Travel was on the menu at the November Plasticine Poetry. Features took us from PEI, to Brazil, then Cuba, and back to Toronto with Cathy Petch, our attentive stewardess and Michael Fraser, the navigator who plotted our course.
First up was Rod Weatherbie who opened his set with Invitation to ‘let the dog shit on this poem’ from his new book Chain of Islands (launch: Hot-Sauced, Thursday, 7 pm, Nov 21, the Black Swan on the Danforth). His pieces have a strong sense of place, family and unforced humour. Full of strong images: ‘this northern waste at the edge of everything,’ ‘tar like warm bread dough,’ ‘blacken stains of thieves on the wall.’
Next up was Susie Berg with a set of sharply funny pieces – speed-daters who move from chair to chair ‘with even lower exceptions of what love is.’ Her pieces about family where emotionally accessible, and her cancer poem touched many of us, ‘the word relapse is like collapse,’ ‘you can’t beg too many blessings.’
After the break Heather Birrell hit the stage with two well chosen scenes from a novel in progress. Both, set in a poetry workshop, had a fine sense of the individual participants, their motives and their separate voices, even thought it was not told from their pov. She captured the syntax of creative writing teachers and the feel of that sort of class. I enjoyed the ex-pat Cuban protagonist on the TTC, feeling his aloneness ‘the blank rocking is like love.’
Last up was Priscila Uppal who took us from Brazil in her search for her mother and to London for sports poems. ‘my poetry comes form my father’s chest’ led me to think of my own father & how his life view effected my writing. I loved the observation about men ‘all they need is something to carry to feel they have a place in this universe.’ Who can resist a pentathlon pantoum.
Brazilian water polo team
Birk climbs up the blocked mine shaft.
The miners pulled back from the sudden fall of dust and scree. Moments later Red and Sandy Smit stumbled out of the shaft and onto the floor.
“Cage is jammed between two floors.” Red said. “Can’t squeeze past it.”
“What about the trap in the floor?” one of the miners asked.
“Twisted and we I couldn’t get a good enough grip on it with m’hands. We need some sort of way to pry at it and hold our grip to the wall at the same time. Someone light enough so as I can give hold to him in place long enough.”
“He’s talking about you Birk!” Clancy whispered.
Birk nodded but wasn’t sure he’d have the strength to do what was expected.
“Who’s the smallest here.” Sandy asked.
“That’ll be me.” Birk stepped forward.
“So y’are Birk MacDonnell, so you are. You’re dad’ll ner forgive me if anything happens to you.”
“He’ll never forgive me if I don’t do what I can now either. So what’s the plan.”
“Anyone got a pick or a better yet a crow bar. Small enough to carry up a few hundred of feet.”
A couple of the miner’s dropped to their knees to feel through the rubble.
“All’s we have is these couple of shovels Red.” Sandy said handing him one of them.
Birk took the shovel and struck it hard against the floor. The blade bent. “We’ll need something stronger than that. But if it’s best we got it’ll have to do.”
“Give me your belts boys.” Red said. “We can use them to strap on to the cage floor for safety.”
Birk strapped a couple of belts around his chest and the shovel with the head at his back so his hands would be free for the climb up. He hadn’t clambered up the cage shaft since he was a kid. Once he Geo had snuck in to the pit and without thinking began to climb down the side of what they thought was the empty shaft. When they heard the creak of the car being hauled up they panicked and didn’t know what to do. Didn’t know if they could get up before it reached them.
He found a shallow recess barely big enough for him yet he and Geo were able to press themselves into while the cage rattled past.
He took a deep breath and reached up for the first of the hand holds in the framework and pulled himself up. He could hear the drip of water from below. Once he had pulled himself up far enough for his feet to find the holds he moved faster. Red was right behind him.
Some of the holds were loose in the rock, others were tight to the frame. His eyes peered for the next one. Once he reached for one and that wasn’t there and lost his footing. “Oh God!” he gasped as he pulled himself hard to the wall with the hand that was clutching the scaffolding.
“You okay, Birk.”
“Yeh Red. Hope I didn’t piss in yer face.” He was cold and sweating at the same time. His undershirt was sticking to him and he longed to scratch his balls. “Got an itch that I can’t scratch.” he laughed and the laughing calmed him down.
“That’s the story of every man who gets married.” Red laughed a little.
They came to where the cage was jammed. The trap was on the bottom of the cage on the side furthest from them. Little light filtered from above. Birk could see where the slide catch was but could also see that there was rubble on top of it as well.
Red looped a couple of the belts and rope he had brought around the openings in the cage floor.
“Hold on to these as best you can.” He helped Birk slip his arms through them. “If I lose grip of ya these’ll hold you.”
“Like that guy in the circus.” Birk was trembling.
“It’s alright to be scared, lad.” He kept an arm around Birk’s waist as Birk leaned as far forward as he could and tried to pry at the catch.
Birk locked his gaze on the underside of the cage. Even though it was pitch dark beneath him he also knew it was a far drop with nothing between him the the four levels beneath.
He tested his weight on the belts that Red had wound around his shoulder and slotted through the bottom of the cage. They held firm enough but didn’t leave Birk much head room either. He angled himself as best he could and pushed at the catch with the blade of the shovel. It didn’t give.
“How’s it lookin’ lad?” Red asked.
“Doesn’t feel’s if it’s been opened in some time. Maybe if I can reach with m’fingers I can grasp it.” He leaned a bit further. One of the belts slid and his heart raced as he abruptly lurched out of Red’s hold.
“My God!” Red shouted. Red pitched forward off his perch on the scaffolding.
Birk felt Red’s hands grab at his coveralls but not hold on. Birk twisted to see if he could see what what happened. Red was gone. A few moments later he heard a dull thud as Red’s body hit the bottom of the shaft.
Birk was dangling, held by the belts, to the bottom cage. His whole weight thrown on it. The cage groaned and shuddered but held where it was.
Birk tried to get a foot hold on either wall but he couldn’t reach. The seam in his coveralls cut into the flesh between his legs. He looked again to the trap. Each motion caused him to sway a little in the dark. He smelled his sweat. His fear. He swung the blade of the shovel at the metal grid of the trap and the sound echoed in the shaft.
He wiped the sweat from his face and peered at the underside of the floor. There were some holds in the grid work, drains to keep the cage clear of water. He worked his fingers of his left hand into the furthest ones he could reach and pulled himself forward toward the catch. The belts held him so that he couldn’t quite reach. His neck was twisted as he was pulled tighter to the cage.
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