A few poems I've written over the past years when the mood struck...
Day’s End on Rice Lake
We bear off from the dock
in the old kevlar canoe,
two aging lovers in red
in case the duck-hunters are out too,
paddling leeward from wide open waters
into the quiet reeds
of the marshland.
The air is soft, soft,
smelling of almost nothing
but a coolish hint of autumn
until we enter the channel, bow in,
lined with bulrush and purple lupin.
Our paddles churn the water, so rich with life,
and bubbles rush to the surface stinking of decay.
A swarm of murmuring midges up ahead; we duck.
Belly up among the cattails, a silvery fish portends
something. Looking neither left nor right,
a beaver head swims across our path
for the moment prepared to share his mucky turf
with our large drifting craft.
We’ll be gone soon.
Redwing blackbirds land on reeds
which bow low even under their tiny weight.
Then six more appear from nowhere. Then twenty.
The sky is dense asudden with birds, hundreds,
one flock flies east, one west, they switch.
With paddles across the gunwhales, we sit,
amazed, watching the sedge,
which every second sends out scores more birds
whose whoosh of wings fans our faces:
Can there be any plan?
As quickly as it began, it’s over.
Like moments after a stone hits water,
the rings disappear,
and you’d never know it happened.
A chill lingers.
So without word we put in once more
to quickly reach the open lake, just as
the enormous lump of apricot butter
melts into the mountains.
I spin ‘round in the bow like Lot’s wife
to catch a last look, but
the sun is no more, the birds have flown away
and above our wake, only a tuft of pink cotton floss
left in the darkening clouds.
©Susan Avishai 2017
The little boy strokes his finger
on the crepe-like skin of my inner right arm
over and over... fascinated... far away
from the Thomas the Train book I read aloud.
It’s not like your skin, is it? I ask him.
—No, mine isn’t wrinkly.
I tell him, That is because you are three
and I am sixty-six.
He is satisfied with the answer, as was I
feeling my own grandmother’s neck, loose and
rippled as a shoreline when the tide went out.
I had no idea
How she considered the time left to her.
If she was afraid. Or if the sweet, brave child
taking up the journey forward was mostly all she needed.
To someday let it go.
Saturday mornings we go with him, my brother and I,
to his store on The Main, wedged between
French Canadian bridal shops and Jewish dry goods,
to his world of automotive parts in grimy bins.
He unlocks the front door, and we run in,
smell cork from gaskets, oily bush bearings,
each with twelve- or fourteen-digit part numbers
he knows by heart C14-5368047 Zed. And when I'd say
Daddy when's my birthday? he'd shrug and be off by a week.
We sit at the big desk and punch holes
in sheets of scrap from trash bins, staple them,
scribble on them. When we grow bored we find him
in the front going through invoices, making checkmarks,
stamping 'paid' on carbonned bills, making the odd cash sale
of a headlamp bulb, BF978862-49D, to a passerby in a wool coat,
who leaves slush on the wooden floor. Go play, he says.
We chase each other down dimly lit aisles full of metal bits
in bizarre shapes, belts, nozzles, switches, bolts. My fingers
are blackened, I wear masking tape hoops like bracelets
on my arms, and the grease on my dress will make my mother frown
when I come home from his dirty world,
dirty as he comes home, every night.
We get dimes to buy Cokes two doors down
and he tells us, not looking up, bring me back one too.
The street is banked with grey snow, pedestrians scarved
and rosy and shod for Montreal winters, bleak sky,
the smell of hot fried potatoes and corned beef
escapes through the door each time a diner leaves the deli.
Karnatzel hangs like wash in the window,
pickled red peppers stacked in shiny jars clear to the ceiling.
The fat man in the white apron smelling of spices
hands us each a slice of rye bread yellowed with mustard. For free.
We had long left childhood, windshield wiper blades,
brake pads, sealed beams, each other as playmates,
the day he is driving back along St. Viateur with seven
new purchase orders and who knows what else in his head.
He notices the ebony smoke in a cold cyan sky.
Dress stores and delis would burn white.
He knows nothing but the tires in his cellar could produce
foul smoke like that. He arrives long after the firetrucks
and watches from the sidewalk like everyone else
as his world goes under water, and black ash floats slowly
over the street.
The Kissing Trees
In New Hampshire summers
before we were fit enough to run the lake,
we'd run as far as the Kissing Trees.
It was a good landmark: two maples
wrapped around each other, inextricable.
A fifty foot embrace.
If on a clover-smelling evening,
you'd walk by them slowly,
you'd wonder how it happened.
Two seedlings chance-dropped into the same hole
or was it some divine plan?
Now, after decades of twisting upwards
to the light, hardened and bent,
they appeared a couple barely moving
as if slow waltzing at a grandchild's wedding.
One early July day, on my first run
of the new season I went as far
as the Kissing Trees and I stopped.
