Posts Tagged ‘Poetry’

The other day, Meg wrote a post about poetry and story-telling which was inspired by a commentary she had read – and read to me – that suggested poets have too much abandoned stories for word-play, making them increasingly inaccessible and irrelevant to all but a small segment of the population.

Now, I confess. I am one of those who likes wordplay, and it’s easy for me to get caught up in language when I’m writing, rather than to keep focused on the storytelling and let the language flow from that. But, as I’ve been thinking on this over the last few days, I’ve played a little with writing that begins with the story – not narrative, per se, but snippets of real life.

So today I have decided to post one of these exercises, just cause.

In keeping with plain-talk, let’s call it what it comes from: San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, 1985.

there were frogs on the road each morning

hundreds of frogs.

like cow-pats, pressed flowers, hockey pucks, papyrus,

legs splayed on broken ashphalt,

tire-mark-writ patterns on their backs.

odd that at dusk we never heard their croaking.

there were frogs on the road each morning

hundreds of frogs.

for kicking, flinging, crunching beneath our shoes,

one-stop shopping for children’s pastimes from football, stone-skipping, ice-crackling –

or so it would be on another way to another school

some thousands of miles up this pacific coast.

odd that through the night we never heard them shrieking.

there were frogs on the road each morning

hundreds of frogs.

beneath boys in Mexico-made sneakers and too-short, pressed trousers,

beneath girls in bare legs and long-patched, fresh-cleaned skirts,

beneath skies whose post-card-percfect blue cracked open

now and then with rain or thunder or surveillance signals or bombers with no national markings.

odd that in the dawn we never heard their breathing cut.

there were frogs on the road each morning

hundreds of frogs.

but always by the time we’d sung the hymn of the revolution,

by the time we’d stumbled through sums and sandino and sport,

by the time we crossed again

passing the morning-time fishers home for lunch,

passing the teenagers scurrying, suckling, sliding in the brush,

passing the trucks rolling home the coffins, the cripples, the crazy,

passing the troops of trade union internationalists with eyes like Christmas morning and mouths like Good Friday,

passing the carts of tortillas and rum and fresh-ish eggs from Cuba (thank-you-commandante-fidel)…

by this time the roads were always clear

and how so many dead frogs can simply vanish in a school-day

seems, as i look back,

a disturbing kind of magic.


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For the last several weeks now, Meg and I have had a new ritual. Each night before sleep, we read a few poems to each other, alternating responsibility for the reading and the appreciating. We’ve shared favourites, we’ve re-discovered old volumes on the bookshelf, we’ve sought out or stumbled upon voices that are new or at least new to us.

Among others, Megan’s read me Margaret Atwood, Carl Sandburg, Al Purdy, Federico Garcia Lorca and pieces from literary journals new and old. My choices have included Dorothy Livesay, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Gary Hicks and lots of e.e. cummings.  Together we have read aloud poetry-stories ranging from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to A.A. Milne’s rhymes of Christopher Robin to the simply-awesome simplicity of Shel Silverstein.

It’s become one of our favourite moments of each day, and something we are commited to continuing – something that has each of us explore what we like and why, that reminds us to reconnect with old books, that inspires our own writing, that provides countless opportunities for little gists just because, and that gives us a real literary intimacy, a sharing that is almost conspiratorial.

Anyway, for the next few days, Megan is in Ottawa, meeting the pursestrings of the state plan head on. So we are without our ritual, and I am certainly noticing its absence.

For today’s post, then, I’ll share a poem I’ve just discovered, with Meg so many miles away and with anyone who happens by. It’s author is Gareth Evans, and I found it as a the intro to John Berger’s Hold Everything Dear – a set of essays on war and resistance that Meg surpised me with (just because) last week.

Hold Everything Dear

as the brick of the afternoon stores the rose heat of the journey

as the rose buds a green room to breathe

and blossoms like the wind

as the thinning birches whisper their silver stories of the wind to the urgent

in the trucks

as the leaves of the hedge store the light

that the moment thought it had lost

as the nest of her wrist beats like the chest of a wren in the morning air

as the chorus of the earth find their eyes in the sky

and unwrap them to each other in the teeming dark

hold everything dear

the calligraphy of birds across the morning

the million hands of the axe, the soft hand of the earth

one step ahead of time

the broken teeth of tribes and their long place

steppe-scattered and together

clay’s small, surviving handle, the near ghost of a jug

carrying itself towards us through the soil

the pledge of offered arms, the single sheet that is our common walking

the map of the palm held

in a knot

but given as a torch

hold everything dear

the paths they make towards us and how far we open towards them

the justice of a grass than unravels palaces but shelters the songs of the searching

the vessel that names the waves, the jug of this life, as it fills with the days

as it sinks to become what it loves

memory that grows into a shape the tree always knew as a seed

thw words

the bread

the child who reaches for the truths beyond the door

the yearning to begin again together

animals keen inside the parliament of the world

the people in the room the people in the street the people

hold everything dear

That’s Gareth Evans, in a poem for John Berger.

