Enough of being lazy

It’s about time I wrote about what I am up to in this writing life. Today I joined eight other poets to celebrate the Ruby Tuesday Writing Group’s 16th anniversary. What an incredible group of women to work with every Tuesday morning. It’s been the engine that has driven all of us to publish often in journals, chapbooks, anthologies and full collections.

But this is an all-about-me day, for if George Harrison can write a memoir called I Me Mine, then I can post this one blog in memory of his. (More about George later…)

During the pandemic, my collections rabbit (Aeolus House Press, Toronto) and Park Ex Girl: Life with Gasometer (Shoreline Press, Montreal) were published, which gave me time to work on several other things. A collection of poems about the wild lives of wildflowers is the hands of The Longmarsh Press in Devon, UK, whose editor loves the poems and wants to ‘do something with them’.

Aeolus House Press, 2020

So I have been busy, and still am. This winter I’ll put my energies into editing a book-length poem about designing and building my old-lady house more than twenty years ago. So you see, this why there’s all this hurry to get things published. Now I am a lot older, and my time on this mortal coil is getting shorter and shorter. I’m not upset about it; I’m more upset about the state of the world I will be leaving. Meanwhile, there’s still the life of writing, the life inherent in a writing life.

So I finally finished a collection I’ve been working on for years called Pink Hibiscus: Poems of the South Pacific. I was a CUSO volunteer in Vanuatu from 1986 until 1989, and returned for three months in 1993. It’s a challenge to write memoir as poetry. The inclination is to try to tell everything, so that poems become stories rather than poems. With the help of three writing groups and several editors, the stories did become poems, and now they have arrived in a lovely publication by Éditions des petits nuages, an Ottawa small press run by Mike Montreuil, who publishes Japanese-form poetry as well as lyric collections in French and English.

The main title comes from a particular poem, but the subtitle is a reference to James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, because Michener wrote that book while stationed in Vanuatu during WWII. It was then known as the New Hebrides. Not many people know about the island of Bali Hai, but I have been there. He spied the island while writing in the officers’ mess on the island of Santo. He knew it was really the island of Ambae, where all the beautiful young women had been sent in order to protect them from the American soldiers (true!). And he never went to it, fearing to be disappointed. As all writers know, mystery can be important, and he never wanted to see anything different from what was in his imagination.

I, on the other hand, have been to Bali Hai (Ambae) several times, staying in my students’ villages, explaining to the villagers and the chiefs, in the language of Bislama, why the village should build a preschool, and why they should pay a teacher for it. The language of Bislama?

In a country of roughly 110 distinct languages, a common language was necessary, and originated with white colonizers’ need to communicate with the original peoples whom they hired as workers or used as slaves. It is a pidjin language, and I learned it in order to teach and to speak all over the country and even on the radio. Then I wrote ( I was Claudia Brown at the time…) a teacher’s manual in the same language. (Terry Crowley made sure my written Bislama would be easily understood.) The manual showed teachers how to teach preschool concepts and run a preschool without money on an island without, sometimes, even basic amenities.

I spent time on about 15 of Vanuatu’s 80+ islands, traveling in small planes, over pathetic dirt roads in rusty land Rovers, in aluminum runabouts and dugout canoes over shark-infested waters, and took photos at night, from its rim, of the fires inside a volcano. You can get a copy of Pink Hibiscus or any of the books mentioned earlier by messaging me.

My plans are to concentrate on the long poem about my old-lady-house-building experience, continue a non-fiction account of the Vanuatu experience to go along with the poems, and oh, I am having so much fun with the ‘George’ poems.

Being a much too intense Catholic teacher in the 60s and 70s, and being a good Catholic wife and mother, I missed the whole Beatles experience. Wasn’t everyone told that pop music was the Devil’s creation, meant to lure young peoples’ souls?

But now, I have the chance to discover a beautiful musician, (I’m not too old not to realize how physically beautiful he was) and am entranced with his life, with his music, and with his life philosophy. He, now, was a beautiful soul, and may still be one. I’m not speaking from a religious point of view, but even the Catholics would have approved. George and I were born within weeks of each other, both of us had fathers who drove for a living, we both owned Cooper mini-cars, we both married the same year. I’m impressed with so many of his songs, with his sense of humour, his generous spirit, and the fact that he made only the movies he wanted to make. I am also impressed with how he handled his life pressures. True, drugs were part of his life and certainly not part of mine, that he was a genius musician and I know nothing about music, but even this late in the game, I can discover some of what I missed all those years ago. And, like him, I feel that life is just this little play that is going on. And, yes, another ‘and’, I am having a whale of a time writing my ‘George’ poems.

