Revelation 8:10-11 “… the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.”
We are the Chernobyl babushkas wearing black kerchiefs. We are the ones with radiation sickness. We are the firefighters interred in two coffins, one zinc, the other wood. We are the digger claws, we collect the seeds, maize, and rye, and zinnias, the log houses, and bury them in the earth. We are the white storks nesting on clay chimneys. We are the Geiger counters. We are the grey wolves of the irradiated lairs.
It was a house set into the invisible,
copper and zinc, brass
recalling the sun, the Budapest avenues,
each acacia leaf and Stolperstein.
It was the doorways with a yellow star
it was the wind in the lilac trees
on Gellért hill, the Chain Bridge
that spanned the Danube River.
Fascist Arrow Cross militiamen
order you to march from Népszínház
Street 16 to Kerepesi út 2-4
it was the bundles, the
Keleti Station, the cattle wagons.
Your shorn hair and tattooed
serial numbers on your arm
at Birkenau the SS guards,
the dogs, the beatings,
your mother’s coat, her shoes
the gas chambers, the crematoria.
It was the stumbling stone.
The cement, the sand, the water.
It was a house. Yours alone.
deep in the mountains
walking through scrub forest
a masked shrike calls out
ah, when I hear its schgra-a-a shriek
“the plague is come”
in the meadow marshes
a vole gnawing rhizomes
come and see, come see
the river mud-washed
for the hills, these verses
these flat needles of
the fir from the Old English fyrh
tied with a thick elastic
some of us rinse the cyanotypes
causing the stories to fade
I, my hands full of dirt
rake and haul deadfall
a year whose days are long
I read your letter
in the moonlight
after much meandering
I’ve determined the world is
that new bicycle,
its chrome menace:
Tour de France,
we laid out the table
in the garden,
far too much food, in particular,
the rabbit and grapefruit.
down this same street
we’d once been so hungry.
The wine was all we had left.
Everything had burned, as you know.
But especially because
the roster pinned to that door
made no mention
of fame, defeat.
The brittle excuses
we’d claim for our own.
Because that day
the orange monarchs came back,
And the night following,
when we walked to the strip mall
green mantids swarmed the shimmering tarmac.
Through the dripping mist
the tall lights flickered and hummed.
in spite of ourselves
also we foresaw
our books mouldering.
And in them, written,
our hunger tomorrow, again,
And everyone had drunk too much.
And everyone began to shout.
And our ears began to bleed, remembering
the hiss-thump hiss-thump of the cannons.
And even after the peace
we never quite found silence again.
Nor those hours, somehow no longer.
And because—I insist on this:
That carnivorous thing,
after so many lives turned,
at the end of the yard,
against the old shed,
LETTER FROM THE CITIZENS & SLAVES OF A MINOR DOMINION
Don’t imagine for a minute, Xerxes,
that war will be avoided.
Enjoy them while you can,
your potted jasmines, your peacock garden.
We lie to ourselves first of all,
and most earnestly.
But the evidence swims
with every crumpled bottle bobbing in the ocean.
The cindered forests, the tar-stuck geese,
our cankered lungs, our graveyards.
The worms are shouting now,
stopping your ears won’t silence them.
Hegel and Freud agreed on little,
but this they knew:
Nostalgia is not a legitimate emotion.
Our sons in your zinc mines,
we consider them dead.
Our sons carrying your spears and muskets,
we’ll slit their throats.
Our daughters in those dark cities
ringed with yellowed lights and snow.
Our daughters sweating in harbourfront brothels,
we consider them lost.
The bill is longer than Penelope’s shroud,
longer even than Hano’s circumnavigation.
And the worms are shouting.
Don’t dream that because your gifts, Xerxes,
were not returned—
Don’t imagine it for a minute.
Though we know who will pay,
though we know.
About the artist:
Leonor Vulpe Albari is a painter and print-maker whose work has been featured on several book covers, as well as in Montréal Serai, which published a detail from her painting, Cut Fig, in its January 2022 issue. After studying at Carleton University and Maastricht University, she earned a degree in law at Oxford’s Harris Manchester College. She now lives in London, England, where she continues to develop her art while completing her training as a lawyer.
There was a wind blowing outside, a dog barking,
When your stomach turned black in your RV,
you finally got scared.
You decided the time had come
to softly drift.
All you needed was alcohol, fentanyl, meth,
and the horns of gangrene.
Did friends claim your watch and your bike?
Did they leave you?
I know that one, yes, I know that one.
And I’m sorry.
Accident, the Coroner wrote. But I wonder —
hadn’t you quit?
Accident or not, what will give you the most peace?
asked my daughter.
What do you want, Brother? How can I give honor,
now you’ve departed?
God knows you were born so jolly and sweet,
you couldn’t bear
life’s unfair load: wan ignorance of a child’s need
in time of war and stupidity.
If only I had brought you home,
if only life had let me.
Dear old Kirk. Let the stars cry you a song.
Blood of my own, good night.
Yahweh is near to the broken-hearted. He helps those whose spirit is crushed. Though my father and mother forsake me, Yahweh will gather me up.
(Psalms 27 & 34)
After reading what my father had etched on my brother’s grave,
it was hard not to remember again, and in great detail
the many times my nest-mate was cast out of the nest.
To wonder why it was he, and not me, who endured the brunt
of our parents’ grief again and again.
And, if I am honest, not to feel sorrow once more
for the follow-through of every blow,
which unfailing found its way to me.
What is destiny? Time, the avenger, swooping
from his perch, three wingbeats behind the hapless gull flapping
toward the still-ignorant flock walking in circles on the mudflats
until, sensing danger, they rise, crying as one,
thousands of them, into sky,
as the loner enters the throng and disappears.
Later, I watched the bald eagle, perched in tall cedar.
White head, yellow beak and talons, wings spread wide
like the velvet cape of a lord being groomed by sunlight.
But when the gaze of the eagle found me,
and I felt it pierce me through, I wanted to run,
whether toward it or away, I was not certain.
I want to be gathered but I also want more time
to learn not to consider all that might have been.
To mourn your death I enter a cave, a lava tube
blasted ten thousand years ago by fire and pressure
in the world below our feet, below all we can’t see.
Descending, I watch light fade, a beam of memory
on pocked and mottled walls, narrowing in scope.
When you were ten, you leapt at a man who had our mother
by the hair. Remember the one I fought off with words alone?
My hands feel for rock and I duck my head. Above me,
high desert blanketed in volcanic rock. Birds, wind, bugs.
Down here, a fungus spreads filaments to spite the black,
giving shelter to crustaceans, worms and bats.
If only my mind were so quiet.
Is the world womb or tomb? wrote Henry Miller.
I always said womb. Now I don’t know.
Your damage locked you out, mine locked me in.
The cave breathes its implacable chill—the arrest
of the grave. I’m leaving now; I won’t be back.
Can you forgive me wanting to live?
Think of all the times you haven’t been thwarted
by your teeth and tongue,
your clavicle and ulnas, femurs and gut.
Body says, This one’s on me.
Brain says, What’s remembered lives;
It’s alright not to get over loss.
Light left Vega when you were born,
it’s taken this long to arrive;
a run begun in a great bright kite
the ancients called a lyre.
You are always the centre of the poem,
even when you’re not.
