Black Death

Black Death
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Outside my window
horizontal hail
rain blown sideways
surgical the wind
dismembering trees
uprooting the weakest
flattening the strong
rages the storm

Who am I
the one who abhorred thee
who now adores thee
and kneels before thee
in grief and pain

Death’s Dance before me
each street filled
with skeletal horrors
bare bones dancing
naked beneath a star-
spangled sky

‘No thought is born in me
which has not “Death”
engraved upon it.’

Michelangelo

Time Flies

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Time Flies

… bends like a boomerang,
flies too rapidly away,
limps back to the hand.

Endless this shuffle of unmarked
days dropping off the calendar,
extinct so many animals
that exited Noah’s Ark.

Hands stop on the clock.
The pendulum swings:
time and tide stand still,
do not move.

‘As idle as a painted ship
upon a painted ocean.’

The print in my grandma’s house:
seemingly moving seas,
sails swelled out,
the ship stays firm in its frame.

Our garden fills with birds
and squirrels, light and dark.
Morning ablutions: each day
a twin of the day before.

The TV screen fills up its washbasin:
tired, shadow faces boring us
with endless wit and wisdom.

Time flies:
an albatross around the neck,
an emu, an ostrich, a dodo,
all flightless,
an overweight bumble bee,
too clumsy, too heavy to fly.

Avila 2007a 102

Comment: The top photograph shows the year 1555 marked in standard figures and in glyphs from the Mixtec calendar (Oaxaca, Mexico). … time flies you can’t they fly too fast … This is a conundrum from the General Knowledge Paper in the school leaving exams (1961). Punctuate this sentence: time flies you can’t they fly too fast … Proposed answer: Time flies? You can’t. They fly too fast!”  I seem to believe there were about ten of these on that paper. However, never trust your memory.

The second photograph shows fledgling storks in Avila, Spain, trying to fledge, to fly, to leave their nests. Some will succeed earlier than others. Those who do not manage to fly, who are not brave enough to leave their nests, will sit there. After a while, their parents will not feed them. And then they must fly or starve. Sometimes, time flies. Sometimes, time sits on its hands and the clock hands refuse to move. Think: time enjoying yourself (it just flows by). Think: time in the dentist’s chair with a root canal, time lying prone having an anal biopsy for prostrate cancer, time spent, those everlasting ten minutes, while a cataract is being removed and a new lens is inserted.

Oh yes, time is flexible. Not only is it flexible, it is insistent, inexorable, unstoppable. Those clocks tick on, whether we are awake or asleep. The seconds lull us with their security, the minutes lull us with their monotony, hours lull us with their harmony, days faze us, daze us … hours: each one wounds, the last one kills. Time marches on. We can rewrite the past (revisionism), but we cannot relive it, except in our dreams.

Avila 2007a 150

 Doors close.
We can never go back.

Angel

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Angel

I thought for a moment that, yes,
I was an angel and I was dancing
on a pinhead with so many other
angels, and all of us butterflies
spreading our wings with their peacock
eyes radiant with joy and tears spark
-ling in time to the music that wanders
up and down and around with inscrutable
figures held spell bound in a magic moment
… and I still feel that pulsing in my head,
that swept up, heart stopping sensation
when the heavens opened and the eternal
choir raised us up from the earth, all
earthbound connections severed and all
of us held safe in an Almighty hand.

Comment: an old poem this, from 2015, when I was in Moncton at the Auberge Monsignor Henri Cormier. It was not the easiest of times. However, there was music and dancing every week. The band would start playing, and the room would slowly fill with  men and women. The bravest would dance first and then, slowly, others would join in, all our woes forgotten in an up lifting moment of movement. The ladies: high necklines, head scarves; the gentlemen: some moving slowly, all doing their best.

For a while, I felt warm and safe, protected somehow in a fantasy world where, just for one evening a week, all troubles were forgotten and we could all be normal again in spite of our suffering. That moment together with the warmth and comforting friendship of my fellow sufferers still stays with me.

Time Folds

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Time Folds

Time folds … itself in two or three. A rubber omelet clock, it vanishes over the white water adventure rocks, bending and sliding, folding and unfolding. Riding the waves is ungainly, unseemly. We hang on to ropes, clock edges, reach for outstretched hands, count seconds, minutes, hours, search for meaning …

Further downstream, men and women dance on the bridge at Avignon. Now there are two popes and each one castigates the other, hurling verbal darts, well sharpened, that pierce the thickest of skins. The bridge across the river stands unfinished. It stretches stone hands out towards the other side, but the further shore is distant and the bridge’s fretwork abandons its quest.

