Impossible Gardens


Somewhere between the Canna lilies and the Delphinium Blue King,
he started in on mask wearers.
A local, I could tell,
the turns of phrase and the mandatory team jersey.

He had already launched into his rant when I pulled my truck
into the lot of the garden centre,
sermonizing before a small sullen crowd
about the Nano particles that will be released from inside our vaccines
once the government unleashes the 5G network.

His voice booming behind me, I surveyed the dahlias and wondered
what dinner plate really meant. Smacked of overreach.
The marigolds were next, resplendent in their yellowness,
but always smelled to me like my Grade 12 chemistry lab.

His fan base had grown by the time I reached the blue Flax,
a perennial I had always avoided. Too frail to last.
I heard a woman in the crowd ask what he had against science.
Your science or mine, he snarled,
the irony seemingly lost on the crowd.

His vitriol flowed seamlessly, the rhetoric ramped sky high.
He had moved on to personal freedom, chiding us and our mindless lockstep.
Do you know Bill Gates can track your every move?
I wondered how many would jump aboard.

Hey, Red. Your mask is useless,
he yelled out behind me.
But this was not a hill I would die on. Not today.

Driving home to get my hands dirty,
I turn up Highway on Sirius,
leaving him in my rearview,
Steve Earle now my perfect companion,
my annuals waving a riot of colour in the flatbed behind me,
even if only for a while.

A Poetry Interview

Katherine Barrett interviews Poet Tricia McCallum

Katherine Barrett is the founder and editor-in-chief of Understorey Magazine, which publishes literary writing and visual art by and about Canadian women. She has also served as Editor with the Afghan Women’s Writing Project and Demeter Press.


KB: You’ve just completed your third collection of poems called Icarus Also Flew. You’ve also published many poems in journals, anthologies and magazines. Can you tell us how you came to poetry?

TM: I was always a huge reader. In fact my greatest regret is that I never found a job that would pay me to read books in air conditioning. It was from a very young age that I started writing down my own stories. And reading them to anyone who would listen.

Later I paid my bills with freelance writing because, as Garrison Keillor said, “Burglary beats poetry when it comes to making money.” But I wrote poems in my off hours, finding homes for them where I could. Creating them is as much a part of me as my red hair or my left-handedness.

Poetry has helped me figure out what I think. About this life of mine, these lives of ours. I don’t think I would have navigated my life half as well without it.

Poetry is my church.  It’s where I have found my courage.


KB: Your poems entice through telling details from around the world: tiger balm in Kuala Lumpur, a motel in Cape May, a record shop in Ontario. Does this reflect your personal travelling or work experience? How do you think a keen sense of observation helps to inspire writers?

TM: All those places are ones I have actually been. I did dispense tiger balm to the Cambodian refugees I helped return by the planeload to Canada following Pol Pot. I did in fact stay in a rundown quirky motel in Cape May for a period of time and come to know some of the residents. A boyfriend of my youth, in a very small Canadian town, once took me by the hand into a record store for a birthday surprise. All of these pieces, and so many others of mine, come straight from my experiences. You’ll find a pretty clear map of my life in my writing. Case in point: I wrote one about the trials, nay, horrors, of working as a freelance wedding photographer, which I did for a time to bolster my writing income.

Observation may be the one thing indispensable to a poet. It might all just come down to noticing the details, if not in fact being entranced by them.

My poetry is not really simple, I don’t think, but it is about commonplace things. I’m not an abstract thinker. I’m interested in ordinary life, the so-called mundane details that make up our days. But to me they are not mundane. To me they are rich in possibility, nuance.

To me, they’re magic.


KB: You say your poems are simple but your work does broach complex universal themes, particularly loss, remembrance and celebration of life. What attracts you to these ideas?

TM: The poet Shelly said “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.” I could not hope to express it better. Loss, in all its shapes, stages and guises propels so much of what writers create.

I remember someone once asked me, impatiently, “Why don’t you ever write a happy poem?”

Happiness is never fodder for me in this way. When I’m happy I can generally be found out and about, munching on Snickers bars, reading anything and everything within reach, including the Hollywood rags, and wasting inordinate amounts of time, deliciously.


KB: Two of your poems in your second book The Music of Leaving have won the Poetry Contest. And you won the contest for a third time with your poem “The Things I Learned as a Bartender.” Can you tell us about that process? How does winning a contest influence a writer’s career?

