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.

This is one of the philosophy poems that I am writing for the Thought || Language || Poetry project. It is based on a passage from God, Death, Time by Emmanuel Levinas.

Happiness of the End

Love is possible
only through the infinite
placed in me,
through the more
that devastates and awakens
the less,
diverting theology,
destroying the fortune
and happiness of the end.

Man Walking
There was a man walking the shoulder of the highway. I don’t remember where exactly, one of those not quite rural roads, still flanked by cornfields but the farmhouses all severed and sold to people from the city just a few miles farther on. He wasn’t hitching, just walking, his back to me, the dust of the road climbing almost to his knees, powdering his black pants in gradations of whiteness, and I couldn’t leave him behind, was constrained by something, his tattered straw hat perhaps, or the way his shoulders rounded beneath his suspenders, constrained to stop, roll down the window, ask if he needed a ride, but he turned to a voice not my own, one I could not hear, and his eyes passed through me like a ghost.

These roads are nostalgia, lined with grandfatherly trees and slack electrical wire, awaiting the amnesia of cookie-cutter subdivision mansions, their carefully formulated tiers of upgrades — stainless steel fixtures, granite countertops, travertine floors — to cover over the remembrances of the raspberry canes and chokecherry bushes that crowd these gravel shoulders.

So Small A Place
The road changes if you kill the engine, or better yet, if you drive until the gas runs out, and you abandon the car, its door left open as a metaphor of some unspecified emancipation, changes if you are brought to the pace of your feet, the gravel grinding beneath the heels of shoes that are too fashionable and delicate for comfort, the sun clinging to the roof of the sky, and the summer insects climbing the colt’s foot and the burdock, changes the whole of the world, settling into the line of asphalt between your feet and the next landmark — the distant height of a tree, a grey-boarded barn falling into the crest of a hill — the new limits of the universe, a few miles of cornfield and woodlot, the grassy slip along the road left to go wild in chokecherry and milkweed.

Far More Purely

Gum, writes my son, skateboarding, friends –
a few things that could end with brown,
tied-with-string paper packages,
though his list reads much more purely,
written not to hold the bad at bay
but simply to say all his good,
a spasm of celebration.

Some of you will be aware of my fascination with literary portrayals of the moment of execution, a subject that arrested my attention first in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and then again in Alexandre Duma’s The Count of Monte Cristo, spiraling into something like an obsession through texts that are now too numerous for me to mention, the latest of which is Suson Sontag’s The Volcano Lover.

My history with Sontag is as follows: I was supposed to read several of her essays in university but didn’t, through sheer laziness, but I was left with the feeling, one that I associate with many of the books I passed over on university syllabi, that she was someone I really should eventually read. This is probably why I gradually purchased most of her books, not intentionally, just when I found them at garage sales and in discount bins, with the idea that I would get around to reading them when the inclination struck me, which it did a month or two ago, when I read her book of essays, At the Same Time. I really enjoyed it, so I thought I’d try a novel, The Volcano Lover, which I loved less but at least supplied me with the scenes I’m about to share with you. They’re long, and you might not find them as interesting as I do, but here they are.

The first is dreamed by the Queen of Naples as republican forces approach:

Portrait of a woman condemned to death. In the cart transporting her to this, this, this… machine, this new machine, her hands tied loosely behind her, her hair cropped short to expose her nape. Portrait of a martyr. She is all in white: a simple dress, coarse stockings, a shapeless bonnet on her head. Her face is old, tired, and drawn. The only trace of her former glory is her strict and upright posture.

She blinks her eyes. They sting because she has been so many months in prison. The cart wheels rattle and bump. The streets are strangely silent. The sun is shining. The cart arrives, she mounts the ten rough wooden steps. There is her chaplain murmuring prayers, staring at his crucifix, tears streaming down his face. And a voice, someone else’s voice, saying, It will not hurt, Your Majesty. It seems to come from the man with the hood. She averts her eyes form the ladder-like structure, some fourteen feet tall, with its ax-shaped blade rusty with blood, and she feels her shoulders being pushed down on both sides, making her lean over, no, lie down, her stomach and legs on the board, lie just so. Someone pulls her by the shoulders a little forward, so her throat rests in the trough of the bottom half of a wooden yoke, and then the upper part closes down on the back of her neck. She feels a strap squeezing her waist and another being affixed to her calves, binding her to the board. Her head is over the dark-brown plaited basket, the blood rushes forward to her face. She resisted the weight of her head pulling it down, held it out to see over the platform the bobbing heads of the crowd, lifted it up to lighten the painful contact of the edge of the board with her collarbone, the yoke against her gorge, which made her gag, which was starting to cut off her breath, saw a pair of large muddy boots advancing toward her and heard the bellowing of the mob go still louder, then go silent; here’s some kind of strange creaking: something rising, higher, higher; the sun getting brighter, so she shuts her eyes; the sound, higher still, stops –

The second is from the perspective of Eleonora de Fonesca Pimentel, a republican and a poet:

I spent my last night trying to master my fear.