To Vanuatu With Love


ni-vanuatu women
walk upstream
stone by flat stone
water sloshing at their ankles
to vanuatu with love

crunch click giggle
the sounds of snails
just-plucked and eaten raw
their cheerful symbiosis
with the natural world

down the cliff
into deep blue
the women’s fearless dives
into their own element
having floated certain leaves
over the reef
the old woman pulls out
from deep in the coral
the octopus she has stunned
the island of land dives
an old chief
gives me
a curled pig’s tooth

in another village
the greatest gift
for an honoured guest
a white clucking chicken
I hold it nervously
made of corrugated tin
the village guesthouse
a warning to lock windows
against devils
and men who ‘creep’

openem windo blong yu
he whispers at my window
me wantem creep yu
he wants into my bed
according to custom

sori tumas, mi bin talem
be mi marrit finis
mi marrit tu he says
be tede waef blong me stop
long narafala aelan

which means:

I am sorry, I say
but I am married
I am married too, he says
but today my wife
is on another island
the wise man, or cleva
is called to determine
who stole the money
it is, he said
a woman from Mele village

she admits the theft
of her fellow students’ money
she need the vatu
to buy me, her teacher
the carved dolphin
I will not make
another student return
to her husband
I unwisely say
to the Chief of Police

she must go he says
she and her children
are the property of her husband
deep purple bruises
on her brown skin
she names her child
Claudia after me
but uses my full name
when the child
talks too much

the small girl
i would have adopted
oh to have been
strong then
said yes to a partner’s no

The image is of Nelly from Ambae, a child stigmatized because of having an American soldier for a grandparent. I would have adopted her, and tried later when I no longer was with that partner, but she’d been adopted by then.

More About Leonard Budgell and Arctic Twilight

len henry charlottelen at henry's 90th crop

I never tire of seeing photos of Len with his friends and family. Here he is in a visit with  Henry and Charlotte Voisey, c. 1980. In the first photo, from the left, Len Budgell, Charlotte, Henry and their daughter Mary Voisey. The second is Len at Henry Voisey’s 90th birthday party.

When I met Leonard Budgell almost by accident in 1978, he was 25 years older than me, about the age of my father, yet we became the best of friends. Len was closest with friends like with Henry Voisey and Charlotte, both of whom were from Labrador, and who were, in Len’s own words, of ‘Eskimo’ descent. Henry was an HBC man, and a radio operator, as Len was. You will love their faces, he said. He’s short and solid and square, and she’s small and birdlike and so warm. 

you told me
of their collection
of stone and bone scrapers
sculptures carved
from dog’s teeth

There were so many things Len and I could talk about with each other and with no one else. We were safe with each other, and there was trust. There are 17 hours of oral history on tapes in the Hudson’s Bay Archives, orchestrated by Jocelyn McKillop, but the hundreds of hours we spent over meals, tea, walks in Oak Hammock Marsh, or Bird’s Hill Park, at MacDonald’s while we watched his grandchildren play in the “Play section’ are mostly lost.


we watched the geese
lift from the river
together as one
as one we knew
there was no next step

I visited him in Moosonee in the 1990s where, after his Hudson’s Bay Post Manager career, he managed Federated Shipping for The Hudson’s Bay Company. That company shipped equipment, food, and basic supplies to communities on James Bay. He visited me when he came to Oshawa from Winnipeg to see his daughter Kathy and his grandchildren. We met in Toronto, Kingston, Ottawa, Sharbot Lake…and during these visits we talked, with satisfying bouts of being quiet together, listening to coyotes howl, watching for bear prints on the beach.

island at moosoneelen building a fire

I especially loved our time in Moosonee, I reveled in the the clean fresh air, in our canoe trips on the river, flights over James Bay; I was spoiled by Asheurias, the wonderful cook for the people who worked with Len. Ash would say, Eat it all up, maid, and present me with enough Newfoundland-style cooking to feed the whole town. And Len and I talked into the small hours.

