Theresa Kishkan, Phantom Limb

In my walk along Shuswap Lake this afternoon, I watched a pair of bald eagles cruise overhead where the breeze across the lake rises up the hill at Raven. The wind in the dry grasses flattened by the winter's snows sounded for all the world like snow hissing across ice, and I noticed that the new bulrushes have started popping out of the water between the path and the train tracks. When I got back I learned that young bulrush is rumoured to taste rather like asparagus, and that if I was more manly, I'd make bulrush pancakes by mixing a bulrush gruel with porcupine fat and chopped porcupine.

All of which was a nice distraction from events at my parents' home, where my grandmother is facing her imminent death with relative calm, mixed with bouts of confusion from sudden surfacings of memories.

It's the kind of week when I'm just so pleased to have been reading Theresa Kishkan's essay collection Phantom Limb. As I said the other day, this book has gripped me tightly. I've forced myself to slow down in reading before, most notably in reading Tim Bowling's The Witness Ghost and Alistair MacLeod's Island, but it's a rare occurrence, and it's always a sign that I'm in the presence of something very special.

Not, mind you, that I'm the least bit star-struck now that Theresa started commenting yesterday on my post of the previous day about Gillian Wigmore's book Soft Geography....

If I trusted blurbs more, I would've known what to expect from this book, because the back cover offers the glowing testimony of Terry Glavin and Tim Bowling, two writers whose names are scattered throughout the pixels of this blog. Harold Rhenisch, too, when I asked the ALECC listserv for feedback about whether the book might be teachable (before I'd yet seen it), responded in similarly glowing terms, so really I was primed to like it.

And oh, do I ever like it.

There's a powerful rootedness to the language of this book that has a lot to do with its fecundity of detail. I always trust her vision, but I also see how limited is my own ability to grasp and retain the necessary information about the world around me. Sure, I know where and when to pick huckleberries, and what tasty things one might do with salal berries, but this is mere functionality. The grace of Kishkan's prose makes her life seem itself secularly numinous, if that makes sense. There's very little mysticism in this book, but my own response (for an atheist like me) savours troublingly of the mystical.

I say "troublingly" because I'm working my way through Bruce Braun's challenging and brilliantly named book The Intemperate Rainforest, which problematizes in all sorts of productive ways the conventional modes with which we look at the world here in British Columbia. Admittedly I've been at least mildly embarrassed for years by the juvenilia that is my MA thesis on Emily Carr, and many of Braun's insights don't ring as new to me as his rhetoric suggests that they should, but still: I'm doubting my evaluative and perceptual frames. Kishkan's book has overwhelmed me, though, and I don't care if Bruce Braun knows it.

Three essays from this book can be read online in their earlier forms at Terrain magazine, and if you don't believe what I've been saying here, then go and read "month of wild berries picking". Once you see I'm right, go and buy a copy of this terrific book. No, buy two copies, because there's someone in your life you'll want to give this book to. He or she may not deserve it, but that's not the point. The book deserves readers, and it's up to us to find them.


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