Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Helen Hajnoczky : Pauline Le Bel : My First Real Poet




I don’t remember meeting the first poet I met. Instead, Pauline Le Bel forms a part of the vignettes of my early childhood memories - those types of early memories that are lit with a soft warm light and shuffled around like photos in a shoebox. Memories that are saved and sorted by emotions and impressions, rather than by a sense of external chronology or a date stamp.

In one memory my family is visiting Pauline in Edmonton. Her home comes in and out of focus - I remember it feeling like the home of a writer and artist - an inviting kitchen, expressive furniture and décor. In sharp detail I remember a claw foot tub, the floor underneath decorated with seashells, as if Pauline had somehow conjured a stretch of ocean into this windswept, landlocked winter.

In another memory, an evening storm - or was it a gentle sunset? - envelops North Glenmore Park in Calgary. We walk along the bluff, the wind pulling at our hair or the low sun glinting off it, my mom and sister not far away. I recite the stories for my Old Tales for Tender Years book tape to Pauline, and remember her being engaged with the strange and winding story. A writer and performer, she seems to recognize this impulse I have to memorize and recount tales. The sort of early support that underpins my confidence to pick up a pen and write my own stories and poems.

I remember her being my pirate sister, though not quite why. Again, a park - I think. Again, Pauline’s ebullient creative spirit bringing a story into the world, allowing us to be enveloped by it. A tale and a bond I can’t quite remember, but that I can feel, like the salt wind blowing, filling the sails of our ship as we head off on an adventure. 

I remember her performing as Edith Piaf - I think I remember - or is this a blend of fact and memory - I seem to remember her singing. She is at a piano or no - someone else is playing the piano and she is singing. Her voice clear and evocative, like a songbird.

I remember the screening of The Song Spinner in Calgary. Floored at how Pauline not only wrote this incredible book about the power of art, but how it was also somehow made into a movie. The film is beautiful, moving, sinking deep into my soul, reinforcing my hunger to be a writer and artist, assuring me of the importance of self-expression and beauty. Her role in the film reflects how I see her in my life - someone who opens ideas, someone who lets the music in. 

Other memories are fogged not by the veil of childhood but by grief, while others are pristine and sharp for the same reason. 

My father is sick with his final illness - the kind of life experience that causes me to reflect on our shared memories and relationships, like that with Pauline. Of our shared values, like the importance of art and expression, a value that evokes thoughts of Pauline as well. I write to her and order all her books and CDs. My father is still at home, resting on the sofa. I sit across from him, reading aloud to him from Pauline’s poetry. This memory is crystal clear, bright sunshine scattering across the living room. Later we are in the hospice. This memory is in a haze. Pauline sings to my father over the phone from her home in Bowen Island. She sounds so present. He is happy. My heart bursts.

A few years later, the Bowen Island Rotary Club hosts a Zoom presentation where Pauline recounts the story of her life and work, from early childhood to her life in Edmonton, her Edith Piaf show and The Song Spinner, moving to Bowen Island and becoming intimately engaged with that place and it’s beauty. Her work with local people from Indigenous and settler communities, her ongoing exploration of the end phases of life through her work. Her presentation reframes my own memories of her work. I’m inspired not only to know her and her work better - more clearly - but by her lifelong and unwavering commitment to writing and art. To letting it flow into every channel of life, to let it dapple every day in it’s necessary and restorative light.

Pauline Le Bel’s work and spirit have been of deep, life shaping importance of me. I don’t remember meeting her, and I can’t imagine not having met her. My life and art have been moved by Pauline in ways I can’t express, but that I feel, like the waves crashing against the prow of our pirate ship, each time I sit down to write or make art. The Song Spinner explores a world without music - without expression. With Pauline in my life this is a world I have never had to know. 

Learn more about Pauline Le Bel’s work here: 





Helen Hajnoczky is the author of the books Frost & Pollen, Magyarázni, and Poetsand Killers: A Life in Advertising. She also has a handful of above/ground press chapbooks. She shares her writing and art on her website

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