Just before imploding, a giant
star releases a tone, we’re told,
that’s close to middle C ~
Do stars relinquish sound?
If they do, can we hear it?
Beyond the poem are sirens, fire,
sea careening the pier. Beyond the poem,
a brother burned.
It’s his exigency pushing the poem—
through to the flume
below. A hawk-and-swallow chorus rises—
higher than a hope. A truck
down-gears, a horn lets go. Sounds
that keep us piqued; you loathe the racket.
The whole wide world’s a narrow bridge, a
concertina wire. The key is not to fear,
to make it across—
have passed; we’ve left the desert.
Fire-pillar guides by night, cover
of cloud—those nebulous shepherds, by day.
Food and drink provided
despite our waywardness, especially mine.
I begged to linger; loved the camel-
coloured sand, the arid air.
Forty—that pivotal biblical sum;
we had to finish the course, I guess,
Frigid winds are wringing here
I’m quavering in my coat—the slider on the zipper
stuck in the stop. You in your thermal socks
and flannels can’t get warmth enough.
My laptop keeps demanding my location.
I must be a person
of deep belief. Every morning I wake
with the clock, to disembodied radio voices,
you beside me energizing. Sun
still pallid as ash.
I’m certain it will quicken to its task.
What need have we of fear—
on our winter chinks of light.
POEM OF THE UNFINISHED SANDWICH
Tomato slice, white baladi cheese, rye,
a bite taken from one end,
An ant trudges her burden across the blue countertop.
Ah, if only you’d listened!
Ah, yes, if only I’d listened.
My friend lived her marriage as a mourning.
So without digressing into whether an unfinished sandwich
is a sandwich not complete
or a sandwich uneaten
I’ll write a poem for this sandwich,
this ant and her burden
our mottled countertop.
A poem, lightwoven, fanciful, a poem flightyearning—
No! A poem lumpy and dull,
a poem appropriate to this now,
appropriate to this silence.
POEM OF ANCESTORS
When at last the sun set
the light refused to leave.
It stayed on, wheedling the night.
Every midsummer it’s the same.
The soup goes cold, flies gather, the fish turns,
some pudding or other quietly bubbles.
They don’t eat a thing, nor do they speak.
Though I know what they’re thinking,
every one of them, in their rotted out heads.
You’re here and I’m not.
You’re here and I’m dust.
Long thin beans on slender stems,
fresh, smooth velvet
as she did
the signs of fading youth.
Softened each one gently from ends,
Prepared, diced into tiny circles,
pearls in a sea of green
like rows of embossed dupattas
ready to be worn.
There was but one, like none other,
could not be cut… staring instead,
eyes in fixed resolve,
seeing her knife as nothing more
than a clean slate to write on.
The sound of heavy feet
echoed through the empty house.
And a piercing cry broke the silence: “Where are you? Why don’t you respond?”
The string bean fell from her hands.
It had not yet been softened or cut.
It might have been too small,
leaving her to wonder what went wrong.
The sound drowned her half-spoken thoughts. “There is still one left to chop… How can I respond?
What have I to say?
Familiar footsteps approached
and cried in rage why there seemed
to be no one at home,
no one to answer questions any more.
“This one is not yet ripe,” she said, “Not ready to be eaten.”
The footsteps, unaccustomed to having to wait,
scattered her green pearls everywhere.
She saw her work lying on the floor…
except the one that remained,
the smallest, sweetest of them all.
She held it softly in her hand and said: “You are the only one… uncut, unripe… Where shall I keep you? What shall I do with you? How shall I water you? I have no more tears left for you, my little pearl!”
This is the age of surrealism,
ordinary oil on ordinary canvas:
all those losing the noisy ghosts of slavery
all those who are scraping off wet paint
and those palm trees in the gardens
all Galerias de Arte in São Paulo.
They say: we are poor.
Some say: we are squatters.
There is the head of a man
and the eyes have no iris.
There is the male I and the
female I superimposed,
your rhythms on guitars, the bass drums,
You dance the Lundu.
You want to stay
when your favela is razed.
What are you going to do
with all this river water?
Your tin-roof shack on stilts?
Lundu – Brazilian traditional dance
After I buried the umbilical cords, the placentas,
the cauls; after I moved in with the lemon trees and
zinnias; after I escaped his fists, I slept in the orangery
on the putty-coloured couch; after I saw the waning
gibbous moon setting in the morning sky; after the
warble of swallows, a Sicilian folk song on a boombox:
“Ciuri, Ciuri”; after I mopped ceramic floor tiles with
water and vinegar, painted cerulean the rush chairs;
after the red brick house was separated by glass doors,
the concrete of a bunker kitchen, steep staircases: after
all that, I would take this verse and write sradicare,
uproot the wild roses, raspberry rhizomes, grasses.
And you’d ask: Why do you write about fetuses
and swallows, “Ciuri, Ciuri”? Flowers, Flowers.
My people are a beautiful
people. We are still here despite
your best efforts. Hear the echo
of our experience.
Our truth grounds us. Our roots
dig deep, searching for magma to
fuel our warmth or to burn those
who expect us to accept their
outdated stance of ignorance.
Guardians of amber, our
ability to accept what
is while creating what will be
proof of our integrity.
My people are a beautiful
people and we know our place
is where we choose it to be.
Just a Minute
15 June 2020
Yesterday, I saw the blue line take a knee.
While Kaepernick’s maligned and side-lined like the
redlined. His gesture of dissent, snatched, a forced
publicity stunt run on every station.
Take a minute to breathe.
Out of chaos, a shooting star burns out in
atmospheres of fear. Plummets past chores and chance
and stories—26 stories, fallen—
another broken body on our concrete trail.
Take a minute to breathe.
Social feeds serve bodies, bludgeoned and lynched.
Post pokes, keeps the corpse swaying. Likes swarm like flies,
colonize video-fresh flesh.
Take a moment to breathe.
Take another one.
And another, ad infinitum.
A lady of business caught in a low-stakes
game, rakes the Birder, hoping he’ll draw dead. She
plays a racist card then a victim. Terror’s
trill quivering her voice. Drills instilled by the
lady who lied on Emmett Till never die.
Take a minute to breathe.
Author’s note:The following poem includes an embedded message. The hint for deciphering the message is in the title of the poem, placed after the colon. The solution for deciphering the poem’s message can be found in the endnote.[i] (The messages may reflect linguistic variations.)
Olivier LeJeune, First Black Slave in New France:
First of One, Then Second of Two . . .
Some Kirkes snatched a little boy
From the Madagascan shore.
Steeled aboard a naval ship,
Only 7, his past, scorched.
Some Kirkes off-loaded this boy
To the turncoat Le Baillif.
For a mere 50 écus,
Le Baillif’s honour would renew.
Le Baillif now coveted
A rank other than coward.
To prove his worth, he gifted
The boy to Guillaume Couillard.
Guillaume lent the little boy
To Father Le Jeune. The priest
Mocked his innocence, claimed he’d
Groom him into a Christian.
Le Jeune schooled the pint-size boy,
Taught him to read, write, and pray.
Anointed him with water
And the name we know today.
Even at 13 years old
Olivier knew what’s best.
He prayed with one eye on God
And stoked pale, prideful breasts.
