Elise Arsenault | Reporter
I am certain of two things upon entering the executive dining hall the evening of Thursday, February 5th. Firstly, that the event inside will be delectably catered and, secondly, that I will hear from a man who works with words and wood.
“John Terpstra: writer and cabinetmaker.” He tells us he avoids drawing parallels between the two crafts (calling the concept “too cute”), but their semblance is difficult to overlook. Both entail the shaping of unlikely parts, the drawing from one’s environs, and the fusion of thought and senses. I think about their friendship and decide it’s no coincidence that he thrives in both.
Currently living with his wife in Hamilton, Terpstra is son to parents who emigrated from the Netherlands to Canada shortly before his birth in Brockville, Ontario. He writes poetry and prose, with inspiration plucked from his Dutch family tree, mined from Hamiltonian landscape, and coloured by his experience of faith, relationships and hope.
He’s come to Redeemer to speak about his latest published work: “The House with the Parapet Wall.”
The book’s genesis is at a stationary store in Seattle. There, he made a purchase that further swelled his collection of journals. In moments he found himself sitting on a park bench, cracking the pages’ stiff spine and writing, writing all about his mother.
This is the first half of his book’s conception. The second is found not on a bench but in the brick and mortar of nineteenth-century houses in Hamilton. In time, the story of Terpstra’s childhood home collides with the one strung between the life and death of his mother.
“They came simultaneously,” he says, “I just wrote and let them come together.” What began as therapy would sprout the roots of his next prose project, the pursuit of which was encouraged by the editor of the literary journal “Hamilton Arts & Letters.”
When Terpstra opens a copy of “The House with the Parapet Wall” that night, I realize I’d never heard an author read his or her own book. I am thrilled at the thought of the two-fold, two-dimensional hearing of the author’s voice. I listen with closed eyes, wondering how many times he rewrote his first sentence, his first paragraph, and if he knows his reading sometimes sounds like singing. He speaks in waves with a strong undertow, and all at once I’m in the chapter standing next to him, staring at a naked brick wall and bearing his unfamiliar grief. His words are, as artist Frances Cockburn puts it, “ridiculously moving,” and the audience can sense their depth.
Once the reading is finished, a question and answer period begins. One man asks what the author learned about himself throughout this piece’s creation. John Terpstra sort of laughs in making reference to the fifth commandment: “honour your father and mother.” He goes on to describe the divide between his generation and his parents’, making mention of the Vietnam war, hippies and how those jagged times led to a willful silence between kinfolk. “I didn’t honour them as much as I should have,” he confesses, “but I believe in a kind of retroactive honouring by caring for others from their generation.” He is more intentional now than ever in doing so, saying, “It counts! And I know [my parents] will understand.”
This leads him to talk about their passing. His sincerity is striking: “I don’t know what to do with death, really.” His mother’s diminishing health caused her to lose abilities at the same rate she’d gained them as a child; it’s like growing in reverse.
In the wake of this experience, Terpstra contemplates the title of a Kate and Anne McGarrigle song: “Why Must We Die?” This question would become the mantelpiece under which “The House with the Parapet Wall” was written (and was its original title). An audience member asks what the answer is, and Terpstra’s tongue-in-cheek response is “it’s in the book!” One of his most compelling remarks comes next, stating that the question is similar to one asked by children everywhere, that is, “why must I go to bed?”
“It’s not about the dying but the losing. Nobody wants to leave and miss out on what follows.”
Lastly, John Terpstra is asked why he chose prose over poetry in the making of this project. I smile when he answers with reference to woodwork: “It’s like doing a whole renovation instead of furniture alteration. It’s the longer haul.”
“It’s also sequential,” he continues, “whereas poetry comes at its own time and leaves when it wants to. I can’t command the muse.”
In closing the evening, Dr. Deborah Bowen praises John Terpstra for his physical and spiritual understanding of “the passing of things” and for his changing, yet recognizable, voice. It has been said that people have trouble differentiating Terpstra’s poetry from his prose when read aloud. I am fascinated by this and make a beeline to the book display once the session is over.
I buy four books and wonder what I should request he write in them at the signing table. Those in line before me ask for names; theirs, their friend’s, their mom’s … I decide to ask for words. I decide I’d like my four books to have four signatures and four of his favourite words. When I blurt out my request he just kind of looks at me. I repeat myself and he smiles, suggesting I grab some refreshments while he thinks on it. Finger-foods tend to my faint embarrassment until I see the fourth book stacked on my pile and thank him.
Then I read the inscriptions. “Chedoke” is written in “The House with the Parapet Wall,” “crux” is written in “This Orchard Sound,” “Herkimer!” is written in “Falling into Place” and “(wordless)” is written in “Naked Trees.” I don’t know the reason for each word, but I invite you to join me on my literary venture to discover it.
I am certain of two things upon exiting the executive dining hall that Thursday evening: Firstly, that I have encountered a man well versed in pondering and, secondly, that his written words will take flight in my mind and root in my soul.