Thursday, April 27, 2017

Today I will different

You wake, you say
today will be different, today
I will do what I do what I must what I will
today I will          efficient        today
tasks completed      today       organized    today
my desk in order.
Today I will          different.
Do today as if some other un-waylaid by wind
or whim or want.  Someone of will, not wanton
wondering. What song will you sing then when
samba flings you circumsolar when
lightslant leaps across your foot when
urgency, like sucking sand, slips seaward and
beckons you to swim?

This poem was written for my friend, Gary Markle; I've rewritten it for Poem in Your Pocket day.
The photo is of a cardon cactus blooming near Salinas Bay, on Isla Carmen, Baja California Sud, Mexico in early April 2017. 

Friday, January 6, 2017

How beautiful the snow blasted world

Snow falls quietly at twilight
gathering flakes whisper as they hit the window

How beautiful the snow blasted world. 

After dinner the snow stops falling and the dog and I go out to walk the territory. The moon glows faintly behind a scrim of clouds; clumps of snow cling to every branch and bush and the tops of the flattened grasses.  The apple trees thrust their branches at the sky like so many gnarled and knobby fists; there's a gaping hole where the barn door has blown off--better call for help to fix that one. 

We circle the gardens, step through the weeds to the pond's edge, where a fallen tree covered in snow casts strange shadows on the ice.  No footprints but ours anywhere to be seen. 

We walk along the dyke at the sea edge, each rose hip a huge ball of snow on a spindly branch. There's just enough wind that we can hear the water ripping and rushing into the shore and out again.

The wind is biting. It nips my cheek, hurries the dog to the door, slips through the stitching in my gloves to freeze my fingers. But I'm not ready to go in yet.

Clouds scud across the sky.  I look out over the grey water towards the islands, invisible in the darkness, then turn to scrape off the cars and clear the drive in front of the garage, savouring the sharpness of the air, stamping my feet to keep them warm.  Why must every pair of boots leak? Time to goop them up again.

I am remembering one night when I was about nine. The snow had been falling all evening. The streets were quiet and huge drifts covered the yard.  My siblings and I were sure that when our mother came into the room, she was going to tell us to get ready for bed. It's time, she said, pausing as we started to moan, then all in a rush--to get your coats on and go play in the snow! Shrieking with delight, we tumbled out into the darkness and the drifts, the world magical and thick with surprise and permission. 

It wasn't until I moved to Montreal and learned to cross-country ski twenty years after that--and more than twenty years ago--setting out across the fields of the Chateauguay Valley beneath a full moon, that falling snow occasioned such delight and anticipation again. But now it does.  

I watch the snow mount up higher and higher and hope the thermometer drops, rather than rises, so that I can ski across the bog, over top of the little lakes and streams, the sheepskill and the insect-eating pitcher plants onto the bushy ledges where the coyotes circle and sing.  There, I'll clamber up to a point where I can stand and look out at the sea rolling unimpeded over the horizon; from there, it rolls all the way to Spain. 

I can only ever get to that place on skis, when the bog is frozen and overlaid with deep snow.  How glorious it will be if that's what tomorrow brings.

Photos taken 3 January 2017 in West Quoddy, Nova Scotia

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The wheels of the overturned wreck still spinning

(On negative capability)

The wheels of the overturned wreck
still spinning--

I am having trouble seeing how--
some lines trip, now they blare

my head my eye
an old tv, giving up the ghost.

Before horror,  everything.
Beyond horror, nothing.

O scow or barge loose--
should safely be moored. But people, those
people who have power in them?

I don't mean to despair, I mean if we do not--
at least to hear
in the manner of poetry.

Working notes

The second and third stanzas of this poem are taken from a journal entry trying to account for my experience of these last two days, as the reality of a Trump presidency in the US begins to sink in; the rest are citations and modifications of some writings of American poet George Oppen, who fled, with his wife and daughter to Mexico during the early 1950s after being repeatedly harassed by the FBI for his radical politics. Oppen is celebrated as a poet of "negative capability"--Keats' term for a poet who builds work from the capacity to ask questions and to reside in "uncertainty, mystery and doubt," rather than foreclosure or a drive to a preconceived end. For Oppen, and perhaps for all of us, ethics emerges from such confrontations with what seem to us to be situations of crisis.  How do we describe and respond fulsomely to our histories, and to the events that unfold around, before, because of and despite us? Such activities take time, and often, in a crisis, that's exactly what we're sure we do not have. Nevertheless, to take the time to try to think, to hear and to see, in and despite our various states of blindness, deafness and panic, is our truest calling, and something like prayer.

Those lines that begin "the wheels of the overturned wreck..." are taken from Oppen's poem "Route," which recounts his experience, in 1925, of being responsible for a fatal crash. Drunk, and at the wheel, he lost control of his vehicle. I don't mean to despair, I mean if we do not--" also reworks a portion of that poem, which is found in New Collected Poems (2002). (I write: "I don't mean to despair, I mean if we do not--/at least to hear/ in the manner of poetry;" Oppen wrote: "I don't mean he despairs, I mean if he does not/ He sees in the manner of poetry.")

