They are both of them looking in my direction, watching from their table, watching me write, and then one says, “Excuse me, are you a writer?” and I say, “Yes,” though what we mean by the word is probably too different to reconcile, and the other one says, “The writer’s life! What’s it like?” and I say, “It’s like yours, just a different table in the same cafe,” but she looks hurt, and so I tell her, “Don’t worry, you can try my seat when I’m done with it.”
The unreasonable complexity of every moral question should never obscure the fact that we know there is good ad evil. Every moral act, and therefore every act, is morally ambiguous, but this ambiguity appears only within the moral certainty that goodness is good and evil is not. Moral ambiguity does not imply a lack of good and evil. It implies that choosing the good over the evil must always be without certainty or guarantee. It also implies that this choice must nevertheless be made.
One of my constant intellectual and spiritual obsessions is the impossibility of a world that is nevertheless obviously possible, often in the most banal and ridiculous ways. This poem speaks to this obsession.
The mystery of things peels like paint,
clings to the bottom of teacups,
makes vapour trails of the clear sky
and veined deltas of river mouths,
sifts sand, flings ash, cracks porcelain,
drives worlds with lazy, reckless speed
in star-circles, lets fingers feel
the water’s tain as passing time.
I don’t get many chances to spend quiet Saturday mornings anymore, so when I do, they’re worth a poem.
This is the taste of espresso
in a mostly empty room, slow,
and the day improvised through half-
closed shadows and decades-old
radio chatter, cut with cold
bites of sound and the hiss of steam.
My friend John Jantunen launched his new book last night, a novel called Cipher, well worth a read, and there were quite a few people there to celebrate with him. I was particularly enjoying myself, because I had no responsibilities for the event, so I could just have a couple $2 pints and chat with the other guests.
At one point I had a chance to talk at length with an established publisher who was kind enough to answer some questions for me and to take an interest in what we’re doing at Vocamus Press. Then, as our conversation was finishing, two young men came to introduce themselves and ask about what was involved with Vocamus, and I found myself abruptly switching my role from student to mentor in the time it took me to turn from one conversation to the next.
On my way home after the event, I had a chance to reflect on the evening, and it struck me that this moment of being both student and mentor embodied a principle that is essential to the formation of a strong and developing community. When we become too proud and isolated to learn from each other, when we become too arrogant and protective to teach each other, our community ceases to grow. In order for us to develop as individuals and as communities, we must constantly be teaching and learning, encouraging and challenging. If it can happen naturally, over a pint or two, so much the better.
I’ve just finished reading Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by Ondjaki, translated by my friend Stephen Henighan, and it’s a remarkable little book, the best I’ve read by an African writer not named Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and it has a human quality to it that even Ngugi rarely attains. Go buy, borrow, or steal a copy wherever you can get one.
The book also has several examples of those long, eddying sentences that I love so much. I’ll share one to go you a taste of what Ondjaki does.
“and in this way, with naked bodies feeling a soft breeze, looking at the kites that flew over our square in Bishop’s Beach, I, Charlita and Pi, better known as Comrade 3.14, jumped the shells and the holes of crabs that fled in fear of us, we who sought the experience of the salt water on our bodies, hungry for white surf in the dark sea at that moment of partying and laughter, we were there, in search of where our bodies were able to dance gently on the air in our lungs that had been spared by our shouts, and I remembered the elders who I had met and who sometimes weren’t capable of believing in the simple secrets of children, the elders who thought that the cries of the birds were those we heard in the morning or in the late afternoon, when birds are in a hurry to get somewhere and shout for other birds to get out of their way, but those cries, in spite of being shouted, aren’t very true, since birds are like children, they need to be beneath the water to give a true shout, it wasn’t a child who told me that, it was a bird, Charlita and Pi know it, we all heard the birds shouting beneath the water of the sea of Bishop’s Beach, but not that night”
This poem was written to appear on a sculpture by Guelph artist Ben McCarl called Tower of Dreams.
Dreams tower only through accretion, one
laid thin atop another, always too slight,
too insubstantial, like drops of limestone
water that find their height only by course
of millennia, raising delicate
stalagmite fingers into the cave-dark,
trusting that there are other fingers too
reaching down to touch our towering dreams.