Here are some poems I still like from what is, I am surprised to discover, almost three decades of publishing. My early pieces appeared in student newspapers and workshop anthologies in the seventies, but my first “real” publication was “Keillor’s Marmalade”, an ode to my Scottish-born husband, in Writers’ Lifeline in 1981. I still remember the thrill – matched only (in my literary experiences) by having my first book of wordmusic, Pass this way again, accepted by bpNichol for Underwhich Editions in 1983, or my first poetry collection, Dark Galaxies, published by Ouroboros here in Ottawa in 1986. Some twenty poetry publications, wordmusic collections, recordings, anthologies, and literary editing projects followed. The most recent, The Gargoyle’s Left Ear: Writing in Ottawa, is less a formal memoir than a collection of anecdotes about growing up as a poet in this town. The timing of this issue of Ygdrasil is a good fit as it tells the other side of this story through the poems themselves.
The selection that follows is roughly chronological, and ends with some pieces not yet collected into books or recordings. Where it seems helpful, I’ve included notes along the way. Missing are my wordmusic explorations with First Draft from the 1980s, since the notation is quasi-musical, and can’t be reproduced in typescript, and my work with Geode and SugarBeat Music & Poetry from the 1990s and 2000s, which is primarily based on improvisation without formal scores. A taste of this audio and collaborative work is available on various websites including my own (http://web.ncf.ca/smcmaster), on five recordings, and in several collections of scores (see the publication list at the end).
from Dark Galaxies (Ouroboros, 1986) The “dark galaxies” poems were inspired by investigations into black holes and dark matter, and also by studies in perception. Most are headed by quotes from Scientific American or other publications on astrophysics. The second half of the book, “Lac Vert”, gathers poems centred around our cabin in Quebec.
Dark Matter To account for the motion of stars within galaxies and galaxies within clusters ... it is necessary to suppose ... the gravitational influence of more mass than can be detected directly ... as much as 10 times more “dark matter” than luminous matter.
The pull that holds us together can’t be explained just by our words, by the things we do. What can account for my wandering ellipse, your far-flung loop, how we keep returning against all sense? Baffled by light, I peer not at stars but at dark distances between, see
streams of ancient particles pouring everywhere – ghostly dimensions overlapping ours – lumps of old debris scattered here and there – burnt-out daydreams, ones about to form –
How much of the pull in our strange, quarky dance comes from matter too tenuous to shine?
Perceiving a Stable Environment Because the perceptual system compensates, our surroundings appear to be stable when we move.
The world sh i f ts as he moves through. He approaches, it e x p a n d s, passes, it tu r ,sn nods, it alt ters.
Elegant and precise are the compensations for movements of the e y e, for movements of the head, for movements of the field, o f t h e w o r l d a s a w h o l e :
so adaptable is the universe to a
self centered man.
Quantum World We can never predict the future of a quantum universe with complete certainty, for in an infinite quantum future, anything that can happen, eventually will.
If you have trouble holding on, if you can’t understand why things are exactly as they appear or else never that at all, then it makes perfect sense that the whole fine structure could dissolve at whim, something come from nothing, be here, there, or nowhere, stars change their courses at the bid of a random need
and a heart that beats or dies without known cause is just reason breaking free
The fog on the lake so much like the press of your skin on mine
a tender lie of captured light lyric unashamed
but metaphors like these have been so often pulled through poetry’s eye
I hardly dare describe except for you alone
the tremble of your skin how it ripples like mine under yours, under mine
how dusk and mist blend water into sky in a private poem
The next poem has itself been turned to many different uses. I’ve read it at a pro-choice rally, at political gatherings, to teenagers as an incitement to riot – and most recently, at the actual, physical, moving and turning of our small summer house on the Fundy shore. The poem is inscribed on the new front door, with the title written in a circle.
Today I Turned Everything Around
I turned the flowers to nod to the wall, spiny backs exposed, flipped the painting, uncovered a tear where the framing knife slipped, swivelled the armchair, found cloth torn by cats on the padded back, up-ended the tables, reversed the rug, split the walls open to the studs, pulled out insulation, ripped up floorboards, yanked through nails, reached into sewer pipes, pulled them inside out, tore the house away from power lines, its web of pipes, knocked off sod and trees, shook out furniture, flipped the roof, punched out the cellar, crushed the shell into a ball, and held it over your head –
You looked up as I looked down.
You were so small.
From The Hummingbird Murders (Quarry, 1992)
The poems in this book form a narrative of a family spending the summer at the lake, and what happens when they put up a hummingbird feeder. I’ve not tried to tell the story, but have simply chosen some favourite pieces. Occasional prose inserts come from field guides to birds.
Hummingbird, hummingbird, clip your feathers for fishing flies, trim your beak for a brandy straw, bake your breast into dolly pies, dangle your feet for a baby’s charm
Hummingbird, hummingbird, no sharp beak or curling claw can pierce you now or do you harm, nor can I spell you back to the skies with grief, or word
The crows’ caws echo as if this were a closed room, its apparent hills and spaces painted mirrors, polished floor. The caws too, on this closed-in day, are mechanical, abrupt – buzzers or horns.
You stand up, turn from washing your face, ears, in our diminished pond, turn towards me, feathers in your hair – down from our sleeping, our fraying mummy bags that kept us hot and tossing and apart all night, gave no room for expanding doubts.
I pluck off the feathers, lean against your chest. We hear the crows circle, then chase each other away.
Later we’ll circle too, canoe around the lakeshore, try to find new openings.
Listen, did I tell you about the hummingbird who hovered across and across the window –
did I tell you about the pearl the children found this morning inside a mussel shell –
or the feathers they gathered on the beach yesterday?
Did I tell how the door opened for the crows?
~ Tiny birds, with hovering flight, taking nectar from flowers, and insects on the wing.
My ears are always popping here, I yawn a lot, as if the air were mountain air, too light and clear to hold me down – amazing the effect of a few days’ quiet, of a loon’s manic whistle on everyday gravity.
Pea soup tonight, and bread, both homemade. You and the girls cook on the low black stove while I finish up city work, staring at the lake.
