the houses of saints (part one)

Posted on April 26, 2013 in Poetry

Words with Friends organized a collaborative exhibition of visual art and poetry called Symbiotica for Edmonton Poetry Festival. The project saw 20 local poets and visual artists, working collaboratively in teams of two over a two-month period to create poems and pieces of artwork that formed a symbiotic unit, as “more than the sum of their parts.”  Teams were selected by random draw, and I was paired with an amazingly talented landscape and figurative artist who also grew up in St. Albert, Samantha Williams-Chapelsky. This was one of those times where coincidence felt a bit like fate, because I had been ruminating on an idea about writing a piece based on the house I grew up in there,and interweaving it as a metaphor for memories of my family.

Sam never saw the house or photos of it, but she did an amazing job in capturing the poem’s essence just from what I had written. Eventually, I want to write Part 2, which will riff off the other house in the painting. I always conceived of this as two poems for two houses, but I wasn’t able to get the second part out of me before the event, and probably best not to force it.

Here is the poem, followed by a photo of Sam’s beautiful painting.

the houses of saints (part one)

my house in saint town
was painted brown
a two-tiered square chocolate cake
of a place
with wilted carpets
and some peeling paint
a little beat down
she was over 40 now
a bit droopy
but always proud

she was old school saint A
flat top with a stony face
giving nothing away
tucked into her fringe of forest plotting
thinking behind her wire rims
and her windows
with the blinds closed
obscured by the dangling branches
of her weeping willows
one of many stalwart matrons
guarding the neighbourhood
called for a Catholic priest

my dad
who is good at these things
ripped out her guts
and stuffed them back in
to make things new again

gave her wood panelling
and hung his prairie landscape scenes
the delicate pastel strokes and dabs
of nature in places named for England
— Cardiff, Edmonton —
that belied his ample, vivacious
and gruff, moustached embrace

which seemed to me more red
and purple and abstract and lined,
an entire wall
filled with father-daughter trips
to the grocery store
soccer games
patio parties where everyone we knew came
to drink and dance the night away
and the legendary Love Shack lip sync
on Boxing Day

he gave her a skylight
hoping to open her up to the clouds
and a garden full of rocks
with fertile soil for perennial flowers
that could weather repeated storms
beneath the ice and snow of long cold snaps

a new kitchen floor and a fresh coat of paint
would never change
the simple fact of a cracked foundation
which isn’t to say she was joyless or gray
only quietly biding her time
wearing the guise we gave her

she wasn’t real estate porn
like the ones that sprung up
on the north side of town
and grew it further out of bounds
playing how many cars
can we cram in the driveway
when the triple garage runs out of space
but she was a safe place to keep secrets

we packed her crannies and corners
with our caches of covert moments
and stashes of inconvenient truth
extracted years later
during the move
dusted off and used
to reinvent ourselves
somewhere new

Painting by Samantha Williams-Chapelsky

Painting by Samantha Williams-Chapelsky