The Unfolding Present: Rereading Colleen Thibaudeau
I first read Colleen Thibaudeau’s poetry in 1978 when I was 35 and attending the New College Writers’ Workshop. I wasn’t at all sure I belonged there. I was older than almost all the other participants and had published nothing since my undergraduate days. We’d been told Coach House Press would welcome us visiting and one afternoon I wandered along the lane (now named for bp Nichol) into their ramshackle building. On the counter just inside was Thibaudeau’s My Granddaughters Are Combing Out Their Long Hair. I’d never heard of her but the title was irresistible.
I picked up the book, turned it over, and read: “Aroha’s fossil goes clear through the washing cycle / still in the pocket of her wrangler jeans; and comes out deepsea clean & pure as / someone’s eyes are seas who’s / fallen right through the world …” I fell right through those lines, bought the book, took it home. Reading her I felt there might after all be some hope for me. Here was a woman whose poems were situated in domestic and family life, alert to surroundings, voices, thoughts, and able to cross boundaries into that other realm—more or less what I hoped I might learn to do.
Earlier this year I rediscovered that Coach House book, its grey cover somewhat dog-eared and worn. I read a few of the poems, remembering the pleasures and possibility they offered me those years ago… someone’s eyes are seas who’s / fallen… How did she do that? How did she dare do it? I went hunting for The Artemesia Book, a volume of selected and new poems published by Brick Books in 1991, to see if the later poems still crossed boundaries. They do, and I promised myself I’d spend some time with them when I had a chance.
Now I’m writing in London, ON—what better place to be rereading Thibaudeau?—where I’m house sitting for a friend. The house backs onto the Sifton Bog and fills with light in the afternoons. It affords a wonderful view of the sky as the sun sinks. Birds rollick out of the bog forest and across the lawns to forage alongside grazing rabbits. I’ve got work to do, but I take breaks from it to reread Thibaudeau’s poems. They move in and out of my mind as I watch the birds and the light.
I find myself thinking about her sleight of hand in those lines from “Aroha’s Fossil.” Read in isolation they suggest an ending—here we are, fallen right through the world—but the poem continues “(straight through to China …).” We’ve arrived somewhere amazing (a real/imagined place) and are amazingly unscathed: “Keelhauling, gutting, name it— / nothing of that shows.” We’re here, where someone’s eyes (ours?) have become seas and deepsea clean, via the waters of the imagination. Now Aroha steps forward: “She says, hey here’s my fossil back and/ warms it in her hand.” The poem has taken us far and away, then home again, the mystery intact. Nothing to it—that’s just the way imagination works, and the imagination is home country to Thibaudeau.
The more I read her poems the more I conclude she was nothing if not daring. Her voice is like no one else’s, her angle of vision unique. Her poems use occasional rhyme, free verse, parody (rising from found material) and language play (see the Throggmoggle & Engestchin poems), yet remain unmistakably hers. What draws me above all to her work are its rich recognitions and celebrations of the textures of domestic and daily life—the extraordinary dimensions of the everyday she discovers effortlessly as she lives her life. She offers them to us as surprise, comedy, encounter, chances we would have missed without her noticing. Her ability to be present to what is in front of her, and to stay present to it while her inner world aligns with it is, for me, an enviable gift.
Here’s an example:
For Thibaudeau, inner and outer worlds are continuous and continually exchanging remarks. Or are they engaged in a dance, sometimes linking arms, sometimes separating, moving away then returning to join hands? Time too escapes its standard categories. So “Listening in Together” ends with a memory from Thibaudeau’s childhood and sets that memory (a different moth) before us. But on the way to that memory we’ve settled into an unfamiliar piece of Beethoven’s music and been back carried to the moment of its composition, hearing it spill forward as he did, writing it down. And all the while we’ve been right here in the unfolding present, tracking that moth’s slow careful climb to the top of the screen.
“Listening in Together” appears in The Artemesia Book: Poems Selected and New by Colleen Thibaudeau (Brick Books, 1991). It is used with the permission of Colleen’s family. To read more about Colleen Thibaudeau, please visit this website.
Poet and essayist Maureen Scott Harris has published three collections of poetry: A Possible Landscape (Brick Books, 1993), Drowning Lessons (Pedlar Press, 2004), which won the 2005 Trillium Book Award for Poetry, and Slow Curve Out (Pedlar Press, 2012), shortlisted for the League of Canadian Poets Pat Lowther Award. In fall 2015 Waters Remembered, a chapbook, will be published by paperplates. She lives in Toronto.