I first got hooked on Theresa Kishkan’s writing via Red Laredo Boots, her 1996 collection of personal essays and recollections about camping and travelling through BC. I’d lived my own version of some of those experiences as well, but Kishkan had somehow seen more clearly; she had remembered better. Mnemonic: a book of trees (Goose Lane), Kishkan’s newest collection of essays, contains some of her best writing yet.
Each essay takes a specific period or incident in Kishkan’s life as its point of departure: in “Young Woman with Eros on her Shoulder,” she begins by recalling time spent in Greece at age twenty-one, and her love affair with a young Greek man with “eyes like almonds”; in “Makeup Secrets of the Byzantine Madonnas,” the core memory is of a time when she was muse and model to an older man in Victoria, BC, a painter who “wore little glasses when he painted, and […] peered at my body through them in a clinical manner, not missing a thing.”
But the essays in Mnemonic transcend their autobiographical origins as Kishkan uses the personal as a lens through which to explore a broad range of interests, among them natural history, First Nations culture, literature and music. Memories of camping among the sage and the ponderosa pines on the shores of Nicola Lake (in “A Serious Waltz”) lead naturally to a consideration of the mountain pine beetle epidemic, and to her attempt to fashion a basket from pine needles, inspired by baskets seen “at the Big Sky gas station at Skeetchestn.”
There’s a wonderful sense of place throughout, and Kishkan’s observant curiosity makes you think of Forster’s exhortation in Howards End: “Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted.” Mnemonic exalts.