In Transit by Colin Morton

In Transit
Colin Morton
First published by Thistledown Press, 1981, copyright Colin Morton, ISBN 0-920066-44-5 (cloth) 0-920066-43-7 (paper)

For permission to reprint contact the author at

Some of these poems were previously published in Around You, CV/II, Event, Fiddlehead, Gaillardia, Gasoline Rainbow, Gauntlet, Grain, IS, NeWest ReView, Poetic Licence, Poetry Australia, Quarry, Repository, Salt, Waves.

Other books by Colin Morton:



My forebears were well acquainted
with these distances
grew close to the prairie
knew the wind tide in its grasses
the cry of wildfowl 
deserting the frozen ponds.

On the run from another land's quarrels
to the periphery of power
they arrived 
on this unpromising plain
and began the search for water and a name.

The land lay flat in ambush
made no response 
to the advances of the plough
until it grew fertile with their blood.

Their time was their own here
time to grow old and die
time aplenty to die without growing old
to smother in grain dust as a child
or to fall from heat exhaustion
into the machinery.

They held to the earth like a wife.
Today the road spins out beneath the wheels
at ninety fenceposts hiss by
dry streambeds wind through the fields
on either side of the highway embankment
until it is swallowed
in a tangle of city streets.

At home near the outskirts I
recall only their horizons
rolling back under steel  how
when the land picked up and blew away
they were rescued by their creditors
and put to work for wages

how they built the road back themselves
to the country they fled

lined up at the ticket office
to enlist in its wars

as now we tune in by satellite
and the distances dissolve.

Song of the Dark

When the lead cold moon
darkens and dwindles  
and the feeble sun
slips under the mountains   
heading south

dark flocks settle 
on the shadow groves

This night of earth sleep

I am pulled by the moon
gathering shadows in secret

swallowing stars


Earth Bed

Less fiercely than river
carves banks

more subtly than glacier
hollows lake

you fit my body
to yours even now

as you turn in sleep
this stone to breathing soil

Phoned Poem for a Married Woman

Why whisper? never mind
what the girls say at coffee
let the boss wait  but
talk to me now  tell me
what's wrong with this poem

with all my love poems
where ice turns rock into soil but
remain hidden in the core
a shadow
cast by arrogant metaphor
never the real
person I love.

It looks like there's no way
out for my poem
it simply won't say what I mean
you won't enter it
any more than you fade into me
when you get married
and start signing my name.

You talk a while longer
at your far end of the line
then hand up (to hear your voice
was all I wanted)
and return to your files

but gradually
as the afternoon wears thin
and I sit finishing these lines
you remember a little
and a little more of the person
behind my words

and when you start talking about me
everybody gets bored
_a married woman_ they say
              oh yes!

and by the time you get home
you will probably call this
a love poem.

The Jealousy of Soil

knowing flowers bloom
for any passing eye

while roots only
crush   tear

soil longs
for the fruit
of all this giving.

The dead only
black and brittle on the stem

leaves sodden
trodden to mulch

of all
but the longing
of soil.

And deeper   dry
and unwashed
what of the jealousy of stone?

My Mother Celebrates Her 25th Anniversary by Getting a Divorce

She's not crying now

warming plates for our dinner
and mashing potatoes with milk
for her fiance Gerry, my young bride and me

Once more she has everything in hand

though not long ago she did
let go her tears
at some thoughtless word of mine
and I left her in the kitchen

with a hurt I couldn't understand

I left her in the kitchen for a decade
of lonely family evenings,
desolate Saturday mornings
with no work to get away to

the pent up silences
of this house of blame
falling in on her a night.

She has put all that behind her now

Dessert is sweetened with laughter
and we do the dishes together
enjoying each other's company

though Gerry and I are too loud
solving all the world's problems.

No more crying she tells herself
and half believes it
thinking Gerry is really on the wagon this time

and I go back to my old ways
taking her for granted
smiling with her
not caring to look so close
I see into her eyes

thinking as usual of myself
but twenty-five years from now.

