vietnamese girl

If This Is Your Final Destination, Welcome Home

If This Is Your Final Destination, Welcome Home.

Always the smell of tiger balm
takes me back to Kuala Lumpur in 1980,
the sweltering airstrips,
the sea of expectant upturned faces
of the refugees waiting en masse
at the bottom of the airplane stairs,
on their way to Canada
and to second unimaginable lives.

Plane load after plane load,
week after week, three years running,
we ferried them across oceans.
After days and sometimes weeks
in crowded buses
they waited to be next in line,
these survivors of Pol Pot and
his merciless Khmer Rouge,
these witnesses of unimaginable horror.

We delivered them to Gander, to Montreal
and to Toronto,
away from all they had known,
everything they owned in small tidy bundles
at their feet.
We chose our words carefully
for the interpreter,
Trying to prepare them in some small way
for what lay ahead.

Where do you begin?
How do you tell someone how cold feels?
We played them music
we wanted them to hear,
hits of the day, Blondie, REO Speedwagon,
handed out sandwiches and Pampers
and wet naps.

They in turn watched our every move,
accepted anything given to them,
suspiciously at first,
then with vigorously nodding heads,
pouring forth their thanks,
holding up their solemn, silent babies proudly
for us to hold.

When we dimmed  the cabin lights,
hearing their guarded whispers
to one another,
sharing late night confessions in the dark
high above the ocean,
these people for whom
no sadness had gone unknown.

It was boarding them I remember most.
Even when I urged them
up the aircraft stairs, off the blistering tarmac,
beckoned them toward me,
they held back, tentative,
and only when I descended the stairs
took the first of them by the hand,
would they dare take the first step
toward this wild and inconceivable freedom.

I see their faces clearly now and I ask:
Who among us could possibly measure
the courage we asked of them.

olive garden

At what cost?

I’ve been thinking about social media a great deal. It is an unequaled tool for writers, manna from heaven actually as a way to connect with readers, old and new. But at what cost, I wonder? In its formidable wake, what is it that we are relinquishing?  

Are we forsaking the art of conversation? The glorious handwritten letter that flutters through the mailbox? The relaxed, cozy, stop and chat????

Here is a poem that resulted from my musings:

 

Bowed in Prayer.

At the Olive Garden on a Friday night, on my own,

I have just ordered the Tour of Italy and

notice the family huddled into a booth across the way,

six of them, three each side,

their heads collectively bowed over a cornucopia of glowing electronic boxes,

their fingers tapping away at microscopic keys,

the light reaching up to their faces at speeds

impossible to imagine.

So enchanted is the group with the cavalcade of data

pouring forth beneath them that I count a full two minutes

before any of them notices the waitress,

standing waiting at the head of their table.

Shall I come back, she asks graciously,

exhibiting a patience far above her pay scale.

 

Yeh, the one nearest to her finally pipes up,

the closest he’ll come to a conversation all weekend, 

and he didn’t even lift his head to say it.

schoolhouse sepia

So It Begins

So It Begins.

If I’m looking for the seeds of
my intolerance of injustice
I need look no further
than a Grade Nine girls’ only Health class.

Sister St. Cletus calling us up to the front,
two or three at a time, those still seated
charged with critiquing, in turn,
on a scale of one to ten,
each of the girls’ personal grooming.

The plump unkempt Rosario
newly arrived from Sicily suffered most.
The bookish pale Margaret also paid dearly.

It wasn’t just that the exercise was callous, arbitrary.
It was its pitting girl against girl for reasons entirely inconsequential,
the time and sheer energy it exacted,
the pitiful tears shed privately after,
when those same girls
could have been banding together and begin to
change the world.
I asked my friend Chuck what the boys did.
Turns out their Health class was held outdoors.
They ran the city streets in all weather,
he said proudly,
in matching shorts and tees,
a pack, cohesive,
strong
and growing stronger.

strip mall4

The Sadness of Strip Malls

 

A long grey cloud gathers above their gloomy line of thinness

as above islands.

Slack-jawed proprietors grab smokes at the various doorways up and down

the scattershot collection of stores  

with their ill-advised names.

I Heart Clocks. Wok This Way.

Names that almost guarantee failure.

The 24-hour laundromat does a brisk business, the ongoing star of the show.

A pawn shop sits somewhere in the mix

where the lights are never on yet

the neon sign blinks Open Always,

missing the letter L.

Patrons shuffle back and forth across the pock-marked parking lot,

children trailing,

hopelessness on parade,

resignation their calling card,

and the long grey cloud above,

hovering.

 

track-2327611__340

Distance

A prose poem sparked by a mention of trains I came across this morning …
I remember hearing a train whistle in the distance the night my mother died. I was in her home that night, sleeping in the front room on the couch because for some reason I couldn’t bear the idea of going to bed. I was in the first stage of grief, the shell shock of it when you feel wrapped in thick layers of cotton wool, looking out from inside a bell jar. I lay there, sleepless, trying to distract myself by making a mental list of all that needed to be done the next day. Suddenly I heard it, ever so faintly.
We lived very close to train tracks when I was a child and this served as part of the soundtrack of my young life. The sound of that whistle unleashed such sorrow in me that I remember it well even now, 25 years later. it was then that I wept. Wept for losing my lovely mother too soon. Wept because I would never again hear her sweet Scots’ voice commanding the very best in me.
Wept. Because the sound echoed the emptiness I would now always feel with her gone.
urban-1087628__340

While sitting on a bench at the Brooklyn Promenade. 

