Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Daniel, Cat and Herbivore

It's an old poem, but I still like it, so while packing away the clothes from that time of my life, and having moved on to new friends (one who calls her Cat "Mouse") I've kept the poem...

I went to visit Mary
(whose real name is Janet)
In her bachelor apartment
(which really is an attic)
And we fed her mice with breadcrumbs
Since we found little else
And discussed her latest sketches
(hoped to hell she’d sell some)

Her jeans were old
She had lost weight
The window was broken
The blankets thin
The nights cold
The cigarettes were borrowed
(with the coffee)
From a neighbour

But Mary (Janet) still smiled

And the mice
(Daniel, Cat and Herbivore)
Were tame.
I bought four sketches
(signed Susan)(done by Mary)(Janet)
(Cat chased Herbivore behind a sketch of Jarvis Street)

Hung them in my window.
A man bought them
($50 for four)
(signed Susan)
For $2000. And asked for Mary’s address.

When she moves,
I hope the mice go with her.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

A Song of Loss. A Song of Hope

This is a song of loss.

Paul White passed away last summer, after hosting his 105th birthday party. For 104 years, Paul lived on the Lake of Bays in his own house. It was decided he needed extra care. He moved into an apartment at his caregiver’s. Still on the lake.
At 105, you know the clock is ticking. Another friend, Yvonne, told us of her father, at 94, standing at another friend’s gravesite. Paddy, himself a sprightly 104, turned to him. “Do you think,” he asked, “with the time we’ve got left, it’s worth going home?”
“I don’t know about you,” her father replied, “I got a lot of living left!”
Paul told me magical stories. He knew my grandfather, and my father. He knew the lake. His own father founded Britannia, one of the great resorts of the great resort era. It boasted tennis courts, curling club, golf course, riding stables, live theatre, gardens, boats… My grandfather took the lake steamer across for a round of golf -- in 1926 playing the front nine on the 16th of January, he commented in his diary, “extraordinary weather.”
Britannia hosted the world’s elite. Margaret Hamilton, of The Wizard of Oz, bet young Paul he couldn’t jump off the bridge of the lake steamer, “SS Iroquois”. Paul beetled down to the lake, clambered onto the steamer, and – as she pulled away from the dock – dove into the water. Margaret was delighted. The Captain, less so.
He told me about sailing to England, 8 years old, joining the passengers lining the railings, waving at a passing ocean liner. He remembered her lit from bow to stern, dazzling, new, music playing across the water, her passengers waving back. He also remembered his ship turning around in the middle of the night, going back, spending the next few days picking up survivors and debris from the Titanic.
He knew, at 105, the clock would run out. He sorted his taxes, wound up affairs, and worked hard to complete his memoirs. Typical of Paul, the title was hopeful. “My First One Hundred Years.” He promised to autograph my copy, but at the end his handwriting was too shaky. I treasure it, even so.

