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I read my poem – If This Is Your Final Destination, Welcome Home.

Click to listen… https://youtu.be/C53vVIfxwdk

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 plane’s stairs,
on their way to Canada
and to second lives.

Plane load after plane load,
week after week, four 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 survivors of unimaginable horror.
We delivered them 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 the cabin lights dimmed,
hearing their guarded whispers to one another
sharing late night confessions in the dark,above the ocean,
these people for whom nothing on earth
could be surprising.

Even when I urged them up the aircraft stairs,
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 unimaginable freedom.

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

I read my poem “The Once and Future Beauty Queens.”

Click and listen here. https://youtu.be/6ujj9r1Ywho

Here is the poem’s text.

The Once and Future Beauty Queens.

At the A&P in my first part-time job
it was the full time cashiers I studied most.
They seemed savvy and
at 16 I was looking for ways to be.

I watched them on breaks from my corner perch
in the crowded airless lunchroom, upstairs in the back,
all smoking roll-your-owns, laughing nervously at the men’s crude jokes,
carefully picking stray flakes of tobacco off their crimsoned lips,
in this small northern town looks their only currency.

The older women like Evelyn were quiet, would light one off the other,
eyes on the clock, sullen,
counting down their moments of freedom
and how many they could power through before time was up.

Laughing the loudest was Shirley, the head cashier, smarter than the rest.
Her lipstick bled all day on a slightly trembling mouth,
her deep well of sadness pouring forth even as she laughed,
this one-time looker, this prom queen gone wrong.
The story went her husband beat her,
but never where the marks would show.

I can still smell the place,
the filthy overcrowded fridge packed with
meatloaf sandwiches and last night’s chili,
Dutch the butcher’s apron soaked in blood,
his cuticles caked red.

The sounds come back clearly too,
breaking apart our folded white cotton uniforms stiff with starch,
the click of the pricing guns resounding up and down the aisles,
the funereal clunk of time cards being punched at the top of the stairs,
the defeat in Evelyn’s voice over the crackling p.a. system,
calling wearily “All parcellers to the front.”

And how there was a pecking order to everything, even this:
How the prettiest girls were the first to get help at their tills,
young boys rushing into their stalls behind them,
as horses into gates,
eager to package groceries every Friday night
for the current beauty queens.

Thirst

The sun was hotter.
You can tell.
Look at us squinting against it in photos then.
Everything washed out by the glare,
cheekbones, jawlines,
all detail surrendered.
Dazzled,
we could be anybody.

The gardens, look,
they’re parched.
It hurt to walk on the grass.
We lay in scorched backyards
slathering butter on our chests,
chain-smoking, eating fluorescent cheesies,
swilling bright red soda.

Everyone burned raw.
Everyone looked deliriously happy.
We knew
nothing could go wrong.
Our lives lay ahead of us.
Men were above us,
landing on the moon.

(goodreads.com contest winner).

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.

September

September #1

Obligatory backpacks bought,

duo-tangs and the cornucopia of Sharpies,

heralding the dull march back to classrooms, schedules.

In this forlorn wake a trail of

unhurried pancake breakfasts,

scrabble games that last for hours

and lying perfectly still on the sun-scorched dock,

until perhaps trailing a finger,

but only one.

 

September #2

Boats pulled out for the season

children rushing to school

and like a switch was flipped overnight

the water in the bay now darker

somehow

deeper

 

Undercover

Late August
slyly

slowly

the light becomes a

miser.

 

Compulsory

The school uniform, penance.
The wool knee socks even in summer.
The black serge tunics
shiny, slick, crisp, from too many
hot irons.

 

Warmer

The geese now heading south
emit unearthly,
unsettling sounds overhead,
clearly the desperate pleas

of those who seek release.

Goodbye, Leonard Cohen.

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There’s a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.

I thank you, Leonard Cohen, for sharing your gift with us, shining light in life’s darkest corners, so we could see. He labored with severe depression through various periods of his life, the price he paid for his gift, a price he paid on behalf of all of us.

A Careless Lover

A Careless Lover

Summer takes its sweet time
slowly strips your defenses,
has its way with you
then abandons you
alone
on the dock
in the purple September dusk
ravished
shivering
wanting more.

A friend from the Bahamas visited me recently in Toronto.

I baked butter tarts for her, a Canadian staple, and added a bottle of maple syrup. Next, I set about preparing the card I would include: a compendium of quotes about Canada, with noteworthy observations and commentary by both residents and visitors. And for fun, a soupçon of the ill-advised and the flat out wrong.

