The Fishing Hole Pond life is mythical. It troubles the meadow in which it lies, the boys who come on Sunday afternoons to angle in it. How did it get there? this pool of silence dropped out of the lucid air, muck more than water, this enclave of distances. Its surface is dull and unsimplified, its depth unknown. It hugs its tepid self with a stint of trees, far from the nearest crowded river singing of the sea. It broods its population sunk and sparing to the barbed, ingenious hook, never confessing the last of their muddy lives. Fish move in torpid batteries, their eggs, some say, translated on the legs of water-fowl. Eels slide in the night amphibious in the hidden, dewy grass. Darker than snakes, breeding only out of the salty clotted ocean, they migrate in swarms of inches. They take your bait and tackle, knotting themselves in black submerging roots, snapping your careless line. At dusk the bats come, too fast and dull to shape, over the stillness. You wrap your catch and leave, hands fresh with the smell of scale and slime. The pond gapes like a wound, the torn throat of the massive, slumbering earth.
In Concert Nothing is perfect. Even Beethoven and Shakespeare failed at this. Nothing human is perfect. On the stage he reaches for perfection, and this is his mistake. His fingers pound the elusive keys, and time betrays him. He wonders at this being so. The woman is an image in his hands. Time and again her flesh confutes him. Only his dream can be angelic. Was this what Plato meant? Or what he too was searching for? His fingers dance like spiders on the ivory, tuning the vagrant molecules that never quite give in. He is bounded by existence. The perfection of his music is never really there; only suddenly suggested by the change of one thing to another, the turning of a phrase. Not what is done, but what we imagine to be done. This is his achievement, to make us imagine perfection. The sum of all human endeavour, trapped in the cyclone of the brain, to live, to sing, to make this music. Like Dr. Johnson's dog cheating the tooth of its furry nature -- not that it walks well, but that it strives erect at all.
In The Temperate Zone He does not understand the weather and so he must put up with it. It harasses him but chiefly it is unpredictable, its drifts are beyond him. He has heard of tremendous things, an age of ice, an age of fire, but cannot build his house for those. And so he caulks his doors for normal storms and insulates against expected temperatures. He jokes about the time of year. The climate of his youth, being gone, seems the epitome of reasonable ice and drought, the limits of the air. But eyes uneasily the unseasonable snow, the furtive sun, uncertain, for all his bravado, his friendly tales, what the enormity of clouds can do to him.
The Poor Jew He made the mistake of trusting to the profit-motive, thinking they would protect him since they had everything to gain and nothing to lose. But he forgot men are not as simple as accounts suppose and often the heart exceeds the interest, flowering into its own uncalculating song which kills as easy as it give new life, and sings of hate as likely as it sings of grace.
Evacuees In the dark of the night the child wishes for destruction. She curls into the tight ball of herself, disdains her mother's fear. Loss, for her, is not loss, having so much to gain, and the darkness is an adventure, a glorious shifting in her painted life. She does not dread time's intervention, the clumsy furniture of building and building again that follows war's hunger nor does she fear the fire that eats her. It comes to her sudden in her dreaming crouch, waking her, startled, out of her days, like the surprise that lurked in ambush for her, inevitably, like some lover's kiss.
History There is no such thing as history, only a mass of deliberations and inventions -- Alexander marching on Persepolis, Napoleon and his starving rabble clutching the barren winter, the imaginary peasant in his windy hut. When the bullet falls it falls particularly and no book will staunch the blood, and no politic will lay the anger that flings in the stumbling brain. Even as they trip on the morning's choice, they know breakfast not what is happening. The lies come after. They suppose a pattern sifts the dog that limps, the whore who cries. Out of this they build Empires, the dance of gods, the pride of violins.
The Speakers Sword swam and danced to the hand, the lunk of its pommel hanging perfectly in sway the yaw and sweep of its blade, carving the air like all things neat, the mason's line, the orchestra's spinning baton. The sidearm too slides with a satisfying click. The resting soldier parses it into its verbs of steel, cleans and assembles it. He knows the solidity of its mechanism, how far it can be pushed. The golden cartridge snugs in the breech like a word about to be spoken. A good gun grows to the shoulder, its weight is right. There is no play in its parts. Its explosions are its operative song, channelled and held, like an athlete's leap, they do not damage it. We caress the weapons, their contained desires, their modesty of size, setting them on our walls like lovers framed. In museums children coo over them through the glass. And vouch the statement that they make, the need, the ingenuity, the beauty of the sentences we speak over our slaughter, the dying that we dream.
L'Hiver, East Montreal There was another fire last night on Rue Berri, the sudden sirens slashing the frigid dark and startling the passers on Ontario, their scarves bound tight to thaw their icing throats, and the students in the cafes on St. Hubert, St. Denis smoking behind the glass. Startling, for a moment -- not surprising. The houses are old, stooped over their humming kitchen stoves, with the oil-drum out the back and clothes hung out to dry along the pipes; and no one is going to fix the rotting steps or change the dull frayed wires, the painted-over fuses. And apart from that there's been a few stores since burnt out, and over coffee, dripping boots, they just mutter about gangsterism, leave it be. In the morning the sun shines like a stranger gilding the still air. After the axes and the pumping engines, the gutted block is sheathed in a fairy-tale of ice, improbable stalactites and stalagmites glistening on all its eaves and eyeless sills. It is a palace for a day, frozen in its crystal disregard. Nothing life did for it could ever boast the incidental splendour of its wreck.
