is the author of The Hundred Lives (shortlisted for the 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize) and Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain (shortlisted for the 2013 Governor General's Award for Poetry, the Raymond Souster Award, and the BC Book Prize. His other books include The Fifth Window, A Tunisian Notebook, House Built of Rain, and The Human Shore. His newest collection, The Broken Face, is due out in fall 2018.
As you go ahead of me, yellow steeples silhouetted above you,
through a plaza with its pigeons and little children selling crafts,
through intricate-carved cedar doors, arched hallways,
past walls of holy paintings, reliefs of saints, each covered in gold leaf,
through a courtyard filled with brilliant slow light,
and into the ornate colonial cathedral, I follow,
and as you go down below all this, into half-dark,
small and slender, half-turning to me in quietness and knowing
out of the straight-falling bright black of your hair, I follow.
I go down an enclosed narrow stairway of rough stone,
into a tunnel, crouching but hitting my head, drawing blood --
the air the breath in the mouth of the dry sand and stone --
and I follow farther through the turn of a second tunnel, a third,
until we reach a storage-way, a footledge along a wall,
to the side of us large open wooden boxes that hold stacked human bones,
and after this, open vaults in the earth that hold piled human skulls.
I follow still farther, down more steps, through a final tunnel
until we walk out into the deepest and largest chamber.
In front of us is a white core, a cluster of about a dozen skulls.
Around the core, as if issuing out in every direction,
are leg bones laid side by side touching at the joint ends,
white rays emanating out to a circular band, two skulls thick --
then an extension, an expansion, a second set of bones, twice as numerous,
then a second ring of skulls, the completion of a corona.
You explain to me that it was all arranged in this way
by a discoverer of the catacombs, and kept this way,
with an enclosure built around, and no one can say why.
The mass graves those who would lie in them were told to dig,
the dirt crypts into which the human corpses were bulldozed
tumbling over and under one another like adult rag dolls
but with skeletons sticking out of the starved bodies, dead eyes staring --
images of these come piercing into me, then disappear.
This half-lit cemetery beneath a church, this collection of bone
centuries ago divested of flesh, the flesh vanished into a now-scentless air --
if uncovered and re-excavated with expert care, how is it
it was re-ordered into a radiating sphere if not out of spontaneous love?
It is like a Tibetan monk's container of essences --
that art performed by the devoted and meticulous, that months-long work
placing coloured particles of sand on a design set on a platform,
completed only to be erased, only to be deliberately swept away,
every particle of sand poured into a river or stream.
Except, in the hard, solid substance, in the colour no colour at all,
of its host of skeletal pieces, it is known
as nothing else is in the play between us and what sweeps us away,
and made to stay, and made of what has stayed of forgotten ones.
All these hundreds of eyeholes that flashed in the light
when they held living eyes, when they opened into the blackness of pupils,
have been taken up in an eye radiating in the direction of the sun
that once shone on the skulls' flesh -- and is still burning in this eye,
in its each carbon cell, like an awakening one seeing nothing but the first light.
And as you go ahead of me, and as I come around alongside you,
we stand gazing with eyes that are our only maps, and are the maps
of this eye that has been waiting for us and will gather us in
and show itself to us as us, this bone sun, this circle of bones. Church of San Francisco catacombs,
The huge edge of the wind cuts away from me what I think I know.
That is how a man more myself than I can know
is visible in the surf -- spray twisting to a lit screen,
a man like a brilliant diagram. Every moment, he steps out of hellfires
with the one he is rescuing his arm's length behind him --
his grief an ecstasy now as they arrive at blue air.
There they are within chaotic, unearthly rays. Then the wave's jolt,
its single pulse at its height, spuming thick white --
he turns to her, her hand losing hold of his hand, its fingers suddenly bleak
and reaching out of nothing into nothing, she vanishes. Every moment,
the wave shatters and is his abandonment and laceration,
it hurls and is his dispersal in the froth-lined, sliding tidewater.