I wish I had some physical record of more of his stories: the one about a criminal wearing a suit, and carrying only a suitcase who’d come through Hebron and stayed with him briefly; a tale of how the crew of the Nascopie once stole a goose he’d roasted at Hebron that showed another side of his usual peaceful nature; of the Inuit man whose wife needed delicate care that only Len could provide; his own story of his courting of Muriel, their long love and the bringing up of their children. And many stories of Hebron, one of the places he hoped to show me one day. (I got there in 2005, five years after he had died.) One thing we never talked about was our own dying: I was unprepared for his.


this is where you lived
among hebron’s hills
here the garden
the graveyard
its picket fence

Several times I nearly died while I was in Vanuatu, and there were many times he could have died on his postings. I never told him of my encounters with the Grim Reaper, nor did he regale me with his. If he mentioned, as he did in a letter quoted in Arctic Twilight, some glitch with his heart, it was a humorous recounting, after the fact. If he had outraced an avalanche, that was merely a lucky victory over the bleak fellow in the hoodie. Our own demise wasn’t a subject to be avoided; it just didn’t seem that important. Neither of us was afraid of it, neither attached any importance to philosophizing about what happens after death.

He worried more about suffering, but it was the suffering of others he lamented. He worried more about what was happening to all those in small communities in Labrador, the conditions they were living under, the alcoholism, the young peoples’ suicides.

at saglek harbour
no one left now
to listen for
the almost noiseless feet
of caribou on muskeg

In Ottawa in the mid nineties, we were visiting a friend of his, a brilliant and well-known elderly anthropologist, to hear his views on an early version of Arctic Twilight. Afterwards we went to what was still called The Museum of Civilization, in Hull. Cardinal’s curving building meant to him the snowy Mealy Mountains in Labrador where he had often hunted. Some of these experiences are in Arctic Twilight, but I remember particularly two things about that afternoon. The first is that after we took in the totem poles and the exhibit of the Eastern Aboriginal culture, after he spent a long time with a York boat that brought people and goods to places like Fort Garry near Winnipeg, he seemed tired. It was the first time I had ever seen him tired.

like your brother max
who once walked
across Labrador
to enlist
your boundless energy

He was about eighty years old, yet it took me by surprise. In my mind he had always been energy personified, a person who got up every morning at 5:30 and did useful things until he went to bed. The useful things included writing letters to friends, to anyone who wrote to him. He wrote stories, sending several to Them Days Magazine in Goose Bay, Labrador, and he wrote letters to the editors of the Whig Standard newspaper and The Beaver magazine to comment on mistakes that ‘those idiots’ had published without sufficient research.

in this small cave
you ate with a friend
it was dark
all you could see were
his strong inuit teeth

His home in St. Boniface was spotless and cared for; after Muriel became ill, he took on the responsibilities for all aspects of taking care of the house. He had a wonderful garden with incredible produce, and he planted, weeded, and harvested produce from the fertile soil of a younger daughter’s garden on a farm outside Winnipeg, looked after his grandchildren as often as he could. He had lunch with his old-timer friends from The Hudson’s Bay Company, and kept an office at the Company’s main headquarters for years after his retirement. He visited with his Mennonite and Ukrainian friends.

len and Muriel on board ship

Muriel had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and was often in pain from arthritis; there were hospital visits, home visits; he himself had some heart problems but despite tests and drop-ins at the cardiologist office, he kept on going. He liked a clean house so he vacuumed and washed floors and did laundry. He made jam, preserved fruit. Wild cranberries meant dozens of jars of jelly, and he helped as much as possible in the kitchen, especially on clean-up. His driveways were shoveled before full daylight, and he helped with his neighbours’ shoveling too. In spring, he’d be off to the Marsh to see spring happen there.

storm clouds lift
on the beach at iron strand
roseroot sedum glistens
the shorewater

But at the museum he was a little slower than usual, happy to sit with a coffee. He did, though, want to see the Arctic exhibit. This is the other important thing I remember from that day. When we entered the exhibit, there was a long wall with life-sized photographs of some Inuit, smiling at the camera, as if in welcome.