Point She walked in the delicate clothing of her death, an absent-minded fashion, as rapid as a glove you can't recall until you glimpse your hand, as permanent as scars. Nothing is forgiven. Fiction is an illusion. Everything is really true. She danced in the miasma of that kiss, the air in the subway too lucid for the mishmash of her brain. She fell. She jumped. She was pushed. All of these. Parallel lines that meet at the horizon. In a different landscape she came to that point, surrounded by the animals, in the faultless fields of snow.
L'amour 'Life was simpler then, consisting largely of people moving from here to there.' -- Louis Lamour, one of Ronald Reagan's favourite authors, talking about the old West. In Europe the Pope sat on the pile of Rome, like a bird on an old, old nest. England hunkered into the grab of Empire, while the poor in Manchester froze in the dark of cotton-mills and gin. Botany Bay thrived on the convicts that survived, swinging the ball and chain into the hunger of the continent. The whole mad world spun on the axis of the blind, enslaving sea. For the hero life was simpler, consisting largely of people moving from here to there, pulled by the ebb of history, their minds as blank as the null edge of the horizon at the sky. The land was empty and therefore the only attitude to it was virtue. Desire expanding into the illiterate frontier ballooned without guilt. Its only concomitant was death, the finger on the trigger, the arrow-head, which was an action, not a judgement. And the hero perceived that trajectory, the settlers rolling over the plains, like marbles from a fist. He was as good as his gun-hand, as legal as his star. The ambition of his eyes reined in, but only by the sea, the wrath of language, only the unalterable cities of the womb.
Love Is Not Enough Love is not enough for on the bridge the lovers dance in their own cloudy air and they imagine all the seabirds in the grasping wind are watching them. They dance around the wheel and they imagine it is the circle of the round need in their hearts. They dance, and the glass falls, and nothing sinks in their mouths but hope and kisses. And in their universe death is a card the other holds against the chest, fear is the surface of a face become mysterious. They dance, and the glacial ocean is only a circumstance for the icebergs at their throats. Love is not enough for on the bridge the lovers dance. And the ship is sinking.
William Clarke, Stoker 'Down in the depths of the ship, stoker William Clarke was closing on another brush with fate. He'd barely escaped from the Titanic only two years before. An Irishman, he would live to tell of the sinking of the Empress of Ireland, and later still, would survive the sinking of the Lusitania. After that, no one would sail with him.' Clarke is not sure if he should praise or curse. Two big ones down and him out of both of them. He spends his life in the bowels of ships, humping coal, and twice the ambling palaces have foundered on him, twice the chandeliers dissolved in screams and ice. He has never tasted champagne. The Titanic and the Empress of Ireland sulk at the bottom of the sea. Clarke knows the waves. He is not sure what they want with him. After the Lusitania no one will sail with him. He can't go back to Cork. He is a lucky man in a strange place without a trade. He curses.
The Second Lieutenant Statistically your life expectancy is two weeks, but you cannot live like that. On the one hand you have survived, you are telling your children. On the other hand you are on this other planet. You notice how the shell bursts like a flower, even though the ice grips in your boots. You notice the rats, and even though you kill them, they are on your side, they hang by their claws in this centrifuge of uniforms. This world has too much purpose and its purpose is death. It is fed brass by endless industries. You write home. You dream of a bird flying into your father's garden, and all its feathers are white.
Nebuchadnezzar The king eats grass. The king has grown his nails, till they are claws like birds'. In a certain light the kings seems covered with feathers. He staggered us with his architecture, the beauty of his gardens. They will not forget those, only his history, praising them like mountains. He built towers at heaven, ziggurats to victory, but staggered at the empire of the blood, questioned the barbarous hubris of the god by whose excess he ruled. The tiger does not pity slaves nor can he read the writing on the wall. The ox cannot fly, nor the eagle grow a beard. The walls close in. He becomes an old man braying in a cave.
Inland He thinks of things they set against the sea, old piers, permanent with rust, concrete, peeled with algae and the smell of salt, the measure in the harbour that marked the tide's rise and fall on a painted bar. And nights the waves blew over the flood-wall, refusing to admit the ocean stopped. The shrieks of gulls when the early boats came in, glad of the slaughter, fish-offal flung on the rocks. Now he lives far inland, never hears the swell, the suck of the spray at the soft wood of the break-waters. But he is educated by those edges. In his dreams the sea rises and covers the hooded mountains one by one.
