My favorite book of poetry is not a book of the conventional sort, not one I can hold in my hand, nor read online. It is, nonetheless, the poetry anthology of my earliest memory, containing the poems which helped to shape my life. Unprofessional, incomplete, and wildly random as this anthology was, I trace every poem I have ever read or ever written back to this collection. This ‘book’ was composed of the fragmentary poems which my mother held in her memory.
My mother was educated, if such a word be appropriate, in a one-room schoolhouse in the rural prairie region of central Canada. There one teacher struggled to control a varied group of children of all ages, with only a small portion of any teaching time being dedicated to each grade daily. Inevitably, there were long periods of inactivity between lessons and assigned work, and my mother found refuge in the tiny collection of books owned by the school. She read and re-read the few books of poems many times, until the words found their way into her memory, creating a singular anthology which filled her childish dreams.
Decades later, childhood dreams were replaced by the pragmatics of raising four children of her own, yet to assuage the boredom of housework, she often recited poems from this ‘book’ in her mind while hoovering or cooking. It was many years before I realized that all children’s mothers didn’t do this, to me it had been normal for the Lady of Shalott to be in our home, or for the adventures of Horatius defending Rome at the narrow way to be declaimed. There were, however, often pages missing from the anthology in my mother’s memory, and I was left asking what happened when Horatius flung himself into the river beseeching the Tiber, ‘A Roman’s life, a Roman’s arms, / Take thou in charge this day!’. Thus was laid a pattern of learning, when I was compelled to search the local library for the full text of this or another poem. Lacking even the author’s name, and in those days before the ease of Google searching on the internet, my quest took me through so many volumes of poetry that I nearly forgot my original purpose in the wealth of verse which I discovered. Indeed, to the present day, I still stumble across a poem, a verse of which will suddenly sound in my mother’s voice — and I find that another missing page has been restored in her personal anthology.
In the eulogy I gave at my mother’s funeral, I recalled her love for poetry and recited a portion of her favorite poem ‘Ulysses’ by Tennyson. In those words live both the hero Ulysses and Tennyson himself, but there my mother still lives also. Because of this ‘book’ of poetry in my mother’s memory, in my life poetry has not been merely literature or entertainment or a subject for study in school — it is the living connection between myself, my mother, and everyone who has ever read and loved any particular poem. And I think my life would have been the poorer, if not for the knowledge that ‘With weeping and with laughter / Still the story is told, / How well Horatius kept the bridge / In the brave days of old.’
[**A shorter version of this piece has originally appeared in the writing magazine MsLexia.]