Sunday, March 18, 2018

When Seeing is Believing
March 17 2018

Dogs do not see red.

Their rich olfactory world, drenched in smell
is bloodless.
Ripe fruit
might as well be sour green
and hard as pith.
And this sunset, magenta-pink
never existed;
its brilliant light replaced
with a dull wash
of bluish-grey.

As I am blind
to infrared, ultraviolet,
my world thin
my view impoverished.
We think we see reality
as it is,
our eyes capturing light
our minds processing it.
Because how would you know what you've missed,
through a narrow aperture
at partial glimpses
and shifting shadows,
surface the eye cannot fathom.

A manic dash
after the bright orange ball
that will always incite her,
as if taunting the killer
who lives in her core.
Or what weak yellow light is left;
bled of all its redness.

But she is infallible
in fierce pursuit;
following her nose,
digging it out
from deeply drifted snow.
Then triumphantly holds up her head,
eyes glowing
with the thrill of the hunt,
jubilant tail
a brownish blur.

I've often idly wondered why these balls come only in orange. True, it's bright and easy to find – for me. But to the colour-blind dogs who are chasing after, it's at best a dull yellow, the orange bled of its red.

I've wondered something similar, driving at night, following the red glow of the car in front. Does the brightness even register? Is there at least some kind of grey ...or are they totally invisible? The latter, I have to believe: with no receptors for red, these brake lights simply cease to exist, no matter how brightly they shine.

And tonight, admiring a beautiful sunset, the same thought came to me: do they see this part of the sky as utterly dark, absent all colour and light? ( ... Which is academic, of course, since not only are the dogs' noses glued to the ground, sniffing everything in sight, but they never look up at the sky or take an interest in what's overhead – ever.)

A typical human retina has 3 types of cones: red, green, blue. While butterflies, with their tiny insect brains, have either 5 or 6, depending on the species. And the mantis shrimp may have up to 16! So the world we see is not actually the world as it is. Our version of reality is incomplete, and our intuitive understanding that seeing is believing is mere conceit.

Just imagine: the ability to see various shades of ultraviolet, or to perceive magnetic fields, or to see further into the electromagnetic spectrum. An alarming thought, actually, considering how we are bathed in radiation from all our electronic devices and the WiFi that connects them; from satellites beaming their signals down to earth; from all the microwave transmissions that invisibly fill the air; and from the stray energy that leaks from hydro lines and appliances and who knows what. Perhaps better to remain blind after all!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Heart's Content
March 12 2018

Heartfelt, heart melts, heart skips a beat,
heart leaps
heart on my sleeve.

Heart's desire, heart throb
from the bottom of my heart,
cockles warmed, whole-hearted

Have a heart, faint of heart, lose heart and will,
followed heart
change of heart
beating heart be still.

Take heart, lose heart, heart of hearts sinks,
cross my heart
in my mouth
eat it out or weep.

Heart felt, heart sick, half-hearted, numb,
heartache, heartbreak
what the heart wants — undone.

Heavy-hearted, gold-hearted, dark heart of stone,
soft-hearted, hard-hearted
heart warm to cold.

Poured out, set on, stolen lost or light,
know by heart, heart of hearts
the person after mine.

All heart, young at heart, brave heart or faint,
take heart, big heart
in the right place.

Heart bleeds, still as sweet, heart set against,
near my heart, have a heart
to my heart's content.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Secret Garden
March 3 2018

The houses stand
on ample rectangular lots.
They look out
from dark impassive windows
on cul-de-sacs, and pampered dogs
and placid sunlit streets,
where tut-tutting people
glance discreetly up.
Sturdy doors
securely shut,
facades all prim and neat.

The lawns are nicely cut
but oddly idiosyncratic  —
some, like putting greens, are emerald and plush,
while others are patchy, yellowed, overrun.
Where there are majestically spreading trees
the sun-starved grass is sparse,
and where the lawns have been paved
with concrete, or river-rock
absent, entirely.

While in back, behind high wooden fences
secret gardens flourish
cool and green and lush.
Where people gather
in small congenial groups,
intimate couples
seclude themselves.

Now, in this long fallow season
buried under snow;
a thick blanket of white
concealing warm dark soil.
An especially private place,
where a loose thatch
of dead brown grass
shelters small warm-blooded animals.
Where succulent worms nestle
and microbial life thrives
and matter decomposes.
Where dormant roots
await rebirth.

