The Past Catches Up

The Past Catches Up


 I am from the rusted rain
seeded by steel plant smoke
black pearl grit that fell 

in layers of grey white grey white 


when the coke oven exhaust
would blast into the summer air
its thick rank billows
we kids would watch the wind
if it blew in our direction
clothes would be brought in off the line 

or else rewashed and hung another day 

the fine particle dust
would settle on car roofs
still hot enough to fuse with the paint 

white would gradually turn black
then red as grit rusted 


no teacher at recess said 

you kids better get inside 

stop breathing it in
we kids never felt
those particles settle 

in our hair 

on tongues 

into our lungs
it was a slightly annoying consequence 

of the industry
that put food on the table


food our mothers cooked
while the blast furnace
spewed the air
to pepper the food we ate
at night we’d breathe it into our dreams 


all these years later
I wake from that east coast dream 

I wonder if this is the price
I still pay for growing up
where paying the rent 

and feeding the kids 

was worth the cold damp steel poison price 

where the spew of commerce
was considered a viable trade off 

for life expectancy


a time when they may not 

have known better 

surely there are no buried studies
that showed the ravages
of this blast furnace debris
on the lungs of those who breathed it in 

ate it in the food
drank it in our water 


when I cough for no reason
in dry air damp air fresh air
short of breath 

from drowning in iron smoke 

I taste that pollution pulsation
I still call home

This is the last piece in the chapbook and it echos the ‘I am’ from first piece. The incidents are real – bringing the wash is or rewashing it or timing the hanging to avoid the blast furnace dusts. My father didn’t realize how corrosive this dust was until we were washing the car one day and the fused particles were impossible to clean off the roof of the car. The grit used because of its iron content.

Not mentioned here is that in the areas immediate to the still plant families were forced to move because the soil had become poisoned with arsenic & other steel plant effluvia. This poisoning was know & denied by the powers that be. Those homes were abandoned with some compensation. The incidence of cancers, lung infections & birth deformities that radiate out from that area became too significant to ignore.

There was no real concern for decades about how the chemicals from this industry affected people’s health. By the time the steel plant closed areas of it were considered the most polluted in North America. Perfect place for your kids to play, now that the land has been capped in the tar ponds reclamation project.

Although my home wasn’t that close, my school was, my job was, so I did experience some of the damage which results in my slightly dry cough. There is no compensation for that, nor was the compensation to those people who had to move enough to make up for the family members lost to the poison of making a living.

previous Brown Betty posts:

Man With A Past 1

When I Was A Young Boy

Home (not of the brave)



The Colliery

Hey! Now you can give me $$$ to defray blog fees & buy coffee – sweet,eh? 


For the summer I’m looking at my Brown Betty chapbook. All the pieces dealt with growing up in Cape Breton.


Hendrix: burning the midnight lamp soon 

… I wish I was a merman 


messy coffee table
open bottles wine beer Scotch
weed rolled in papers 

too thin to write on 

yet strong enough to hold 

a shared dream 


three of us
Del me Kathy
share this joint enterprise
laugh at a phrase 

I was going through 

hands touch to pass
the precious opener of minds  

or rather the opener of pants 

as Del loudly called it
his eyes on Kathy 

she gave him a look
that said ‘see you later’
then left 

with her cigarettes 

and the remains of the wine


‘uptight bitch’ Del laughed 

as the door shut
he stayed
the supply on hand
held more appeal than
the supply leaving the room 

that Jimi guitar
hooked its way around our brain
led our vision across patterns
my voodoo child eyes would wander
all along the corduroy
that hugged and held Del

he invitingly pushed 

the coffee table away 

to make room on the floor
we had become so smoke soft 

only the backless floor 

could hold our floating rolling bodies 

till we found ourselves


I could feel the crosstown traffic of my heart 

the sensation of his tongue on mine
the coarse grind of pubic hair on stomach
a move for a breath of air 

to refresh the disguise of liquor 

thighs hands lips
trimming a midnight lamp
that still burns today 

but no longer needs
a smoke-screen
the bottled mask of permission

A snap shot of an older me in my mid-20’s. I wasn’t ‘out’ but after a few drinks, in the right circumstances, I wasn’t as guarded. This piece revolves around Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland. The situation wasn’t unusual either though it was a pleasant surprise when ‘Del’ pushed that coffee table away.

There are lots of references to songs on the album of which my favorite is ‘all along the corduroy.’ A variation on ‘all along the watchtower.’ The line also refers to a famous photo of Henrix in form fitting, deep red, corduroy that seem to barely contained his cock. You’ll have to listen to the album to track down all the references.

