Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Sept 8 2017

The pup is like a plush toy,
plump, on stubby legs
she will too soon grow out of,
and into the powerful stride
of long and lean.

But for now, she runs as if tightly sprung,
keen to keep up with the big dogs
who mostly ignore her,
forbearing, and dignified
as she eagerly nips and jumps.

I walk behind her on the trail,
her expressive tail erect
bum-hole, round and pink
bouncing up and down with her.

She has two speeds – all-out, and full-stop,
crashing into sleep
that is mostly deep, and undisturbed
but where she sometimes also runs,
nose twitching
thrashing legs.

It is a golden autumn
and we frequently stop on the path;
me, lying in the grass
the big dogs wandering.
And the pup, curled-up
asleep on my chest.

My “new” pup recently turned 1. As I was writing this, I realized that this was the first poem I'd penned about her. I think because I'm very leery of dog poems in general: they're too easy, too sentimental and self-indulgent. And probably also because it feels as if I said all that needs to be said in numerous poems about her predecessor, Skookum. But Rufus is, as are all of us, unique.

I was reminded of her uniqueness, as well as our early days, while on a recent walk with a friend, when I found myself pointing out how I used to fondly call her “dumpling bum-hole”: both because of her puppyish physique, and how she carries her tail at a jaunty angle up. So I thought this was a good chance to celebrate, as well as memorialize, that golden autumn of our first year together. (The bum-hole is still happily visible. The plumpness, though, has turned into strong muscle and bone.)

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Aug 26 2017

I have a vague recollection
of regression to the mean,
the zero-sum game
of averages.

The scorching day
followed by the balm of night.
December's dark cave
summer's lingering light.
The one you loved
who also left.

I suppose there is consolation in this,
nothing too high or low
a chance at redemption.

Except that nature is all process,
never settling
at some hypothetical steady-state.
The hurricane force
and the eye of the storm
may cancel out,
but still, destruction reigns.
Or evolution's see-saw race,
predator and prey
in lock-step,
whip-sawed from famine to feast.

Perhaps this is what Eden means;
the ideal zero-sum
of Adam and Eve
the apple, the snake,
of ignorance and bliss
and the world unchanged.
Where the young stay young
and there is no suffering
and the lion lies down with the lamb.
But where, in the absence of death
no one hears a newborn cry,
and there is no chance
of reinvention.

which is how I feel
most of the time.
And will probably end up middle-aged, and little done;
muddling through, as usual.

So I sigh, and accept my mediocrity.
The fantasies
I dare indulge;
the paralyzing fear
I will fail, and be judged.

This poem began with the smell of autumn in the air. August 26 is awfully early for this, I know. But it's been a cool wet summer, the ferns are already turning brown, and the last three nights have been very cold. I was thinking about how far north we live, and how as you ascend latitude, the lengthening summer days are so exquisitely balanced by equally lengthening winter nights. It's as if the easy summer exacts its payment: a zero sum game, where regression to the mean is the law. This struck as a promising approach to a poem about the change of season, the kind of poem that can so easily slip into predictable cliche.

As usual, of course, the writing gods took over from there. The best way I can describe this process is as a kind of critical stream-of-consciousness: like taking dictation, as the words mysteriously appear; but at the same time listening and shaping the piece. That it ends up as melancholy, self-critical, and defeatist as it does says something about the stenographer. ...But that, as always, is up to the reader to decide.

(I hasten to add that I'm not looking ahead to middle age; I'm more and more looking back! On the other hand, who says this is autobiography? And anyway, one is always allowed poetic licence, and in this case “middle-aged” has the perfect connotation. I'll also point out, once again, my curious penchant for Biblical references: odd, I know, coming from a fundamentalist atheist such as me!)

Sunday, August 20, 2017

August 21, 2017
Aug 11 2017

The path of totality
cuts a dark slash
through middle America.

Which has me wondering
about omens, and portents
and momentous signs
in these troubled times
of guns and drugs and high anxiety;
when the heavens align
and day becomes night
and bird song ceases.

When the solid ground beneath our feet,
the flat earth
every sense insists we inhabit,
will all at once become
a small round planet
hurtling through space;
and we, its puny passengers
looking out.

And in the eerie silence, a minute's grace
when we are privileged to gaze upon vast astronomical objects
wheeling through the cosmos
in their great ponderous arcs.

The serendipity of distance
when the moon intersects with the sun,
covering it so exactly, one can only imagine
that beauty is intrinsic
to how the universe works.
While a dark calm descends
as if the earth stood still;
the sun blacked-out, and its corona revealed,
with brilliantly tinselled light.

And the blind leading the blind
who are bold enough to look.

