Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Standing Abreast
July 2 2018

In a ripening field
two horses stand abreast,
head to tail, facing away.
Their muscled flanks, sheened with sweat
are ever so lightly touching,
a chestnut mare, and her roan cousin
in the hot and torpid air.

A wild pasture, far from man,
with tall grasses, heavy with seed
wild flowers, in promiscuous pink
and a scatter of blue and gold.

In the indolent heat, flies buzz
bedevilling each massive beast.
her enormous eyes;
the rheumy whites,
the trail of mucus 
running down the inner crease. 
on the moist margins of her lids
so they twitch with every touch.
And probing
her ears' warm recesses
and ever so sensitive nose.

One's face
brushed by the other's tail
back and forth, and back and forth.
Long coarse hairs
that flick with surprising force,
a whipsaw whisk
swishing the flies away.

Not survival of the fittest
as in dominance and death,
but a herd of wild horses
who know to stand abreast
as is the way of their kind.

Her sturdy frame leans in,
so the incremental pressure
of each intake of breath
is like a reassuring presence
against her side;
the power of touch
the constancy of friends.

Herd animals, working together
to give, as well as get.

We misread Darwin. Survival is as much about cooperation as it is competition.

And no, it's not romantic anthropomorphism to say that there can be friendship among animals.

Nor is the power of touch any different; whether it's herd animals, like wild horses, or social animals, like us.

I was watching an episode of Nature, on PBS (Pets: Wild at Heart - Episode 2, which can be seen at and this instinctive (learned?) behaviour among wild horses was shown. I was struck by its cleverness; and knowing first hand how flying/biting insects can persecute me, I also felt a great deal of empathy for their plight! There was something compelling about this image, and when it returned to me the next day, I thought this might make a nice lyric poem: small, descriptive, self-contained.

And I also thought it might be good vehicle for a rumination on friendship among animals, as well as on the concept of reciprocal altruism. Reciprocal altruism is the utilitarian basis of morality; and what we privilege – with our conceit of personal agency and free will – as rectitude and goodness when it's done by us.

And it's also an important mechanism in evolution: one that is counter-intuitive to the usual understanding of Darwinism and nature as dog eat dog, and “red in tooth and claw”.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Tilted Arc
June 25 2018

As you journey further and further north
   —   plodding by foot
along a line of longitude
that stretches from pole to pole   —
the day steadily lengthens,
every few steps
seconds more.

Between the first day of summer, and winter's depths
it's as if you can actually sense
in the heat
soaking into your skin
and the light
holding back the dark
the vast geometry
of circling planets
in their intricately choreographed dance;
in the passage of time
the measure of space.

Feel yourself
an infinitesimal speck
on a constant patch of land
all your senses tell you is flat,
on a rapidly spinning sphere
too massive to make sense of,
travelling in its tilted arc
around a yellow star.

Or, you can simply sit,
leaning back
in the languorous warmth
as your heavy eyes drift shut.
The red glow behind your lids
the penetrating heat,
the insect buzz, a puff of breeze
the sultry flush of sweat.

Thinking that 6 months hence
you'd be buried in snow;
a Siberian mammoth, preserved on ice
until the next big melt.
The cycle of freeze and thaw,
of ice age
and interglacial.

Because what goes around comes around.
As planets revolve and rotate
stars spin through space
and galaxies majestically wheel.
A clockwork universe
in a perfectly balanced dance
of distant attraction
and invisible lines of force.

And you
alive, for this blink in time
on flotsam earth.

I like the way this poem moves in and out, and does so in both time and space: between days and season and epochs; from the personal and circumscribed to the unimaginably large. It starts small, and then – after the aperture dilates and narrows and dilates again – ends in much the same place.

I think this reflects a theme I return to often: the idea of humanity's insignificance in a cold indifferent universe. Which is not a message of nihilism so much as one of humility. And which is where I depart from both the religionists and the modernists: instead of putting self-important man at the centre, I make us out as marginal and transient.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Pray For Rain
June 16 2018

Even the weeds have withered
in this long dry spell,
their zigzag edges browned
fronds dulled by dust;
oppressive stillness
for days on end
in unremitting sun.

But now, it's steamy hot
and you can feel the building storm,
something electric
unsettling the air.
The laundry hangs heavy
still stubbornly wet.
My sodden shirt sticks
seams chafing with sweat.
And it's harder and harder to breath,
as if water and heat
had displaced essential oxygen.

In the distance, there's a deep bass rumbling
which I feel, more than hear,
anxiously expectant
in this deceptive calm.
Like the muted sounds of war
inching closer and closer
but still too far to see;
the thud of cannon, and strafing runs
the flat repeat of guns,
armoured dozers' diesel throb
the trudge of weary grunts.

The sky darkens, the ceiling lowers.
And we reflexively duck
at the first boom of thunder,
as a fitful breeze quickens
and sprinkles pit the dust.
Then a blistering volley of gusts
from all directions at once,
as lightning cracks the sky
and rain comes bucketting down.

The washing whips free
and the line rips from its wheel;
and we lean into the wind,
in sopping clothes.

