dear mister harper

When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations.
When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence.
When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths
which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.

Yours sincerely,
John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Amherst College,
Oct. 26, 1963

when 2 poets collide

for M & K, whose collision is still sparking up the cosmos
sept. 8, 2007

when two poets collide
turbulent skies rejoice
stars sweeten up the cracked hallelujahs
cackling black crows kick up their heels.

when two poets collide
there is chiming up the violets
there is singing down the rain
there is trilling, drumming, chirping, thrumming
there is clanging of pot, slapping of feet,
prattling of ham
there is a clutch, a plethora,
an insignia of iambic pentameter
there are rips and fits and stits and pits and ritz!

there is word / there is beat
there is sonnet / there is heat
when two poets collide
leaping greenly ghazals pull red wagons
through fitful sleep

deep breathy verbs punctuate the blood
a cauldron of metaphor burbles next to the bed.

there is upper-case wool
there is lower-case lingerie
there is subtext in the soup pot
irony in the ink pot, wild ripping beauty in the coffee pot
pathetic fallacy in the chamber pot

there is grammatically incorrect kissing

a hint of patchouli tenderly tenderly
graces the ripe hot doggery of the haiku
when two poets collide

memory bank

overdrawn

i cannot remember any of my mother’s native tongue
my father’s favourite tie
or my sister’s reasons for hoarding

i cannot remember what i had for breakfast
or anything you may have said
the morning after we got married

i cannot remember when i stopped playing the piano
or when i started letting myself go

i cannot remember all the lies i’ve told
or why men make war

i cannot remember what might cause women
to judge, invalidate, shun, erase, shame, oppress,
brutalize, condemn, injure or kill the spirit of
other women

i cannot remember if there’s a difference
between guilt and regret
but i can remember the words to every top 40 song
i heard on the radio
when i was thirteen

i cannot remember when i started writing
why i sent the artist away for 25 years
why helicopters scare me
but i remember peeing my pants
on the first day of kindergarten

i cannot remember the names of the apostles
where i left my sunglasses
or when to change the brita filter

i can’t remember to take my calcium supplements
to phone about the eavestroughs
to clean out the ring in the bathtub
or what i was looking for five minutes ago

sometimes it’s enough just to remember my own blessed eyes
my broken feet
and the hand that holds the pen
to remember that i am alive
to remember that i am loved
to remember to laugh

sometimes it’s enough just to remember
to breathe

somehow the world

superman’s dead
and so, now, is moses
and cool hand luke
and our brokeback fantasy
along with, some might suggest,
every soothing shade of blue that ever used to exist
and somehow the world still turns

they’re building another ice rink in this frozen shinny-obsessed city
but new orleans is still under water
and well-intentioned kids are still comin’ back in bodybags
and my sister
my sister just found a stone in her left breast
and somehow the world still turns

we meditate & self-medicate
over-eat & super-annuate
we’ve lost our ability to articulate
but not our inclination to hate
yet somehow this world still turns

we forget how to play
forget we ever knew how to pray
find ourselves craving human touch
then we wonder why we drink so goddamn much
and somehow the world still turns

we start to wonder if we’re losing our minds
— or is it just our credit that’s slipping away? —
as we install plasma screens in every child’s bedroom
and cell phones for every plugged-in waking moment
of every toxic shrink-wrapped day

we ask what’s the catch?
what’s the deal?
what’s the point?

and
why don’t we go out dancing any more?

and yet …and yet … and yet …
the believers still find reasons to celebrate
and the romantics are still howling at the moon
and you and i
you and i are still on our feet

and the liars, they never stop pretending
and the bombs, they never stop exploding
and the poets
the poets are having trouble sleeping
and somehow
this world
still
turns

you think

you-bl.jpgyou think you blind
you ain’t seen blackness

you think you pure
you ain’t seen lightness

you think you holy
ain’t nothin’ about you that’s sacred

you think you unclean
you ain’t tasted filth

you think you limitless
you ain’t carried freedom’s chain

you think you outraged
you barely breathin’, girl

you think you crimson
lady, you don’t know red

you think you less than honest
you starin’ at the queen of lies

you think you disadvantaged
you ain’t seen real trouble

you think you scarred
you don’t know disfigurement

you think you damaged
you ain’t torched your own skin

you think you fooling everybody
tremblin’ behind that weak-ass mask

you think you untouchable
you may be right about that one

washing day

my name is clementine
and i need time
breakdowns take time, you know

they sent me away, child
they sent me away
i want to go home
i need to go home
they won’t let me go home
where is my home?
do they even remember me there?

