“There are very few honest friends--the demand is not particularly great."

--Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach (1830-1916), Aphorisms, 1880-1905

Edited and compiled by Robert Sward

Grief, Poems & Friendship

by Catherine Graham

Grief is like waiting for fifty giant black kettles to boil.

For whatever reason deep literary friendships have eluded me. Perhaps this is due to my current geographic location as I live in the suburbs, away from downtown Toronto - the centre of Canada’s literary scene. Perhaps this is due to my solitary nature - an only child I’m quite comfortable spending time by myself. Or perhaps this is due to my social shyness - I often feel more alone during literary gatherings than I do when I’m actually alone. But having said that... Myna Wallin and I were introduced during an Art Bar reading at The Victory Café on Markham Street in Toronto. The affinity was immediate. We had much in common, budding poets living the freelance life. But we soon discovered we shared more than that, we’d been through the loss of both parents. We were both adult orphans. “I think about you,” Myna said. Another Art Bar reading had just ended. We stood at the corner of Bloor and Bathhurst, Myna beside her bicycle, I beside my car, about to say goodbye. The fact that my brief presence had had an impact on Myna made me feel special, appreciated, seen. That fall after my first book of poetry was published, Myna came to the Toronto launch at the Mockingbird on King Street.

“I have something for you,” she said. She handed me a long white box. “I saw it today and got it on impulse. I hope you don’t mind.”

Sandwiched between two long cotton strips I pulled out a finely carved wooden butterfly. Myna fastened the choker around my neck. Not only did I wear it that night I chose to wear it for subsequent readings; a fitting image as my first book of poetry was titled Pupa. Myna’s intuitive and impulsive gesture moved me deeply. I had myself a friend.

During the months that followed I was booked to do a series of readings and radio interviews. One of the interviews was with the University of Toronto’s campus station CIUT, a Sunday afternoon hour-long program with hosts Nik Beat and Nancy Bullis. After climbing the narrow, rickety stairs, I was ushered into a waiting room and introduced to the poet I would be sharing the program with. Dark-haired like Myna, she too had kind, warm eyes. Sincere smile. “I’m Merle Nudelman. Do you mind if I go first? My husband and I need to attend a wedding reception.”

“No problem,” I said. We exchanged cards.

Before readings and interviews not only do I experience the flutter of butterfly wings in my stomach, my listening abilities go out the window. This is normal, so I’m told, but unfortunate, for it means that I’m incapable of enjoying any presenter before me. My mind is brim-filled with questions. What will I say? Which poems shall I read? So when Merle sat across from Nancy Bullis I assumed I would not be able to listen. My mind would be too muddled.

This was not the case.

Like my first book of poetry Pupa, Merle’s first book Borrowed Light contained poems that captured her personal grieving journey after the loss of both parents. I couldn’t help but listen. The poems she read were tight and effective, humorous and gut wrenching. She’d traveled that flat black landscape I knew so well. And like me she’d made her way through it.

A few weeks later Merle and I met up for a coffee and chat. Because Merle had to leave right after her interview she hadn’t heard mine. A look of amazement washed over her face when I shared my story of how I’d come to write poetry.

“That’s my story,” she said. We’ve been friends ever since. When grief hits us it slams doors shut. But it if you look closely, very closely, it also opens them. After the deaths of my parents the door to poetry opened to me. Grief acted as the catalyst towards the creative life. Once I became conscious of this - journal outpourings were more than emotional release - I began to take the craft of writing poetry seriously.

Perhaps deep literary friendships haven’t eluded me after all.


Catherine Graham is a writer, educator and creativity consultant and the author of The Watch and Pupa. She teaches Elements of Poetry at Sheridan College and Creative Writing at McMaster University and the University of Toronto where she was nominated for an Excellence In Teaching Award. Catherine is also the creator of Words@work: Metaphor as Problem Solver and has led her workshop at such venues as: The Sobey School of Business (St. Mary's University), GlaxoSmithKline, York University and Admit It! You're Creative (Ontario College of Art & Design). catherinegraham.com

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