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Euclid’s Orchard

Review by Linda Rogers

Euclid’s Orchard & Other Essays
Theresa Kishkan
Mother Tongue Publishing, 2017

There are stars in the firmament of Canadian literature, and then there are the planets, enduring voices we turn to for knowledge and comfort. Beyond fashion and flashing trajectory, they persevere, reliable in that part of the sky held up by so many women.

Theresa Kishkan is one of those sky mothers, who, more than unreliable points of navigation, home fires burning, are real steady home.

Her writing reveals the Aristotelian principle of unity, the Oneness of being that she has learned from her own proximity to the natural world and belief systems. Her essays and poems breathe with the entities she encounters in the phenomenal world: trees, fish, birds, flowers, grass, as, without pedagogy, she affirms the maternal prerogative. We are all children of this earth.

Her first essay, “Herakleitos on the Yalakom,” a personal story resonating the Book of Isaiah, begins with fishing and allegorical association with the fisher of men. Her father was a natural philosopher, but unnaturally cruel in human relations. That is the sad human story. The bitterness of sour grapes eaten by parents is passed on to children, who either swallow or spit. In her case, Kishkan has made a mission of nurturing everything in her surround, words, family and world, spitting out seeds of wisdom.

This leads me to a puzzle, which this publication may resolve. A few years ago, I was asked at the last minute to write a river memoir to replace one written by Kishkan, who had withdrawn. Why me, I wondered and still do, as we both, as women writers struggling upstream to lay our eggs, wrestled with sperm fish, the dark angels of patrimony. Now, as I read it, I think I understand she had a larger vision, this book.

Her story is a difficult to deliver and expose grace notes. Now, more than ever, mindful of what is sacred, she remains devoted to the female imperative to peaceful change. As Herakleitos said, we never step in the same river twice.

And perhaps we can be forgiven for extrapolating Hera, daughter of the Titans, striding out of the title, manifesting in every page of this book of the lost and found.

In “Tokens,” on the narrative level at least, the story of her foundling mother, found in marriage to a linear person, a series of phenomenal objects link parents to lost children. This is Kishkan’s genius, joining the spirit and material worlds, her familiar and ours, in details that link in the music of time, mysteries emerging from silence.

I wanted the music to be coded, wanted to believe that messages might come in (Handel’s) ancient verses, as I wished for a message to emerge from that telegram, an invisible milk or lemon juice exposed to heat:

And in “West of the 4th Meridian, a Libretto for Migrating Voices,” she iterates the themes that sleep and wake in our lives of constant exile, the current one perhaps the last as we comprehend the gorgeous fragility of the world Kishkan describes so perfectly, so lyrically, weaving family history into the seasons of birth, copulation and death.

“I am holding the family song, a composition almost erased.”

In “Poignant Mountain” these lyric threads are picked up and woven into a tartan skirt, worn by a little girl who gathered wool before she had the ability to write memory into text. Her pre-school days in Matsqui are another song map for her and for the reader as she listens to the grasses.

In the memory was recognition: that something I’d once had but hadn’t remembered losing was returning to me, a painted wooden horse coming home through tall grass.

It can be argued that the vogue for diversity in fiction draws us to the surprising, the perfumes of exotic flowers and locations and away from proximate narratives. We are enamoured with the other, forgetting that Canada’s past is also other, valuable empirical data, our history plain and simple, all of it worth framing in story. Our grasses are as musical as those blown by the trade winds or monsoons that bring refreshment and refugees to our shores.

And every seed, carried by wind, is the start of new life. The Chapter “Ballast,” annotated by quotes from the da Vinci Notebooks, is a sketchbook of memories, rose cuttings, horse radish and jars of jam and jelly. Some of it is ballast, left behind in migrations great and small, but all of it lives on in the mind of an artist and on the pages of this book, illustrated with family photographs.

Euclid’s Orchard is a scrapbook of smells, sounds, photos, plants, people and places, serving as memoir and history book, a living map of a time and place, mid-century on the Pacific Coast of Canada, where First Nations and Whitecomers still compare mythologies and reconcile the trauma of contact and the transplants, plant and human, are still hardening up.

Kishkan’s own slips have taken, according to their separate destinies. One son, a mathematician, turns out to be the spirit child of her father, who in spite or because of his tyrannies was seeking a perfect equation, and this brings her to Euclid’s garden, the divine symmetry of coincidence.

This book, her quilts, her orchard, her life are all part of that sacred geometry. As Euclid wrote, “Things that coincide with one another are equal to one another.” This is what she knew at the beginning of her life when the trauma of her mother’s separation from family disrupted the family symmetry, making the star maps so challenging, and what she is coming home to.

In these essays she reveals to herself and her reader the holy feminine, mending the broken stars and reconciling the numbers with the threaded needle that leads her to completion, “a sequence emptied of its numbers.”

Linda Rogers, who used her tartan skirts as pen wipers in the days of dipping ink, has short fiction in the recent collections Cl-fi and Carter Vanderbilt Cooper 7, and her most recent fiction is Bozuk, a Turkish memoir. Forthcoming in Spring 2018 is Crow Jazz, a collection of short fiction from Mother Tongue.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #23