Abbotsford (Part 4 of “Homestead: Venturing into the Poetics of Place”)

"Communiqué," an online exclusive from CV2, takes you behind the drafting of Michelle Elrick's new poetry manuscript in a series of place-specific writings titled "Homestead: Venturing into the Poetics of Place."

Sound travels up from the foot of the mountain, along gentle carvings of switchback and grade, to the rock-terraced garden below the balcony where I sit. A young doe and buck paw cool, red beds in the cedar mulch, then kneel and lie under the Japanese maple. Their ears move like small, articulating satellites: weed whacker, school bell, the raw wind chasing trucks on the byway. I moved through this morning by rote: ate breakfast, stepped out to the balcony, drank tea in the sun. Now, I recline in the heat and listen to the valley while the sun beats down. Abbotsford says "hush, sit, tan" and I do, because that is what I have always done here, on days like today. I turn my head and press my nose into my shoulder. The scent opens memory like a catalogue. Flashes of past summer days interrupt the moment, and for a convincing instant I am stretched out on the padded lounger reading Nancy Drew, and then/again spritzing my hair with lemon water to help the sun bleach the colour, and then/again I am watching my sister ice her arms with oil, flip to her stomach and perform 20-minute repositions of straps and strings. 

It has been two years since my last summer visit to this 1970s split-level house on St. Moritz Way. Plenty has changed, on the surface, at least. The house has undergone an extensive renovation where walls were removed, the kitchen relocated, new windows, flooring and an entertainment system installed. Now I struggle to find utensils in the new kitchen and have little luck choosing the appropriate light switch for dimming the island pendants, yet my sense of this place as home persists amid the new decor and I find myself dismissing the visible changes as inconsequential. This is still home, even if it looks different. It’s home because it always was. It was and has been. I remember it as home, and now, here, I know it as home. Still, I wonder how this place became home and how it has risen as a standard of “home-feeling” against which I’ve measured all other places I’ve lived or visited. 

I remember the first time I walked through this house, back when it still belonged to someone else. There was a peek-through gap at the side of the third stair down as you made your way into the lower levels. The gap provided a small glimpse of the workshop below. I crouched on the stairs and looked through, imagining Dad down there, working. After this first encounter, the secret peephole was “the house” for me. It was the one place where I had sensually engaged: knees pressed into the stiff berber carpet, hands cupped around my sight at the peep-hole, wood scent, workshop dust, waiting/wishing for the moment when he would be there, when I could be a spy. The experience was recorded in my memory and became the first referent of a budding sense of here as home. 

With this, as with all other place encounters, bodily apprehension only accounts for the momentary experience of dwelling. Sensing place, however, goes beyond encounter. As my mind perceives place as phenomenon, it also combs through the catalogue of past experiences, weighing the new against the remembered. Where there is resonance, I feel at home. Where there is none, I feel estranged. Here, the estrangement is superficial—hardwood instead of carpet, grey stucco instead of white—and the overwhelming feeling of home saturates my experience to the point of inducing habit: tea, book, tan. On the other hand, in completely foreign places (as here once was) the mind works from a saturated experience of novelty, collating the strange into a type in order to build a referent that can be drawn upon as memory. New becomes known, known becomes home. Between memory and phenomenon the essence of home emerges over time, developing with each new experience. 

Knowing this only complicates the task of writing home. If I rely on my memories of past phenomenological encounters I end up writing memoir, crafting a narrative path through the past, building causal relationships between events in order to imbue life with meaning or, at least, continuity. This technique gives a hindsight view of my relationship with place. My real interest is actually the bodily memoir, which is the story of encounter, of momentary engagement between self and world. To truly document place I must be in it, and observe myself engaging with it. To sit on the balcony and tan, and to note that here, I tan. That being said, if I rely on the moment alone, writing only the strictest documentation of my present encounter, I end up with lyrical snapshots that may succeed in capturing place in time, but say little about how the place resonates, or of its essence. Somewhere within and between these two approaches exists a poetic of place as dynamic, relational. 

I study my skin, marked with fine wrinkles and white dots of lost pigment. Squint. Adjust my heels on the tack of hot vinyl decking. Hear the ivy rustle below as the doe moves toward the cedars. This is a resonant moment. Even so, here, now, has no precedent. My mind can recall memories of a host of similar past encounters, but not this one. Now requires an immediate, creative response—one that will be added to the archive and make its contribution to my sense of what this place is and how I relate to it. In this light, home appears to be nothing more than a catchphrase for the arena of the self becoming. Becoming, in a multi-relational, multi-dimensional space where records are kept and read.

Here I sit. I sit and read, just like I used to do here. I sit and read something I’ve never read before on a balcony overlooking a garden of new leaves. Once wild deer feast in the garden below on a landscaped smorgasbord of succulent perennials and designer shrubs. They don’t run when a car passes by on the street below. Place domesticates. Sun on my skin, the scent of my skin perspiring in the sun.

Published online November 12 2015.

Michelle Elrick is the author of To Speak and creator of “Notes from the Fort: a poetic of inhabited space.” Her new poetry manuscript, then/again, documents new and once intimate places toward a fresh, lyrical encounter with the essence of home. For more on this project visit www.notesfromthefort.com.

Communiqué cover image

This piece is part of ‘Communiqué,’ a CV2 web exclusive.