Bricks and mortar aren’t what home is:
Nor the things we collected,
displayed, lived with.
But isn’t it funny how
often it distills down
to that rickety table with the yellow Formica top
in the centre of our tiny kitchen all those years,
the one we picked up for a song
that no matter how carefully
we teased the two ends apart
would send out the same jarring screech
and how we’d all squeal in fright, as if on cue,
then laugh until it hurt,
before carefully inserting the battered extra leaf
to make room for more.
Bricks and mortar aren’t what home is:
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.
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.
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.
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,
hopelessness on parade,
resignation their calling card,
and the long grey cloud above,
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
I am thrilled that the online poetry journal “A Quiet Courage” has published three of my poems, linked here.
Make sure to click on the link beneath the text of each poem to the Eva Cassidy song “Fields of Gold” for it serves as perfect accompaniment.
Thank you for coming along on my ride, dear reader.
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.
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’.”