Lyrical essays bring musings on family, travel and more
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In the opening preface to Blue Portugal & Other Essays, B.C. author Theresa Kishkan indicates that she is not interested at all in the traditional forms of an essay. Her new book proves that beyond the shadow of a doubt.
Abandoning the traditional essay (i.e., “a formal container of critical analysis”), Kishkan instead chooses to record “the activity of human thought in real time.” So, her essays are not necessarily logical, definitive or perfectly clear in their intentions. They can be a gentle challenge.
With novels, poetry collections, and several books of essays to her credit (she has published 12 other books so far), Kishkan is a prolific, perceptive and gifted writer. Never forgetting her poetic roots, her mind works metaphorically — linking disparate but connectable things in revealing ways.
In Anatomy of a Button, for instance, Kishkan interweaves an account of her experience as a quilter, clothes-maker and button collector with the scary time when she developed a detached retina and saw the button-like surgical scars on her retinas when they were healed. A very brief history of buttons anchors the essay.
Similarly, in the fifth chapter, How Rivers Break Away and Meet Again, she compares rivers to the veins in the human body. She begins by confessing that she’s a reader of atlases and anatomy books. She then briefly recounts her own history of blood problems (following a blood clot in a leg vein) and her progress through therapy. Interspersed between short episodes in this narrative are musings on rivers that are important to her — an ancestral river in Czechia, the river Seine when she quarreled with her husband and the Fraser River of her home province.
Rivers are a constant touchstone for her. In The River Door she travels in search of the plot of land where her father once briefly lived near the Red Deer River in Drumheller, Alta. At the time — during the Spanish Flu epidemic after First World War I — her grandparents were squatters there whose land was summarily appropriated by the government. Only residents of British descent were allowed to bid on potential home sites. Her father and others fled across the river to places unknown. Writing during the recent COVID-19 pandemic, Kishkan explains that she has “learned a patience that keeps me awake at night, hoping for their company.”
Although Blue Portugal & Other Essays is not formally a memoir, Kishkan’s own travels and searches form the backbone of many of the essays. These travels are prompted by her curiosity about where her ancestors came from in eastern Europe, how and why they came to North America and where they stopped along the way.
She finds out some things, but, definitively, not enough. She realizes finally that she must use, for instance, the letters of Canadian artist William Kurelek to get a hint at what life for her own relatives was all about. They are reduced to “short syllables in the stories of others.”
Although she is quite knowledgeable and regularly includes information from outside sources, Kishkan is not interested in presenting disquisitions. Her chapter Blueprints, for instance, includes background information on how they began. But in it she confesses that she just loves the colour blue, and it is one of the many motifs woven throughout the fabric of this collection.
The chapter on blueprints, like the others, is divided into sections somewhat like stanzas in a long poem, some given their own page. And some sections are even indented like poetic lines. This gives the overall impression that the book mimics the tentative musings of a lyrical mind at work rather than the conclusions of a fixed thinker.
Blue Portugal & Other Essays is a book to be savoured, like poetry, not directly learned from.
Gene Walz is a Winnipeg writer who would also like to know more about his ancestors.