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?

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

We Sit
June 9 2008

When there is a death in the family
or death takes its time,
we keep our questions to ourselves
clasp each other’s hands
nod solemnly.

This is what we do
with all the calamities.
We come bearing casseroles
we sit,
knitting needles clicking
the tick
of a mantle clock.
Others may talk
may keen and wail and tear out their hair
and debate the metaphysics of tragedy.
But we are content
with silence,
comforted to know they will come.
And the warmth of familiar bodies
is enough,
holding us up
as we sleep-walk through
our private sorrows.

The colour of mourning is black
and the sound is small-talk
about recipes, and weather.
We are grateful for those who sit,
we welcome this pause
their taciturn presence.
Plenty of time, later
to wrestle with God.

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

Walking Home on a Cold Winter Evening
Feb 11 2008

It’s high pressure cold;
sky clear
all the way out to the ozone.
In thin night air
where the molecules have slowed
close to absolute zero.
A transparent dome
where the stars are sharp as lasers.

I walk
muffled, layered
soft snow underfoot,
through a city of houses like ships at sea
all leaning into the breeze.
Their chimneys huff-out smoke,
trailing away
as if steaming into headwinds.

And it might just as well be mid-Atlantic,
becalmed in oceanic dark.
Where great waves swell, but cannot break;
long unstoppable rollers
rocking us in place.

A small city on a tiny planet
forging through the ocean of ether
that holds the universe up.
So close
I could reach-up and touch
the hard black edge of space.

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

U-Turns and Hard Lefts
Aug 10 2006

How far you can go in a straight line
without stopping.
It would be bald prairie, or salt flats,
with policemen, at the cross-roads, holding traffic back
in white immaculate gloves,
until you coasted to a stop
as far as you got
on a full-tank.

Except there are no straight lines or straightaways
on a round planet;
where all roads are bent,
and the shortest distance between two points
runs underground.
And anyway, U-turns and hard lefts
always keep things interesting.

Like questions you ask, you really want answered.
Or going so fast, it no longer matters.
Or swallowing your fear, and taking your chances
with hard women
in after-hours bars,
or strong drink
and even faster cars,
or leaps of faith in darkness.

Because when the entire universe is curved
you can drive, hell-bent-for-leather
or let it ride, and take forever
and still return

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

To Whom it May Concern
Aug 1 2010

To whom it may concern.
The statue arrived, finally,
nice work, good Italian marble.
But one arm was broken-off,
and who knew
it came without paint.

I could swear I ordered Aphrodite;
is it possible you sent Venus
by mistake?
I know, I know
one man’s goddess of Love
is another man’s harlot;
and Beauty’s just a social construct,
women oppressed
by the unreal expectations of men.

It will cost an arm and a leg
(an arm huh!)
to ship it back.
And as it is, the thing adds some class
to our garden nook,
all those gnomes and whirligigs,
the fountain with the pissing sprites
my wife insisted on.

So please forward, posthaste
a partial refund, in my name,
to general delivery

etc . . .