Monday, May 21, 2018

Ronna Bloom on Rhea Tregebov

In one of the last incarnations of the Bohemian Embassy on Queen Street, I got up for the first time to read poems. The room was packed and I knew no one.

When I put my foot up on the small step to get on the stage, I heard a voice in my head say, ‘this is the next thing you’re gonna do.’ I read in an understated, almost nonchalant way I thought I should, and someone yelled, louder. I realized no one would ever know these poems the way I knew them, so I belted them out. The doing itself was enough, but the response came back like meeting myself in a wave.

A woman I'd never met, Rhea Tregebov, came over and said something nice about the poems. I said, “you look familiar.” She said, “that’s 'cause I look like you.” I was awkward and she was friendly. But boldly, I asked if she’d talk to me about my poems. She said yes. (Yes!) I bought her book The Proving Grounds, sat in the Future Bakery, opened it and read the first poem:

Faith in the Weather
                        for my sister-in-law, Judy Tregebov,
                        killed in a car crash January 1987

I have to travel through so much weather to get to you.
I’m travelling at 30,000 feet, at 600 miles an hour,
my suitcases full, flying into sadness.

The Proving Grounds (Vehicule Press, 1991)

I was a flood of feeling –– both from the pain of the poem and the permission to write it. 'You can say this?’ I thought. Here in this expression of love and grief, was permission to write directly about loss, and implicitly whatever matters to you –– to me –– right now. A door opened I had no idea was closed, or maybe was no door. It was all open.

When we met I showed her five short poems. She said, “these are publishable.” What a shock these words were the first time. She coaxed me along, invited me into the world.

My niece died the next year and something else tore out into the writing, no doubt given permission by Rhea’s work and warmth. The next thing she urged, "Go to Banff." She was urging me toward the Banff Writing Studio, five weeks of writing in the mountains.

She suggested each step so lightly, like she was offering me a coffee, and each one felt like mounting a ziggurat. But her saying things made them possible.

One season she was Writer in Residence at the North York Public library and I took her workshop with a bunch of other beginning writers and wrote poems. She invited Stan Dragland into the library to talk. I wrote down everything he said on a scrap of pink paper and carried it for years. Then I went to Banff. It was there I realized I did not have to explain leaving a meal to write a poem. I did not have to explain myself.

Over the years we became friends. I'd see her encourage plants and flowers on a hillside home she used to live in in Toronto. I remember her standing on its steep slope on Austin Terrace, by the zooming cars of Bathurst Street, like a goat in the city.

Rhea wrote a suite of poems that won The Malahat Long Poem prize and was set in that neighborhood. Poems that looked and saw what and who was in front of her. Attention and compassion.

Bathurst Station (Below)

In the subway the world's
sad musicians come to play. The Irish
balladeer; the Russian with his ribboned
shirt and balalaika; the Peruvian moving
his breath over panpipes; his two dolls
dance together, bride and groom,
wedded at the head like his old life,
this new one. They are playing home, home
underneath these foreign streets,
their songs drifting thin, riding;
our indifferent feet beside them,
above their heads.

Mapping the Chaos, (Vehicule Press, 1995)

In one of her books is the epigram every poem is a love poem. Having written this now, I look it up and see I got it wrong. A book of love poems, it says. (The Proving Grounds) What I'm remembering instead is a teaching I gleaned from her work: every poem is a love poem because in my mind to write with attention to the truth of what is there is an act of love. Her poems sharpen my eyes and open my heart.

Now, years later, as I shuttle over the Bloor Street viaduct on the subway from the east end to the west, I often think of her poem, "Elegy for the Gift (Elegy for the Light)."

Elegy for the Gift (Elegy for the Light)

Sometimes, when the subway car
comes briefly out of the tunnel,
we don't look up, miss the light.
And it's as though inattentive,
we'd never had that moment
of brightness. A life might be full
of such small losses or full,
equally, of small dense gifts:
the child on that same car
dipping her face into her mother's
that perfect regard.

The Strength of Materials (Wolsak and Wynn 2001)

Rhea Tregebov's poetry comes to me like an invitation and admonition, as if to say don’t miss this! I've tended to focus sometimes too much on writing what my insides looks like. She reminds me to look up also at what's out there. And then to write.

Ronna Bloom is the author of six books of poetry, most recently The More (Pedlar Press, 2017). Her poems have been recorded for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and translated into Spanish and Bengali. She has collaborated with musicians, filmmakers, doctors, students, academics, spiritual leaders, and architects. Ronna is currently the Poet in Community at the University of Toronto and Poet in Residence at Mount Sinai Hospital and the Sinai Health System.

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