Now, the white-throat’s evening tune.
Everything settles. The logic of hills repeated exactly in the opal water seems right, the way it is.
Could it possibly be there’s no more to know than these lightheaded trees, their perfect reflections –
Is it possible not to strive?
~ Hummingbirds, like bees, shouldn’t be able to fly.
If you sit still on the rock long enough, a child will come to lean against you, stroke your cheek, after a while, leave. If you sit still on the rock long enough, the cat arrives, rubs against your back, your hand, underneath your legs. Insects, after a time, seem to forget you’re there, look for noisier meals. Crows squawk and fight, swoop off over your head.
Your eyes, if you wait, get used to the evening sun. You start to see more clearly, see the flat grasses, lit long and slanting, turn green, translucent, arrange themselves as paintings. You discover bits of mica glinting in small geodes cracked open, full of splinters.
After a while, if you’re still enough, long enough, the rock begins to rock, langorous, lapped, the mesh under the water made of yellow light seems to lift you up.
Tthen the whole rock will tilt if you’re quiet, very calm, for a moment, become
holes in air
(you, too cease to matter)
Let’s talk about real things all this broody stuff is fine but whose turn is it to cook supper who tracked sand all over the floor who forgot to close the fridge door who gets to decide if we screw tonight and whose turn is it to say please– stay
~ Shining jewel-like colours... fiery red... metallic green... This pugnacious bird has been known to attack and drive away birds as large as hawks and crows.
one handful of bright feathers shake fall and that is it done
But after a while it begins to seem too much. The purple flowering raspberries bloom and bloom, the lake is unremitting – blue or slate or white, the sky fills each evening with a revel of pink and mauve, the cat stretches, rumbles, hummers glitter and whirr.
Words, and thinking, sink into sand –
And I find my kees jiggling up and down, up and down. Begin to yearn for something clean, hard, dry, without this filigree.
What’s the line that underlies all this overdone splendour, wires it together?
Even the stars are far too plush to pull mind from matter. Draw it to cause.
From Learning to Ride (Quarry, 1994)
I took my first riding lesson when I was 33 years old – fulfilling a childhood dream. Artist Bob Verrall, who contributed 28 gorgeous illustrations to this book (see below), himself first learned to ride at the age of 67. A “lunge” is a long rope used to exercise or train a horse while standing on the ground. “Dismounting” is one of two poems of mine to appear in a newspaper, in this case the Toronto Star. “Learning to Ride” was chosen as one of the best Canadian poems of the year for – I like this – the Windhorse award.
As the ankle lies lightly
against the breathing flank,
as the hips bend and supple
to the rhythmic flow
So the heart learns to pulse
to reason’s sway,
so the mind learns to follow
where the heart yearns to go
On the Lunge
Courage is not the most vital thing. Knowledge takes you only so far. Force defeats itself in the end. Nothing’s so fragile as burning desire when the beast is bucking and kicking in rage, when you’re losing your grip, at the end of your rope.
Dig in your heels! Stubbornness, friend, is the only sure way to hang on tight to hope.
When will I learn how to dismount with spring, grace, in that moment of parting, how not to fall in a heap, or cling to neck or mane in a slipping embrace that ends with a thump on shaking knees -
But swing smoothly down as I’ve seen others do, land light, square, hand over the reins to the next in line with a casual nod, walk smiling away, keep bruises and tears for private tending.
No matter how rough the ride, to let go as if I don’t care.
Learning to Ride
This, then, to let go, let the body move the hands, drag the brain without holding on to words, language, the ways I’ve learned so well to define and subdue the twang of nerve ends, pulse of arteries, clench and release of the bundles of fibre I name to myself muscle, as if the word alone brings into being the smooth working humps under unregarded skin that carry me, have carried me through every single day unnoticed, till now.
Before I entered this curious new world of body direct, it was naming alone that stood for all else, the flap of the tongue, labile and strong, the only muscular motion I’d learned to control. Held thus, at tongue’s length, the world made sense, a black and white tale patterned in words I could stand back to read.
Tear them up, pull them away, rip them into tendrils coiling underfoot and find –
A steady pulsing region of thick grounded motion, a shadowed wildland of caverns, valleys, always changing footing, where I move like a tracker from childhood tales, like a cat, like a deer, to the beat of tissues, flex of sinews, spring of limbs, loose, aware, learning to learn a whole new language of heat and sweat, power and flow, of pushing the body till it trembles, groans, learning to discard the ancient metaphors of love and soul and existential pain for the uncoded strophes of pulse and breath.
Learning to ride the muscular heart, the solid bone.
So the mind learns to fly to match the heart's leap, so the heart soars at last across the mind's divide
from Uncommon Prayer: A book of dedications (Quarry, 1997)
This book celebrates the aspect of prayer that consists of paying close attention to all parts of our world, even, for example, outhouses. (That poem is pinned up in many outhouses that I know, and I have a sinking feeling that, if any piece of mine is remembered in a hundred years, this will be the one.) The original title for the book was How Chairs Pray, because many of the poems are in the voice of non-human objects. Two such, a beautiful chair by Pat Durr and a dangerous dandelion by Julia McDonald, grace the front and back covers respectively. “How God Sees” is my contribution to Convergence: Poems for Peace, set with other poems from that project for voice, choir, and orchestra by Peter Skoggard and Gwen Swick in War and Peace (2007). A 5-part cantata for soprano, choir, and orchestra, Uncommon Prayers (2008), includes “Prayer for a Morning” set by John Armstrong, pemiered on Ottawa this April
for a morning
not yet frayed
for every mourning
that wakes to ease
in the breathing chest
warmth of joints
taste of rest
that wakes to the sky
How God sees
Look out from top the of the Gatineau Hills, lean over the stone wall at the Parkway’s edge and cover the whole expanse of glittering green in one wide sweep, know, without tracking it, how the river bends, twists through fields that lie like pillows on their limestone bed, how roads stitch between.
One glance, it’s all there.