Journey to the East

The morning sun
               clarifies everything
and I stand with my thumb out
reading the _Gita_
                  between cars
transCanada east

   My mind is untroubled by sorrows
   for pleasures I have 
                       no longings

Sun growing hotter
                  more kids come and
stand thumb out at the side of the road
so i back up
            still reading

   _All beings follow nature_

By noon I have backed up
                        five miles
and the highway has turned
                          fluid steel
semi orange   winnibago blue

   _Of what use is restraint?_

At last I cross the road
stand with my thumb out
                        facing east
In a minute
           Uncle Wally pulls over
in his farm truck
to see it's me he has stopped for
and his son Lyle
                laughs out loud
now his dad has
               someone else to talk to

   _Even a wise man
                   follows nature_

Break a Leg

Like a broken leg
roughly set
bound to a branch
then walked on
as far as water
then walked on again
over the Superior north shore
this car
dying on every
two mile hill
backfires shocking
bikers off the road.

Ready   heave.
Hand on the wheel
getting up speed
jump in
swing the door shut
throw it in gear
we're off again.

Finally it's finished
wants to just sit
pistons steaming
points black
on the shoulder of the road
near a town that boasts it's
the coldest place on earth.

Nothing to do but thumb
to the Sault for parts.
It must have been simpler once
when your horse broke a leg
you shot it.

Ontario 17

On the bus   sleep is the bridge
between separate realities

    dual images
    run each other through
    bus windows

        we rest 
        only while moving

        at stops
        everyone wakes

_Stay in your seat till
a city appears_

always the same city

Towns collect against the tracks
like papers in a windtrap

      rusted out car bottoms
      among ditch flowers

At every Greyhound cafe
a radio's going berserk
hallucinating ears in clouds
of cream through tea

    Before reboarding
    people string themselves out
    along the gravel beach

    to watch fish roll in
    from the dark horizon

        washed up on shore:
          a case of broken bottles

Pickled Watermelon

Pocket knife's best
but even a fingernail will do

Keep the hole small, scrape out the pulp
till the cork fits snug
then carefully, repeat
carefully pour

lick any spills off the fat green flank --
go ahead, spill a bit,
that's the best part.

Once I poured three bottles of rum
into one of these babies

mind you it was really juiced
we were licking booze off each others' arms --
come to think of it that's the best part

but one bottle is plenty 
to sweeten your weekend

just cool her overnight
while she sucks up the juice

and the lake will be brighter than ever tomorrow --
the sun will be red

juicy red.
Time was
we had no fridge at the lake

left the melon instead
over night in the spring fed stream --
and really that's best

but one summer 
we left one in the shallows
fat and pickled

next morning she was gone
no sign

All Saturday we steamed
_Did you take her? Then who?_

till we found
on the path to the privy
a raccoon

black eyes glassy
crazy grin on its face
and stiff.

Wisdom Teeth

they may be called, but I
have never grown up
still sleep in the foetal position
would eat less meat
if I did the slaughtering
  (rather not think of it)

On the go, as we all are

I have no time
nor jaw for wisdom

My dentist
to spare me the trouble
takes pliers to this remember
I am brother to bear and wolf

For leverage he climbs my chair
tugging and sweating
while my throat
fills up with soggy cotton

but the jaw is stubborn
_Please_ I say _forget it
it's only a tooth_
but the jaw remembers
it remembers.

Uncle Ezra's Funeral

Uncle Ezra
alone on the farm
outlived all
his city children

finally took sick
from going to funerals

he was put to bed
for the good of his illness

they found him dead
on his way out the door
Now here we all are

the youngsters
who hardly knew him
and don't know each other
meeting one time to say goodbye

     (but I remember Uncle Ezra
      taught me to chop wood

      a thing in all my city years
      I will never forget)

Now without his ruddy cheeks
in his first new suit
since his wedding day

a bubble of flowers
cartooned over his head

Uncle Ezra

has already slammed the door
on us

and we  when the service is over
hurry away to our cars.

My Father Writes a Poem Home from Europe on His Parents' 25th Wedding Anniversary

The rhymes don't matter now

but I wonder where and
who he was

the day he took out
the _On Active Service_ paper
      (in York awaiting orders?
       or a smouldering Dutch village?
       on one of those long drugged days
       in a French hospital?)

to write what he would never say

    _Fight for home and you_

Is that what he meant by the wounded look
that is all I saw my father give
his father while he lived?

Weddings _claim_ children
as a sniper claims victims
and when I read

    _A Heritage which soldiers bought
      For every girl and boy_

I break out in a sweat
see spots and get the shits

In short  it's a soldier's life
being the son of a soldier

      I am so glad
      this was my father's only poem
      glad he didn't teach me
      to marry or give birth to war

      If it left him nothing to teach
      all right
      I've learned more from his silence
      than I could from all

      the poems he never wrote.