Del & Kathy aren’t the actual names, the events come from a few occasions. Some of guys I drank with had rather cavalier attitudes towards their girlfriends of the moment & would often say things like ‘opener of pants.’ Often parties would end when people ran out of smokes.

I wasn’t really a fan of grass & rarely used it directly. Second hand smoke was close enough but when things went as they did here I did my best to get with it 🙂 I guess the pants Del was talking about were his.

I knew a couple of guys who were ‘explorative’ after several drinks. I would always know they were in the mood when they showed up at my little place on the East Coast with a forty-ouncer under their arm. One guy was a great kisser. But they needed that liquid permission. So did I then. I no longer do but I recently heard a gay podcast host confess that he’s never had sex sober – so I guess some still count on bottled permission even when they aren’t wearing a mask.

previous Brown Betty posts:

Man With A Past 1

When I Was A Young Boy

Home (not of the brave)


Dad’s Pockets


Hey! Now you can give me $$$ to defray blog fees & buy coffee on my trip to Cape Breton – sweet,eh? 

Dad’s Pockets

For the summer I’m looking at my Brown Betty chapbook. All the pieces dealt with growing up in Cape Breton.

Dad’s Pockets

as a kid
I would go through the pockets
of my Dad’s suit coats sport jackets
as they hung in the closet
I would find quarters 

which I’d take sometimes 

fifty-cent pieces which I’d leave 


I’d slip the over-sized jackets
off their hangers 

wear them 

in the dark of the closet 

in the smell of his things
his shoes miles too big for me 

trying to steal into adulthood 


I’d skulk out
from my secret foray
a little daring thief sneaky guilty
fearful of being found out 

when he’d miss the pocket change
I’d be confronted
say too quick I don’t know 

what he meant 

blurt out I didn’t do that
which he never believed 

if only I’d hung those coats back 

the right way 

he’d let me go with warning
that I never heeded
I’d be back there in a week or so 

go through those pockets 

try on those sport jackets

grow much too slow into adulthood 

much too quick into guilt

The upstairs bedrooms in our family home had sizeable walk-in closets in each room. I wish I had that much closet space now. My closet here is so small that if I buy a new short or hoodie I have to get rid of one to make room for it 🙂 The closets had sliding doors. There was a time I wished they made the Enterprise door opening sound.

My Dad was a salesman with a nice collection of sports coats, suits & shoes. Nothing overly colourful mind you, all very sensible & well made, even if off-the-rack. He balanced dressing ‘well enough to get your customers respect’ with dressing so well ‘your customers think you are taking them for a ride.’ The piece accurately describes what sometimes happened – me going through the pockets.

In fact I was a bit of a snoop & would got through various cupboards to see what I might find. Once I found a little black, hard plastic box with lids. One had a Monday to Sunday calendar with golden screws glues on to each day, two on Saturday. I didn’t get the joke then. Another box held a reclining female nude with salt & pepper shakers for boobs. Only one hole in each. A plaque said ‘you never know what you’re going to get.’


I did get caught & learned not to take all the loose change 🙂 I did try on his jackets & shoes. When I was old enough for the jackets to fit me I sure wasn’t willing to wear them. My taste is clothes never meshed with his. Though when I visited home after his death I did pick out two of his leather jackets that fit me & still wear them occasionally. There was no loose change in the pockets.


previous Brown Betty posts:

Man With A Past 1

When I Was A Young Boy

Home (not of the brave)


Hey! Now you can give me $$$ to defray blog fees & buy coffee on my trip to Cape Breton – sweet,eh? 


For the summer I’m looking at my Brown Betty chapbook. All the pieces dealt with growing up in Cape Breton.


‘don’t bite your nails’ 


I never knew I was biting my nails 

till I was told to stop
it kept me from chewing my lower lip 

good thing I didn’t have long hair
or I’d have been chewing on that too 


I rubbed my eyes
tried to focus on the blackboard 

so much to learn 

all I could think was 

that I’d never learn it all 


‘stop biting your nails’ ‘sorry’


I didn’t feel my teeth 

try to find a bit of nail 

how did it happen 

that Mike Kennedy two rows over 

never did things like that
he never got a runny nose
and let it dribble on his tongue