i need time
time to do the baking
as if this great depression were not bleak enough
there’s a war on, you know
there’s a war on and it’s washing day and all three
of my boys’ socks need darning
and there’s no formula for the baby
and the laundry keeps piling up
and my husband just sits on the porch
smoking his pipe

i need time, child
breakdowns take time, you know

sometimes i think it might not be so bad to take the drink
just one very small sip
but the pastor says that is not the answer
i need time
time to sleep
sleep, perchance to … god, i am so tired
sometimes i think it might be nice to just
lie down on the kitchen floor and sleep
forever
sleep
forever
… but who has time for that?
breakdowns take time

that’s what they said i had
when they sent me away the first time, child:
“she’s having a breakdown.”

i wanted to howl then. oh, how i wanted to howl
but ladies don’t. ladies just don’t.
always remember this, child: proper ladies do not howl.
ladies in 1941 with husbands and children
and a war on and no food in the pantry
most certainly do not howl.
they simply break down
and get sent away

listen to me, child, i need more time
i need time to get to that laundry
i need time to get those damn socks darned
i need time to bake
something sweet for the boys
my sweetie boys
and i can’t possibly do it all

so i think i choose
to sleep
i will finish the washing
then i will sleep
sleep the glorious sleep of the dead
sleep, and stop feeling like i’m the one
being fed through the wringer

child, i am going to need more time
need to sleep
need to break down
to wash this stain off me

granddaughter
take me out with you tonight
out for some tea, and maybe a dance
let it be just you and me
& let’s howl, shall we?
lord, how we shall howl

and after …
perhaps then there’ll be time to sleep

why don’t dreams speak english

swirls-2.jpgwhy don’t dreams speak english
why do i crave coffee and salt
why can’t two or more lovers
vie for my affection with flowers
sonnets, chocolate
pearls & boat trips down the seine

why don’t we hold hands anymore

why don’t we give people names to war games
like we do with hurricanes:
peggy sue instead of desert storm,
sam & dave instead of shock & awe
it might be hard to take all this fighting seriously
if patriot missiles were called emily
& soldiers were all called sarah
why don’t we search with flashlights
for kindnesses
instead of with big tanks
for more things to destroy

why are my eyes so red
where have all the flowers gone
who knows where the time goes
does anybody really know what time it is
why do i eat when i’m not hungry
why don’t i just sleep when i’m too tired to breathe
when did i get so naive
when did i first practice to deceive
when did i let myself go

what the hell happened to our prayer flags

who’s in charge
who goes first
whose is biggest

who won
who won
who won

what does it matter
everyone’s still so afraid

why do we have to leave
why do we have to stay
why can’t we leave
why can’t we stay

where’s the love
where’s the love
where’s the love

why can’t somebody just invent
a peace bomb

and

if there’s really a wise & loving god
why does everybody look so sad

this is how our love affair would go

(from a dog-eared SAGA notebook,
november 2000)

this is how our love affair would go

if you weren’t married, or straight, or celebate — and i don’t
even know if you’re married, or straight or celebate, but if i did know, and you weren’t any of those things, or on the rebound, or dying … this is how our love affair would go:

i’d stop by your desk at work with a casual question about the new project.
i’d linger a little longer than necessary, making deliberate eye contact,
smiling coyly after you answered my casual question, which was in fact not casual at all, but quite pre-meditated, not spontaneous in the slightest but calculated
and designed totally to give me an excuse to stop “casually” by your desk and speak.

and then our shift would be over and i would be outside, waiting on the curb
for the No. 9 bus, pacing and waiting for you to drive past and notice me shivering in the dark, and then you would stop and lean over to the passenger side of your little blue toyota and fumble with the window and offer me a lift. you would point with your head, as if you were tossing hair out of your eyes, and say, “i’m going to the south side, if you’d like a ride …” and i would say, “oh, no, that’s okay, the bus will be along soon, thanks, but … well … okay, then, if you’re SURE you don’t mind …”

and then i would climb awkwardly

into your front seat and fumble with the seatbelt (because I have
incredibly bad seatbelt karma), and you would already be pulling away from the curb by the time i got myself buckled in, and then you would ask, “so where do you live?” and i would say, “oh, just off whyte, sort of near bonnie doon,”
and you would say, “oh, that’s not far from my place, and there’s a great little cafe near there, and i don’t think i’m quite ready to unwind just yet, so is there any chance you might be interested in going for a coffee?” and i would say, “SURE!” and then i would secretly hope i didn’t sound too eager, and then i would secretly smile to myself because my plan had worked and i was now going for coffee with you, and it’s a good thing because the No. 9 bus isn’t even my bus … so if you hadn’t stopped
and offered me a ride i’d have been waiting an awful long time.

