Monday, November 13, 2017

By Their Names Shall You Remember
Nov 11 2017

Like the jagged rocks
that hobble horses
and bend the blades of ploughs
when frost and thaw disturb the soil,
Belgium's verdant earth
still gives-up its bones;
the remains of men
a century after
the war to end all war.

I must confess, I did not know this.
I've heard of unexploded bombs,
but not the remains of soldiers
buried where they fell.
Where shattered bodies mixed
with cold wet soil,
with horses' blood and bone and flesh
who bled the same red;
dumb conscripts
to human folly
straining at their loads.

His name is etched
on a consecrated wall
on a green manicured field,
surrounded by headstones
standing at attention
in vast monolithic ranks.
Where once in a lifetime
a distant relative will come,
with an offering of flowers and mumble of prayers,
the simple gift 
of being present.
Will lay his hands
on the cold hard slab,
unembellished letters
chiselled into stone.
Then, with a soft lead pencil
will take a careful etching
of a fallen soldier's name,
seeking answers
in marble and granite
to questions endlessly asked.

For all these years, someone saved the letters home,
crimped careful script
on thin yellowing paper.
And like the men who returned, broken and damaged
who never speak of war
the letters also never spoke.
No echoing
the pious rhetoric
of poets and kings;
not a single word
about the honour and glory
the horror and gore.
Rather, they asked about home
offered humble reassurance
requested chocolate, and smokes.

The legacy of war
is not put to rest
when the night-sweats end
or the veterans are dead
or the remembering falters.
Because in the children they beget
the scars still fester;
damaged men
who were bad at marriage
and drank to excess
and struggled at fatherhood.
The legacy of war
is generational,
and will last, I suspect
as long as cold wet soil
keeps pushing-up its bones.

Sometimes, instead of trying to forget
try harder to remember.
Because what you know, and name, and face
is drained of its power.
And the better we know history
and the names of its victims
the more likely it is
we may save ourselves.

For a period of time, I wrote a poem each November 11 (Remembrance Day here in Canada; Veterans Day in the U.S.). After several years of neglect, it's good to get back to this annual ritual. My thanks to R.H. Thompson (the well-known actor, and producer of The World Remembers project) for inspiring this. He had a beautiful piece in today's Globe, a thoughtful reflection on remembrance and silence and the men who died: men whom we collectively honour, but are rarely spoken of by name. The central image of the shattered bones heaved up by the frost is Thompson's, as is the content of the letters home. And the idea of naming names is his, as well: his passion to commemorate not just the folly of war, but the individual soldiers who were its victims.

Here's Thompson's piece, as published in The Globe and Mail, November 11, 2017:

Re­mem­brance should be by name

We observe silence for those who died fighting for Canada – but Nov. 11 has never given us the time to remember each individually

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.
On Nov. 11, we think of the men and women (mostly men) who died fighting for Canada, yet they are never named. But it seems such an obvious thing to do, to name them. At the ceremony, many words are heard: How proud we are of those that serve – and we are; how well Canada did in the wars – and we did; and most importantly, that Remembrance Day is when we remember them. Abstract nouns are also included, but I am never sure of their purpose, whereas there is a silence in the name of a dead soldier that can wear away the wall between myself and the past.

I like the two minutes of silence because words don’t crowd my remembering. The wars played heavily in my family: My father was in the navy in the Second World War and his five uncles were in the army in the First World War and, in my mother’s family, uncles and great-uncles served. We had no family deaths in the Second World War, but seven of my great uncles lost their lives in the First World War. I know those men (mostly young) only through the hundreds and hundreds of letters they sent home. The letters are deceptively simple because, mainly, they ask for news from home and rarely do they write about the fighting. Their sentences are also absent of abstract nouns such as freedom, valour or democracy, since soldiering for them was probably a practical, if deadly, business. In the silence on Nov. 11, I reflect not only on my great-uncles, but also on my great-grandmother, their mother, who also read the letters until the death notices arrived – usually in a telegram.