"Before horror..." and "O scow or barge loose..." are lifted from Oppen's "Daybook 1," working notes that seem to have been written between 1963 and 1964, after the Oppens had returned to the US. (Stephen Cope, ed., George Open: Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers.) Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007): 58. In this section, Oppen muses on the latent potential of those who approach situations as bystanders, rather than actors.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Incidents in a Life (Book I--Abridged Version)

 The shadow play, through dirty windows, of morning light on a basement wall

Book I Things Do Happen

(Abridged Version)

--Chapter 0--

(opens in shadows)

What went on before I was or did.

--Chapter 1--

(something flickering)

And then I was born.

--Chapter 2--

(there might be light)

What went on that I can hardly remember.

--Chapter 3--

(certain shapes appear)

I might have learned to read.

--Chapter 4--

(lines, delineations)

Writing doesn't come easily; I'd rather draw a tree.

--Chapter 5--

(a trajectory perhaps)

Things go on happening that I'd like to report; things go on that I'd rather forget.

--Chapter 6--

(the road runs on)

Sometimes, memory fails me, and this, too, becomes something I fear.

--Chapter 7--

(the cliff edge)

Things neglected; things left to happen.

--Chapter 8--

(pebbles scrabble over the edge)

I know I'll die but I'm not dead yet.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Supper or wisdom (spring poem)

The days warm in minor increments now
rain hisses on the pavement, spatters darkened windows,
runs through the gutters at night.

By day I dream I walk through the park,
sit for a moment, my face turned
toward the sun.

In my dream I remember how
last autumn I sat there,
in that red chair

(said as if I were pointing)
rereading Plato's Symposium, city
buses coughing exhaust on my feet.

Were the birds singing?
I don't recall.
Just the clamour of voices

arguing supper or wisdom, and really
who cares? We go on forever
searching for both.


Another "found" draft poem, scribbled out and hidden in my journal, this one dated 2 May 2016.

The photograph of the armchair was not taken in any park, of course, but in the Shelter Island Boat Yard in Richmond, BC in July 2014. Where had it come from? Who knows? But there it was, incongruous, settled in the shade of an old wooden trawler.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

On saying goodbye (when does death arrive?)

The morning arrives still, grey, humid.  Offshore the sea blusters with a coming storm, but here the water is a claude glass, the air full of black flies.  We swat them away as we walk out past the woodpile, up the slight incline to the barn, then along what used to be a fence line to the apple orchard.  The apples aren't any sweeter, but they are redder, and some have begun to fall on the ground.

Past the weedy patch and the mound where the rhubarb grows, past the gangling burr oak with its few clinging brown leaves and then we are there beneath a birch and some spruces: our own private pet cemetery. We stop there briefly to speak to all our gone ones: in 17 years, the litany of names has become very long.  Four dogs and now three cats and the ghost of a fourth haunt this grove, this section of stony earth. Enya, the new dog, who is almost two, sniffs the spot worriedly and then moves on, quickly, down the path to the pond. It is not a good place for living dogs to linger.

We buried our cat Dante there last week, after taking her to the vet for an overdose of sedative. In seconds, her poor stricken body, her paralyzed bent paws and stiff legs, the blind eyes and nictitating membranes that would not close relaxed. She bowed her head as if in sleep and all of the tension drained from her body. Her heart stopped and she was dead.

Sad as we were, as we watched her unfurl into death, we were also relieved, for her pain had become unbearable; despite her paralysis, she had tried again and again to run from what ailed her, only to fall, and her misery to worsen.

We'd had 17 years with her, our "big cat" as I called her, although she had always been small. Still, in the last year, as her kidneys failed, she had become tiny; two weeks ago, her legs weakened and began to stiffen. When I said goodbye to her on my way out the door to work that week, I thought it might be the last time I saw her.

She stopped drinking and eating that day, and because she kept falling, Marike took to carrying her around on a blanket or in her basket. She held Dante all night the Tuesday that I was in Halifax, and then when I came home Wednesday I did the same. We thought she died quite a bit that night, but was clearly still in pain.  Mostly blind, mostly paralyzed, organs failing, her extremities--paws and ears--cold, only her tail still lively, impatient, expressive, switching and twitching, we bundled her in a blanket and took her to the vet, where a needle full of sedative slowly stilled her heart.

But is that when death arrives, when the heart stops or the autonomic nervous system ceases? Or does it settle in by degrees,  as we who are living also let go, and the beloved body cools and stiffens?

I held Dante in my arms and petted her all the way home, speaking softly into that near space where it seemed her spirit, her particular character and being still hovered, touchable, keeping us company. We had not yet released our hold on her singular life, but what had been so lively and so alive without us now remained and shifted inward, circulating as memory and sensation and drifts of kitty fur, sewn through the cushions and corners of our lives.

In this way, she is not yet gone, but nestled into the forms of our gestures and habits. At night, in the dark, I still step carefully, as if she might be nearby, unseen, underfoot--as, in a way, she is. When I wake, I listen for her, sure I'll hear the drop of her paws on the floorboards, her soft purr as she climbs up on the bed, glad to have conscious company in the middle of the night. I put out my hand, curl my fingers around empty space.  Likewise the dog curls on the bench by the fire, nuzzling a stuffed toy, sniffing at it as she did Dante, clearly missing her animal companion.