Olivier recalled the
Smell of dumplings and fish stew.
Lullabies sung by his mum,
Burnt, lingering residue.
In court, notes passed between Nick
Marsolet and Le Baillif.
Nick counter-sued double-quick.
His claim. (Nick gerrymandered.)
They threw him in jail: One day
In chains because he’d slandered.
Olivier LeJeune died
In 1654. He
Was thirtyish, just like Christ,
When he slid from human form.
Olivier LeJeune had
A name from his family,
Bristling with ancestral lore, kept
Alive in melodies.
A little boy spent his youth
Shuttled between men. His true
Name marooned on ancestral
Land, like shells the oceans strew.
Note: This poem is part of a larger collection about Black individuals who contributed to Canada between 1604 and 1917.
Trudel, Marcel. L’esclavage au Canada français: Histoire et conditions de l’esclavage [Slavery in French Canada: The History and Conditions of Slavery]. Québec : Les Presses Universitaires Laval [Laval UP], 1960. Print.
[i]Solution: The poem includes an embedded message or idea. The hint for deciphering the message is placed after the colon of the title of the poem (“Olivier LeJeune, First Black Slave in New France: First of One, Second of Two . . .”).
To decode the message, create a sentence from the first word of Stanza 1, the second word of Stanza 2, the third word of Stanza 3, and so on. Family names in French count as one word.
Message: Some Kirkes coveted little boy Olivier and nick him, like ancestral name.
[Editorial note: This issue would not be complete without Ian Ferrier’s live performance of his poem, Emma’s Country, at Montréal Serai’s 32nd anniversary celebration on June 21, 2019. A link to that performance can be found below.]
Background to Emma’s Country
Although some of the names and circumstances have changed, a lot of what happens in Emma’s Country did take place. I went out with the daughter of a Gaspé fisherman. Twice we visited her father, who had fought in World War II and been imprisoned in appalling conditions after the fall of Hong Kong.
After the war, he returned to fishing and became one of the founders of the Quebec United Fishermen, a group that represented fishermen in their negotiations with wholesalers and fish packing plants. But his life was about to be upended by two other events beyond his control. First his house, indeed his entire village, was expropriated to create Forillon Park at the tip of the Gaspé peninsula. This was a real tragedy, as the amount of compensation given was not enough for any of the villagers to buy property elsewhere. As the village was dismantled, his daughter remembers sitting in her house, now without electricity, and watching as their neighbour’s now empty house was burned down by park authorities. She still experiences the events as the destruction of her home and the scattering of everyone she knew. Her dad and his wife ended up living in his mother’s house in Port Daniel on the Baie de Chaleur.
The second shock was the appearance of massive BC factory trawlers that dragged up every single fish. This practice wiped out the huge banks of capelin, a small fish the cod fed on. With no food, there were hardly any cod, and Gaspé fishermen could no longer make a living. When she and I went to visit him, he was still fishing for lobster in season, jigging for cod, and keeping a small mackerel net strung on a nearby inlet.
I only went out fishing with him once. We awoke in darkness and headed out to sea in a small dory with an outboard motor. Jigging for cod meant throwing a line studded with hooks over the side, jerking the hooks up and down, and then dragging the line back up. He was not impressed with my fishing skills, which returned two small cod and a very ugly fish they called a crapaud. But for a city boy whose job at the time was proofreading for a computer company, pulling fish from the sea was a revelation: a livelihood made in the same way it might have been a thousand or even many thousands of years ago.
On February 14, 2011, the House of Commons made a formal apology to the 325 families whose homes were erased by the expropriation. The Parks Canada site, in an ironic sort of gesture, now grants any of the original inhabitants of the village of Grand Grave, and their descendants, free passes to visit Forillon Park and the site of their old village.
Ian Ferrier at Espace Knox in Notre Dame de Grace, Montréal – June 21, 2019
(for Elwood Dow and his daughter)
The swish and roar of cars
carries up from the coast road.
But cars are few and far between
and things seem simple in Emma’s country.
Breeze blows cool through the window at night,
circling the forest walls of the attic.
Walls that house the visiting daughter
and her lover aged twenty-two,
Emma whispering hush as the bed creaks
and they hold dead still,
shy because her mom and dad
and grandma sleep below.
Since they moved in here
the plant beneath the skylight
filling the air around the narrow bed
as if it were their fault it bloomed.
And nothing softens the noise in the silent dark,
though in the intervals,
between the words in talking,
behind the sound of crickets
and at the bottom of all hills
the ocean is never still….
Her dad’s a fisherman. Sired three daughters
though even the youngest is six years gone.
Formed the United Fishermen in the ‘50s,
a co-op that still serves this coast
though no fish left, and the cove
a ghost town where his kids were born.
And when they return to that cove
Emma holds her boyfriend’s arm so tight
it’s as if the ground’s crumbled beneath her feet,
as if she were falling
as if her childhood were falling away.
And the long surge of the ocean
tears past Newfoundland,
choking the gulf with saltwater & life,
and Emma the child who played along these beaches
saying “Daddy will you take me out on the boat tonight?”
And he says “Well grab your jacket then. And a lifebelt too.
We’ll take the skiff and see what’s biting tonight!”
And her boyfriend, that was me:
paraded before mom and grandma
and dad who did not say ten words
the first days I was there
before opening a flood of stories,
the copper history of his life
engraved on those nights—World War II
and the fall of Hong Kong,
and dysentery starving him to half his weight
before the blast.
And the months before he was shipped home….
And the years waking at 3 AM, and by dawn
far out on the water fishing….
One winter night he walked
thirty miles on snowshoes
Because he could not wait to propose to his
girlfriend, Emma’s most beautiful mom.
There’s a photo I saw, in black & white.
He’s standing on the side of a hill
with Valerie and Emma swinging from his legs
colt-like and pretty,
neither more than waist high to him.
And he—their sole guardian & protector— reaches
one great hand down to each of their shoulders,
palms creased from hauling
two hundred feet of line down and up all day.
He holds them safe against the wind.
The hill slopes down to the sea
and now the wind has come up even stronger,
blowing his hair straight back
and his face weathered as if in bronze.
And she says “Daddy will you take me out on the boat tonight?”
And he says “O no, not this time Emma. It’s too black even now,
and by morning just you watch it blow.”
And isn’t that the night a wave shatters the wheelhouse
and they’re running from the wind
torn from the Gulf,
pitched four hundred miles to the North Atlantic.
Her dad’s gone now. Died starved for oxygen
in hospital in Montreal.
The daughters all have children of their own,
Emma and Valerie’s both in high school….
What is there in a photograph
that the soul and force of a man’s eyes
burn through it even now?
A girl could fall 40 years through time
feel her dad’s hand
rough against her shoulder….
For a thousand years people have fished this coast.
And when we return to that country
Emma holds my arm so tight
It’s as if the ground had shifted beneath her feet,
as if she were falling
as if her childhood had fallen away.
This poem was performed on Ian Ferrier’s CD, What is this Place (Bongobeat Records). It appears in print in his poetry book, Coming & Going (Popolo Press 2014).
If we pass from a dark place to one illumined
by the sun we are dazzled.
Prisoners long confined in darkness acquire
so great a susceptibility of the retina.
Goethe looked into an open coal shed. The large
red image floated. With snow a total dazzling.
