Normally I wouldn’t have much interest in a collection so firmly based in women’s experience. It’s a history I can’t possibly hope to understand at the same level as a woman. But Laundry Lines by Ann Elizabeth Carson goes far beyond feminism. It’s an elder reaching through the past and connecting with the ingenuity any oppressed people will use to communicate in times of oppression. An elder looking for understanding, not blame. The previously little-known historical phenomenon of women on the Underground Railroad using laundry lines to convey messages is the central metaphor that underlies the prose and poetry of Laundry Lines. Much as the ‘hobos’ would do during the Great Depression years with a system of rocks on fenceposts, warning of unfriendly people or places one could get a meal for an odd job.
And what she seeks understanding for is the random chaos that can suddenly take a husband, a son, a sibling out of our lives. There is no melodrama here, merely the true-to-life daily round punctuated by moments of sudden, sharp clarity or awakening. Melodrama is not needed if one chooses to look wide and deep, to meditate on what life is trying to tell us and have the courage to actually learn. To refuse the challenge of introspection is to risk arrested development, to become frozen at a particular point in time—a caricature of oneself. Joseph Campbell would say such a person refused the call to adventure—a genuine tragedy of lost opportunities.
Carson’s poetry is light on metaphor but rich in sensual detail—she uses all her senses to pick out the scents, shapes and colours of a country market; to recall the bright rows of canning jars in her aunties’ basement during the Depression. Best of all, she eschews the cryptic language of postmodernism for straightforward, clear diction and the crisp image. It’s refreshing in a time when obfuscation in poetry is considered a sign of cleverness or innovation even as it alienates most readers. As women began looking optimistically at a better future, Carson’s own ruminations turn the stone over and over in her mind’s palm:
Her stage. Her act. Who writes
the play? Who composes the music?
Bone-bred, muscle molding,
stomach holding heritage.
Summers spent on Manitoulin Island’s beautiful Lake Mindemoya provide some of the most exquisite moments in Carson’s poems. Here again she connects with the age-old tradition of writers and artists drawing from nature’s deep well. With so much poetry these days steeped in the urban environment in which the majority of our writers seem to live, this is a much-needed tonic, taking us straight to the source:
How many ways does the wind touch,
curl a sleeve, lift a collar, pucker
skin, disturb a strand of hair?
In the best tradition of nature poetry, the poet becomes merely the vehicle, not the focus, for transmitting the essence of the scene:
Lily buds unfurl before
my eyes. The warming
sun spurs opening.
A fresh breeze stirs my hair,
nudge-rocks the canoe, shifts
the reeds to disturb a resting fish.
Carson is a writer who chose to grapple with the call to adventure. Hers was a generation that made history. For the first time, women won the vote, were able to access the same level of education as men, and could become professionals in all fields, something unheard of before the 20th century. For Carson as for many women reading Steinem “changed my life.” She was clearly a strong woman already, facing down family crises with an inner steel. But with women’s increasing equality she could begin to see a career beyond family. Carson would work as a psychotherapist for 25 years. Nowadays we take all this for granted, forgetting how recently in history these things were not an option for women.
Carson’s spinster aunts were lucky to be friends with some revolutionary women. Charlotte Whitton, the slightly off-kilter first woman mayor of Ottawa, who campaigned to end the indentured child labour of British Home Children being shipped to Canada in the thousands. Marion Hilliard, “a prominent, ahead-of-her-time gynecologist at Women’s College Hospital, and author of A Woman Looks at Love and Life; Women and Fatigue.” And Eva Coon, another Toronto progressive who was Director of the YWCA. Carson got to eavesdrop on their conversations while the aunts crocheted over afternoon tea.
The details of the subject matter were beyond me at the time but conversations like this showed me that you can cook, clean, sew, quilt, garden, entertain and do all of these well, and also have a mind that shines at more than bridge, church meetings or the new book clubs.
Not for nothing does it seem like men and women speak different languages. With women’s laundry lines on the Underground Railroad as her subliminal track, Carson embeds the point. Yet her handling of reminiscences is something both men and women can relate to. As the beloved aunts Getty and Damaris fade into the half-light of their 80s, she is watching them slip away from her. The Waiting Room for Death that seems to be the tone of most seniors’ homes makes the stark contrast between Carson’s glowing girlhood memories of her aunts and the harrowing reality of aging:
We leave with little gifts of unmarked china, which means it’s old, or nineteenth century pressed glass she has tucked away in the one closet in her apartment, saved so that she will always “have something for us.” Sometimes I try to tell her how much she has given me down through the years. A nod, a little shrug, a deprecating smile and she changes the subject. Eventually I realize that the gifts are as complex as she is: beautiful, unique and practical, they are little “I love you’s,” small embodiments of her feelings and character. They also speak of her continuing need to make a contribution with something useful and beautiful. To be seen in a particular way, and with a reciprocity that means she is still part of family and community.
The melancholy is never cloying, never overwhelming. But present enough to underline the verité of her prose, that sense that pings with recognition in the reader. In the essay Memoirs—Sideways and Otherwise, I quote from Jane Austen, who recognizes memory as the most mysterious of human faculties. “It’s telling that one of the more tragic diseases that afflicts humans gradually erases memory,” I write there. “What’s left of a person when their memories are gone? It pains the heart to ask.” Or if not gone, distorted by time and stale emotion. But Carson has the courage not only to ask but to examine deeply.
As Carson writes so astutely, “…no narrative is impenetrable, and … the life stories we live with can be violently disrupted by feelings and memories that burst through without warning from the depths of one’s being.” An exercise in simple middle-class nostalgia this isn’t. “If I thought about their troubled family past I had assumed, given what I knew of how they lived,” she writes of her aunts, “that they had somehow come to terms with it in a way that enabled them to live contented and productive lives.” And of a shocking, unexpected act on the eve of an uncle’s death, she recalls: “Now the crater created by that explosion in me begins to fill with seeing, and understanding, how much less visible love is than strength. How, vulnerable to loss, love can twist into possessiveness and betrayal, hollowing our strength to a brittle skeleton. And survive that awful winter to grow new gardens.”
From the vantage point of her 86th year, Carson comes to realize the power even in the most self-contradictory of memories. Not only are they our personal history, they connect us with all history. We never know when one will be triggered into sudden life again, with unpredictable consequences. “They stand alone and side / by side. / Jewelled jars for every season / preserved on mind-shelves, waiting.” (Mind Cellar) But for all that, memories are embedded in us like DNA. Turning them over to taste their often bittersweet tang is as human as walking.
What origin propels? What path reorients a destination?
When the light has changed colour, the horizon
disappears and the world is unrecognizable.
I write to hear my heart, to feel my breath
salvage body and mind
To read more or order the book visit: http://www.inanna.ca/index.php/catalog/laundry-lines-stories-and-poems/