Anne Szumigalski was my Aunt; she was also one of the most distinguished Canadian poets of the twentieth century.
I remember her as a warm and mysterious presence in my childhood life, particularly during the time I stayed with her when I was 11, a long way from my home in England, and curious and insecure about many things.
Years and years later, when I began to think about being a writer, and in particular how to give myself permission to do such a monstrously bold thing – a thing that requires wickedness, and a willingness to make oneself perpetually ridiculous – I picked up her memoir, Sermons on Stones, and began to read it.
As I read, almost at once her voice was in the room with me, invoking not just the religious mischief that is poetic language – but also memories of her childhood, which (of course) are also memories of my own father’s childhood. Through her words, these came alive in me.
Experiencing memory, not as loss, but as the presence of other lives lying very close to our own, is something that lights up my father’s old age. Often when he is not paying attention to the mundane things going on around him, he is there in the house in Hampshire, listening to his brother Harold play the drums or watching his sister Anne dance.
This book enables me to go with him. Through it, I am alive in his past. This intricate miracle may be the closest any of us get to skipping around death with a whistle – and it makes me very happy.
Sermons on Stones is also a marvellously funny goose-chase with words, a giddy marching song for poets. I am delighted I found it again, and am looking forward to returning to Anne’s poetry with new-found love and thanks for her and all her works.