He called on the artist: solve the mystery of imitation
select the example of an open book to present a greater diversity.
The greatest brightness short of dazzling acts
near the greatest darkness. Dazzle. Dazzled. Dazzling.
After Theory of Colours by Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1810), translated from the German by Charles Lock Eastlake
Ghosts of Mercy
Their stage is the river of cold
collision. Steam rises off ice floes.
Nights, armed and loaded
with my flashlight, I stand
on a shoreline of glistening rocks.
My beacon beams as I pan the waters
to let them know I’m here, careful to disguise
distress, my shivering. The sliver of moon
floats detached. I too hide my fears.
A goading as my breath clouds the frigid air
my tears crystallize until the ghosts of mercy
emerge in pairs. The hustlers flit across the floes
to chase transgression, tussle demons in a private show.
The insistent buzz and dance of smart phone
flashing its signal to the beyond:
Termination in progress. Click to accept.
Flick of switch. The kitchen illuminates.
Cold streaks of yellow spread in the pre-dawn
to flood a table engraved with the names
of those fortunate enough to have leaned
their elbows on its face-reflecting surface:
a palimpsest of entangled DNA.
Until the laser scrubs clean all traces
this cruel arborite morning and instead
spells out … what does it spell out? … the pauses
perhaps dividing stone-carved identities …
the gaps where light struggles to penetrate …
the absence that defines a threshold between
a table enlivened by life’s traumas
and one where the weeping of ghosts sucks in
every particle, every breath.
It is on pre-dawns such as this that we
delay as long as possible the pressing
of the “please respond” button. In the hope
that the message will re-compose itself
with the next passing of subatomic waves.
In the hope it’ll now read: Resurrection
complete. Have ticket in hand for pickup.
That Old Quantum Buzz
For F. whose love of pigeons is known far and wide
In the honesty of the hospital
bed, you can hear if you razor your ear
the buzz on the edges between quantum
particles, double strands helixing skyward,
dead ends, and life’s ever necessary
entanglements. A story encoded
in bodies hacked into place by the rough
stitching of time. The spark dims, flickers, lost
in languages long erased amid
catheters, drips, and the sound of air rushing
to escape—one last time—that worn-out chest.
Forgotten for a moment, in the midst
of non-Venetian masquerades and dances
of the pandemic, the automatic art
of breathing. The unhandled pump of up
and down in the mystery of self-movement.
But, almost on its last gasp, the body
arises once more with embers pulsing
from an elusive subatomic world
that refuses to stand still long enough
to be pinned. Where shining a light just leads
to more darkening. But it’s here you’ll find
the unrepentant energy to make
one more attempt. To take one final stab
at being the young man in a fedora
and double-breasted coat, striding off the ship
with a bounce in his step. To leave footprints
in the snow that point towards the sound
of incessant coos and fluttering wings.
From a shed that basks in the memory
of somnambulant afternoons stretched out
like forever lovers in wheatfields
overlooking that Mezzogiorno village.
It’s here, in the midst of strangers speaking
in symbols you can’t decipher—and you
crying out that idée fixe: When are you
coming home, oh daughter of mine?—that arise,
like random flares held down by neither time
nor place, the embittered words of comfort:
“You’re here wherever you are.” A sunbeam
focused on tinder hay brings out the smile
of unabashed youth. It’s a noonday flame
that wraps itself around the quantum core
and dances through a wizardry of strings
as long as no one dares to sneak a look.
I was born to watch the morphing
of a sorrow to another.
Once an alchemist, I knew at birth
and at once, the taste of despair’s chemical.
I also knew a girl
who later grew up to write poems
and was named Suheir Hammad.
I once was that rising tide upon the sea
that dropped, and that continues to swell
and collapse within its foam and flavour
of salt, roiling in its sensation of homelessness.
I was a country
whose being was that desert expanse
whose body was butchered up into shards
to match the number of its sadnesses
one of them is Palestine.
These days, I stand to gather the bones
of children scattered across this country
to which they once belonged.
As of now, as ever, all the water
trembling, the oceans quiver
no masquerade of boiling over,
truly, it all roils – there
is a premonition, of all
that’s about to occur
in a while, the globe could be in ruins.
As could every democracy, on it.
He, too, who lost all that love
is awoken, in a bid to fulfill
the void of its absence.
Together, together all water
shakes. Who knows how
it appears to its own fish.
How does it salvage anything
as it moves, it’s – important,
no – necessary to mull over.
Actually, it was a slug’s
speech, under the soles
of my feet, that leaped
at me, and said it’s the entirety
of the water on earth
that shakes within, without
as if it were a country
in the belly of its own
Note on the artist:
Divya Singh is a visual artist. Her practice is primarily rooted in painting and explores themes such as isolation, experience, and memory – emanating largely from a poetic engagement with Time. Mediums such as photography, writing, cinema and painting are at the centre of her language as a practitioner and have featured as important categories of both work and interest. These varied elements come together within the work and can be seen most distinctly in the artist books made by her, as well as found imagery which accompany the paintings and other media during exhibitions. She is currently working with instant film/polaroid, paintings and text.
Divya has done her BFA from College of Art, New Delhi and her MFA from Shiv Nadar University. For more on her work, please visit the Shrine Empire Gallery’s website.
You’ll ask: And where are the wild blueberries?
and the shrill octave C flute notes?
And the Sunday afternoon lessons
words by these dragonflies: Leave! Get out!
I’ll tell you the story.
It was the beginning of autumn,
a scalpelling of white bone lichen
and bones full of mud the colour of damp irises
all these surrealist collages
glued to canvas, newspaper clippings.
Crizzled azure sea glass.
Then one day fleeing his fists,
these streets, carrying these bags.
One day this was the city of the unspoken
all those stone houses as they watched as I
bore the moon’s night side. And those
who swaddled it in a yellow sickle caul.
Look at all those who dwelled there.
Look at my buried placentas.
And you’ll ask why ekphrasis
speaks as one of fracture.
A stilled world, living in frames?
In the long galleries
etch in aquatint a madder red.
Wild blueberry rhizomes that
resembled old coffins. The barrens.
Sometimes, can you explain to a bittern what war is? Now it gets closer as if it has a secret to tell. Clucks and booms: Huu bwong. Unk-er-lunk. Huu huu huu huu. Sometimes, for a while you feel free. Then you hear teacher’s voice: “Ilka, come and sit back here on this bench!” These bog lands you can’t understand. These watercolour paintings of Pirka Wood. Walled nunnery orchard. Rye fields. Marshes and reed grasses. Heather moorlands. The cotton rag paper, wrinkled from water, as if the surface was the skin. The goat hair brushes. Over the years, you withdraw. You get smaller, you lose fairy tales. Sometimes, can you explain to a bittern what a song is? Why you play marbles. Pig-tailed nine year old. Sometimes, you can’t understand why fourth grade teacher is touching you. Why blue horses come in your dreams. That snort and nicker and goad the rains. Wet poplar leaves in a bomb crater. A waning sickle moon. The creek. Why you are afraid to tell your mother. The thin paper.
Edgar Ende’s Cloth With Swallow (1946)
A long-lost myth, half-remembered
animal motif and architectonic fragment
these images of darkroom sketches
these epochs of distortion.
fighting it out in the ooze.