The Hospital of the Revolution In this hospital there are no cures. It is only a hospital of colours, chiefly of red and white. The wound exploding through the sheet like a geological flower explaining the thought of winter. It is too late to nurse our hurts, our broken ties with earth. Our injuries are permanent, inseparable from our beds, the stories that we tell each other. The politics of orchids under glass, the impotent horticulture of pain. The girl who brings the news has a scar upon her thigh. Only a false spring comes into this exile. Roots cannot penetrate this floor, find black soil, water, like words which cannot stop one bullet entering the mouth of its amazing, hungry child.
The Moving Feast Do revolutionaries dance? Or would it violate their zeal? Are they like nuns? If they mutter of barricades, can they be gay? Can they be daft? All things must change and they talk a lot of death and economics. Can they be warm? Can two fires heat them? Is their time a home a jig can reel in? Are their memories made of lead? If the ship of history went down, and all their chants were gone would they find their feet on the ocean floor, would they waltz together then through the winding kelp, by the watery, sunken stars?
After the Revolution The point he argued was a point of truth not realizing the rout had soured and words could carry earth into the mouth. He became passionate with men who'd learned the art of arguing with razors. Oh how he howled when they dumbly turned their heads. Still he feared nothing in the chamber of the night, nothing but failure. And he did not understand when he felt history tighten round his throat.
Disasters of the War The word and its children are fragile, and derision is the least of what they get. History is not soothed to man's pretence of order, all his variegate lies about himself. Syllables blown in glass houses, fashion and petal furl: combat and politic are not a kind wind, and will not spare this anxious horticulture. How easy windows break and prove rapacious louts more fitted to the air. And yet the will gathers its souvenirs, troops to new lodging, like a dreaming refugee. Ideas distort ages, like weeds breaking stones. And weak mouths talk proud despite the weather supposing a world of truths they cannot own, angels upon imaginary ladders, for all their useless wounds: a scale that leaps alternate out of fear, like fingers fighting the dark, a blind man climbing the silent scaffolding of colour.
Polar Exploration Why did he ever leave the peace he had, the equilibrium of reasonable costs that a man calls life, why did he junk it all for a band of snow, flinging himself into the unreasonable whiteness? There was no call for him to go. He had maps and memories, capital enough to live by, a house -- and friends who told him so: why did he start again? crawling across the icy page like an inky microbe trying for some great imaginary word.
Target Practice He is out on the lawn with a gun, surrounded by things he appears to control -- 'Pull!' he shouts and the trap snaps and the barrels swing and bark, like a mechanical viper going for the throat of a fur that twitches. The clays arc predictably towards the sun, and each explodes into a million possibilities before it can reach its peak, decline into a sinking truth. He tests his ability to strike, the parameters of his distance from the world, its power to fool him, the difference between clouds and light, learning the pain of the stock against his shoulder, what happens if he misses, all this to be ready for his dreams, where a great bird rises out of the earth, sudden- ly, and he cannot stop it.
Cape Breton Across this sea Socrates is dying. The cold green light heaves up onto the beach. It is the articulation of icebergs, icebergs become words, only unfrozen because it will not cease to churn itself into tides. If you plunged your hand into it, it would disappear, cut off by the numb line at the wrist -- the wind off it warns us, turning our stiff cheeks blue, our boots unsure on the shingle. Gulls fight in and out cruising the gusts along the shoreline, heads cocked down, intent on promises in the flotsam. In Athens it is noon, the light is different. Socrates is dying, ignorant of us. He lies on the crib head cocked like a crab, thinking his last oceanic thoughts. The tide is going out. It ebbs from his feet to Nova Scotia. It never ends -- poison and history. We never leave, never ascend the bleak, difficult cliffs.
Losing It is your move. You know that you are losing -- though you cannot grasp the tangled wires of logic that are implied beneath the board, and this position did not seem inevitable when the king stood by his queen, and you touched the first pawn. Beauty eludes you, victory or the explanation of defeat. You must choose again, and each choice becomes sudden and heavier to make. This is the message of the game: the past remains, besieges the present. Each piece we lift possesses us, blooms with our omissions, our mistakes. And the board becomes a garden where we cannot help but learn, until the king lies, at last, horizontal under the weeping trees.
Welding in the Arctic It is necessary to work in the cold because men live in the cold, or defeat it for its promise. He puts on his boots, his helmet, fits his goggles into place, slides on the gloves in which his fingers relearn a clumsy delicacy. Outside it is fifty below, and the wind slides like some vast stupid animal. He is Jonah in the belly of the whale, swinging in his harness against the pipe, holding the tiny, dangerous flame to its improbable purpose, the controlled torture of steel. Ice, difficulty and machines. He is held in it like a figure in a film: 20 years, 50 years, 100 years of learning the process and its power to deceive, its power to teach. The archaeology of the photograph. He is framed in the grain like the first stiff burgher sitting for his portrait, the silver death of his anonymity: no one knows his name, but he is changed, and enters a different kind of history. And farms it, ignorant as ever, for its profit, and its pain. He rises against the metal in his gear, deaf and determined to finish his shift, to get on with his crazy job despite the weather, like a fish rising in a tank, or a wide-eyed drowning god, bobbing in the aquarium of the heart.
Back to Main Poetry Index