cafe starsand then we would be in the cafe and it would be small and dark, but very comfortable
in that cozy, funky, bohemian artist kind of way, and there would be soft jazz playing,
the good, warm, relaxing, sexy kind, not the manic, migraine-inducing, teeth-on-metal kind, and then we would each end up ordering peppermint tea instead of guatamalan dark roast, and you would ask me how i’m liking my new job, and i would tell you, “it’s great, and how long have you been working there?” and we would talk about all the crazy people in the marketing department for a while, and i would absently pick up the spoon from the table and play with it in my nervousness, turning it over and over in my fingers, and then you would laugh and say, “if you don’t quit with that spoon i’ll go crazy,” and then you would lightly touch my hand, the one with the spoon in it, and grin at me in that gentle, sensitive, all-knowing way you have, and you would look me directly in the eye long enough to let me know that the spoon was just an excuse for you to touch my hand, and we would both feel the fire as our skin touched, and we would realize at that same moment that we were hot for each other, and then we would try to pretend we weren’t, and one of us would comment on how late it was getting, and suggest that maybe we should be getting home, because because because …didn’t it look like they were getting ready to close?

and then we would be back

in your car and you would be pulling up in front of my house and then
you would be leaning over to help me get the door open because the handle is tricky on the passenger side … and then as you were leaning over me me to pretend to push
on the sticky door i would smell your soft fine hair
and it would smell a little of cinnamon with just a hint of coffee and sadness,
and i would forget that i barely know you and don’t even know if you are married
or seeing someone or doing a zen celibacy thing, or dying, and i would kiss the top
of your head as you were still pretending to try to get the door open, and then we would both grab the door handle and pull it shut … and then we would kiss, a long, hard, desperate trembling kiss, and then we would hold each other and tremble some more, and then we would look at each other as if to say, “i don’t know what came over me,” and then we would kiss again, and then i would gather up my backpack and lunge out the door, saying breathlessly “i’ve gotta go — thanks for the ride,” and then i would rush inside my house and feel all whooshed and frantic and blessed, and bells
would be clanging inside my head and butterflies would be doing gymnastics somewhere between my red and green chakras …

and then there would be a knock

on my door and i would open it, knowingly but tentatively,
and then you would be standing there holding a scarf and saying, “i think you left this in my car,” and i would say, “oh yes, thank you so much, my grandmother knitted that for me,” even though we both knew it wasn’t my scarf at all, it was your scarf, and it was just an excuse for you to see my face again, and then i would say timidly, timidly, “i know it’s, um, really late, um, but … would you, uh, like to come in for just a moment?” and then you would say, “uh, well, no, i really shouldn’t,” and you would be already gliding through my door like you’d done it a thousand times before
and taking off your coat and dropping it on the floor and stepping towards me …

and i would look into your eyes and i would be all flushed
and i would put my bashful hand on your cool, tender cheek and know that i would never again be able to stop by your desk at work without thinking
of this moment
and blushing
like hell.

something fishy about fifty

march 16, 2007, happy birthday kathy f

you’re fifty, kathy, so of course i’m going to … think of you naked.
it’s what you wanted, yes?
well OK then, yes, i will think of you naked …
and i will think of you in paris …
not writing poetry, necessarily, but breathlessandtalkingfast and … eating;
savouring the taste of something exquisite.
i will think of you in red:
red scarves / red hats / red pants
red shoes / red wine / red lights
red leather / red eyes / red ink
your mouth a triangle of red in a montparnasse cafe,
croissant crumbs on your lip and … heart on your sleeve.

i will think of you naked / i will think of you in red
and i will think of 1957 as a good year for more than just chevys
as i think of the things that connect us:

the blood of the mothers / the sins of the fathers
strokes of the pen / strokes of luck / vincent’s sad strokes on anguished canvas
sunflowers / blue and white irises / cobalt blue plates
blue-black backdrops to starry starry nights
the irises are you, kathy, the starry night is you
banff centre omelettes and kasbar lounge cocktails
icy blue-green rivers to skate away on …
a woman named eunice

and i like the sound of … stroke, stroke / hot cheeks and cool iris
stroke, stroke / autumn colours in vermont
and i’d like to hear more about … kassie boo-boo / the french rugby team
a dead dog named jake (who i never met, but feel like i sort of know)

musee-dorsay.jpgand yes, kathy, i will think of you in paris
but you don’t necessarily have to be naked / you don’t have to be writing poems
don’t have to be breathless or writhing, talking fast or gushing brilliant …
you don’t even have to be drinking wine / or dancing in red shoes,
but you will most probably be talking a mile a minute / running / skating / climbing …
coming up for air after a marathon swim in a gatineau lake …
writing like a bat out of hell and …
changing the world with your smile

there’s something fishy about fifty, but … fishy, i wishy for you
50 more glorious years in which to be startled, delighted, disarmed.
50 more years of red scarves, red cheeks and red shoes …
and just enough blue to belong.