TM: My three wins in poetry competitions have been amazing kick starters for my writing and offered incredible exposure. It was thrilling to win each time and so heartening, because the winning compositions are ultimately voted for online by goodreads members themselves from among a group of five finalists chosen by a panel of judges, all fine poets themselves.

All of this puts me in illustrious company. This contest attracts amazingly gifted writers.

It was in a bio of Lisa Genova’s, the author of the novel Still Alice, where I first learned about the power of, its astounding reach and potential for writers. Genova self-published that book, after being unable to find a publisher for it, astounding, I know, and she used goodreads as one of the ways she promoted it. It ended up a bestseller, of course, and then a brilliant movie.


KB: How will you celebrate Poetry Month come April?

TM: With very good Scotch. (Actually, tea, but Scotch sounds so much more … literary.)

That, and setting myself the challenge of writing a new poem every day in April, even if it’s only a raw draft. I scribble a new idea down in one go and hope that it eventually morphs into something worthwhile.

Oh, and checking my Inbox with my first coffee alongside for poems that come to me from all over. I can’t imagine a better start to a day.  The coffee sharing equally stellar status…




Beyond the Robot

For the Robot

to write a poem
it must survive a kindergarten schoolyard trauma, a sunburn on an overcast day,
bury, in a small paper box that once held a bar of soap,
the thumbnail-sized frog that was once a polliwog it caught at Mrs. Anderson’s
pond whose tail fell off and hind legs emerged like quotation marks & had
been kept in the rinsed Best Foods mayonnaise jar

must worry a tobacco-stained grandfather’s hand
run over a jackrabbit on I-40 in the Arizona desert
get divorced
burn dinner
confess its sins
suffer food poisoning
refuse to eat blue M & M’s
hang, on a sweet-breezy July, laundry in Fishtail, Montana—eye the distant Sawtooth
Mountains & hum “Waltzing Matilda” which it learned from Miss Vineyard
in second grade

must fear thunder
rush to focus its binoculars on the wintering Lazuli Bunting
tell white lies to be kind
shout “Heavens to Betsy!”
be part of a standing ovation
endure recurring nightmares
question the crossing guard about the origin of “fingers crossed”
develop calluses as it learns to play the twelve-string banjo
have its hair smell of campfire smoke
swat, during a humid-summer dusk, at mosquitoes on a dock full of splintered
cypress wood at Half Moon Lake in Eau Claire, Wisconsin

forever dislike Brussels sprouts because it overcooked them and they smelled like
rotten eggs
must watch wind
weep at a funeral
lose anything
imagine infinity
doubt God’s existence
die a little every day
then, perhaps—

~~ Alison Bailey

—from Rattle’s Ekphrastic Challenge
September 2023, Artist’s Choice

It was ELO’s fault.

Why instead of begging my mom for extra allowance money so I could buy a record album
I should have declared vendetta on the Electric Light Orchestra.

by Matt Mason


I was in love with a girl.
And I can say this with absolute certainty,
as I was in eighth grade,
and eight graders know what love is

in ways that you all grow out of
with your big feet, bad skin, left at the pizza place and walking four miles so
you don’t have to call someone for a ride and explain,
your first kisses, shocking tongue in your mouth, cheeks turned floodplain “experience.”

I didn’t need experience.
I had Saturday afternoon movies on channel 6,
I had heart-in-fist dedications on Casey Kasem,
I had first-run Love Boat still on TV,

so fuck your coward jaded blissful first-hand knees-quaking “love,”
I was in love with a girl
and she wouldn’t call me back.
I had tried everything.
And by “everything,” I mean
every thing: I tried funny,
I tried uncoordinated, I tried brainy,
I tried stories in class about Santa being hit by an airplane Night Before Christmas style (and
on the nose of the plane arose such a clatter, the pilot knew at once Saint Nick was a splatter)
I tried everything.
I was in love with a girl
and the months were winding that love so tight
it could slip and fly across the classroom and crack
against the blackboard,
I was in love with a girl
and finally at the point,
sitting on the lion-print sheets of my bed,
of admitting love
was not enough,

that love!
was not!

to bend this universe as it needed to be bent.
I was in love with a girl
and sighed
and turned on my radio
to WOW or Sweet 98 or whatever the hell it was
and they said “Here is a new song by ELO,”

and there’s Jeff Lynne telling me “Hold on tight to your dreams,”
even adding emphasis by rephrasing it in French: “Accroche-toi à ton rêve,”
and, damn, Universe,
you had me going,
I almost gave up on love,
on love!