Drops tossed from an oar
move mountains
on the surface of the lake

You too dip lightly
through street faces

half seen glances
adrift in your wake

You paddle a succession of beds
in bare rooms

observing the silence 
of mountains.

Winter in London

Tea is steeping in the pot

As in the early days
of radio, chairs huddle round
the electric fire
make a rainbow on the floor

Leaves skitter down the road
clouds across the sky

Tea is steeping in the pot

When you get up to
put another coin in the meter
the furniture crowds
closer to the fire.

E P is Dead

          _a man on whom the sun has gone down

E P is dead in Venice
at the fall of the year

sun gold on the bay at dusk
is cold in his eyes
(in a snapshot he leans from a window)

          This November
when the palaces are boarded up
San Marco's square almost deserted

when silence fills the courtyards and arcades

from steeple tops the swallows are dispersing
while before his eyes the broad sea darkens
to a vision of a windowless, closed room

          _the last American dying the tragedy of Europe_

The last film  years old now
still shows him drinking wine
on a Paris sidewalk  black wine
that drips down his gnarled scruff of beard

his sunken cheek withdraws
from the camera's touch
the voice scratches like an old record:
    _I thought I knew something
     I was wrong_

He sleeps now
sleep bitterly awaited
as the gold sky after sunset
is sleeping light


Stay the affairs of commerce one day
  sing once again the soul's wonder
    though it lies in ruins
      that old golden dream
and the weak song does in his throat

     _Truth is not untrued by reason of our failing
      to fix it on paper_

Tourist Police

Welcome to Hellas

Ancient & modern ruins
1st & 3rd Sundays free

So efficient are we
we have a special police force
to take care of tourists

Better than abracadabra
say tourist
say it in your best Alabama
or New England accent

Say it in your own accent  tourist
and the border police
quite ransacking your van
and turn you over to the tourist police
who take care of you

Do you need an A
B C or D class hotel?
The tourist police speak English
with English accents
most obliging  not at all
my cousin owns a D hotel

In Hermou Street
on the closest to the station
of the market streets
just under the Acropolis
where the sun is hard on the marble
ruins of earlier market streets
hard as bleach on the sea

The hotel's rates are fixed
by the tourist police
cafe menus and prices are printed
by the market police
you are the first tourists anywhere
protected from gougers and swindlers
we are the first country in history
so honest

we don't even need elections
except to register
who gets passports and licences
The tourist police takes care of you all
in the narrow Saturday night streets
when the Yankee sailors come ashore
wandering in a daze counting the days
(the rates in the bordellos
are fixed by the market police)

The regime's official poster 
-- phoenix with figure of armed soldier --
is pasted like blood on public walls
Why don't we open a t-shirt shop
and sell caricatures
with the soldier holding a cattle prod
to the genitals of the phoenix
who has the face of mother Athena?
The tourist police will really take care of you 
if you go around talking like that

Hellas bon voyage
come again soon
Thursday and Friday open till nine
Don't wake up the immigrant workers
till Munich Dortmund Hamburg or Keln
Don't mention what you saw at the people's hospital
when you had to be taken to a private room
Talk up the vale of Megara
Parnassus Corfu and Olympia
Exit soldiers at Thessaloniki
good night  good night Hellas  good night


Astern harbour gulls wing in / out
cross the sun like clouds
dip heads into the westerlies
wing high with daybreak tide
high in the rigging then call
back to sea foam that teases the prow
wing high over red tile roofs
in the village cove ~ white
shining through shadow ~ astern.

So from Iceland   St. Malo
from Aleutian coves
dreamers pass
populating sea and sky
a masthead finds its way
through these stars to shore.

Now as then
gulls dive and soar
astern   cross the sun
while the village dwindles
then dips in the waves
the sun noses
deep in the cold sea's
darkening reaches where
it cools before the dawn.

Who Guards the Guard

I walk the embankment evenings
when the sky is sun-swollen
the forest hushed, take air

among flowering weeds and sand
overlooking  inland
the gallows and the execution pits.
It's my only out now
time to myself
between the cliff face and the sea.

Guards wave from their posts
as I pass, prisoners
wait in doorways
smoking, shuffling cards
their eyes darker than night.
But here the sky is calm as memory
the sun scrubs white
the shimmering cliffs.

Across the gulf I see him.
He walks the other shore alone
dwelling as I do on the space between.

