Yes. No. For Phyllis Webb by Smaro Kamboureli. On the occasion of the launch of Peacock Blue, The Collected Poems edited by John Hulcoop, Talonbooks, Vancouver, October 2014

Yes. No. For Phyllis

Good afternoon.
I would like to start by acknowledging that I am on unceded Coast Salish territory.
I’d like to express my appreciation to Brian Brett for organizing this session, and giving me the opportunity to say a few words about Phyllis Webb.
I don’t know what magic wand John Hulcoop waved over Phyllis, but I want to congratulate him on making her say “yes.” She can truly be one stubborn woman. Many of us tried to make her say “yes” over the years—yes to a volume of her collected poetry—but to no avail. And now, to echo her voice from “Earth descending” and “Imperfect Sestina,” “Well, yes, dammit,” here it is! And “oh, yes, there is illumination!” So, thank you, John Hulcoop. What a marvelous book, what a special occasion!
Is there a shadow following the
hand that writes
always? or for the left-handed
I cannot write with my right.

I grasp what I can. The rest
Is a great shadow.

Nevertheless, when the boat
moves through the islands
pushes clumsily into the dock
another chapter is written
shadow moves up the gang
plank with us is Chapter
7, 11, 13?
Peacock Blue 215)

This is one of the poems in
Wilson’s Bowl that Phyllis called a poem of “failure.” If this is a failure, then it is failure not as a dead end but as consummation beyond measure, failure not as a fiasco but as the difference that emerges between the kind of sculpted poem that harnesses desire and the poem that lays bare—mercilessly, saliently so—the violence that writing can be.

In another poem of failure, she writes:
. . . One
more day run round and the “good masterpiece of work”
does not come. I scribble. I approach some distant dream.
I wait for moonlight reflecting on the night sea. I can
wait. We shall see.
The Kropotkin Poems, 1967
Peacock Blue 223)

Am I ever grateful for her patience.

I wrote a review of
Wilson’s Bowl. I think it must have been my first or second publication ever. I was still an MA student, still a new immigrant, not yet fully tutored in things CanLit. I hadn’t met Phyllis yet but her reputation had preceded her. There was an aura surrounding her name when it was spoken. Still is.

In my review I wrote about the tension between silence and writing, the paradoxical celebration of the poet’s defeat by literature
and victory over writing. Literature and writing—these are not necessarily reducible to each other. I wrote about her introduction to that sequence of poems, an introduction that is anchored, as John Hulcoop reminds us in his own introduction, in Roland Barthes’ words from Α Lover’s discourse:

Barthes: “I am too big and too weak for writing. I am alongside it, for writing is dense, violent, indifferent to the infantile ego that solicits it.”

And Phyllis in response: “I don’t think I could ever myself have explained the blood-line with such precision. My poems are born out of great struggles of silence. This book has been long in coming. Wayward, natural and unnatural silences, my desire for privacy, my critical hesitations, my critical wounds, my dissatisfactions with myself and the work have all contributed to a strange gestation.”

What an incredible and ambivalent gesture this introduction performs.
Wilson’s Bowl starting with a scene of reading, the poet as reader, self-reading, relentlessly critical, exacting perfection, yet, thankfully, off the mark: trying to tell the reader how to read, inviting affirmation as judgment, yet failing to persuade us that these poems are failures. Far far from it.

As I wrote in my review, “Webb’s language is not impatient in spite of her long waiting for the writing act to occur. The blood-line signals the limits of her silence, silence not as a vacuum in abeyance of ful-fillment, but as a plenum of raw language filled with intimations of poems to come. When the writing act diminishes silence, the poet does indeed deserve a celebration: and then the reader as critic—that other writer—is compelled to bow before the magnificence of her words, throw away any preconceptions of the good masterpieces of literature and embrace her own silence in front of the exactitude of the poet’s words. The real poems of failure are the poems (the breaths) that do not want to abandon the body: the hive within, enveloped in the skin; the shoreline, soreline of the body as poem.”

