Placeways in the Anthropocene: Phyllis Webb’s Canadian West Coast

By | 1 August 2017

It’s who Phyllis made this a sacred site for poetry – joining us in poetry-solidarity with the Indigenous visionaries who carved it long ago – in reverence for the gift of rocks and sea, the feasting there, the reflective sky – permanent impermanence – eternal recurrence.

Phyllis followed Lilo’s lead in naming it ‘Wilson’s Bowl,’ after the UBC anthropologist they both knew. Phyllis once interviewed him, but the recording apparently failed, the tape came up blank, and their conversation fled into another silence. Abandoned.

The Sencoten (Saanich) word for Ganges Harbour is Syowt, which means ‘go with caution.’ So really it is Syowt’s Bowl, not Wilson’s. About what does it caution us? Time. Water. Our food supply. Whatever the weather brings, on shore and off. The attentions we must pay to our elemental home.

Sitting and watching, I wonder why the archaeologists (Beth Hill aside) haven’t written about it? Because it doesn’t depict – doesn’t offer images for the image-hungry west – it’s just a bowl, not a representation. It is strikingly empty, waiting to be filled. It is a something filled with – nothing.

And because settlers can’t remove it to a museum for display. It is not alienable from its rocky bed, cannot be assigned monetary value, tickets cannot be sold to see it. You just have to know where it is – and go there – perform whatever sea and sky might be asking you.

Would it have had a use? I don’t think so – not a ‘practical’ one at least. Beth Hill notes that some bowls retain ‘traces of pigments’ – medicines, potions, shaman – a ‘world reflected,’ place to see ‘distant places’ – stone bowl taking the place of crystal ball. It was I think some one’s dream and vision, a bowl to catch stories in, to tell the most important stories by. Someone or some few who gave its carving countless hours of their idle time, hours of their reverence and devotion, perhaps over a number of years. To scry. To dwell in proximity with. To ward and welcome, caution and crave, protect and project. Someone who waited on the beach, looking out, seeing far.

Could a woman have made it? It’s possible. Chora. Vessel. It would have captured the moon’s transformations in a small round watery altar on earth. Beth Hill, once again, writes:

Does it mean rebirth? A bowl is a female symbol, as old as man’s consciousness. … If the bedrock and boulder bowls held ground ochre, the swelling tide would devour it, transport it, and out of the great sea would come the life-sustaining salmon. Perhaps at another level of meaning the bowls capture a fraction of the sea and transform it into a mirror, expressing the idea that we only know a thing in terms of its opposite: earth / air; light / dark. At night, when the moon is full and the sea glitters with moon fragments, the bowl itself becomes a round black moon; but if you position yourself with care you can see the real moon as a small bright coin reflected in the dark moon at your feet.

Phyllis, in Wilson’s Bowl, the poem simply titled ‘The Bowl,’ invokes it thus:

This is not a bowl you drink from not a loving
This is meditation’s place
cold rapture’s.
Moon floats here
belly, mouth, open-one-eye
any orifice
comes to nothing
dark as any mask
or light, more light / is
holy cirque.
Serene, it says silence
in small fish
cups a sun
holds its shape
upon the sea
howls, ‘Spirit entered
black as any raven.’
Smiles –
and cracks your smile.
Is clean.

Does the Raven – the story of the Raven – enter through the bowl? I’m reminded, via the ‘coming to nothing’ of this bowl and poem, of the Raven story, ‘Nothing comes only in pieces,’ as retold by Wilson Duff. The retelling is embedded in a discussion of the story’s meaning, which Duff centres on the image of the infinitely small box out of which the Raven creates the world. The box is too small to contain anything – there can only be nothing inside it – and yet everything comes out of it. ‘I guess that’s what a nothing is,’ one of the story’s speakers remarks, ‘a thing that’s too small to exist, but it’s there anyway.’ The Raven bites this nothing in half, spits it into the ocean, and creates the islands of Haida Gwaii. The message, if that’s the best way of thinking of meaning here, seems to be that, as the story teller relates, ‘emptiness comes only in pieces,’ or ‘even emptiness has to be in pieces before we can see it.’

Paul Valery: ‘God made everything out of nothing. But the nothing shows through.’

Is the bowl a piece of emptiness we can see? A tiny vacancy into which we peer – at sea, sky, stars, sun and moon, reflecting?

This entry was posted in ESSAYS and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work: