Books

Sea of memory

Gary Geddes learns you can sail home again

Brian Bethune April 2 2001
Books

Sea of memory

Gary Geddes learns you can sail home again

Brian Bethune April 2 2001

Sea of memory

Books

Gary Geddes learns you can sail home again

For Gary Geddes, British Columbia’s fabled Inside Passage, the 1,600-km stretch of sheltered water between the province's mainland coast and its offshore islands, is far more than a sailor's mecca. It’s home, the place where the acclaimed poet and critic, now 60, once worked in the salmon fishery with his father, where his grandfather mysteriously drowned, where his mother died of cancer when he was only 7.

And it’s the place that, in the wake of a crumbling marriage and his father’s death, insistently called Geddes back from his teaching position at Concordia University in Montreal—to sail its waters on what he calls a “personal salvage mission.” What Geddes saw, thought and learned on that two-month trip in 1999 onboard the sloop Groáis is presented with poignant honesty in Sailing Home: A Journey Through Time, Place and Memory (HarperCollins, $32). “I wanted to tack back and forth, from sailing to memory,” says Geddes, whose speech overflows with nautical metaphors.

“I’ve always told my students that horizontal movement in a story is good—an aside is never an affront.”

In fact, Sailing Home mixes travelogue, several drawn-out asides and a compelling rumination on memory—the outgrowth of Geddes’ frustrating and painful attempt to reconnect with his past. Vast waves of ambiguity and uncertainty threaten to sink him as he constantly questions his own intentions and accomplishments. Geddes knows, though he is loath to admit it, that one of the prime reasons for his journey is the consciousness of his own mortality brought on by his father’s 1995 death.

But does the urgency of his motives, he wonders, give him the right to offer up his version of others’ experiences?

And then there was the meagre collection of facts left him by a family that did not value its stories, leaving him to

“imagine the rest.” But Geddes is a writer, and he knew he would be doing that anyway. “When you evoke a past experience, you are fictionalizing yourself of that time,” he says. “I am very aware that trying to report facts comes with the risk—the certainty—of distorting them. Language refracts, so where does that leave the truth?” So what is the point, for Geddes, for anyone, to try to catch the “shooting stars” of memory that were insistently crashing into his consciousness? Writing his

book, the poet found that a hard question. But now he is certain of the answer: “We all have a moral right to wring some meaning out of our lives— maybe even a moral responsibility.” And even the tiny bits of new information he acquires help him. Finding 14 words in his mother’s handwriting on the back of a photo brings her to vivid life, and Geddes to tears. Learning that his grandfather had already lost his false teeth in the ocean days before he, too, disappeared from his boat—his body never to be recovered—somehow brings the old man closer.

Beyond the memoir, there are other engaging elements to Sailing Home, including the sailing itself Although the Inside Passage is protected from the worst the open ocean has to offer, it is still rife with treacherous currents, floating logs, regular fog and rocks that have sunk numerous unwary vessels. And Geddes’ subtle but dramatic prose easily conveys the excitement and occasional terror that sometimes gripped him. (After he makes it through a tight course between South Iron Rock and Flook Reef off Cape Caution—all three very apt names indeed—Geddes is calm enough to heat a can of soup, but discovers his hand is too shaky to hold the spoon.) Then there are the comic misadventures of the amateur sailor, the man who is already at sea before he realizes that the asterisks on his charts indicate rocks. Geddes’ mishaps mesh neatly with his affectionate tales of Billy, a former Barn um & Bailey trapeze artist, and other “odd people who have washed up on that coast and taken root like barnacles.”

Together those themes form the stillvisible bones of the lighthearted book Geddes almost wrote, during the times he felt particularly daunted by his memory quest. But his perseverance was worth the effort, for writer and reader alike. With his handful of facts and a powerful poetic imagination, Geddes has wrestled a kind of order from his past, and crafted a moving and at times beautiful narrative.

Brian Bethune