Scarred at the places it had been fused
to its mate just a single tree remained
in that place. I stood there
on the shady dirt road still breathing fast,
wondering how on earth lumbermen
had pried the two apart.
How chain saws must have disturbed
the birds for days, as two or three foot chunks
were removed, piece by piece.
How the lone tree may have resisted,
then resigned its hold.
How the decision had been made by someone
not to take them both down
though it would have been
a quicker job.
I was married at twenty.
I thought about dinner menus
right after breakfast.
I listened to Dvorak in the afternoon
and at night I swallowed my pill.
I clipped recipes from magazines,
served date cake on Limoges.
I sold Avon door-to-door the first summer
wearing white gloves and a hat,
and I practised signing Mrs. on my cheques.
I was so old.
At forty-nine I was separated.
I thought about dates
I ate supper off chipped Corelle
watching Seinfeld in rerun.
I wore my son's outgrown jeans.
I listened to Joni and Ani,
smoked grass with my kids,
and sometimes even grew it on the windowsill.
My grocery lists were scribbled with poetry.
I bought condoms.
How young I was.
Now sixty-five looms up ahead
with children grown and parents dead.
at 4am to sip some Scotch,
think about art and death
and must I take a final stand on God?
I listen more to Leonard Cohen.
I’m on hormone replacement.
It still surprises me to see
a new wedding ring on my aging hand,
surprises me who wears the matching one
we bought together in a Kyoto fish market.
Surprises me what might still be washed ashore.
Or dropped from a tree.
Or said by you or me.
We are the right age.
I wrote the words for Two Native Sons in 2016. It tells of the surprising crossroad I encountered while reading Sidney Iwens' memoir of his experience during WWll, (How Dark the Heavens) while I was participating in a residency at the Mark Rothko Art Centre in Latvia.
Bob Bernstein put the words to music and he is recorded here, accompanying himself on guitar.
In life he was designed for a job—
utilitarian, noisy, dented and scratched in odd spots.
His best gear was first. Second jerked at times.
And he was difficult to shift into reverse.
Just one station heard clear on the AM,
or maybe it was the tuning dial bust.
But he covered a lotta road on a tank of low-grade
and if you changed the oil when you remembered,
that’s all he needed.
In the end he lay, a tiny light in a dim room
where time is measured in breaths.
The wax turned liquid, the oval flame shortened,
until just past midnight, as we held his cool arms,
a whitish wisp of smoke shot upward
and the wick drowned.
Without a sound.
Although my father lived like a truck
he died like a candle.
You reside still, in your closet
your scent faint, like sachet.
Seven boxes gone to Goodwill, yet
the racks are still filled with
blooms of fuchsia, turquoise, lime.
Joyful proof you dressed for
summer all the time.
Years ago I sat on the queen-sized bed
as you prepared yourself, magnificent, in powder blue.
The skirt satin, the bodice lace,
a much littler me in flannel pj’s …watching… learning
what it was to be woman.
Last evening I carried that dress, beautiful still,
the fabric of fifty years flaky as paper, the armpits stained.
I stood by the massive metal bin, as it absorbed the
bagged remains of other tenants’ far lesser moments,
and added the dress.
And to this crudest of burials I appended
a prayer, a silent apology, the kaddish of a daughter,
my lovely mother
Salt and Sweet
It sounded classy and I know I've seen them
paired in food sections of the Sunday magazine.
But last night I watched you quarter
a Comice pear on the tray you brought upstairs,
you spread its flesh with a creamy bite
of room-warmed Roquefort and placed it with your fingers
into my open mouth as I sat naked,
I thought it tasted strange.
A novel coupling, like maybe you and me
daring sensual complement though each
bound up are we
with another's soul and another's memory.
Can we ever expect to blend quiescently.
Or do we just savour the taste
the taste of sweet
Evening on Lac Gilmour
Alone tonight but for the dragonflies,
we push out from the dock into the darkened reflection of trees--
birches like ivory chopsticks hinged at shoreline, the lake
plate glass, striped momentarily by paddle pull, the blade drips
with the juice of forward thrust.
We go east drawn by cedar smoke you can taste,
and the bullfrog's bass notes. Overhead Venus appears first.
Or is it Mars? I know nothing of stars. A peeved whippoorwill whistles
whip-poor-WILL as though we had pronounced it wrong all along,
How natural you now seem paddling stern, no longer sixteen, my ballast,
your white hair aglow, backlit by the last of the blue.
Two worlds touch: Jerusalem of higher, Jerusalem of lower
and we skim the line between in a white craft
of perfect design.
We pull in paddles amongst the budding waterlilies and drift,
and all the knitted bits of night converge--
the conifer, the cricket, and the cobalt sky.
Comes a time you return home. And out of the still
a beavertail smacks the water sharply.
Comes a time you know
you're not alone.
"Visit" is a poem I wrote and then got to read on PRI's To the Best of Our Knowledge podcast, with host Anne Strainchamps.