Mike turned around to say something 

to Trevor Steeles behind him
they laughed looked at
Liz Sampson 

on the other side of me 

she stared out the window
as she chewed her hair 


the teacher droned on
‘take notes this will be on the exam’ 


our little pens itched
page after page of big words
all of which would be on the exam 

dazed I filled the margins
with small zigzag mazes
when I was trying not to bite my nails
or chew my lower lip bloody


little mazes
that never got me out of this puzzle
I could barely grasp
the writing on the blackboard
a scattering of thin snow on mud
I had to plod through this sludge
to rescue meaning
then I’d be safe

on the other side of the exams 


‘stop biting your nails 

you can’t take notes 

with your fingers in your mouth’
the class all looked at me laughing


‘it helps me think’ 


‘another reason to stop
at your age 

is a dangerous thing’


‘yes sir, I’ll never 

think in your class again’


funny what I could say
when my fingers stopped 

getting in the way 

All through school I had attention problems. I was easily distracted and was more interested in things around me than what the teacher was saying. I was one of those kids who filled in all the ‘o’ on a page. In high-school teachers would often dictate things for us to write down – no mimeographed hand-outs in those days – the theory being writing it out made more of an impression on the teen brain. Sometimes we had to hand in our note books for the teacher to approve of our note taking.

This is a Sydney Academy high-school memory. I think the class was Civics, in which we were learning about government from the top down – federal, provincial, city. It made running for alderman very unappetizing 🙂 My attention would always wander in this class and I would be abruptly brought to reality by the teacher. Was I biting my nail at this moment? Possibly. In this class we weren’t allowed to fidget either.

I wasn’t considered out of the bright boys in the class & didn’t get much attention from the teacher. I stop nothing too put my hand up as the keeners quickly got all his focus. I did doodle in my notebooks. zig-zags, spirals that sort of thing. When taking notes I was something writing teen-age angst poetry with lots of rhymes – because that was how one wrote real poetry. Influenced by Paul Simon mainly with a dash of Dylan.

I got caught doodle daydreaming more than once in this class & the teacher never hesitated to point out to me, in front of the class, that I wasting my brain by not paying attention to his insights. If wanted to get better than c’s I’d have to smarten up etc. I did innocently say ‘I was thinking’ & gave the ‘never think’ reply too. He had me stay after class to lecture me on being a smart mouth. I think it was the closet I ever came to a teaching calling me smart.


I didn’t dare tell him that what I was thinking of, sometimes, were the barely hidden boners of a couple of my classmates. Maybe that’s what I imagining myself biting when I was biting my nails 🙂 



previous Brown Betty posts:

Man With A Past 1

When I Was A Young Boy

Home (not of the brave)

Hey! Now you can give me $$$ to defray blog fees & buy coffee on my trip to Cape Breton – sweet,eh? 

Home (not of the brave)

For the summer I’m looking at my Brown Betty chapbook. All the pieces dealt with growing up in Cape Breton. As usual WordPress plays havoc with line breaks 😦

Home (not of the brave)

he lived across the street from us 

mornings I’d peek from the front door 

till he had left for school
then I’d sneak along the maple trees 

make my way down the hill to class


most days I’d avoid him 

his gang 

sometimes I couldn’t

and would come home 

with a bloodied nose bruises 

that disappointed my dad
who didn’t understand
why I couldn’t stand up for myself


after school 

when I was in sight of home 

I’d run like hell to the front door 

where I’d be safe but not secure 

I grew up & spent many years as adult thinking I was a coward. No matter how many people tell me I’m so brave with what I write, in how I present myself – I still thought of myself as a coward. I have another piece about how uneasy I can feel walking past a group of teens because of my memories of being bullied, taunted as a teen by groups of teens. 

Looking back I see the cultural context that I didn’t fully understand: men prove their worth with their fists – simple as that violence = masculinity. I was never very competitive so I also got caught in winner = masculinity. Queers were already labeled as inferior so there were all these contracts in my head that I didn’t even recognized. I felt shame because I wasn’t able, or even willing, to conform to those behaviours that would make me a full fledged boy, man. Like Pinocchio I wanted to be a real boy. 

Part of this shame came from feeling that I didn’t live up to my Dad’s expectations of my masculinity. Expectations that’ like my own, came from not questioning the cultural coding of masculinity. The incidents in this pieces are true. When we moved to the Ashby in Sydney there was a Catholic family across & down the street from us of loud boys, a drunken Dad, an older sister with a reputation. One of the boys was about my age. He smoked, was a tough, had been in trouble with authorities, had a gang of three or four other buys he hung with & got into trouble with – stealing things from cars etc.


