Catholic artist Maya Clubine, recipient of the prestigious Vallum Chapbook Award for her Life Cycle of a Mayfly. Photo courtesy of Maya Clubine

Beauty matters

  • September 28, 2023

With a poetry collection conceived in the mud and water of Ontario’s Credit River, Catholic artist Maya Clubine is the most recent recipient of the prestigious Vallum Chapbook Award for her work Life Cycle of a Mayfly.

Given that the prize typically features writers who are mid-career, the young Clubine told The Catholic Register she was “pleasantly surprised to see her name” listed as a finalist. Vallum Press, a small Quebec publisher of English language writing, has published several prominent Canadian poets in its chapbook series, including George Elliot Clark, formerly a Parliamentary Poet Laureate, and Jan Zwicky, a poet and philosopher awarded the Order of Canada in 2022.

A chapbook, explains Clubine, “is a really dense collection or series of poems centred around a theme.” As the title suggests, Clubine has constructed her work using the stages of the insect life cycle as a framework: nymph, sub-imago and imago.

Careful attention to the details of the material world is one of the hallmarks of Clubine’s poetry.

The introduction of the Credit River (with headwaters near Orangeville northwest of Toronto that flow west of the city through Mississauga and into Lake Ontario), a “main character” of the series, is to the sounds and sights of the place:

“Above the Credit River, songs are carried
along the wind: the morning church bells ringing,
the water’s sigh, cicadas’ steady hums.
Long clouds cast shadows by the banks where wildflowers
grow: stitches of marsh vetchling, Queen Anne’s lace,
and goldenrod begin to fleck tall grass.”

Parallels could be drawn with other contemporary writers — Annie Dillard is one example but there are many others — who prioritize observation of nature as a way of marking the divine. But for Clubine that engagement with the natural world is more dynamic and creative than a mere objective examination and data-entry.

In the opening lines of the poem, Clubine references the creation story: “It’s said all this emerged just after light/broke through the darkness, as the sun cast out/its rays upon the dawn of the fifth day.”

In the Genesis narrative, one of the first tasks that God gave man is naming the animals. This is significant for Clubine.

“There is a real responsibility there. Nowadays, people don’t even know the names of even the plants and animals in their backyard,” said Clubine. “I think that’s important for me artistically, but I also think its almost part of our call as Christians and especially as any sort of small-c creator to attend to the thing by calling it by its name.”

Her choice of words about the physical world, the plants, insects and birds of the Credit River, are those of a keen naturalist, but Clubine extends that same care to an astute observation of the human environment — family ties, maturation from girlhood to womanhood and transience.

Dedicated “in loving memory of my grandfathers, an artist and a fisherman,” the poems feature the speaker, her father and grandfather as they fly-fish a familiar neighbourhood river. With the same lightness of touch required to bounce the hand-tied fly off the water, Clubine deftly flicks back and forth through time, casting her line between the keen view of a child and the backward glance of an adult eye.

When Clubine writes, “I cast at ten and two the way you taught/me, but I try not to think much of you/or all the ways a well-loved thing can change,” the reader understands the technique of fishing to be a kind of study of mortality, the speaker standing both physically in the middle of the Credit River and existentially in the river of time.

For Clubine, returning home has become both the subject of her poetry and her musings about art and faith. She notes that she left her hometown with the attitude of “I don’t need that anymore,” but then “sat down to write these poems and realized this is one of the biggest parts of myself.”

“What was important to me to get into the work was the way that we find ourselves pulling back from our families and then drawn back to them again.”

Clubine has received formal formation as a Catholic writer in the newly established Master of Fine Arts of Creative Writing program at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. Co-founded by poet James Matthew Wilson and Joshua Hren, founder and publisher of Wiseblood Books, the MFA program is distinguished from others by its foundation in the Western canon and focus on the American Catholic literary tradition. Wilson and Hren are explicit in stating their desire for a “revival” of that tradition.

Beginning with the study of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Dante, Clubine says that one of the goals of the program is to “actually teach young writers to think critically about how they go about their craft and why even thinking about craft matters.”

Clubine speaks of “three big takeaways” from her experience at St. Thomas that have “informed her manuscript.”

“The first one is just the sense that beauty matters,” said Clubine. “It matters whether you’re working towards beauty or against it, and that is very important for anyone engaged in the art of making.”

The second takeaway, to Clubine, is the notion “that reality is rightly ordered.”

“If you accept that God in His act of creation has rightly ordered things, then we, as sub-creators or co-creators in the reality, have some sort of call to right ordering.”

This call to order is applicable to the craft of poetry.

“We look a lot at the history of form in poetry and how those forms were brought about and then why they were lost. We are interested in recovering those forms. Not in the sense of going back to archaic forms of writing, but in the sense of returning to a way of making poetry that is trying to be rightly ordered in the only ways we know how, based on the literary tradition that we have.”

The third takeaway is “maybe why I was drawn to a Catholic MFA,” Clubine reflects. She is drawn to the “idea that reality has multiple layers of meaning to it.”

“Hopefully, if you’ve created a good poem, there is a narrative on the surface that can be followed, but the more time you spend with it and the more you peer into the being of the work, the more you can push into those deeper levels of meaning.”

As one of only two Canadians enrolled in the program, Clubine is conscious of the responsibility of another kind of homecoming: the translation of her study of the American Catholic literary tradition to the Canadian context.

Clubine says she is coming “back to my homeland” with questions: “What is our literary tradition? What has Catholic writing looked like in Canada? Does it look like anything right now?”

Clubine answers in the negative to her last question but says, “I’m interested in how we can not only glom onto this movement, but also make it our own. How do we take that home and make it our own and start our own conversations here?”

When asked what it means to be a Catholic poet in Canada today, Clubine notes that “something that I’ve personally identified is the obsession with the sublime.”

Clubine references the women writers who arrived in Canada as settlers in the 1800s, Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill, who are “almost shocked by the landscape and secondarily, shocked by how clearly they see God in the landscape. I think our language for it has changed, but I don’t think that sentiment or that spirit has changed.”

This “obsession with the sublime” in the landscape is something Clubine sees as “very particular to the Canadian experience” and is common to all.

“I think it’s a fantastic point of entry into conversation for Catholic and non-Catholic artists in Canada to be in dialogue because there is a shared thing that we can’t quite get away from.”

Clubine summarizes the synthesis of the Catholic and Canadian elements of her artistic work when she reflects, “To sit down and write poetry is, without over exaggerating, to participate in the cosmic order.”

The Life Cycle of a Mayfly will be published by Vallum Press this month.

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