First, I was afraid I would lose my dignity. I had heard that those about to be hanged often lose control of their bowels. I was afraid that my knees would buckle as I was led through the square to the platform on which the gallows and its ladder stood.  I feared a convulsion of unseemly terror at the sight of the hangman advancing toward me with the blindfold, and his assistant holding the long rope with a noose.  The crowd’s shouts of Long Live the King had provoked some of my friends to make their last words Long Live the Republic.  But I wanted to go to my death in silence.

Then, I was afraid of being choked before they hanged me.  For I knew that after the hangman tied a dirty rag around my head, he or his assistant would drop a heavy hairy ring  of rope over my head and onto my shoulders.  Unseen hands would pull it tighter, and where it tugged I must go, to the foot of the ladder, and then upward — I would have to follow the rope.  I imagined the ladder sagging with the weight of three.  The hangman above me, pulling me up by the head.  His assistant below me, holding my ankles and guiding, thrusting them from one rung up to the next.

Then, I was afraid I would not die after the hangman scrambled onto the crossbeam to make fast his end of the rope, and his assistant, tightening his grip on my ankles, pushed of into the air, taking me with him.  Could I still be alive when there were two of us swinging in the air, his weight stretching downward from my feet?  Still alive when the hangman leapt from the crossbeam to straddle my shoulders, and we became a dangling chain of three?

Today is the final day for Macondo Books, a local used bookseller that has been a fixture in Guelph almost as long as I’ve been alive and certainly as long as I can remember.

It was the place where I first bought a real used book, a keeper book, one that would sit on my shelf.  I had bought piles of trash fantasy and science fiction, of course, but it was Macondo Books where I went early in highschool, when I thought Samuel Coleridge and William Blake had rendered all other poetry worthless, to buy a hardcover collection of Romantic period poetry.  I still have it, in much the worse condition for having taken it on vacation into the northern Ontario bush that summer, reading it by the light of a kerosene lamp in the evenings.  I kept it, not because it’s such a terribly great edition, but because it was my first.

I bought countless more books there over the years.  I was intending to list the titles that I could remember, but as I started going through my collection, I realized that there were just too many.  I had gone to browse Macondo’s shelves too often: wandered too many times the hundred yards or so up from the market where I worked as a teenager, the cash I had earned waiting to be transformed into books before I ever made it home; spent too many afternoons avoiding my university work by spending money I didn’t really have on books I didn’t really need; went too frequently to find books as gifts for other people’s birthdays that were inevitably accompanied by gifts for myself, actual birth dates be damned.

I know, of course, that nothing, least of all a bookstore, is meant to last forever.  I know that almost forty years is a pretty good run for a bookstore at any time, never mind at a time as difficult for booksellers as these past few decades have been.  I know that there are other bookstores in the city (though far too few), one even as close as a block away. I know all this, but I still can’t help feeling a real sense of loss as Macondo closes.

I went in to say my goodbyes yesterday, bought a whole pile of poetry books at 80% off, books that I probably wouldn’t have bought otherwise but that I couldn’t pass up at garage sale prices.  There wasn’t a whole lot left, not after a month of half price sales and no new acquisitions.  The shelves were pretty bare.  It felt like it was dying already, just waiting for someone to pull the plug.

I will miss Macondo Books.

My wife’s workplace has decided to show some documentaries over lunch breaks sometimes.  She asked me to suggest some favourites from my collection, because documentary is one of my several obsessions.  It was an interesting exercise for me, not least because most of my favourite docs are much longer than an hour, but also because I wanted to include a variety of time periods and directorial styles.  In the end, I settled on these, in order of release:

1) Song of Ceylon, directed by Basil Wright (1934)

2) The Plow that Broke the Plains, directed by Pare Lorentz (1936)

3) Night and Fog, directed by Alain Resnais (1955)

4) Vernon, Florida, directed by Errol Morris (1981)

5) Lessons of Darkness, directed by Werner Herzog (1992)

Feel free to let me know of others that you might include.


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