We share the intimate
start of discovery
yet neither shouts or waves.
Each walks on
as if still alone.

Though he is free he awaits me here
when I make my evening getaway.
The sight of him frightens me
I wish he would save me.
As I watch he seems to be moving
closer, his eyes on me
as if they could kill.

When I run back to my post he too
turns into his dark country
but through night watch
I know he is there
a sleepless appetite
prowling in the dark.

At York

     The gravestones can no longer
     be read, even now
     rain is levelling the names and dates

     arches that housed a splendour
     of colour and light
     fill a rock garden now:
      red lichen   green moss  white flower

Rain hides the city
but for two landmarks
for warring centuries:
  the minster and the smokestack

We walk the wall eating Spanish oranges
looking out from sentry posts
at broken brick and stone
lately painted by the local gangs

while under us  imperceptibly
the rain is sliding this wall
and two walls beneath it

behind the kingsofengland choirscreen
the pageant of Gichi Manitou

Arches of light are dancing
the thunderbird is flying
over Rome's eternally
buried walls

in the eternal flame
of eternal northsea gas

  in upraised voices

Conquest of Mexico


     Gold the face
     spun gold the headdress
     of the grinning lord of death
     round the neck of
     the emperor priest

     gold inlaid in jade
     the god he prays to


Like Bacchus out of Asia
the Spaniard rides  the sun
in his golden plumage
to the city of mirages


          Cortes in ancient Darien
          refound Homeric Illium
          schooners cruised a sea of gold
          on a coastline of the sun


     Orozco shows him
     a mechanical man
     whose steel sword rapes
     the flaming body
     of the goddess America


Thus they perished
they were swallowed by the waters
they became fish
they perished
all the mountains perished

A Clearing in the Forest

1. Midatlantic Prayer

Hardships so many
we have endured for the Lord
the discomfort of the hold we count no hardship
the unruly waves no peril
that carry our bark
far from the shores of persecution
to new life beyond this deadly sea.

To the end of life and beyond we follow Him
though the wind is unceasing
and our fetor torments
the creaking, weeping night.

Though the sea storm devour us
our faith will sustain us
to the peace that passeth
     80 acres of wood and meadow
     in the land of Tuscarora.

2. Dekaniwidah's Dream

Together we dig up the great tree
throw into the pit all weapons of war
and bury them beneath its trunk
which grows
from the five roots of the people
to reach heaven.

3. The Book of Martyrs

Listen to the partridge cry, that's the savage
watching   waiting.

     The savage stalks like a fox
     fights like a lion  then
     disappears into the woods like a bird

     he will eat your liver  before your eyes.

locked up in our dark houses
we turn
the pages of the Book of Martyrs:

     _the crushing with stones_
     _the burning at the stake_
     _the rack_

The Vision of Doors

     Doors see
no arrivals or departures
only comings and goings
doors are shortsighted
always part of a room

     You enter
shutting at your back
snowy mountains  plunging rivers
        it doesn't matter
because you don't look back

     Before you
a vision of doors opens
to more rooms  more doors
you could go on forever
door to door
a vision of windows
     left behind

CNR Silence

Awhile before dawn the train slows and halts
at a clearing in the north shore forest.
Evergreen branches sag, heavy with snow.
At the side of the embankment is a railway shack.
Inside, a kerosene lantern illuminates a mercator world map.
Gold stars trace a path across a broad pink emptiness;
Europe is a tangle of lines.
Two parka'd figures stoop through the snow toward the hut.
Their faces cannot be seen, and before they reach shelter
the train jerks into motion, plunging into the forest again.

          The train is part of nothing it passes.
          Observes its own time.
          Touches only its dream of steel.

A woman in red and white baseball jacket
half sleeps in front of the window where
the moon skips mutely through the branches.

Her baby sleeps across the facing seat.

She lifts her hand to her mouth ~ a red glow ~ 
then returns her hand to the window.

Smoke rises, curling slowly.

          Morning gradually pales the sky.

