This poem, which deals with my parents’ emigration from the Netherlands and the benefits that has bestowed on me, is the fourth of the fourth Taxonomy, “The Waterways of Avalon,” of my book Caravaggio’s Dagger.
The poem can be listened to here.
It was written between 28 April 2004 and 16 November 2008 in Vancouver (British Columbia), St. Stephen (New Brunswick), Edmundston (New Brunswick), and North Conway (New Hampshire) and was first published in the new quarterly (Waterloo, Ontario), 120, 126 (2011).
The epigraph, spoken by Antipholus of Syracuse, is from Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, I.ii.30-31:
Farewell till then. I will go lose myself,
And wander up and down to view the city.
In the post-war Netherlands of 1950 and 1951, I was a very young child in the old university town of Leiden. Many days, my mother took me with her when she went out from the house for daily groceries, to be purchased from the small family-owned shops nearby. My father also worked in one of the shops of this kind, 5 1/2 days a week as a barber; but his employment was in neighbouring Oegstgeest, and so I saw him less.
I was an inquisitive child, asked innumerable questions to exact adult explanations, and must have impeded my mother reaching her destinations by this constancy of behaviour. We always walked, and always she would hold my hand, her left in my right; and this closeness is one of my warmest and most disarming of memories; my mother so much, so high, above me, looking down; and the cobbles of the street, as if looking up at me, another of the anchors of my existence—the stones of the Levendaal often filmed over with the moisture that drifted inland, overhead and along the canals, from the North Sea.
I began the poem in late April of 2004, when I lived in Vancouver’s West End. As part of a cycle of studying anew all of Shakespeare, I had been reading and watching performances of Romeo and Juliet. Indeed, it was a particularly fine part of the year to come to this play of love found and lost, for in the rhododendron gardens of Stanley Park, which was a few moments from my apartment, a magnolia was in fresh bloom with petals so deeply red that the sunlight seemed to make them purple—an extraordinary hue; and the first of the orange rhododendrons were coming into bloom.
At this time as well, I read Henri van der Zee’s compelling 1982 book The Hunger Winter: Occupied Holland 1944-5. My mother had endured the hongerwinter in Leiden, and my father had remained in hiding somewhere in the countryside after escaping from a German labour camp, during the 1943 firestorm, created by the RAF and USAAF during the ten days of Operation Gomorrah, that pulverised and incinerated Hamburg. I could not even imagine the sufferings that my parents, and those they were near, endured.
I had also, at that time, reached The Reformation, the sixth volume of Will Durant’s eleven part The Story of Civilization, and had come to the section on the Spanish Inquisition:
Did the Inquisition succeed? Yes, in attaining its declared purpose—to rid Spain of open heresy. The idea that the persecution of beliefs is always ineffective is a delusion; it crushed the Albigensians and Huguenots in France, the Catholics in Elizabethan England, the Christians in Japan…. Both the Inquisition and the witch-burning [in Protestant northern Europe and New England] were expressions of an age afflicted with homicidal certainty in theology, as the patriotic massacres of our era may be due to homicidal certainty in ethnic or political theory. We must try to understand such movements in terms of their time, but they seem to us now the most unforgivable of historic crimes. A supreme and unchallengeable faith is a deadly enemy to the human mind. (p. 216)
In July of 1952 my parents emigrated to Canada. We arrived in this country at Pier 21 in Halifax, and boarded the train from Halifax to Ottawa. My wife and I replicated a large part of this journey, which wanders through rural New Brunswick and ancient Québec, by train from Moncton to Ottawa, in October, 2007, and by visiting Pier 21, in Halifax, in May of 2008.
My parents reached Ottawa’s old Union Station in the dead of a July night, knowing what the past had held and not knowing what the future might. Yet, in short and due course, we were housed in a flat on Argyle Street, just off Elgin, and near the Rideau Canal; and from there, they built the third form of their lives. And I was liberated to begin my wanderings throughout a remarkable new language and throughout a country for which I have yet to find an emotional equal..