Auntie Ida’s Thanksgiving Blessing
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outdated stance of ignorance.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).
Razzle-Dazzle Ghazal (Goethe on Steroids)
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.
Dedicated to states of/that matter
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.
The tracks shine
like a pair of polished shoes.
The sun is a perfect mouth
ready to swallow itself whole.
Balconies are lonely.
No Juliet today.
Line-ups, two metres apart
The air, free from our forms
is more breathable.
People are afraid
they don’t wear masks.
Everybody is making art
out of their unhappy lives.
Except those who are busy
I see the dark
at the end of the tunnel.
Sanskrit: va, Greek: aemi, Gothic: waian
Old English: wawan, Old High German: wajan
Old Church Slavonic: vejati
Avestan: vata, Hittite: huwantis
Lithuanian: vėjas, Old Irish: feth
Welsh: gwynt, Breton: gwent
The wind whips
through bare branches
empty streets and lanes.
umbrellas flip inside out
clothes somersault on lines.
The invisible made visible
blows between earth and sky.
In the beginning was the wind.
In the end, the breath.
in the heat
in the barrios of Ecuador
the dead rot.
the rich wonder why
the stink is allowed to rise.
Talking to W.C. Williams & W.H. Auden
So much depends
upon doing nothing.
You really have to
work hard at it.
Even not making a list
is doing something.
What does it look, feel, smell
sound or taste like?
Why do I
want to do nothing?
what the dead
truly at rest
in Sunday best
palms across the chest
Now that’s really
So, I stare
out my window
the April snow
to make nothing
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,
your barren fruit trees.
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.
Landscape of Abandonment
Trees have abandoned
their hard-working leaves to the cruel
November winds. The winds pluck the leaves off
one by one. And cold nights let frost
descend upon the shore. The wild
flowers that thrived here
are here no more. And a layer of ice newly formed
on the lake shuts tight
the food cupboard’s door
upon the birds. Migrating birds stop
dropping by the lake when it closes
its heart and door.
Bring me high-heeled shoes
but with the heels snapped off (as I’m in a hurry)
and furry mittens that I may explore
my animal nature.
For forty is far away and I will never let age
pull down the corners of my mouth.
Bring me flowers and bees.
I have honey to make.
Dog, waiting outside
My owner’s generosity has me thinking
I’m something more than a dog. A butterfly?
Tied to a post, I gaze into the gallery.
Prospective customers brush past.
Two Tibetan monks stop in the street,
say hello to me. When they leave
their disciples bow one by one
as if to consult my map to heaven.
The word is moving
is probably beautiful
ends sexual energy utterly
yet a man whispered ‘hello’
in the supermarket
and this was so thrilling
I forgot to whisper ‘hello’ back
went home and dreamed
not of him – somewhat mesomorphic
with bushy grey-black hair
my real-time match –
but of a winsome youth
and I dreamed someone else alive
in a small untidy windowless room
hidden in my imaginary house.
If I’d never learned to read
none of this would be happening.
Sheets to Die For
This sheet must never touch the
This sheet must be folded a special
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
Uneven Piece for My Online Therapist
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!
Reality check, please.
[To view poem in full layout please click here]
Stardust and Moonlight: A Love Poem
Beaches built of melted
Sun. Iridescent air
Lavender thoughts sprinkle
Yearning on sun-whipped skin
Oceans shout to the shore,
“I will sing to you of love.”
Waves recede with a kiss.
Any Afternoon, Early Autumn
Between the sigh and
Her smile lies lit
Space. Full. A growing
Gathering of dust
Piles of laundry wait
To be transported
From basket to
Drawer. You have her
Echoes of History
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.
Dhrupad of Destruction
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 longer-limbed progeny expanding onto the first grassy plains no mountains to snow on but coming on slowly continents creep impact the planet give it a taste for carbon dioxide 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 our interest keep us scrambling gear-craving mules arriving late 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.
Dusk On Loukes Lake
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
Call of the Loon
It’s cold here without you.
When I bend my neck to drink
there is no reflection in the water.
Come back to the wild.
When I call your name
it ricochets off trees,
slips down the bank,
squats mute as stone on the lily pad where
a bullfrog once left a faint depression.
