Saturday, November 30, 2013

Afterthoughts for the last day of November

It's the last day of November and at the edge of the bay, the water is beginning to freeze. Where the tide has receded, brittle salt ice clings to the grasses and intertidal weeds; overnight the sea has tossed up opaque sheets a foot wide and thin as a snowflake. They shatter when we walk by, crumble into shimmering bits of dampness. The world is set to tumble into winter, but are we?

Of course we've pulled out coats and hats and mittens, and I keep trying to remember to bring my boots to the cobbler, because the sole is pulling away from the leather. I've got to repair them long enough to get to Montreal, where I'll buy a new pair. But rearranging the closets isn't really what I have in mind.   I wonder instead where all of this writing is going....what I am doing with this thing I call Visible Poetry?

I signed on to the challenge to post an entry a day this month in order to defend myself against the increasing encroachment of bureaucratic duties, the way an endless run of small tasks can slip into and fill every available hour. I wanted to recover some ground in which I was not simply responding to demands coming at me from the outside, but making something of my own, no matter how modest, each day, poetry or not. It seemed necessary, a way of finding my footing in spaces where I was feeling increasingly lost.

I am not sure that I am any less lost than I was at the beginning of the month; perhaps I have simply discovered, as Robert Lowell writes in the “Afterthought” to the third edition of his Notebook, a collection of sonnets built from letters and daily observations, that “For the poet without direction, poetry is a way of not saying what he has to say.” I fear this might be true; that although I've managed to carve a bit of space from each day for a few words and images of my own, these smaller undertakings are exercises in misdirection and work to sap larger projects. Still, perhaps I ought not be so hard on myself: as a long journey is built of shorter segments, so too are larger undertakings. How can I hope to find new routes through those more elaborate efforts if I do not also practice, when the stakes are lower, getting lost and pushing onward?

-->"Poetry is not a luxury" writes Audre Lorde in 1977; "it is the skeleton architecture of our lives." She is claiming here, as the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva will in 1936, that poetry is "necessary as bread," an essential part of daily life, like water, like air, like hope, like dreams. Without it, something in us dies. "It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change...." Lorde writes.  "Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought." 

I am not always reaching so far, perhaps, and yet, this writing is, if nothing else, a space of musing, of stretching of daring, of dreaming.  I should cling fast to Lorde's words then when I am feeling useless, or as if these little efforts are beside the point: "If what we need to dream, to move our spirits most deeply and directly toward and through promise, is discounted as a luxury, then we give up the core--the fountain--of our power...; we give up the future of our worlds." If I can believe this is true for others, why can't I believe it for myself?

Friday, November 29, 2013

On feeling blue (reflections on insomnia and melancholy)

Every year around this time, I lose my steam. It's not just that the days are shorter and colder and the wind more cutting, although these things are surely factors in any sense of diminished purpose; it's not just that so many of the plans packed into the early days of the autumn semester, with freshly sharpened pencils, and as-yet unread books--yes, we will get through it all!-- have somehow been undone by circumstance and scaled-back ambitions--let's just make it to the end of term in one piece, without too many tears; it's not just the stacks of papers mounting, the endless marking, the fatigue of one-too-many committee meetings, or the necessity of getting the snow tires on, although these things do take their toll. It's not even the lists of things undone from the end of the summer, the unprocessed photos and sound and video files (some not even yet downloaded!) from our latest summer sailing, the fact that the floor of my home office is covered in stacks of papers I don't have time to file, and that there are still gaping holes in the wall where two years ago the carpenter banged out chunks so that we could observe whether the window frames were leaking water inside the walls; it's not the cupboard full of partially completed manuscripts, or the printer I need to fix so that we can print photos at home again; it's not even the six cords of wood recently dumped by the wood racks that we must get up off of the ground this week, despite the fact that I wrenched my back last Friday while stacking wood, and for much of this week, could hardly bend down to tie my shoes, or the fact that our beloved boat blew down this autumn and is wrecked beyond repair. These are in the end, just things, annoyances, labours to be completed (albeit sometimes Herculean), rendered more difficult by the fact that all I seem to want to do is to huddle by the fire or hibernate, and that for half the week at least, while I am in town at work, I do not live at home.

In the end, what gnaws at me and wakes me in the night is something other than all of these things.