You pour gesso and let it fall across.
Skittering off every canvas
past the dogs, past the boars,
the foxes, the lizards
past giant sculptures
you call yourself a surrealist.
A flat plane devoid of texture
death themes, clumsy, naïve.
The figurative alienated.
This swallow voice.
Small misshapen swallow.
This is the barbed wire of the ghetto
all those killed by war
all those tortured
flanked by high brick walls
their degenerate art.
They say: Burn it!
You say: Auction them!
There is the rustle of the river reed
there is the evening sun.
There is the village,
Soft air, white sky, and the trees are closer
to the ground: thin branches stretching upwards
to the cloud. I’d forgotten how winter feels
when it’s almost done, forgotten how
clenched muscles relax without warning
easing the heart.
I stand in line and the bus comes
In line for a second bus, I hear crows screaming
above my head. Someone told me once, when
the crows come back, it’s the first sign of spring, so
now I know to welcome them, watch them circling,
crying, fussing over such a simple shift
as a few more degrees
in the temperature of the air.
They’re impatient birds, ill-bred, always wanting
to be heard. How many of them are there? Fifty?
A hundred? They move too fast; I couldn’t count them
if I tried. They’re in two groups, the leaders moving
out in front, then turning, returning, and the stragglers
frantic, delirious, splitting off behind the buildings
then coming back.
How many here will reach the south?
In an hour, thick flakes of snow blow sideways
across a steamed-up window pane.
Spring in a cold country starts with snow.
February 2, 2021
You are there somewhere in the darkness,
silent as the deep night. Silent as the grave,
we used to say although now the dead speak
or we speak through them. We know their names
and not much else.
I know the lawyers tried to stop them dying
and couldn’t save them – two black men, young
when they were free, and a woman savagely abused.
I know they died because a president was leaving office
in a day or two, and changed the law and didn’t want
to lose his legacy. It’s hard to call that downright injustice,
or even pointless cruelty. It’s more circumstance
and cruel chance.
I wanted them to have a second chance at living out
the years that they had left. It wasn’t much – a life
in maximum security – but it might have been enough
to make a difference. I know as well that circumstance
determines many lives, and most of us don’t have to die
to find that out.
Lisa Montgomery, Corey Johnson, Dustin Higgs.
Remember, too, another death from circumstance –
January 25, 2021
Lisa Montgomery, Corey Johnson and Dustin Higgs died by lethal injection in Terre Haute Penitentiary, Indiana, on January 13, 15 and 16, 2021. Raphaël André died of cold on the streets of Montréal on the night of January 16-17.
This sheet cannot be rolled up
and thrown into the closet like a regular sheet
You must place your hand up in the air
whenever you see it, I mean
over your heart
People must be beaten
and die for this sheet
shit, I mean shit
What is it you want to tell me
after all this time?
What is it now, here
at 2 o’clock in the morning
Is it that your life is safely away from me
that you’re moving to another town
that you fell and broke your arm
that your kids never call you anymore
and that it’s lonely
and that you’re getting married
and moving to Bermuda
to pour what’s left of me in you
into the ocean
that you’re done with all this
destiny crap, this fate
this us bullshit
that the universe misspoke
when it spoke
and all you do is call to tell me this
on your honeymoon, drunk
telling me I am the ocean
and the ocean is being emptied
and it’s still beautiful
and it still has waves
and you cry every time you see it
and you cry
you see it
and I say to you baby don’t cry baby
it’s only the bottle that
and it was sad and it was sweet
and it was beautiful
and like all bottles
it always gets lost to the waves
lost to the moonlight
lost to time
lost to whatever
And you cry baby and pour it out
pour it out
every last drop of me
into the moonlight
sagging above the deep
I drift away from you
and the phone hangs up
Cloth mask on my face
warms my watery eyes
clouds these lenses I look through.
Everything before me
the empty streets
the wary pedestrians
as I approach
in my own
But wasn’t it always this way?
We are demarcated now
by tape, signs, arrows
as we stand in line
each in his or her own
We walk the edges of sidewalks
step into the street
to evade the oncoming
vectors of illness,
void the vector
that is ourselves.
To reach through
to touch, hold hands, kiss,
impossible, or if not
But wasn’t it always
to some extent
Strapped to a machine
the suck thump thump
suck thump thump
lights beeping faster, faster
as water rises
in the lungs
as I choke
on each hasty
— is this the end? —
but wasn’t it always
Our start wasn’t bad,
what with uneven
in this poem’s
first stanza point
to a psyche leaking
Wait. Hear these
endings read aloud.
Writing. Is this what we had?
Is this really my stream
Yes? Figure in
I like to play.
easy to cancel someone
these days. Click Cancel.
I paid a month ahead: You,
sales reps, platform crew,
keep the change.
I want to be done with abrupt goodbyes.
Bugging out is not attractive.
I thought I was more responsible.
I wonder what got into me
the shots of Grey Goose & Absolut,
before seeing Birds of Prey
kick-ass eye candy
“I’m Harley fuckin Quinn.”
Have you seen her ex-lover,
Joker? They were good together.
I was out
on a winter night,
pierced by a full moon.
I took in my new & framed Satanic Temple certificate
perfectly set on a cute silver easel between typewriters;
after checking out TST Grey Faction’s Facebook shade
on shady therapists, started thinking about Szasz’s Myth of Mental Illness, then looked for my copies of Glasser’s Reality Therapy and Choice Theory. Then looking through
your mix of conventional online responses felt senseless.
Crazy to think virtual therapy would work.
I may be a little too immature for sixty-one.
Must have been one glorious babbling baby.
Then too, you told me upfront you were not
who I asked for: someone at least forty-five,
with addictions expertise, who had worked
artists; should’ve said poets. My gamble.
Who is giving up more right now? You?
You remind me of my son: much too
quick to interpret, conclude, lead,
rather than pace with me,
not knowing the pain
a degenerating spine;
did I mention how I work,
as well as dream, stretched out
on an anti-gravity recliner?
Is this where both of you
see me trying a guilt trip?
Frida Kahlo: Who was more creative
knowing pain & death as collaborators?
Kick me in the head if you think I’m asking
for pity; bend over if you believe it, I’ll kick you.
I was serious asking you get to know me on my blog.
It’s a pretty easy read, decorated with provocative images;
admittedly, some are a little disturbing. Braver, I’d go for more.
If I were you, my work would’ve been the first place I looked; voicing
what you honestly saw would have been a realized dream. Allen Ginsberg,
(strategically name-dropped here) told me this kind of reflection was precious.
But then, I would begin to make you out: there’s the rub. Safer to stay hidden
on the silent dark side of a two-way mirror, as you watch an other sweat, yes?
you remind me of my son. He’s a good kid. “Fuck you, Dad!” I can hear him yelling,
for calling him a kid at his age. He’s not that disrespectful: his hate is more elusive.
He rattles around up in my head with some other voices I’ve gathered over a lifetime.
Doctor, guess I didn’t want to let your voice join the club. I suppose it’s an exclusive one;
the front door bouncer is a large lovely black transgender named Prudence. What voices
hanging out in your head, Doc? I’m suspicious of the one turning Psych PhD into “Doctor.”
Yes, I just used scare quotes. I can’t help myself: What’s up Doc? Always loved Bugs Bunny.
