Leaving Now

Arleen Paré

In Leaving Now Arleen Paré, winner of the 2014 Governor General’s Award for Poetry, weaves fable, prose and poetics to create a rich mosaic of conflicted motherhood. Set in the volatile 1970s and ’80s, when social norms and expectations were changing rapidly, Leaving Now is the emotionally candid story of a mother’s anguish as she leaves her husband to love a woman. In this second book, Paré masterfully blends aspects of her personal journey with her own version of a well-loved fairy tale. Gudrun, the five-hundred-year-old mother of Hansel and Gretel, appears hazily in the narrator’s kitchen—presumed dead, all but written out of her own tale, but very much alive. Gudrun spins a yarn of love, loss and leaving, offering comfort and wisdom to the conflicted young mother.

Raising children is not for the faint of heart; all parents know the anguish of parting from a child, even if for the briefest moment. Leaving Now is for mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. It is for anyone who has ever lived in a family.

The chop chop of the knife against the wooden board, squares of onion spinning and tears collecting in my eyes. As usual. This onion is yellow and fierce. I want to finish the job, scrape the bits into the pan, rinse the knife under cold water, clear my eyes. Then a sound bunts behind me. Not so much a sound as a sensation. Something at my back, breathing.

 

When I turn, nothing’s there, although the air just above what I now think of as the burial place, that spongy dip in the kitchen floor near the sink that comes and goes — the air above it shimmers.  And then a slightly accented voice says, You are making Suppe? A woman’s voice, German maybe, but mellifluous as singing bowls.

 

My hands reek of onion. Ja, says the voice, rinse your hands. She must have heard me thinking. Don’t worry, I won’t leave, she says. Not that this worries me or that I’m asking her to stay. But I do what she says. I put the knife down and clasp my hands for a full minute under the force of cold water, then dry them on the towel under the sink.

 

See, she says, I’m still here.

 

No, I say to the empty space in front of me, I can’t see you. I feel foolish, answering a disembodied voice, talking to nothing-really-there.

 

Of course, she says. Ja, sometimes I still forget. I am invisible in kitchens.

 

This strikes me as odd, because I’m always worrying about own invisibility, how much I can or can’t be seen. If we go outside, to a park maybe, she says, you will see me. This occurs in kitchens. Ja, mainly now in kitchens.

 

What’s going on? I say to myself, not wanting to address the voice again, give any more credibility to the shimmer that might be my imagination. I don’t want to give in to some kind of west-coast airy-fairy weirdo stuff. So I test it, step forward — and whump right into a soft surface, a felted resistance. I stagger back. I’ve stepped on something. I back up, holding my hands out in front of me.

 

Okay then, let’s go outside. I turn off the stove, grab my jacket from the chair, open the sliding glass door. Behind me, swishing and laboured breath. Despite her voice, this person must be old.

 

We tread the path to the carport, I can hear her in front — somehow she’s gained on me — when suddenly I walk into an outstretched arm. Which is all I can see at first, hopping left to avoid it. One arm stuck out like a parking lot barrier. I wait stock still and watch her forming beside me. The one arm leads to her now-visible neck, and then her head, topped with a red taqiyah cap, round and flat-topped. Next her shoulders, upholstered red and glittering with tiny mirrors, swell below her neck. The rest of her materializes quickly, like a rabbit pulled from a top hat. The mirrors sparkle like miniature novas. Her feet appear in oxblood boots.

 

Beside me, human scale, an entire galaxy erupts and for a minute I hallucinate rainbows and auras, her shine becomes so intense. Bright rings festoon her fingers and her eyes are navy blue. I’m grateful that we both stand absolutely still. I’m inside a disco ball: any movement and I’d fall. I adjust my footing. She grips the handle of an old carpetbag covered with mirrors and embroidered figures. She’s so short that the carpet bag drags on the grass. Her cheekbones look as heavy as two wooden spoons. She is steady as Cassiopeia, bright as the Polestar on a mid-winter night.

 

She touches my arm, and instinctively I pull my arm away, even though she’s not big. She reaches out again, touches my shoulder, lightly. Tilts her head.

 

It’s going to be alright, she says, straightening her mirrored back, creaking. At least as alright, she tips her chin, as these things can be. But you will need a companion. There’s a lineage, a litany of us, you know, Cinderella’s mother, Snow White’s mother and Pinocchio’s, the Little Match Girl’s. Many others too. I am yours. Not your mother, of course. Your, you know, how you say, “˜mentor.’ Assigned by the rotation. Shall I leave this, she nods at her carpetbag, in the house, the spare room, perhaps?

I don’t know what she means, the spare room, the carpetbag, leave it, or why or who she might be. Her dress is ancient and peculiar. I don’t know what any of this can mean.

 

Why do I need a companion? Who are you? I don’t need more complexity in my life. I don’t know how or when or if I will be leaving. Through the sliding door. Not yet. I want to know why you’re here with mirrors and your tattered carpetbag.

 

She reaches inside her voluminous skirts, draws out a small clay pipe, long-stemmed, white with a small brown bowl. She taps the bowl against her palm, releasing ash onto the grass, then puts the pipe between her lips and talks around it.

 

You are about to enter the other side of fairytale, she tells me, as if she knows how gravity works, as if she knows all about me. The side that looks like absence. It’s not easy to reside through absence. Trials will naturally occur. Might you need a character witness. She laughs. Or counsel? There are always judgments, official and unofficial. She rearranges her face, serious now. Some occur entirely in our own minds.

 

[A]n unsettling, tender lyric, beautifully written in a mixture of poems, prose fragments and fairytales, a story like no other. Read it if you’re a mother. Read it if you’re not. It’s a splendid, unique contribution to our country’s literature.

— Lorna Crozier

Paré is a past winner of the Victoria Butler Book Prize, and it is easy to see why. She moves seamlessly between poetry and prose in the pages of Leaving Now, writing with an obvious respect for language. By making the choice to incorporate as much poetry into the novel as she does, Paré limits the actual number of words that makes up her story. There is a significant amount of white space in an already slim book, so it is especially important that the right words are in the right spaces. It’s a job Paré has done very well.

— Colin Holt, the Times Colonist

Paré’s character, let’s call her Mum, tells her story in prose, poetry and fairy tales. The boundaries of genre are stretched just as Mum stretches the possibilities of life. As with our memories that appear in a mysterious and circular way, events don’t unfold chronologically in Leaving Now. Are we here? Have we left? Are we just planning to leave? The white space in the book offers a kind of relief. Separating from one’s husband and children requires some deep breathing and is always heart-wrenching. That’s true for anyone I would say. In my case, I did exactly what the character in this book did and at the same time.

— Mary Ann Moore, Story Circle Book Reviews

Leaving Now is sometimes harrowing, occasionally funny, often heartbreaking and always engrossing.Paré’s distinctive style artfully mixes poetry, personal journal, feminist socio-political analysis and literary analysis of fairy tales. You can read the book with pleasure for its overall cleverness, for its emotional depth, for its poetry or for its setting in Montreal and Vancouver. You can read it as a heroic quest by the narrator to integrate personal truths within their historical moments and the literary traditions by which we try to understand our lives. Just read it.

— Debby Yaffe, Herizons