The architecture of snow;
intricate bonds of frozen water
with tiny pockets of air.
Protecting a subterranean garden
for months on end
in this winter of discontent.

Except for the heavy tread
where someone stepped
on a warm wet day;
the virgin snow compressed,
its fine crystalline lattice
shattered and crushed.

Frost penetrates.
Entire worlds
no one even knew of
laid waste.

Somewhere – it has already escaped my mind – I read “secret garden”: 2 simple words, but somehow highly evocative. Which is where the poem started. After which it wrote itself: no planning; no idea where it would lead. Writing like this is a pleasure: it feels as if you're taking dictation; the words seem to travel from inner consciousness, along your arm, and out through the pen. Only later do you bring some critical thought to the piece, ordering its content and refining the language.

In retrospect, it seems almost inevitable that the poem would have taken the turn it did. Because it's so much my style: in its close observation, its fascination with microcosm, its idea of orders of magnitude and invisible worlds layered one on top of the other. Even in its somewhat supercilious take on bourgeois suburbia.

I like the unexpected and abrupt shifts: from front yard to back; from summer to winter; from the sun-lit world to the subterranean. I like the casual indifference of the footstep, as well as the disproportion between action and effect. I would hope the reader makes the inference at the end: that we are tiny insignificant creatures in a vast indifferent universe, subject to unimaginable contingency, or – if you are a believer – to the fickle moods of gods, so that the entire world contained in this small patch of soil could as easily be ours. (Yes, another of my recurring – and I imagine by this time tiresome – tropes: that, to quote myself, we are “tiny insignificant creatures in a vast indifferent universe”!)

Black Bile
March 1 2018

I say melancholy
over and over again.
Until all I hear is sound.
Patter, piffle, bafflegab,
or one of those long compound German words
of Teutonic exactness,
all bark and phlegm and spit.

Mouthing four syllables, of equal weight
without emphasis
or intonation.
Beginning with the lips, briefly pursed.
Then the tip of the tongue
tripping lightly.
Followed by the hard guttural
against the roof of the mouth,
and ending in a clenched exhalation of air
that becomes a sigh
if left to linger.

In the archaeology of words
black bile.
But unlike its namesake, bitter-sweet.
A mix
of rumination
self-pity, perhaps.
But more detached, in its sadness
than a good cry.

If yellow bile's fire
then black bile is earth.
Soil's dry metallic taste.
Its iron and chalk.
Its pungent fruit, and slow rot,
sweet hay
fresh manure
old barn.

Why does blackness
carry so much weight?
Black lie, black sheep, black witch,
black eye
the blackest of depths.
Black arts, black magic, black death,
the black dog
of the deeply depressed.
The dark night of the soul
and the darkly eternal unknown,
transcendent with wonder
as well as despair.

I am suffused with spleen
caustic as gall.
I am rich dusky oxblood.

I am wallowing
around in myself;
the bitter taste
in back of my throat,
the warm dark soil
it feels I'm under.

I was reading Rafael Campo's poem The Four Humours. The final of 4 sections is called Melancholy. This is a word that has always appealed to me: I enjoy the literalness of its roots, absolutely true to the original Greek. I love the sound and the “mouth-feel” of the word. And its nuanced meaning appeals, because I am often melancholy, and I identify with its combination of deep reflection and tempered feeling.

“Black bile”, though, seems so much more intense and emphatic than its English descendant. And there can be no doubt about its implication: the prejudice of black, the bitter poison of bile.

This piece is less linear than my recent work. It leans more heavily on mood and sensation than story-telling or constructing an argument. You might think I was depressed when I wrote this. I was not. It was much more of an intellectual exercise in exploring my response to this word than it was an expression of my state of mind.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Unsettled Feeling of Spring
Feb 27 2018

As darkness descends
it feels like a thick cloak, enclosing me,
a velvet hood
muffling my head.

When my field of vision constricts
and along with it, the world;
so life seems so much simpler
and under control.

Perhaps this explains
the unsettled feeling of spring,
the drastically lengthening days
the sun's implacable light.

As opposed to winter's fastness,
when the duration of day seems stable
and night's embrace persists.
The glow of the hearth
the roof buried in snow.
The smudged bulwark of trees,
and cold dry air
sitting heavily on earth.
When all the dirt and rust and discarded stuff
are subsumed in a mantle of white,
and the steady accumulation of snow
is oddly comforting.