The letters cease seeming simple when you realize the context in which they were written. When a letter’s date is cross-referenced with their regiment’s war diary, the events of the day become clear and sentences in the letters become crowded with meaning. On Nov. 13, 1917, my great-uncle George Stratford wrote “the battalion had done the odd bit of fighting.” The record in the regimental diary says that they had been fighting the battle of Passchendaele – one of the great slaughters of the First World War. George’s understatement of his war collides in my mind with our heightened remembrance language, the epitaphs on monuments and even sometimes with the architecture of the memorials themselves – all honourably intended. Yet, in my heart, I would prefer something simple.

George’s remains lie somewhere near Passchendaele, although exactly where, no one is sure. He was killed four days after he wrote that letter. His soldier brothers wrote their mother not to fret since “he was killed instantly” – but he wasn’t. He took at least half an hour to die after his friends had dug him out from where he’d been buried alive by a shell.

His name is one of the 54,000 on Belgium’s Menin Gate. They are the names of the Commonwealth soldiers who, as with George, were never found or whose pieces were never identified. Wondering where his bones (or pieces) might lie, last spring I made a quixotic trip to Passchendaele, taking with me a pencilled map that was among the letters. It had been sent to George’s mother and was a sketch of a field by the road to Ypres where his friends had dug the quick grave. I was looking for a place that had been hidden for 100 years.

I travelled with my great-grandmother (in my imagination) since she never knew his resting place. I took with me the map and George’s last letters. There was the possibility that George’s pieces may have surfaced one spring (because bones appear every year, heaved up by the frosts) and had been officially reburied. So I searched the Commonwealth cemeteries with their fine words and perfect headstones, but nothing. I also read wild and passionate words, written by Irish First World War soldiers, that had been chiselled into the stones in Ireland’s Peace Park in Belgium. And not far from Passchendaele, I visited Vladslo cemetery, which holds 25,000 German graves. Even with so many, Vladslo doesn’t display much memorial language. Instead, kneeling among the graves are two stone figures, a mother and father on their knees before the thousands.

The Grieving Parents were carved by German sculptor Kathe Kollwitz and they maintain a silence that would put our silence to shame. In the cemetery of George’s enemies, the father’s eyes are fixed on a grave marker a few metres away. Seeing where his gaze lands, I read the name Peter Kollwitz – Kathe’s son. At that moment, my greatgrandmother seemed even more present, since she was accompanied by another parent’s grief. The deaths of sons are equal burdens to mothers, as the bodies of the sons, both enemy and friend, lie equal to their graves.

But with no known resting place, George’s memories also have little rest. With the pencilled map and the help of Belgian researchers, I finally found the place in a field of young corn where his soldier friends had hastily buried him. Yet, the continued shelling had probably reworked that land, redistributing what had been quickly buried, including my great-grandmother’s son. I saw a piece of cast-iron shell casing and a few balls of shrapnel that had heaved to the surface, but nothing else.

George’s bones must be somewhere, I thought. Except for a light wind and the motion of the corn, there was nothing but silence around me. I stood with the quiet of the dead. No words or language of remembrance crowded my thoughts. I stood with the grief of my great-grandmother and all the mothers for their sons who we had asked to fight our wars and who had never come home.

For years I have worked on naming them by building a commemoration simply called The World
Remembers. What I really wish is that on the morning of Nov. 11, our silence lasted more than two minutes – an insignificant passage of time. Twenty minutes might be a start and two hours would begin to be significant. Remembrance Day has never given us the time to remember each of them by name, although there was plenty of time for each of them to die.

( Actor R. H. Thomson is the greatnephew of George Stratford, killed in 1917, and the producer of The World Remembers project, which seeks to name each soldier killed in the First World War;

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Blackness of Crows
Nov 5 2017

Except for its lustre
the blackness of crows
seems to suck up all the light.

How odd
that a creature of sight
and intricate flight
and piercing eyes
would be so plain;
an anarchic Goth
instead of flamboyantly garbed
like some beautiful tropical bird.
Each big personality
in the same drab uniform.

Who looks down from his perch
with supreme indifference
as I pass beneath,
confined to the ground
and lost in my head. 

Whose guttural caw
conveys no desire to please.

Who flock
in funereal black
on branches of leafless trees,
an assembly
so glinting with mischief
and hinting of menace
it could almost be human, at least.