And then, pick a leaf from the ivy on the wall, cup it in your fingers, trace the fine veins, bend closer, see
The whole wide valley focus in a green beam along a slender rib –
ray out to the rim
“Out of the sleeping body dreams erupt” for bpNichol, title from Book 5 of The Martyrology
And with this handful of dozing words years later, adrift on Lac Vert, lac reve where first your rhythms reached me I feel tonight your ghost slip kindly into mine shrug me on like a coat hands reach into my sleeves sheath fingers like gloves I lean back into your hold as with a windy, companionable sigh you slip my face like a mask over your own damp dome root your sweaty blond halo in among my brown crinkle my eyes with your grin wriggle my hips on this creaky wooden chair settle your mismatched loins into my creases jerk out arms and legs with a muscular joyful stretch snap joints into place tap toes to your tune For one green beat I hear your music, with my ears
You prepare a feast of bitter bread, of acid wine and rancid flesh, then sit me down. Now eat, you hiss, Eat well of the wrongs that you did to me, now chomp these chunks, now stuff them in!
I will, I say, but not alone. Pull up a chair – it's not only I who must gorge till I'm sick, till the rank meal's done.
For in love, you must know, the meat of revenge is the vengeful's bone, the dregs of its wine the avenger's sop
And the bread that is thrust on the one who has erred in matters of love, must always be shared.
Choke for Eric McMaster
Sitting here in the driver’s seat with still your library card, insurance forms, bills, underneath the dash, cracked seat cracking even more every day, I want to explain –
Your widow gave the car to your son, but he had legs too long to cram behind the wheel, passed it on to me, with the choke you worried about as you lay in your hospital bed, unwilling to let us drive, afraid we wouldn’t know how to handle it right
As I, lending it now, to your grandchildren, worry too, push the choke back in when they return with it still out and flooding the motor in a mixture too rich and billowing beyond the tidy confines of the metal hood.
All your life, you woke up choking, dreaming of an umbrella shoved down your throat, a strange uneasy symbol – for what? – you never said, and no-one’s asked your wife – choking herself at unexpected moments still on the waste of your loss, on billows of smoke staining fingers, teeth, lungs, coating the windshield with a greasy film.
“Buy a hundred umbrellas for a dollar,” you used to say, “sell them for two.” And “This car has to last me till the day I die.”
I’ve emptied the ashtray, try once in a while to tidy the rest, still guard your packages of tools, plugs, fan belt, wires to jump the charge from your car to your son’s when the mercury falls below the damp bite of your childhood home on the Devon coast, where the fog billowed in so bitter and chill in your memories and tales you could never quite believe in a cold worse than that, an inland cold, harsh enough to freeze wheels solid in their ruts, kill any engine’s spark.
At the end, you saw butterflies fluttering in the walls, butterflies, and your face when the movement left it, yellow, carved, hair a white halo on an anti-religious skull. Agnostic to the last, you left no messages, made no pleas, tolerated us there as you always had, let us continue each in turn to hold your hand, to sit beside you, no way to convey what you saw through the haze, what final faint sounds you heard as the mechanism seized – coughed – stopped.
Now I voyage back and forth on my own small circuits, follow the instructions in the manual you thumbed, tune and fuel the engine according to your schedule, rearrange the tools, leaf your maps in with mine, hold and release the choke by the sound of a motor I know nothing about.
Hearing your voice. Hoping I’m doing it right. Hoping it’s what you wanted. Holding, and releasing, like your hand, at the end.
When they leave, the lake sharpens, clears as if we’d turned the lens on your father’s binoculars, hills step closer, water flashes in our faces and we lie back, stare sleepily at loons, the other shore. “Alone at last,” you say, tipping your hat over your eyes, but together at last is how it feels, gathered into the bay with the rocks and the pines and crows crak-crakking much louder it seems than minutes before when we called Goodbye, goodbye to weekend friends.
Now we doze on the beach, absorbed under a comforter of hazy clouds, lulled by the whoosh and buzz of fly and wind. Through half-closed lids you swing closer, recede into the burn of sun from sand forward and back forward and back with the loolooloo of waves
I surge, retreat, fall into dream, matching your dance with my own sleepy drift alone together at last and all one
Requiem for organ music for bp Nichol
beep! dye me right through with your bumptious words spindle in through my ears fill my throat heat and swingle up through my souls with your willing absurds seep out from my loins organs dance to your tunes body note cells eat syls and labials hair net and twine and catch beep juices (hhhh-arts breadth) O rend- er me able to breathe (your death)
The pleasure of lusting
– after you is to stroke, with my finger, the hollow beside your eye so lightly you only shift and turn in your sleep – hmm – a small, satisfied sound, and your arm drops across me in sleepy caress, and fits – under its weight, the arch leaves my back, I become soft as the sheet, waver down your snores
– or to lie, blanket to chin while you warm last night’s coffee, lie with one knee turned out, fingers idling casual as the stroke for the cat who sometimes rumbles beside us as we toss, feeling everything become supple, fluid, rounded, a watery terrain
– and then to pull you down to me, turn with one motion from back to front, close my hands around your ankles, close the triangle as you rock me from below, as we climb a long, slow wave to the top, glide down
– what pleasure, then to drift into dream of rocking together up wave after wave, or wake, cup palm around your shoulder while you doze beside me, watching
– two small, sleek blackbirds in the tree outside the window whistle and preen –
roll again over you
The only seat with a hole in it, you name me throne for my power: built before the cabin’s begun, home to spiders and wasps and shadowy bears in the night, the one call no-one can ever refuse, no matter how late or dark. All manner of daytime cover-ups are exposed on my redolent heap, many an indulgence paid for. Oh you wriggle and squirm at the thought of my eye cocked at your bottom side. But in my way, I’m discreet. Dirt and disease are quickly cooked by my rich bacterial tribe, into a useful soup. And the trees grow a little taller, the jack-in-the-pulpit thrives.
So deny me if you want to. Set me back in the shadows, grimace when you lift my lid.
But remember, along with philosophy and politics and poetry, you live to service me. Mine is the lasting treasure of all your bright songs and fine lies.
