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.
Placed atop the bed sheet,
his lovely soulful hands,
mapped in deep indigo veins,
the long expressive fingers,
this was where his humanness
would reside the longest.
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 by William Brewer. The last two lines are perhaps the best of all —
Storms are generous.
Something so easy to surrender to, sitting by the window,
and then you step out into the garden you were so bored of,
so bored of you hated it,
but now it needs you.
Twang of the rake’s metal tines biting at the dirt.
You destroy a little camp of mushrooms,
pull leaves into a pile,
are struck with wonder
when there rolls out
a little bird’s nest—
the garden’s brain.
You want to hide in it.
Twigs, mud, spit, and woven in:
a magenta strip of Mylar balloon that glints when turned to the sun,
a sway of color you’ve seen before.
You were a boy.
You told your grandfather you spotted a snake in the yard between the buckeyes.
He revved his weed whacker,
conjured a rose mist from the grass
that swelled in the breeze, swirled together, grew dark,
shifting through fans of sun,
magenta, then plum, blush, gone.
Smell of exhaust. Tannins of iced tea
you drank together on the porch later,
his spiked with Wild Turkey,
the tumbler resting on his thigh,
the ice-sweat running off, smearing the dried snake juice,
pooling in a divot of scar tissue.
A souvenir, he called it,
from the winter spent sleeping in a hole in the ground in a Belgian wood,
listening for German voices to start singing
so he knew he could sleep.
It is the thing you never expected.
Didn’t think to guard against.
Mail drops in through the slot a full year after
with his name on it.
It hits the ground with a gotcha. The one bullet remaining.
The one gaping mouth you forgot to shut.
Grief slipping in seamlessly through the front door
when you had worked so hard to seal up every crack.
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.
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,