I never feel more an intruder
out in nature
than when being observed by crows.
They seem to own the place,
tolerating my presence
with amused detachment
the commanding swagger of height.

But I have always admired
these smart gregarious birds.

Who possess such tiny capable brains.

Who play
simply to amuse themselves.

Who carry a grudge
remembering who threatened or harmed.
So I make myself small,
passing respectfully
with a slight deferential nod.

And who gather to mourn,
a murder of crows
wheeling in ritual flight.
Do they too, seek comfort
in the presence of others,
struggle with unknowable gods?

I stop for a moment, and watch.
A solitary bird
on a bare branch
on a cold winter night,
tilting skyward
as if in thought.
against a full moon
he looks even blacker,
a crow-shaped hole
punched in the firmament.

The origin story to this poem is unimaginably indirect. I was reading a piece in the Atlantic (Nov 2017) by James Parker, a 10 year retrospective on the terrific film Michael Clayton. In describing the opening scene (and where the film also concludes) he describes a tableau of 3 horses using the term “animal indifference”. (Here's the whole line: “The horses watch him, three velvety dinosaur heads scanning this end-of-his-rope man with a balance of priestly inquiry and animal indifference. They breathe, they nod, incense of horse-exhalation in the cool air.”)

That expression really struck me. Although the image it evoked was not of horses, but of crows. I very much admire and am fascinated by crows (and ravens, as well as all corvids, for that matter). So what a propitious convergence of language and imagery. Which was all it took to get going on this poem that has absolutely nothing to do with either Michael Clayton, George Clooney, or skittish horses!

Except an attentive reader will have noticed that animal indifference appears nowhere in the piece. In the end, it fell to editing. Because I think that while the expression so nicely fits a dumb animal – emphasizing the gulf between our awareness (not to mention our self-importance and solipsism!) and theirs – it doesn't fit the crow, where animal and human seem to converge: a creature in which it's not so much animal indifference as smug hauteur. So what ultimately emerges in the poem is supreme indifference. And later, amused detachment

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Nov 4 2017

The man who studied bears
lowered his voice when he said
he found it uncanny
how they seemed to select only dens
with a commanding view
a pleasing vista.

He had observed this, incidentally, in a life of study,
a thing thoroughly unscientific
but what he wished were true;
that they preferred to awaken
from months of addled slumber
looking out on something beautiful.

That these resourceful omnivores
who stink of wet fur
and carrion breath
and animal musk,
possess an aesthetic sense
that serves no purpose
but simple pleasure.

Like us, another clever creature, whose life is more
than mere survival;
living in our heads,
dabbing paint
on illuminated walls
in the depths of caves.

So the mother bear
lolling at peace, as her cubs are suckling
looks out as if she were resting
on the seventh day
and pronounces the world good;
wet snow coming down
in a cold late spring,
a low but warming sun,
the gurgling sound of streams.

This observation has stuck in my mind for years, something I must have heard on a nature documentary; and ever since, something I someday meant to write a poem about – but until now never did.

What brought me back to this was a piece in the latest Atlantic (Nov 2017) about Thoreau's Journal, on which he spent the rest of his life after his more celebrated 2 year sojourn at Walden Pond: an intellectual journey of close observation of nature; an expression of his insatiable desire to understand how the world works. You have to trust the careful observer. And it is only through consistent disciplined observation that the telling patterns emerge. In this regard, Jane Goodall also comes to mind. As a young woman, she was also a brilliant and meticulous observer, but one who was untrained – and unindoctrinated – in the orthodox objectivity of academic science. She had to learn early on that animals were to be regarded as objects, not sentient beings; and that no matter what she saw, any hint of anthropomorphization would undermine her credibility as a scientist. So she learned to write dry objective pieces, until in later life she found her own voice and was able to write authentically about our closest primate relatives.

Bears get a bad press. They are depicted as ruthless man-eating carnivores, while the truth is (at least about the Black Bears who live here; I can't speak for Grizzlies or Polar Bears) they're largely vegetarian, guard their distance from people, and evolved – in the era of giant carnivores like sabre-toothed tigers – not as predators but as prey, and so have a prey animal's instinct for retreat and concealment. At the admitted risk of romanticizing a formidable and potentially dangerous creature, they are gentle giants, I suppose; except for the rare rogue male, or the injured or starving, or a highly aroused and threatened mother. The First Nations revered them. And we – the settler peoples of North America – admire them as well.