Although there was that hard season
when the snow seemed continuous,
and the compressed lower layers
were like the building blocks of glaciers.
As if a new ice age
had surreptitiously crept-up,
and we would all soon be submerged
beneath a thousand frozen feet.
Like Atlantis, or Pompeii, but under the ice;
an ancient civilization
that would some day be revealed
as ice relents
and water recedes,
the tips of towers, masts, and minarets
in pools of glacial melt.

I know how spring should feel,
the welcome sun, the easy heat
the season of rebirth.
But I find it all too fast.
Not a constant rate, but exponential.
Not an orderly succession, but somehow unsettling.
Like chaos theory,
the tiny disturbance
that triggers an unpredictable chain of events;
so unstoppable,
so out of proportion
to what set it off.

I hear the eaves drip, rivulets gurgle
warm breezes caress the earth.
And my mind leapfrogs
to the hot indolence of summer,
when the length of day
will be settled again,
and soft lingering light
will comfort, not blind.

When our blood will be thin
and the living easy
and the world at peace.

When we will be done
with the mad courtship of spring;
the buds unfurled
the trees full.

I've acknowledged before my fondness for night, my nocturnal habit, my affinity for winter. Allusions have appeared in numerous poems. So I was reluctant to plow this furrow again. But there are only so many poems and so many themes, and the joy of writing is much more the how than the what. So I gave myself permission to have a go at this one more time. Perhaps to bring it all together, and perhaps to state it with self-confidence and simplicity. By this I mean an easy conversational tone; something I almost always aspire to. Which may not be so evident, since I probably almost always fail as well. I hope I did better here. If I have, it may be because this poem was written almost without pause, as if taking dictation; and because I tried to be more confessional than premeditated, more stream-of-conscious than artful. And yes, it does feel confessional, because who wants to admit to feeling unsettled by spring, the season of rebirth and renewal? Or to own such an aversion to change? And confessional because night, of course, is not only dangerous, but the terrain of debauchery and secrecy; while daylight implies safety, health, and transparency.

The poem brackets this unsettled sense with stanzas that reinforce the constancy of winter and summer. There are key words like stable, settled, fastness (one of those odd English words that can have opposite meanings, depending on its context), persists, indolence, and lingering. There is the cold air, sitting heavily, and the steady accumulation of snow. There is the hearth, with its connotation of permanence and home, and which sits cozily beneath a roof heavy with snow. And set against these are words like chaos, drastically, fast, implacable, and exponential. Which is how day length looks, if you graph it over a year: it forms a sine wave, where spring and fall are the inflection points where the rate of change changes, followed by the steeply sloped plunge or ascent; while winter and summer are the relative flat turns at the bottom and top.

Common sense would have it that far more people dislike winter than spring. On the other hand, I believe statistics reveal that spring is the high season for suicide. So maybe spring is more commonly the low point, after all. Or at least among people at the extremes. Of course, there are other reasons to dislike spring, aside from the runaway train of day-length and the feeling of being pushed out of my comfort zone. Taxes come due. The dogs are a mess, and they track it all inside. And for me, it's mostly the driving. My country lane can turn into a quagmire for a couple of weeks, and driving becomes a real challenge. A toss-up, I suppose, between being snow-stayed and mud-stayed.

Monday, February 26, 2018

The Best We Can Hope For
Feb 25 2018

So far, it's been a dry winter.

Although memory, as usual, is unreliable.
The way time softens the past,
so its sharpened elbows, and well-aimed knees
spiky hair, and defiant stare
become respectable, soon enough.

And embellishes, as well,
honing its edges, heightening its peaks.
So in retrospect
a minor scuffle
becomes a death-match,
a heavy snowfall
the blizzard from hell.

Nevertheless, this is no false memory;
because the snowbanks are unseasonably low
this late in winter,
the surface crusted, and pitted
and grey with grime.
And how little time there was
before that first step
marred its perfect whiteness,
before the freeze-and-thaw
left it granular, and hard.

So it's with relief
I hear they're calling for snow
after such a long barren lull.
And feel certain, somehow
that in the end
nature will correct herself;
that wet snow
will blanket March,
and water will be ankle-deep
in another lush and fertile spring.

Which is the best we can hope for,
that things will even-out, regress to the mean.
That the jagged edges
will be smoothed away,
our sense of constancy

Just as I'd like to believe
in the triumph of fairness, and just reward;
even as the good suffer, the bad succeed
the well-intentioned waver.
But do things really work that way?
In the fullness of time
does the universe even-out?