The Galleons

Because I am reading Frank O’Hara
while sitting on a bench at the Brooklyn Promenade
 

I am aware it is 10:30 in New York
on a Tuesday morning

the way O’Hara was always aware
of what day and hour and season were in front of him

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
he wrote almost sixty years ago on a July moment

that must have been like the one I am having now
the summer hour blossoming

at the promenades by the rivers and in the parks
and in the quiet aisles of the city
 

when everyone who should be at work
is at work and the trees are meditating

on how muggy it will be today
and the fleets of strollers are out in the sunshine

expanse of the morning
the strollers that are like galleons

carrying their beautiful gold cargo
being pushed by women whose names once graced

the actual galleons Rosario
Margarita Magdalena along with other names

Essie Maja from places that history has patronized
like O’Hara going into the bank

for money or the bookstore to buy
an ugly
NEW WORLD WRITING to see what

the poets / in Ghana are doing these days
or the liquor store for liquor

or the tobacconist for tobacco
and sitting at the Brooklyn Promenade I haven’t looked

at the news to see who now has died
though my fingers keep touching the phone’s face

to find out that when it is 10:30 in the morning
in New York it is 11:30 in the night

in Manila and it is 4:30 in the afternoon in Lagos
and in Warsaw and it is 9:30

in the morning in Guatemala City
where it is also Tuesday and where it is also summer.

 

– Rick Barot

 

 

 

retro-731836__340

Me, Found

This would be a time capsule of me,

I’m talking me.

Not of the Western world circa 21st century

or even this particular zeitgeist extraordinaire.

 

To be unearthed in some distant space and time,

to disclose a definitive self-portrait

for the ones who follow.

 

I’d have to start with the coffee mug I drank from every morning for years

that reads Do No Harm But Take No Shit.

A box of Cheerios because I basically lived on them for 20 years.

My books of poetry, I know, predictable, but come on.

That is, if they still speak poetry.

Oh, and my drafts file on disk

if they still speak disk

because drafts sometimes speak louder than finished versions.

 

A vinyl 45 of I Want to be Bobby’s Girl protected by its original sturdy cardboard sleeve

to resurrect perfectly my teenaged longing skating on Saturday nights

inside freezing cold arenas praying underneath my breath

for someone to take my hand so we could go round together.

They’ll need my vintage Crossley Record Player too and can consider it my donation

to whatever brave new world they are in,

the inestimable value of which may, alas,

be entirely lost on them.

 

A black and white photo of me at six standing at the edge of a diving board

high above a crowded community swimming pool

because I felt the world was waiting for me then.

And it shows I wasn’t scared;

I wasn’t scared at all.

 

 

sheep

Why I love children

I love their whimsy, how they abandon themselves to fun and are able to find it in almost all things. And how they have not the slightest fear of judgment or disdain.

In Tongue years ago, way up in the northernmost reaches of Scotland I popped in to a local shop. While browsing I spotted a wee lassie there with her father, dressed up in her lovely kilt, a matching tartan tam perched at an angle on her head.

She was curious about me – and watched me, as children will do – her eyes following me around the shop.

Standing alongside her I pointed to a tiny toy sheep displayed on the shelf, which was dressed comically in a full perfect tuxedo.

I asked her, quietly: “Now what would a sheep be doing dressed in a tux?”

She thought about it and then announced, seriously:

“Maybe he’s goin’ tae a weddin’.”

church-cross

Reverence

I can’t step into a church without being reminded of Leo.
I see him, leaning heavily on his cane, waiting in the vestibule
to usher the parishioners to their seats,
his labored gait up the aisle, one leg stiff,
the shoulder of his Canadian Legion jacket strewn
with medals and ribbons.
In the stillness the rubber tip of his cane
squeaks loudly against the polished floor.

The star resident at her mother’s boarding-house,
my friend Linda said we should visit him.
He’d insisted,
and there had been toffees promised.
Restless and bored one spring day I relented,
followed Linda home and climbed the stairs lazily to Leo’s room.
Unlike the others his door was open.
There was Leo, lying on his bed, his cane alongside,
rest the only respite from his affliction.

Come in, close the door.
Feed my bird Charlie.
I worried then about telling my mother this.
But Leo wasn’t a stranger.
Everyone knew Leo.
Father Blackwell told us in catechism class
it was men like Leo who had kept us free.
The shabby room smelled of wet wool
from clothes drying on the radiator
and of Old Sail, his pipe tobacco.
A bowl of sweets beckoned by the bed.
Charlie was bustling about in his cage.
Sit beside Leo, honey.
A good Catholic girl, I did as the hero said.
The bristles of his beard stung my face,
his breath turned to a rasp.
I smelled something fetid on his breath.
When he released me
Charlie was singing,
still.