From time to time I will post one of my new poems here.
When I’m not reading my usual mix of literary fiction, poetry, and history, I like to relax with mysteries and thrillers. One writer I’ve enjoyed over the years is John Grisham. Here’s a poem inspired by finding a little surprise inside a book of his in one of the lovely Little Libraries that I pass on my morning walk in my neighbourhood. The poem is about the often hidden power of reading and writing.
HOMAGE TO JOHN GRISHAM: A PARTIALLY FOUND POEM I feel like I’ve read as much about you as I’ve read your books: about your manners as a Southern gentleman, your courtly charm, self-deprecating humour, how when you were studying law one of your profs commented on one of your papers that your legal analysis was not stellar but perhaps you had a talent for fiction, the way you wanted to be Faulkner when you were young and starting out, writing about the South and capital punishment about the fears and desires that cause us to walk a certain path, how you travelled the South, selling books out of the trunk of your car to independent bookstores to anyone who would buy them how you sold only a few hundred, more than not a small number of poets and novelists, how your second book garnered film rights of $600,000 before you landed an advance, and the rest as they say, is a certain kind of history. You once mentioned how a wildly successful popular novelist – perhaps it was Stephen King – said to be a commercial success you had to write a book a year and so you did. I’ve read The Firm and The Pelican Brief more than once. Picked up that elusive first novel for my father-in-law at a Little Library. There have been times when my writing career was not going well and I dreamed of being like you: read and known. I remember my early career days doing my teaching internship and the other English teachers whom I admired, relaxing in their little English teachers’ room after teaching Shakespeare or Hardy, saying, “Boy that Grisham can tell a story,” hard-earned praise from men who could teach a poem to the Grade 11 Baccalaureate class like nobody’s business, another commenting, “But yeah, sometimes you can tell he’s just thinking film script and boy that ruins a novelist, sometimes he just phones it in.” Today, on my morning walk in my neighbourhood I find a novel of yours from twenty years ago at one of the Little Libraries, the one with the light that goes on whenever you open the door. I’ve never heard of it before: A Painted House. Supposedly autobiographical, about a boy growing up on a farm. not a lawyer or grifter in sight. No visible thrills. I skim through it, ambivalent until I find between pages 224 and 225 a child’s note to his or her parents in purple pen on post-it note: Mommy & Daddy Happy belated Valentine’s Day. I love you – triple hearts – very much! I am extremely sorry about yesterday! It will never, I repeat, Never happen AGAIN. I hope that you are not mad at me. Unhappy face. Many XOs that continue onto the back of the post-it note and fill the little page. I imagine this child grown up, in their early thirties now, long-moved out, perhaps young children of their own, the parents cleaning out bookshelves, seeing the book, forgetting about the note hidden for safekeeping or used as a bookmark, and this particular Grisham not doing it for them. or simply wanting to pay it forward. And because of this, I have a newfound affection for you, John Grisham, one I will remember long after I forget your books and how much I once wanted to be like you.
This poem is part of a cycle I am working on in which I reimagine famous episodes from the Old Testament, often from the point of view of marginalized characters, often with an unusual twist on how the original story has come down to us. Many thanks are due to The Satirist where this poem first appeared.
SNAKE I know, I know, it’s the oldest defence in the book: I was only following orders. The shoddy rationale of every garden-variety war criminal, concentration camp commandant or bookish man who only planned. And in my case it’s a long shot; but still, it’s true. He put it me up to it, like a jealous older husband bent on testing his young wife’s faithfulness while she’s on a business trip, hiring a handsome man to try to pick her up in the hotel bar. Told me it was just a harmless test. He wanted to know if his daughter was holding to her diet. He had a vested interest in the health of his future grandchildren, and all that. In retrospect, it seems more than a little weird. Well, actually control-freakish. Weight-Watcher-in-Chief? But at the time I didn’t question Him. He created every one of us, after all. I didn’t know He already harboured us ill will, a fiery inbuilt brand of jealousy. For Christ’s sake, it was only a small piece of fruit! How could I foresee the punishment would be so wildly disproportionate? Not just for the unlucky humans, made to regret forever their weakness, flung out of Eden, to go forward always looking behind them even from the start, and her kind being set up for millennia of blame. But oh my beautiful children! Deformed to slither across the ground, unloved, despised, all because of Him, playing out a solipsistic trick like some fusty, unlived, sadistic British public school examiner: prematurely old and loveless, jealously robbing us of joy
I wrote this poem after thinking about how it feels to be 51 years old. In the poem I draw a parallel with that mythical Area 51 and marvel at how life is such a mysterious journey . . . toward oneself.