As snow begins to fall
and the world quickly fills.
A fresh dump, as predicted,
coming in in blinding gusts, and heavy bursts
and swirling curtains of white.
the dregs of winter
in a smooth wind-swept quilt;
softening its edges,
forgiving its weary flaws.

Shovelling can be a bother, driving even more so. But this heavy snowfall is more than welcome as we approach the end of what has so far been an unusually dry winter. I suppose my feeling that things will ultimately even-out can be seen two ways. First, there's the familiar refrain that “we'll eventually pay for this”: the usual pessimistic fatalism that things inevitably regress to the mean, and so there's no way we're getting away with such an easy winter. And second, there's the reassuring feeling that there is an essential constancy to the world; so that in the end, it all comes out as it's always done, and as it should.

It started off looking as if this was going to be another “weather” poem: the usual lyrical piece that was grounded in nature, but that I've written too many times before; and something with a few nice descriptive sentences, but too impersonal and unemotional and detached to make worthwhile poetry.

So I hope I rescued the piece with my philosophical musings, using the late season snowfall as a metaphor for this idea of regression to the mean, and then for the deeper idea of justice and fairness and just reward. ...A hopeful thought, even if not one to which this cynical writer truly subscribes.

There were a couple of other titles I toyed with, but ultimately rejected: The Dregs of Winter, which probably appealed because – I must confess – I was unduly pleased with the word dregs(!); and The World Fills, which I think has a nicely tempting imprecision about it. I ultimately went with The Best We Can Hope For because it fits the poem's tone so well, with its implicit sigh of hopeful acceptance and guarded optimism. I also like this title's conversational tone: since I'm usually very pedantic about ending a line or a sentence with a preposition, the final For gives it an invitingly casual quality. At least for me it does; even if no one else would even notice!

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Pulling the Pump
Feb 18 2018

It took 3 strong men
to haul up the pump
from its cold dank well.
The dead weight
of a hundred feet of water
in stiff black pipe.
The seized device,
a dense stainless-steel torpedo
trailing rust, and dark mineral water
as it emerged from its hole.

A deep freeze
in late January
when the new year
seemed already old.
Could there be a worse time
for the taps to run dry   –
    –   a belch of air
a slow trickle
a final drip?

So they dug through 4 feet of frozen snow
to get at the well,
icy clouds of breath
hanging heavily
before dry winter air consumed them,
faces red
beards white with frost,
big calloused hands
exposed to the elements.

The thick hands
of men who work in the cold.
Were they born that way,
manly men
who self-select
for hard physical labour?
Or would my hands be as strong
if I felled trees
or raised food
or broke through frozen ground?

My grandfather
had the muscle memory of his trade
and the big hands
of manual labour.
To a little boy
they were magnificent,
enveloping him
in thick powerful warmth.
He was born in the 19th century
and here I am in the 21st
with my soft skin
and thin hands,
good for ballpoint pens
and tapping on a keyboard.

I watched how they worked,
to penetrating cold,
and cursing
and sure of themselves.
Three strong men
with big competent hands
inured to the elements,
answering the call
to replenish the water
on which all life depends.

I was tempted to mock myself by calling my hands “girly”. But, of course, in the early 21st century this would be – quite correctly – unacceptably sexist. “Manly men”, OK; but not “girly”!

And on top of being a relatively small person with citified hands, I suffer from Reynaud's syndrome: the small arterioles in my hands (and feet) are hair-trigger even when it's above freezing, constricting down so that my extremities quickly turn blue (or white or both) and painfully cold, and then stubbornly stay that way. So I watch these guys work with incredulity, then envy. This happened years ago. Actually, a couple of times. One was just the pump. The other time, the well went dry, and had to be hydro-fracted. Not an easy thing to get done, in the middle of winter. Was there a third time? Anyway, I certainly recall them digging down into frozen clay-like soil to replace part of the housing as well.

More and more of us become less and less competent at the basic necessities of daily life. We don't make things, fix things, or work with tools. We're useless at taking care of ourselves when thing go wrong. Or worlds are increasingly virtual, not real. I'm impressed by the thick padded hands of working men (and wonder how they got that way!). But I'm even more impressed by their competence and self-sufficiency. Because when you're out of water, you're perilously out of luck!