The water rising
on impervious  earth,
running-off, instead of soaking in
to the hard-baked soil.

The rain we were praying for.
Even the non-believers, like me
who scoff at an absent God
and resist superstition.
A God, so quick to temper,
so cruel and contingent
in His whimsical gifts,
so unmoved
by our offerings.
We, too, looked up to the heavens
along with the rest;
the devout few
who are sure of their faith,
and the many more
for whom it's a struggle.

As if hope and need
could conquer doubt.
As if an act of will
could end a drought.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Life Force
June 6 2018

So, even NASA clean rooms
are contaminated.
Because bacteria have learned to eat
the hissing liquids, and blistering suds
the frothing foams, and caustic scrub
we were certain killed.

How clever
The life force
pushing ever outward,
like a heated gas
irresistibly expanding,
a mushroom cloud
billowing up, and out.
An animating God,
who breathes into life
and decrees it sacred.

Bacteria in rocks, volcanoes
the abyssal deep.
The dry Atacama
blasted by sun,
among our cells, and in our blood.
Exported to space
on the sleek metallic skin
of moon-landing rovers
and rockets to Mars.

Metastatic life
colonizing this blue and green planet
with its imperative to grow
filling the place
until even the most extreme niche
is occupied.

If you've ever tried to kill
you know what I mean.
The crunch
of the hard coat
of the small black ant
zig-zagging blindly past;
the identical clones
who swarm in its place.
The man, gasping for breath
who simply refuses to die
no matter how battered and beaten and bled;
the faraway look in his eyes,
as consciousness flickers
and the death grip
pulls you frantically in.

The bolt to the brain comes closest.
The efficiency
of the killing floor,
when the big animal's legs
collapse like a marionette's,
and the dead weight of the carcass
seems even heavier.
Rigor mortis meat
with its pungent adrenaline edge.

But life persists.
The living consuming the dead.
Malignant growth, for its own sake
exponentially outward.

Here's a link to the article, by the Atlantic's outstanding science correspondent Ed Yong, that inspired this poem:

On reading this, I was impressed by how indomitable life is.

And also, by nature, how malignant it is: like a metastatic cancer, growing until it outgrows its substrate, and for no reason other than the imperative of growth.**

And, by analogy, our own species: spreading relentlessly over this rare and precious planet like some Malthusian nightmare, until we will have destroyed it, and ourselves, with our insatiable appetite and extravagant waste.

So I suppose this poem is both an environmentalist's screed and a misanthrope's indulgence. With a little nod to the inner vegetarian, who wags his accusing finger every time he finds me eating meat. But no, it is not autobiographical: I have never tried to kill, except for the odd ant and biting insect!

As you can see by the date of my last post, it seems as if I haven't written forever. Amend that; I haven't written poetry forever. But there is a certain writing bug than can't be expiated via letters, and I had been hoping some inspiration would strike. So it was nice when I felt a little jolt after reading this article. But then I sat down, wrote a lousy few lines, and decided I wasn't feeling it. It was as I started to get up that another first line came, and suddenly I was into it, and that old pleasurable experience returned:  I lost track of time; and the writing came almost automatically, as if I were taking dictation and not composing. After being away from it for awhile, it definitely felt similar to exercising when you've gotten a little out of shape: hard at first, but then the muscle memory and the residue of training soon get you back up to speed.

** I realize that reducing all living things to a malignant imperative to grow would seem to demean our humanity, since we are certainly among the living. After all, we humans are much more than a mindless mass of exponentially growing cells; we have consciousness. Conscious not in terms of a state of wakefulness, but in the sense of self-awareness and the boundary of ego and and a desire for meaning. Not to mention the awareness of our own mortality! But we are the exception. Because the vast majority of living things are essentially automatons, guided by the simple algorithm of survival and reproduction, and to whom consciousness is of only limited use – an evolutionary innovation that enabled the increasingly complex systems of big multicellular organisms to interact with the outer world. Of course, this could only be the point of view of someone who is very reductionist about the great mystery of consciousness: believing that the mind and brain are one; and that consciousness resides in that 3 lb mass of protoplasm, not some hovering or indestructible or divinely created soul.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Second Hand
May 20 2018

Things accumulate.

Like the way, in the vastness of space, small chunks of rock
gravitate into clumps
then accrete into bigger ones,
until, in the fullness of time
a planet is born.

And then, how things become fixed;
to this thing in its place
as if it had always been thus,
an immovable object
decreed by nature.

The familiar landscape of home.
Which the brain, tuned to the odd and novel and new
soon fails to notice.
And so, like dust-bunnies under the bed
that are out of sight and mind,
or leftovers lost in fridge
behind expired jars of who-knows-what
welded shut by time,
things settle-in
for the long haul.

The bric-a-brac
and tchotchkes
and vintage magazines.

The yellowing ledgers
in the top desk drawer
she could only have kept
for posterity;
the cheque-books balanced, and statements justified,
the manuals and warranties
alphabetically filed,
the carbon-copy receipts.
Testament to a measured life
of zero-sums.

The closet piled high
with old lady clothes
she wore just once,
prudently saved
for the next big event
she was certain would come.

