Ending this look back with something humorous. I’d say funny but the ending is a bit too sardonic. I’ve written similar pieces in which I play with clichés in unpredictable ways. I enjoy the way this poem twists around language &, hopefully, takes the reader by surprise with the unexpected ending image.
The poem a bit didactic with the almost aphoristic opening about holding on to hope. How long will Trump hold on to his unsubstantiated conspiracy theory? Pride keeps some holding on rather than letting go & moving on. Slim hopes: like ‘this time it’ll be different,’ ‘he/she didn’t really mean it’ etc. We find it easier to continue to invest in hopeless causes than move on.
Lessons learned can be quickly forgotten or ignored with the promise of resurrection. Red flags ‘heavy footfall’ ‘tripping over a chair’ are ignored with that promise ‘I’ll change.’ Or we get caught in being the nice guy afraid that by establish & maintaining a boundary we won’t be liked. ‘If you love me you’ll forgive me.’ ‘Don’t you trust me.’
Alcoholics often continue to drunk, well aware of the consequences – often there is no event, consequence or loss painful enough to get them to stop. In fact that pain becomes an excuse to keep on drinking, the promise of forgetting. Doing the same thing over & over expecting a different result.
This version of Our Lady is from 1976. It went through several revisions before this one was considered done, the writing of it may go back to 1974. The one change I made in 2021, beside proof reading, was to move one section to improve flow. It did come to me as a whole piece starting with that title, which is a sardonic play on Catholic reverence – ‘Our Lady’ almost being the same as Saint. There’s also an echo of The Lady of the Lake. Here Striptease is elevated to a sacred art form.
Here, too, is my structural reliance on numbered sections, a lesson learned from T.S. Elliot. I thought it made my poetry look more serious on the page. Section 3 features my interest in sound poetry ‘kaboom kaboom’ as I give Our Lady a drummer for her number. In other pieces I explore this use of sound even further. I don’t think I’ve ever performed this one so I don’t know how the sounds sound 🙂
There is almost a story line as Our Lady prepares, then goes on stage, performs, then relaxes after & goes to bed. We are the audience for this show & the tip-toe observer literally turns the reader from audience into a secret voyeur. The point of view shifts subtly through out the poem from the ‘I’ to the omniscient poet’s eye that decides her toys are lurching. Finally to the figure spying.
Striptease is essentially a heterosexual male pleasure that invites lust with distance, without real investment in the object other than the surface. Writing about it was a way of establishing my masculinity as a poet. I wasn’t really out at the time, unless getting drunk & having sex with a drunk buddy counts. I was okay being bi but I kept my poetry focus on women.
It’s also about unrequited sex. Our Lady offers it to men who can’t have her, she goes home alone. Our peeper also goes home alone satisfied with his glimpse of the off stage Lady. Both of them caught in a culture in which the observed surface replaces real connection.
Another of the stumble-drunk poems. This one about those drinking pals I look forward to so much simply so I didn’t have to drink alone. I recall one booze buddy who said I was the best pal he ever had – sound familiar – years later I heard that line in a song about drinking. Years later, I don’t remember which booze hound said that about me. I’m sure it was after buying a round drinks.
‘you treat me like shit’ is an actual line said to me, more than once. As a drunk I was emotionally overwrought while being detached at the same time. I was sardonic, even cruel, when not feeling much sympathy for the travails of others. Partially because I thought that a nasty streak made me appear more intelligent, witty, intellectual. It was also a way to keep people from getting to close. I’d rather they thought I was nasty than gay.
Things did get broken 🙂 The drunken confessions weren’t mine, though I may have felt some of those things. I wasn’t afraid of death – after all being a drunk is a slow death. I had suicidal thoughts & imagined drinking myself to death like my hero Dylan Thomas or doing some theatrical gesture like another of my heroes, Yukio Mishima.
My conceit wasn’t in thinking I was not as bad as my drinking buddy but thinking only I recognized that I was probably worse than him & he was humouring me so he could get another drink. Neither us were looking for change unless it was to try a different mix for our drinks.
