This verse was my visceral response to being at the site referenced in it. It’s not my greatest verse, but the image and the impact stay with me.
Wind and Silence: December 29, 1890 (July 30, 2001)
The wind is the first thing; that,
And the silence. Dry land, brown bent grasses,
In the valley, where the tents were,
Where the children were,
There are dreamcatchers for sale.
On the hill, against the carven stone,
A buffalo skull and flowers lie
Beside rolled tobacco and a teddy bear.
What dreams are caught at Wounded Knee?
This short verse includes two lines from two different dreams. It took me some years to put them together.
The hollow hills return their travellers
Lost and out of time
On the unsubstantial streets.
The boy panhandling on Yonge
Has no shadow, and will live forever.
Seven crows are silent among the pigeons in the square;
In the haven of the Spit, a white ship, un-noticed,
Waits to sail west.
In the dreamt city the riff-raff are
The guards at the gates of faerie;
Are the rockfall that hides the easter caves,
The glamour that obscures the grail.
Portus, 2nd Century A.D.
The opportunity to write comes in many ways, and this arose from a course I took on Portus, Rome’s maritime port in the first six centuries AD. We were asked to express the impressions of someone coming to the port for the first time.
Shining, my grand-da said, shining and white
Against the sky, and the Pharos light
Burning to guide us in. So he said, often;
I thought them an old man’s tales,
Told as we loaded amphorae, barrels, bales.
But by Isis he told the truth. I’ll ask
Forgiveness once I’m home; the rasp
Of his tongue will flay me, but it’s earned.
The port shines as he said; marble gleaming,
The Pharos burning, sails flapping, seabirds screaming.
And this harbour! Not here in grand-da’s day;
Six-sided, I’ll tell him; with numbered slips along the quay,
Past Claudius’s columns (he spoke of those),
To this inner haven. But only the water’s calm!
So many ships, so many slaves, so much to tell him when I’m home.
I visited Vita Sackville-West’s iconic garden many years ago. It is truly beautiful, but it was the view from the tower, allowing the viewer to see the overall plan of the garden, that remained with me.
From the tower, look south. The Rondel’s curve
Defines the view below, the green centre
Of this garden, where both line and space serve
A master’s eye. When you descend, enter
This space, see how lawn and sheltering yews
Create stillness. The roses just beyond
Are counterpoint to this, their brilliant hues
Distract, cry out, demand that you respond
To their brief beauty. But when light fails,
Or vivid summer fades to winter’s dun,
The centre holds, and in this place prevails
Austerity and peace, rewards hard-won.
So tells the quartered circle planted here
The truths of land and life in language clear.
Nassagaweya 1 & 2
Nassagaweya Township is where I live. Still mostly rural, it is dominated by rock and swamp and small fields, and was first settled in the early-to-mid 1800s. The lives and labour of those first settlers, who cleared huge tracts of hardwood and white pine, dragged enormous boulders to build boundary walls, and quarried limestone for rock and lime, were in part behind these two sonnets.
Nassagaweya 1: Winter Deer
Dividing wood and tangled swamp the road
Cuts survey-straight, a line drawn cleanly on
The map, unlike the trail that six deer followed
Through brush and cattail, three pairs of doe and fawn.
Their path ran crooked, keeping to high ground
Between the clumps of osier, brilliant red
Against the morning’s snow. A final bound
Brings the first doe to the road: the others, led
By her, follow, and in silent file cross
This barren space, alert, deliberate,
Unhurried; not admitting any loss
Of path or cover, valiance animate.
No survey stake or draftsman’s pen rules here:
Red osier, swamp, and wood belong to deer.
Nassagaweya 2: Rock and Water
Rock and water underlie this township,
But neither deeply; it’s rarely more than
A few feet to the rock, and every dip
Of land’s a swamp. A challenge to a man,
To try to farm this, but his chance to make
A life is here. So fields are cleared and streams
Diverted; roads are built. But rock can break
Both ploughshares and spirit: too many dreams
Of harvest awake to springtime flood
And summer drought; the skin of soil above
The limestone now like rock itself; now mud.
His sons say there’s not enough here, to love
Or prosper on: they answer other calls
As trees surround the crumbling boulder walls.
The British county of Norfolk is my second home. The land speaks to me there, the saltmarshes and the huge skies, and the sea always in the distance, and the long, long history of human settlement.
Lane and common, heath and ploughed ground
Lie frozen underfoot. The lands
Decline to the sea: downland, and saltmarsh
Diked and ditched by countless hands
Against the sea and winter floods.
Beyond the marshes, the named sands
Will rise and fall with the tide.
Skiff and windpump, sails of cloth and wood,
Are battened down and still. The gust
Strikes salt and icy; harness and rigging,
Tarred and treated for rot and rust,
Await the end of winter’s gales.
Above the marshes, the wind’s cold blast
Will rise and fall with the sun.
House and cottage, farm and village row
Sit tightly closed and warm. Fire
Kindles in the hearths; desire and habit
Pruned and piled the garden pyre
Against the night and winter’s end.
Beside the marshes, the year’s bonfire
Will rise and fall with the wind.
Stream and river, pond and open broad,
Wait silently for spring. The snow
Bleaches all colour; hedgerow and reedbed,
Trimmed and tight in winter’s throe,
Withstand the wind and killing frost.
Within the marshes, the water’s flow
Will rise and fall with the moon.
Lucifer, and, Terns at Hong Kong Harbour
These two poems reflect just a little of the awe and joy watching birds has given me over the last forty years.
Lucifer (Sterna paradisaea)
Arctic Terns live almost entirely in light for their entire lives. They fly 30,000 km each year, from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back. Their return – south or north – heralds the light, and spring..
The land freezes;
Dawn and dusk reach to each other;
Birds flee, or huddle, silent.
Sunset and blood stain the snow:
Where the world spirals and all northings meet;
And the sun is always or never,
The tern circles, once, twice, three times
Memory and stars beckon.
Light will fail here;
Sunset and blood stain the snow
Before the final dark, before
Ice and silence triumph.
The tern circles, once, twice, three times
And not again; south sings in its bones
And blood; stars set and rise.
Sunrise spirals and stretches; light prevails.
Terns at Hong Kong Harbour
Spare black on white, swift to frothing wake
in pewter waters; silver sweep of wing
bright counterpoint to lightning’s rake
rending the heavy hanging cloud; hovering,
holding; plunging to take the shining glide,
the curve and scale, beating upward against
the drag of wave, watching for the gleaming slide
of fish, awareness stretched and tensed and held
to dancing, diving grace.