Well there’s ( an Inuit name)…!, Len said, his face brightening. And there’s his brother, and his father, giving their Inuktitut names. He named several others on the wall, and since my memory is not anywhere near what his was, I don’t remember the names or what else he told me about these friends of his that graced the Arctic Exhibit. I wasn’t surprised that he knew their names, or these people.

the last man to come up
and grin in my face
not letting on to the spirits
about my journey

Hindsight is a grand thing, he would have said, but only years afterwards I thought Why weren’t the names of these people there identifying them. Of course, that day, I didn’t think to write the
names down, or suggest we get the Museum to put their names with the photos. Probably only Len knew who these men were, and it was a bad slip-up on my part not to have done so.

in this small cave
you ate with coonera
it was dark
all you could see were
his strong inuit teeth

Perhaps it was part of policy, or just habit, that names of native peoples were not recorded. I never could find out the name of a native person in a photograph of Len’s father when he was a young Servant of the Bay at Davis Inlet, although the native figured as large as George Budgell did in the photo. Since Len himself was a very small boy at the time of the photo, he didn’t know either.

George Budgell and an Inuit man

This is the photo of George Budgell, Len’s father, taken around 1927. Afterwards I saw that in so many archive photos, whether in the National Library, The Manitoba or The Hudson’s Bay Archives, even the Labrador Archives in The Rooms in St. John’s, only the names of the white people were noted.


Here is his great Hudson’s Bay friend, W.E.Brown, whose story runs through Arctic Twilight. (Brown had been a Mountie in the North before starting his career with The Bay.) Len never saw this image, but he would say that ‘Buster’ Brown would have known the names of most of the people with him here. I never saw Len with a camera, though he didn’t mind being photographed. He didn’t need an image to help him remember, and perhaps he felt that by isolating one moment, he would not remember other details associated with it.

Leonard remembered all the names of those he had dealings with, especially people like Millik whom he respected and cared about, making no distinction as to whether they were native. In fact, a person interested him more if he or she were native. Every single one was an important person, no one more important than the next. There are some who would have wished he hadn’t remembered their names, for he never forgot those who acted unethically, especially if they were Hudson’s Bay employees, historians, writers or publishers who had not done their research in the history of, or the vessels owned by, the Hudson’s Bay Company.

millik was big for an eskimo
competent and honest and powerful
his face would break up
up into a hundred
heart-warming smiles

Once when he was visiting me, having arrived in Kingston by train from Toronto, my car broke down and a tow truck called. He had to be lifted by the driver into its cab for the ride to the garage, and in my home, he wasn’t jumping up to make tea or suggesting that we walk in the woods. When on his return trip, a porter who saw he had difficulty getting into the train suggested he have a wheelchair waiting in Toronto, he shook his head. Of course he wouldn’t need one, yet in his next phone call he admitted that he wished he had said yes to that plan, that the station had seemed very big to walk across that evening. But he hadn’t talked about his pain; it was as if he figured if he didn’t mention it, it didn’t exist.

you hunted
in that time of famine
shot one
thin fox
and gave it away

Early December of 2000, I got a phone call from Len’s youngest daughter saying that he’d been operated on for a hip replacement, but that he’d gone into a coma. Of course, he hadn’t let me know that he was going to have the procedure. He wouldn’t have me worry. He’d let me know once it was all over. I asked if she would go in and tell him that Claudia says she loves you.

The next day, a second call. Her father had not survived.

I did as you asked, she said….We’re so glad that you were in his life.

According to his wishes, his ashes were scattered in Labrador over the graves of his parents. If he’d thought it possible, he would have loved to lie on the Iron Strand of Labrador where I found a grave heaped with stones. He most likely knew of this grave, and might have thought, as I did:

whoever is in this stone grave
how i envy him
he will never have to leave
the labrador
or these sunsets

glacier worn mountains
one behind the other
you spent many an evening
absorbing the order
in this solitude


Country of Contradictions

Students help clean up and repair their high school, Nabangasale Junior Secondary School on on the island of Tongoa. (photo Vanuatu Daily Post, May 11, 2015)

vanuatu daily post, april 15thCreativity expert Sir Ken Robinson challenges the way we’re educating our children. He believes we should cultivate creativity and acknowledge multiple types of intelligence. In today’s schools, he asks, in a Ted presentation, who gets all the brownie points, where are the winners.