Where do we find meaning when seconds, minutes, hours slip down the stream paddled along beside all those hours lost from the clock? Omnia vulnerant, ultima necat: they all wound, but the last one kills. At what time will that final hour suddenly loom and sling its ultimate stone, shoot its outrageous final arrow? Jove’s thunderbolt, sudden, from a cloudless sky? Life’s lead-tipped slingshot and all that we love turned suddenly to hatred? A tremble of the ground beneath our feet? Kangaroos and Koalas burn, setting even more bush ablaze and the smoke from those fires reaches out, out, out, across the bush, across the cities, across the Tasman, across the Atlantic. New Zealand has become the land of the long pink cloud.  Now South America is gifted its grey, smoky monsters of grasping hands, those insubstantial nightmares of our childhood dreams, reaching in from the dark to pluck us from our sleep.

On the unfinished bridge at Avignon, the people still dance. In their papal palaces, the partisan popes still hurl the insults of their hit and missiles. Somewhere, close, was it in the future or will it be in the past, the Black Death lurks, waiting its moment. The Great Fires of London sizzle and stench from 1666 to 1941 while religious partisans burn each others’ homes. The Spanish flu invades the trenches and kills more men than the war will ever manage.

Turn your face to the wall, my darlings, as the gentlemen go by. But what do they bear in their hands, those gentlemen, in their minds, those unsubtle warriors of a crazy game that leads us onward, merrily, merrily, not so gently, down what stream, over what waterfall, and into which of the many perils that lie in wait?

Sheep

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Sheep

I wear the hide of the sheep
they slaughtered for me
twenty-three years ago
in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Like a sheep led to slaughter
I wait in the waiting room
along with other willing victims.
Heads down, silent, we clutch
open magazines, but do not
lift our heads or make eye contact.

In World War One, French troops
bleated like sheep as they marched
in tight columns towards Verdun.

They were disciplined and decimated,
one in ten shot for cowardice.
Is it cowardly to sit here, shivering,
glum faced, as we await
bad news and an uncertain fate?

I hate this uncertainty,
this inability to know what
is happening to my body.

Knowledge I can face, but
not doubt’s shadow dancing
like a will-o’-the wisp, and
leading who knows where,
keeping me awake as it did,
last night, stoking my fears
into this red-hot furnace
filled with burning coals
of fierce, fired-up doubt.

True bravery is to know fear,
to face it, and to face it down,
and to laugh in its face even
though your heart is breaking
and your gut tells you to run,
now, before it’s too late.

 

 

 

Ghost Train

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Ghost Train

Old fair grounds, I remember them well, the coconut shy, the dodgems, the swing boats, what the butler saw, the bearded lady, the tunnel of love, the ghost train … with its skeleton that loomed out of the darkness, the spider webs that draped themselves over your face unless you ducked, the witch on her broomstick, cackling, the flashing lights, the eerie voices,  the laughter, the screams …

… I arrived early so I could sit in my usual place. I watched the men enter, tapping hesitant, unsteady, slow, leaning heavily on sticks. I saw the women bald and beautiful , naked skulls hidden beneath hats and head scarves. Haunted looks lurked behind staring, wide-open eyes as the outpatients waited for something to leap out and frighten them, not spider webs and skeletons,  but the ghastly visions of tubes, pills, chemo, needles, all the paraphernalia that tortured them first time round.

The annual check-up seems so much easier. Blood tests, screenings, fervent hopes that the devil in the detail, horned, fork-tongued, cloven hoofed, red tailed, hasn’t been hiding, like a wayward ghost, in the small print of blood tests, scans, urine samples, all too ready to break free, leap out and beat us once again into submission.

The ghost train: has that cancer really gone or could it come back, condemning us once more to hospice or ward, to chemo and radiation, to the knife, or to other things more radical?

I sniff the double hospital smells of despair and ill-health, of hope and cures for all those ills, and I am there again, arms folded across my chest, lying motionless on that moving bed of bleached white sheets, heading slowly into that tunnel that smells of polished steel, where machinery coughs and starts and stops as flashing lights whirl their cadences of kill or cure above my troubled head.

Tunnel of love or ghost train? I guess I’ll soon find out.