I don’t recall any real hero worship going up. I wasn’t a sports fan so there weren’t posters of hockey or baseball players on my walls. A few of pop stars but they weren’t really heroes, or even role models. I was quite fascinated by the astronauts though, I did repeatedly read a paperback I had that told their story.
More than anything this piece reflects my fascination for the macabre & the pleasure I take in pushing narrative in unexpected directions. The title leads you to expect a poem about a celebrity or some low-key humdrum person who is a role model but instead starts with this image of a body – is this the body of my hero? The language is matter-of-fact almost newswire in lack of emotional content.
Second verse still downplays emotion but with a hint of the sardonic in making the violence mundane. Then comes the the hero – the chalk man. ‘When I grow up’ indicates our narrator is a child, maybe an adolescent but one who is unaffected by the body but who sees the practicality of dealing with it in a detached way – ‘record the positions.’ Perhaps someone who has watched too many police procedurals on TV. In some ways it is a comment on how indifferent we become to violence.
More recently I’ve seen children’s chalk drawings all over the sidewalks since the pandemic lockdowns in Toronto, Multicoloured flowers, faces, words of encouragement, even a hopscotch with 100 squares! Recently one for the 215 bodies of children found at a Residence. Chalk plays a big role in children’s lives it allows for impermanent self-expression that can be immediate & freeing at the same time.
The last verse veers into poetics with an ending as unexpected as the actual fall. The finality of death. It moves from the childlike voice of ‘he’s my hero’ into the one of that ‘final dive.’ Again impermanence – an outline that will wash away in the rain. A hero who will always have a job.
Capturing the innocence of early sexual awareness was a challenge. Making it too explicit would turn it into child porn. I know many whose early sexual experiences were abuse. Mine weren’t as sweet as this, being fraught with my queer awareness without having words for that awareness.
I did do some of ‘the pants down in the garage’ play but not as depicted here. The naked behind down the street was not unusual either. In summer we played jumping around the garden sprinkler & squirting each other with the hose. Often some clothing would be discarded to the ‘shock’ of parents.
I like the way it conveys sexuality without being either coy or frank but in a matter-of-fact way. I also feel my poet’s fear here, keeping it heterosex focused because in 76 I was certainly more interested in men but hadn’t found a way to write about it that felt safe. This poem is mildly daring but totally safe too.
In my pants down show & tell play I was more interested in what the boys had to show. I don’t know if I felt shame but more the fear of being caught. It was fun being naughty but the fear lead to guilt. It wasn’t until decades later that I found out this sort of adolescent ‘sex’ play was normal. I’m grateful for not being caught which would have turned this into some sort of parental outrage trauma as opposed to a sweet recollection of an event that didn’t damage my sexual journey of discovery with lectures & shame for being a child.
This poem reflects my adoration of Yukio Mishima. His life, writing & death were inspirations to me. Over the years I have read nearly everything of his translated into English, as well as biographies & critical studies of his work. Through the piece are mentions of his works – Sun & Steel is his book about samurai culture & ritual. He saw suicide as an artist expression. He was also queer.
The opening & closing are like Japanese water colours with a few simple brushstrokes creating a vivid image in blank space. The in-between verses are like chrysanthemum – multi-petaled with repeated words, images, analogies that reflect, then vary as they move like a kaleidoscope to form then reform new pictures.