I long to be near you.
I tilt my bill to drink the stars,
sorrow throbbing in my throat,
my back bare as the hollow in the bed
A plague of poppies: salmon, tomato,
apricot. Some years I save the seeds,
audible in upright cups, and carry them,
carefully, to make two lemon cakes,
eat all those flowers.
Flowers that are as famous as
the famous dead. As famous as seven
mothers, each buried at the bottom of
her skeleton tree. Perhaps a little
Lucy momma buried at the root of mine.
And famous are the blackbirds in the garden.
Each at the top of its pine,
sings its posterity song –
‘I’m listening, I’m listening’ –
to simple strands, tightly bound.
it’s not the breath, in or out
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
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
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.
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.
a few sprigs
puncture the monotony
of brown-green bog,
and skeletons of cedar.
I know you,
skulking in the wetlands
between bridge and dam,
around the island,
beneath the boulder’s shoulder,
under jack pine.
When I pull you up,
your grace drains fast—
I replant you in a box
outside my window.
Spindly girl, you must need something wild
I cannot provide—
you refuse to root for long. Oh
well. I’ll just sit here, drinking
in your pure, red element
for a few days
while you struggle
to stay alive.
ODE TO HIPPOCRATES
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.
Snow Is Falling
Snow is falling. The earth turns white.
Its new skin is as smooth as silk.
The sun hides behind a veil.
I stay confined inside my shelter
while the cedars run between the houses
and collect snowflakes outside.
Running past my window the cedars see
a bear-like creature inside a cave
immersed in dreams.
None sees me. I am the dreams.
Call her goddess of heath and yellow gorse. Tell her you have left the moon unlit. Snuggled into its folds. Swamp-fed forest creeks. Grafted to fen carr, sedge grasses. Dwarf blackberries. See if she believes you. You can neglect wood bluebells, red-purple milkweed, these rimes, flowerings begging for time. Paper birch trees that chafe refrains, disjunctions, oxygen for photosynthesis. How a butterfly pupa fastens its body to a green leaf before eclosing. Tell her it’s the Earth here. Tell her escape won’t work, this far into the scrub habitat. How over there in flattened boxes sits Pirka Ort, clawed wheat fields knotted in dirt. Excavating a nunnery manor. Cherry trees. Plum. Stripping away punctuation. Tell her that you are out here all alone. Tell her. You have summoned the wind. Swallows flying low. Smell of petrichor after rain falls. The blood of the stone. See if she believes you.
miniature gas masks
an empty glass milk bottle
rodents in the ground
live plutonium-packed prey
wind in pine forest
Ferris wheel in Pripyat
a camera drone
woodland around Chernobyl
song of marsh warbler
thatched roof log houses
carvings around window frames
Rosa’s potato patch
I will go now, learn the language of the
woods, and go to the huts, where the flautists
are practising, the sky violet. I will
learn the trees. Gneiss hillocks of mosses.
I shall weave and knot jute ropes around grey
bark and branches. Lime-green wings and
furry white body. Obits for those whose cairns are
missing, those who are numbers. Pupa of the
Luna moth eclosing, I will journey through
the Totenwald, a boggy, stygian fen.
Blueberries and wild roses standing in the sphagnum,
knots and ropes, using ropes as lines, an ode I use
to knot each piece, cocoon wrapped in leaves as home.
I will go now where river birch grows. Hold a
wake among rhodora, red osier dogwood withy.
I hear a small blackwater stream
quarrelling with metaphor. Acid rain in understory.
Wetness the shape of water on skin.
The bodies we speak of inhabiting.
Papery white moonflowers. A bittern calls.
He and she fuse their cells
with the sticky glue
of their warm juices
Two cells become one
which then divides
until one plus one
adds up to ten
perfect little toes
Baby trades warmth and safety
for the heady freedom
of the outside world
life before life
The years move on while
he and she and they
climb the steep path
of life during life
all the way to the top
When the sun sets
life after life takes over
making the cells dry up
until one minus one
crumbles into ten perfect
little mounds of dust
Circumstance and sorrow had aged me
by the time I found my way into the fire-blighted wood
scorched by flames rising up from an earth
ravaged by explorations for oil, its water table
plundered relentlessly by impulses of avarice
until there seemed no more hope.