In this Desert

oases are island jungles
where we huddle round fires
waiting for shadows
to leap out of the trees

In this desert
oases are avoided

We founder through sand storms
driven by wind tide
swimming with fossils
through drifting dunes

When we meet
in the shadow of a rock
we huddle together in talk

create with our voices
a world  regular
as hands and faces
solid as resisting flesh

In the Cypress Hills

Hungry man drinks at stream
of light from lowering sun
  rustle of wings in underbrush

     as sage wind through grass
     cloud shadows brush pine hill
       pheasant's harsh alarm

Heaving to nameless distance
the prairie
tines and glows within

   cutbank snakes through hills
   to plain/sun/sea
   gilding twilight

Scanning inarticulate space
for echo of buffalo thunder
hungry man grieves

   evening is shattered
   by silence

Northern Sun

is one more idler
hanging out for bootleg beer

pockets bulging
with apples and oranges

he looks over your shoulder
at the poker table

turns up unwanted
at the John Wayne movie

spoils your aim at horseshoes
with his rosy grin

keeps you up all hours
burning the night away


Week on week I patch
and go on patching fabric
that no longer holds a thread

patch night on day then
pick loose ends and
go on patching

When you arrive you
might see me
all in one piece
                but soon
I begin picking
       before your eyes
I fray

Only later in bed or
  on the floor
    I see
the cloth I needle
  is my flesh

At Bankhead

     (a coalmining ghost town near Banff)

This granite staircase
without its proud manor
stands alone between snow peaks

last witness to these
black wounds
inflicted on the mountain


Follow this cold stream
down till the current
slackens and
beneath stone

found again
in a coalpit

exposed to the sun
filling with mud and flowers


For fear this black earth
rots on contact
we make love standing

then scramble back to the road
stopping only at the cenotaph
to read the names of the dead


He was always my idea
of God himself  lines
like a calfskin Bible
righteously presiding
over family Christmas dinners

His pious shadow
fell across the lives
of all his children
as they chose their own careers
married catholics  smoked
or in any way transgressed
his law.

I was there once
when he caught my parents
drinking at a party

and when  longhaired and 16
I hitchhiked east alone
I learned what people meant
who called him
North Toronto Wasp.

The day he died
my father found me
working Sunday in a ditch
in northern Alberta

Hardly a sign of grief
passed between us
only the look of stern reserve
we both inherited from him
that despite us
outlives him.

Opening My Grandmother's Bible

She read it Sunday afternoons
in the light of her dining room window
through a magnifying glass that once
in the hands of one of her sons
burned a spot on the cover,

but each night of the week
she rested her eyes on her knitting
while my grandfather read from the family Bible
a full hour before the radio went on,

and for long now, most of my life,
she has felt her way through
this little apartment he moved her to
before he died.

               Now the library sends her
cassettes of the Gospels in Modern English

     _I've no use for books, the TV
      is all I can see any more._

Though meant for more thunderous voices
the book's years with her were silent ones,
four pages ruled for family history
are mute.
          Only pencilled
numbers on a flyleaf trace
its progress from guineas to dollars
to this rest in her window garden
three flights up in Willowdale.

One scrawled note bequeaths it to her father --
     _For Hiram Connell
      when Mother is done with it._

Now _Mother_ is done, and the dying
man who wrote is nameless
in his own book,
                the granddaughter
has become the grandmother
and passes the book on the me
unmarked, but preserving between its pages
a few fragments:

a daughter's first needlepoint
an _exhortation to obedience_

and, keeping place at Genesis XLIX
  _Jacob calleth his sons and blesseth them_
two maple leaves
all red pressed out of them
for two sons in Europe

   lying in your dark drugged night

whose Gospel is that you whisper in sleep?

  while I at your table hunt these pages
     for a passage into my past --

          one verse of Isaiah
          underlined in pencil:

_in a little wrath I hid my face awhile
  but with everlasting kindness will I
  have mercy on thee._

Spring Snow

Haiku are snowing
gently over
cars in the parking lot
between the red brick
wings of the hospital

snowflakes large as
scraps of torn paper
haiku written on them
almost legible
on the darkening sky.

We are waiting together
as you've been waiting
nine months now
the cat on your lap

slowly pushed down from
your stomach to your knees
by the hidden stranger
learning to swim
inside you.

Tonight our waiting
is almost over
and outside the window
it's snowing haiku

that muffle the sound
of traffic
of the icebound
river breaking open.

Round Midnight

No family   but because
you're more family than I'm used to
I hunt through two bars

hand out till closing time
in the one with the shuffleboard
missing your wit   feeling

maybe I don't know you 
 ~ been away a month ~ 
as I turn up on your doorstep
with a sixpack.

You've just crashlanded
after all night alone
in the bar with the juke box

playing over and over
     third-rate romance
     low rent rendezvous

till the manager crabbing "This
my bar"
unplugged you and
sent you home white as ashes.