The feds might have their claws into you this week, but I’ll be damned if I’m giving up our rituals to them.

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We look out the hotel window over the Plains of Abraham, the St. Lawrence loping along one side, three-hundred year-old cathedrals and row houses jostling with chain restaurants along the other.

I arrived a few hours before my luggage last night, early enough to meet Megan after her first day of union convention and have a drink and appies with PSAC folks from across the country before heading off in search of dinner. We skipped the tourist ‘hood for Cartier Street, its line of bistros and bars serving a primarily-local clientele. Lovely dinner of scallops and prawns and venison, and we are so happy to be in Quebec! And then, a little pub where we find a quiet, dark nook to start our drinks, soon to be joined by a few older and drunker Quebec nationalists who recognize our spot as the prime place to smoke some hash.

What follows is a couple of hours of laughter and ranting in three languages – Spanish being the one we revert too when their decent English and our pitiful French fail us entirely, and hand gestures won’t do. What you expect from an alcohol-fueled conversation – some knee-slapping and sex-talk, some work and personal stories, some jokes and well-intentioned slurs. And frequent trips into nationalism and Canada and the ongoing fascism of the English, initially to let us know our place, but increasingly as the night goes on to bond over, as these two Anglos seem somewhat sympathetic to the cause.

Yup. A good first night in this town, spent in exactly the way we wanted, far from the crowds here for the McDonald’s and Celine Dion version of 400-year celebrations.

And this morning, a breakfast of good strong coffee and mounds of fresh fruit, leading Meg off to another day of resolutions and interventions and votes, leading me off to the Plains of Abraham with a notebook and a fresh pack of smokes.

I don’t normally write here the sometimes-stream-of-consciousness, sometimes-poetry ramblings that fill my Moleskine, but today I can think of no better way to capture what’s in my mind. And so..

It couldn’t be more grey without rains

But the Jardin Jeanne D’Arc bursts with fragrances yellow and violet.

Mostly, though, there is the orange-red of fire in these beds,

Each petal licking at my fingers where I scribble.

Somewhere here those farmers, furriers, fishers

On whose throats stood Montcalm and Wolfe

Lie scattered together, arms and legs and bits of steel

In this dry, dark earth.

Yes, one statue reaches past her puberty here.

Yes, one table invites us to recall that fascism makes a country more than any railroad.

But more than that, it’s something in the maple taps and the sweet sticky syrup on snow

That still tastes of blood

Thick like history, salt like our three oceans.

The bees know.

Fidgeting and flitting in the yellows and violets,

They find their rest and their nectars in the oranges and reds.

The bees know what grows these Plains of Abraham.

The bees know who nurtures and how.

The bees tend to deeper memory.

Yeah, not great poetry, but it’s a pretty accurate picture of my head-space in this place this morning.

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Today I woke up thinking about Ogden Nash – the man who taught us, among other things, that we’ll never see a billboard lovely as a tree, and that, when it comes to gettin’ close to a lady friend, “candy is dandy but liquor is quicker”.

I’m a fan of the rhyme. Couplets. limericks, rhythm and wordplay in general. It’s something I play with alot in my writing and in my speech. And it’s one of the regular sillinesses Mica and I share – bouncing rhyme off one another, making up little songs and poems just because.

I’ve been thinking about this lately, for a few reasons. One, cause the other day when I was starting to write a post here I found myself doing it in rhyme – not an uncommon experience for me, but somehow the idea of posting it made me more aware, so I ended ditching it and doing this instead. Don’t worry – you’re not missing anything!

Another reason this is on my mind, I think, is because Shel Silverstein is on my mind.

Mica’s got a big book of Silverstein verse, and periocially that’s what she wants to read for days and days on end. We’ve been in one such period lately, so I’ve been getting recitations and readings out of the blue, and that’s been a really nice little addition to the days. And then, as Meg and I passed our lounge-around Sunday, we started talking about Silverstein in general, and his “Boy Named Sue” – yes, the Johnny Cash song – in particular.