About the same time that Paul was preparing to leave the lake, another piece of our history was also packing up. The Rotunda, at Bigwin Inn, was demolished this May. If you never had the good fortune to see this building, you are a tiny bit poorer for that. During the era of the great hotels, Bigwin stood with the very best in the world. She opened in 1920, and for the first 20 years, never showed a business loss. The Rotunda was the first building you saw, arriving by Steamer. Huge and dark, it grew from massive foundations of local Muskoka stone to its vast dark redwood interior. It was the centerpiece of the hotel, quite literally, anchored on one side by the Indian Head dining room and the Dance Pavilion on the other.
Its eight fireplaces could burn logs up to 5 feet long. The two end fireplaces soared upward as massive anchors to the design. They both had stone seats worked into the exterior sides, so you could sit on the wide verandah on a cool day and stay warm. A buffalo head watched from one side of the interior, a moose from the other. One was a local… the other, like the guests, was a visitor. Within the 26,000 square foot area you could find the reception desk, post office, telegraph. switchboard, safe, writing alcoves, nurse and doctor’s offices, hairdressers, barbers, beauty salons, children’s playroom, newsstands, offices and gift stores.
From the Rotunda, covered walkways called cloisters extended to the accommodations in the East and West residences, the lakeside dining rooms, the tearoom, swim dock, steamer dock, dance pavilion and tennis courts. You could, in short, go anywhere along these cloisters, never needing an overcoat.
These were built mainly by prisoners of war during the First World War. Not a bad gig – while the allied POW’s were housed behind barbed wire on short rations in war torn Europe, the German POW’s spent the day working at one of the world’s most beautiful islands. A quick swim after work, and off to the dormitory for a good meal and bed. Bigwin had its own farm – there was no shortage of food. On the down side, there were plenty of mosquitoes and blackflies. Serve them right.
It was not all fun in the sun, however. The water tower, which held 100,000 gallons of water, was built from cement – like the dining halls and the cloisters. To get this cement to the top of the hill, that was the task. Much of the required gravel came from Bondi, my grandfather’s farm at the head of Haystack Bay, where a convenient gravel hillside was close to the lake.
Gravel was moved by hand down across the field, loaded on a barge, and towed to the Island. Here, the barges were moored side by side – water from the lake was mixed with cement which had arrived by Lake Steamer and the gravel. The resulting cement was sent up to the water tower site in 5 gallon buckets, on a pulley system. It kept one busy…
From its opening in1920, Bigwin was THE place to go, attracting the likes of flying ace Billy Bishop, Group of Seven painter Franklin Carmichael; Glenn Gould, Ernest Hemingway, Donna Douglas, Clark Gable, the Rockefellers, William Wrigley (of Wrigley’s gum) and several Prime Ministers. During World War II, after the Netherlands fell, Her Royal Highness Princess Juliana spent her summers at Bigwin. The Constitution of the Netherlands was held in the office safe while she was in residence.
The Rotunda has left the lake, after all these years. Neglect and weather did the worst of the work. Some of the fireplaces and the foundations have been preserved, along with the tea house. The new owners have restored the big round dining rooms by the shore and reconstituted the golf course into one of Canada’s finest. The Dance Pavilion fell to weather and neglect just one year before plans were finalized to stabilize and preserve it. This is how we lose our past, a little at a time. And how we remember.
A memory of the Titanic passing in the night. A swan dive from the bridge of a lake steamer. Stone chimneys, towering into the Muskoka sky, a reminder of a different time.
Paul’s book, unsigned. The tea room, scheduled to be restored and reopened, with a plaque about the Rotunda.
The lake is quieter with these great characters gone, but still hopeful, like Paul’s book title, anticipating the next 100 years.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Below the Ice on Enceladus

Looking at photos taken by the satellite Cassini of this minor moon off Jupiter, I was compelled by the images of the water vapour jetting from the polar ice, signifying the presence of unseen oceans, and the possibility of alien life.

Below the Ice on Enceladus

Below the ice on Enceladus
Water runs

That ocean’s sky a dome of ice
A touchable heaven
Colder than our Eden

Cassini drifting in the void
watched vapours
Geyser from the polar ice
A betrayal of that hidden world
Strange tides
Pulling stranger oceans
Below the ice on Enceladus

How does life begin?
Life needs water
The proximity of stars
To seed it.
Water needs life.

Jupiter’s moon of bridal white
throwing back the light
Blindingly empty --
So we thought

Enceladus, a Titan buried
Beneath a snow capped mountain
Frozen and stilled

Below the ice on Enceladus

Fountains bloom
Tides flex
Water, moving -- that’s a recipe --
A dash of sun
debris from exploding stars
That’s how life begins

Is that how it began here?
Earth, falling towards Virgo
through the dust of comets
the spray of stars exploding
Water, unbound from ice.
A Titan stirring
Life exploding
Until everywhere on this planet
Life sings, and blooms, grows, changes

Beneath the bridal white of Enceladus
Passions run ocean deep

what strange lives
dance below the ice on Enceladus
rocked by unseen ocean?
do they dream of land
of forests, dark and endless
the solid bone of rock
longing for drought

While here on earth, beneath the stars
Far below the ice of Enceladus
in the thick forests of Gombe
Chimpanzees dance to bring the rain

Friday, April 17, 2009

The food in Portuguese

My sister-in-law Carol told me, when I gave her this, that no-one had ever written her a poem before. Well, it's high time...