No family   brothers anyway
we share the last round
singing another song

sitting face to face
where you might have been
staring out the night
in both chairs.

What Losers?

     _Teach the losers,_
     the coach says in the staffroom
     _and pretty soon you're a loser too_

and when the bell rings
he goes to make winners
out of the kids he calls
     _ya bunch a yahoos_

while I meet my special ed. class
at the front door
and we walk down the hill together
the two of us
to the Sunset Lodge to talk to his gramps.

     _What was it LIKE gramps
      when you were kids?
      What was SCHOOL like?_

Each question the boy makes himself
clearer and the teacher
has done nothing but listen
to the old man's stories

of his first threshing crew at 13
and of the day years later
when on a railroad crew
he was overtaken on the bare prairie
by a dirt storm that hailed
darkness over him

and I watch the sunmotes drift past the window
   the turning cassette forgotten
   like the drone of the furnace
asking myself why
no one else in the staffroom
would touch my job

Later in the classroom
asked to set words on paper
the boy
takes pencil in hand like a pea-shooter
and scrawls

     _GaMp Qiut sHooL at 10_

and for a moment I too feel the darkness
to pore over the pages of his errors
till his sixteenth birthday

He grins and tells me he is stupid
but I'm not fooled   he's smart enough
to know if he makes trouble
the school will let him quit early

I know he's not stupid   I've seen
his eyes darken
when he frightens his friends
with the story of the dirt storm

This is a Recording

I don't understand why I can't grow plants
I'd give my life for my plants
why can't I give them life?

First the geraniums then
the ivy rhododendron and yucca died
of too much water or too little
I never knew which

I'm finally left with one cactus
I couldn't kill.

Knowing cactus like heat
I set it by the stove

a year later I notice 
it's suffocating

coated with gas and grease

so to clean it
I put it with its pot
in the dishwasher
on the setting for greasy pots

That doesn't seem to have worked
the cactus looks dead.

This is the third time I have phoned
the Department of Agriculture
but all I get is a recording
on the noon market reports.


Frost crackles under foot and my shadow
reels in the headlights of a passing car.
Circuits snap coldly as photographs
burn in my brain

enamel peeling from the smile
black flakes of chemical paper
curl until only the corners are white
two greyish spots in the black
where eyes were.

Another snap
shot in a field last year:
     I am in it
     by a cairn of rotted posts
     I pushed together  posing

     while my friend took the picture
     that burned with him today.

In the dark field I look for the smouldering
ruins of those posts:

     a horse
     in the snow-covered field
     a white horse
     is staring at me.


Hypothesis:  Education is the only hope

Apparati: 2 poinsettia striplings
          1 pot of earth
          1 ledger 1 stopwatch 1 gallon water
          cultural miscellany

Method:   Laid 1st plant across table
          and taught it
          the miracle of photosynthesis
          read it the bill of rights
                  the joy of growing

          then measured its rate of self-improvement

          The 2nd poinsettia:
          threw the dirt on it
          squashed it underfoot
          allowed it no exercise
          fed it only water

Observations:  The latter's growth (in feet per second)
          was negligible
          but it still holds out
          like an obstinate beggar
          a large red palm

          Meanwhile  the educated plant
          turned to the colour of ashes

Conclusion:  Hypothesis cannot be verified
          There remain two possibilities:

          a) there is no hope
          the schools had better be buried
          along with the flags at city hall
          (and whatever has turned the colour of ashes)
          make a time capsule of it all
          and shovel it under

     or   b) neglect is the only hope
          as it was for the Venus
          who wore a once-fashionable dress
          painted over the stone
          from nipples to calf
          till centuries of dirt stopping her eyes
          revealed the real grain of stone
          the beauty the artist spent his craft
          in covering

Edmonton, 1970

Though John was the stoned one
I played the fool

loping alongside a passing train
the shriek of steel at my ear

reaching for a high iron rung
till on a city curb

I tripped
         and rolled under 
(the bushes)
            thinking good thing
I didn't die just now

John would have really freaked out

Affair of the Heart

She is too young to know
how much she knows,
he is old enough
to know he doesn't.

Her arms trace a dome
around her heart
he calls the house of god,
she thinks he's joking.

She pays no attention
to his advice, and he
all things considered
does the same.

Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits

A rusty hatchet  the shrill harmonica
chops at the air  but can't split it
shavings of memory scatter on the floor
that sandpaper voices scratches across
a decade's static on the stereo

     _the times  they are achangin_
                    a spark
     that voice touched off

     might have touched off
     how many lives  what world

     but times are still changing
     and here lies the lumber
     cold and  petrified

no fire  only dirt in the eyes
and the shoulder of the highway to cry on.

     They say  in Chile
     one man's songs were so loved
     he was taken in by police

they cut off his hands  so he couldn't play
they cut out his tongue  so he couldn't sing
they cut out his heart  so no more songs
could disgrace them
                    but despite them

he still in singing  under the breath
of millions  on the streetcorners
of his country.

And still  the cutting voice
whittles away at time  singing
  spare change  on the sidewalk
outside the labour exchange

spare change  but there it is
there is no blood  on the album

who told you  you'd get what you asked for
who told you  you wanted nothing more?

July 11, 1978

               for Irina Ginzburg

"USA has political prisoners in its thousands but
USSR has political prisoners in its tens of thousands"
                                        - Andrew Young

Irina Ginzburg has only one
one voice to cry out
                    for him
not one chance 
              to defend him.

Locked out of the courtroom now
for using her one
refusing his accusers one
she is discarded like so much

She walks unseeing
                  past the Western reporters
opening her umbrella
                    in front of her face
unable to hide
              her dry  spectacled
hopeless eyes
             from the camera.

One political prisoner
                      in one court
one wife one mother
                   in the slow
endless rain
            walking away

into the photograph
                   that arrives next day
on my doorstep

              in Edmonton, Alberta
drenched with rain.

Calgary '80

The pink ladies and couriair
cars prowl seventh avenue
between open pits and cable spools


On this corner
frog-throated boys used to sing
          HERALD PAPER
and give change from their aprons with sharp-eyed
       where today
an acre of glass encases
a twelve-month garden
frequented by popcorn bags and exotic birds
I can't hear from the street,

          and drill bits
             all sizes
        sexy and primitive:

        office ornaments
          paper weights
        garden fountains

            drill bits
       drill bits have balls


Across from this sign I stand a half hour
to see how many Ontario dropouts
come looking for employment:
                            no one
loiters around the jobsite,
everyone hurries by
carrying briefcases, money sacks, takeout food

No one walks by as if they had the day off
No one is retired or too young to work

Even I can't stand here idle, I take notes
I tell myself, must be a working writer
must take notes wherever I go,
then I'll find out
where the sidewalks went.

Afternoon of a Political Prisoner

                         (after Yeats)

she had no patience for what the day brought

no so much
emptiness she devours

sweet numbing healing peace

Inside patience is easy
when she is not being tortured

when the sun even shines
unbarred and unwired

She sits at her cell window so still
a bold gull flies down

and stabs her cheek

There is little blood
and she barely feels it

so glad to be
left alone
one day

Empty Bottles

line up all the empty bottles

the long-necked beer bottles from the antique stores

the wine bottles and pop bottles left on beaches

steam off the labels and line the bottles up, the green ones with

the brown black yellow and clear ones

line up the beer bottles whose labels have been torn off by
neurotic fingers

and the bottles sent back by the breweries because they have
cockroaches or dead mice at the bottom

line up the bottles afloat on all the seas, those with messages in
them and those without any

and the bottles with methyl hydrate-soaked cotton in them used by
schoolkids for killing insects

line up the bottle that killed Malcolm Lowry with the bottle that
killed Dylan Thomas and the bottles that killed all the drunken
poets nobody's heard of and the poets who spoke all their lines
into their bottles

and all of Purdy's crocuses that weren't smashed on frozen
roadsides when thrown from car windows

line up the bottles of dark glass we look through darkly when we
want to see the ghosts of our former selves

and the bottles Dr. Jekyll drank from, and all the Dr. Jekylls
whether on the stage, in movies or on television

and the bottles of rubbing alcohol and aftershave and nail polish
remover people only drink from in dark alleys

line up the embalming fluid bottles someone was saving to build a
glass house some day

and the bottles of nerve gas saved up for the war nobody wants

and the bottles of toxic gas cruising the streets disguised as

and the pill bottles, the billions of pill bottles emptied each
year, and billions that sit half-empty for years on medicine

line up the empty bottles sent back by hospitals for refills

line up all the empty bottles

the party's over


The Green Comes

Out of cracks in the pavement
the green comes
all smooth surfaces

under the cities
                    suckering out
all over the suburbs

Year by year
          the green comes
with flowers
                    coming and coming
all over themselves
          into the sulphurous air
green then
          ripe then
then green again
out of putty

the silent steel towers
to petrochemical soils
with a mould green perhaps
          but green
our skeletons inside out
each one of us

Night Highway

He's a strange bird
                   who deserts his nest
twice in one year.