Aug 14 2017

When the rain began
from misty drops
to sprinkled drips
to stiff insistent drizzle —
on and on I drove.

Until, at the flick of a switch
the sluice gates opened
and the heavens poured
and a river roiled the road.

When still, I didn't stop,
headlights a blur, lines submerged
the gravel verge invisible
as the wipers uselessly slapped.
And reference-free
all sensation of speed
was strictly theoretical,
as I gripped the wheel
eyes grimly fixed on the glass.

The sound was a dense metallic roar,
drowning out the rattles, the engine
the radio talk
my breathlessly racing heart.

So why did I push on
in this cacophony of rain?

Before it stopped, just as suddenly
in an eerily quiet calm,
when the sky broke
and the sun beamed
and the asphalt steamed and glistened
power-cleaned and cooled.

My windshield, squeegeed dry
by seesawing wipers,
squeak-squeak-squeak on the glass.

I was sitting pondering what to write, when the heavens opened and a windless rain inundated the house. I immediately thought about similar downpours I've driven through – a combination of stubborn persistence and youthful bravado – and thought this might make a poem.

The Self-Important “Now”
Aug 12 2017

I look at black-and-white pictures
from back when I was a kid
and it seems more anthropological
than personal.
Yes, I was alive
in those tumultuous times,
but too young to be part of history.

And the incongruous mix
of mid-century modern
with what seems from a previous age
is not at all how I remember it.

Like seeing the first Mustang,
adjacent to post-war DeSotos
Studebakers laden with chrome.

Or political hacks, who backed Jim Crow
caught by the camera's indiscriminate eye;
background men, fading to grey
when Camelot came true
and glamour ruled.

Or hippies and peaceniks and student radicals,
whose photos still look just as cool
as when love was free
and youth eternal
and the boomers first
discovered themselves.
Along with lean men
in narrow ties and snappy hats
and thick owlish glasses.
And lumpy housewives in mousy frocks,
sporting cat's-eye frames
and beehive hair
and formidable corsets and bras,
pocketbooks clutched
in white-gloved hands.

But it's the absence of colour
that's truly distancing
and makes the past unrecognizable.
Monochrome photos,
drained of blood
forever young.
Black and white figures, fixed in time,
so they seem more iconic than real.

I know this
after seeing World War II in Colour,
an eye-candy film
that jolted the 40s to life.
Dances, and Big Bands
and rallies of Hitler Youth.
Sleek battleships
on postcard-blue seas,
the daily life
of Parisian streets.
Not heroes of war
but young men I might have known;
sharing cigarettes, relaxing on deck,
strong, and tanned
and clowning for the camera.
And their girlfriends, so beautiful
in the achingly brief
flower of youth.
Still in bloom, on celluloid,
never imagining themselves
the buxom grandmas, and shuffling veterans
I remember from childhood,
their settled world
utterly gone.

I remember how we, too
felt ourselves the height of modernity
in the self-important now,
contemptuous of the world
that came before.
Just as today
a generation is absorbed
by the dazzle of technology
and blinkered self regard.

So will they, looking back
also patronize our innocence, romanticize our time?
Just as we have done
with these photographs in black and white
and endless shades of grey,
the captured moment
freighted with meaning
no snapshot could ever contain?

Must the past always remain
a foreign country?
So that even to those who were there

it never quite feels like home.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Aug 9 2017

I see it far away
under full sail
above a thin sliver of hull.

The wind, a gentle breath
of hot and humid air
so the surface is almost glass.
Where it hovers, weightless
under blue porcelain sky
at the boundary of water and air.

It's like a pointillist painting
in soft pastels,
an impression of stillness
through hazy light
and squinting eyes.

Toy skiffs
on a small pond
in a city park
look festive and bright.
Old men at play.
in games of war.

High summer,
and in the thick lassitude
of late afternoon
boats, going nowhere fast.
While time patiently waits
for the breeze to freshen.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Aug 7 2017

The low winter sun
lit up the room
in the long season of night.

Its horizontal light
picked up the blonde hardwood grain
spotlit the dust
and probed the farthest corner
illuminating every flaw.

As if the space had expanded
under pressure of light,
had relieved the room of weight.
No more love-seat
preserved by silk-glove care.
No cabinets and tchotchkes,
no leather ottoman
with its stained and cat-scratched top.
No over-stuffed couch
which wallowed in softness
and they never stopped calling a chesterfield.

No more of the clutter
that comes with living well.
But what did persist was the scent;
and this, unmistakably them.
Like muscle memory
infusing the air, absorbed in the paint
ingrained in the porous walls.

