Etude on a mystery

November 16, 2017

Or a study on a metaphor for control
“All our values depend on the nature of our God” Jacques Maritain
Three times it has happened to me now
I am like a participant observer
In a science experiment
Something is proven true if
The results are repeatable
Eighty year old men
Their life at this moment
Out of their control
Though not out of control
Pain, disease, trauma to their bones
They cope with being a patient
By raising their voice
And swearing
Into the air, at the curtains
Around their bed on the wards
At the nurses, male or female
Just as the old men did in the ‘40s
When these were boys
At their anvils, horses, plows
Must be one of those culturally
Specific expressions
“Dude, you really need to find a healthier way
To deal with your helplessness”
I imagine saying to them
In my culturally specific manner
If I were their psychologist
“You should be like…”
And that’s where I
Draw a blank
So begins my search
My study, this etude
For a metaphor
About what life is like
When something in it is beyond
Your control:
Peter on the sea, in a boat, in a storm
Forgets he is a good swimmer
Accepts admonishment from Christ
And conveys that trust to us
“Whom having not seen, you love
In whom also now though you see him not
You believe and, believing
Shall rejoice with joy unspeakable”
A prisoner of war
Who hoards moments in the day
Like crusts and crumbs of mouldy bread
After a beating, before lunch
To play a game of cards
He has made himself
From empty cigarette packs
Sees in his nature
What he has been fighting to regain
Like the images in a Borys Humenyuk poem
The sun a burning tire
The moon the mouth of a bullet casing
After it’s been fired
And ejected, smouldering
From the barrel of a gun
A prodigal son, comes to his senses
Returns home
But finds it abandoned
Dilapidated, decrepit
His father and mother have died
Waiting for him
He dedicates the rest of his life
To their memory
For the ancient Greeks a flowing river
“The only constant is change”
To which a Cardinal Newman might reply
“Growth is the only sign of life”
And Jacques Maritain
Be like the deer at the river
Whose only job is to drink
“Insatiable thirst” for the proverbial
Something More
“Is the liveliest proof of our immortality”
When I was in the cradle
Much of my life was outside my control
While those in their graves assume
Others will take the torch from them
As John McCrae would say
Except in our culture
If it cannot be known
Eternal life, for instance
It doesn’t exist
What is alive just becomes
No wonder there is an appetite
For Medical Aid in Dying
Except that the human soul
Once created at conception
Is eternal
“Our values depend on the nature of our god”
If random selection, equal only to the animals
Only the material and physical exist
“There can in fact be no mystery
Where there is nothing
To know” – Jacques Maritain
“Mystery exists where there is more
To be known
Than is offered to our apprehension”
Do not be satisfied with the degrading
Slavery of being a child
Of one’s own age (G. K. