Sitting on the porch at Tara Manor, measuring the evening shadows as they lengthen and thicken, I study the jack pine’s wild, extravagant growth, the way it reaches out to reject the commonplace of ‘tree’, as Milton Acorn rejected the commonplace of ‘poet’. The jack pine grows in radical disorder, sprouting here, there, anywhere the sea wind blows and its capricious nature dictates. Each limb of the jack pine bears a thin layer of salt, borne in from Passamaquoddy Bay by thin fingers of air that sow salt on branches and needles. Broken branches, untidy crows’ nests limb-tangled like grim, bedraggled hair sprout out from on high. Lower down the tree extends a branch, held out towards me like a helping hand. Charcoal shadows fill in the gaps between darkening trees. Shy deer emerge, step by cautious step, drifting their sylvan ghosts, delicate, across footpath and lawn. Wrapped in a scarf of peace, I forget the city’s hustle and bustle. Stars poke peepholes in the dark. I try to name each constellation, as it traces its new-to-me path across the indifferent evening sky. I look around: more jack pines, no two the same. How could they be? There’ll never be another poet like Milton, another book like his Jack Pine Sonnets, no tale like his own tale told in his own inimitable way.
Memories deceive me with their remembered shows, shapes shifting with a click of the magician’s fingers. What magic lantern now slips its subtle slides
across night’s screen? Desperate I lap at salt-licks of false hope that increase my thirst and drive me deeper into thick, black, tumultuous clouds.
A pandemic storm lays waste to the days that dog my mind. Carnivorous canicular, hydropic, it drinks me dry, desiccates my dreams, gnaws me into nothingness.
At night a black dog hounds me, sends my head spinning, makes me chase my own tail, round and round. It snaps at dreams, shadows, memories that ghost through my mind.
Tarot Cards and Tea Leaves are lost in a Mad Hatter’s illusion of a dormouse in a teapot in an unkempt tale. Hunter home from the hill, I return to find my house empty, my body devastated, my future a foretold mess.
Comment: Tough days around us and even tougher ahead. Covid-19 in the schools and people I know, young and old, frightened and in quarantine as a result. People I know and members of my far-flung (thank you, Jennifer, for that long-lost word) family. Funerals to the right of me, funerals to the left of me, of friends I know, acquaintances I hardly know, and many more whom I’ll never know now. “Into the jaws of Covid-19 rode the gallant six hundred, all masked, many falling, fewer of them every minute of every day.” Gallows humor keeps me alive. Last night my favorite teddy bear went AWOL. I got up at 3:00 am and sent out a search party. Sharp eyes spotted the copper band I lost last week. It had been hiding under the pillow. Then, joy of joys, they spotted Teddy’s black velvet band, the one that ties up the hair that falls over his shoulder and gets up my nose and makes me sneeze. They hauled him out from under the bed. I picked up the phone and cancelled the 911 call before the masked men in their jackboots and their PPE could break down the door and strip search the house for a missing bear. Alas, dear Mabel: I would if I could but I am not able.” How those words resound in my ears. Left ear, right ear, and, like Davy Crockett, a wild front ear. I will not give in to morbidity. ‘He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day.” I will survive for another day. Meanwhile, I’ll call for General Worthington, the fellow who can always make the enemy run. “Will you have a VC?” I said “Not me: I’d rather have a bottle of Worthington.” Alas, they don’t make it anymore. And Watney’s Daft Red Barrel has bitten the dust and gone the way of the dodo. And all my friends are in the doldrums, watching, as Admiral Brown abandons ship, mans the boats, and hauls away into fairer weather and cleaner waters. You say you do not understand? ‘Blessed are the poor in intellect, for they shall know peace in these troubled times.’
A Survivor from the Empress of Ireland Lights a CandleDuring the Old Latin Mass for the Dead Before the Main Altar at the Sanctuaire Sainte-Anne Pointe-au-Père
I am still afraid of fire: in principio erat verbum / in the beginning was the word.
I am still afraid of the loud voice of the match scratching its sudden flare, narrowing my pupils, enlarging the whites of my eyes:
et lux in tenebris lucet / and light shines in darkness.
Booming and blooming, igniting the soul’s dark night.
Voice of fire: et Deus erat verbum / and the Word was God.
Flourishing to nourishment, flames whispering on the flood: omnia per ipsum facta sunt / all things were made by Him.
Wool and water, this sodden safety blanket; and what of the cold plush of pliant teddy bear, the staring eyes of the doll:
et tenebrae eam non comprehenderunt / and the darkness comprehended it not.