Take care, Doctor. IMNSHO, I suggest twice-a-week on-the-couch Freudian psychoanalysis,
for at least two & half years, with a good, authentically empathic woman. Freud may be old;
the craft is not. It helped me out after my back quit; my tennis pro dreams evaporated; married
just after twenty-one; Mr. Mom to son & daughter, never knowing twenty-five; sixty dead pounds
of fat; a deep depression, black-out drinking. There’s more. Should I continue, Doc? A Psychology
BA should have never taken me a decade to get. Why did I stick with it for so long? Who knows?
Should I continue, Doc? I have. I’m still here. Far more has happened since back then to now. Do
you remember me writing I enjoyed living in the moment & asking if you too? Why no answer?
I’m looking for something else at my age: perhaps someone willing to pace with me, know crazy is
in the eye of the beholder, someone to help me have my way after giving way to others for too long.
Need to meet the right ones or create them: There’s no other way. Walking by myself may have to do.
If I were younger, looking for a timely seductive religion, I might loudly proclaim: Hail Satan!
Dark skies offer favorable omens. Earth grows
Moist to green as luck hopes to live. Sorrows melt in-
To slush, coffee-coloured tinctures to harden your
Response to pain. In time your armour becomes too
Heavy. Not a sign of weakness, but one of faith.
Echoes of history stain our days. We wait,
Gold dust coats our throats, water’s wasted in wine.
I collect sleep in remnants.
Like an urchin counting each
Grain of rice, I lie in bed,
Wonder how I’ll last the day.
Well-fed and full of unrest,
Minutes tick by in my head.
We Read Omens in the Sky
Before the wind shifts
We hear rhetoric
In voices golden
As dried turmeric
Like our parents
We read omens in the sky
We scent blood before
Another mob turns
We carve paths through stone
With voices fresher
We paint omens in the sky
The Garden of Dutiful Women
Damsels swallow doubt, dance on the edge of blades.
Angels sew seeds into the hems of our skirts,
Noisemakers, guide us to build futures of ease.
Grudges fall, rot on the Garden’s sterile soil.
Eve plucked and left to spoil, easily bruised like
Ripe fruit. Too heavy for boughs, we fall, skirts rattling
Our secrets rich as port wine, sweeter than spite.
Under the guise of fragility, we wait,
Sabres drawn. Sun glints from blades shiny as thoughts.
Ideas dropped and trod upon take root. Shoots toil,
Draw our minds to harvest feasts. We’ll share wine, dance,
Expose bloodied ankles with each twirl. Angels
Acquiesce, sow seeds under the realm of our
Skirts. Whirling, we step on the edges of blades.
Note by the author
“The Garden of Dutiful Women” first appeared at Poetic Notions: A Weaving of Poetry and Visual Arts (February 2020) alongside this painting by Mary Perchanok. My thanks to the co-curators Carolyn Boll and Holly Friesen for the opportunity to show my poem and to work with an artist of Mary’s calibre.
I see Nataraja dancing on a lofty hill, to the sound of crushing ice,
Melting glaciers and rising seas. Primordial forces unleashed.
From the dark corners of the earth, I hear the eternal rumble of Chaos
As humanity is trapped in a dark cave of ignorance, deadly indifference
And lowly greed. The alap goes on slowly, inexorably, towards its end.
The vibrations of the singer’s voice reverberate in my soul as the image
Presaging world destruction comes into my mind.
Carbon emissions, global warmth, floods and drowning cities.
Is it the beginning of the end? Pollution and the dark miasma of clouds,
Dark and deadly covering our beloved earth…
We sing to you! Save us from our folly, and as the alap
Continues, I am lost in a trance of dark powerful music, I pray
For wisdom to preserve our gentle rolling hills, our forests,
Our flowing sacred rivers, and the smiling child that lives within us.
We sing to you! Save us from our folly…
Dhrupad: the oldest vocal style in Indian classical music.
Nataraja: the eternal dancer of creation, conservation and destruction in Hindu mythology.
Alap: the improvised precursor to a raga in Indian classical music.
Time of rising temperatures
the dawn horse gallops on primitive hooves
greeting the day’s heat with hunger and teeth
grinding small-brained toward
expanding onto the first grassy plains
no mountains to snow on but
coming on slowly
give it a taste for
imbibed so gradually
life flourishes birthing all manner of beasts
even our ancestors rise in the birth-time of the crease-kissed Himalayas
youngfold ranges that pique
keep us scrambling
at their feet.
Don’t blink or you’ll miss it
the moment we all hit the gas
for the last time on
this side of the brink
the merger of here with
the margin of error
our oops overshot
by the extra 100 watts
more than 100 years of flight,
drive, and fight
for convenience, luxury,
patriotic sport, or fury.
Don’t be caught
wasting time sending out
another ping just to savour
the music of a doomed echo
on the lookout for fan-fares
signal flares, messages
from God or aliens
the billboard’s already up
it’s written by bees, amphibians
and educated simians
pointing to not a place
but a momentous mistake
this way we tip our
world into imbalance.
We will never see it recover.
thin spirits of mist
on a lake flooded to ice
by the calm
water bugs skate in circles
to a waltz
of their own signature
my canoe glides
on the echoes of a setting bronze sun
roll in my wake to the shore
in the shadow of the bay
a loon draws a silver thread through the silhouette of a white pine
nature’s bottom line
dead ahead lies the rock
on which one morning last month
you sat panting
water running down your waist-length blonde hair
eyes bright with triumph and surprise
a nine year–old
who has conquered her lake
The whip-poor-will from nowhere
calls three times
capsizing the walls of time
in a darkening world
the reflected beauty of your mother
Hindsight is shifty-fifty
The past a shore too far to swim
The dawn too far to paddle
breath’s only the boundary
sneaks past smooth
ebbs on laminar
it’s where streamlines retch
mouth shot off with plosives, or
trills eddying deep into passionate night
where breath wakes
roils into free
The Origin of Specious
Imagine your life a Cartesian space
unlock its centre, you
can radiate from anywhere
be as graphic as you like
your continuities and discontinuities
define the slope of your own
childhood, or not
reverse negative and positive
find yourself in a new sector
touch on tangents at one point, then
love your self-vectorization
play on a logarithmic scale
laze about on the ln whenever you wish
it’s natural, irrational, whatever
you choose the basis
spin up, or down
let go of all gravity
ignore it and all its distortions
you can be perfect
you can even
approach the infinite
On Coming Late to a Teaching Career
Her mind has become an odd warehouse
perfecting her French
collecting new slang
sorting pop culture: cool, meta, irrelevant, cringe worthy.
Her house, too, holds collections.
Recyclables stacked in groups of 32 ten students short of the answer to life, the universe, and everything (cringe worthy)
she packs each theme in a tub with a label
longs to start lessons with demos, but
knows how feckless they can be.
She’s not doing this to add a frisson to her fifties.
Furthermore, she’s not doing this in her fifties to add a frisson.
Opportunities she’s taken to add a frisson have been ample, abundant, commodious even.
If you think
all she wants to do is settle down
she’ll remind you
in her grandmother’s village she could join the nuns in their coifs.
Instead, she’s preparing.
