Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Geddes and the Terracotta Army

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Geddes and the Terracotta Army

By Melanie Janisse


"Handsome. Weird question. What happened to all of the warriors? Its making me sad today that men are so broken."

"Its true. Warriors have always been difficult to understand, typically feeling damaged when life loses its sense of purpose. Purpose is also a matter of perception, a matter of being in relationship to a state of mind. Warriors have always been known for being good lovers and rarely known for being good life mates. It’s when a balance is achieved in all areas – perception, purpose and aspirations that a warrior can evolve or just even be.

"Think of it this way – from a native perspective many warriors chose DEATH over living the life we now live. They chose not to accept this reality. So, are the ones left to live this life broken, or are they living a life that is unacceptable to the warrior’s true standard of living? And if these warriors were to rise, would we not live in a state of complete civil unrest until they were all killed a second time?

"So are they broken, or merely in a state of extraordinary adjustment?"

"Both, and both are the same. And no one makes a good life mate. It’s unnatural. But in that paradigm, why can’t truth and fierceness in the moment guide us, taking the actual chance of battle?"

"They always have."

"But most are afraid and therefore couch their words, no? That is what I am watching. It is all around me this morning."

"Those aren’t warriors, my dear, just children learning their way through."

"So back to my original question: what happened to all the warriors?"


"I hate it here, my love."

All the warriors are dead. The earth has consumed them like a hungry baby and they are all there below us, twisted and broken and covered in the earth. The war was thunderous and the death toll unmatched.


So, one afternoon, I duck out of the fall sunshine and into the ROM. It is a place in my childhood that took long busses and had escalators and bones. Back in my youth, the hum of Toronto was busy in my baby ears, in my hometown Windsor smallness. The ROM was giant white spaces and bones. Silence and escalators. Lately, the hum of this fair city goes mostly unnoticed, and as far as the ROM is concerned, I have heard of its bat caves, while cougars paw at eagle feathers. How such cloistered and nocturnal places instill both fear and wonder into the minds of children? I hear of the nation of frozen warriors that are on display, backlit, top lit, captured. So I go to the Royal Ontario Museum to see what a dead warrior looks like, to see what I can learn from a shell. I march straight through the informative aspects of the exhibition. Who needs context? Who wants context before meeting such silent gentlemen? Suddenly I am standing alongside of the quietest of men, dignified, full of a queer majesty, made of earth, cured in the earth for more days than I can count. I am in the midst of timelessness, madness, mires. I think of how strange it is that this entire population of effigies was made to pave ways into heaven in the hopes that god itself would be charmed into forgetting any mistakes of leadership and poor judgment and be dazzled by an overabundance of fakery.


If I am not mistaken, the army began to pester Gary Geddes on a regular basis, until he got on the page and began channeling and transcribing their story. The intimation here is that within that dialogue, Geddes confronted the shadow of the lost warrior, the lost legions of men that rose up that face death and treachery and the most base of human struggles so that the rest of us do not have to. The resulting book, The Terracotta Army, is published by Goose Lane Editions. Naturally, I had a few questions to ask him. It isn’t all the time that you meet a diviner of earth, a wind talker.


Do you have a favorite in the army?


"Lookout" is probably my favorite of the terracotta poems. There's something quite low-key and comforting about the way diction and content come together, colloquial and simple without any obvious straining at the reins of poetry.


Was there one that pestered you more than others to tell his story?


They all pestered me, demanded to have their stories told, but the final piece by the emperor, disguised as a standard bearer, was most challenging, the character moving beyond his own limitations, acquiring wisdom after the fact.


Why are the images of the broken and part buried soldiers so significant to you?


Brokenness is central to the poetic art. We are all wounded, less whole than we'd like to be, that is why we need poetry. Poetry is a healing art; it speaks of wholeness or what Dylan Thomas calls that momentary peace which is the poem.


Can you tell me a bit more about how you channel stories from the past?


The stories seem to find me. Something catches my eye or ear or mind, often an image, a photograph, a phrase in a book or on a bus. A little sign pops up and says: poem here, pay attention. I've learned to pay attention to those moments. Once a photograph in the archives brought me to tears. I still have not discovered why, but I am on the alert to know.


I wish I had something smart to say to wrap this one up. I miss the warriors. I stare up at the clay figures with a silence that seems to be a natural human response to a great loss. There is nothing to say. There are only reminders of those who seize greatness and those who try to kill it. Each are everywhere and in each of us.

I was flying around the corner of Gladstone and Dundas the other day, wrapped up in self. A friend of mine was coming the other way. We spoke about his departure from Toronto and his upcoming adventure and return home overseas. Two souls wishing each other well in their journey to other frontiers. A few days later I found out that him and his wife were killed on the 401. The loss I feel is immense. They were full of joy and love for the world and each other that I have not experienced within myself yet and hardly get a chance to witness in the world. I venture that they carried and shouldered the disappointments of this world with a sword of discernment that felled bitterness and culled joy from each and every moment. This quality is one that embodies a kind of focus and strength of spiritual purpose that is rare to see. Today, for them, I lay my words down. I say blessings on the journey. Say hello to the warriors, the chiefs and Joan of Arc for me wherever you are, and be assured, there are a few scribes left who are listening. Miigwetch to the words written in honor of the dead.

* * *

Melanie Janisse is a native of Windsor, Ontario where she retains memories of old docks jutting out into the Detroit River and the smell of hops. Melanie began her education by leaving home early and wandering around the abandoned houses of inner city Detroit, and then the intense forests of the Canadian West Coast. Formally she holds degrees form Concordia University in Communications and Literature and from Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Photography. Melanie has resided in Toronto for the past nine years, keeping active as a visual artist, poet, designer and shop owner. Her work has appeared in Luft Gallery, Common Ground Gallery, Artcite Gallery, Dojo Magazine, Pontiac Quarterly, The Scream Literary Festival, The Southernmost Review, The Northernmost Review and The Windsor Review. Her first poetry book, Orioles in the Oranges (Guernica Editions), tells the tale of on old Metis legend, allowing it to dovetail with Detroit's gritty modernity in an unforgettable series of prose poems. Melanie is happy to be a part of Open Book: Toronto ruminating about books and book-like things around Toronto.

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