Yeah, Shel Silverstein wrote that tune, which got us wondering what other songs he’d written. And of course, being who we both are, moments later we’ve popped the laptop, browsed and wowed over a few Wikipedia entries, and picked up more random little bits of info. Not only Johnny Cash, but also the Irish Rovers, Marianne Faithful, Loretta Lynn, Bobby Bare, and Emmylou Harris covered his songs. Everything from unicorns to venereal disease set to music. And, the thing we noted in particular, a sequel to “A Boy Named Sue” about the whole experience from dad’s perspective – “The Father of a Boy Names Sue“. Yes, silly. I fuckin’ love silly.

Well, of course thinking on one thing gets you thinking on another, and I noticed yesterday that my mind kept returning to my favourite ryhmers.

Dr. Suess, of course. Funny smart thymes and some politics, too.  A writer and editor in university, he threw a drinking party in defiance of Prohibition, and was barred from any non-academic activities. He dropped his name, Geisel, from the mastheads of the publications he worked on, writing instead under his mom’s maiden name and his own middle name – Seuss, which he always rhymed with “voice”.

He worked in advertising and other such things trying to make his career, but the two big pieces were the kids’ books (obviously) and magazine-writing and cartooning for popular and left-leaning publications. Here it was sounding the alarm about fascism in Europe, critiquing anti-communism and decrying certain racisms at home – the “certain” qualifier being necessary since Seuess, outspoken critic of anti-black and anti-Jewish racism, was a more than a little guilty of fanning the flames of internment and war when it came to those of Japanese descent, writing,

“But right now, when the Japs are planting their hatchets in our skulls, it seems like a hell of a time for us to smile and warble: “Brothers!” It is a rather flabby battle cry. If we want to win, we’ve got to kill Japs… We can get palsy-walsy afterward with those that are left.”

Nice, eh?

I prefer the Seuss of the children’s story, who put together some pretty progressive stuff on ecological destruction (The Lorax), tyranny in general (Yertle the Turtle), the arms race (The Butter Battle Book) and race (The Sneetches). Contradictions in his work? No doubt. But the kids’ books are pretty consistent – maybe rhyme and reaction just don’t mix that well.

And keeping in the realm of kids, A.A. Milne. Now here’s some writing I absolutely adore. Milne, of course, is the inventor of Winnie the Pooh. And that’s some good stuff. But the stand-outs for me are his books of kids’ poems centred around his son, Christopher Robin. When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six are quite simply superb, for their verse and for their understanding of the emotional and psychological lives of kids – kids like I was, anyway. A couple of favourites:

Halfway Down

Halfway down the stairs is a stair where I sit.
There isn’t any other stair quite like it.
I’m not at the bottom, I’m not at the top;
So this is the stair where I always stop.

Halfway up the stairs isn’t up, and isn’t down.
It isn’t in the nursery, it isn’t in the town.
And all sorts of funny thoughts run round my head:
‘It isn’t really anywhere! It’s somewhere else instead!’



I never did, I never did, I never did like “Now take care, dear!”
I never did, I never did, I never did want “Hold-my-hand”;
I never did, I never did, I never did think much of “Not up there, dear!”
It’s no good saying it. They don’t understand.

And then, something from my own kid-days that really isn’t children’s poetry – Robert Service. When I was little, my dad used to put me to bed at night with terribly-sung versions of Waltzing Matilda, The Frozen Logger, and The Ballad of Thunder Road. His other standards were not songs at all, but the two best-known Robert Service poems: The Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Cremation of Sam McGee. I loved both, and I love them still. When I went off to the University of Victoria right after high school, I spent most of my time wandering old book stores on Fort Street, and one of my earliest purchases was a collected works of Robert Service.

If I liked him before, I loved him now. Son of a Scottish bank clerk, he ditched country and career for a life lived and written in the Yukon. And what writing for a young radical to discover out of his childhood bed-time stories! Anti-war poems, verses on the communism of Jesus, writings on work and struggle. Robert Service was a balladeer of working people, mingling oral history, myth, pamphleteering and a celebration of working class culture.

Read or re-read The Shooting of Dan McGrew. Read The Song of the Wage-Slave. And read Michael.

Yeah, I like rhyme. It sneaks up on me in conversations and in my writing – indeed, I ended up including in my dissertation the history of capitalism in verse just because it came to me that way and was a hell of alot easier than searching for citations. (That can be found a ways down the Poems and Pieces page of this site.) Verse is fun. It’s smiley. And though cheezy cheezy cheezy, rhymes more often than not make people feel a little bit better. And that’s enough reason for me to love it.


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