In the late spring of 2017, a friend and I walked up a local mountain known, in English, as Pincushion. At the summit you look out over Okanagan Lake, a deep freshwater fjord, as it turns southward into the land of antelope brush. Beyond the lake, on the opposite shore, is Okanagan Mountain, and then a series of rolling rocky shapes whose names I don’t know that form this part of the high plateau in the interior of British Columbia. The land of antelope brush—technically, semi-arid shrub-steppe—is also called the Nk’mip Desert (pronounced “in-ka-meep”) and is the northernmost point of what is sometimes described, these days, as the Great American Desert, a region imagined to stretch from the south Okanagan in Canada to the Sonoran desert in northwest Mexico.
That spring, my friend and I had each been through the wringer. My co-parent and dearest friend had undergone a partial mastectomy and lymph node dissection in April. We’d buried a close family member in May. The summer promised weeks of chemo, followed by radiation therapy. My friend’s marriage had, after teetering for a year or more, finally fallen apart. They had to sell their home, find new homes, workout a schedule for the kids, and discover news ways to be alone. Hiking up Pincushion in the blaring sun was one way to gain some perspective. Literally and figuratively. Despite the white blooms of Saskatoon bushes, we knew there was no surrender, that nothing was going to get easier anytime soon.
At the summit we were greeted by a slow scouting party of turkey vultures that sailed low over our heads then circled back to their roost in a dead ponderosa across a gulley opposite the peak. Vultures can’t glide like hawks or falcons; they’re dependent on thermal drafts and this is why they appear sometimes to float in the sky and wobble. My friend, who is also a poet, was excited by the vultures—a sub-species peculiar to the region—for their witchy omens. We joked about the wreckage of our lives, the scavenger birds’ keen sense for rotting flesh.
For my part I was distracted by thoughts of earlier vultures I’d encountered and earlier poems in which those vultures had appeared. When I looked at the emblem of black feathers turning against the powder blue sky I thought of the vultures I’d watched circling above a blown out tire on Interstate 5 in western Washington 15 years before; I thought of the injured vulture at the Cascades Raptor Center in Eugene, Oregon, with its leathery helmet of a head eyeing me and my two-year old daughter through the fencing, how the bird had nostrils so large we could see right through them. Eventually, as the vultures continued to make a circuit from their roost to the airspace above us, I began, for some reason, to think of the witches in Macbeth, the turning cauldron. It was if the vultures above Pincushion that morning were draining the sky into other times and places—draining was a metaphor that occurred to me for the synecdochal resonance, for the turning—so where I was and where I’d been—both literally and imaginatively—were simultaneous. A better, word for this effect might be conjuring. This was not a draining, not subtractions, but something more like multiplication, like incantation, like magic.
This kind of thing had been happening to me for years, part déjà vu, part jamais vu, part affliction by literature. I’d moved to the Okanagan valley in 2014 from the Pacific coast where I was born and raised. For the last two years I’ve been writing poems set in the central Okanagan—the area to the immediate east and north of Pincushion—as a kind of openwork. In ornamental works with metal, leather, or cloth, openwork is a design technique that utilizes patterns of openings and holes to both accentuate the works and to help reveal what exists beyond the ornamentation. It’s a paradox most artists are familiar with: dress something in the aesthetic dimension in order to reveal the aspects of that something you can’t address directly. My poems were, and continue to be, a means by which I might encourage the land in and on which I live to open to me as I open to it. Or open me as I open it; I’m not sure who’s the active agent. The difference is something like the difference between rained on or, to borrow a Heanyism, rained-into. The poems are, for me—and I mean this quite personally—a kind of conjuring: of the land, of its inhabitants, its histories, its being-in-time, its social imaginary, but also of my own perception and attention in this land, my own histories, my own imaginary archeology, my umwelt, as some semioticians and biologists might have it.
Nomenclature, to my mind, is a kind of openwork. My friend and I wondered, climbing Pincushion, how it had acquired its name. I can’t recall now what our theories were, in part, because an account of its naming I heard after now overtakes my imagination. The Okanagan is fire country, and according to the story my friend told me via a species of Shakespearean sonnet that arrived in my email inbox weeks later, the mountain was named for the way it looks after a fire: a great mound of rock pinned by the charred spikes of pine trees. “Visible signs of scarring” as my friend put it, “burnt pine poked unevenly into hillside.” We didn’t know that day, hiking Pincushion, that the summer of 2017 would be a smoky one, the lake filmed with ash, every horizon veiled in grey. Or how the sun would look its true, extraterrestrial self, burning through the openwork of smoke. But the vultures and the mountain and our bodies were trying to tell us something. The poems, mine and my friend’s, are some of what we heard.
Matt Rader is the author of four collections of poetry, Miraculous Hours (2005), Living Things (2009), A Doctor Pedalled Her Bicycle Over the River Arno (2011) and Desecrations (2016). He is also the author of the story collection What I Want to Tell Goes Like This (2014) and several chapbooks including I Don’t Want to Die Like Frank O’Hara (2014). His work has appeared in journals, magazines, and websites across Canada including Geist, The Walrus, The Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, Joyland, and Hazlitt.
Issue 9 of The Lonely Crowd features five new poems from Matt Rader.
© Matt Rader, 2018. Image: ‘Songlines’ © Rob Hudson, 2018. (See more images from Rob Hudson in Issue 9 of The Lonely Crowd).