Of course, if the naturalist's observation is true, there is another explanation: that a commanding height is safer; that at altitude, the weather more stable. Or perhaps the best den sites are found in sparser places. Or something suitably scientific like that. But I prefer to think that bears have an intrinsic aesthetic sense. That beauty is universal. That life isn't only about survival and reproduction. 

(As I was posting this, I noticed that there is another poem by the same name. The attached blurb refers to this same observation. Back in May 2015, I put it this way:  "We are attracted to views, prefer to occupy the high ground. Perhaps this is aesthetic. Or perhaps it has to do with power. I recall hearing a biologist comment on bears’ selection of denning spots. He had noticed something odd, and was wondering if one reason they choose the sites they do is for the view; because they often seemed to have spectacular outlooks. All else being equal, perhaps they do notice the view. As usual, animals are more like us than we imagine. Or perhaps we’re more like them!")

Native Clay
Oct 31 2017

I wrap my hands
around the heavy mug,
strong black coffee, steaming hot.

Its thick ceramic walls
are warm to the bone.
Its weight is reassuring,
an anchor
in the hurly-burly of days.
Not the drowning kind, that drags you under,
but the kind that keeps you moored;
ship-shape and snug
in your harbour of home.

Made of earthenware, it is unpretentious;
the stuff of peasants,
in the land they work.
Native clay, roughly dug
from barren hillsides, damp with fog,
or lowland bogs
of stagnant marsh.

Perhaps, if I drank tea
it would come in translucent porcelain
pinched between finger-and-thumb.
Fine bone china
with its high-pitched ring,
like a thin-skinned aristocrat
bled of sun.
While my ceramic mug
emits a dull round note,
a sturdy rustic
soundly struck.

Its thick rim
feels generous, and welcoming.
Its glaze is matte, its pattern plain,
like a straight-speaker
who says what he means.
No gold leaf, or whimsical creatures,
no intricate patterns
painted by hand.
While inside, black arabica
has left a dark brown stain.

I know someday
it will be dropped,
shattering against hard ceramic tile.
In like vs like
its glorious weight
will be its own undoing.
The lamentable end
of a fine old friend, a loyal vessel;
in sharp-edged shards
in a pool of black,
cooling as it spreads.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Keeping Time
Oct 28 2017

I watch the second hand
steadily circling
from twelve

Its effect is hypnotic,
so even as precious time
is seeping away
I am also oddly comforted,
eyes glazing over
under its spell.

With smooth relentless consistency
the closed loop
repeats and repeats.
As if beginning and end
could all happen at once.
As if an entire life
could be taken in at a glance.

Thin and red
it points silently
but never touches,
skirting the seconds, the numbers, the edge.
An indifferent mechanical device,
keeping time, as time vanishes
without animus
or dread.

The withered finger
of the Angel of Death
will point as silently
when his time eventually comes.
In His dark cowl
He will walk sombrely
and we will wordlessly follow along,
across the verge
the threshold
the veil.

As the second hand turns
and turns again.

As creatures of post-Enlightenment modernism, we see time as linear: history progresses; the future is limitless; we have agency. But for hundreds of thousands of years, time was cyclic: time and place never changed; we lived exactly as our forbears had lived; and without the conceits of individualism and personal agency, we were communal and fatalistic.

Yet our version of analog time recapitulates this ancient worldview. As I was closing up my iPad – of all things to bring an ancient worldview to mind! – the traditional clock icon caught and held my eye: the thin red second hand steadily and relentlessly circling, coming around again and again.

It was as if time wasn't passing at all; it simply continued in place, held in this 60 second interval. It was as if the future and past had telescoped in, and so were rendered meaningless: everything had equalized; nothing essential changed. With only a second hand, there is no keeping track. And in place of the oppressive feeling of time's relentless passage, I felt a reassuring calm: as if as long as I looked, time stood still.