In the hindsight of adulthood,
of thirty years unlearning what I learned that day,
of good dates, bad dates, eyelashes, bra straps,
yelling “What the fuck do you want from me!” loud enough to be heard four apartments down,
heart-shaped cards, roses and rings, fourteen small teddy bears (one for every month),
poetry that said way too much about the goddamn moon,
the disproportionate surprise of warm breath on the inner ear,
that the Electric Light Orchestra

maybe could have been a little more specific.
That “Accroches-toi à ton rêve,” I never did look that up,
it might only mean: “Don’t eat croutons;”

DJs are not waiting like archangels
to set the cosmos off their turntable wobble; they
tie up the request line talking to their girls,
making promises,
that sound too much
like pop songs,

they’re underpaid dudes
who put needles onto grooves
and let it


Matt Mason: “My favorite poem is one that, at first, makes me wonder if it’s a poem. I love a poem written because that’s what the poet wanted to write and they didn’t worry if it fit the mold or definition or what they were lectured a poem is supposed to be. Not that we shouldn’t study the traditions and forms and histories, but poems like that shine for me: they have surprise, coming in disguises instead of the formal suit or gown we all thought they were supposed to wear back when they were set in front of us in high school. These are the poems that, had they been set in front of me in high school, would have gotten me on fire for poetry years earlier.”

We Just Don’t Want You. (And we don’t like you much either.)

I share here my response to a form letter from a publisher which summarily and worse, anonymously, rejected my latest manuscript of poems, one I felt  I had carved out of my very bone and sinew. Sayin’.

I read the generic rejection, stamped at bottom The Editor,  took a breath (between sobs), and began composing my response in turn. 

The bold, italicized content below would be mine.



                                                                                                                       May 15, 2023

Dear Tricia,

Thank you for entering our annual chapbook prize competition.

That and $28.50 will get me a decent midsize Frappuccino. (Baristas don’t tip themselves.)

Unfortunately, your manuscript did not win publication, but we appreciated the opportunity to read it.

Never start sentences with tthe word unfortunately. It can only end tragically.

We always expect a high level of quality in these books.

OK, thanks, information I could have used yesterday!

and this year’s entries did not disappoint. 2,160 manuscripts were entered.

Is that a comma after the number two? Please double check. I’ll just be here preparing myself to surrender all hope.

And so many of them were so good.

Now that… that’s gonna leave a mark.

After much deliberation, we’ve selected three winners for 2023:

Blah dee blah, dee blah…dee Bill de Blasio. 

Two thousand manuscripts submitted…

Oh, I get it. Ridiculous numbers of entries. You’ve barely slept.

… translates into roughly 40,000 individual poems that we’ve read over the last three months.

You insist on throwing out numbers. How about one more? Precisely how long did it take you to read mine?

Given the quantity of poems…

Again with the numbers references.

… and that many of them are already published

Textbook passive aggressive. Right there.

…it’s very difficult to consider them individually in this context.

Reading this letter is what it must have felt like sitting through the premiere of Gigli.

Very difficult, you say? Just for perspective, try and pretend you’re me right now, reading your letter.

If you’d like to submit any of these individually at some point, please feel free following the regular submissions guidelines—we won’t mind reading anything again.

You’re not the boss of me.

We also still have no idea which manuscript is yours…

Mine would be the one twice as long as the others as perhaps I didn’t get around to reading every single guideline … also the one that seemed to be bathed in its very own luminescent microclimate, right there amidst the hundreds of others.

So if you’d like to enter a revised version next year, you’re also free to do that.

Chances of this are akin to seeing Prince Harry’s face on a stamp.

Free? You’re waiving next year’s submission fee?

There were a great number of manuscripts that we would have been proud to publish—we simply chose the three that we loved the most.

Mine would have only made it four. Four is an honorable number… four seasons, four strong winds, the four alarmingly energetic Ninja Turtles… Um, the four-leaf clover. Heard of it?

Anyway, thank you again for entering the competition. I hope you enjoy the winners.

Enjoy the winners? Enjoy the winners?

Have I been recently canonized?



That’s a TV Show.


The Editor




Nothing Compares.

Some souls are simply too sensitive to live in such a harsh world. She was one.

He could not wait to show me…

Ohio Dove

She lay at our feet with a metal arrow
through her chest, the arrow angled in
the ground not far from the lilac
nest where she’d been sitting.
Because he owned the bow, or that
he went by his last name,
or that his peach fuzz had darkened,
Cunningham said he was taking my turn.