The Naming for Aven
I walked through mountains once, in my sleep there were avens everywhere springing from grit and shale a kestrel wheeling a pica’s whistle and so far I could hardly hear it a horned lark’s cry
Or was it you calling out with the high, wild wind calling out your name spiralling mare’s tails across the thin sky rustling the low stars clustered at my feet Surely it was you in the white rush of water cascading in a blue tumult towards me from the peaks
exultant over stone
The function of prayer
Thunder, and the wind at my back from a storm that passes by the granite shelf dropped by ancient ice on an unnamed hummock in the river’s long drench maybe also for this – to cup our fire of pine cones and bark, form a ledge for the tea of sweetgale simmering in a blue tin pot, hold us steady against the lap of black and pewter waves that glint at our feet.
Too much to demand, even on our knees. pause – receive –
all is blue
from Until the Light Bends (Black Moss, 2004)
This book plus CD (Pendas, 2004) shortlisted for the 2005 Archibald Lampman Award and the Ottawa Book Award. I performed a number of poems from this and previous books at the National Arts Centre Fourth Stage in 2004 with Geode Music & Poetry, notably the 25-minute, 14-poem opus “Ordinary” with music composed by David Broscoe, extracted below. Among other poems found in this issue of Ygdrasil were “Ice” with music by Mark Molnar, “Still Enough” with music by John Higney, and “How God Sees” (above) and “Door” with music by Alrick Huebener. I remember the performance as one of the most intense, emotional ones I’ve ever done. The cover photo of the book and CD, by Marty Gervais, is an unretouched shot from inside the glass of the Canada Council building on Albert Street.
Where the river sluices under a sheen of ice come way too soon – what I still can’t bear knocks me out the door, to the river’s brink. Orange lamps from the opposite shore bar the black. Moonlight cuts. Far below, water hisses.
Take one step forward – pillars rise – shafts of mist on the water’s spine.
One step back – they drop – no more than cracks in ice.
Forward – back – forward – listen – who whispers there? (too late too soon) moonlight shifts (almost lips almost arms)
I step back turn.
Glitter breaks beneath my feet.
Hearts of Palms
Her palms are hungry. Oh, other parts too, but in the night, now he’s gone, and even the cat finds elsewhere to sleep, it’s her palms that ache for the feel of his shoulder, right there in the centre of her hand, where the bones come together, pillow, spark at a careless touch. The heart she calls it, much more real to her than the erratic muscle that lodges over her stomach, stutters when she climbs the stairs too fast, burns and knocks, a complaining roomer always ready to whine.
In the rain-pattered night she rubs palms against the sheet – his hip – his shoulder – how they fit as he rolls onto his side, as she smooths her hand down a muscled arm, slips it over his chest, circles, presses till the nipple hardens, tucks knees against thighs, silky fur rubbing as she strokes further down, strokes the curl of hair under the slow ribs, down the feathered belly, cups a soft rise.
In the flat, empty bed, she covers her mouth, brings a tongue into that crease.
Cups her heart. Licks it dry.
Still Enough for Ian
And yet, returning in the night
is still enough. I climb down
from the plane into his soft
quiet, waves of talk drawing
us into the shore, our skin
lit like shadows of swimmers
returning across sand into
evening, his face before
bed a gleam drawing me
into the dark soft sough
of his breathing to rock
against the surf of spare
nighttime traffic, rock the stars
warm as tealights, blow shadows
through night into morning, soft
sighs returning on the surf
of the dawn as we rock into
light, still, then, returning
is yet, still, enough,
When friends walk away too soon, you’re left in the draft from the November night blowing past where they forgot to stand in the doorway, in their coats and woolly hats, saying one last thing and one last thing more, while you shivered and laughed, maybe wished they would go, because even in their shelter the wind blows cold where you stand to see them off, lean against the jamb in shirt and sock feet, rub elbows, clutch arms, but, even as they turn away at last, you yourself add just one more word, one more twist to the tale you can none of you seem to let end – Wait – press a bag into their hands – for the long drive home, for lunch tomorrow – till finally they say they really must – and you wait while the car backs down the lane, rounds the corner, before you flick off the lights, lock the door, climb the stairs. There’ll be a mess in the morning, proof you all let go, partying so well, talking so loudly, it was hard to wind down till you stood at the door shivering and buzzing with spirits and words.
When a friend leaves too soon, the draft blows in.
The next poem is voiced for either a single speaker/signer, which is how I do it, or for a speaker and a sign-language interpreter (ASL). The words are on the left, the signs on the right; everything on one line is performed together (thus “See” is said with the sign for “c”). The first four silent, signed words are directed to each quarter of the audience in turn, and the last two lines are signed with both hands. This poem also exists in a visual gesture-language version, and in three wordmusic variations by Andrew McClure.
Courage / Cœur de rage for Betty
courage courage courage courage
See our age. c – our age See our age
Our age – ou rage. hour storm
Our care – core – cure. centre cure
Curse! Orage! curse orage curse orage
If oh you are gone – o – you – r not o – you – r not
what our-less cage. our not cage
Bring back are – r
what arc, grace. arc grace arc grace
How to choose among so many? how
Seize the page. grasp book
All lines are self-limned.
Courage – cœur de rage
Heart’s rage! hearts rage
The following seven poems are extracted from the 14-section series “Ordinary”. Each poem except the first repeats the first two lines of the previous one as its lines three and four – an adaptation of the pantoum.
... ordinary – is it? as bread or the taste of water it is? as the sky shifting blue to grey to fevered red is silk sheets, a satin coat, a barge gold with bloom, she should have it for her decline, not this tangled bed damp with her smell, its only flowers pilled on the sheets, it is pill bottles by her side, an over- stuffed locker – far too tight it is to enfold
her how she danced it spangles jet she swung is silk The ceiling lowers.
On the bedside table is a glass of tepid milk – ordinary ... is it ... it shines.