So I put the first stanza down on the page, and from there the poem wrote itself. I don't accept the notion of an after-life – death is final, there is no soul, the mind does not exist outside of the brain – yet the poem ends up toying with the idea of cycles and continuity and another side. In that it captures the feeling of serenity I got from that sure steady second hand, I can live with a little magical thinking. There is no evidence for anything beyond the reality we know; but an open mind has to acknowledge that doesn't mean this reality is all there is. Because as someone who prefers reason and rigour over belief and wishful thinking, even I have to admit that you can't prove a negative.

My favourite line is keeping time, as time vanishes. I like the conceit inherent in the expression keeping time: as if keeping track was the same as taking possession.

I also just realized that I've used this title before. Then as now, I was attracted to the same paradox: as if you could "keep" something that is so ephemeral. I'm usually dissatisfied when I revisit old poems. I want to tinker and tweak. But I'm OK with this one. Here's the link:

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Geography of Pain
Oct 21 2017

The geography of pain
a lifetime accumulates
following the news.

So now
I have a map of the world
that begins with Auschwitz and Birkenau
and ends with Falluja, Rwanda, Rakine, Sana'a
Mugabe, Pol Pot, Hussein, and Mao.
Too long
for only once through the alphabet.

Ignorance is bliss, they say.
If only I could unlearn
the suffering and sin,
somehow unsee
what the camera witnessed
through its unblinking lens.

Or become at ease
with the uncomfortable truth
of proximity, and sameness,
our empathy
for those who could be us.
Because it's hard
to identify with strangers
across oceans
and datelines
and barriers of tongue,
resigned, as we are
to the human condition.
While the arithmetic of one
in whom we see ourselves
is a sucker-punch
direct to the gut;
so deeply touching
we feel what they felt.

But even then
the list of places
yellows and fades,
like the newsprint
on which the headlines were written.
The weight of suffering
that would be unbearable
if you could see every face,
inhabit the bodies
that were burned and raped.
The bloodied limbs, hacked-off
at a warlord's whim
a cleric's cruel dogma.

So now, I'm mostly inured to the agony.
And being incapable of faith
cannot console myself
with illusions of justice
a loving God.

Because while the righteous died horribly, burned alive
the complicit deny, skeptics contend,
their killers fatten
the corrupt collect.
And while the survivors proclaim
their prayers were answered,
what about the dead
who as fervently prayed?

How I would I love to see
the same map from space,
green, and borderless.
But the names and places weigh on me
and I cannot let go.
A custodian of memory
who by forgetting
would betray the past.

I first tried my hand at poetry in 2001, after hearing Michael Enright interview Billy Collins on his Sunday morning show on CBC Radio. Billy Collins' conversational tone, wry humour, and everyday themes demystified and simplified the whole idea of poetry. He didn't take himself at all seriously. And since I'm not much of a story-teller (not to mention prone to instant gratification!), poetry seemed a far more tempting medium to this aspiring writer than the short story's longer-form narrative; or worse, the even more feared novel, and its years-long commitment!

But I've also had to restrain myself from being too political in my writing. Or from bewing an advocate, a a champion of causes. Because I generally find this works poorly in poetry. It tends toward sanctimony and self-righteousness and proselytizing, and ends up sounding presumptuous and pompous and preachy. I'd rather argue that kind of thing, as well as read it, in an essay than a poem. As a result, I've pushed myself to be more personal; not confessional, which makes me uncomfortable, but still personal. Which is also hard for me, since my life is rather boring and my life experience limited. So it was another Michael Enright interview that led me to revisit this poem, which then consisted only of the opening stanza. Here, it was with Dennis Lee. He recited some of his well-loved children's poems. But he also read some heartfelt and hard-hitting political stuff. And I suddenly felt free to be political, as well. Not in a partisan sense, but in the sense of someone engaged with the world.

I'm also a news junkie, and realize that over the decades I've constructed my map of the world through the narrow aperture of tragedy and natural disaster and human perfidy. I have all these places in my head – mostly exotic and remote – and they are all touched by evil or misfortune. (And an astute reader will notice that the poem is concerned more the misfortune that comes from human depravity than natural disaster: not unexpected, from a misanthrope like me.) It was this unfortunate geography that gave the poem its starting point. Although I much prefer the view from space that ends it: “green, and borderless.”