BOOKMARKS 1–5     |      BOOKMARKS 6–10    |    BOOKMARKS 11–15   |   BOOKMARKS 21+


Bookmark #18 Kingston, Ontario

The Convict Lover, by Merilyn Simonds


The prisoner imagined himself knee-deep in the shallow water where the rock had been born, at the edge of a great Paleozoic sea. Ancient organisms of fantastical shape swam at his ankles, the forefathers of jellyfishes, sea-urchins and fairy shrimp. Multi-limbed creatures scuttled scorpion-like across the mud; archaic snails clung to underwater plants, their shells coiled like rams’ horns. All this before creatures breathed air on bare land, before amphibians, before reptiles, before trees and ferns, before dinosaurs, before mammals, before humans. Five hundred million years before the prisoner stood on the quarry ledge, soft-bodied, boneless creatures had dropped their feces and shed their shells in the mud. Year after thousands after millions of years, layer on layer, lives turned to stone.
 – from The Convict Lover, by Merilyn Simonds, first published by Macfarlane, Walter & Ross. Bookmarked at Kingston, September 30, 2017.

 Kingston WritersFest's Jan Walter (original publisher); Project Bookmark Canada's Linda Hughes, Laurie Murphy and Hughena Matheson; Dorothy MacDonald and  author Merilyn Simonds. Photo credit: Richard Cooper.

Kingston WritersFest's Jan Walter (original publisher); Project Bookmark Canada's Linda Hughes, Laurie Murphy and Hughena Matheson; Dorothy MacDonald and  author Merilyn Simonds. Photo credit: Richard Cooper.

 Dorothy MacDonald, niece of "Peggy," and Merilyn Simonds at the freshly unveiled Bookmark, September 30, 2017. Photo credit: Richard Cooper

Dorothy MacDonald, niece of "Peggy," and Merilyn Simonds at the freshly unveiled Bookmark, September 30, 2017.
Photo credit: Richard Cooper

 

Merilyn Simonds’ The Convict Lover is the 18th Bookmark on Canada’s literary trail. The installation was unveiled by the author during Kingston WritersFest, in Portsmouth’s Garrigan Park, once the quarry where Kingston Penitentiary convicts did hard time.

In 1987, Merilyn Simonds happened upon a cache of letters, albums, and clippings in the attic of her house in Kingston, Ontario. Among the overflowing boxes and stuffed sugar sacks was a collection of letters written in the months immediately after the First World War. It was a one-way correspondence from a prisoner in Kingston Penitentiary to a young girl who lived on the outskirts of Portsmouth village near the prison quarry where convicted men broke stone ten hours a day. The Convict Lover blends fact and fiction to imagine a more complete story for the real convict, Joe Cleroux, who called himself Daddy-long-legs in his letters, and the real girl, Phyllis Halliday, who was known to Cleroux as Peggy.


About Merilyn Simonds and The Convict Lover

Merilyn Simonds was born in Winnipeg in 1949, and raised in Brazil and in southwestern Ontario. She moved to the Kingston area in 1987 and became an integral part of the city’s literary community, eventually creating Kingston WritersFest and serving as its founding artistic director. 

Simonds is the author of multiple works of fiction and non-fiction. The Convict Lover was published in 1996 and was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction. It was adapted for the stage by Layne Coleman in 1997 and in 2016 inspired Hot House, a play by Judith Thompson.

The Convict Lover was first published by Macfarlane, Walter & Ross. This excerpt is used with the kind permission of the author.

Merilyn Simond's granddaughter Astrid Mohr, an aspiring film student, recorded the Bookmark unveiling, and created a 2-minute film. Click here to see her video.

To see photos of the Bookmark announcement at the Kingston Writersfest media launch, and of the Bookmark unveiling, click here to see the Facebook Album.

 

TheConvictLover.jpg

The Passage

The limestone split willingly along the rifts, the horizontal layers laid down as true as lintels, half a billion years before. It also cleaved neatly along the joints that opened perpendicular to the layered rock beds. Some joints were obvious, the work of insinuating moisture and cold; others, like the one the prisoner had just tapped into, were barely discernible fissures opened when the primordial ooze suddenly shriveled in the sun, the same sun that evaporated the sweat on the prisoner’s brow.
That this blue-grey rock had once been mud on the floor of a warm lagoon, the prisoner had no doubt. The inner planes of a freshly split block of limestone were soft with rock-sap, smooth and glistening, resilient as flesh. Exposed to the air, the rock hardened quickly. By the time it arrived at the stone shed, where the prisoner had first come to know it, the limestone was dusty white, resistant to the hammers of the men who sat on benches reducing the rough blocks to gravel or shaping them into neat architectural forms – window sills, foundation caps, a plinth to support a courthouse column, steps up to a church.
Darwin’s theories, wondrous on the pages of the prisoner’s library book, became credible in the quarry. The prisoner imagined himself knee-deep in the shallow water where the rock had been born, at the edge of a great Paleozoic sea. Ancient organisms of fantastical shape swam at his ankles, the forefathers of jellyfishes, sea-urchins and fairy shrimp. Multi-limbed creatures scuttled scorpion-like across the mud; archaic snails clung to underwater plants, their shells coiled like rams’ horns. All this before creatures breathed air on bare land, before amphibians, before reptiles, before trees and ferns, before dinosaurs, before mammals, before humans. Five hundred million years before the prisoner stood on the quarry ledge, soft-bodied, boneless creatures had dropped their feces and shed their shells in the mud. Year after thousands after millions of years, layer on layer, lives turned to stone.
The prisoner had spent long hours in his cell, fingering the chiseled face of limestone that framed his bars, searching for a shell, a fern leaf, a bit of bony skeleton that had been trapped in the ooze, their shapes preserved for eternity, the hieroglyphic remains of some ancient form locked in the stone. But there was none. The limestone of Portsmouth, laid down on granite, was pure, even-grained and fossil-free. No record of the living things that had made it. No record of the nameless men who cleaved it from its granite bed and shaped it. All in all, a most desirable building stone.
 

BOOKMARKS 1–5     |      BOOKMARKS 6–10    |    BOOKMARKS 11–15   |   BOOKMARKS 21+