It is careless – how we bear riches – ... ordinary – is it? as bread my brisk ride home through leaves of gold, green, to the family table – it is rich with chicken, tomatoes, juice in a jug – How Can I Keep from Singing? it, the tune we careless children learned – how can I do otherwise than carry her, too, through it daily, my riches, carry her care- fully as a cracking bowl, keep her with me, warm her with my heat, feel for her how the ruffled cat pats my arm for a rub, hot air rushes from a baseboard vent, the window jewels crocuses, purple, blue on rags of snow –
Pass it all to her. Ease it through her pearl shell of restless pain. Pour it streaming in –
like water warming earth – which I cannot do. I cannot do.
Confronting it straight this sunny afternoon, it is pear worm it is death date fingers scaled with dirt from under the hedge. I pull out old plastic and brittle Styrofoam. Under the scraggle, periwinkle glints. Blackbirds whistle though the river floods and ice-broken branches cover the bank. This spring my task is to face it – yet another friend – far too soon. is it? your task?
Thistle, plantain, these I know, lamb’s ear, ragweed, rough-leaved rose, seeds dropped by a thrush or squirrel –
What use – all those years of conversations shared – if words fail now? ordinary – is it ...
I dredge through sun on bits of snow, trying to clear it, all day all day free a patch of order in the scatter of gravel, litter, roots – Is there a way to green it this black?
A hundred shoots push through earth, as yet unnamed. The few weeds I know yield to my pull.
She lies so still I can hardly tell if she’s here or gone why is it, when it strikes so many, do I still stand but for the morphine rasp of her breath. “No!” she shouts, “No!” and rattles in her tubes, her punctured hand searching blind for the sheet to rub it, to rub
it – she opens her eyes – it is claw thud it is a baffled fog.
“The button,” she croaks around the tube in her throat. I move too fast, hit the bed, knock it, jar the needle, pump the drug, pump it, pump it in. “It’s okay now,” she whispers, “It’s okay.”
I don’t think about it then, don’t listen to my shallow breaths, let my heart speed up.
Walk everywhere stiffly and carefully in my box. it is careless how we bear –
But when it is over, when she smiles, sits up in bed, figures out how to dial the phone one-handed – That’s when it shakes me. That’s when I hear it – what the doctors don’t say, the un- forgotten names of others who slipped out of their hands – wide-eyed, struggling, falling into weeds.
I brace against the wall. Try to smile back.
It is one of the other days, the ones when she lies so still I can hardly tell if she’s here or gone I just want to forget it, when a nap on the couch seems all I can handle, when an unpaid bill feels more urgent than it is. Oh god, not the phone! I slap down my book, rise only because I can’t bear to think I’ll miss it – the last words – “hold me up, make me whole” – words she never says at all. “Is it a good time to call? How are you today?” Her voice. It’s light.
We can only endure it. The dread, the sweats, terror of it can’t last every minute of the day as it shrinks off flesh. Endure the watch. Brace the walls as a last stray beam gilds her bed.
It is too late. There’s no time left for rage or fear. The doctor arrives. I straighten the sheet, remove the untouched milk, the tray. Close the door. Walk through jet
spangled with stars to the river’s edge.
Following is an “instant poem” written for an internet anthology put together in two weeks by Todd Swift just before the US declaration of war on Iraq in 2003. Entitled 100 Poets against the War,and suggested, he told me, by my project Convergence: Poems for Peace, tens of thousands of people worldwide downloaded it. I read this poem at the protest on Parliament Hill the day war was declared.
Against the War
Against the war I’ll refuse to be insulted today. Against the war I’ll smile at my neighbour till he smiles back, Against the war, I’ll recite this poem on Parliament Hill, drive my car not at all, gossip over tea, play Für Elise badly. Against the war I’ll take a break from doing bills to watch the squirrels play on the wires outside my window, sign up for Italian classes, listen closely to a child, joke about the cold with the newly arrived PhD who sweeps my office floor. Against the war I’ll laugh at Bush’s foot-in-mouth, make love all afternoon, send clothes to St. Vincent de Paul, learn to spell Qur’an, phone my daughter, light a fire and turn the furnace off, shovel the walk for the mail, clean up after our old cat – Leave the door unlocked.
The next poem placed in the 2006 “Being at Work Poetry Challenge” judged by poets Tom Wayman, Maureen Hynes, and Susan Eisenberg, and by unionists “Buzz” Hargrove (Canadian Autoworkers), Ken Neumann (United Steelworkers), and Dave Coles (Communication, Energy & Paperworkers). I’m proud it was chosen by such a panel. The poem appeared in the Minnesota Review (#68). It’s from the manuscript-in-progress “This Strike to Me Is Sky”.
At Midnight Talks Fail
And here we are: herded into a ragged string burdened with signs, wrapped in scarves against sunrise cold. They chivvy at our heels, bark us into motion – colleagues, familiar from a morning hello, are suddenly strange, imbued with command. I thought they were sheep like the rest of us shufflers, but, heated by conflict, they’ve shrugged off wool, become dogs or mules who snap at intruders, nip us into strength.
And we, are we still sheep for the shearing? I glance at the tower where I stabled for so long, at the stall where I nosed and snuffled for hours clocked by the tick in a well-lit box. Beside me, my fellows lift their heads to scan the horizon, breathe the air. Cut off from feed, barred from warmth, we’ve pulled on coats over shorn shoulders, jumped the fence. Here, on the loose, the sky is our cover, legs our heat.
The wind grabs my sign.
I leap to hold on, leap like a goat kicking its heels
at the arc of the sun.
The seventh annual CBC Poetry Face-Off just concluded for 2008; this is the poem I wrote for the first one, in 2002, which had the theme “Love in Ottawa.” It’s meant to be read out loud with lots of hamming it up, preferably with a cheesy jazz combo grooving in the background and a sax that squawks and moans at the appropriate spots. The poem is hardly a marvel of elegance or technique – but it sure was fun to do!
Ottawa in Love
Roundy and humpbacked,
sweaty and slick,
finagling sweet talker
keeps swinging me back
to your apaloosa arms,
your snub-nosed burrower,
musk furry croon.
