My Education as a Poet

By | 1 December 2014

Where affliction conquers us with brute force, beauty sneaks in and topples the empire of the self from within.
—Simone Weil

(Dad, I dreamed about you last night. Mom showed me your stiff hand open at the
top of the bed and said “See?” I had to agree it was stiff and dead alright. And I was
freaking out because I’d missed a meeting at work so was relieved Dad had died so
I’d have an excuse. But then he returns, is walking around like nothing happened
though he looks pale and frail and soon to die again, possibly). He would sing,
Go to sleep my little pickaninnie
Underneath the silver sunny moon
Hushabye, lullaby, mama’s little baby

and before that my grandmother’s red coral brooch—
Grandma: pianist, good-time girl, Rosicrucian—
the brooch I lost one night at one of those parties
it took days to recover from, beating myself up

the good lickins with wooden spoon with branch from Sacred Grove
with belt with whatever was to hand & we were lucky
because when the kids down the street were bad
they had to go find and present to their mom
their own stick for the good lickins they got at the Shuswap

their dad would walk out
into the lake holding up a bottle
in one hand, a glass in the other, and hoist himself up
onto the raft, us on the beach
laughing & waving, he was an okay guy,
a great joke teller, I’d always listen hard from
the bedroom when I heard Bill’s ice cubes quieten down
& he’d say “So okay a Jew and a Catholic
walk into a bar” but even better were mysterious
filthy jokes that would emerge from—
stupefied silence at 3:30 in the morning
and the laughter was tired or maybe
there was some sort of decorum such as when
someone would leap across the living room
to light his wife’s cigarette, he was so in love with her
my mother said, she’d barely have the cigarette
out of the package before he’d be over there with the lighter

Poetry: a bright flame.
I always knew we were in for a long night
when Dad got out the banjo and ripped into Bye Bye Blues
& who knew how the evening would turn out,
in joy or in sorrow.

Sometimes the parties would take place at Bill’s or
somewhere else in which case there might be a phone call
at 4 a.m. to come and drive them home even though I couldn’t
drive yet so I’d walk over and get the keys,
just put it in Drive, Dad would say, & off we’d go
with the high beams on & the birds beginning to tweet.
Brett Enemark used to say this was Young Driver Training
in Prince George; he’d done it, too. At least they were being
responsible by not getting behind the wheel in a condition
Mom referred to as tight. This was poetry: terms like
getting tight.

Both Bill and Dad were good joke-tellers but Dad,
a big fan of Bob Hope, had a more technical approach.
He’d study Hope’s routine on the Ed Sullivan Show
“Listen to this” he’d say, as we scrutinized the timing.
Dad could even imitate Bob Hope’s little smile.
Poetry: timing, a little smile, the lyrics to Ragtime Cowboy Joe:
he’s a high falutin’, rootin’ tootin’, son of a gun
from Arizona!
Dad would finish
with a flourish of his pick hand, whirling it around
like a pitcher on the mound, and give his little grin and
shake his head as if to say, Boy, that was fun! And reach
for his topped-up Bacardi & Coke.

He transferred mandolin-type playing to the banjo & worshipped
the guitar moves of Les Paul. I can still hear the wall-of-sound
playing and singing from the radio, a drone poured off the surface
of the tight harmony with Mary Ford. The World is Waiting
for the Sunrise
was Dad’s most soulful cover—
you’d hear him practicing in the basement, tiki lights
parsing the dark little bar.

Before that, in Kamloops, when grandma’s piano arrived
after her death Dad drove me over the bridge for lessons.
My first piece was called Indian Dance, a steady
single-note repetition on the left hand and a simple
two-note slightly sad yet menacing-sounding melody on the right.
Poetry: something out of whack. Grandma had played that same piano
for friends and guests both whites and Haida thirty years before
in Massett, accompanied on violin by her husband Edward.
It was known that in the hands of certain women, red cedar bark could be pounded
to a softness greater than cashmere. But most of those women
if not all of them were dead by then. Most of the artists, carvers, and poets were
dead by then also, or crippled by disease.
Mom’s biodad, an O’Donnell, accountant and charmer,
Drinker, brawler, persona non grata, left early.
Her grandfather James Martin was then
her father until he died when she was seven, and then
tubercular Edward arrived from Germany with his violin and soon
he died too. Poetry: consumption and epitaph.

Mom would be homesick for the sound
of the canneries and salty crashing ocean,
kelp and sand dunes north of Massett
toward Rose Spit where Raven discovered Humans.
Every Christmas a dozen cans of Alaska King crabmeat
would arrive from what she called The Islands.
She’d tumbled down the white dunes & gone out after storms
with a can opener to see what had washed up from shipwrecks:
mostly pork and beans. Poetry: a can opener. Treasures
were the glass buoys—large, pocked, thick-glassed orbs
from the Japanese fishing fleets out somewhere in the
four thousand miles of open sea to the west of Rose Spit.
In the sanitarium Mom
and her friend from The Islands both at death’s door
in young womanhood with children at home later sent
Haida bracelets for Xmas—mine was of Dogfish Woman
crafted by someone whose signature was “XX” and
whose carving was a bit off on an angle. Poetry:
off on an angle, amidst the TB and the whalers and the moieties.

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