volume two, chapter three
The long days of summer have arrived. And with it the sweet pleasure of turning the pages of a book, your fingers staining the thin paper with just-eaten fish and chips, the sun high and tide low and lazy.
Afternoons stretch out in front of you like a picnic and the words that have waited all year to find you do — lying on a sea-soaked towel or swaying gently in a hammock, you surrender to idleness, in your own world where you are finally alone with your summer read.
Below, you will find five writers from the UBC Creative Writing program who take us back to a summer in their past and the book that made an impression on them. Read and listen as they take you back in time and don’t miss their recommendations for what should be on your summer reading list this year.
by Susan Musgrave
I have never understood why people associate summer reading with thick books where the main character doesn’t say hello until page 526. The summer, for me, has always been a time when my attention span is at its shortest, and most likely to snap. A book of poetry is a more suitable length of book to be dipping into when you are lying on a beach working on your melanoma watching your five-year-old wash out to sea on her inflatable alligator. A memorable book of poetry, one I associate with summertime, is Silver Mercies by James Clarke. I met Jim — then the Honourable Justice James Clarke of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice — in 1996 when he enrolled in a writing workshop on Lake of Bays, in the Muskoka. He brought with him an attractive humility and a bulging manuscript; his poems had me weeping one minute and laughing out loud the next. He wrote with wry humour on just about every subject from bicycle theft to stolen love. When it came to the law and the plight of his fellow man he proved an old saying, “Even as there are laws of poetry, so is there poetry in law.” His was poetry that let us peek under Madame Justice’s blindfold, giving us a rare glimpse of her concerned, but very human face.
It’s hard not to take comfort from the persona of “the judge” that Jim Clarke has created for himself in his poetry. He remembers being a victim himself, a boy, falsely accused of stealing a few coins — the more he protested his innocence, the more he was disbelieved. He sends a warning to us about young offenders who will be “delivered back to you”, older and deadlier in less than three years. In numerous poems the judge sees victims on all sides, and has the wisdom to know there is not always an unwavering solid line between guilt and innocence. He understands that prison, the granite underworld full of broken lives, is a place “where love belongs to a lost language.”
Life has not always been just to Jim Clarke, himself. Poetry is what has helped him live ever since that one Palm Sunday when his wife of twenty-five years jumped to her death at Niagara Falls.
“Several witnesses observed her climb the parapet of the observation platform, camera in her right hand, drop her shoulder purse to the ground and holding her nose (she always pinched her nose before plunging into water) leap into the Niagara river, floating on her back, eyes open, blank expression on her face, no struggle or cries till the strong current swept her over the rim of the Falls eleven stories down into the icy gorge below,” he writes, in a memoir, “The Kid from Simcoe Street”. “Her body has never been found.”
The foundation of his existence collapsed. Many of James Clarke’s poems approach a need to understand, a desire to somehow occupy that four-second fall from life. Since the summer we met he has gone on to publish seven more books of poems, two of which I shall read from today, and A Mourner’s Kaddish that tackles suicide and the rediscovery of hope. James Clarke shoots straight from the hip and from the heart. Each of his poems is a reminder: no matter how different the experiences from which we examine and judge our lives, the human heart beats on, and to a common beat.
Recommended Summer Reads
No matter how different the experiences from which we examine and judge our lives, the human heart beats on, and to a common beat.
Thank you to our co-creators who generously took time away from their teaching and writing to contribute to this story: Alison Acheson, Amber Dawn, Kevin Chong, Susan Musgrave and Timothy Taylor.
A distinct and special thank you to Annabel Lyon who helped make this story possible and Steven Galloway for letting us film in his office and turn off his fish tank for short periods of time while doing so.
More information on the UBC Creative Writing department and its programs.
Story team: UBC Communications and Marketing — Margaret Doyle, Digital Storyteller; Michael Kam, Web Developer/Coordinator; Lina Kang, Web Coordinator; Justin Lee, Video Production Assistant; Adrian Liem, Senior Web Coordinator; Jamil Rhajiak, Communications Coordinator, Digital Information Channels; Aida Viziru, Web Interaction Designer.
Published: July 2015