Ah sex, ah love –
We’re bouncing and eagled,
flying prone high –
Ah, lovely, shared,
Just down from the Gatineaus, lake-warmed by summer, riding on a little post-coital bliss, we decide to wander the silvery streets romantically entwined, skip to the carillons of a capital town.
So you pull on your cargoes and I don — well not silk — that’s too Montreal. Leggings will doand a mildly wild Kaliyana print. Then arm-in-arm we set out, just artsy enough, in an Ottawa kind of way, to stroll down the Canal, lamp-pooled, willow-leafed, with Tulip-time assurance, cruise the Market rues under a double-faced moon, two lazy lovers safely soignés.
Then down to the Café where cranberry sherbert slips down cool after cedared-caribou and a glass of VQA. Oh, the NAC has a knack for pleasing maple-bushed lovers pining for a paddle-full of pink-lit solage. A toi — Mon cheri! So terrifically sophistiqués as we disco across Confusion Square to toast our Birken-toes at the eternally gassy flame.
And Sunday slips away into a humidex August night, as back between bland sheets, fingers lightly crossed (too hot for anything more) in our riverside huis clos, we dream ourselves into . . .
An Ottawa Day! A 20-minute jog and weights at the RA, then back to well-pressed shirts, the brief-case, where’s my lunch?, put out the recycling, can I take the car today? Buzz and whirr, clack and chat, zap those emails, stack that stack of memos, papers, faxes, calls, timely, urgent, zip those halls on ball-bearing toes, files tagged and ready, ADM’s briefing notes, press-scrum heady, seven already? Gawd, gotta go, quick pick-ups to make, at the cleaners, the bank machine, stop by Pretoria for the LCBO, back to slogging on the laptop to the tune of “West Wing”, then a tray of Loblaws sushi and a slug of Pelee white, before...
Worn to the nub, we turn the heat-exchanger down another notch, drop onto the duvet, for...
Ah – sex? After an Ottawa Day?
Oh dear, sex – Ottawa-style.
sweaty-palmed slick-talker – and talker, and talker –
keeps memo-ing me back
to your Apa-Loose promises,
your snob-nosy bureaucracy,
your must-file cocoon...
Ah, romantical intertwinations!
Ah, even-in-Ottawa sometimes –
Though we’re bounded by the Eagle,
taxed Air Miles high –
Surely there’s lovely love,
Somewhere in Ottawa, love,
Ah, where to find bilingual intercourse?
(I would but something’s wrong with the air-conditioner, it’s too damned hot,
where’s my laptop, the meeting’s at ten and I still have to revise those
briefing notes, I know it’s 3 in the morning)
Oh, we’re lost in Ottawa, love!
The last poem is itself about endings, from the manuscript-in-progress “Along Crossing Arcs”.
You take off your boots. Coat still buttoned, turn from the hall into the apartment you left a week before. One final trip to pick up a few things for the retirement home. You step through the arch into the living room. Your hands come together. Close around each other as if against cold. The couch is gone. Your lamp. Your chair. The floor a mess of movers’ boots. One curtain askew. A few more steps. You come to a stop. I place my hands over yours. They’re warm. I’m surprised. You bend your head into my shoulder and I put my arms around you. Your hands, still between us, hold onto something no one can hold.
University of Toronto Library: http://www.library.utoronto.ca/canpoetry/mcmaster League of Canadian Poets: http://www.poets.ca/linktext/direct/mcmaster.htm Writers’ Union of Canada: http://www.writersunion.ca Author’s home page: http://web.ncf.ca/smcmaster
Ottawa poet Susan McMaster is the author of some sixteen books, scores, and recordings; an editor of anthologies, books, and magazines; and the creator and performer of music-and-poetry works with First Draft and Geode Music & Poetry (a.k.a. SugarBeat). Her book and CD Until the Light Bends was shortlisted for the 2005 Ottawa Book Award and the Lampman Poetry Prize. She has performed across Canada, and her work has been broadcast nationally on such shows as WordBeat, Go!, Richardson’s Roundup, As It Happens, and Morningside, and on Ottawa shows like All in a Day, Literary Landscape, and Rockburn and Company. McMaster toured Italy in 2002 and 2004, presenting poetry and jazz readings at international poetry festivals in Napoli and Salerno as well as in Rome and Siena. Other projects include founding the national feminist and arts magazine Branching Out; and writing poetry scripts for the Great Canadian Theatre Company, the National Arts Centre Atelier, and “Poetry in the Park”. Her millennial project, “Convergence: Poems for Peace”, brought poetry and art from across the country to all Parliamentarians in 2001, as documented in Waging Peace (Penumbra, 2002). McMaster’s poetry has inspired works by artists and composers in Canada and abroad. Her recent memoir of her life as a poet, The Gargoyle’s Left Ear: Writing in Ottawa (Black Moss, 2007), recounts many of these stories. April 2008
Publications The Gargoyle’s Left Ear: Writing in Ottawa (Black Moss, 2007, Settlements Series #6) Until the Light Bends (Black Moss, 2004, cover photo Mary Gervais) Uncommon Prayer: A Book of Dedications (Quarry, 1997, cover art Pat Durr) Learning to Ride (Quarry, 1994, cover art, 28 plates by Robert Verrall) The Hummingbird Murders (Quarry, 1992) Dark Galaxies (Ouroboros, 1986, cover art Roberta Huebener) North South (Underwhich, 1986: w. Andrew McClure, composer, Colin Morton, poet, calligraphy and book design Roberta Huebener, cover art Susan Feindel) Pass this way again (Underwhich, 1983: w. Andrew McClure, composer and calligrapher; book design, cover art, 20 plates by Claude Dupuis)
Recordings and Scores