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Operation Merciless

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Operation Merciless
(1916 & 2019)

what can we
will we do
we raise our eyes
to silent skies
sing hymns and arias
who listens
nobody replies
we must do our duty
lambs to the slaughter
bleating as we march
our bleeding hearts
pleading for release
this earthly bondage
a bandage over eyes
decimated they tell us
one in ten of us
each must give a finger
a toe everyone must go
ten percent of everything
we own docked
a spaniel’s tail
a boxer’s ears
I cry out why
as I lie on the gurney
hoping to hell
I will not die

 

 

 

Anniversary

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Anniversary

Kicked him out, she did, just like that. Told him to sleep in the spare bedroom. She couldn’t take it any more. She couldn’t sleep. He had to go.  It was the diuretic that did it, mind, the diuretic.

After the radiation treatment, they gave him hormone injections, told him he’d put on ten to fifteen per cent of his current body weight, but not to worry. It was quite natural. It was the hormones, see?

He stood on the bathroom scales without a care in his heart. Watched his weight rise, five per cent, ten per cent, fifteen per cent. When he reached twenty per cent, he started to worry. Swollen ankles. Swollen knees.

At twenty-five per cent, he was really worried. Socks no longer fitted. Couldn’t put on his shoes. Couldn’t bend to tie his laces. Had to wear sandals and slip-ons.

At thirty per cent, he started to cry. He was ugly, so ugly. He was down to one pair of shoes and one pair of sandals that fitted. He went to the pharmacy. The pharmacist took one look at his feet and gave him a long list of Latin names. Told him he’d need a perscription, from his doctor, to get pressure socks, and medical shoes that would help him walk.

“It’s the feet, see, the feet. Once they start to swell, you’re in big trouble. There’s nothing we can do. Go see your doctor.”

“I’ve seen the doctor.”

“Go see him again.”

So he did. Broke down crying when he entered the surgery.

“I’m down to one pair of shoes. You’ve got to do something, doc.”

So the doctor wrote him out a perscription for pressure socks, medical shoes, appointment with a psycho-something, attendance at a clinic, everything he wanted. Then, just as he was about to leave, the doc stopped him.

“Hang on a sec,” he said. Sat at the desk. Checked the computer. Wrote out another perscription. “New tablets,” he said. “Take these yellow ones. Stop taking those brown ones.”

He went away happy. Stopped at the pharmacy. Got the new pills. Went home. Took them. And straight away started to pee. He peed all day and he peed all night. Every 15 minutes. That’s when his missus kicked him out of bed.

“Go,” she said. “Every fifteen minutes. I can’t stand it.”

So he went. Grabbed his faithful Teddy Bear and went to the spare room with its cold, lonely bed. Except he had his Ted.

Lost four pound that first night. Twelve pound the first week. Twenty pound the first month. God, he felt good.  Tried to get back to his own bed. Missus wouldn’t let him in.

“Go sleep with your Teddy,” she said. So he did.

He’s looking pretty good now. Back down to ten per cent body weight up. Says he can live with that. Likes sleeping with his Teddy. Says it doesn’t snore. Or kick. Or punch him. Unlike his missus. It’s the first anniversary next week. He says he and his Teddy are doing fine. They’re going to have a Teddy Bears Picnic to celebrate.

No, sorry, I don’t know what his missus thinks about that.

Pork Pies

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This is the climate change monster wearing rose-tinted glasses and peering out of the woodwork to say ‘Boo’! And Boo to you too, because, guess what, while California is burning, and Carolina and Florida are drowning, and the Island of Puerto Rico, all surrounded by sea, because it’s an island in the ocean, is being blown away by hurricane force winds, the only people who can really and truly do anything about it have buried their collective heads in the sand, checked their profits [why do they never listen to their prophets?], and declared that it isn’t happening.

And a great many people believe them. I lived through Hurricane Arthur, going twelve days without power in 2014. I saw the devastation on the Acadian Peninsula, where I have so many friends, especially in Paquetville. I witnessed the flooding downriver in the Quispamsis area this spring. I visited the tragic remains thrown out from flooded homes in Maugerville and Sheffield and abandoned by the roadside for the garbage men to pick up and drive to the dump. I also visited the growing mound of electronics and scrap metal flourishing by the Burton Bridge over the St. John river here in New Brunswick.

I saw what was happening and I thought to myself ‘This isn’t right. Those men who could do something about it are absolutely telling the truth. This isn’t happening.’ So I put on my dark glasses and my blinkers and then I couldn’t see what was happening around me. I was happy and immediately knew that there was no problem and that everything was fine.

Fracking? I am voting for it. I don’t  care if the ground water that fills my well is polluted, I’ll just go to the Superstore and buy bottled water in plastic bottles and throw the plastic away afterwards, because I can’t see anything bad happening. The Bad News Bears are out there, bringing Fake News of terrible potential disasters, just to scare me, and I know they are wrong. Those wind storms last month that left 100,000 people in New Brunswick without any power, well, they were greatly exaggerated and didn’t really happen. Anyway, I guess it was less than a thousand people. Not as many as they said. The Bad News Bears always fake the photos of the misery and the cold and the unhappiness and wow, did they do some convincing videos, except they didn’t convince me, because I know better than any of them, and I know they are faking it.

