Going out into

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nov2014-winterfence

It’s two o’clock: the woman gazes out
into the storm, wind driving the snow
into deep drifts along fences. You know,
he said that morning before going out
into the blizzard to check the cattle
huddled behind the wind-break he built three
summers ago, while she, sipping ice-tea,
sat under the maples, listening to the rattle
of the wind-chimes he had bought for
her last birthday, too large to move, the sun
too hot, just waiting, waiting for the day
her child would be born, and later on two more,
twins; You know, he said, reaching for the gun
to shoot the coyote, You’re beautiful today.

***

Note: I’ve been at the farm for the past few weeks, and the frost last week was beautiful. I was out taking photos, and this photo, of the gate and the grass in the sun, made me think of this poem – one of the very first poems I had published, in a little magazine called diverge that has since disappeared. The poem itself grew out of a writing class exercise to write a sonnet.

After School

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I find myself thinking about my grandmother at this time of year, as her birthday approaches. It is bittersweet, because I missed her last birthday, the one she walked to the grocery store to buy the ingredients and baked the pies for herself. I had been away from home for five months already, working in London, and was backpacking through Europe. I remember calling home from a pay phone in Amsterdam to wish her a happy birthday. This #throwbackthursday poem is about the next spring and early summer, when I was living in her house and working at the local library.

This poem was previously published in Home and Away: Alberta’s Finest Poets Muse on the Meaning Of Home, a poetry anthology I co-edited with Dymphny Dronyk.


After School

on special days I walked
past the yellow buses
waved to friends
in number seventeen
that usually took me home

at the end of the lane
I crossed the street
continued past Mrs. Hertz’s place
with its jungle garden
kittens playing tigers
and down the block
to Grandma’s house

inside her warm kitchen
I sat at the table
drank hot chocolate
ate fresh cinnamon buns

then our lesson
knitting needles clicked
while she told stories
to the rhythm
of knit one purl one
stopping only
to untangle my yarn
or the twists in her plot

fifteen years later
I walk the same walk
after school ends
and my students have gone home

past Mrs. Hertz’s house
now empty
her twenty-two year old cat
put down after a neighbour
found the woman dead

when I open the back door
of my grandmother’s house
there are no buns
and the kitchen is cold

I eat my supper
warmed in the microwave
among her things
now strange to me
sorted into piles
to give away

no lesson except
her knitting needles
in a basket
with the yarn

Listening to the Morning

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I’m still on the road but starting to think about home.

I wrote this #throwbackthursday piece for a creative non-fiction writing course in my second year of university. My father used to joke that he didn’t care if we missed Father’s Day or his birthday, as long as we came home to help pick rocks. (A secret: I haven’t had to help pick rocks in years… after all that hard work, it has become a non-event.)


Listening to the Morning

Saturday dawns clear, bright, hot. Sunlight pours through the east bedroom window, refracted into a dozen tiny rainbows by the prism hanging from the curtain rod. Through the open window I can hear robins chirping, the rooster crowing, hens clucking, the dogs growling at each other, Dad calling the cow in to be milked. Downstairs, Mom is making breakfast. A perfect May morning. The breeze blows through the room, rustling loose papers on the desk. Mom’s footsteps are on the stairs; there is a knock on the door, telling me to get up.

Two hours later, I stand under the morning sun in a recently plowed field, holding a five-gallon pail. To ward off sunburn I wear work-gloves, a long sleeved shirt, jeans and sun-screen, which later I discover I have forgotten to apply to the back of my neck. The wind is beginning to pick up; soon it will be tossing dirt into my eyes and hair. By four this afternoon, when we are finished, I will be covered with fine dust, my shoes will be filled with soil, my socks black. My hands and back will ache, the handle of my pail will be bent, and I will argue with my brothers over who gets to use the shower first.

When I was eleven, Farm Credit foreclosed on our long time neighbours, forcing them to sell their land. The two quarters with the house and barn, a mile down the road from us, were bought by a hobby farmer/air-conditioning repair man from Onoway. My parents took out a loan and bought the quarter adjoining our land, increasing their holdings to a section. That Sunday afternoon, after the neighbour had come, and gone away with a written agreement and a check for the down-payment, we all piled into the truck to go look at our new acquisition. The 140 acres had been rented out for the previous decade, but had remained uncultivated that year because of the foreclosure, producing only a crop of weeds. Dad looked around, proud: there’ll be a few rocks, but it’ll look better after it’s worked up.

It didn’t. No one had picked rocks on that quarter for years. Every year, whoever was renting the land, just worked over, and in some cases, around the rocks, digging up new ones with each cultivation. The lower land, down by the muskeg, looked rich and relatively free of stones which get caught up in and damage machinery. But up on the hill the rocks were thick and large, giving it the appearance of a quarry rather than that of a future hayfield. Dad was disgusted, but optimistic: it would take work, but it would get better.

Work, yes, but it seemed that it would never get better that first fall when Mom and Dad hired the neighbour’s son, David, to help because my brother, Richard, and I weren’t much help yet. But we did work when we weren’t in school, because any rocks we picked, Mom, Dad and David didn’t have to. The system was simple: Richard and I took turns driving the tractor up and down the length of the field, the others spread out, two on either side, tossing rocks into their pails. When full, or too heavy to carry, the pails were dumped into the loader and filled again. Rocks too large to be lifted by hand were hoisted out of the earth with the front-end loader. When the loader was full, it was dumped into the grain truck waiting at the end of the field.

It took four days, that first time, to pick the rocks. Four days in the cold October wind, wearing ski jackets, scarves and boots. And when we were done, it looked almost the same as when we started. The hill was still splattered with boulder-sized rocks, left over from a giant’s game of marbles. All we had to show for our work was several tons of rock dumped into the river to make a crossing for the cattle.