I know I stand, living and named, in the place of my skeleton --
If I imagine the marrow within it I am touched awake
and I look out at a wave travelling to the far end of the ocean and back.
And what is not human turns, and is also human;
it turns, and as out of the throats of the presences, lets loose calls;
they echo in the wild driftwood, the wind-spiralled trees, the sky.
That is how a wave lifts and is a winding man and woman --
their dark way to and from each other is through the interior of the crest;
their chant fills and fills the skull of each waiting sandgrain.
The whole air here has a face -- the face of an infant those two
break from as it rises out of immeasurable sleep,
the ocean gazing out of it with its opening eyes, and the face of the one
we hold in our arms when we hold each other, the one
we create and can never turn back to see -- yet turn, as we have to,
to try to see, when it leaves us and becomes us looking.
In orange glare, in smoke -- the fire keeps growing, keeps approaching.
It shrieks at what it comes upon, it takes things up into a whipping brilliance --
though there are things it does not touch,
things it only hisses at and surges past. No one knows why.
It is as if the fire is searching, desperate
to learn what it is searching for, desperate to see what is around it,
everywhere swinging its enormous smashed lantern.
It touches, it incinerates; and in that instant
it is as if it becomes a thing, and remembers -- then the thing is gone
and the fire must keep searching, blind and lost;
the world is the elsewhere in the fire-gouged eyes of a doll.
Now over the charcoal of towns, of trestles -- the fire hidden away somewhere --
the light that does not harm, that simply shines, that comes after,
the gentle light arrives. It, too, is searching.
It finds us, it takes up into itself much of what we are. Arrives
feeling the places the fire has been -- smiling over the beds of ash.
And like the black hunger that swept through, it too is a command.
The ones who return to the homes they fled --
each of them is the fire's weeping twin, wrapped
in exquisite flesh, come to a mansion burnt
except for a threshold or a part of a door frame,
and must make up a song to be sung for a child.
They're driftwood, or worn buoys --
now as they stand up out of the water
and stare towards the shore, they're living mineral,
like people with only rudimentary eyes.
And now I see one closer, see it dive,
and realize they're seals. Lifting slicked
black heads, disappearing back down --
they're seals. At this distance, soundless,
though at other times I've heard seals cry:
pure non-human cries that go
to the human bitter root. They're out
of some unknown watery testament
made of their cries, their wavering gentle
screams. Now I see a dozen of them
farther off, sunning themselves on a log boom --
solid blacknesses bathing lazily
in the long late rays. They roll,
all black torso like the mummified
Pharaohs, the immortals of the once-imagined
Egyptian ancestors of the familiar ones,
the Gypsies who flit in and out of sight,
baptizing themselves in the dark nothing
at the savage margins. They roll over
into the water and are gone. Then bob up
new and black, being born again and again
into their blackness. Now I see that same one
swimming close, almost to the shore,
lifting liquid-like black and craning -- it comes closer
as if I had whistled it up, asking for it,
and it had come, one of my lost ones,
my Gypsy dead. Seals all I can know now
of any of them. Seals that look out
in insouciant, terrible love -- and can only
be other than seals because they're seals.
Early in the morning, she wakes the four of us
and marches us into the kitchen -- while we rub sleep out of our eyes,
our pajamas awry, our hair sticking out (one particular cowlick
even more pronounced than it is during the day),
the two middle ones on the verge of quiet laughter,
bewildered and canny and secretive all at the same time,
the youngest alert-transparent, taking everything in.
"Wait," she tells us, unlocks the back door
and leads us out onto the porch, along the house wall
under the overhang, where she sits us down together in a row,
drapes a big blanket over us and nestles in. Little looks
go back and forth between us: Is she what's called crazy?
Is this a dream we're all having? "Listen," she says.
The rain's falling wildly, roaring down the pipes
that drain the eavestroughs, tap-dancing on the porch,
spraying out everywhere like happily splashing-sounding stars;
out at the edge of the tree-filled backyard, the rain's
hushing itself, filling the trees, making the tree branches
heavier and heavier, making them rise as if to embrace the rain.
