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Killdeer: Essay Poems

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Adios Polka

Whenever I get lost

Ontario does not wound me

the mewl & skitter of the half-eyes at the registries

have defined distance as health – & nostalgia

as a gossamer sac writhing with tent-worms

(flutter-smeared & eaten green the wild grapes)

these slips booklet-stipends collectible-spills curios

I balance a fortress of/if I must be home/be hame

are apolitical except in their endurance

it has rained 3 days & these pioneer logs are sponges

maps out-of-date unhinged on the pine floor

(wide first-growth planed buttery/laned uttery)

there is nowhere to go off

but wordward

Bess & Lloyd

When my wife’s Aunt Bess moved herself into Bridlewood (& hung the huge Karsh print of her dead husband – Ross – on the wall beside her bed)

She re-met another good man there from her school days – Lloyd – a widower dapper going blind – they had danced once long ago

Although he had been assigned to a different table in the dining room – at each meal he held her chair out for her – then went back to his own

And boy did the tongues around that place ever wag

They both hated it there – it was costing them a fortune – two fortunes – so they moved out & bought a high-rise condo downtown Brockville overlooking the St Lawrence

They could see the tankers going up & down river – & across the way – Amurrica

They even renovated – had a service window installed between the little kitchen & the dining table – to save steps

*

Now they are on their balcony – staring down at their shaky blue pool – it comes with the condo & is right beside the dark Seaway

The river’s whitecaps hiss in a foreign wind that yanks the hair on their heads back mercilessly

A deer is in the pool – has jumped the wooden fence & torn its hind-leg – blood swirling around it as it swims

Leaning out from the railing they take turns using Lloyd’s big binoculars – each time they pass the glasses between them they are careful to put the strap again over their heads

The circles merge to show the deer’s tail – a flag – up-close soggy faintly blue heavy – a swab lolling in chlorine

*

Later – Bess phones us – when we call back – Lloyd answers – Joe’s Pool Hall

How in God’s name did it ever get down to the water through all that city – why jump that fence – did no one notice it till now – wasn’t it scared – or scared enough

Oh – yeah – really – Bess says – excitedly confused – then nervously bursts out laughing like a schoolteacher at a skating party – then puts a hand to her throat to interrupt the laugh – coy

*

You know Bess has moved back into Bridlewood – how her husband Ross’s Karsh photo is back up beside her bed – how daily she takes the Wheel-Trans to visit Lloyd who is pretty-well bed-ridden – he’s in a nursing home not too far away

What you don’t know is that for now Bess is keeping the condo as is – for her daughter Judith – who lives in Fort McMurray – to stay in when she visits – & that the empty rooms – looking out over the choppy Seaway – are hung with stunning Canadian paintings & prints by William Kurelek – David Blackwood – Mary Pratt – Allen Sapp

What you don’t know is that Bess has a younger brother – Howard – who is getting up there too – this summer he is selling his farm & having an auction sale that we won’t miss – then he is moving into Bridlewood also – he is going to share a double suite with his sister

Howard’s a great pie-maker – & where he’s going to make pies now is the question we are all asking ourselves

_____

Becoming A Poet

A

On a Sunday morning in July 1973 – it seems it was – I hitchhiked from Bobcaygeon to Lakefield to meet Margaret Laurence

When a ride let me off in Buckhorn I had breakfast at a counter on stools among fishermen – my eggs were scrambled & served by a one-armed man

I got to Lakefield about 10:00 – most people up that early were in church – I had a clipping from The Globe and Mail – a photograph of Laurence’s house

The Diviners had just been published – I had a copy with me – the first new hardback I ever bought

With the photo to help me I meant to find Laurence’s house & just knock

The previous winter I had finished my first year at the University of Windsor – where my English professor – Dr Huong – had said – without any hint of a question – You don’t know how to write a sentence do you

Nevertheless – even as I walked around Lakefield – my first little book of adolescent poems was being typeset atrociously in

Mexico City

I can’t remember now what possessed me to seek out Laurence – but I hope it possesses me still

It wasn’t that I particularly cherished her writing – then – I was too inflated & dazed – having left the farm – having gone away to university

As maudlin as it sounds – of many generations of drunks I was the first to ever finish high school

Because of the imminent First Book I thought of Laurence & I as colleagues

Besides – she was living nearby in Lakefield now – & this proximity suggested family to me at nineteen

I had already begun to hunt for & invent a literary family to replace the one I had been born into & couldn’t abide

*

She wasn’t home – I knocked – twice – but not too hard – I was eager to hurry away – maybe it was the wrong house – was it too early – had she gone to church

I walked around the cemetery for an hour reading the stones (there were no Halls) & when I knocked again at 11:00 the door opened

An Eskimo woman in a patterned shift stood there smoking a flat cigarette – when she spoke I saw that her teeth were black

Her words were delivered with a confident slur & there was no poise – I loved her instantly

My dead mother’s teeth & smokes were the same

I apologized for knocking – for the early hour – for knocking earlier – for being there at all

Laurence seemed eager that I come in – she said she would like me to phone next time

Next time – was I to be a regular visitor – then – so easily

No – she was not addressing me specifically – but giving general advice to the numbers of visitors she had started getting lately – now that she was famous – even notorious – because of The Diviners

*

I’ve just finished wallpapering under the stairs here – & this wall – do you like it

Was the wall cream-coloured with purple irises – what did I know about home decorating

My mother used to buy plastic curtains

My dad & his girlfriend were having straight vodka for brunch right now in the ramshackle Iroquois Apartments in Bobcaygeon

I bought this the other day – too – & I think it goes so well against the new wallpaper here below the stairs – I’m not sure what you call these

It’s a chair – & the seat lifts up – so there’s storage underneath – & the back of the chair has this bevelled mirror – & there’s these coat hooks up here on both sides

There must be an actual name – it’s lovely – do you think – oak

Yes – to me furniture was still bricks & milk crates

What I could understand was this woman’s simple loneliness on a Sunday morning – her eagerness to find approval – & her pride in her home

I was ashamed to recognize what I thought of as weaknesses in her – I had no right – & they were not weaknesses

Now I know that if she could entrust her vulnerabilities to even me she must have taken the same risks with everyone – from her children outward to glomming strangers

She risked a generous grace

*

I want to go back & protect her from the likes of me

Her cat’s name was Amber – her rowboat – that her son had painted for her – was named C C Grant – this she told as a rehearsed joke

My son is worried that if the boat ever gets away in a flood I’ll never get it back because they’ll think its owner’s name is C C Grant when really the C C stands for Canada Council – Canada Council Grant – which is what paid for it

She ended with a slight drawl & swagger – held the moment – then punctuated it with a final drag on her cigarette – a side drag

I didn’t laugh when I should have because I didn’t know what a Canada Council Grant was

To cover for myself – I reaching into my yellow Army Surplus shoulder bag – pulled out my copy of The Diviners & asked if she would sign it for me

I also handed her poems – far too many – a crumpled bundle – I knew she didn’t write poems – I didn’t care

She said that she didn’t write poems but that she would read them & write me a letter about them

I thanked her & left – the hitchhike home took longer – the day was hotter – memory fails – having caught its limit

*

Eventually I got a typed letter from Laurence – she was too kind – I have so often put that letter in a special place for safekeeping that I forget where it is

It is somewhere – one of the reasons I write is because it is somewhere

When I want to revisit that meeting I rent & watch the NFB film First Lady of Manawaka or the shorter version for schools called Our Kinda Talk

The home interviews for that documentary must have been done shortly after The Diviners

Would you like to know how the story ends?

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