Where to Begin (Part 1 of “Homestead: Venturing into the Poetics of Place”)

“I’m going home,” I tell the cab driver, as he loads my suitcases into the trunk. He smiles and says, “Alright then,” puts the car into gear and pulls away from the curb outside my house in Winnipeg. It’s 4:52 a.m. and we’re on our way to the Richardson International Airport, where I’ll board the 6:30 flight to Toronto en route to Glasgow. I’ve been to Glasgow once before, for three hours, during which I ate black pudding and grilled potato bread with sautéed mushrooms on the side. The grease and the blood sausage danced a mocking jig on my jet lag and threatened to undo my partially digested in-flight dinner of four hours previous. This time, I’m going to wait until I get to Rathven, the village of my Scottish ancestors, before choosing something safe to eat, like pasta or a pork chop with potatoes on the side.

I’m about to embark on a roundabout journey to the homes of my past—both those I’ve inhabited and those inherited through maternal and paternal family lines. The aim is to take a poetic account of these places, to deepen my understanding of “home,” and to complete a new poetry manuscript. I’ll be visiting the Parish of Rathven, Scotland, where the last Scottish Elricks of my paternal line lived prior to their emigration in the mid-19th century. Following this, I’ll be in Salzburg, Austria, where my mother was born and raised until age ten. Then it’s home to Canada with a visit to Abbotsford, British Columbia, where I spent my first twenty years. Although these places may be particular, the story of distant roots is an incredibly common one for the contemporary North American. In fact, the experience of being born at the end of a branch that spans an ocean is perhaps one of the unifying elements of Canadian culture; and it begs a thorough inquiry into the idea of home.

Over the years, I have played with various definitions of home, from the simplest location-based designation of current residence/childhood house, to the broader regional terms of landscape, province or country. I have also played with the axiom “home is where the heart is” (which my mother had hanging in cross-stitch on the kitchen wall of the Monashee house where I learned to read), broadening the definition to include the handful of people I love and care about. From there I went further, thinking back to the time in my mid-late teens when I first awakened to myself as a free-thinking being capable of both interpreting the world and acting in it. The places, people, art and events I experienced during that time are largely responsible for the way my personal taste and notion of well being developed. I began to define home as “the context in which one first speaks the word I.” As the years went on, I developed a pattern of moving houses—often within the same city, yet I also tried new cities (Kelowna, Vancouver, Winnipeg, London)—averaging one move every eight months since 2001. During this time, I kept certain cardboard boxes—ones that had proved their functionality and strength and showed no signs of breaking down or bottoming out. I became a master of the homey, able to move in, unpack, set up, and host a dinner party within the first two days of getting the keys. With all of this packing and unpacking, I began to think of home as “what you take with you when you go.” While all of these definitions describe home in a limited way, the essence of home is a much more complex thing that goes beyond place, people and context to include personal and collective history, myth and family legend, as well as texture, flavour and the whole repertoire of sensual experiences that produces feelings of familiarity and comfort. What better way to approach such an essence than through poetry?

The plane takes off and Winnipeg falls into the distance below like a penny flicked from the crest of the Abby-Mission bridge. Ten thousand feet and zooming east. Dawn rushes forward at an unnatural speed and I think about the locale of transition, the place that is the road. It’s a fluid, shifting place that is contingent on movement. It occurs to me that in choosing to write about place, I am writing a filter through which to view time dilate and compress, wrap and fold and loop. I remember Doreen Massey’s proposition that places are experienced as spatio-temporal events, that they are unique to the perception of the dweller, that there is no here without now, no then without there, and that one can never go home, since the temporality of that once place will have rendered it foreign in a new present time.

I don’t know what I will find in Rathven, or if the research I do there will open new doors into poetry. I wonder how I will fare in Salzburg without much knowledge of German. I wonder if I will find a way to lift the experiences of my childhood in Abbotsford into the now, and capture them afresh. Venturing into the poetics of place is a little like venturing into a room with your eyes closed, only to open them and find that you’ve lost your sense of smell. Just when you think you’ve got it, you realize there is so much more to apprehend. Outside the window, sun shines on the top-side of weather, a pristine, white field of light above a cloudy day in Thunder Bay. Not a bad place to begin.

Michelle Elrick is a poet and fiction writer from British Columbia and Manitoba. She is the author of a collection of poetry, To Speak, and a recipient of the John Hirsch Award for Most Promising Manitoba Writer. She is the former poetry editor of Geez magazine and coordinator of In Dialogue, the Manitoba Writer’s Guild reading series. Her work has appeared in Geist, Prairie Fire, EVENT and other journals. She is working on a new collection of poetry. For more information on her work, visit www.michelleelrick.com.