She is baiting a hook for the future, a lure
for the perfect moment to explain how the foam-like structure of the medullary pith of a feather arises during embryogenesis from a process of vacuolisation. Here’s why that’s important to flight… What do you think is… …the connection to Kevlar?
She knows she’ll pay into a pension and never collect,
knows her peek at a shadowy mammogram is nothing to panic about.
She took that in, like any curiosity, marvelling, just
as she does when the rust gets her tomatoes, just
as she does when the leaves transpire and, voilà! she collects water to drink.
There’ll be time enough for corrections. Time, perhaps,
to leave an impression.
On the day of his death, she eulogized Stephen Hawking, stirred A Brief History of Time into an episode of The Big Bang Theory
with a side of Ice Bucket Challenge, repeating motor neurons affected, sensory neurons not
She was preparing the class for their exam; the real lesson was: he could feel everything.
Their adolescence will soon condense to adulthood, they
will step from their steamy hot shower of hormones.
Will she be there, the faint roric image on the mirror?
Will they remember what she tried
The verb, To Release, speaks to the verb, To Ensnare
I hate to see anything trapped.
Even the way a photo captures a moment provokes
a rising gorge, my unease
wicked up incensed incendiary
you enjoy the way
one pickerel frog poisons
everything else in the bucket
Truth trips over the velour of your tongue
entangles itself with conformity
a balled-up clusterfuck of toxic convictions
fake news ancient prejudice hucksterism alike
twisted and spun
a binding weave cast over those you have ensorcelled
Makes me want to scissor
warp from weft
unleash my fury on your grandiose straitjacket
disentangle the fuck out of that serpentine noose
free every gerrymandered cluster of star-struck acolytes
with the same power I used to tip off the expansion of space-time
I’m holding back so as not to cleave
water from wet
on this tiny planet
not to tip its toboggan down a treacherous slope
burdened as it is with potential
to set its atmosphere back even further past two point five million years
in the relative blink of a galactic eye.
Who could have foreseen us behaving like this?
Here am I wrestling with Death, Life in its gnathic grip
while there you are shouting at me,
Let it go! Let it go!
I find her hunched in her chair
a wizened crow
wrapped in a food-smeared bib
porridge drying on her mouth and chin.
Her hands are bony and translucent
and her nails curl back on themselves
She does not look at me
does not turn her head.
She is a prisoner, long despairing of release.
She is a widow, living
at great expense, in abject poverty.
She is a ragged person,
her clothes faded and torn.
She is a mentally handicapped person,
a dispossessed person,
a dying person.
She is my mother.
At my insistence
she is lugged to bed.
I take her bony hand
and find it gentle, pressing mine.
I think about morticians.
In a while –
just days, the doctors say –
a stranger will bathe and paint her,
pinch her face into an expression of peace.
I wash her face, a little at a time,
and pat it dry.
I wipe her eyes and crusted lashes,
“Wiping away the sleeps,” she used to say,
early in the morning,
when the sunshine wakened me.
I wipe the milk and porridge from her lips.
“Wiping away the stickies,” she used to say
as I protested, anxious to be free.
I find scissors and an emery board.
Cautiously I trim and file her nails.
Her skinny hand holds mine.
It is April.
Under the window of the nursing home
cherry trees are bright with blossom.
Loveliest of trees…
I arrive to find that the personal care worker
has set her little radio to blaring rap at her –
angry and obscene.
I put on my daughter’s choir tape,
call it her granddaughter’s record.
“Do you remember Stephanie?”
but she listens
and I remind her of the words.
Arise my love and come away… for the rain is over and gone and the flowers appear on the earth…
The room has an insistent stench.
On the window sill
I build a garden,
tulip, crocus, hyacinth,
anything with fragrance.
Have to avoid daffodils and narcissus.
People here eat flowers.
Since I arrived
she has had her eyes closed.
But today as I leave the room
I notice her face in the mirror,
eyes opening furtively
when she knows she is alone.
She is curled, fetal, rigid.
Kyphosis the doctor calls it,
and I have guessed the rigidity is Parkinson’s.
But today when I lay her gently on the pillow
her head falls backwards.
Have I snapped a vertebra I wonder?
She can lie back,
She can open her eyes.
I thought they were blind,
blank, certainly, and dull.
But now, she sees me,
part of me, sees something,
and her eyes grow suddenly bright,
I will not let them lift her anymore.
They do not mean to be unkind
but they move abruptly,
and they arrange her, like a cushion.
When they come at night
they speak of turning, changing, washing.
They speak of diapers.
They say, “She pooed.”
Each time the shock is new. And she must ask,
Where am I? What am I? What have I become?
But if I do not let them touch her
I must confront excrement
confront the sagging, wrinkled private parts,
learn to ignore taboo
learn to ignore smell.
For years I feared this violation,
looking on my mother’s nakedness,
offending against her dignity.
But when I see her hefted like a hog
scrubbed, polished, left to shiver,
what matters is only that
she is person
she is my mother
she is loved.
As in conception, so now in extremis
Love transcends, transforms organicity.
I tell her we have to protect the delicate skin,
make sure the little folds are fresh and clear.
I discover her skin is baby soft.
Homely expressions long buried begin to surface.
I tell her I’ll be done in a jiffy,
she’ll be fresh as a daisy,
clean as a whistle,
in two shakes of a lamb’s tale.
Finding these phrases
is like finding the everyday dishes
from grandmother’s cupboard.
Plain in their day, chipped and overused.
Now, to me, priceless.
I tell her it is a misty, moisty, moonlit night,
tell her she will have sweet dreams,
will sleep like a top, a bug in a rug, a log, a baby.
I will not let them dress her.
She struggles to stay covered,
will not be stripped bare.
I tell her I will help her with her clothes.
Ask her if she could raise her arm a little.
It takes a minute,
a whole minute,
then the arm rises.
We sit on the side of the bed,
Look, they say. Look at her. She sit!
They are thrilled for her and
I try to ignore grammatical agreement,
hoping the Latin scholar in her
can do the same.
But where does she think she is, I wonder?
What does she think she has become?
Yet she tells me, weakly, hoarsely,
“This is so good.”
I am thrilled for her.
Today there is excitement.
My mother’s lifework,
work in education,
to be published again
to be reintroduced in the schools.
I tell her the news,
tell her she has a place
with Maria Montessori
with Anna Gillingham
with Grace Fernald.
I tell her we all worked on this together
remind her of the names she knew and loved.
“You were the heart and soul of it, though,” I say.
For the first time, she turns and looks at me.
This is my mother.
Not was, is.
She lies on her back
arms crossed on her chest.
The room is filled with flowers.
People speak in quiet tones.
Her hair is silver and wavy.
I have painted her nails and mine
a pale apricot.
We are listening to Schubert, Ave Maria, though neither of us is Catholic.
Her father was a singer.
I wonder, bass, or baritone?
Does this make her think of him?
She listens with attention.
Schubert’s Ave omits the hour of our death.
So for the moment do we.
Then I have qualms.
We have music, flowers, hushed voices
(She is not deaf.
I will not let them yell at her.)
She lies on her back
arms crossed on her chest.
Just what have we created here?
A living grave? A gate of heaven?
Or is this heaven itself?
Is this the only heaven?
I see no ladder, no angels
but she is smiling.
Surely the Lord is in this place?
