New releases from songwriter and poet Catherine McNeil prove that tales of love and longing are enriched by a storyteller’s knowledge of the landscape that her characters traverse.
McNeil’s book Emily & Elspeth, published by Caitlin Press, combines poetry and prose in a chronicle of two women anchored by specific and evocative locales: coastal communities bound by the ribbon of B.C’s Highway 101, storied Vancouver streetscapes, a cobblestoned city in Mexico’s central highlands.
Meanwhile, her latest album of original recordings — The Me In We, released under her artist’s name Cat Mac — is a winsome jazz-infused meditation on the accumulation of life experience.
McNeil is originally from Vancouver but has a lifelong history on the Sunshine Coast. Her first visit took place at the age of three to stay with grandparents in Halfmoon Bay. Over the course of a career in education that spanned music instruction and teaching deaf students, McNeil adopted the snowbird’s custom of regular stays in Mexico and Arizona.
But the Coast, and occasionally Hardy Island, exerted its own homely force of gravity. Gibsons is now the base for McNeil’s music production and poetry work, which has appeared in more than a dozen anthologies and literary magazines.
In Emily & Elspeth, each of the two primary characters develops her own voice. The former expresses herself through free verse, the latter describes her thoughts in compact prose sketches. When their relationship blossoms in the third chapter, the styles commingle.
“Both Emily and Elspeth are a part of me,” said McNeil. “It was an interesting process because I’ve primarily been a songwriter and a poet in my adult life. It was a little different for me to write the narrative line. But it wasn’t hard when I put myself into the shoes of this [prose-writing] character. I lived with a novelist who always carried the characters within her mind; I witnessed that and tried to do that myself with Elspeth.”
The romance is itself garlanded in words: Emily and Elspeth meet at a writer’s conference in San Miguel. Each woman’s recent past is marked by desperation (Emily “wants to rip her own face off,” Elspeth idly plans a suicide aboard a Vancouver-bound train). The sublimity of their union softens these self-destructive tendencies.
McNeil’s poetry expresses their passion in terms simultaneously visceral and literary: “Lizzy [Elspeth] kisses her love, the air staccatoed with strident trochee. It is she, at home with these contours.”
The idea of ardour as an antidote to struggle is reinforced through allusions to Mexican painter Frida Kahlo: “Frida doesn’t want to suffer anymore / nothing works / her hands / her feet.” McNeil herself suffered a serious car accident at the age of 30.
“I’ve been in chronic pain since then,” said McNeil. “I can relate to Frida Kahlo’s having to be creative in a way that worked with her body. For me, it’s about learning to love a body that has physical pain and yet be creative.”
The songs of The Me In We are a fitting companion to the unvarnished verisimilitude of Emily & Elspeth. “There’s no perfect woman / It gets harder as we age,” McNeil sings in Have A Little Heart. McNeil’s crisp vocals, backed by a full-bodied jazz ensemble, inspire verve in any season of life.
Emily & Elspeth will be officially launched at a gathering of the Sunshine Coast Writers and Editors Society on March 26 at Mission Point House. Browse to scwes.ca for details.