The food in Portuguese

The words
Fast and light as finches
Leave her mouth

Her old language
Spoken very young

Missionary child
In Brazil
Herself exotic
Eyes like stars
Dark hair swinging

She speaks it now
Describing food


Familiar dishes
Unfamiliar names


The words living things
Light and bright as Brazilian sun
More song than speech


The food a festival,
A feast for ears, and eyes and tongues


Summer’s heat dancing on the table
When Carol in a Canadian winter
Serves the food in Portuguese

Monday, March 30, 2009

You can hear Spring coming

Returning late from the stables, a place filled with the quiet sounds of horses' chewing hay, I stopped to admire the stars, and was struck by the whisper in the woods. So I wrote this...

Winter: the lake snaps and booms,
Ice shoving the shores, pressure and cold combining.
Blue jays scream at feeders, chips of blue
With strident voices.
Chickadees, soft in demure grays, call their names.
The pines stretch their needles, fingering the wind
Like harp strings, a murmur in the air.
Cedars hold the sound of the wind within,
And hemlocks offer the deepest hush, where snow falls without sound
Into the deeply silent tracks of deer.

But then
A shift --
The skies begin to fill with song,
Robins reclaim their world,
Killdeer scud across the muddy snow
Swallows appear, writing their names on the clear air.

The sun taps winter on the shoulder
And with bad grace, begrudging, winter starts to move.
Lakes that gleam blue in summer, gray through the autumn rains
Sparkle in white all winter,
In spring, those lakes turn black.
Long crystals form, the ice no longer booms:
It chimes with the wind. It sings, piling along shores
Glittering silver needles of ice.
Ducks arrive, gleeful in open water,
their wings loud, their voices clear in the dark.
And geese -- they call for summer,
their V in the sky splits winter apart,
changes the weather.

In the night, with the wind asleep, when all the trees stand still --
Listen... you can hear spring coming:
water begins to move.
Snow melting in the woods, the creeks flooding into lakes
Rattling the chiming crystals
Rocking the ducks to sleep.

Once water starts to flow,
Creating its songs over rocks and ice,
Demanding its way
Past cheering porcupines, love struck in the trees
And the yap of young foxes,
Sap lifts through the trees, dreaming of leaves.
Smelt stir in the currents of turbulent creeks.
Bears stretch in their dens.

Once water starts to move,
Elbowing winter aside,
If you listen
You can hear spring coming.

Friday, March 27, 2009

the word for gray

I was astonished to discover that the Roman language contains no word for the colour gray. Almost as astonished as to learn the Masai in Africa have no word for please... but many words for thank you.

The Word for Gray

The Romans had no word for gray.
What must they have thought, then
of British skies and endless clouds
the dark Atlantic foaming at the shores
Browns for mud
and songs of green --
so many greens, beneath the raining skies.
Stonehenge and her cohorts
standing across Europe
in unlikely fields --
bluestones, yes, and white cliffs...

What did they call the horses
dappled in the fields, aging into white
but strong with their youth and galloping hooves,
no longer black, not yet white.

Romans had no word for gray.
Did they, like the Inuit, have
27 words for blue?
100 more for green?
a score of browns?

Or did they trail sentences
into layer upon layer of adjective,
Was ocean the colour of Caesar's eyes
where it lapped the English beach?
Dark seas rolling under stark white cliffs,
the colour of hair piled high on Caesar's wife?

Was justice always black or white?
Or were the skies in Rome such endless blue,
and all our grays turned silver?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Nijinksy II

During a brilliant 13-race career this bay son of legendary Canadian stallion Northern Dancer became the first English Triple Crown winner (St. Leger, Two Thousand Guineas, Epsom Derby) in 35 years; set a European earning's record of $677,177; was Europe's Horse of the Year in 1970 and was syndicated for a then world-record $5.4 million, and entered into Racing's Hall of Fame. While I was later to own one of Nijinksy's own sons, and competed with him to a high level, this sonnet was written as an exercise for one of my professors. Who, doubtless, expected something all gushy about some sordid human love affair (as offered up by most of the class, evidently). Little did he know of the soaring love affairs of the heart that a truly elegant thoroughbred race horse might inspire...