Water brings back memories.
The sound and the feel of it.
I let her splash her feet in a tub of it
and wrap them with a towel,
remembering to dry between the toes.
I resist the temptation to repeat
the rhyme about the little piggies.
The rhyme might make her smile,
But she is not the child.
For the first time, though, I understand that rhyme.
toes are five piglets in a row, suckling.
I remind her we are intricately and wonderfully made.
The room is sweet with hyacinth and talcum.
I remember her father’s radio –
the one with the long antenna wrapped around a card.
If you took it outside
and squeezed the antenna tightly
and turned the set to face the right direction
you got a signal
sometimes intelligible for minutes at a time.
I understood, even then,
that the programme was transmitted,
was somewhere in the air
regardless of the primitive reception.
For my mother,
it is the transmitter that lets her down
but she struggles with it
and at times succeeds.
“This is lovely tea,” she says tonight.
“Be sure you get some too.”
I have found a CD of woodland noises
morning and evening,
by Cobourg Creek,
robin, chickadee and loon,
water over stones,
the everyday sounds of summer.
She thinks the sounds are coming through the window
and I do not correct her.
It is the time of the singing of birds…
What does it matter if she knows this is April in Toronto
as long as she knows the song of the robin,
the call of the loon?
At first we prayed aloud.
That is, our dear friend and pastor prayed aloud
and we joined in the amens.
“May we be aware of beauty,” he asked,
“even in unexpected places,”
a petition that had been granted
even before it was made.
“May we entrust our sleeping
loved ones to your keeping
now and in the world to come.”
Answered at times and in part.
But as my mother grew stronger
we grew reticent,
we who admit to prayer
only in formal settings,
or in extremis.
Small wonder we are reticent
about our talks with God.
We rarely speak the heart’s truth
even to one another.
Words of adoration or apology,
words of thanks or of entreaty
catch in our throat
even when they are only addressed
to human kind.
Why, why did I wait
till you could barely hear me
to thank you, Mother, dear one?
And yet I think you understand.
And I do thank you, thus belatedly.
for a lifetime of love
and for these few, last, blest hours
for moments of clarity,
moments of grace.
She is fortunate, in a way.
She cannot quite find her mouth with a spoon,
but she can listen to Schubert with delight.
How much poorer those of us
who eat with knife and fork adroitly
but cannot understand The Trout,
strings and piano, water burbling over stones.
The sore on her back appears volcanic –
cone, crater, lava –
its eruption threatens the bone.
No, this is not heaven.
Still, love redeems organicity.
Whether a gardener’s love of the soil
a child’s love of a pet
a lover’s love, a mother’s love
even, perhaps especially, a doctor’s love,
it melts revulsion and cruel crude humour
allows us to accept that we are, after all,
creatures of the earth.
We are taking her home.
The staff are stunned by the suggestion.
This is a long-term care facility.
Nobody goes home.
Professionals who twice allowed her to sink to the brink of death
without notifying her family
now express concerns for her safety.
Still, on the day of our departure,
they all crowd round to say goodbye,
Goodbye to Gracie,
a nickname she abhorred.
She has no idea who these people are
who gather here to wish her well.
But there is real affection, and real concern, in their send-off.
I thank them,
and she smiles,
and we are free.
Some things about Alzheimer’s have to be said in prose. These reflections are based on my personal experience, but also on my training in psychology, and in particular, in the meaning-centred psychology of the Viennese psychiatrist and neural surgeon, Viktor Emil Frankl.
One: A person with Alzheimer’s, struggling to use the corroded neurons of the brain, is nonetheless an intact person, fully human, an intact spirit.
Two: Within the atrophying brain there are intact areas, untouched by illness:
a person who cannot speak may sing, a person who cannot speak may read,
a person who does not know what day it is may have a perfect eye for colour and design.
Three: A person with Alzheimer’s cannot be assessed, at least not in a fixed time period.
Her abilities have no steady state – they vacillate wildly even in an hour.
The person who recognizes me now may have no idea who I am in an hour or two,
and vice versa; every hour is new.
What a person can do today, he may not do tomorrow
but what he cannot to today, tomorrow he may find easy.
Yesterday’s assessment cannot predict even as far as today.
Four: The person with Alzheimer’s does not remember yesterday,
but may remember the distant past as it were yesterday.
The same news is news, every time it is told.
This means good news is a joyful surprise, every time it is told.
It also means that anyone who is not family is a stranger and needs introducing every time you meet. What you told her yesterday she does not remember. You have to tell her again today. Again and again.
Five: Every person with Alzheimer’s, like every person without Alzheimer’s,
longs to be needed, longs for life to be meaningful.
We fear being useless more than we fear dying.
We need to allow people to continue to contribute to life around them, in whatever way they can. This is more urgent than “activation,” than entertainment, than custodial care.
If we remind people with Alzheimer’s of the contributions they have made in the past, these come, too, as happy surprises, often bringing satisfaction and joy.
But today’s reaction may be completely different from yesterday’s or tomorrow’s.
These reminders have to be repeated, because they are not remembered.
Six: In severe dementia, or in the worst moments of developing dementia, people are constantly shifting between fantasy and reality. This means that when we interact with them, we are essentially entering into their dreams. Often, we do not know where or when the dream is set, or which role exactly we are playing. We have to be alert, and ready to improvise. There is absolutely no point in trying to force people to become aware of the “real” time, place and situation, though we can certainly savour and cherish the lucid moments. But at other moments, we have to be ready to enter into the other person’s fantasy. And we need to remember that even in a fantasy, even in a dream, the emotion and the meaning are genuine and important, far more important than the facts of the “real” situation.
Who’s Hippocrates, I know,
in Crete or someplace else –
calling out to the Sirens,
the Sea’s own and asking you
for healing ways, the mind
or spirit’s, not the body’s own.
Oh, the body, and being with
Odysseus again but only with
Titans and Poseidon where all
life comes from underwater
close to a billion nerve cells,
globules, arteries and alveoli
I want you to know about
with an electron microscope –
A magnifying glass, or what
else I must consider best, if
it is art’s longing you see,
or medicine’s ways it will be
with a stethoscope in hand –
a talisman hanging around
my neck, but not knowing
what’s beating in the brain
as nothing’s undone when
waves appear on the computer
screen, real art displayed:
a miracle I hear you say –
the heart beating stronger,
the aorta most of all, being
again in the Aegean Sea.
HEART & LUNGS
The air we breathe is what the lungs
know about, what the ancient Greeks
or the Pharaohs contemplated best
more than Harvey of blood circulation.
Oh the heart and knowing what else
the rib cage tells us about, a distinct
rhythm only I will contend with,
like Odysseus, or some other
I’ve considered less about at
odd moments in distant places,
the imagination indeed, or being
Homer again with mythology.
Ithaca I will aim for, returning
home where I consider brain cells
and start humming to myself
about the liver, kidneys, spleen;
and veins, arteries, aorta, the alveoli,
bronchial tubes as I breathe harder
making sure I’m one step closer
to my own creative self, I know,
but resorting to valves; and those
who will come after with gadgets,
a doctor’s tools yet hanging around
the neck I will again dwell upon
in my own way with a mighty
heave, not unlike real drama
played out on stage, bloodlust
being tragedy from the start.