I was in a collaborative songwriting workshop, a handful of hardworking, talented individuals collectively pushing themselves as artists. My partner for this particular month (we paired with different people each month) chose to go back to her day job. Being an active musician while having a highrise office career was simply too taxing. And as a professional accountant, taxing stuff was something she knew all too well.
So there I was, midway through the workshop when my partner switched priorities. Understandable. Our mentor/coach stepped in to fill that gap, becoming my partner for the remainder of the month. Our task, to write a song. Our parameters, to involve the elements. What I love most about the resulting song we wrote was that each component of the composition was simple. With no intended pun, elemental. Rudimentary chords and lyrics crosshatched into a layered mosaic, the result startingly rich and satisfying, like experiencing those very components firsthand – fire, earth, air and water.
A year later, when I got my hands on Kate Braid’s Elemental, it was as though I was re-experiencing that collaboration – memories vibrant as touching a flame, plunging into water, lungfuls of needed air, and the loamy feel of freshly turned earth. This was a sensory experience beyond cracking a new book of poetry. This was something to tickle the primordial self, subconscious memories one feels, and may never acknowledge without the help of others. But Braid knows more than four elements. An adroit woodworker, this poet fits exceedingly well in her west coast domain, surrounded by forests of deciduous and evergreen. But I’m going to make you wait before revealing her bespoke fifth element (in case you haven’t figured it out).
Let’s start with a high platform dive, from Braid’s Autobiography as Water:
“Mother takes me to a chlorine-echoey box to learn the lessons of deep water … embraced into a world of green-glossed bubbles and wonder. Until teacher snatches me back to the sandpaper of breath and air.”
Immediately I feel akin to the author, recalling a plunge into blue, certain I was both drowning and exactly where I ought to be. To my surprise Kate finds another comfortably common space in Vancouver Spring:
“Soggy under a glaze of wine, / the surreal grace of grass and moss / abundant / and another wet Vancouver sky. / … another glass of wine / at the Sylvia Hotel, gazing out / at a grey beach, pedestrians with umbrellas, / black, walking, muttering, / It’s spring!”
And from gloomy mutterings of Pacific Northwest spring we find ourselves inside too much, splashing from water to jarring, fiery light in Monolith:
“Can you imagine how it feels / to be hauled from darkness / and no matter how much it aches, / to be swathed in light?”
I ache with empathy as Kate recalls a return to memory-rich space, elemental sentiments, arriving at a woodsy retreat in Opening the Cabin:
“We have come to the cabin after weeks / in the smoke of city living, climb out of the car, / crisp with caution. Peering suspiciously up at sunshine / we sniff the honey of cedar and pine.”
And with the aroma of fresh sawdust, we join our artisan in her mainstay, arguably her truest craft, working timber in The Wood Hanging (For Jude Farmer):
“[A] tree, a huge being alive / with wane and grain and history, / a Moby Dick of fallen disaster and majesty, / an up-and-down of history, a living Ark.”
Never before have I likened a falling tree to Melville’s whale. Bruce Cockburn, sure, but that’s expected in this part of the country when you’re of a certain age and unable to lay your hands on a rocket launcher.
Now our poet’s hand’s revealed – her fifth element – living bits of trunk, branch and burl Braid crafts tandem to her words. But let’s return to the rudimentary first four, and breathe, breathe in the air, with Autobiography as Sky:
“Years later I lifted into air, flew for hours between a rising moon and a setting sun — furious silver, furious red. As the two fought over the lighting of the stage and clouds changed the scenery over and over, I understood the drama of sky. At last.”
At last. I find myself wanting to know what our author knows, beyond her words. I might, but I’m uncertain, left feeling I’ve had palette-cleansing sorbet, concluding savoury verse to return to earth with a grounding cadence and satisfying alliteration in Blackberries for Jacqueline:
“After your wake, I go outside to walk.”
Maybe I do know after all, Kate sharing loss, healing, feelings elemental to humanity, the universal experience we share with trees, timber and lovingly planed lumber, crafted into furnishings and finishings, sanded, polished, lacquered, set amidst raw elements to cure, creating hope-chest heirlooms, poetry, and music we all share.
About the Author: Kate Braid worked as a receptionist, secretary, lumber piler and journey-carpenter before “settling down” to teach construction and creative writing at SFU, UBC and VIU. She is the author of the poetry books A Well-Mannered Storm, Covering Rough Ground, To This Cedar Fountain and Inward to the Bones. In her memoir Journeywoman, Braid tells the story of becoming a carpenter despite skepticism and discouragement. She was declared one of Vancouver’s Remarkable Women of the Arts and awarded the Mayor of Vancouver’s Award for the Literary Arts. She lives in Victoria and on Pender Island with her partner.
Elemental by Kate Braid
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