“I go back and I go back, autumns after summers, a hundred walks arcing. I walk up and down, planting nothing. I lie in my tent at night, listening for ghosts. What little they say I write down” (13). This is where Barbara Klar’s Cypress begins; it is a strong start to a strong third collection. This Foreword, or Forward as Klar calls it, is a slim homage to the ghosts that walk the landscape of her latest book.
First drawn to southern Alberta’s Cypress Hills in her twenties as a tree planter, Klar returns again and again through the following years. Perhaps it is the vast silent spaces of those hills, their dark backs that rode the prairie through the last Ice Age untouched, that pull her. Perhaps, also, it is the sense of human presence underwriting the land that she finds alluring:
Somewhere in the forest a cookstove door
rusts into the underworld, a ring beside
the Cozy-Glo remembers a hand. The wind
holds stones together but it blew away
the rancher and his wife in 1951
(“Conglomerate Cliff Road, Approach” 17)
Early in her tree-planting days, and later on while walking the hills with her old dog by her side, Klar learns the land as a place where she can walk in silence. She can release the language pushing at her tongue and the everyday life hulking behind her. There is a different set of stories lingering in that prehistoric landscape. As she says, “I am born into the sound for hills, / the weighted singing” (“Gravity, The First Tower Road” 21).
At the same time that the hills provide a landscape for letting go, for listening to other buried stories, they are also a place where solitude calls forth one’s fears:
When it rains
in the Cypress Hills there is no leaving,
dawn to its axles in mud, hills circling
like a posse of silence. I will fight them.
My fear of heights and death and dentists
and mistakes and love and water
will fight them, my fallen fears,
their black cones flowering the bone
across my chest with the fear
of never being found, the fear
of hills forever, the fear
in my throat:
(“Insomnia, Fear of Rain” 26)
In the landscape where she is walking in silence, learning the land and its stories and feeling the pull of her own old fears, Klar longs for loved ones in the outside world. Caught in her tent in a rainstorm while camping in a valley out of radio contact, Klar’s words seem honed by a deep awareness of the solitude surrounding her:
The tent walls weep, sleeping bag a misery-
fuse wicking up rain and my hands will not stop drowning,
they hold the rippled paper like a white raft, they pray for a
messenger, a rock slide, wind, a bottle crossing water.
(“Nine Inches of Rain” 28)
The things that can be gathered in such a place are small, and yet they carry great power. An intimate knowledge is on display here of the strange Cypress Hills, which includes plants that have been erased by the last Ice Age everywhere else but here. From the land’s backbone, “You allow yourself one stone. When it sees / you coming it will be seen, heavy in its onlyness” (“South Benson Trail, The Stone Road” 30). With the stories Klar has learned of the hills comes the knowledge of the Cypress Hills Massacre. This, too, has become part of the land. The objects she collects on her walks retain slips of the earth’s tales:
I hold onto solids, non-winds:
a truck’s piece of chrome, an evicted stone
and a cow’s lumbar vertebra, the seventh angel
of drought, her calcium wings fallen
from the water of bovine flesh.
(“Gap Road, The Last White Spruce” 44)
Back and back she comes, at all points in her life. As they have shared their stories, the hills have likewise experienced the presence of Klar’s fear and her loss. Perhaps, too, they have seen the start of something new, in her as in the land itself:
In the last white months the centuries begin
to breathe less slowly. Groggy animals are waking,
the hulls of the pine ships half-sunk in snow, the living
holding out the world in their green feathered hands,
its punctured hearts turning.
Cypress is an homage to place, a song of its darkness and its brightness. It is an extraordinary work about a landscape carefully learned and deeply loved.
Jenna Butler is an educator and poet who makes her home in Edmonton. Her work has garnered a number of awards, including CBC’s Alberta Anthology, and has been widely published in journals, anthologies and literary magazines in Canada and abroad. She is the founding editor of Rubicon Press.