”I live with my family in a temperate rainforest near Sakinaw Lake, which was once an inlet on the ragged coastline of British Columbia’s great Inside Passage.” This first line in the first essay in Theresa Kishkan’s new collection, Phantom Limb (Thistledown Press, $17.95), contains many of Kishkan’s touchstones: her attention to place, particularly the less-trodden parts of our province; her dedication to family (husband John Pass, the poet and publisher, and three kids, now grown); her precision; and her attention to the past.
In conversation, Kishkan–known for novels, poetry, and the masterful essay collection Red Laredo Boots–says curiosity fuels her nonfiction. “I head into them wanting to find something out,” she says by phone from her family home in Madeira Park. “So I do puzzle through step by step, though there are lots of little side roads and so on, too. I guess I want that to come across, the idea that I’m puzzling through and investigating and pursuing something.”
Some of that puzzling has to do with aligning seemingly unrelated ideas. In one piece, “An Autobiography of Stars”, Kishkan uses images from astronomy, quilting, nature, and mapmaking to consider parenthood. She sees her newborn daughter in the definition of a meteor: a “small body rendered momentarily luminous by friction on entering the atmosphere of earth”; she writes of quilting as metaphor for “a poetry of texture and anecdote, a guide to migration and continuity”.
Quilting suits the suggestive abutment of ideas and images. In conversation, Kishkan agrees: “You accumulate these things that you then put together side by side, or front to back, or top to bottom, and try to figure out the best pattern for them. You know the elements you want to work with, but you don’t necessarily know the final pattern until you accumulate the pieces.”
Another essay, “Paperweight”, uses the object of the title to frame the story of the difficult childhood of Kishkan’s mother. “It begins with my mother telling a little story that surprised me,” Kishkan explains. “I wrote a portion of that essay, and I knew it was important, I knew that the story that she told and the sense of her background and so on, was important. I didn’t really know what to do with it, and it stayed on my desk for maybe a year or two. And then John went on this trip and brought back this paperweight as a gift, and it suddenly led me into a whole other complex of images and ideas.”
The paperweight’s centre resembles an anemone, which leads to a discussion of humanity’s place in nature, since Kishkan writes “I think we are more deeply connected to nature than we would sometimes like to believe” and “I felt in those moments as though we were all one organism.”
”We are organisms,” she insists by phone. “And we do have a place out there. It’s not always the place that we think it is. I remember reading somewhere that purple sea urchins, which look like the most unrelated species to us, but we share 70 percent of our DNA with them.”¦I think we share 98 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees and 40 percent with fruit flies.”¦At least fruit flies have ears and eyes, but we have more in common with these little prickly creatures.”
We go from there to the elusive nature of meaning; to mapmaking and the stories that overlay geography; and to the reverberations that remain in places special to us.
”I hope that the essays aren’t simply quantitative,” Kishkan concludes. “I hope that what happens is that there is this qualitative thing that takes it beyond just being an itemizing experience.”