Archive for November, 2008

Breaking the Iron Box
November 29, 2008

I spent a year in Italy in my mid-twenties.  My boyfriend, G. and I hitchhiked from Ireland to Italy and ended up in the hill town of Perugia.  Just as we were down to our last money, we got jobs. I washed dishes and was a live-in nanny and G. taught English.  Due to G.’s gregarious nature, we met lots of other young people and had a great time.

Our friend, C. came out from England to join us and we then headed down to Sicily to try our luck there.  Again, we almost ran out of money and C. moaned constantly about our decision to leave Perugia.  But luck was with us. Through some English people we met, we found jobs.  G. and I got accommodation in servants quarters in a mansion outside of Catania.  Lemon groves and poinsettas grew around the house. A well-off family lived there and I taught their sons English.  G. drove them to and from school every day, through the chaotic Sicilian traffic.  The space we had to live in had been used to store olives and we had to clean the two rooms up before moving in.  C. got a job teaching English in Catania and found a room with some Greek students. 

I enjoyed teaching the sons-together with another boy, who was a friend of the family.  One day, that boy’s father arrived and went upstairs to see L., the mother of the boys.  After he left, L. came down and said that the man’s son would not be coming to the day’s lesson.  A friend of their family had been shot by the Mafia.  The victim was a journalist – he had named Mafia families involved in a scandal and had been shot on the street – one bullet for each family he named.

“No one can touch the killers.” a shaken L. told me, “We say they are ‘nella scatola ferro’ – in an iron box.  No one can touch them.”

I’m reminded of this event by reading about Roberto Saviano who has written a book ‘Gomorrah’  a best-seller critical of  the murderous Neapolitan mafia, the Camorra.  His life is now constantly under threat and he lives in hiding.  I admire Saviano’s reckless and fantastic courage.  I’m going to buy his book to support him and I hope I can see the film that has just been made which is based on the book.

In the Picture
November 28, 2008

Finally I have learned to insert photos into my blog.  Thanks to R. who was passing through town after teaching a Red Camera workshop in Whitehorse, Yukon. These are some paintings I did of the forest. 

  They are very light but I chose not to adjust the colour. What I find really interesting is how photos of a painting can change the focus of it.  When blown up, the painting is deconstructed and you can see the washes of paint on them, and also the qualities of the paper they were painted on. I find that quite fascinating. Click on the photos to enlarge the paintings.

The Sami
November 22, 2008

I hope one day to see a Sami drum, which are used in Sami spiritual rituals.  There are only 70 left in the world.  The Sami are the indigenous people of Northern Scandinavian – who traditionally herd and co-exist with reindeer.

I beat these images on the stone, on the drum./It is so slow./After drumming for a while/ am pulled into another world/to visions.                                    

(Nils-Aslak Valkeapaa – Sami poet)                                                                                                  

Years ago, I researched my mother’s Norwegian roots and discovered her grandfather, John Peter Larsen was raised by Sami parents outside of Skjervoy, Norway.   John P.’s father was a Sami called Lars (Lasse) Andersen.   Possibly because their family was poor, John P. was adopted into a nearby family.  The woman who raised him was also Sami.  This is according to census records from Norway.  John P. eventually left Norway to work in copper mines in Northern Michigan before making his way to Minnesota.

I once connected with a elderly, distant relative here in Vancouver –  Olaf, the grandson of John P.’s sister.  We had coffee and he confirmed we are descended from Sami.  His grandmother spoke the language fluently and he remembers Sami people coming to her house, including a chieftain.

During drumming, a Sami shaman leaves his body and travels to the netherworld to seek spiritual answers.

I fly away                            see                     come back and tell the people            and their lives make the visions true        but they asked for it       themselves.

(Nils-Aslak Valkeapaa)

There is a wonderful movie about the Sami called The Pathfinder (directed by Nils Gaup).  It was nominated for an Academy Award. And they have a great poet, Nils-Aslak Valkeapaa.   I have one of his books, The Sun, My Father.  It’s a series of poems about his life in the Sami community.

Here’s two poems I like:

Even in his sleep/the old dog/turns the herd

and also,

If it’s troubles/you want/the whole world/is yours

The Art of Feminism
November 18, 2008

I recently took a course on Contemporary Art and one evening the class focused on feminist art.  We saw a video on a curated show on current feminist art in the US.  The art show featured some very funny, ironic work by young artists.  Some of the more established women artists were interviewed about their struggle to gain recognition.