At first, of course, the source of my insomnia masquerades as one or another item on my infernal lists--all with a sticky sort of power, so that one item gets enchained to another in an endless midnight series. I lie in bed and unfold the list, accordion pleat by accordion pleat, not forgetting to add old sins or invent new ones--it is as if I am, now and forever, reciting the terms of the Lutheran confession that framed my childhood days:
Most holy and merciful God,
we confess to you and to one another,
and before the whole company of heaven,
that we have sinned by our fault,
by our own fault,
by our own most grievous fault,
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done and by what we have left undone.

As I child, I had thought it terribly unjust that "things undone" (something of which I am forever guilty) somehow weighed as much as things wrongly done. My wakeful night time adult self however understands utterly the scale of my own worthlessness as measured in things "left undone." We never can come to account; life is lived in arrears these days--financial, temporal, social, familial: the holes are everywhere. Darkness comes and you tumble into it, with all of the lists of your dead.

For this is the crisis, in the end, not the wrestling with earthly tasks, but letting go of the dead, (autumn seems to bring so many). Finding joy and purpose without them. Lists of chores aren't enough to bring on a full-blown existential crisis (although throwing your back out and then adding to the lists of things to do might assist); what creeps around the edges of the duvet on these cold nights are the winds of mortality.

There are so many I miss, gone, like the winking out of starlight; and the longer I live, the more people and creatures there are to miss. Why are we built thus, "so that," as Rilke writes in his Eighth Duino Elegy,
no matter what we do, we are in the posture
of someone going away? Just as, upon
the furthest hill, which shows him his whole valley
one last time, he turns, stops, lingers---,
so we live here, forever taking leave.

In these middle of the night agonies, I am, perhaps, despite my own feelings of worthlessness, doing the poet's bidding, even perhaps, hearing my own calling...

In the Sonnets to Orpheus, Rilke writes, 
Be ahead of all parting as though it already were
behind you...
For among these winters there is one so endlessly winter
that only by wintering through it will your heart survive.

Impossible task. And yet, which other one could I choose?

After all, most of those things that I do and don't do on my to do lists don't add up to much: they are but preoccupations--not exactly what one must do for life to have had meaning, for it to have been enough.

Here's the odd thing: we wake and churn and turn about inside, but what feels like enough is never much and never within. It is the white flash of gulls' wings in the sun, or the far flung spangle of the milky way. It is a ray of sun on my cheek or the cat's purr; it is a friend's laughter, a lover's breath, the aching arc of a melodic line, the first frost etching patterns on the pond. It is the boom of a wave and the smell of sea spray, the burst of red juice from a ripe pomegranate or the flicker--now you see them, now you don't--of surviving deer slipping into the woods.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Tomorrow there will be ice

After an autumn of flat seas, the storm arrives at night. 
Rain stutters against the windows, billows in blowsy curtains 
past the light at the dock. At first the wind sings, a long slow whistle from
afar; it fingers through the cracks in the sash and
moans at the door. A light wind. By midnight 
it's roaring up like a train, slamming not again!
into the south wall. The house beams crack and 
whinge; we put out towels to sop up the water streaming
in: oh please move the pears; it does them no good
to be so damp.

Who sleeps in the midst of so much noise, and yet we do,
waking to ceaseless seas big as houses, water
roiling and tossing, beaches cluttered with 
spindrift and seaspray, the path puddled and filled
by twisted strands of seaweed and splintered 
lobster traps. Scrappy ancient spruces crouch 
close to the earth, turn 
away from the water: stones 
gather at their roots.
The cold hunkers in. We light the furnace;
tomorrow there will be ice.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Fragments for a windowpane (Second Act of a virtual love story)


III.  Like a moth in love and months

We flicker

at the edge of light, separate

and not.

Onscreen you write,

            I write,             we

somnolent, alight.

We are
swept up, swept under,
here and there and
nowhere, which is to say,
spark gapping,
propiniquitous in our

Again and again,
(my beloved, my one, all of my heart)
we say
we miss


IV. Change it should stop with not.

 Every story has more than one version.

Do not believe what I tell you do not

Once there were three. No

more—if me and thee and he,

then she.  And she. And

deception. And

daring. (And there would be

exhilaration, if not

expiation, or simple

filiation, or....)

(Please here do not state such mistakes.)

I cannot


these odds: 

How can you be
beside me, when you are
so far away?

How can she be
so far away, when she
is beside me?


not always what

it’s cracked up to be--

(that's when the dog barks).