And now, the vacant apartment
my parents so long called home
will soon be rented out.
New tenants
who would never suspect
they will have company,
a ghostly presence
dusting and puttering about.

Not malevolent spectres
but quiet, respectful, neat.
If not a little perplexed
by the strange new furniture
the guests who never leave.

My challenge in writing poetry is the idea. My life is too uneventful for good inspiration. Or in the words of one of my favourite podcasts – The Moth – not sufficiently “story-worthy”.

Which is OK, because what I love is the execution, the feeling of flow, that almost mystical process of receiving words as if they were dictated. And then the tweaking and fussing and revisiting until it strikes the ear and tongue just right.

So I often resort to reading others' work, and stealing their ideas. A prime resource is Garrison Keillor's Writers Almanac, which delivers a poem to my in-box daily. This one arrived August 1 2017.

I felt juiced by Robyn Sarah's idea, and wanted to try riffing on it myself. The persistence of smell is the crux of her poem, and I stole that as well. So most of the credit for this piece is hers. Nevertheless, it was fun to write.

Not to mention that my parents had a condo, not an apartment. And in the spirit of not claiming credit that rightly does not belong to me, my brother and sister-in-law – not I – did the good work of emptying it out (after my father died, and my mother later moved to a senior's residence).

My process is very visual. A poem often begins with a still image, which I wander through and describe. Simple as that. So I saw the floor, the dust, the light; felt the jarring sense of spaciousness. The end seemed to write itself, and came as much a surprise to me as it may have to you.

On Closing the Apartment of my Grandparents of Blessed Memory

By Robyn Sarah

And then I stood for the last time in that room.
The key was in my hand. I held my ground,
and listened to the quiet that was like a sound,
and saw how the long sun of winter afternoon
fell slantwise on the floorboards, making bloom
the grain in the blond wood. (All that they owned
was once contained here.) At the window moaned
a splinter of wind. I would be going soon.
I would be going soon; but first I stood,
hearing the years turn in that emptied place
whose fullness echoed. Whose familiar smell,
of a tranquil life, lived simply, clung like a mood
or a long-loved melody there. A lingering grace.
Then I locked up, and rang the janitor’s bell.

On Closing the Apartment of my Grandparents of Blessed Memory” by Robyn Sarah from Questions About the Stars. © Brick Books, 1998. Reprinted with permission. 

Sunday, August 6, 2017

This poem was recently revised, and sue to formatting problems has been re-posted out of chronological order.

You Are a Person of Strong Sense of Duty”
Feb 17 2009

The fortune cookie
teases open like a wish-bone -
the gentle resistance
of clasped wings
pried apart,
giving way
to hard edges, and shattered shards.
Nice generic predictions
you can leave
or take.

We complete this communal meal
with cookies that taste
like drywall.
And with a small flutter of hope
for love, treasure, friends,
the good ones, taken to heart
glossing over the rest.
Or scratching our heads
when Confucius inscrutably says . . .

Somewhere, in a cookie factory
that smells of ink, and sweetened dough
a man is frantically stuffing them in,
as a conveyor
pumps them out like hot cakes.

Apparently, good fortune does not rub off
as he sits, hour after hour
in his dead-end job,
lost and luckless
breathing-in crumbs.

This poem was recently revised and due to formatting problems has been re-posted out of chronological order.

With Her Eyes Closed
May 23 2009

A woman of a certain age
is grateful to feel wanted,
long after she thought
her time had passed.
And to be the object of desire
thrills her.
The age, of course, is immaterial
and a gentleman never asks.

They make love
with her socks on,
thick sturdy wool ones
knee-high hose.
Unselfconscious, unlike the young.
She kisses with her eyes closed,
transported back to old affairs
abandoned lovers
absent men,
and the only one
she wishes never left.

But she is comforted by this embrace,
his body as warm, familiar
as the garden she loves to tend.
Which she could navigate blind-folded
- up the garden path, along the rows,
her hands finding him
her fingers entwined with his.

Insatiable as spring
immersed in warm moist earth.
When she kneels on freshly turned soil
breathing in
its pungent scent.

This poem was recently revised, and due to formatting problems has been re-posted out of chronological order.

When The Revolution Comes
May 19 2004

When the revolution comes
they round up the poets first.
Because there is something suspicious about words,
even to stiff men, in dark glasses
who are immune to irony.
And anyway, not much inclined
to verse.
But they forget that the word never dies,
and that poets are vain
and memorize.

And just how much could a poet hurt
the coup d’etat,
with his harmless armamentarium
of blank verse, and a few blank pages,
of nonsense words, and sentimental phrases
about setting suns
or love undone
or kingdom come,
against well-honed steel
and point-blank guns?