He could not wait to show me
how it’s done, the killing.
If only quick, like turning off a lamp.
The dove lay gasping in the too sudden
present tense. Cunningham pressed
his shoe down hard,

then took the arrow out from her. Because
I’d not had my heart broken this close up
before, I held the bird extra, said good aim
then placed her back in the lilac bush
so no one could see. I heard my mother’s
dinner bell in the distance wringing
the dry air in my throat. I walked home and ate all
her steamed kale, because it was good for me.

—from Rattle #79, Spring 2023

Mark Rubin: “I write because it’s a way of rendering the heartaches that come from being alive. As a certified curmudgeon, I have an edgy, ongoing sense of wonder, if not reverence, for small things in the natural world, and big things that move through me as a result. I am most happy when I can get out of my own way.”

Gordon Lightfoot - Sundown

Ring Them Bells

I share here a remembrance of Gordon Lightfoot, written after seeing him perform back in 2012 on a rain-soaked evening in Toronto’s Massey Hall. I never sought to have it published. I somehow knew it should wait until now.

Textbook weather for Gordon’s concert this evening: rain-slicked streets, brisk winds, classic moody November evening in downtown Toronto. His band was minimalist, as is his wont. To wit, lead guitar, bass, drummer, keyboards, and himself. None of them under 60. I’d seen a couple of them on stage with him many times before.

Gord struts out with his characteristic long stride, guitar at his hip– on the stroke of eight bells, of course — to thunderous applause, seeming still a little shy and embarrassed by it all, amazingly. (He even joked about the night before how, because of the city’s subway breakdown he’d had to start eight minutes later. Eight whole minutes. Oh the horror, he said. And we all knew he was only half kidding.

Opened with Did She Mention My Name? Closed with Blackberry Wine. In between, everything from If You Could Read My Mind to A Painter Passing Through.

The crowd was quiet (save for the one requisite (by then) shout of “We love you, Gord!”  very attentive (dare I say, Canadian?), reflective, appreciative, almost conspiratorial, you know that feeling Gord (and Gord alone) inspires in hometown crowds? It was so obvious everyone there was delighted to see him back onstage for another go.

Yes, he is frail, ravaged, bone thin, and easily looks his age (71). Actually, he looks like any of a dozen down on their luck guys who used to hang around (seemingly in rotation) outside one of the hotels in the small town where I lived as a child. His voice wavers and falters from time to time and he whispers when he should shout, but no matter. His spirit is fully intact. His delivery is so evocative, so exquisite, he reminds you with each outing that he is the one who wrote the stuff – that no one gets it like he does — and no one, of any age or stage, will ever do it better. Michael Buble, take a seat. And hush.

We did hear at least a few pins drop at Massey Hall that night, especially during Song for a Winter’s Night. (He rarely does that tune and it was utterly bewitching.) His rendition of Step Back (one of my top five of his) was rollicking, everyone up and rocking, what a great tune that is to move to, and then he headed into Early Morning Rain. Wistful, evocative, iconic, all.

Let it go/Let it happen like it happened once before… from the song Shadows. Another captivating rendition. This one in particular brought to mind Dylan’s comment about Lightfoot: “Whenever I hear a Gordon Lightfoot song, I hope it never ends.”

His banter with the crowd was so relaxed, so unscripted, he charmed the boots off all of us. He riffed randomly, about writing songs on airplanes, the perfect place for it, he says, with the juxtaposition of stars above, cities below… getting his “shoulders lowered” as a boy at the town barber shop in Orillia, and his joy at being “home” and playing for us again.

A gentleman, pure and simple. And a poet non pareil. By the end, he even makes you believe his lustrous words: “Everything will be fine by and by.”

A legendary story about Lightfoot resulted from a concert he did long ago in his hometown of Orillia. A young man in the audience was hit by a flying bottle and had all of his front teeth knocked out. Lightfoot heard about it and went to visit the young boy, on his own, no fanfare. Before he left he gave him a check to cover all his medical expense.

The fire is dying now, my lamp is growing dim
The shades of night are liftin’
The morning light steals across my windowpane
Where webs of snow are driftin’
If I could only have you near
To breathe a sigh or two
I would be happy just to hold the hands I love
Upon this winter night with you.

 Lightfoot didn’t care for interviews. Apparently, he was rather shy. But no matter. His songs tell us everything we need to know.

Listen to The Affair on Eight Avenue, for me always his most exquisite song.

I will miss you, Gord. We all will.

Writer and Poet

Tricia McCallum profile

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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