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Fragments for a windowpane (First Act)

I. Did we who did and were and not

In the beginning,                          
no thing.

A slip of light divides the darkness.

I emerge                                           
you do.

There would be a dog,
a third,
a fourth,                        

death                                     and water. 

Everything  invented.


II.  (One is not one for one but two)

Of course it was a love story.  They always are.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Payroll of Bones (El Salvador)

6:30 am and we crowd our way onto the road with
bulls hens women with plastic tubs of tamales balanced
on their heads, pan sellers cycling back and 
forth, round baskets of rolls handlebar-strapped, sleepy
lines of factory workers waiting for the bus.
Smoke smudges the horizon, crushed
cashew fruits spatter the tarmac red, a man explodes
nuts from their shells, stirs the coals of his
roadside brazier,
his wife stacks cabbages, swats a passing rooster.

Suddenly everyone scatters--
a bullet-proof black Suburban
windows darkened roars 
up the highway, leaves
one yellow dog rib rack gashed broken
leg still kicking.          he

didn’t run fast enough


Sunday, November 24, 2013

At the ice edge

At the ice edge


and rough slabs of poetry.

*Big shout out to Jack Wong for the phrase "rough slabs of poetry." Thank you.

Today was the first day this season that we woke to ice on the pond and it did not melt during the day. A bitter northwest wind froze cloth to the line beneath the clothespins, turned sheets to boards.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Because (for want of)

Because wind.
Because rain.
Because too damp earth.
Because rust or pitted steel.
Because fatigue.
Because no one there.
Because night.
Because stormy.
Because inattention.
Because heavy.
Because jackstand sunken or failed.
Because 40,000 pounds.
Because weight shifting.
Because gravity.
Because ground.
Because not there.
Because trust.
Because not trustworthy,
                        the boat came tumbling down.

I knew as soon as my friend, Bess Rose, sent me an article on the English grammar shift of the year--look sharp, "because" is now a preposition!--that I wanted to write a poem built around this phenomenon. I also knew that I wanted to try to tell a story in my poem. As I thought about the problem, I remembered a version of that rhyme, "for want of a nail":

For want of a nail the shoe was lost;  
For want of a shoe the horse was lost;
For want of a horse the battle was lost;  
For the failure of battle the kingdom was lost—
All for the want of a horse-shoe nail.

This rhyme, which exists in many forms, is widely supposed to refer, initially, to the unhorsing and death of Richard III of England in the Battle of Bosworth in 1482. And indeed, in Shakespeare's Richard III, King Richard shouts out "A Horse! A Horse! My kingdom for a Horse!" There are other versions that the British used during World War II that implicate ships in a similar manner--this is, in fact, the version I'd learned:

"For want of a nail, the board was lost. For want of the board, the vessel was lost. For want of the vessel, a battle was lost. For loss of the battle a war was lost...."

We do not yet know if our own boat is lost, but its downing is a similar story of inattention at the yard where we had placed her, trusting to them to look after her well. It seems, however, that a jackstand (one of the supports used to keep a boat upright on land) failed beneath Quoddy's Run, and that others might not have been quite properly placed....

This poem is dedicated to Bess, in gratitude for her grammatically keen eye and many gifts.
A link here, to the Atlantic article she sent me:

Why has this strange and truncated use of because as a preposition come about? Because internet, and texting and general busy-ness and laziness and shorthand, you can now dispense with that pesky tiny preposition of, and proceed directly from because to cause. Because fun! Because because.

Photos were taken in West Quoddy, NS this week.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

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Note: Another found poem, of course--and possibly a dangerous tool. Not really what you want to find in your workplace inbox, which is where this odd device appeared sometime last year. Spam, of course. I think, although one can never be too sure.

Photos were taken at the tumbledown remains of a cannery in Butedale, northern British Columbia. For more information on that site, as well as more photos, see


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Names of Boats

Westerly Zealot
Reality Symphony

The names of boats are little windows on history, place and contemporary passions. If you cannot guess the character of a boat owner from a boat's name, you may nevertheless gain insight into the kind of community that person inhabits, or the values that matter to them.

Big expensive power boats licensed in the US or Canada tend to have expansive concept names derived from business or some sort of neoliberal ideology: Enterprise, Imagination, Liberty, Emancipation, Free Spirit, Freedom.

