You need to know that I want
Unabashedly sentimental songs.
Think Van Morrison
In his earlier, less angry days and
Dylan, in his later, gentler ones.
An instrumental of Annie Laurie is a must,
As too Mark Knopfler,
Who so magically supplied the soundtrack
For my days here.
You’ll need really good food for after.
Excellent, piping hot coffee and brewed Orange Pekoe in china pots,
Kentucky Fried Chicken,
Pizzas made to order,
And a Build Your Own ice cream sundae station
To add the requisite whimsy.
Display a very few pictures of me,
Not huge Bristol boards packed full of them,
So popular these days.
Black and white predominating, if you will,
My unwavering preference.
Yes, my nod to tradition,
Scads of calla lilies, but white only,
The yellow look fake somehow,
Oh, a few off white roses, would you,
Champagne they call them now.
And in the middle of everything
Position one commanding vase of
Fat white peonies,
Because their fragrance, their sheer deliciousness
Outdistances all the others combined.
Everyone there ought to tell
One story about me that stands out for them,
And not just of sweetness and light.
The dark, too.
You all know
I was more than one shade.
A piper would be wonderful at the close,
Just one, as there was for my father,
A whole band of them he felt excessive
And I must agree.
Then let me go.
Knowing that most days
I cherished this life of mine
And that while briefly here,
Laughed probably more than most,
Loved a few of you beyond measure,
And with providence in my corner
Was able to write a few poems
I would not change one word of
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.
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,
and growing stronger.
The Trouble with Science.
If it’s true,
as grim neurologists now claim,
that our memory is far from intact,
that the very process by which we retrieve the past
is flawed, random, that it plays fast and loose with
fact, detail, even colour.
Then how exactly do I conjure
what was us.
If it’s all up for grabs,
if all bets are off,
what exactly was true?
The way you looked at me that evening on the boardwalk,
was it as tender as I picture it now?
And your kiss. As deeply felt?
Did you profess your love in three languages
or was it just two?
Before you round the corner do you actually
turn to look at me
one last time?
Are you in the blue shirt
or the red?
Are those actual tears?
But science falls short. It overlooks
the power of the human heart
which has a memory all its own,
where the moments of our lives never alter,
or grow old.
Where a look remains as tender
as when first it was delivered,
a heart quickens just as it once did.
Yearning ever as fervent,
passion as acute.
And in that special place
the moments worth remembering lie in wait for us,
undefiled by synapse
and the waywardness of time.
I was thinking about the sheer power of a poem this morning over my third coffee, watching the ebb and flow of the sea from my perch here in the main room. Ruminating on all that a fine poem can do, exactly what it can deliver to us. And this resulted.
I Am a Poem
I remember when you’ve long forgotten.
I return to you the details that still matter,
The ones that got lost along the way.
I tell your story.
My lines are your lines.
My words, entirely yours.
Exactly what it feels like to not be chosen.
That time you felt like giving up
And almost did.
Under a leaden sky one long ago winter morning
When he bid a cavalier goodbye.
Your saddest songs, your deepest regrets,
I hand them back to you, intact.
I resurrect them all.
I hold fast to the anguished moments you find
too painful to remember.
I speak the words you are afraid to say.
I lay them bare.
I am holding fast to them all.
I am ready when you are.
I am a poem.
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
First job. In tight black shorts
and a white bowling shirt, red lipstick
and bouncing ponytail, I present
each overflowing tray as if it were a banquet.
I’m sixteen and college-bound;
this job’s temporary as the summer sun,
but right now it’s the boundaries of my life.
After the first few nights of mixed orders
and missing cars, the work goes easily.
I take out the silver trays and hook them to the windows,
inhale the mingled smells of seared meat patties,
salty ketchup, rich sweet malteds.
The lure of grease drifts through the thick night air.
And it’s always summer at Patty’s Charcoal Drive-In—
carloads of blonde-and-tan girls
pull up next to red convertibles,
boys in black tee shirts and slick hair.
Everyone knows what they want.
And I wait on them, hoping for tips,
loose pieces of silver
flung carelessly as the stars.
Doo-wop music streams from the jukebox,
and each night repeats itself,
faithful as a steady date.
Towards 10 p.m., traffic dwindles.
We police the lot, pick up wrappers.
The dark pours down, sticky as Coke,
but the light from the kitchen
gleams like a beacon.
A breeze comes up, chasing papers
in the far corners of the darkened lot,
as if suddenly a cold wind had started to blow
straight at me from the future—
I read that in a Doris Lessing book—
but right now, purse fat with tips,
the moon sitting like a cheeseburger
on a flat black grill, this is enough.
Your order please.