I quickly became one of their targets for bully bating, name calling & some physical confrontations. One this picks don my much younger bother hoping it would get me to defend him – how could I protect him hen I couldn’t even defend myself? My dad though I should learn judo at the local Y. There was a clear sense I was a disappointment to him for not being as manly as the juvenile delinquents across the street. 

I wanted to be a real boy but never succeeded.

previous Brown Betty posts:

Man With A Past 1

When I Was A Young Boy

Hey! Now you can give me $$$ to defray blog fees & buy coffee on my trip to Cape Breton – sweet,eh? 

When I Was A Young Boy

For the summer I’m looking at my Brown Betty chapbook. All the pieces dealt with growing up in Cape Breton. As usual WordPress imposes its own line breaks 😦

When I Was A Young Boy

when I was a young boy 

I kissed a girl 

when I was a young boy

about 11 

I kissed a girl 

she was about 11
it was at a birthday party
not hers 

she was wore a frilly rose-yellow dress 

I wore a white shirt and tie 

so maybe it wasn’t a birthday party 

maybe a wedding


there were about a dozen of us
kids from various families 

kids that sort of knew each other 

made to dress like little adults 


we watched adults kissing greeting 

and like little adults we kissed 

I don’t remember her name 

but I kissed her
she didn’t seem to mind 

then we chased each other 

sneaking kisses 

till we were caught 

someone’s mother
gave a little shocked shriek 

‘oh you naughty kids’ 


the other kids picked that up
and ran around 

calling me ‘naughty boy’

‘naughty boy’
while the little girl I kissed 

blushed then joined in with them 

as if it was all my fault
all my idea


the adults got in on it after awhile 

‘oh look there’s the naughty boy 

watch out or he’ll kiss you’ 


when I was a young boy
I kissed a girl
I learned my lesson
I never a kissed another girl

This piece starts as a traditional English ballad. There are many variations on this beginning – when I was a young …. is the start of many a story, almost like ‘once upon a time.’ Even the ‘I kissed’ come out of the old school tradition. Though there is also a nod some recent pop songs. The party setting is also very tradition – the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner starts with the mariner talking to a wedding guest.

The piece plays on the nature of memory, of place, circumstances. Growing up I ended up at similar events, wearing a shirt & tie with kids I didn’t know, some of whom I never saw again either. The story unfolds in a sweet logically way, much as the traditional ballad would tell the story, adding layer so detail as it progressed. In ballad the hero always faced some sort of ‘conflict.’

I’ve always found it puzzling when young children are asked if they have a boyfriend or girlfriend while the idea of children’s sexuality is so fought with fear & shame at once. Their lack of sexual knowledge is praised, almost encouraged & shamed all at the same time.

This piece was written for a class I took Make-A-Scene on performative story telling.,,  When I performed it I wore shorts, a white shirt & a playful tie. The girl was played by a helium balloon with a string that put it at about about shoulder height to me. I found one with a girl’s face on it. My class mates did the ‘naughty boy’ shaming. At the end of the piece I cut the string and it floated away. 

Hey! Now you can give me $$$ to defray blog fees & buy coffee on my trip to Cape Breton – sweet,eh? 

Man With A Past 1

For the summer I’m looking at my Brown Betty chapbook. All the pieces dealt duh growing up in Cape Breton. Sadly WordPress had imposed line breaks that I can’t figure out how to fix.

Man With A Past 1

I am from a cup of King Cole black tea

steeping in a Brown Betty pot
flat fried scones
burned pancakes on Sunday mornings

born in Manitoba
moved to Cape Breton before I was ten
the Cape is an island of cousins aunts uncles 

I had none
only good parents

who couldn’t protect me

from a context they wanted to fit 

I am from the rusted rain
seeded by steel plant exhaust
black pearl gritted snow
that fell in layers of grey white grey white 

my mother a Welsh war bride
a family of eleven brothers and sisters 

lots of cousins aunts uncles in-laws 

oceans too far away
to coax me into this island world 

told that not fitting in was my fault
why didn’t I try harder 

be more like other kids 

so I hid    but that’s not the point
because we all hide 

I am from an east coast pollution pulsation 

I still call home
where paying the rent and feeding the kids

was worth the cold damp steel poison price 

while the blast furnace
spewed the air
to pepper the food we ate
at night no one saw it
flood our dreams

