Poetry

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,

Blue sky.

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.

Angels Unaware

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.

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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.

.***

Sissinghust

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.

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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

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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

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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.

.***

Elemental Norfolk

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.

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Earth

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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.

.

Air

.

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.

.

Fire

.

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.

.

Water

.

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.

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Lucifer (Sterna paradisaea)

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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:

Ice grows.

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.

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