Words were carefully picked for sonics & meaning & poetic vibrancy. ‘feathered rhapsody’ ‘crescendo of invention’ are Dylan Thomas candy. I had some brightly coloured Java Temple finches at one time so I’m sure they were inspiration for all the bird imagery. I must have seen a documentary on bird feathers & bones & that relates to their ability to fly but it is possible I made that stuff up too.
hey learn to fly by being pushed out of the nest – it’s either spread your wings or die trying, discover their perfect landing or become part of the black curves. Poems have to pushed out the nest to fly into the lives people that the poet often never meets. We writers never know where our words will land once we set them free. The vision one has of oneself as a poet, as person, also has to leave a nest, though unlike birds we have more options to try as we learn to negotiate life & often never find that perfect landing.
slowly pick up the pieces of my half-finished book
wash my hands
I often wash my hands
not thin tapers
with long artistic fingers but squarish
with solid grasping fingers
yes I paint
you’d never tell from my fingers
that I do anything
you’re never tell from my hands
that my fingers
savour the skin of knuckles
brick wall ground
grazed as they pound a head
the head that would never think
that of these hands
as they touch
the corners of your mouth
down the back stairs
playing on the pipes
playing at them with spoons
‘here it comes’
tapping at the airfoil
pumping on the surface
playing on the pipes
echoing up the stairs
‘here it comes’
then I dream
sorry sorry sorry
all so sorry
I didn’t stop to think
I rarely do
I think of myself
I only prime the repercussion
playing on the pipes
“pieces of flesh
and some hair
were found …”
is always clean
I like the feel
gripping at my hair
pulling it out
roots & all
looking for a hold
to keep me looking
as they slip away
as my eyes disbelieve
my act of turning a corner
without looking back
to see if I did
or if I glimpsed the doing
reflected by alley darkness
that’s how they found me
‘here it comes’
my knuckles raw
the spoon of blood
in my mouth
my perception clears
a book on my lap
spoons tapping on the pipes
something in the air
a taste of spring lamb
I want to kill
am too tired to clean
want to kill
I come back to my vision
a dream revelation
of the endless tease
within my grasp
without my control
This poem equates violence with masculinity in a very direct, in your face way propelled by a barely contained anger. I was compelled to write something that was aggressive, unflinching to get away from the emotional delicacy of the poetry I was force fed in high-school. There was lack of real physical interaction beyond the tenderness of a lover’s kiss. I wanted to write things that weren’t safe because my real life was confined by culturally imposed rules of gender behaviour.
I performed this piece a few times while I was still living in Sydney. ‘ taste of spring lamb’ was the name of a poetry reading I gave & I loved the dark energy of this piece. It was also a lesson to me that people see what you’ve written as you – that this was confessional as opposed to a character I was exploring. More than anything it revealed my desire to shock not to kill.
The language departs from my Dylan Thomas influence – no pretty pictures here but definitely some very clear & visceral descriptions. The narrative voice moves from that rage, to an almost tender self-awareness of both the speaker & he reader – the reach out to ‘touch the corners of your mouth.’ There is the dream logic word association that goes from ‘pipes’ to ‘some hair’ to ‘my hair.’
The title is a reference to both James Joyce’s & Dylan Thomas’ ‘Portrait of the Artist as a .…’ ‘nineteenth’ comes from The Rolling Stones’ 19th Nervous Breakdown. Writing poems like this is probably what spared me from actually killing some (or myself) & from having a nervous breakdown.
The title pretty much tells the reader what this piece is about – drinking, though it doesn’t get to the first sip right away. The first section is the opening of the bottle not of whiskey, but of the fear the propels the opening of the bottle in the first place. It also presents the idea of pulse as a protagonist.
At the time I didn’t connect my sense of resignation with alcohol. I didn’t realize it was a depressant – I saw it as a creative stimulant, as my escape from fears – particularly the fear of sexuality – getting drunk & acting out with other drunk men happened more than once. Opening a bottle with them was unzipping the pants.
There’s also some wordplay – ‘sleep in on all fours’ sleep instead of creep – ‘giving in without a struggle.’ This repurposing of cliches is a way to let readers be comfortable with seems familiar while letting them see it in a different way at the same time.
I wrote some of this while drunk in fact. Parts were in notebooks, some typed & the pieces assembled back in 1977. Some images were in the ‘original’ scribble – ‘sleep in on all fours, the feel of fall is colder in my bones’ – the sense of resignation, which I now see as melodrama, as opposed to real emotion, was more self-indulgence that anything else. Sections were made by sober reflections on what I had written.
