In the fall of 2003, as part of a pod of scientists, curators and photographers, I stalked the Bruce Peninsula for poems. Tape recorder hung on my left shoulder, camera case on right, digital camera strapped to wrist, microphone in left chest pocket, pen and notebook somewhere inbetween. Cords tangled and huge earphones compressed by wool toque. I didn’t want to miss anything. I returned home with five 90-minute tapes, one pocket and one letter-size notebook full of words, and hundreds of photos.
Later, I wondered why I couldn’t remember much. So I returned, alone. But words were slow in coming. The 450 million year old limestone, ferns, fens, cliffs and caves were visually stunning, but, as I kept saying to myself, “wordless.”
Only after touring the Burren in Ireland, did I discover the “ghazal,” a poetic form dating from 8th century Persia, and find a way back into language. Ghazals have been compared to polished diamonds, songs of unrequited love for something that is lost; drunken and amatory wanderings. The word “ghazal ”comes from the cry of the gazelle when it is cornered in the hunt and knows it is going to die.” It also means a conversation with the beloved.
A ghazal varies in length, from 5 to 12 couplets, called “shers.” “The link between couplets is a matter of tone, nuance: the poem has no palpable intention. It breaks, has to be listened to as a song: its order is clandestine!” (John Thompson, Still Jack – Ghazals). Not only that, but the couplets’ repeating patterns – two lines, a space, two lines – resemble grikes and clints, limestone formations of crevice and surround stone.
Ghazals also led me to a new way of writing – haiku-like, non-narrative, leaping from thought to thought. As demanding for the reader as the sparse limestone landscapes, where at first glance, you see “nothing but rock.” Only upon close looking do you discover a diverse, complex community within the ancient forms of barrens and ghazal.
I began to think of each couplet as a stone or thought picked from the infinite storehouses of beach and mind. With the ghazal form, I could rummage the universe, through landscape and language, aware of the underlying fractal order, however chaotic the evolution.
I was as much fascinated by how we relate to the land as the land itself. A biologist naming, hands tying a worm into knots. A photographer looking, three days without one photo. A writer without words, un-naming.
In responding to the limestone landscapes, I tried different ways of looking. Not only with words, but with image and sound, exploring what happens when the ghazals combine with representations of their sources of inspiration.
As David Suzuki says: “The way we see the world shapes the way we treat it. That is the challenge,” says Suzuki, “to look at the word from a different perspective.” Walking a limestone landscape, I discovered, is a very good way to start.