I found my way through the still warm surroundings
and bowing under the leaning tower, once tree,
soot above me, ashes beneath,
glimpsed the hellish minds
of those who had contrived
Here were those who had destroyed life,
reducing sentient beings of leaf and wood
to rectangular pieces of coloured paper;
here were those who betrayed
the created order, consigning beast
and bird and creeping thing to death –
CEOs and sycophants
moaned of perishing thirst,
writhed with silent burning
for each stolen molecule
each lost life
until the original suffering had been undone.
I marvelled that
their empathy, once abandoned,
was transmuted to embodiment
and prayed that this vision
be within them a long nightmare
awakening them to compassion
so that returning to the world
they might spend a lifetime
making amends, working for restoration.
I continued walking and found myself
holding my breath, the stench
overwhelming me before I saw
the pile of carcasses, rotting,
oozing liquid putrification
nearly drowning entrepreneur and poacher alike –
their faces greasy with fat, fur clinging
like a second skin, their heads tilted back
seeking uncontaminated air,
they shrieked from time to time,
feeling against their skin the agony
of each dying creature –
elephant, lion, bear, & all the others
mere trophies, merely a way to make a buck
in a money-hungry world.
I thought as I moved away
seeking air less contaminated by
suffering and death
Is this the only way we understand
suffering – by our feeling it within,
against our skin?
Lost in thought
following the path set before me,
I glimpsed vivid reds, blues, greens
looked again and saw people
tangled in the plastics’ embrace
or buried beneath dark garbage bags
breathing through indestructible straws,
muttering at their fate and the impossible
weight of detritus, not yet making connections
between carelessness – and beached whales,
apathy – and bird carcasses disintegrating
while plastic bits within flutter in the wind.
Recognizing my own failure,
my own complicity
I saw that this place had no hierarchy;
all destructive impulses part of a continuum …
How easily the heart shrivels, how facile
to cultivate intentional incomprehension.
Familiar with sin, I was afraid to go on.
My courage floundered – I shut my eyes
not wanting to see …
I felt, I knew, the meaning of
the sensation on my hand before I looked –
A Monarch sat, wings closing, opening
the door shut by my fear.
Taunted by my antipathy to pain, I recalled
that all things needed to be brought into the light
in order to be healed.
Here, in the butterfly,
was the promise of transformation.
Looking out at the horizon
all around me, I saw
then felt the goodness of intention
a distant form became person,
our eyes met wordlessly and we set out
We came to a high wall
that stretched as far as I could see
in either direction
with a watercourse constructed
parallel to it, flowing swiftly –
its depth unknown.
The engineers, the guards
(who’d just been doing their jobs)
were immobilized against the wall.
Theirs the horror, the hopelessness
of those who had fled homeland; they relived the desperation
of all whom they and others had shut out.
The designing bureaucrats
were continually swept away, not quite drowning
in the death-bloated torrent
until they cried out a thousand times for forgiveness
having finally seen each terrified face, felt
each child’s, each parent’s heartbroken torment.
Pondering the capacity of a moment to hold eternity,
supposing that hope is intentional,
that we must trust in the possibility to transform this –
our reality – I wondered
if it were possible to heal self of selfishness
now, in what was left of an earthbound life-time
Then I saw a cross burning
Christ scorched and scorned.
I broke down and wept.
I saw men, hoods now transparent,
purple welts of the noose circling their necks
swollen features on their battered faces
saw them tremble with fear
and pain, pain rising up from wounds
inflicted simply because the other could –
now they felt
in their inward parts, the misery
the unrelenting devastation
that they had inflicted
on God’s beloved children
and the cross continued to burn …
Only after their psyches have explored
each memory of each cell of each person’s suffering
will they move through that purifying fire, and be reborn.
And I was ashamed
knowing that the physical pain
was only a part of it …
We came to a school, walls scarred
by bullets, doors chained shut,
patrolled by the self-deceived
who struggled to stand, burdened
with the humiliations they had
imposed on children
with uncaring ease; aching now
with the brutality they’d offered
instead of kindness.