How does Rilke put it, the character of such missing and the way it shapes our lives? In the Eighth Duino Elegy he writes:

                         Here all is distance;
there it was breath. After that first home,
the second seems ambiguous and drafty...

Who has twisted us around like this, so that
no matter what we do, we are in the posture
of someone going away? Just as, upon
the farthest hill, which shows him his whole valley
one last time, he turns, stops lingers------,
so we live here, forever taking leave.

So we live here, forever taking leave of our loves--until the days that we, too, will die.

Unlike Rilke, I do not think that we live or die differently from other animals, although he might be right that we tend to busy ourselves with preoccupations, with objects, as he puts it, rather than "that pure space into which flowers endlessly open." But now and then, as death creases us, we too may turn or wake and look, not at life, but at something like being, as its wings beat by our heads. These too are gifts, as if from the dead to the living: look here; see; and hasten not your mourning.

Dante cat died on Thursday 13 October 2016.  She had come to live with us when just a kitten sometime in the fall of 1999, a gift of Nicole Moser, who had heard we needed a mouser. We had two large black dogs at the time, Negrita, a black lab, and Binky, our three-legged wolfdog stray. Dante spent her first three days in the house on top of the kitchen cupboards; on the fourth day she descended, having somehow mesmerized the dogs, and despite her tiny size, whipped them into respect and obedience without ever extending a claw. In fact, that's how she got her name, for as Marike said, she was little, and needed a big name that was easy to hear and to call. Who better than after an exiled poet, who mapped heaven and hell and all of the regions between?

She was wise, scrappy, playful and clever--gave birth to five kittens, instructed Binky how to care for them rather than to eat them, and survived a neighbour's hate and traps, as well as an attack by roaming huskies that killed her daughter and wounded Elisabeth. Until a year ago, she kept the house free of mice and other small critters; she trained all of our dogs to be good to cats, and figured out that if she came and rubbed herself on our computers as we worked, she could be sure of nearly endless petting. She could play good jokes, sticking her paw in our water glasses, or dropping pellets of food in our shoes, and then watching to see how we'd react. And sometimes, when we played ball with a dog, she'd run interference, as if she could catch, but really to interrupt the dog's concentration, and make the ball drop. We'll not soon see her like again.

The Rilke I cite here is from Stephen Mitchell's translation and bilingual edition, Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (New York: Random House, 1982): 195, 197.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Public Stories: On Doubt and Debt

These days we write public stories not private ones.

What is the difference?
I say, what is the difference?

A public story is not a private one.
A private story is not a public one.

A public story is when someone wishes to believe--but you withhold, withal, some doubts.
You do not share them.

In other words,
a public story is when debts make doubts unutterable.

A private story is when when doubts are spoken softly,
as if inside a closed book.

Eyes shut, like in a dream.
Perhaps you believe wishes, but will not share them.

In other words,
a private story is when doubts make debts unutterable.

Doubts, debts, what is the difference?

These days we write private stories in public
and bury the public in private, tamping down its grave.


In searching my old journals for some ships' log notes, I came across a short dialogue written in southern Mexico in February of 2006 that began "these days we write public stories not private ones." I'm not sure to what I was referring (how quickly memory fails us!), but I can tell from other nearby entries that all the ship's company were very ill then with salmonella poisoning, and we had not in fact communicated the extent of that to our friends and relatives, so perhaps that's what I was writing about. In any case, I felt a sudden urge, once I had stumbled across these words, to seize and remotivate them, to do something with them.  It seemed as if my 2006 lament was a prefiguration of the crazy mixed-up media and political landscape of the present, in which, at once, both privacy and the commons have become radically eroded, facts a matter of opinion,  public debt irrelevant (and private debt increasingly crippling).

Public, private, what is the difference? So many of us no longer clearly know, and yet this boundary feels crucial, even sustaining, particularly in private, if not in public. Although perhaps it should be.

I reflect that a personal blog, like this one, sits sometimes oddly on the boundary between public and private; it represents a space of limited publication, but within a potentially unlimited public,  like so much of whatever we who post do post on the internet. How limited? How unlimited? How can we know? No wonder we're confused, and cannot keep our accounts straight, our debts and doubts either separated or aligned.

Why have I stopped writing so frequently here? In part because I am publishing in other venues more and they do not like to be scooped by my own blog; in part because I have been working in other media and on other projects; in part because I keep several teaching blogs when I am teaching and just cannot bear to spend too much more time on the computer. Everything seems to flow through these narrow portals, and some days I spend far too many hours sitting at a desk and staring at a screen. In fact I must ask what are you doing here now, peering into that the odd doorway/ mirror of your computer screen? Hurry, get up, push back your chair, step outside and go for a walk! Get your your private in the public, where no one can see you!

Images from a walk at Taylor Head Provincial Park, Nova Scotia, October 15, 2016.