The lashes of their eyes bound together with salt water, they were doused in a silken mist: hic venit in testimonium / this served as a witness.
Still the patterns pierce my sleep, hauling me from my opaque dreams, holding my wrists in this sailor’s double clasp: non erat ille lux / he was not the light.
Oh! Curse these dumb waters rising! “Not a hair on your head shall be harmed!” he said, hauling my sister up by her hair only to find her staring eyes belonging to the already dead: et mundus eam non cognovit / and the world knew her not.
Night waters rising. The moon raising its pale thin lantern glow: et vidimus gloriam ejus / and we saw His glory shining forth upon the waters’ mirrored face.
Comment: I searched everywhere, but I could not find a copy of my poetry book Empress of Ireland. Nor could I find a file containing the poems. Lost, I searched everywhere yet again and then, on an old USB, I found the text of the chapbook M Press of Ire. The above poem comes from that chapbook. Empress of Ireland is available on KDP / Amazon. I had forgotten how much I loved the sequence.
I chose each book, held it in my hands for one last time, then placed it peacefully in its new resting place. Old friends, they were … I broke that friendship and set my friends free to fulfill their promised afterlife on another reader’s shelves.
Mind to mind, though they had lived five hundred years ago, I strove to engage them in lively conversation, Bakhtinian dialogs within our time and space, and that space my basement library.
I loved to hear their lilting speech, to listen to their wisdom with open eyes and mind. I answered them with words I quickly pencilled on each page.
One day, a man arrived from the university. He carried them away in a delivery truck and they were borne to a wider world.
If you see on, bless it, read it, cherish it. Blind now my eyes that devoured their words. Deaf now my ears that heard the dead, for I can listen no more.
Note:“Escucho con mis ojos a los Muertos / I listen with my eyes to the words of the dead.” Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645)
With thanks to Nicholas Wermuth, who was kind enough to comment and help me revise and restructure this poem.
Every day, now he’s learning to speak Welsh, he finds out something new about his childhood. It’s not the need to talk so much as the necessity of diving into himself and mining his memories.
Brynhyfryd / Mount Pleasant. Pen-y-Bont / the End of the Bridge. Ty Coch / the Red House.
This latter the house in which he was born, way out of town, by Fairwood Common, away from the strafing and bombing. The war generation of his family all born in the same in-the-country Gower bed. No room in war-time hospitals not even for the birth of war babies.
Three of his brothers did not survive those rough, household births. He still bears the forceps’ scars from the moment the doctor plucked him out, head first, and hung him up by the heels, shaking him, bringing him back to life.
He bears other scars as well from the survivor’s burden of carrying three dead brothers for seventy long years, alive and kicking in the womb-warm crevices of his still beating heart.
Some days, monkey winds himself up like a clockwork mouse. Other days he rolls over and over with a key in his back like a clockwork cat.
Monkey is growing old and forgetful. He forgets where he has hidden the key, pats his pockets, and slows right down before he eventually finds it and winds himself up again.
One day, monkey leaves the key between his shoulder blades in the middle of his back. All day long, the temple monkeys play with the key, turning it round and round, and winding monkey’s clockwork, tighter and tighter, until suddenly, one day, the mainspring breaks and monkey slumps at the table:
no energy, no strength, no stars, no planets, no moon at night, the sun broken fatally down, the clockwork of his universe sapped, and snapped.
There are striations in my heart, so deep, a lizard could lie there, unseen, and wait for tomorrow’s sun. Timeless, the worm at the apple’s core waiting for its world to end. Seculae seculorum: the centuries rushing headlong. Matins: wide-eyed this owl hooting in the face of day. Somewhere, I remember a table spread for two. Breakfast. An open door. “Where are you going, dear?” Something bright has fled the world. The sun unfurls shadows. The blood whirls stars around the body. “It has gone.” she said. “The magic. I no longer tremble at your touch.” The silver birch wades at dawn’s bright edge. Somewhere, tight lips, a blaze of anger, a challenge spat in the wind’s taut face. High-pitched the rabbit’s grief in its silver snare. The midnight moon deep in a trance. If only I could kick away this death’s head, this sow’s bladder, this full moon drifting high in a cloudless sky.
Comment: This is the prose version, from Fundy Lines (2002). The prose version was based on an extract from a longer poem that first appeared in Though Lovers Be Lost (2000).Though Lovers Be Lost is also available on Amazon and Kindle.