Jan Zwicky: The Long Walk
What do you really need on the long walk besides a humble, open mind and the courage to see?
by Amy Reiswig
(Poet and governor General's Literary Award winner Jan Zwicky moved to Quadra Island in 2012. This profile appeared in the Jan/Feb 2017 edition of Focus Magazine.)
Jan Zwicky (Photo by Pearl Pirie)
THE WINTER'S PEACE, stillness and slowly returning longer light make it the perfect time for the self-questioning poetry of Jan Zwicky’s newest collection The Long Walk (University of Regina Press). In it, she invites readers into that quietness of mind where we can—and must—look with love, humility and painful honesty at the dark we find both around and within us.
It’s fitting that the opening poem is called “Courage,” for like a stark winter landscape, Zwicky’s book is of harsh beauty, bringing challenge rather than comfort. Equally a paean to and elegy for a threatened planet, The Long Walkbegins with a sense of loss and of feeling lost:
And now you know that it won’t turn out as it should,
that what you did was not enough,
that ignorance, old evil, is enforced
and willed, and loved…
what will you do,
now that you sense the path unraveling
She answers with the call to “step closer to the edge, then./ You must look, heart. You must look.”
While Zwicky tells me the “you” is an address to herself—examining her own choices, actions, failures—the reader cannot help feel pulled along in that question to that same edge. We are, individually, like her, an “ordinary heart” with some important work to do.
What is it exactly that Zwicky is asking us to see? The devastated environment, yes—the impacts of “the charred sunlight we’ve bled/to feed our addictions, the seabed/we’ve guttered.” But also the culture and values that have allowed it to happen, that allow it to keep happening until, as she writes in the poem “Consummatum Est,” “It is finished.”
A philosopher and accomplished violinist as well as an essayist and poet, Zwicky has published over a dozen books—winning a Governor General’s Literary Award with Songs for Relinquishing the Earth and the Dorothy Livesay Prize for Robinson’s Crossing—often tackling environmental, political and existential issues. Here she is also wrestling, she tells me, with her own feelings of implication, of responsibility. “I think that where there is immense political damage,” she explains, “the first step is to understand what one’s part has been. ‘This happened. I did this. I was a part of this.’”
While Zwicky looks to the future end that may come for threatened species and the environment generally, her interest in self-examination and self-knowledge means there is also a lot of looking back, often to the Alberta farm of her childhood, where the roots of her love of the land—and thus her experience of the somewhat unsayable meaning inherent in connection with nature—first took hold.
While Zwicky went to school in Edmonton as a girl, she spent summers and weekends on the family farm. “That was where life happened,” she says. “I was a shy kid and sought solitude. I would disappear down to the river and feel at home. I felt loved by the land and of course loved it in return.”
After having lived and taught in Victoria, Zwicky now lives on Quadra Island where her property backs onto 140 acres of Crown land. “I feel there, too, tremendous generosity on the part of the land. It has walked forward to meet me, has extended its hand, its graciousness, all that it has to offer. But I notice that when I go back to the kind of land that I grew up on in Alberta, I feel addressed at a cellular level—smells, sounds, the quality of the light. I don’t think. It doesn’t come in words. I just know. It’s like a first tongue. Every year, I become more fluent in the tongue of the land where I now live, but I still have to think sometimes.”
This lifelong connection to the natural world means she experiences and shares a very personal grief at the ecological destruction she sees happening around the world. She writes: “Where will my soul go/…when the earth I have loved turns its back/and closes its eyes.”
The book is not all darkness and dust. Fully embracing the label of a political poet, Zwicky claims the book’s core is the environmental section (section 2 of 4), but a number of subsequent poems describe experiences of hidden or unexpected beauty:
It’s love, in the end, that we learn, learning also
it isn’t ours. Inexplicably, unsummoned,
the world rises to fill its own emptiness. We feel it
reaching through us—a voice, a hand,
a greenness not our own—
and are buoyed up momentarily, amazed,
before we find our feet again,
Even if just momentarily, are we ever similarly buoyed, amazed? In our busy, noisy lives enmeshed in the pressures of social, economic and political systems, do we take the time to look and listen deeply, to make ourselves still enough for that kind of connection with meaning, with wonder?
The implicit challenge is to not just make time but shift our attitudes and beliefs about how we imagine the good life. What do you really need on the long walk? Not the TV or the furniture, but the kind of mind that is humble and open, that notices…
the shape of space that sings, the throat-strung vault
above the mountains, depth
and depthless, the starlit air above the stony bridge,
Its resonant blue. Here
language ceases. We glimpse, obliquely,
radiance: a kind of deathlessness
or death, whole and unbroken.
Indeed the book’s final poem describes a winter’s walk where your only burden is “what you carry underneath your coat,/and what you have folded in your arms,/what is cradled on your heart.”
And so we return to Zwicky’s initial question of “what will you do?” By the book’s end, we have looked, we have seen—or begun to. To what end? What is the purpose of this long walk?
“I think it’s time for us to get our souls in order,” Zwicky tells me, matter-of-factly. “I can’t imagine trying to die with any degree of dignity without acknowledging what I’ve done. It’s truth and reconciliation of the self with the planet.”
“We need to mourn,” she says. “We need to grieve. We also need to hope that our neighbours and our friends will assist us in honest recognition of where we are, our responsibility—that we may, as a community, be able to look one another in the eye and say, ‘Oh my God, I’m sorry for what we’ve done’ and have the person you’re looking at say: ‘Yes, and I am sorry.’ Part of hope is that our confession to one another will be met with compassion, with understanding rather than condemnation. By this I don’t mean people should say: ‘That’s okay.’ Of course it’s not. But: ‘I understand because I did the same thing. I was blind in the same ways. I caved at the same points. I really get how it happened to you, and I grieve with you.’”
The long walk is therefore not about arrival. Rather, every moment is a kind of setting out, a new beginning. “And there’s hope as well,” Zwicky insists. “The kind of hope that I’m interested in is a part of humility. It’s a part of saying ‘I do not know. I start this day with respect and acknowledgment of the past and look for a way forward.”
Full of grief and love, The Long Walk pushes us to have that courage to look at what’s painful to see, to find stillness in movement, movement in stillness. If you need a motto for the new year, solvitur ambulando—it is solved by walking.
Somewhat missing the East’s hushed snowy winterscapes, writer, editor and former Montrealer Amy Reiswig now finds similar peace walking along the grey sea- and sky-scapes of a foggy beach.