The first quote that popped us was this, attributed to the indefatigable Britney Spears: “You get to travel to overseas places, like Canada.”

From brainy Britney we move to, who else, the French explorer Louis-Armand de Lom d’Arce de Lahontan (now that’s a handle!), who said in 1702: “To survive the Canadian winter, one needs a body of brass, eyes of glass, and blood made of brandy.”

The Iroquois wars gave him his glass eye, his blood would definitely have had a high brandy content, and he probably did have certain nether regions composed of brass to venture here 300 years ago.

Next up, the ever-capricious Al Capone: “I don’t even know what street Canada is on.”

Rather amusing, from someone who actually knew Canada rather well, since he visited with the infamous distiller Hiram Walker frequently at his Walkerville, Ontario mansion. The two would carouse while making arrangements to ship Canadian Club Whisky south. You see, CC was aged a minimum of five years in oak casks, while American whiskies and bourbons were aged a paltry year. Al knew his booze.

Comic Jon Stewart weighed in next with this: “I’ve been to Canada, and I’ve always gotten the impression that I could take the country over in about two days.”

Not so fast, Jon Boy…might not be so easy to do. It’s a common misconception that Canadians don’t have guns.  But for good or bad, seven million of us are armed…that’s about 20 percent of our population. Not to worry, though; we tend to shoot mostly deer, bear, moose, and caribou..

Writers were no gentler with us.

Here is W. Bruce Cameron in his book Emory’s Gift: It was Canada where they let people do whatever they wanted because it was too cold to bother stopping them.”

Kelly Link in Magic for Beginners said: “The zombies were like Canadians, in that they looked enough like real people at first, to fool you.”

Ouch. Leave it to Jane Fonda to save the day with this love note: “When I’m in Canada, I feel this is what the world should be like.”

Jane, how you talk!

This also cheered me up, from Spook Country, William Gibson’s political thriller: “Canadian cities looked the way American cities did on television.”

Winston Churchill may have exulted about Canada more than anyone. “There are no limits to the majestic future which lies before the mighty expanse of Canada with its virile, aspiring, cultured, and generous-hearted people.”

Nice schmooze, Winnie…that was in 1939, and he was desperate for volunteers. We did not disappoint him.

In my travels I find people’s knowledge about Canada has vastly improved; now the real facts are a few keyboard clicks away. But misconceptions still abound, mostly about our (yawn) weather.

Does it snow all the time?  Do you snowmobile to work? Do you use British money? You all speak French, right?  It’s stuff like this that really gets our fur collars up.

And no. We don’t all play hockey. Many of us have never even strapped on skates. I, for one, am allergic to ice and am still traumatized by the time I tangled skate blades with a bully at the local arena and was catapulted straight into the boards, effectively kyboshing the slightest affection I might ever have had for the colder climes.

A somewhat hardier Stephen Leacock, the country’s celebrated humorist, eloquently characterized our national sport this way in 1895: “Hockey captures the essence of Canadian experience in the New World. In a land so inescapably and inhospitably cold, hockey is the chance of life, and an affirmation that despite the deathly chill of winter we are alive.”

Another native, comedian Rick Mercer, offered this truism: “The U.S. is our trading partner, our neighbor, our ally and our friend… and sometimes we’d like to give them such a smack!”

Truth be told, Canadians are quite kindly disposed to our neighbours to the south. We visited you 23.4 million times in 2013!

Toronto activist and author June Callwood was ever the straight shooter. “The beaver, which has come to represent Canada as the eagle does the United States and the lion Britain, is a flat-tailed, slow-witted, toothy rodent known to bite off its own testicles or to stand under its own falling trees.”

Our very own Mike Myers quipped: “Canada is a subtle flavor — we’re more like celery as a flavor.”

I wasn’t sure how I felt after reading this sentiment from Jan Wong’s memoir, Red China Blues: My Long March From Mao to Now. “Living in China has made me appreciate my own country, with its tiny, ethnically diverse population of unassuming donut-eaters.”

But leave it to Robin Williams to skewer us to perfection. “Canada is like a loft apartment over a really great party. Like: ‘Keep it down, eh?'”

I can’t find out who came up with this little jewel but it may rank as my favorite of them all:

“Canada is like your attic. You forget that it’s up there, but when you go, it’s like ‘Oh man, look at all this great stuff!'”

Writer and Poet

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Tricia McCallum

Always be a poet. Even in prose.
Charles Baudelaire.

In essence I am a storyteller who writes poems. Put simply, I write the poems I want to read.[…]

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