And rain mist is whispering in the grass, polished steel
rain hoops are spinning and ringing down the back steps
off into the air and into the grass, and unfamiliar,
ever-metamorphosizing bright musical instruments
made of rain are appearing and appearing, while mysterious
half-visible half-human-sized musicians -- ghostlike, glowing
and made of mist -- play the instruments. Is what we hear and see
what she has meant us to hear and see? All she says is: "Listen."
Later, out in the day, we will be at a bus stop. Those middle two
standing alongside me now next to a post, their four and five year olds'
odd about-to-become-grins on their faces, the youngest
on the bench with her, spilling out of her lap. "Make the bus come, Mom."
She lights a cigarette. Thirty seconds later, like magic,
the bus comes lumbering up. My brothers grinning outright --
and my mother's greenish eyes shining, the rain
falling into the green backyard. Me and my brothers
looking up at her, laughing, and though we don't know it, beginning
the lives we'll have, whatever happens, listening to the same rain.
If you were lucky, you said, by the end of the night
we would have the money for a holiday
on Evia or Alonissos, on Thassos
or Halkidiki -- or we could even go to Crete.
All New Year's Eve you beat men at cards --
one by one they exited the game.
I sat back at the bar and watched
and thought of the night we had met,
when you stated you foresaw deaths
then tried to forget -- the neighbour, the relative,
the stray kitten you introduced to a mother
and her brood that hissed it away.
And you told me you were a thief. I admitted
I, too, had stolen things -- for a time --
but now to find metaphors was to pocket
new money. I wanted to steal a thing
from its class and marry it to an alien other.
You nodded at that -- all contradiction,
calculating, vicious in an instant,
yet frightened and soft-hearted
in a way you had to hide. People either died on you
or deserted you. But I had no choice --
I had to stay to see the constant startled look
in your green eyes, to see you perform
your ritual behind a half-closed kitchen door
with olive oil and floating flame
to keep away the evil eye, to see you dab
holy water on your throat in crazily driven taxis,
to see how you stood as at an interface
where gods and goddesses appeared.
Nicotine addict, gambler, who thieved
everywhere, who also gave without thinking,
you foresaw nothing of the thief
who came for you yourself. Or did you?
Every holiday you took, you might have half-meant
to lose him in a lit street. That startled look,
you sensing he had begun his work in you --
the way you somehow knew what cards
were in players' hands. What I knew was the cutting
of the New Year's Day cake going wrong,
the coin wrapped in waxed paper not to be had
by you or me that year -- and then not any year.
You add water to a glass of ouzo
and a genie-less smoke rises in it asking, "What is it you wish?"
the ardent clear spirit distilled from the lees of wine
suddenly wreathed in opalescent fumes,
and boiling away the sediment of your life, and distilling the day
while you sit at a rough table in the mid-morning in front of the sea --
so you see there in the glass the vaporous myth of Plato's cave,
the man bound in chains, the theatre of shadows,
and beyond this, the sun's world-filling light.
The day becomes simpler and simpler,
the day wakes you into light, you drink thick coffee,
walk and swim and sleep in the afternoon,
sit and wait for the blackness of the night to bloom,
the small brilliant white multitudinous flowers of the stars
to bloom from infinitely within the night's blooming.
And there is nothing here to wish for except what is --
nothing except the instant opening,
the sea clear as alcohol, the collapsed waves' foam bubbles
crackling along the sand like a delicate fire,
the distinct self-scoured sand grains, glasses of ouzo themselves,
and the nearby profusion of houses, all exquisite white words
strung around the hills, and the hills a smile of death.
And the old waiter who sets down the ouzo,
who makes his way without effort and with a strange beauty
around and around the perfectly arranged tables,
I see now he is the man who broke free of his chains
and walked out of the cave into the light of day.