He is happy
           to be arriving
happy soon after
                to leave.

Wherever he is
              it's not right!
and he's off
    on a ribbon of tail lights
                              in low orbit
strung out
          like radio
                    at the far end
                                  of the band.

Moving In

Smells accumulate in corners year by year:
 of mildew in the cupboards,
 ash in the woodstove downstairs,
 dust and cobwebs over all the hoarded jars
 and hardwood and moulding in the rafters,
 the cool smell of water dripping on wood.

Moving into this house no one has moved out of
we hardly possess it, merely add our trunks and boxes
to the accumulation in the basement,
jam them in around the unused moving crate,
between heaps of lumber, on shelves
of bottles jars and tins,
my tools go onto the workbench and get lost
amid curtain rods pipe sections twists of wire
tile grout slug bait lawn seed screws and
nails, tobacco tins of nails.

On the wall where it must have hung since 1954,
a _Saturday Evening Post_ cover:
 the bright-eyed husband works at a bench like this
 while upstairs in her negligee the young wife
 sits in her blue bedroom
 gazing out the window at the moon
as _she_ might have watched from her blue bedroom,
 the widow who haunted this house
 after the builder's death, the woman
 who brought sweet smells to the pantry
 and left handwritten Swedish recipes in the drawers,
 who saved his long-necked beer bottles
 and his newspapers from the war,
 who kept up the garden as he began it:
  crocus tulip daffodil rhododendron
  iris raspberry rose,
                      who left
  her trowel and gardening glove beneath a raspberry cane.

And locks accumulated in the years she was alone,
one of the last Liberal voters in British Columbia:
 a lock and two bolts on the back door,
  two locked doors in front,
  and more bolts on the basement door,
each room can be closed to all others,
and here in the short hallway
she could sit with closed doors all around her
and cry to the ceiling far away.

The World at 8

Sun shines on the kitchen table
enervates the rising coffee steam,
and lazy man plugs in to the morning
news, because the paper isn't
news any more.
              Some days
stories break hour to hour so
I feel I'm accomplishing something
whenever I tune in,
                   I'm there
when the spaceship touches down
when the murderer chooses death
with wet lips.
              With this knowledge
I hope to make a better soup for lunch
but before sitting down
                       instead of grace
I need to know whether to despair
of earthly treasures, or if
I may breathe easier awhile,
chewing place names in the strait of Hormuz
with my zucchini.

Red Shift

At a rate proportional to their distance the stars 
     are moving out, away, apart.  

From any point it appears the same, apart, away.  

Every self is the centre.  

Distant stars are vacating so rapidly their light 
     has stretched and turned red.  

In fact their distance is measured in redness.

This explosion of stars appears only to the spectroscope 
     as memory, long, long past.  

Only by dropping apples and listening to streetcars pass 
     do we know they have survived their ancient images.  

The physics hasn't changed.  

The stars are there but, like memory, millions of light years
     farther than they seem.

The red shift is visible on this planet, 
     though only to the human eye.

Faster, fastest, everyone moves apart.  

Having left you at the airport and driven as far as the bridge, 
     I look back and see only the starless city sky, bathed in red.

Five to Midnight

               (for my son)

At last the storm is passing, or pausing
to restore itself over the gulf, clouds heave
a redolent breath on the rooftops,
and behind the closed door your howls
have ended,
washes anger and fear from your face.

I stand over your bed   twenty years
from an understanding with you,
knowing we may not have those years,
or if we do, today
will be dream time then to both of us,
become other people, translated
into foreign lives.

You won't remember this day, and I
might say nothing happened:
we made it through the hours at home
on the bus and on
the hate/love rollercoaster ride of being five,
I listened to the news at lunch, dreading
to be out of touch another hour,
we put together your jigsaw puzzles
to show you had all the pieces,
you did a lot for yourself, did without
even me in the end,
                    as you will have to
some day we can't imagine.

The sky is impatient, tugged and tossed
in a mist of last roses,
                         and above the rain
satellites plough silent cameras through
what is left of the twentieth century,

almost everywhere on earth it is tomorrow.

                                   -Vancouver, November 1980

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