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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.

A poem by Tricia McCallum entitled Hard Won. Photo of a woman from behind climbing subway stairs.

Hard Won

There is no glory in suffering.
Father Blackwell got it all wrong.

Ask the young martyrs
How much good ever came from their deprivation,
Their unspeakable deaths.
The suicide bomber looking up at a cloudless blue sky on his final walk.
What is his family’s honor to him then.
My father, grasping at air for his tissue paper lungs,
Graciously succumbing,
What greater good was ever served.

The faithful dog who licks his master’s hand
Only to be beaten again.
The teenage mother who surrendered her baby girl from her hospital bed,
When she passes a young woman in a stairwell years later,
And stares into a face hauntingly like her own,

Ask her
As her heart breaks yet again,
Who did as she was told,
Where is the glory now?

A poem by Tricia McCallum May 11, 2020. A parched windswept landscape in sepia tone with a large bare tree in foreground.

Captive Audience

 

This is one in a series of pandemic poems I’ve written since my initial quarantine. Many of the pieces that have resulted are unlike anything I’ve written before but it’s entirely understandable, of course. These times are unlike any we’ve known before.

The title of the piece is “Captive Audience” and stems from a dream I had a few nights ago. My dream held the seeds of the ideas and images I express here but as ever it is an inexplicable combination of elements that conspire to inspire. I wish it was as simple as just recording a dream I’ve had, which has happened to many writers. Amazingly, Kubla Khan came that way to Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Here is the text of the poem:

Captive Audience

The world is sharing a recurring dream.
Every night we fall asleep
and take up the very same challenge.

All of us are running for our lives
across a parched landscape,
shoulder to shoulder
in an endless line.

An elusive shape pursues us from behind.
We know not why.
All we hear as we race forward is the person next to us,
breathing,
and the thunder of our thousands of feet
pounding the ground beneath.

Some of us tire more easily, falter, rest,
start again.
We are united in a common purpose,
In knowing there is nothing for us
but the outrunning of this,
together.

Every time we glance backward
the specter looms closer,
changing shape with each turn of our heads.
One minute a tumbleweed six stories high,
made not of brush
but of thick snarled barbed wire.
Next, feral beasts snarling at our heels,
then, above our heads, out-sized birds of prey filling the skies,
circling ever closer.
Tomorrow night our predator will reappear,
transformed,
yet again.

In this same dream
all of us share a wish.
To awaken in our beds tomorrow morning,
having returned to the world
we once so blithely shared,
each of us knowing
it was,
all of it,
only a dream.

A poem by Tricia McCallum. Entitled Once Trite, Now Wise. April 2020., A tightly wrapped peony bud with aphid atop it.

Once Trite, Now Wise

The everyday extraordinary
Abounds.
As it ever did.
Biding its time until we stop,
Until we notice.

The tiny unheralded jewels nested within our daily lives
That we rushed past, cavalier,
Oblivious.
With no time for the smaller movement,
The goal-less.

We were hell bent on destinations.
Headed to the best seller, the top ten.
There were judgments to render, texts to send.
None of which we remembered
Five minutes after.

Now,
Pause to discover
It is not only the peony in delicious full bloom
That deserves our attention.
Bend down and inspect the tightly wrapped, sleeping bud
Just as it is,
Soon to swarm with the manic aphids that will allow it to be
All it can be.

Watch the dog watching the squirrel.
How the clouds above change shape even as we look away.
The sad supermarket cashier who will remember your smile.
It’s not the goal, it’s the journey.
Once trite, now wise.
Did you know Margaret Atwood also wrote poetry?

A poem by Tricia McCallum. April 3, 2020. A parched field under a dark cloud filled sky.

Dream State

The world is sharing a recurring dream.
Every night we fall asleep
and take up the same challenge.

All of us are stretched out
shoulder to shoulder in an endless line,
sprinting feverishly
across a barren landscape under heavy cloud.

An elusive shape pursues us from behind.
We know not why.
All we hear is the person next to us breathing
and the thunder of our feet pounding the ground
as we run.
Some of us tire more easily, rest, and start again.
No judgments are made.
We are united in this common purpose,
this breathless escape.

Every time we glance backward
the specter appears closer,
changing shape as it nears.
One minute a mammoth tumbleweed made not of brush
but of thick curled barbed wire,
next, feral snarling beasts snapping at our heels,
then, hideous vultures filling the sky overhead,
circling ever closer.

Our predator will look different tomorrow night
when we face it yet again.
We know there is nothing for us
but to outdistance it,
together.

In this same dream
the world shares a wish.
That we awaken in our beds tomorrow morning,
to the world we once blithely shared,
knowing this was all
only a dream.

A poem by Tricia McCallum. Apriil 1, 2020. A couple hugging in a public square.

Holding On

Foreboding. This new world.
Hit home for me just this instant
That the fear has seeped in through the cracks
When just this instant, surfing online,
I came across a photo of a couple sharing an embrace.
A warm hug out in public somewhere.
My first thought, not,
Sweet picture, they’re in love,
But instead,
Instinctively, involuntarily,

This:
They are foolhardy.
They haven’t protected themselves.
These two are in danger.

A poem by Tricia McCallum March 2020. A redheaded girl in the bright sunshine.

The Unburdened Goodbye

Never the one you think
Never the one that should.
Never the right time
Or enough time.
Never again the sweet lull
of the day-to-day.

No more easy solace
Or just passing time.
Gone the open-ended chat
The breezy how are you
The unburdened goodbye.

Never again
The unbridled laughter
The unaffected innocence
The making sense.
Never again the sweet lull
of the day-to-day.

A poem by Tricia McCallum March 27 2020. A spinning carousel at a midway.

Absolutes

I want to be certain like a map.
Certain like a stop sign.
I want to get off this rocketing carousel.
Stop playing Russian Roulette
With my thermometer.
Trust that a sniffle isn’t a harbinger of doom.
Stop extrapolating every ache and pain.
I want normal to be normal again.
Because normal never looked so good.

a poem by Tricia McCallum March 26, 2020. city street crowded with pedestrians.

Before

it was easy.
our worries were
trifles.
divisions of labor
who did more.
she didn’t really, did she?
how could they?
before
we were cruel.
judgments came swift and brutal.
withholding likes and retweets
the kind word for one small and mean.
before we were cavalier
we knew nothing.
but we can learn.
now we will learn
it was easy
before.

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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