The last verse was handwritten several times as I tried, at the time, to make my drunken handwriting legible. Looking back I think ‘the fear’ was not only of coming out but of the ‘sense of a special offering’ & how it would be fulfilled. Sadly I discarded all those original scribbles way back in 1977.
It has been fascinating to go back into my past by reading & writing about this chapbook. Memories of writing the pieces have been fragmentary, to say the least. Motivation, inspiration & locations are more nostalgic than revealing.
Many old the first drafts were written by hand run little note books, many on my clunky typewriter in my basement room in the family home – that room is still there though I think it’s had new floor & walls since I left. The walls were covered with my paintings, shelves of books, lps, my stereo system & my little desk.
Some in my first apartment in Sydney. I shared a workroom with my roommate. He made pottery & I made poetry. I remember renting an electric typewriter to do the final drafts of Distant Music. That second-story apartment had a huge front balcony where I would sit & write in notebooks & drink. This was the first time I had a room for sleeping & one for writing.
Some of the poems are solid, some reflect the pop music of the time, the striving to be deep, poetic rather than … I’m not sure what ‘than’ … I wanted to impress as much as I wanted to express something about myself. I was in the process of coming out, letting go of the pretence that I was bi so the sexuality that appears in the work is very suppressed.
The sequence of the pieces was mine & the flow, in general is pretty good. Today I would probably have not started with the Dance but with something less abstract such as Woodsman – which would invite readers to search for the chainsaw wielder.
1 – I was visiting a friend in Halifax when I wrote this first section. I went there to see him & also to buy music that didn’t exist in the Sydney record store. One of the albums was of electronic/experimental music by the likes of Pauline Oliveros – yes even then I was pretentious enough to like the real thing 🙂 The music pulsed like wings flapping. My friend’s cat jumped up to the window ledge to confront the pigeons in the balcony but there were none there.
‘the thinnest edge’ is how one can leap to the wrong conclusion & get caught trying to figure out how to get back to solid ground. I’ve always had a ‘fear’ of balconies.
2 – I always write to music. These were the days of manual typewriters, when working on a manuscript could be retyping a whole page to correct a single typo. I was an okay typist & loved the sound in my workroom of the click of keys, the tempo of the pounding. Then I could never type fast enough to capture what I was thinking.
I think the music I was more fascinated by was Santana’s Abraxas – chasing a thousand tiny percussionists with my keyboard. I was also digging Weather Report, Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew. Writing as fast I could before I flew to pieces.
3 – The old wrinkles are typos, edits, rewriting, re-sequencing the verses in a poem. I was also writing a novel at the time so energy was flowing in several directions. ‘creaking bones’ echoes ‘skin & bones’ from an earlier poem. The final verse is a direct reference to Dylan Thomas’s “In my Craft or Sullen Art.” Though at this time I had no lover to drift into.
4 – The Welsh connection continues in this section. This sense of of my heritage doesn’t appear in the chapbook until now. There is a feeling of the east coast, of Cape Breton, that is present in some of the pieces but here I am relishing, or it is wallowing, in my own roots.
After traversing Egypt, Japan, Africa & am brought back to my ‘toss-up time’ & my own origins. The workshops at UNB were acknowledgements of me as a writer – the ‘toss-up’ was the decision of what to do with my expectations of being taken seriously. Was it to dream of this romantic ‘velvet window seat’ success or something more realistic?
5 – a reprise, with variations, of the first part of this poem. ‘cat music’ becomes ‘ man sounds.’ ‘bed charmer’ echoes ‘bed-ridden’ from The Last Waltz to give the whole book as sense of completion. The first piece in the collection invites you to ‘set sail on my body’ – this last verse asks you to ‘hear the man sounds/ sailing off wailing baby cries.’ The book progresses from that boy to this man. I hope you enjoyed the journey.