Wordmusic: 1981 First Draft 2007 (2007, w. David Broscoe, Jennifer Giles, Jamie Gullikson, Alrick Huebener, Penn Kemp, Rory Magill, Max Middle, Colin Morton, Linsey Wellman, prod. James Stephens) Until the Light Bends (Pendas Productions/Geode, 2004, w. Giles, Huebener, Broscoe, Gullikson, John Higney, Mark Molnar, prod. Stephens) Susan McMaster: The Lac Vert Interview (video recording, interview, prod. by Huebener, 2003) GEODE Music & Poetry (Geode, 1999, w. Giles, Huebener, Michael Essoudry, Petr Cancura, prod. Stephens) SugarBeat Music & Poetry (SugarBeat, 1998, with Giles, Huebener, prods. Chris Pye, Ken Kanwisher) Dangerous Times (SugarBeat, 1996, with Giles, Huebener, Gavin McLintock) A Vibora Gosta do Vento (speaker and ’cello, comp. McClure, First Draft Scores, 1990, cover art, design by Claive Booker) Pass this way again (soprano, speaker, ’cello, spoken chorus, comp. McClure, First Draft Scores, 1990, cover art, design by Claive) Wordmusic (First Draft, 1986, w. Andrew McClure, Morton)
Translation La Deriva del Pianeta / World Shift (transl./ed. Ada Donati, cover Marcello Spada, illust. Lanfranco Lanari, Schifanoia, Italy 2003)
Literary Editor Waging Peace: Poetry and Political Action (ed., book design Marie Tappin, cover art Betty Page, Penumbra, 2002) Convergence: Poems for Peace (ed. of spoken word anthology recording, prod. John Magyar, LCP, 2002) Convergence: Poets for Peace (organizer, 35 sets, 2500 poems with art, LCP, 2001) Siolence: Poets on Violence and Silence (ed., Living Archives Series, Quarry, 1998) Bookware: Ottawa Valley Poets (co-ed. w. Colin Morton, LCP, 1994) Women and Violence (ed., Living Archives Series, LCP, 1993, Quarry 1997) Two Women Talking: Erin Mouré & Bronwen Wallace, Correspondence 1985–87 (Living Archives Series, LCP, 1993) Illegitimate Positions: Women & Language (Living Archives Series, LCP, 1992) Dangerous Graces: Women’s Poetry on Stage (ed., Balmuir, 1987) Branching Out Magazine (founding editor, 1973–75, contrib. 1975–80) Anthologies and Anthology Recordings Common Magic: The Book of the New (eds. Elizabeth Greene, Danielle Gugler, Artful Codger, 2008) > 2: An Anthology of New Collaborative Poetry (eds. Sheila E. Murphy, M.L. Weber, Sugar Mule, 2007) White Ink: Poems on Mothers and Motherhood (ed. Rishma Dunlop, Demeter, 2007) radiant danse uv being: a poetic portrait of bill bissett – a blewointment book (eds. Jeff Pew, Stephen Roxborough, Nightwood, 2006) Soundings: An Anthology of the Ottawa Poetry Group 1973–2002 (eds. Christopher Levenson, Brian Cameron, BuschekBooks, 2005) Re:Generations, Canadian Women Poets in Conversation (eds. Di Brandt, B. Godard, Black Moss, 2005) Twenty-five Years of Tree (eds. James Moran, Jennifer Mulligan, BuschekBooks, 2005) 100 Poets against the War (ed. Todd Swift, Salt Publishing, 2003) Two Lips, by Penn Kemp (Pendas Productions, audio recording, collaboration on selected pieces, 2003) Mentor’s Canon: poems about / for / after writers (ed. Kemeny Babineau, Broken Jaw, 2001) Line by Line (ed. Heather Spears, 2000) Imprints and Casualties: Poets on Women and Language, Reinventing Memory, (ed. Anne Burke, Broken Jaw Press, 2000) Feminism and the Language of Love (ed. Maria Jacobs, Living Archives, LCP, 2000) Tender Lions (w. Penn Kemp, Alrick Huebener, music, Collage Music, 1999) Carnivocal (Red Deer Press, audio recording, sound poetry anthology, 1999) Crossing Boundaries: Women’s Poetry on Sport (HKCanada, 1999) A Room at the Heart of Things (ed. Elizabeth Harvor, Véhicule, 1998) Nothing but Blue Skies (Blue Skies Music Festival, 1998) Poets in the Classroom (ed. Betsy Struthers, Pembroke, 1995) Vintage ‘93 (Quarry/LCP, 1994) Women and Violence, (ed. Sarah Klassen, Living Archives, LCP, 1993) The Windhorse Reader (Windhorse, 1992) Celebrating Canadian Women (ed. Greta Hofmann Nemiroff, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1989) A Labour of Love: An Anthology of Poetry on Pregnancy and Childbirth (ed. Mona Fertig, 1989) Capital Poets: An Ottawa Anthology (ed. Colin Morton, Ouroboros, 1989) Passions & Poisons: New Canadian Prose, Poetry & Plays (Nu-Age Editions, 1987) Bridging Language (audio recording, Musicworks 38, 1986) Full Moon: An Anthology of Women Poets (eds. Janice LaDuke, Steve Luxton, Quadrant, 1983) A Verse to Sound (audio recording, vocal performer w. First Draft author Morton, CKCU, E.L.S.S., 198?)
First Draft, SugarBeat, and GEODE Music & Poetry
Along with Andrew McClure and Colin Morton and the intermedia group First Draft, of which she was a founding member, McMaster composed wordmusic and participated in dozens of performances and broadcasts in Ottawa, Toronto, and a cross-Canada tour (1983), between 1981 and 1991 (e.g., Banff Centre, Morningside, National Arts Centre “Music Ottawa” series, A-Space, Saw Gallery, Axle-Tree), and recorded Wordmusic in 1986. In 1996 she joined with Alrick Huebener (bass), Jennifer Giles (keyboards), and Gavin McLintock (saxophone) in SugarBeat Music & Poetry, later renamed Geode Music & Poetry with Huebener and Giles. Since then, Geode has performed some 50 times, on radio and television (Richardson’s Roundup, WordBeat, Artscape, etc.) and at music festivals, series, concert halls, and clubs in Ottawa and beyond (Word on the Street, Elora, Blue Skies, Kingston Jazz Fringe, Poetry in the Park, Ottawa Folk Festival, National Arts Centre, etc.). Recordings in 1996, 1998 led to Canada Council support for a third in 1999, followed by a fourth in 2004. A re-issue of the First Draft recording Wordmusic, plus new works, was issued on 12 November 2007 to commemorate the anniversary, exactly 26 years to the day, of the original First Draft performance at the main branch of the Ottawa Public Library.
