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Review

Phantom Limb

By Theresa Kishkan

November 4, 2013

Review By Harold Rhenisch

A phantom limb is an amputated arm or leg that feels like it hasn’t gone anywhere. At the end of a phantom arm, for instance, the fingers of a phantom hand still feel heat, the touch of another’s hand, and pain. They are extremities of a ghost body that moves along with the body itself. It is the shadow body we perceive in our minds, the one we know most intimately – if not the only one we really know at all. The phenomenon of a phantom limb remaining after the amputation of a physical limb is evidence that we’re both biological beings and creatures of memory that spans our entire biological lives. Phantom limbs aren’t a purely physical matter, of synapses firing in a glitch of spatial representation within our minds; the complex world rising out of the points of commonality between them and the phantom selves of other people creates a phantom society moving in and through human social life. Intangible, unprovable, on the edge of perception or even past it, such phantom life is ultimately a metaphor for the depths and complexities of human social interaction and their dependency on the nurturing ground of physical space. This is the world at the heart of Theresa Kishkan’s collection of essays, Phantom Limb.

Phantom Limb is one woman’s ecology. It is a meditation on the connections of her life, from earliest childhood to the present, through which it presents each generation – indeed, even each iteration of the self – as the ghost of the one that preceded it in time and space. In brief, for Kishkan, landscape is intimately bound with self, self is lived among others, and landscape is a social fabric. At the time of writing, she is the mother of children older than she was when she first lived her earlier selves – a girl and her horse in Victoria, a young woman in love in Ireland – that became her first phantom limbs, when she left the constrictions of non-phantom life to become her own mature and often teasingly phantom self. 

Phantom Limb ultimately concerns place and attachment to place – tenuous concepts in their own right. The place is a hilltop home above Sakinaw Lake on BC’s Sunshine Coast, a home built by hand and lived in for more than a quarter century, until every moment, every artifact, every tree and bear sighting, has become imbued with self. It’s as if in the long living of a place, her self has become scattered further and further across the landscape; when encountered there again, in a creek pouring down to the lake or an apple tree in her garden, it opens doorways into moments shared with others, who have perhaps also left their own traces there. Accordingly, Kishkan’s description of the landscape of Sakinaw Lake is an exploration of the otherwise hidden dimensions of herself – the landscape of herself. In this world view, time passes inexorably but leaves a trace – which, like a phantom limb, becomes the one world that can be seen and dreamed, however intangible it may be.

Phantom Limb is above all, of course, a book. Specifically, it is a book about sitting still and sifting through the pattern blocks of a life to uncover what has stuck to the heart and can be used now to further the quilting, to deepen the recognition of a life’s pattern, to celebrate it, extend it, or even pass it on – or even to use it to make a new quilt altogether. In her writing, Kishkan continually contrasts the lives of her parents (welded to machinery and propriety) and of the Mormons she lived among for a winter in Idaho (welded to duty and without interest in the natural world around them) with her own life (one curious about the natural world and open to unexpected experiences of connection). Like many writers, she has retained many of the qualities of childhood past adolescence and has used them as building blocks for her adult self. She is not childlike, however. Her voice is that of a woman, rooted in her body and at home in the world. 

As Phantom Limb progresses, Kishkan draws parallels between her way of being in the world and her physical and spiritual identity as a woman – a body taking things into itself and giving birth to new life. Through contemplations of traditionally feminine arts – cooking, knitting, and quilting – she enters the phantom lives of generations of women before her, and even those of the Mormon women still living lives less open to the chance operations of the world. Quilts are patched together throughout the whole of Phantom Limb; even the book itself is a quilt. Among these, one of her favourites is “The Drunkard’s Path.” As she explains, among the Mormons, this almost infinitely variable quilt pattern is a hidden story – of a trickster, an elusive life lived just past the edge of the acceptable, an otherwise forbidden life brought back into the warmth of family and love through the art of its recreation – a form of the Blues, in other words. For Kishkan, “The Drunkard’s Path” is a story of the shape and art that remains after she has stumbled almost blindly through the world. It haunts her; in it she lives most resonantly, as her life slowly becomes a unity – becomes, in other words, a life.

Kishkan grounds this lyrical thread within precise, luminous descriptions of place. Biology and nomenclature are among her passions, and she names with precision the creatures and plants in the domestic and the natural worlds around her. To complete this pattern, this drunkard’s path of stepping over roots and stones and around dead salmon, children, husband, and old Irish lovers, Phantom Limb contains Kishkan’s essay “Month of Wild Berry Picking.” Deeply engaging with First Nations experience, the essay grounds Phantom Limb by extending its sense of personal and social place into the experience of innumerable generations who have lived on her land and the precise mechanisms by which they managed the barrier between domesticity and wildness. In dissections of both her own experience in the light of First Nations stories and traditions, and vice versa, she argues that First Nations people had delineable social rules not only for interacting with other people but also for interacting with other species on the planet – a system of etiquette caused by lives lived very close to other species. In this context, Phantom Limb is ultimately Kishkan’s own set of social rules for living closely on, and within, the earth, where she has given birth to three children, who she has actively encouraged to leave – and to stay. While continuing to nurture them, at greater and greater distance, she finds herself living with her own phantom selves that return to her from her children’s own experiences. Throughout, Kishkan uses her meditations to ensure the continued safety and closeness of their lives in this place, no matter how distant they stretch away from it. It’s a kind of shamanistic spell that continually returns the tenuous to the physical and the physical to the tenuous, and keeps place alive through story. 

Time is the spoiler in this world. On the one hand, it is a positive force, embodied in Kishkan’s attempts to act against disintegration by creating a sense of language and attention that can map and maintain all her phantom lives and set them up as meaningful ways in which other people can interact with the human and geographical worlds around and within them. On the other hand, time here is a disturbing, negative force. It reveals itself most openly in Kishkan’s exploration of the town of Granite Creek, a gold-mining boomtown in BC’s Tulameen Valley, a century past its heyday. In her essay, “Erasing the Maps,” she meditates on how this town, that seems to have completely vanished, is still alive enough in memory that people will want to be buried there, as indeed they are. She meditates on what exactly will remain once the place returns to wilderness, and whether allowing it to return to silence and forgetfulness is indeed the best way of honouring the human lives lived within what people defined once as a place – to return them to the land in a way parallel to that of salmon spawning in the stream in which they hatched. To this question she has no answers, as she should not: an answer would betray the drunkard’s path. It would wander of the quilt. It would be death, stumbling into life and demanding obedience.