I’ve always wondered when it was that I first became aware of the passage of time. How do we recall something that wasn’t actually an event, was more of a transition? Does this awareness depend on our ability to describe it? Is this a classic, epistemological issue, or just a bee in my own tiny headgear? How do we reconstruct something we did not, at the time, have language to describe? Such questions prompted the writing of “Morning Walk, Summer 1956” in Issue 161 of The New Quarterly, and influenced its form and structure.
To answer these questions, I first tried to recall early memories, memories that pre-dated school, before I was taught various conceptual markers of time—hours, days, weeks, seasons, etc. Not exactly a pre-verbal time, but certainly a time when my vocabulary was limited. Could I recover those sensory experiences (sight, sound, touch, smell) or emotional experiences of fear and delight, deeply embedded at a cellular level? Some of my most successful poems have begun with vivid images of more recent, momentary experiences of the world around me, sometimes no more than an evocative smell or a threatening sound. Using the genre of narrative poetry to elicit and explore such strong images, then, seemed like the best choice for writing this piece.
“Using the genre of narrative poetry to elicit and explore such strong images, then, seemed like the best choice for writing this piece.”
“Morning Walk” began with a distinct memory of the scent of bridal wreath spirea, an overpowering fragrance that I was never fond of, though it certainly did stick with me. That scent evoked other images—the tactile, olfactory, auditory, and visual images of fresh paint, soap and talcum, hard sugar candy, my father’s voice and hand, those wonky sidewalk slabs so treacherous for short legs and small feet, the neighbourhood dog that scared me silly—merging into one narrative of numerous visits to my father’s parishioners that happened weekly, probably when I was three or four, definitely before I started school.
The structure of the poem suggests a “before” and “after” (“the beginning” in stanza 1 and the tablet in stanza 4, “not yet tipped”), temporal concepts that children as young as two are able to grasp, placing the persona in a time of early childhood. How does a child make the journey toward the “after”? Partly by acquiring vocabulary. So the earlier list of sensory images then gives way to a list of vocabulary words, “the things I do not know.” “[E]verything new,” including new vocabulary, will eventually usher the persona into another kind of awareness. What the little girl sees but does not recognize in the old women’s faces (stanza 2) is named by her father in stanza 3, “Widow.” Now she is headed toward an understanding of “calamity.”
In the final stanza, the physical structure of the poem with progressively indented lines mimics the tablet and the uneven, sidewalk slabs that move the reader toward the journey beyond the page’s white space (the tablet empty of words). While the stanza presents final sensory images of light and the father’s face, the personified image of the season invites the child toward a future, an “after,” when the child will acquire language that demarcates time and defines sensation—words that facilitate and impede awareness by both capturing and naming reality as well as preceding and modifying the absolute, unmediated experience of “the beginning.”
Suzanne Nussey lives in Ottawa, where she has worked as an editor, writer, memoir coach, and writing instructor. Her writing has been published in The New Quarterly, The Fiddlehead, Prairie Fire, and EVENT, and has won poetry and creative non-fiction competitions in several journals.