Dorothy Livesay was a friend, an inspiration and a companera for me. We met late in her life, not at a literary event, but at a commemoration of Hiroshima Day on a warm sunny day in a field overlooking the sea, on a small island near Victoria. A few years later when she moved to Victoria, we became friends and co—workers in peace and social justice organizations. Although she never taught me a course in poetry, she passed on a few useful lessons. The most important lesson she taught me was that the engaged life of an artist, involved in the world around her, is a vital and inseparable part of creativity.
As a person she was passionate and committed; as a poet she was fearless and prolific in her form and subject matter. She published about twenty books of poetry, a novel and a memoir. The Self-Completing Tree is a distillation of her decades of work. After her death another volume of previously unpublished work was printed, Archive for Our Times. She won innumerable awards and honorary degrees in her long life.
The personal was political for Dorothy and probably her most famous poem, written in 1967, and read at her memorial is, The Unquiet Bed: The woman I am/ is not what you see/ I´m not just bones/ and crockery…the woman I am/ is not what you see/ move over love/make room for me
Her sensitivity to language, unusual imagery and sometimes brutal honesty are what make her writing lasting and powerful. Here in Parenthood, she writes: My child is like a stone/in wilderness/ pick it up and rub it on the cheek/ there´s no response/ or toss it down…/ only a hollow sound/ but hold it in the hand/ a little time// it warms it curves/softly into the palm:/ even a warm stone takes on a pulse/ in a warm hold.
My favourite of her poems — the one that I took the title for my poetry book and also quote from it — is Bellhouse Bay. I read all or part of this poem at celebrations, including events about Dorothy, speeches, memorials and any occasion I can. Dorothy always read it for me whenever I came to her readings. In 1991 she read it for me at a peace event that I organized. That evening when she came to the podium she seemed confused, she faltered and hesitated, fumbled her papers. Then she stood tall, and her voice rang clear and strong across the hall. It was her last public reading, soon after she descended into the darkness of her final illness. I thrill and often cry when I read this exquisite jewel she left for us.
Bellhouse Bay Last night a full silver / moon/ shone in the waters of the bay/ so serene/one could believe in/ an ongoing universe/ And today it´s summer/ noon heat soaking into/ arbutus trees blackberry bushes/ /Today in the cities/ rallies and peace demonstrations exhort/
SAVE OUR WORLD SAVE OUR CHILDREN
But save also I say/ the towhees under the blackberry bushes/ eagles playing a mad caper/
in the sky above Bellhouse Bay/ This is not paradise/dear adam dear eve/ but it is a rung on the ladder/ upwards/ towards a possible/ breathtaking landscape
Dorothy Livesay lives on in spirit and words, a treasure for Canada and the world.