Each September, I wend my way through the back roads of the Annapolis Valley to attend Becoming an Outdoors Woman (BOW): a volunteer-organized retreat and workshop series aimed at women interested in hunting, fishing, and other outdoorsy pursuits. This year, I brought my copy of Kate Braid’s Elemental (Caitlin Press, 2018), which I snuck away to read in my bunk between starchy meals, awkward attempts at skills acquisition, and quality time daydreaming into the campfire.
As a companion to a woman in the forest, Elemental is patient and instructive: a friend whose gaze you follow to a camouflaged rustle of bird-on-branch or “a wilderness of pattern” (10), or whose fingers find “a small red tattoo of arbutus bark” (15) on your skin. Elemental explores water, fire, wood, sky, and earth, and again, like the wise companion that it is, teaches you to see each of these materials erupting from the others: water from sky, earth from fire, fire from wood.
Braid’s decision to include wood initially surprised me. Wood is living, transient, and outside the canonical quartet of elements in western literature. But Braid’s “Wood” poems are clearly the cradle of the book: its warm and growing centre; its perfect fifth. “Younger Sister” celebrates rest as an active, creative state, not unlike the imperceptible growth of a tree or a languorous walk through the forest. “For Jude” and “The Wood Hanging” give us wood’s darker mysteries: wood as æther; wood as spectre.
Each section of Elemental begins with a fragment of childhood autobiography, a set of personal epigraphs that ground the abstraction of “the elements” in the speaker’s experience and struggle: nearly drowning, being burned, falling into the earth. Taken together, these introductions are a kind of living ekphrasis: curios and portraits of memory made present and tangible through poetry.
And thanks to Braid’s work, I have a vivid, embodied memory of my own that binds my time at BOW to my time spent discovering Elemental: a gloriously raucous, semi-feral evening hike with my retreat companions through the woods around Lake Brigadoon. The trees, their lichen lungs, the mossy earth, the bright moon, and all of us “like a cathedral, / one pillar relying on every other to create a sacred space / each element in touch, alive” (36:15-17).