Brand building through storytelling

The woman who lived on words

Long, long ago in a perilous time, when working stiffs didn’t even have books, let alone sports bars or plasma TVs, they would gather by the fireside and listen to the bard. He was their Bruce Springsteen, their David Beckham, their two Stephens (King and Spielberg) all rolled into one. He carried in his head the treasure known as the word hoard, the sum of all his clan had ever dreamed or feared or endured through generations. His people turned to him and saw the heroes of their past reborn. When the crops failed or invaders threatened, they steeled themselves with poetry.

People shared poems in order to live. It’s a quaint notion nowadays, when poetry is forced on school kids and forgotten at the earliest opportunity. Not by everyone, though. A few of us remember what poetry can do, and has been doing since the days of the bard. Sometimes I pull a book off my shelf and savour a few moments with my poet of choice (anyone from John Donne to Anne Sexton). It’s as if the poet is whispering in my ear—a comfort on a sleepless night, but not the whole experience. That requires reading it aloud with someone.

Besides my mother, who wove snippets of Shakespeare and Yeats into everyday conversation, I’ve only known one person who truly reveled in the sound of poetry. My friend MargaretMargaret Gibson, dead for close to two years. Last seen some time before that because she had a profound, lifelong mental illness that eventually destroyed almost everything she had, including our friendship.

Margaret lived on cigarettes, strong tea and books. She managed to write six of them. Her first collection of short storiesTheButterfly Ward, immediately established her as one of the boldest, most distinctive voices in Canadian fiction. By writing, she defied both her illness and the poverty that came with it. Over time her hospitalizations grew longer and the bursts of creativity shorter. A locked psych ward became her second home. I used to visit her there, bringing books.

I came to dread those visits. At the end of a long hallway that smelled of hospital food, I’d find Margaret perched on the edge of her bed, eyes blazing with anticipation. She always had a lot to tell me, most of it concerning imagined attempts on her life. I would wait for the storm of terror to pass while she filled my silence with emphatic declarations: “True, Rona! True!”

In the past there had been clearings of lucidity where we could connect as friends, but now thickets of delusion were choking those spaces. She no longer talked about novels with the wild wit I’d always loved in her. I began to suspect she couldn’t focus on them. At this rate I’d have to do what I had hoped not to do—fade out of Margaret’s life, as most of her friends had already done, worn out by her mysterious, incessant demands. Pity was no reason to visit her; Margaret scorned pity.

Then it suddenly struck me that I hadn’t run out of ways to reach the Margaret I had known. I would bring her a poem and read it to her. Only a very special poem would do. It would have to penetrate Margaret’s world.

I knew of one poem that had the right stuff. It was written in the eighteenth century by a mad visionary named Christopher Smart, who spent much of his adult life in asylums. Smart’s best friend, the inspiration for the poem, was his cat, Jeoffrey. Margaret also had a cat, and she cherished him more than any human. Smart’s brand of madness was ecstatic, unlike hers; he saw God everywhere, especially in his cat. Knowing how Margaret missed her own cat, I decided to tell her that Jeoffrey had kept the poet company in the asylum. (I’m not sure if this is true, but it’s the way the story should have happened.)

I read her the poem in the hospital lobby. We sat on leatherette chairs beside the coffee kiosk, amid the clatter of gurneys and the mingled echoes of passing conversations. Margaret had put on her heavy black eyeliner and her Garbo hat, but primping couldn’t hide the effects of her illness, all those years of no money, no sleep, no peace of mind. She looked ancient until she lost herself in Smart’s magnificently loopy poem, which vibrates with wonder at the small graceful doings of every cat. Leaning forward on her elbows to catch every word, she looked like a child enthralled by a bedtime story. The hospital seemed to disappear as we drew a circle around ourselves with words—my reading and her exclamations of delight.

We reached a crisis point in the poem: a rat bites Jeoffrey. Margaret held her breath. All was well in the end and she exclaimed, “Thank God! I couldn’t stand it if anything happened to Jeoffrey.” She couldn’t stand it because she knew in her bones that a cat can be a guardian angel to someone who’s alone and desperate. A cat can be a guardian angel:

For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary. For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes. 
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.

Margaret was an expert on devils. With her, I understood those words for the first time. “This man Smart was not mad,” she said. “This man was very sane.” When I hugged Margaret goodbye, she felt as light as straw in my arms. I watched her stride back toward her room with the bearing of a warrior, the poem folded in her fist. She turned and flashed a proud, rueful smile. I knew I wouldn’t be back. And that I would miss her.

Posted by Rona

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