Their only drink, tears –
their food, earthen cakes
formed of dust, spit, and bitter herbs.
Locked out of washrooms
labelled not by gender but
by character, “The Compassionate,”
embarrassed by natural urges,
still uncomprehending …
And though my companion
offered to remove the scales from their eyes,
they chose only to remember their knowledge and power.
And suddenly I knew my companion’s name,
knew this was Raphael, Tobit’s healer, this
the one who had guided and protected Tobias.
We came to a vast desert.
Here were those who had loved wealth
more than life.
They sat beneath a blazing sun
surrounded by beige sand dunes
eating wafer-thin gold coins.
As they ate their gold, sand blew
in their eyes, up their nostrils,
into their mouths –
Being obsessed, they were unaware of the irony
that, like the small children of the starving poor,
they ate dirt.
Sweat dripped down their faces, mingled
with the sand, moistened the coins lifted to their lips.
No longer able to stand, they sat
day after day, driven by compulsion
to eat the thin shining disks,
oblivious to anything but gold.
What could save them
from this meaningless consumption?
Ah, with vision and imagination atrophied,
these and many others can only be transformed
by another’s compassionate intervention.
Couldn’t we just take the gold away?
I asked. Oh, but it is all illusion –
It is a fantasy they’ve chosen;
at night they see the golden
coins turn to grains of sand.
They feel their hunger, and despair.
Once the sun rises,
they choose again the compulsion
to swallow their golden passion.
Only a word that connects them
to their original humanity
will free them from this slavery.
At a distance they seemed ordinary
white folk, for some reason
all clothed in red dresses …
As they came into focus
there was a uniformity of expression as well:
the set jaw, eyes pinched with contempt.
I saw the blood seep from sleeves
staining their hands,
saw their hems leave a trail
of blood along the earth.
Blood and soil cried to heaven
recalling the first murderer
who’d founded a city
and filled it with his contempt
for those who loved the wild land …
bequeathing his heirs his arrogance
so that they, heartless and unrepentant as well,
still secretly worshipped the power of taking life.
These killers would wander the world,
until, sickened by the relentless sensation of blood
against their skin,
they sat on the earth, and
prayed for forgiveness, prayed to begin the slow work
of true repentance…
and listening to each story of the betrayed,
finally comprehending the loss
of succeeding generations,
they would feel an agonizing heartbeat
for each and every heartbeat lost;
theirs would be the choking sorrow
of those whose loved ones never returned.
My will to continue faltered.
Unutterable words made my throat tight.
Yet again, I became aware of Raphael.
Without words, the archangel reassured me:
the suffering is too much for any one mortal to bear;
holding it is not your obligation; you come here as witness –
You can choose, you can refuse to stop loving, you
can persist in hoping – trust in the divine vision –
it is a reality just beyond your line of sight.
Moved once again by the power of kindness,
I felt infused with the other’s assurance …
The angelic warmth encompassed me
even as I sensed the region that we’d entered was cold.
Certainly, it was stark and profoundly lonely.
Here were the pedophiles, pimps, and rapists.
I was grateful for Raphael, for a love that was true
as we moved into the presence of destructive lust –
I trusted I was safe within the humility that surrounded me,
even as I was unsettled by the pride
and consuming self-indulgence
that was palpable as these others exited small cells.
By day, the archangel told me,
they remained in isolation, unable to feel
any pleasing sensation; hearing only
the weeping and curses of those
they had abused – a cacophony of rage
By night, they gathered by firelight,
attracted to it as if moths,
but distracted by the frigid blood
circulating through their bodies;
a burning cold that pains and excites
but which can neither climax nor relax.
They had pandered to distorted desire
and now their bodies school them
in their victims’ unbearable pain,
the embodied shame.
How simple, how difficult the route
to forgiveness and redemption: to recall
truly loving even one person
and in the recollection, desire
this good more than power, or pleasure.
Here night held no starlight.
Here there was no moonlight.
I edged closer to my companion,
fearful that with my next step,
I would discover nothing
and find myself falling, forever.
Then I felt two things: a quiet
confidence in my guide –
and the vast emptiness all around me
even though the darkness enveloping
those who had enjoyed or profited from killing
had the clammy texture of fog.