AREA 51 It’s my first time visiting, and not easy to reach. I’ve spent a lifetime trekking here, a half-century at least. I find myself looking back on the rest of my life, now that it’s more than half over. With this birthday, time speeds up. Certain things are more clear. Others less so. The air is thinner. The body reacts differently. This place makes you satisfied with mystery. What you have learned on the journey makes up for what you now know you will never know. You realize you don’t need to know, that the pleasure lies in not knowing. You realize that the only alien is yourself and he comes in peace.
I wrote this poem after reading Harrison Salisbury’s classic work of history The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad. Salisbury takes you into the lives of the Leningraders: soldiers, Party officials, scholars, street-sweepers, writers and artists. The story is a double tragedy. The brave Leningraders faced as much if not more mortal danger from their own national leaders as from the besieging Nazis. Through it all, they kept on living and writing music and poems and novels.
ACCIDENTS OF FATE I might have, could have been a great poet, if only I’d been born in another time, another place. Perhaps communist Russia, that would have been nice, or one of the Eastern Bloc countries. It doesn’t matter where as long as it was under the totalitarian thumb. I could have written in a cold flat, shielded for a moment from the gaze of the enthusiastic party censors or in the Gulag on toilet paper or only within the tattered fibres of my mind. I could have written of knocks on doors in the middle of the night, of the husband’s eternal longing for his wife. I could have been sentimental and histrionic. I could have given irony a wide berth. And as they pulled out my fingernails, I could have shouted out my verse, could have flung it in the face of my torturers.
Winner of the 2016 Poetry Vine Award for Canadian Jewish Literature.
“Enjoyable, readable, fresh.” – The Jury
In 1968 Isaac Bashevis Singer was asked by The Paris Review what he thought about the future of the novel. He was optimistic. But he did concede that poetry was in trouble. He actually went so far as to say that in the twentieth century poetry “became bad.” In his view poetry became bad because poets stopped caring whether their work was interesting or even possible to be understood.
Catullus’s Soldiers, my first collection of poems, was released by Cormorant Books in 2015. You’ll have to judge for yourself, but with the poems in the collection I’ve tried my best to be understood at least and, wherever possible, interesting…
Here’s the poem that inspired the collection’s title:
CATULLUS IN A MARTIAL MOMENT Caesar has his legions to move this way and that, to cross the Rubicon or not, to live and die at his imperious word. For this Caesar shall be remembered when he is gone. But my army is greater in number, and of infinite formation. I tell them when to come and when to go. They march to a cadence of my choosing, across the page like a wave of soldier ants and set up camp in the country of a foreign mind. When all of Caesar’s soldiers have fallen and lie mingled with the marble ruins of his desires, or are pensioned off to farms of forgetfulness, when his colonies have rebelled or been conquered by barbarians whose time has come and no more tribute is forthcoming, my soldiers will still be winning over a different people in a world I cannot even begin to imagine.
And here’s another one from the collection:
THE BUTTERFLY The swimmers laugh and splash each other in the clear shallows. Further out men fish. In the shipping channel a freighter slides by with surprising silence. The swimmers soon feel the ripples. On shore a Monarch butterfly lies flat on a stone. Its wings do not look broken. Its body is intact. It is still and looks asleep. I have never seen a Monarch butterfly so still. I have never really seen the patterns on its wings. When I touch a wing it barely flutters under my fingertips. The colours, gold, black, amber, become clearer to me as everything around it – swimmers, river, freighter, sky – keeps moving. It looks like an expensive hand-sewn silk scarf or tie, or the Indonesian shirt my late father bought once. Since it can no longer fly, it lies in the sun and waits.