It is as if he is the first person I have ever seen;
I do not know how it is that the wrinkles of his face
seem to multiply in the sun, nor how I now look at him through eyes
that are not mine, and he only smiles, for they are his eyes,
nor how it is that he is also young.
His eyes ask me what it is I wish, and he already knows
that it can be nothing except to wait for all blackness to deepen
and become one with all light, the hills here as they darken
and the sun's fire, come into clarity --
to wait to be placed for every question to return as an answer; to wait to be placed in chains endless, transparent,
and travelling the absolute in flow.
at each moment sorrow grows in the world,
it grows thirty minutes per second, step by step,
and the nature of sorrow is double sorrow,
and the condition of martyrdom, carnivorous, voracious,
is sorrow, double sorrow,
and the function of the purest grass, double
and the joy of living we suffer from doubly.
-- Cesar Vallejo, "The Nine Monsters"
The function of the purest grass is to wait for a wind to rake it, for the sun to explore it and kill it, for summer wildfires to use it as a path and leave little of the path behind, to wait, to tremble, patient and forlorn, for thunder to fold down into it and clouds to roll rain down each blade.
The sad singer, the murderer, the lover who is the bright eradicating one -- they pass like grass. The shiver, the loss, the comfort moving deep through the flesh, the trespass that opens its abyss -- transpire like the wavings of grass. And the war beginning and the war over,
and the dance of uncanny joy through the streets -- happen while sorrow grows like grass. Grows more and more pure and more and more vast. And remains -- it flies free, returns, remains. And might remain, the prayer inside prayers, though everything we know, including grass, is gone.
All I could do while I stood there
dazed in the dim bare room
was wonder why the price of one
was five dollars more than the others.
The three sat down and faced me
in a line, nearly indistinguishable,
legs tucked in at their sides,
leaning on the heels of their hands.
All were lolling and demure,
junior high school cheerleaders
on a gym floor of rough boards,
trying to look kittenish, cute --
but pockmarked, sick-looking,
counting out their smiles,
and hiding in their pupils,
perfect glinting pictures
of a blackness that plunged me
into a strange sadness,
as if I had recognized
something I could not remember
but was desperate to return to.
I asked the man at his bar
with the rifle lying beside him
if he would sell me a bottle of brandy,
the amount of my offer higher
than the cost of the expensive girl.
I had one drink, and left the bottle,
and walked out into the afternoon,
the light glassy-red like a candy heart.
The rutted road now sifted me,
each particle of dirt a skull's eyehole,
the pure depth of a gaze
robbing me of any direction I knew.
It had come down into the city
out of the mountains in the night
and gotten lost, had sensed the dawn,
heard car noises at the corner,
heard the police station and hospital
across the street, and, bewildered,
come into this silence and deeper dark
within the still-dark morning to hide.
Now I, a human, had approached it.
And the deer stood there like a child
caught doing something wrong.
Once I was told that years ago
in summer, deer would come down
out of the humming mountains
through the night and keep going,
swimming the mile-wide inlet
from North Van to downtown.
The city wharves would stop them,
and they would struggle for hours,
trying and trying to get ashore.
In the morning, men would drag up
the exhausted or dead deer
like fish into the nets of their arms.
And once, desperate and dazed, I entered
those cold dark waters, held on
to a broken old wharf that sat there
near the foot of Lonsdale Avenue,
then pushed myself into the inlet
with the intention of swimming out
farther than I could swim back.
But came back, with no idea why,
with no need to know why,
only my own weeping and laughing.
It must have been the memory
of that underground parking lot deer
already coming to life in me
that took me down to the water
that night and made me swim out
and also made me turn around.
Then, the memory must have been
just a pinpoint hidden in my body,
but a light which would begin to burn
and lead me without my knowing it
through time to another night
and to where the deer stood in the dark --
so the light could become the deer,
and the deer, a vision of the deer:
its strong delicate-looking head
and neck as it swims across the water,
its forelegs, flexed haunches, and hind legs
as it lifts itself onto a wharf,
and begins its run through the city
to a forest and a secret herd.