Fishing boats are traditionally named after owners' family members--often daughters, sisters and/or mothers (Helene II, Ruby M, Claire Susan, Mary Louise,) although not always--in Alaska they seem often to bear mens' names or place names: West Foreland, Baranoff IV Frederick John IV.

Smaller trawlers or sailboat boats may be named, in great seriousness or jest, after songs, poetic or visual lines, animals, place names, or fanciful literary creatures in English or other languages: Moon Dance, Wave Dancer, Breaker's Edge, Salish Sea, Grey Fox, Tula Girl, Blue Pteron, Quoddy's Run, Right Galah, Sacred Goat, Keshkan. Dinghies also have names, which are often small jokes: Minnow, Roo, or Longstory [short] for your shortest boat.

Sometimes a boat name is a statement or a philosophical or activist claim: Our Turn Now, Adventure Now, Sea Shepherd.

Large commercial vessels, ferries, military vessels and Coast Guard ships all have their own naming rules and customs--often after famous places (Lituya) or famous men, or both. 

In British Columbia, many of the ferries on regular inter-island runs are named by combining a place (Port Alberni) with the designation Queen or Princess, depending upon the size of the vessel (Queens are larger than Princesses, and Celebrations are larger still.)

Cruise ships follow similarly precious naming designations--for example, this summer in Alaska we saw the Norwegian Diamond, the Norwegian Pearl, and the Norwegian Jewel, as well as a host of variously bedecked Princesses and Celebrities and Stars.

Sometimes the names of boats docked in a particular place seem to me to form a poem. In fact, years ago, when we had sailed into Puerto Vallarta, Marike started this game by making up silly chants from the names of the larger vessels moored at the marina: Rainmaker Superstar Fearless Great Escape Ruthless Attitude Adjustment Rocket.

Here is one such "found poem," composed from the names of tenders and seiners on the #1 North Dock in Petersburg, Alaska, on the 26th of July, 2013:

Saint Janet

The nature of the poem shifts, depending up what sort of punctuation you put where--"Obsession! Adventure! Westerly Zealot" is not the same as "Obsession Adventure Westerly Zealot."  And Reality shifts entirely if it is grouped with Zealot, rather than Saint Janet.

Go down to the docks if you can, and build your own poem. If you do, please share it with me!

Pictures were all taken during the summer of 2013 in Alaska and British Columbia in Wrangell, Ketchikan,  Van Anda (Texada), Meyer's Chuck, and St. Petersburg. The last photo is of Quoddy's Run, whole, at dock in Petersburg.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Fall into fall--a month of days

Sunday, Quoddy
It is another warm, sunny brilliant day. Clouds rush westward overhead, a northerly wind rifles the blue water of the bay, and the drying grasses on the nearby hills glow golden in the sunlight. The air is clear, each colour sharp; every needle of the pines is distinct against the sky.

Wednesday, Halifax
Leaves and flowers gather in the bottom of my teacup; outside, the rain falls, scattering yellow leaves on the street.

Thursday, Halifax to Quoddy
With the rain comes a sudden surge of warmth and then fog, clouds of the thick white stuff blanket the highway as we head east.  The trees along the road glow in the dim light: red, orange, yellow, deep piney green. The ribbon of asphalt disappears into the mist. I take pleasure in the colours in even this narrow horizon, the succession of spaces--houses darkened in the rain, the glimmer of a lake, a strip of tidewater meandering through the marsh grass, a sudden flare of yellow and orange as we pass a small stand of maples.

Friday, Quoddy
The sky a bruised blue above a silvergrey sea, the air warm and damp. It could go on like this all day, or any minute now, pour rain.

Saturday, Quoddy
The moon rises, yellow globe above a still sea gone to black. Soon the moon will drop behind the clouds on the horizon, and both lights, the one in the water and the one in the sky, will wink out.

Rain tomorrow, but today, yellow leaves, red fruits on the ash, clothing flapping on the line, northwest wind rifling the blue sea. Scent of woodsmoke as we walk up the road.

Saturday, Quoddy
Today sun, a northwest wind, cool air. Suddenly it is profound autumn. This week I've exchanged blankets for eiderdowns, added an undershirt when I dress in the mornings, dug out the wool socks and gloves and scarves.  In the mornings, headed to school, I passed small groups huddled in winter coats at the bus stop.