For Nijinksy...
Quiet the thunder coiled and trapped within
that never louder England has heard roll
since anthems sang to this ancient Sport of Kings
woke hotly restless in your wilder soul.
You danced a dance your namesake never knew
while blazing truths of eagles filled your eyes;
worshipping speed -- and to that god still true --
urging your name together thousands rise.
Yet he who robs the wind of fame must learn
that other winds will join with blood and run.
That pressed too hard no hero can return
untarnished and commanding of the sun.
So fleet hooves sketch with faintest trace of lines
Brief victories on the shadow's of mens' minds.

Monday, March 16, 2009


Written following the death of my father...


some things, unholdable as breath
are all that is real.

the invisible pattern behind the skin,
silent, half-heard songs
of praise
warm as sunlight
in veins

radiance cannot be touched
behind the eyes, shining.

nor can the hand hold.
all the spirit leaves
in the palm
is absence.

some things cannot be held.

strange then
how others, equally untouchable –
a smile, a laugh,
voices long silent, words flown away
like autumns past.

secrets shared, unspoken.
a glance.
nothing one could touch, or grasp, or stay.


not in the palm.
heart held.

some things cannot be let go.

in this place,
means remembered.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Jays nest in Winter

For nearly fourteen years, one of our Gray Jays living in the spruce bog forest seen in this photo was part of the study on these birds done by Dan Strickland, from Algonquin Park. I had no idea jays could live that long. Her name was Pool Toser (taken from the colour of the bands on her legs: purple over orange left... teal over standard right) I was priveleged to go into the woods with the naturalists, to see her nest, 60' up in a spruce. This poem is for Pool.

Jays Nest in Winter

Sitting close, against the snow, in branches
rocked on by wind with teeth in it.
Jays do not go south,
Aware that weather is fleeting:
Today’s storm
Tomorrow’s sun…
Heat and cold mingle in the depths of starlight and snow,
Receding forever, until the stars are too close for touching
And the silence is fit for dreaming.

This beauty, these uncertainties,
These trials set by ever changing days
Best prepares the jays for living

Their faith as deep as winters’ night
And bright as spring morning

We could do worse than nest in winter

Saturday, March 14, 2009

In Salem that Cat Would Burn

Achmed appeared in the house (through the cat flap door) in December 2007. He got his name because he was (and is) a little ginger furred terror, who in one year has entrenched himself in houses and hearts, and has a fan club following him on the Bondi Resort Blog.

In Salem, that Cat Would Burn...

In Salem, that cat would be burned

as a witch

The way he wraps around doors and appears
Where cats have no business

Leaping from the wall to snatch at swallows
Believing he can fly. Almost. With practice for sure.

The paw in the fish tank, hopeful.
Emerging still dry, the drops shed from slick fur.

Nesting on laps. This cat who was meant to live outside
Sleep in the stable
Curled instead on pillows

Jimmying windows and hearts with equal ease
Bedeviling the dog

Clawing the couch. Eyes all innocent

Casting spells.

In Salem, he would burn for sure.

Spring so very Far

Wind in trees
Snow sighing
What waits outside
In December
Canada’s north
Snow come early
Cats by fires
Dogs by feet
Chill in the house
Despite the fire

Since you are gone
There is little warmth
Windows darken
The fire burns without heat

And I am cold
And cannot feel the blood
Within my veins

What did you take
Thief of existence
When you left this place

Leaving all behind
Except yourself

Is that your voice
In the wind
Your fingers combing through the trees
Do you stir the snow against the gray of sky

Or is that hollow hearts cannot hold the heat

Is the truth that grief is frozen
That all my world is locked in ice

Moving on, like birds rising across white fields
The sky flown empty with your loss

And spring so very far