I AM writing this from a hotel room high above the streets of Calgary, that strange splinter of Texas embedded in the heart of Canada. This is not the season for the Calgary Stampede, but there are still rangey figures in Stetsons and cowboy boots striding through the freezing wind that channels down the canyons of those high-rise towers thrown skywards by oil money.
Happily, the horizon also holds the awe-inspiring profile of the distant Rocky Mountains, whose eternally snowy peaks were there before every human endeavour, and will be there when our towers have tumbled.
Meanwhile, though, I’m enjoying the Western flavour of this northern city. I’m in Canada for a tour, “Songs and Sonnets”, in which the Canadian singer-songwriter Steve Bell and I take turns at singing and reciting — though, happily for me, he has set a number of my poems to music, and so my recitation is followed by something more tuneful.
This tour also carries for me a personal pull and flow; for it started in Hamilton Ontario, exactly 50 years after my family arrived there in 1967, when I was ten. It was there that I spent my early teens. In the past few days, I have recovered many vivid memories of my childhood and youth: my first winter, which I thought would never end (I had been brought up in Africa); the purchase of my first LP, a Bob Dylan classic, which I never wanted to end; my first guitar: a cheap plywood affair; and, stumbling along with its three chords, my first attempts at poetry.
Leaving Canada had somehow sealed or frozen all these memories. Now, on the return of the native, they have been released.
I found again a trail I used to hike into a steep ravine and across a narrow bridge over a little creek. It was all still there, a little smaller, but also sharply focused, utterly familiar, and poignant. I stood on the bridge and watched the creek flow by beneath me as I had done all those years ago. I knew somehow that all one’s life one is standing on another bridge, above the stream of time.
For, as Geoffrey Hill says in one of his beautiful Tenebrae sonnets, we “stay amidst the things that will not stay”. Everything flows through us and from us. Each moment comes towards us, freighted with its unique burden of beauty and sorrow, yet somehow still afloat, carried perilously along the stream of time; it comes mysteriously, and mysteriously it goes, slipping away beneath and behind us almost before we’ve seen it.
And yet we remain. Here we still are on the strange bridge of our selfhood, our mysterious I-am-ness, watching the river flow.
As I — a grey-haired man whom my ten-year-old self would not have recognised — stood there on that little bridge in Calgary, I knew that I could still recognise him, and that, indeed, he was still with me on the bridge. I knew that, when I climbed back up the ravine and back on the road for this tour, something of that ten-year-old’s quick eye, his bright energy, and his immense longing would be alive in me again.