The upstairs rooms, still papered with posters
of a rock-and-roll heroes
and teen-aged angst,
with their little bunk beds
and pink princess sheets,
like museums to childhood.

So when she finally moved into the senior's home,
the artifacts of a lifetime
were left at the curb
sent to Goodwill
peddled on-line.
And off to the dump with the rest,
without sentiment
or reverence
or pause.

You'd think that time would be fixed,
the seconds counting-off,
the hands of the clock
steadily circling;
a standard unit
like teaspoons, or pounds.
Yet looking ahead 10 years
it seems immeasurably long,
while looking back
it feels like yesterday,
as if the decades all happened at once,
and you were still, somehow
unaccountably young.

Just as the things we hold dear
mean less and less
the older we get,
and what for all those years
you so dutifully kept
becomes disposable.

Old age
is getting used to loss, she said
hobbling about on aching joints
with her bad heart, and rheumy eyes,
but all the stuff
is just dead weight, and nothing more.
So she took some pictures, some letters, a favourite chair
while we spent a week
clearing out the place.
An empty house
that looks immense
with all its clutter gone,
and might as well have belonged
to someone else.

Time moves on
and time is mutable.
We cannot hold back the tide,
or command – arms outstretched – its receding waters to stop.
And in the end
the things we surround ourselves with
cannot protect us from loss
or make life more meaningful.
The seconds
adding relentlessly up,
our allotted time
quickening down.

In its conception, this poem actually began with the observation about the shifting perspective on time. I was thinking of someone in their 20s looking ahead to their 60s: how inconceivable that age must seem; the seemingly infinite amount of time you have. In contrast with looking back: how it all seems like yesterday, and how you are much the same person, despite the passage of time. Which is both good and bad: that you haven't grown as much as perhaps you should have, but also that the essential qualities that make you who you are persist.

Anyway, it is in this looking back that our values also change. When we're past the life stage of accumulating possessions; when we've learned that the hedonic jolt of something new is transient and changes nothing, and that most of these material things – that we once sought after and valued – have little meaning as we get closer to the end of life. Think how liberating it would be if we could leapfrog to that insight years earlier, if we could so easily free ourselves of attachment and desire!

Both of these lines of thought combined with a friend's recent experience: moving her mother from her house of 34 years into a senior's home, and the vast amount of work involved in clearing out all of the accumulated possessions. We work all our lives to obtain this stuff. We maintain it, insure it, worry about it, and get upset if something is damaged or lost. And yet, in the fullness of time, it's all reduced to junk: it's simply a burden; we don't care for it anymore; and certainly no one else does.

Still, the familiar landscape of home is comforting. A place for everything, and everything in its place. Just so.

I quite like the title's double entendre. It works well in a poem that talks about both our relationship to our possessions and our subjective perception of time: second hand goods; the second hand, steadily circling.

This line – while the brain, tuned to the odd and novel and new – was originally “while the brain, tuned to the unexpected”. I felt the final version scanned better. Although "novel" and "new" are, of course, perfect synonyms, and might strike a discerning reader as mere padding and unnecessary wordiness. This is the opposite of what you want in a poem. Because while a poem should contain ambiguity and allusion, it should also have razor-like sharpness in its economy and precision. I think one of the great pleasure I get in reading a poem is when I encounter that one perfectly distilled word that does so much work, that fits in terms of rhyme and rhythm, and yet does so with exquisite brevity and wit. Sometimes, though, a writer gets to indulge:  use some filler for the sake of the sound. It can also be argued that repetition has its place. It provides emphasis and strength. And anyway, two words never mean exactly the same, so a synonym also comes with its own subtle valence, which undoubtedly adds to the richness of the language. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Ice Is Off the Lake
May 14 2018

Early morning
and the ice is off the lake.

Half past 4
when it's hard to know
if I'm an owl or a lark,
a bright-eyed early riser
or restless insomniac.

When the windless air
has cooled enough
you can feel its improbable weight,
like a thick quilt
settling over the world
and holding it still.
And when you wonder, looking up
if the night has begun its softening
that thin grey light
that hints of dawn
stealing-in from the east.

When an ululation of loons
erupts from the depths
somewhere out in the dark,
a haunting sound
that chills
                    . . . elates
                                        . . . and tempts.
That seems to declare
they own the place,
and fully at home.

While the old canoe
down by the shore
has been grounded since late in the fall;
its thin canvas skin
weathered by the elements,
its faded paint, once brilliant red
now scraped and pinged.
Too cold
to venture out
in this mean and grudging spring.

And while the canoe lay buried in snow
who knows where the loons stole away,
stubby wings, straining up
feathers trailing spray.
But now, the lake is entirely theirs;
serenely at ease in the water
impervious to glacial cold.

How unnatural
to see it beached
upside down, and still,
this frugally elegant craft
that even at rest
appears to be in motion.
If it could,
would it right itself
slip into the shallows
drift out among the birds?
Would it perch lightly upon the lake
at the mercy of wind and wave,
silently demure
rocking gently back and forth?
Or, like them
would it wail and waver and trill?

After a season interred
beneath the snow,
I can hear the lake
calling it home.