It was before my review appeared that I laid eyes on Phyllis for the first time, circa late 70s. It was on a coach bus chartered to transfer a group of literatis from Calgary to Banff. I don’t recall what the occasion was. But I do recall a kind of hush spreading around the bus when this tall woman ascended the few steps. Her hair in a seemingly casually put-together chignon—how can a chignon look both bohemian and elegant, really? Well, it did. And she was wrapped in a hand-woven mohair cape in my favorite colours—shades of purple. (As I was to discover, purple was her favourite colour too.) I was transfixed. Especially by her fingers. She sat on the other side of the aisle from me, and I shy—yes, I can be shy on occasion—kept my eyes lowered, my gaze on her long fingers, the abstract choreographies they drew in the air as she spoke in that sexy voice of hers. And her rings! What was that one? A ring with a clock on it, or was it a compass? This was the woman that had written
Naked Poems—infinitely better and more lasting that those so-called good masterpieces of literature. The poet who can translate failure into illumination. The utter beauty of nakedness. The terror of the truth that nakedness unmasks.

It was after our second encounter, this time in Winnipeg, that we began to correspond, and thus started a relationship that evolved into deep friendship especially after I moved to Victoria in the late 1980s.

How do you befriend a legend? Well, you don’t. You don’t because you gradually learn to remove the layers of myth that say more about those who have constructed them than those they are about. (Frank Davey, eat your words.)
Phyllis was not a recluse (one of the myths). A private person, profoundly so, yes, but a recluse? No. Phyllis enjoys spending time with her friends, and she treasures the pleasure of lasting friendships. You may not believe this, but she can really be a party girl—at least in a party of two or three. Many times we got tipsy over scotch and champagne, laughed, event planned to paint the town red wearing hats. I still have two of her hats that she gave me: a red fedora with a black ribbon, simple yet festive, and a gorgeous one, a lovely shade of—what else—lavender, with a wide brim, satin ribbon, and velvet trim. When I wear it, I pretend I can approximate her quiet elegance, her commanding presence.
Nobody who has her kind of deeply seated social conscience can be a recluse or remain silent for long. If anything, I continue to be amazed by how informed she is, how caring, how much she keeps pace with the times.
I have learned over the years that she can be—she has been to me, and I know to others too—a most loyal and generous friend. She is the only person I often call when I am away from home, especially when I am inspired by abandon or I am a bit depressed. And she began a tradition years ago, when I started to live alone, calling my house while I was away on a trip to leave a voice message—Welcome home, Smaro—so I never come back to an empty house.
My house is full of her paintings and collages. When I pass by them, my fingers often brush over their rich texture. Further evidence that silence for Phyllis has been a process of transformation, a constant movement, more recently from the page to the canvas. And
Peacock Blue brings her poetry and painting together.
Yes. No. Two words are better than one during the para-
digm shift. Spit and hold your finger to the wind. Which
was is blowing? Is blowing the lid off your head? Is prose.
(from “Anaximander,” Peacock Blue 401)
It doesn’t make a difference what it is. Her “yes” and her “no” embrace—like the two arms of a parenthesis—the paradigm shift we must week to both introduce ambivalence and learn to live with it, contain it. Not “Yes and No”—this would have been too wishy-washy for Phyllis—but “Yes. No.” Affirmation and negation not cancelling each other out but each staking their ground, creating a precarious balance, ultimately defying mastery without recuperating what mastery has erased: living in what she calls “parenthetical ways” (Nothing But Brush Strokes 105).
Phyllis begins her essay “Phyllis Webb’s
Canada” by recalling a 1969 art event: the artist
Vazan dr[awing] a crescent line by walking along a sandy beach at low tide in Victoria, P.E.I., while another artist walked a similar line along the British Columbia shores. “Of course,” said Vazan, “when the tide changed, the water erased my crescent line, but for a whole day we had Canada in parentheses.”
If reading about this event makes “something joyfully tumble[] over” Phyllis, it is because “we are all caught in the embrace of those inhibiting arms.” The “magic” of that event for her, as she put it, “was the psychological revelation that once we see, feel, and make external the bind we’re in, the tides can come in and wash it away.” Yes. No. “(The tides can also come in and wash us away)” (105).
They may be inhibiting those arms but they can also stroke, caress, hold; and when they open up—yes, release; no, the longing begins—they gesture beyond the space they embraced, “feathering the elements of desire” (
Peacock Blue 119), “dazzling all questions / out of me, amazement / and outbreathing” (PC 254).

Thank you, Phyllis.

© 2014 Smaro Kamboureli

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