Precipitations

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No. 6 County Road, Picton

If you could bottle up a storm, what would it look like? Would it be cloudy white, with swirls of purple? Or ink-black, with raw seams of lightning that would shock your hands if you touched the surface? This image is rather dire, but I welcome it because I depleted my stock of images last year when I finished my book. What would keep this storm in? A wax seal? A cork? There is something plugging up the top of my head. Otherwise, why these headaches, these surges of resentment? Usually I’m not capped tight. But what is usual for me? My life has not been usual for a long time.

It’s the end of summer and J. calls me. He’s applying for non-teaching jobs, even though he’s one of the most caring teachers I know. I’m in Picton and go out onto the front lawn and sit in the dry grass. We’ve both just finished a 2-month teaching contract for international ESL students where we rolled around campus like marbles on high speed, flicked here and there by long hours and endless prep. But it has ended, and I’m staring out at fields of snowpea shoots where I’ve come to write for a week. We’re exhausted in a way that sleep can’t solve. J. has been teaching for longer than I have, 5, 6, maybe 7 years. There is impatience in his voice, prickling up like the sun-bristled grass. We make enough to pay bills, but it’s not enough. When we hang up, I seethe from room to room, from the studio to the front living room of this lovely farmhouse, carrying the rough drafts of the first new poems I’ve written in months. They’re full of sheds and dirt roads and it feels fake because I didn’t grow up in the country. What’s with all the fucking fields? I write at the top of the page. If I’m not from here, then where am I from, and didn’t I try to answer that in my last book? But the question has shifted. If I’m not from here, then what do I love? 

I don’t sleep well when I’m not in my own bed, but I think it’ll be different when I go to visit my parents later in September. After all, I used to live there, used to have mountains pinned to my back. I slept in the upper floor of the one-bedroom loft-like apartment my parents still live in. They bring down a single mattress from storage and set it up next to my dad’s workbenches and easels. The apartment has no doors, no privacy, yet I’m comforted to be there. I’d forgotten my family’s penchant for old wood furniture and their makeshift, minimal ways. In the bathroom, my mom has suspended two antique frames over the bathroom mirror, draped green ivy over it so it feels tropical. I remember we’ve always been a family that has cobbled our living from odds and ends, things other people discarded.

I wonder who this ‘Phoebe Wang’ is whose name is on the cover of my book, who gets invitations asking her to read at festivals. I must go in her stead. It has never been a name that as felt like it fit properly. It’s an amalgamation– the first name Greek and abstract, the surname an approximation, often mispronounced. My Chinese middle name I never use, wouldn’t recognize it if someone did. I make up a personality for this Phoebe Wang– cheerful, helpful, respectful. I see her clothes hanging in my closet, navy lace and sheath dresses, and when I do a reading I alternate each dress like costumes. Performance anxiety is the best diet– I’ve lost close to 10lb this year thanks to sleeplessness and hyperactivity. I didn’t even know I had 10lbs to lose. I buy dresses at consignment shops, because all year, clothes don’t fit the same way. I feel like a life-size doll, applying lipstick and wearing another woman’s clothing. I move my limbs onto the stage, smoothly, like I’ve had lots of practice.

When I still lived with my parents, I’d visit houses my friends rented, crashed on couches after parties, envied their mismatched furniture and the bric-a-brac texture of their lives. They were fully immersed in it, while I was hovering somewhere between land and the upper stratosphere, waiting to land. I couldn’t accept my long walks, looking into lighted windows, as any kind of practice. Now I buy two, large smoky black Japanese bowls. My apartment sat mostly empty for the first year I lived in it until I found the kind of old wooden tables and shelves I wanted. My parents took us to galleries and they’re still the spaces I’m most comfortable. Seeing my parents’ white walls, I realize they curated my childhood, down to the typefaces. Aspiring to minimalism, though, is like aspiring to a vanishing point. No wonder I wonder about whether or not I’ve disappeared. Viewed from a certain angle, even the longest strand of noodle is a mere dot. I must be careful not to view my life this way. I must turn my head.

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A temporary workspace

My alma mater has asked me to visit and do a reading. I can’t believe how much they are paying me to do this. They want me to speak for 45 mins but there’s no way I’m going to read poems for 45mins because I’m not Anne Carson or Bishop or Plath returned from the dead. I make a Powerpoint presentation of pictures of my parents when they’re young and my sister and me in the backyard holding vegetables and the island my mom grew up on. Memory is a strange thing– the more you spend looking back, the faster the time goes. Afterwards, the students ask me incredibly intelligent questions for almost an hour. One of them says she notices that the predominant colour in my book is white and asks what this could mean. When the visit is over, the two profs and the TA take me to dinner in a French restaurant. I want to be good company, worth their time– not the shy woman I usually am, but one that tells funny stories about their publisher or bizarre anecdotes about other writers’ eating habits. My mom has stories– she told one of my boyfriends about seeing the Jackson 5 on the subway in 1971. I’d never heard it before. Then I realize that my mom’s stories are my stories, that all I have to do is to keep talking about my family, which is easy to do because they are always flipping through me, squares of coloured light against a white background.