I am from Swedes who changed
the last name of their first born to Armstrong 

a name I could never live up to
never defend in school yard brawls
would come home
with a bloodied nose   bruises
that disappointed my dad
who didn’t understand
why I couldn’t stand up for myself 

stranded on the molehill of 

growing up queer
no role models to offer hope
in a culture of judgement and fear 

so I hid   but that’s not the point 

because we all hide 

I am diverted from
the history I have
by a history that is denied to me 

when researchers into
the lives of gay men and women 

in WWII fighting forces
are asked 

why sully the memory 

of our brave men and women 

I am from an unrecorded past 

where there was no name
till what I am became labelled 

by incomprehensible fear 

the point is – I survived what past I had
by creating a self 

out of the fear and shame 

hidden in my past
but today
no longer hiding from it

I suppose from the context you know that King Cole is a black tea 🙂 It is blended for the Maritime market & first sold in 1910. It is a strong, black tea found, at one time, in nearly every Cape Breton home. Brown Betty is a common tea pot also found in many east coast homes. Traditional, functional & not ornamental. Solid. I’ve had mine for so long I don’t remember when I got it.

My mother preferred Red Rose. She was the maker of the flat, fried scones – they were almost cookies. She added raisins & pressed the thick dough with an egg flipped onto the frying pan to brown each side. Yummy with butter. My Dad was the pancake man. He would make them nearly every Sunday for us kids.

As you might conclude by now this piece is autobiographic. Full of real details & understanding. Though the understanding came years later. I don’t think my Dad realized how interconnected the families were when he settled us in Sydney. All my cousins were in Wales. I couldn’t visit them after school, or stay with an aunt for a weekend. Fitting in was my problem not theirs.

The main industry in Sydney was the steel plant. As the piece says it belched clouds of smoke regularly. Sometime white, sometimes black, sometimes grey. In school we were taught how steel was made but it was never explained to us what this smoke was made up of – clearly it wasn’t just steam. Years later, when the Steel Plant closed it was revealed how dangerous this was & how poised even the soil in areas closest to the plant were.

But that’s not the point of this piece – except that it was merely one of the secrets hidden like the the secrets I kept hidden. Looking back I see how isolated I was in this culture – on that molehill – knowing my queer secret & the shame that forced me to keep it. 


The WWII book is Paul Jackson’s excellent One Of The Boys. He had to deal with this attitude of ‘why sully’ while doing is research. The ‘why sully’ still exists when it comes to allowing queer representation to be part of my history. It was only recently that Tchaikovsky’s love letters were allowed to be published. That they weren’t destroyed at the time – which happened to many ‘creatives’ though history – is a surprise. My ‘love letters’ will live forever thanks to the Internet 🙂 There is no hiding here.

Hey! Now you can give me $$$ to defray blog fees & buy coffee on my trip to Cape Breton – sweet,eh? 

What am I worth?

According to my 1977 chap book Distant Music is worth £59.95 !! plus shipping – Even some US sellers. Who knew? I was just checking google/yahoo search engines to see what my name might pull up – mainly to see how high in those lists my blog would appear –

Planning to do a down east set at the Art Bar next month it seemed fitting that I’d get a reminder of the chap book that was published while I was still stranded there. I had attended the University of New Brunswick summer writing workshops a couple of years in a row. I got to workshop with Alden Nowlan, M. Travis Lane, even John Metcalf.  Fred Cogswell enjoyed my work and had Fiddlehead publish the chap book.

stairs to where

I slaved over the manuscript. Those were the days of retyping an entire page if there was one typo – very labour intensive – no spell check either – sadly I never saw the proofs before it went to publisher and the book was fraught with errata – some my fault, many were typesetting problems. But I was in print. I did my own cover design as well.

It has lots of that over emotive angsty young man stuff ‘Our voices/Heard as echoes/Over the windless/Barren plains of speech’  Lots of rambling, multi-part things & several rather short (for me) pieces. Some of it still holds up, I think, even though I was capitalizing every line & even using punctuation

I have read a few pieces from it at past features but given time constraints that is rarely feasible. I’ll have a copies with me for sale at my Art Bar feature. I’ve also put together a chapette book for the reading – all the pieces I read will be in it plus a few bonus cuts. I did this last year for a feature and it worked out well. $3.00 for the chapette or free if you buy the Fiddlehead chapbook at $10.00. (Update May 2019: I have a few copies left – $25.00 )


from Distant Music

Black Flies



To chance encounters

Stories to share

Suffering to compare.



Careful scarves

Spare realizations

Fleshy destinations.

Darting black flies

Looking for blood.