees shouting to the wind, though the wind is always there, a companion of loneliness, a keening that invades the imagination and leaves a solitary traveller speechless with wonder.
A stranger to this land complains there’s nothing to see, nothing to hear. So many of my friends from the mountains or the coast tell me they drive for hours on the Trans-Canada through the Prairies, and they feel they’ve gone nowhere. If you’re sensitive to this landscape, I reply, this nowhere is somewhere uncanny and true. Your ear and eye become subtly, exquisitely tuned.
Writers must, above everything else, develop the ability to listen, not only to other humans but also to the land itself, though its homilies can’t be translated into any known tongue. Outside of the towns and cities in southwest Saskatchewan, when you’re used to the noise of urban life, the silence you encounter seems impregnable. At first it could be mistaken for the muteness that arises out of emptiness. But it’s not that. It’s a quiet that demands attention. Something significant is about to be uttered, and silence has prepared a proper place for it. It is up to you to respond in kind.
The Book of Genesis begins with God’s first words: “Let there be light.” Surely He said that in the middle of the grasslands, perhaps on a small rise smack in the middle of what would become Swift Current to the west and Moose Jaw to the east.
If you are patient and attentive, you’ll hear what the grass says as the wind passes over. A susurration as soft as the brush of an owl’s wing across the snow will vibrate the small bones of your inner ear. Your task will be to name that sound, to sing it into poetry, to find words that will speak it into being on a page.
This is a place that has grown a multitude of writers. Could the silence here be so strong that it demands an equivalent speaking? A man and woman faced with such a muffled eloquence must cry out, “I am here, I am alive, I am dying. Who will hear me?”
Only to the uninitiated does the openness of the grasslands appear empty. To the person who feels at home it is charged with possibilities. Something meaningful exists just beyond the grasp of our hearing, touch, smell, sight. It requires all the tools we have to coax it into language, though language will never have the final say.
“Look up, look up,” you tell anyone who claims this country of your heart, of your imagination, is monotonous. In every season, every hour, the sky, spiralling above you, unrolls its clouds, its cobalts, its paler blues. The sky is an antidote to boredom. It’s easy to lose yourself in its weathers and the beauty of its sheen. There is change in everything, it tells you, including in you.
The essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson claimed that a writer must be “a transparent eyeball.” I can’t help but see the prairie sky itself as that — a gigantic, clear orb that holds everything below. We are small inside it. No matter how important we might feel, we are merely specks in its huge seeing.
That could be a humbling, depressing thing, but it’s a blessing for a poet. When you feel so seen, are you not drawn to look more closely, to gaze more fiercely and fearlessly at what takes shape under the sun? If you pay attention, you’ll glimpse a darkling beetle climbing over a blade of grass. In early morning you’ll see the small fog of a chickadee’s breath suspended above the feeder. You may even decipher a line or two scrawled across the clouds or the shimmer of something that just passed out of sight.
A South African writer I met this past fall at a poetry festival in Hong Kong tells me of a word that means “the sky just after a swan has flown through.” That scrap of blue looks different from what surrounds it: the swan’s beauty, the energy of its being has left a vestige of its flight. This is the kind of thing a poet is looking for, a brilliant trace of what can’t be seen. It is the poet’s task to make the unseen visible with reticence and grace.
The Book of Genesis begins with God’s first words: “Let there be light.” Surely He said that in the middle of the grasslands, perhaps on a small rise smack in the middle of what would become Swift Current to the west and Moose Jaw to the east. His radiant invention, spoken into existence, rolled out of the darkness of his mouth onto a long, undulating stretch of land. No wonder after 40 years of writing, I return here in the lines of my poems. It was words that created the light. And the light that shone on every worldly thing claimed this place as home.