As Lovely as a Tree

A Review of Theresa Kishkan’s Mnemonic

Mnemonic:  A Book of Trees
Theresa Kishkan
Goose Lane Editions 2011, 247 pages
Reviewed by Kathleen Brewin Lewis

If you’ve ever wondered exactly what a lyric essay is, read Theresa Kishkan’s memoir, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, and then you will know. Kishkan has composed her sensuous yet informed book as a series of chapters that could each stand alone as an essay and are written in an evocative style that borders on poetry. And interestingly, she has chosen to organize her memories not by the key events of her life, but by the trees that were growing by her side.

Take this paragraph, for example: 

The young never know that vast and splendid lifetimes await them. Travel, lovers, children, sorrow, loss, the beauty of mornings seen from hotel windows while a cup is cradled, the scent of jasmine filling the room from an open window. Or a young woman walking the dark streets, having met a poet with whom she was almost certain she’d spend the rest of her life, trying to see stars through the tangled branches of the great oaks, their roots deep in sediments of pollen and ash. A new moon waited.

Kishkan is a Canadian who has lived on both the east and the west coasts of her country, spending her childhood in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and most of her adult life on the Sechelt Peninsula in British Columbia. She began her writing career as a poet, penned three novels, then settled in to master the essay. She won the first Reader’s Choice Award from the Canadian Creative Non-fiction Collective for her body of work, as well as the 2010 Edna Staebler Personal Essay Prize for an essay that became one of the chapters in Mnemonic, her eleventh book. 

The acknowledgments, endnotes, and bibliography for Mnemonic are extensive, evincing Kishkan’s knowledge of such varied subjects as oration (she quotes Cicero often); Dante’s Inferno; ravens and crows; the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Walt Whitman; Greek, Celtic and Norse mythology; pine-needle basket making; the natural history of the Pacific Northwest; Italian Renaissance painting; totem carving; opera; and botany.

Trees are Kishkan’s mnemonic devices, and she selects as her subjects ones that “have informed [her] process of learning and seeing.”  A great Garry oak reminds her of the summer when she was ten, living briefly with her family in a motel behind which she would retreat into a grassy oak grove to read. An olive tree marks the time she spent as a twenty-one-year-old in Greece, learning to savor good food and wine, and taking a local lover. 

The smell of cedar takes her back to the early days of her marriage, when she and her husband began to build their home with their own hands, their two-week-old firstborn son sleeping while they worked. Decades later, as an empty nester, she uses the aromatic cedar to construct nest boxes for the families of birds she watches with a twinge of envy.

The mention of a plane tree—what we Americans call the sycamore—in an aria sung by the countertenor David Daniels awakens in her the intense desire to sing and undertake vocal training. The live oak, Ponderosa pine, copper beech, arbutus, and aspen also loom large in Kishkan’s elegiac arboretum.

This is a book of remarkable language and sensory detail, as well as a deeply appreciative awareness of the natural world. It is not a page turner; it is a page savorer. Kishkan writes: 

What if you could step out your door and pick huckleberries, salal, the new tips of to steam like celery? What if you could dig the roots of the blue camas to dry, springbank clover tasting like young pears, wild onions to flavor your stew? Or climb down to the beach to the clam beds, carefully terraced over the centuries. What if walking in the woods was like wandering through a vast and beloved place of abundance?

What if? Kishkan lets us know.

Kathleen Brewin Lewis is Flycatcher’s senior editor.

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