The next spring, the same, except the cold was replaced by the blazing sun which beat down on us as we tracked up and down the field, following the wheel marks left by the harrows. Wind swirled the dirt around us, into eyes, ears, hair. The hot lunch Grandma cooked back at the house tasted like the grit between my teeth. When we were done, after four days in the heat, my back ached, my hands were blistered, I had a sunburn, the handle of my pail was bent from the weight of rocks, and the field looked a little better.

The next time, it only took three days. Then two. Dad stopped hiring David, and my younger brother, Christopher, started to help by driving the tractor. Now, it only takes an afternoon to walk up and down the field, picking up the largest rocks, rocks that eight years ago we would have skipped over for being too small. Yet lying in bed, listening to the morning, I still dread the sound of footsteps on the stairs and the weight of the pail in my hand as I move up and down the field, remembering.

Fall Haiku

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Paddle River

This week marks the official turning of the season, and it seems appropriate to share a few haiku here. My gratitude to editors Patrick Pilarski and Nicole Pakan for previously publishing these haiku over at DailyHaiku in 2007.

*

green tomatoes
in a bowl
waiting for red

*

a dog’s joy:
riding in the back
of the pickup

*

shelling the last peas
autumn chill cuts the air
summer bleeds

*

ripe tomato, sliced
seeds spill out
taste of summer

*

walking by the river
poplar leaves fall
perfect little boats

*

leaves fall in the river
drift by me
spectator to the parade

*

tree outside the window
touched by Midas

*

grey sky
red combines crawl
across the field

*

the eagle rolls over
shows talons
to the attacking hawk

*

one last tomato
overripe, skin wrinkled

*

walking home I startle
two not-quite white rabbits

*
first snow
dusts the sidewalk
footprints give me away

Summer Away

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I had three days in London last week, to wander around and remember the six months I spent living and working there in 1998. Here is a poem about that time.

My thanks to editor Anne Burke who published this poem in Prairie Journal of Canadian Literature in 2008.


Summer Away

After a week in London
I joke that my dream job
is to cut the grass
in Hyde Park, an oasis
in the grey jungle
of soot covered stone buildings,
the labyrinth of streets
that bears no resemblance
to maps in the A to Z.

Christina laughs
as we sit in the sun,
watch workers drive mowers
across the expanse of green,
says, you wouldn’t like it
when it rains.

So I give up the idea,
do what my friends do
and trudge each morning
to work, swallowed
by another dismal building
only to be spit back out
at five o’clock
to walk home through Hyde Park,
fresh clippings in my shoes.

In the Old House

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An earlier version of this poem was the very first piece I had published, in The Claremont Review back in 1996. I am posting it here because it seems to fit in with what Paul Pearson is doing over on his new blog Objectifyse. I especially like the series of photos of the apple trees. He wrote about a horse too (scroll down the page to read his poem “Small Plastic Horse”).

Horse

In the Old House

I remember

sitting on the bench near the door
listening to words
muttered under your breath
don’t smell Grandma’s baking
in the kitchen
until the plate of cookies
enters the room

wood whittling magic
I am fascinated by blocks of wood
and knives and chips
falling to the floor in a pile
that scatters when you get up
go to the kitchen for cigarettes

kicking against the bench
where shoes are hidden
behind the little door on the side
(once I took out all the shoes, crawled in,
wondered how you knew)
you growl that there is too much noise
ruining the magic
stop

I remember
holding what you had carved for me
amazed I gazed from horse
to wood-chips and wondered how
you made something more
by taking so much away

The card from the recipe box for my favourite meal

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garden at the farm

a garden with rich soil
seeds for carrots, lettuce, cucumber, onion, dill, peas
the last of the previous year’s potatoes for seed
tomato seedlings, purchased from a neighbour
a milk cow
a steer
a well tended raspberry patch
from the pantry: salt and pepper, barbeque sauce, vinegar, sugar
3-4 children to help with the weeding (optional)

In May, plant carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, dill and peas. Tie baler twine to stakes to guide the rows straight. Cut up the old potatoes, and plant the pieces with the eyes facing up so they will grow. Watch the sky every morning and hope for rain and sunshine in the proper proportions. Weed as necessary. Hill the potatoes and build the pea fence using the old chicken wire behind the red shed.

Butcher the steer.

Feed the milk cow. Milk her once she has calved, and dunk the calf’s nose into a pail of milk until she learns to drink. Pasture the cow on a field without weeds, or the milk will reek.

In July, prepare the meal. You will know it is time when you dig under a potato plant and find a handful of new potatoes, the size of small stones, with thin, transparent skin.

Pick and shell the peas. Pull carrots, a few onions. Pick a handful of dill leaves, enough lettuce for salad, tomatoes and cucumbers. Wash all the vegetables. Examine each lettuce leaf carefully, lest a slug crawls up the salad spoon while you are eating.

Make a salad with the lettuce, cucumber, green onions, tomatoes. Mix the salad dressing: whisk together a quarter cup of cream, a teaspoon of vinegar, salt, pepper, dill, and sugar. Cut the carrots and cucumbers into sticks.

Cook the peas and stir in a spoonful of homemade butter before serving. Boil the potatoes with a pinch of salt. Smother in sauce made from thickened cream and dill. Barbeque the steaks over charcoal briquettes.

Serve outside at the picnic table under the maple trees. Feed bits of steak to the dog, even though her manners are terrible. Relish the evening sun, the breeze that keeps the mosquitoes away, the respite from work.

For dessert, pour fresh cream over raspberries picked that day.

Savour this food and all these moments, knowing that food does not taste like this in the city, where no one remembers how the meal came to be on their plate.

Photo: Mom’s garden at the farm this year. Although it is smaller than when we were growing up, it is still large by city standards.