In Calgary, S. drives down to see me. This is the first time I’ve been put up in a big hotel. A young concierge with a lilting voice informs me I need to put down a $100 deposit for the keycard, preferably on a credit card that won’t be charged, otherwise, it’s $200 cash. I don’t own a credit card and am almost cashless, because of Picton and the Vancouver trip and barely having worked since August. If I go to the festival office, I can pick up my reading fee, but in order to get to the office, I need the keycard to get up the elevator, and before I can have my keycard, I need to pay the deposit. This is one of those income stalemate situations that writers are frequently in. Thankfully, S. texts me that he’s arrived and has parked outside. Thankfully, he has a credit card and the stalemate with the uptalking concierge ends.

With S. here, I feel more like myself, but I’m a poor festival attendee with him around because we’ve known each other forever and instead of drinking late with writers at the hospitality suite or going to other events, we roam around downtown Calgary glimpsing our friends’ art in the big office atriums, we get tired of eating out for every meal and drive back to his arts co-op in Edmonton. The drive is a long relief, and I realize the reason why people don’t feel landlocked in the Prairies is because the eye can travel across fields for 100 miles and it’s like an ocean, an ocean of cadmium yellow and lemon yellow and ochre, as if Van Gogh had mixed his palette here.

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White is the colour of a blank piece of paper and of canvas. It’s the colour of snow and to me, comfort, as I’m a winter child. Though it’s also a menacing colour, as the poet David Harsent claims. It’s the colour that is the absence of history, the erasure of specific ethnicities so that a dominant culture can rush in to fill the void with white pom-pom hats, white latte foam, white sugar, white plastic bags. Here, it says, you can be a part of something new so long as if you give that up, that looking backward, that nostalgia for land that was never yours, that vanishing point of blame.

Others, I know, share my design aesthetic. While taking our students to an outing to Kensington Market, J. & I walk along a beautiful, tree-lined street and play that old game of which-house-would-you-live-in? Both of us point to the white painted bay-and-gable house with black trim. Severe. Meticulous. Orderly.

I’ve worked three different colleges this year. Sometimes people mistake me for a student, other times for faculty. Sometimes I get complimented on my English, my lack of accent. Last week, I watch the picketers circling the building, thinking, that might’ve been me. One of my favourite students, an older Spanish woman who has returned to school for social work says, “Phoebe, I’m losing momentum.” She comes to see me every week. She says the problem with Canadians is that they’re too passive, too uncomplaining. She wonders why capitalism has co-opted us. Usually I’m helping her with syntax, or research, or even her résumé, but today we look at OPSEU bulletins and I show her how to find updates about the strike. Next week I’m going to show her how much our college president makes. Reading his whitewashed emails every few days makes me so furious I can hardly swallow. I’m part of a generation of teachers that has come to accept that full-time work will be nearly impossible until I’m at least 40, and even then… when did we accept this? How did our bones and our bodies accept it? Like sleepwalkers laying down in a fallow field, or like small animals falling into ditches?

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Belleville VIA station

My first royalty statement arrives in the mail, in a big 8 1/2″ by 11″ envelope as though uncreaseable. I’m still a couple of hundred in debt to my publisher, but I can fold up this information, tuck it away. I’ve made tremendous gains in the months of the book’s existence but having moved backwards for so long, it’ll take some time to be in the clear. In another six months, it’ll be my turn to be owed something.

There is something excessive about flying someone in from across the country to read for 15 minutes, but I find most things excessive, too much salt, too much sugar. By the end of this year, I’ll have visited nine different cities, including my hometown. I have set my clock forward, then backwards, while my career, after long years of stalling, now leaps ahead of me. All of the festival and event organizers whirl about whiteboards with pick-up times and have thought through every one of our needs. They hold the flaps of book covers open when I sign them. An older, award-winning poet tells me to go to everything, go everywhere, go to all the free dinners because “you’ll sit beside someone different every night.” I cannot even picture this. At the small party I had before I left, how I had just enough seating for everyone. When someone wanted to get up, they had to switch places with someone else.

With my festival gig money, I buy a new pair of Levi’s 501s and order a t-shirt from a band who stopped making albums in 2001. This was my uniform in my 20s, along with regulation black Converses and a black corduroy jacket, which I still own and which has holey pockets because my sister kept her drawing pencils in it when she borrowed it. This itself was a kind of costume that allowed me to pass among the crowd at hundreds of shows and concerts. In another of her long attempts to turn me into another version of herself, my mom has foisted upon me two black-and-white silk blouses, a striped t-shirt and a camel cashmere coat she found at Value Village. Wearing one of the blouses with the high-waisted Levis, I don’t look like my mom even though this is exactly her uniform, and I feel her lack of self-consciousness cloak me like a warm, wool hug. Don’t worry about that, she’d say, There’s bigger things to think about.

And another time, as I’m washing the dishes, she asks me: Where did you come from? You, yourself?

As if I could make something up to tell her.

Writing a book emptied me out. I’m like a raided vault, my bank of images empty except for the most dire– two lovers buried in ash, a crumbling aqueduct, a deranged leader. We came out of a debt, and we’ll go back into it, bandaged hand-in-hand. I hold that hand up and wait for the drops to form, for memory to condense. When I turn to a new page, white as a curtain, it isn’t completely vacant.

 

Self-portrait with antique frame

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