On many islands Vanuatu schools temporarily don’t exist anymore.  They were blown away.  Houses are gone, water tanks destroyed, stored crops scattered.  The people need salt, soap, cement to repair rain storage tanks,  water purification tablets, electricity.  Matches.  Corrugated iron.  water, water, water. Fishing boats need repairs, roads need reconstruction, and schools, schools, schools.

Years ago, even such a cyclone would not have been so materially disastrous.  The people expected these storms almost yearly. They knew the signs, they knew to hide in caves, they knew how to build houses in safer areas with roofs low to the ground, how to prepare and store breadfruit for storage underground, where to put the chickens, how to secure the pigs. It was a non-money society, no mortgage, no school fees, few stores.

Cyclone Pam struck at the heart of things – their newly acquired connections to material things. Cell phone and internet links were down. Now that these media are back in operation, things can quickly go back to normal, because life in Vanuatu now depends on money. Even the poorest Ni-Vanuatu will be needing money for school fees.  Others need it for work, or to pay for internet and cellphone plans.  Digicel Vanuatu predicts that by 2017, 98% of Ni-Vanuatu people will have access to cellphones. There will be no place in the South Pacific, a last stronghold, where peace, where silence, can reign.

And in recent developments, the government headed by PM Kilman will “not hesitate to support responsible legislations to control the media”. We can add this problem to rising crime rates (many arrests for crimes to do with marijuana!!!, hard to imagine in a land where cheap kava, much more hallucinatory, is widely available), unstable politics, corruption at all levels, and an economic dependence on tourism. The cyclone has put paid temporarily to the  Amelbati Cannibal Site Tour, The Vanuatu Jungle Zipline, the Kuskus bat tour, the Louniel Beach and Waterfall tour among others.

On the other hand, the country retains its uniqueness. Where else would the courts still be ruling on witchcraft cases, putting the guilty in jail for 15 years. Where else would a man dig up his yam, safe from the hurricane as it had been ‘gestating’ underground for nine months, discovering the metre-long root to have human features, and two arms.

So who has won since we interlopers took over. We, the countries who invest and intrude, seem to have all the brownie points and the Ni-Vanuatu  don’t seem to be winners. Yet.

I have faith in this smiling island people.  Underneath the trappings, underneath trying to join the modern world, there is a great respect for common sense ways, and for the traditional ways.  Okay, I’ll take off the rosy-lensed glasses; the world is advancing on Vanuatu, and it’s too late to save some of the good things.


Writing on Writing and Vanuatu

Cyclone Vanuatu (2015, catkin press) A very small book of tanka about Vanuatu and Cyclones.

draft 2 cyclone coverI was in Vanuatu for several years as a CUSO volunteer and had the opportunity to visit many islands and stay in many villages.  I was there through two major hurricanes as these storms were labelled at the time.

rob mclennan, ottawa publisher and writer, asked me ages ago if I would write a piece for his ongoing On Writing series, and yes, I promised to do that. Yet despite many starts, the thing just wouldn’t get going.  (perhaps this will finally be a start, rob…)

Early this year I started to write poems about Vanuatu. Few had ever heard of this South Pacific country until Cyclone Pam in March.  I think it’s difficult for us, pampered and protected as we are, secure in our technological ‘advanced’ societies, to imagine the devastation in such a country. We are better equipped to understand the destruction in a caribbean country like Haiti, one that we, or someone we know, has visited. A country that is somewhat like ours. After all, a former Governor General of Canada was born there.

Vanuatu is so different from us geologically, societally, linguistically. It is very far away, on the other side of the world. I’ve been in touch with linguists from Tanna, looking for details about the local languages there, to use in a series of prose pieces that, hopefully, will form the structure to the poem series. Vanuatu has over a hundred distinct languages, as well as the three official languages of French, English and Bislama, but it is the indigenous languages that fascinate me. the island of Tanna, known for yasur, its live volcano, itself has very many languages. The more linguists share their knowledge of such languages with me, the more intrigued I am. The more I would be a linguist in another life.  Or not. But speaking this morning with other Canadian poet/linguists, the fascination has been fertilized. Hopefully that garden will prove more productive than my actual gardens this year, will produce words that will produce lines that will have meaning and perhaps understandable syntax…