In discussion afterward, two women in the class suggested that the need for feminism was in the past.  They were immediately countered by a young woman in her twenties who was from another country.  She had been the first woman to train as a Director of Photography at her school and the male students had made it very difficult for her.

After the class, I thought of J.   When she was young, J and her friends forced a large well-known manufacturer to hire women in the company plant.  There had always been women employed in the company office but when J. and her friends applied for the well-paid jobs in the plant, they were turned down.  The company would not employ women in that area. 

The young women then went to the press and politicians with their case and drummed up so much public support that the company was forced to hire them.  In an attempt to get them to quit, the company gave them jobs that involved some danger.    The attempt was futile – J. enjoyed the work.

Time passed and J. became pregnant with her first child.  There were chemical fumes in the plant and she was worried – not for herself, but for the health of her unborn child.  She asked the company if she could be transferred to the office until the baby was born.  The company refused.

J. then went to the press again and fought another public battle.  The company had to relent.  She was transferred to the office for the duration of her pregnancy.

When J.’s son was born,  a photograph of them was featured on the front page of the city newspaper.

Right on, J!

The York Theatre
November 13, 2008

The York Theatre on Commercial Drive is a 90 -year-old small art deco building designed by the same architect who did Vancouver’s landmark Marine Building.   It has functioned as a theatre, a venue for concerts and finally a small cinema.  A developer has bought it and is trying to demolish it.  A devoted group of people are trying to save it.  

About 20 years ago, I went to a poetry event at the York with a girlfriend.  We thought a good-looking guy we knew might turn up there.  The venue was rather shabby in those days.  Punk bands often played there.  All the theatre seats had been pulled out and about 150 people stood around with their drinks, watching the stage.  The event became a bit raucous at times as some poets ripped into each other. We laughed so hard at one uber-sincere poet that tears came into our eyes.  I still remember the line that broke us up. “The bird of paradise has flown, leaving behind a whitening pile of shit.”  Maybe it was the drink.  The cute guy didn’t show up.

Sometime after that, I went to the York on a date to see two bands.  The opening act was Sarah McLachlan.  She was very young and not too well known but had her first song on the radio.  The main band, The Grapes of Wrath, were the big draw for the crowd, but news of Sarah’s lovely voice had brought people in. 

As we stood near the stage before the concert started,  Sarah came out with a band member and they started checking the equipment.

My date said, “Oh, I hate it when the musicians come out before they play – it destroys the mystique.”

I remember looking around the shabby York and thinking,  “Mystique? In this place?”

It was a fantastic concert.  I hope they save the York and restore it to its former glory.  It’s a Vancouver landmark and full of memories for locals.

Beowulf, Grendel and others
November 9, 2008

The Vancouver Early Music Society had two exquisite concerts recently.  

Saturday, I went to see  Benjamin Bagby, founder of the early music group, Sequentia, perform part of Beowulf.  He is an incredible performer – singing in Old English, accompanied by a lyre.  In the ancient story Beowulf slays the terrible monster Grendel, who devours men by night.  Bagby really recreated the whole bardic experience.  Very evocative and atmospheric performance by a superb musician – a tour-de-force.  

Old English verse gets its rhyme not by metre or rhyme, but by illiteration, so it was really a different experience.  Next day, I had caught the Beowulf bug and went to the library to get the novel, Grendel by John Gardner. Grendel is an interesting monster – he would crush men, snap off their head and chug down their blood like Coke.  Well, all copies of the book were out.  Everybody wants to hear the monster’s side of it. 

The previous night, I was at “Music from San Marco” which featured the 16th century Venetian music of Gabrieli played by musicians from Montreal and Toulouse, France.  The music was sublime and I loved the voices.  The organist was wonderful, and I was fascinated by his eyes darting around under his thick brows.  He seemed to be from another century himself. 

After this divine concert, I caught a bus full of shouting young people in Halloween costumes.  It was Halloween night and they were heading to bars downtown. It was an interesting change of energy and I sat in my seat, silently judging the costumes.   My favorite was a young man in jeans, casually holding an illicit beer – his head poking through a small round table top, complete with lace tablecloth and table settings glued on it.