Theatre Productions “The Pleasure of Lusting” poetry and music script, w. SugarBeat and Colin Morton, for “Poetry in the Park,” Strathcona Park, 1998. Dangerous Graces: Women’s Poetry on Stage, director Jennifer Boyes-Manseau, workshopped by actors at Fireworks festival, 1987, Great Canadian Theatre Company, w. composer A. McClure. Dark Galaxies wordmusic script, workshopped by actors, Page to Stage Festival, National Arts Centre Atelier, w. composer Andrew McClure.
Poems Set to Music (excluding Geode, SugarBeat, First Draft) Uncommon Prayers (cantata for 3 choirs, University of Ottawa Orchestra, soprano Chantal Cole, 4 April 2008, composer John Armstrong) “How God Sees”, poem 22/22 in War and Peace, Elora Centre for the Arts, and Guelph Youth Music Centre, Stratford (cantata for soprano, tenor, trumpet, accordion, choir, 11 November 2006, composer Peter Skoggard in collab. w. Gwen Swick) “Adagio for New York”, Kamloops BC (song for choir, 2002, composer Art Lewis) “An Ode in Eh” (collaboration on jazz song, 2002, composer Anna Williams, not performed) Cantata Singers, “O God”, commissioned (song cycle for choir, 2000, composer John Armstrong) Rakestar (jazz, 1999–present, composer Michael Essoudry) Ottawa Jazz Festival 1998 (contemporary, composer Jennifer Giles) Girigonza, “False Spring”, commissioned (song cycle for soprano and chamber group, 1998, 1999, contemporary, composer John Armstrong) Ottawa Jazz Camp, Ottawa, “Clover Beast” (jazz song, 1997, composer Susan McMaster, performed by Julie McDonald) Time Crush (jazz, 1990s, composer Jennifer Giles) Open Score, First Draft works (1980s–90s, contemporary, composers Andrew McClure, David Parsons, Colin Morotn, Susan McMaster) Exposure (1990s, contemporary, composers McClure, Parsons. Morton, McMaster) Earlick Festival, “Science Songs”, song cycle (1985, jazz, composer McClure) Wild Culture (jazz, 1980s, composer McClure) Easy Street Productions, “Good God, What a Night That Was!”, “All is blue” (1997-98, song, composer Quinn Redekop) Carleton University, various performers and concerts (1980s, contemporary, composer McClure) University of Ottawa, various (contemporary, 1980s and 1990s, composer Andrew McClure)
Art Collaborations Mary Tougas: Series of 9 acrylic paintings on various poems, including “Dark Galaxies”, 2001. Betty Page: Convergence: Poets for Peace, 2001, 2000 original acrylic paintings on paper, for use as poemwraps, and art director of the project. Roberta Huebener: drawings and paintings incorporating poems: Plain View: Erat, 2005, series of paintings, in progress. How God Sees, 2004, painting incorporating poem. Adagio: Slow waves drop sleep, 2001, poems for 3 paintings for 911. Convergence: Poets for Peace, 2001, design for poemwraps. Rush Wildly, 1997, collage (brush lettering w. gouache, gold-leaf on paste paper, coloured pencil). The Lid Before It Lifts, 1990?, watercolour (w. cut paper, rubber stamps, ink). Dream Song, Illuminations 1–4, 1985, 4 drawings (graphite, coloured pencil, gold and silver pen). Behind me... , Illumination 5, 1985, drawing (graphite, gold pen). Robert Verrall: Learning to Ride, 1992, 28 scratchboard drawings to accompany poems. Julie Macdonald: How Dandelions Prey, 1996, drawing (coloured pencil) illustrating the poem. Pat Durr: Reason Breaking Free, 1991, collage monoprint named after the poem. Claude Dupuis: Pass this way again, 1983, 20 graphite illustrations for the book.
Awards and Grants Ottawa Book Award for Best Fiction or Poetry, shortlist (2004–05) Archibald Lampman Poetry Prize, shortlist (1992, 2005) Les Prix Golden Cherry Award, Best Ottawa Poet nominee (2004) CBC First Poetry Face-Off, Ottawa contestant (2002) Best Poet in Ottawa, SAW Gallery Apple Awards, shortlist (2003) Jane Jordan Poetry Awards, HM (1994), 2nd (1996), 3rd (1998) Canadian Author’s Association, Ottawa, Poetry, HM (1994) League of Canadian Poets National Poetry Contest Anthology (1993) The Windhorse Reader “Best Canadian Poems of the Year” (1992) Canadian Author’s Association National Poetry Award, shortlist (1992) CBC National Literary Contest (Poetry), shortlist (1988, 1991) Ontario Arts Council Writer’s Reserve (1982, 1985, 1992, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008) Canada Council: Explorations (1983); B grant (1985); Music/Poetry CD (1999); travel grants to Napolipoésia, Italy (2002), Salernopoésia (2004), Performance Poetry (2005) Regional Municipality writer’s support grants (1990, 2003, 2005) Writers’ Trust Retreat bursary (1985)
All poems and related texts in this issue copyright © Susan McMaster, Ottawa 2008; all images © the photographers (photos 1 and 13 Alrick Huebener, 2 and 11 Ian McMaster, 3 Roberta Huebener, 8 The Citizen 2001, 9 Mary Lee Bragg, 10 David Broscoe) . Any reproduction of this material without express written permission is prohibited. * YGDRASIL: A Journal of the Poetic Arts - Copyright (c) 1993 - 2008 by Klaus J. Gerken. The official version of this magazine is available on Ygdrasil's World-Wide Web site http://users.synapse.net/kgerken. No other version shall be deemed "authorized" unless downloaded from there. Distribution is allowed and encouraged as long as the issue is unchanged. COMMENTS & SUBMISSIONS * Klaus Gerken, Chief Editor - for general messages and ASCII text submissions: firstname.lastname@example.org