For a moment Raphael
seemed to withdraw and I wondered
what word would describe this cold …
then I puzzled over the ache
that surrounded the emptiness.
And as Raphael came close to me again
I had read once that hell was hidden
in the spear wound of Christ,*
near his heart.
And these broken souls, I asked,
are they capable of repentance?
Then I was made to understand
that they remain in darkness
and unformed until someone prays
for them, then
the long journey into selfhood
necessitates they feel
the pain they have inflicted
the suffering of those who were left to grieve
the sorrow of the Creator …
Raphael and I parted gently, silently. It seemed
to me the earth was a proving ground,
testing each person’s capacity for compassion.
Then I wondered what experience
I might yet need to embody
in order to have greater appreciation for another’s life …
* Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids/Cambridge, 1985. Page 506.
I am nobody else’s version
of who I am
You cannot set your mind
based on my looks alone
There is no language
that defines me
Do not box me in
Because I am my own
I choose not to be enslaved
by your presumptions,
your sweeping remarks,
By your anger
By your orientalist stare
Because I am my own
is not neutral,
steeped in prejudice
Your voice is privileged,
towards me, my race
my colour and my face
Because NOW I am my own
And I shall remain so
We are still here Aimé, us the
niggers of the north
An otherness-nothingness imprisoned in our minds
by our colour
I have heard
of white writers who claim to be bush niggers
they live outside the high prison
They are loved there
I have heard
and in here, they complain about the smell
We are still wretched Franz
red is our colour the revolution that was promised
has been broken over our shoulders
despised like heathen refugees
this country does not love us
It loves its idea of us
With its fuckin TV cameras
it rolls over us with its Hollywood
like scab ravaged lepers
they can’t stand the smell
us, the scum of the earth, our knees
and hands digging into the earth
and the priest scum on our brown asses
There was a blue butterfly
that landed on my finger
That told me the history of our mountains long past
how he had escaped the jaws of a wasp
You say I am only part butterfly and part
a woman’s life is not worth very much
They are not the colour of the
blue Madonna but the brown one
The dirt road does not die here
they are drowning us in the rivers
we, the grave diggers
I have an idea about you
You are the new Jerusalem and the
of a god that died and lived again, returning
from death with nothing
of the sacred earth in his hands
and the only thing that can fill the holes in his hands are coins
not sacred earth
Not so sacred is it?
We adore our drunken poets that eat lilacs
and vomit out eulogies to us, the damned
Our darling girls contorted on the sidewalks
like praying mantis
The government hates them for
not paying taxes on the heads they eat
The politicians will tell us that it is public morality
headless, heartless shits
This new Jerusalem will have a wall, an idea
about me, a wall built with a tongue wagging
and ideology about reason and peace and yet knowing nothing about them
or me, but prayers to a god that can read, written on paper wrapped around a Brimstone missile sent flying to brown and black people
They will understand god has chosen Rome to speak for him,
they will understand limbs torn off
they will understand the voice of god
they will understand the misery of god
they will understand markets
Coil the rising around me, coil your habitual raving madness
coil around me the quenching of your thirsting
A heartbeat stretched over my broken ear
Come with me in the crippled dawn, the sunlight will twist our shadows
and muzzle the darkness
Let me show you what has been destroyed in me
The wounds it has left
the bones it has broken
the beatings I have taken
till I awoke, exhausted
digging up words from the darkness
till my hands were bleeding
Here I am, your mongrel moon
your mutt of midnight
your dangerous memories
your rising nigger
Come with me now
this blessing is short
and we must hurry
till I must return to the beast that first
brought me to you
that cut the soul from the spirit
from the body from the spirit of the earth
What a sharp tongue you have grandmother
splitting and spitting up this fine Indian country
The nuns French kissed me and bit off
Now with the land, on my side, my tongue
and I challenge them to do it again
What you think is dead is not dead
what you think is empty is not empty
Can you hear it
like a rat singing in that garbage heap
they find our bodies in the river
pull them out and say it’s just Indians
put them there with the rest
and every body pulled out is a failure
of a just society because… because
we were just Indians