Sunday, Quoddy
I stare out at the clouds and grey sea and remember the sensation of waking in the night to hear the wind and the rain pelt the house, the sudden snap of lightening, the distant rumble of thunder in the darkness.

Thursday, Quoddy
A hard frost last night, temperatures below 0; a white rime still lines the wall along the drive and the puddles are frozen over. Ice at the back of the ponds, frost on roof and grass and fallen leaves. It melts and drips from the studio eaves, from the needles of the Mugo pines, turns the porch slick. My fingers are cold.

The apples have fallen from the trees, deer droppings lie all about and moles and voles have dug little hole throughout the yard. Ash berries glow red against the sky; leaves still cling to a handful to trees--the oaks, the sycamore, the hedge maple.

Saturday, Halifax
It is a cool grey November morning--bare branches form a chaotic lacework against the sky, clusters of yellow leaves flutter in the wind, sodden flattened cardboard litters the alley, and condensation forms on the storm windows. This week we had to put the heat on; the furnace rattles in this little house and heat whooshes through the ducts. Those few people in the streets huddle into their jackets. The cold damp seeps into my bones, aches.

Wednesday, Halifax
Snow yesterday. Not much, but just enough in the early evening to cling to rooftops and car windows when I emerged from my office, where I'd been sequestered all afternoon, oblivious. now a cold morning, the sky clearing, condensation blocking out the view. I turn up the heat and start to boil water for tea, but then climb back into bed under the covers to wait for the room to warm.


Sunday, November 17, 2013

Mining old journals

Every season proposes itself anew; we think we've been here before, generally speaking, if not here exactly. Those of us who have the bad habit of keeping journals might, however, testify otherwise. How often I repeat myself, and then forget I've done so.

17 November is forever a melancholic day in my books, dark, sleepy, overwhelming, insomniac, filled up with too many tasks, and, across 30 years, rough stabs at poetry.

In 2012 I wrote:

  Once upon a time, or so it seemed, I forgot nothing. Now my memory flaps and comes unraveled like the clothing pegged to the line and whipping in the breeze. Everything tatters over time.

Weary.  A surge of sunshine would make a difference. So too would more sleep. A walk. The end of terms. It is coming. So much to do still: I shall never approach having done enough.

Outside, the pop pop of someone shooting. Duck hunting? Or chasing deer out over the peninsula: Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! I try to ignore it, but that doesn't work very well. Whatever is fine, we humans must kill. 

In 2011:

Rain in the night, and leaks of course....I am so tired, so deeply asleep, so immersed in dreams that are but tatters and shadows of colours now; I remember nothing but waking to find the cat curled into my side, her fur soft beneath my hand, sleep like a dark cowl upon my face....

Have to go for a long walk soon!

In 2008:

The fire burns, the dogs sigh and rearrange themselves nearby, adjusting both limbs and jowls.  I pour myself a glass of milk, drink, and try to settle myself so that I can go back to sleep.  The power went off just after dark--we'd fed the dogs and luckily, I'd made a vegetable caraway stew in the afternoon. It was done and and still warm. So we ate early by candlelight, stoked the fire, listened to the sudden eerie silence at the center of the storm, and then the rain and wind slamming into the walls and windows again. Finally, in darkness, we went early to bed.

And then I awoke. [A long list of tasks follows].

In 1996:

3 am. I wake up in a sweat, the water just pouring off of me. I've been in a deep sleep. I feel vulnerable, frightened, but I don't know why. I feel desolate, unable to protect myself.  I am afraid I won't have any time to myself. [A long list of tasks and social engagements follows.] I am afraid of leaving the idiotic safety net of my job, of indebtedness, of immobility, of temporal madness. Making time more elastic--something I have to learn.

In 1982:

I'm too tired to write a poem--it's about 2 am and I have to get up tomorrow morning for brunch with A's mother, but I still saw something:

Artificial feather roses and
old movie posters and
tattered postcards and
block party announcements and
old bead necklaces in 
small wooden boxes with
cough drop wrappers and a
button collection and 
the radio playing muzak-jazz

And I'm
thinking about how
the skin of my brain is stretching
and cracking
and there is a sharp pain
in the small of my back.

These beds may be too narrow,
but who cares?

Pictures were taken over the course of several autumns at various locations on the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia--Sober Island, Taylor's Head Provincial Park, private lands near Malay Falls, and in West Quoddy.