at the Factory Reading Series, cross-pollinated with Tree, lovingly hosted by rob mclennan and Rhonda Douglas (this was a kind of tree factory then)...a special occasion, the launch of Anne Szymigalski’s posthumous poetry collection When Earth Leaps Up (Brick Books, 2206) edited by her literary executor, Mark Abley. See Charles' photo of him here.
Local poets Blaine Marchand and Nadine McInnis read from the collection and also told stories about their experiences with the poet. Among other things, Marchand spoke of her love of dancing; McInnis of her nurturing and empathetic nature.
One of the poems Marchand read was the opening poem Untitled (“glory to the queen”) with this apt ending “by tomorrow she hopes to leap / easily out of this skin and into a new one / a skin like petals like leaves”.
McInnis read a poem called (Untitled “When I think of him...”) which she was hesitant to read because it was a very personal poem about the death of Anne’s husband, Jan. Abley explained later that the poem was not one he had found when he went through Anne’s manuscripts and computer disks at home, but rather it was in a collection of papers she had donated to the University of Regina archives in 1991. He was hesitant to publish the poem in this collection, but in the end opted in favour of publishing it. And we’re glad he did. And you have to buy the book to read it ;)
It was also fun to hear McInnis and Abley read from "A Catechism (or Conversation)" in which we learn that god is an Italian speaking androgynous crocodile (as we all suspected).
What I liked best though was the talk by Abley, who was a young university student in Saskatchewan when he joined Szumigalski’s unnamed poetry circle, unnamed because she welcomed every form of poetry and didn’t want to be thought of as the leader of the group.
Abley gave us the flavour of life of the poet,who was born Anne Davis in London, England. Her father was a Christian and her mother a Wiccan. This explains the spell-binding qualities of her work, perhaps.
Her family had what Abley referred to as “an income.” which must be a translation for they had money. They lived in Hampshire, a small English village where Anne was home-schooled. She learned many languages and also did some nurse training, which made it possible for her to become an interpreter and medical auxiliary for the British Red Cross during the Second World War. She encountered some of the horrors of the Holocaust while at Bergen-Belsen. Later she would write extensively about the Holocaust, not only in her poetry but also in a play called Z. She met and married Polish refugee Jan Szumigalski with whom she had four children. The family moved to Canada, to Saskatchewan, where she was involved in literary initiatives, such as helping to start Grain Magazine.
Abley let me know when I talked to him that Szumigalski wanted specifically to support publishing houses in the Prairies, so much of her work was published out west. He seemed concerned that perhaps us Central/Eastern folk might not be too familiar with her. That’s what readings like this one are for; rare opportunities like this one are to be seized and treasured.
While When Earth Leaps Up contains her poetry, Abley has plans to publish more of her work from novellas to libretos.
I first encountered her writing in A Game of Angels (Turnstone Press, 1980) which I picked up for a song (no dance) at one of those Ottawa Public Library sales. Then just recently a kind friend let me take away some poetry books from her collection, and there was Dogstones: Selected and New Poems (Saskatoon: Fifth House, 1986).
When you discover a poet in this manner, serendipitously, there’s a connection there.
by Anne Szumagalski
have you noticed
how they roost in trees?
not like birds
their wings fold the other way
my mother, whose eyes are clouding
gets up early to shoo them
out of her pippin tree
afraid they will let go their droppings
over the lovely olive
of the runnelled bark
she keeps a broom by the door
brushes them from the branches
not too gently
go and lay eggs she admonishes
they clamber down
jump clumsily to the wet ground
while she makes clucking noises
to encourage them to nest
does not notice how they
bow down low before her anger
each lifting a cold and rosy hand
from beneath the white feathers
raising it in greeting
blessing her and the air
as they back away into the mist
A Game of Angels, Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1980
Abley wanted to make sure we all understood just how full of life Anne was, how unpretentious. She sounded like someone I would have enjoyed knowing.
Oh and I’m supposed to say now that the acoustics were absolutely smashing, darlings.(how was that, Emily?)