And, guess what? When I wrote twelve days without power after Hurricane Arthur, I was not telling the truth: it was really less than twelve hours, or maybe it was only twelve minutes, and no, we didn’t have to take buckets out and fill them in the ditch in order to get water with which to flush the toilets because it was only twelve minutes, yes, really it was. and we could hang on that long with no problem. And those linesmen from Quebec and from Ontario, well, they were there in minutes, not after twelve days days, and we didn’t really need them, because the fallen trees weren’t really fallen and the power lines weren’t really down, and dear, dear, dear: what pork pies people do tell, and all to make them feel important and get attention for themselves.

“Pork Pies, for sale or rent!”
“Liar, liar, pants on fire!”
“True: I’m not selling pork pies,
I am giving them away for free.”

 

Double Trouble

PEI + bockle 2008 025

 

Double Trouble

“I’ll need some ID,” the guy selling Fred a new cell phone said. “Something with a photo on. May I see your driving license?”

“Of course,” Fred pulled out his driver’s license.

The salesman took it, glanced at the picture, walked over to the computer, and started to type in numbers. Fred watched him as he nonchalantly punched the keys. Then Fred saw him stiffen and straighten up as he held the license up to the light, double-checked it, and frowned.

“I’m sorry, sir,” the salesman said, looking very sad. “This license has expired. It’s more than two years out of date.”

“You’re joking,” Fred said

“No sir,” the salesman replied. “This license expired two and a half years ago.”

He handed it back to Fred who also checked it with care. At first, the figures seemed blurred. Fred took out his glasses and put them on.

“You’re right,” Fred said. “It is out of date. I must have the new one in here somewhere.”

He started to rummage through all the plastic cards in his wallet. But there was no new driving license.

“I must have left it at home,” Fred muttered.
“They usually shred the old licenses,” the salesman smiled. “They never let you keep them. You must have forgotten to renew.”

Fred placed his hands on the cell-phone counter, looked down, and saw his face mirrored in the shiny plastic. He gazed into his own eyes and they looked back at him. Then his mind flashed back two and a half years.

He had just been through the biopsy, a messy, painful, and unnerving affair, and the results had come back positive.

The urologist demanded a new battery of tests: X-rays, bone scans, blood tests, MRI’s, examinations, more examinations, questionnaires, discussions about possible forms of treatment …

The different treatments were set out like food in a self-serve restaurant and, like the strange foreign foods that Fred liked to try without knowing exactly what they were, their names meant nothing to him.

Then there was the travel: out on the road between his little place in the country and the major cancer hospitals in the province with an examination here, and a consultation over there. All the medical staff he encountered were kind and helpful and the suggestions they offered were sound. The winter road conditions complicated matters, though, and twice he was forced to cancel appointments because of road conditions.

Then, a week or so after the MRI, the allergic reactions set in and, over a three week period he lost all the skin, first off his hands, and then off his feet. He watched the skin bubble, then he saw it go very dry, and then it just flaked off. He remembered getting out of the shower one morning, drying his feet, and staring down at the little pile of flaked-off skin that had come away with the towel.

A little later on, came the injections, the tablets, and that was before the start of radiation treatment …

Now, two and a half years later, Fred’s driving license, the one that should have been renewed on his birthday, had expired. He remembered that birthday well. He lay on his side in the hospital and the specialist drove that first needle into his buttock … what a birthday present. And now, two and a half years later, he had another special gift from that birthday, an expired driving license.

He thanked the cell-phone salesman, put his expired driving license back in his wallet, and said how sorry he was that he would be unable to purchase the cell-phone at this time.

Early the next morning, Fred went down to the Driving License Renewal Center to discover his fate.

The lady on the counter was most sympathetic. She listened to his story and told him not to worry.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “It happens all the time. But I’m afraid you’ll need to take all the tests again, including the road test. That’s the law. I’ll need to see some documentation. A photo ID is preferable. Do you have your birth certificate or your passport with you?”

Fred nodded. He had checked online to see what he needed and had brought all the right documents. He handed the passport over.

The lady behind the counter took the passport, opened it, and looked up at Fred with a sad little smile.

“I’m sorry, sir,” she said. “You are in double trouble. Your passport has expired as well.”

Double Trouble appears in my short story collection Bistro 2,
also available on Amazon.