Monday, November 26, 2012

Landscape and Memory

In spite of a hectic November with transatlantic travel, my 6th National Novel Writing Month (this year a collaborative attempt), a broken tooth, and a phenomenal bout of jet lag combined with pneumonia, I signed up for a writing workshop being held at a nearby village, in a tiny café, on the banks of the Medway River.

The workshop, hosted by E. Alex Pierce ( is called Landscape and Memory and, “takes inspiration from the environs of the Medway River as well as a number of literary works, we will write on a wide range of subjects in various voices from narrative to lyric to dramatic.”

Ah, the Medway River. Of course I couldn’t resist; I learned all about it at school in Cyprus in the 1950s.

I was a boarder at St. Joseph’s Convent in Nicosia, the island’s capital. The French convent was at Paphos Gate, the smallest of the three original Venetian-built entrances to the ancient walled city. We girls attended the Catholic Church of the Holy Cross, with its front door in the Greek side, and its back door in the Turkish quarter.

Just eleven years old, impressionable and eager; I soaked up information like the proverbial Greek sponge. Geography lessons were my second favourite after anything with an art/music element. I remember Sister Louise ‘skating’ across the highly polished platform, a raised dais before the blackboard. I use the word ‘skating’ as I can think of no other to describe how we balanced each foot on tiny pillows to move across the platform, so as not to scratch or mark, but further enhance the highly polished surface.

Sister Louise enthralled us with stories of far off places. One was Nova Scotia in Canada, a country more known for its immense lakes, prairie wheat fields, and rocky mountains. She delighted us with tales of a special river, close to a gold mine, where salmon were plentiful and royalty visited to enjoy the sport of salmon fishing.

I had no notion that, almost sixty years later, I would be sitting on the banks of that very river, searching for poetic and lyrical words. Long forgotten memories of those school days have been brought alive by this river now. I can see Sister Louise’s young face, with her pink cheeks and deep brown eyes as if she was here beside me. I can hear her melodic voice talking about a country of which she had no first hand knowledge, but of which she spoke with such clarity and conviction. I see her flip back the edges of her habit, as she often did just before telling us something exciting.

The workshops are called Landscape and Memory.  It is a powerful experience to indulge in a few hours a week of letting the river be the catalyst for my writing. Allowing the memories to flit like damsel flies. I have no control, and I delve into later school memories of an English teacher lulling us to snooze every Friday afternoon while she read to us 4th formers, in her Scottish lilt, from that century-old classic Three Men in a Boat: Jerome K Jerome’s account of a trip up the River Thames. The underrated master of language wrote:

And we sit there by its margin, while the moon, who loves it too, stoops down to kiss it with a sister’s kiss, and throws her silver arms around it clingingly; and we watch it as it flows, ever singing, ever whispering, out to meet its king, the sea.

The workshop series is absorbing; Alex Pierce reads aloud; powerful poetry by extraordinary writers like Dionne Brand.  Workshop participants share their diverse writings too. Thought provoking essays are recommended reading which I tentatively explore as untrod territory with apprehension and excitement. I watch old films again, films where rivers are protagonists. And, as the month closes in, I feel that November has been generous to me.

So I write; not only inspired by the Medway River but also by the memories this workshop has stirred and which the group’s chemistry has brought to the surface. I write, at a gentler pace than normal, of unresolved dilemmas being carried away by the river, out to the sea. I write poems, many poems, about love and about lovers on the river’s banks. And I think about the incalculable power landscape has for stirring memory.

The moon’s riding high this night of all nights
when every line on your palm speaks of danger
with stillness you move
as if without breath
with no fear or alarm or of anger

Life’s written in starlight reflected in glass
while shifting through fields of destruction
finding the way
as only you can
just one world away from the ocean

S.B. Borgersen November 2012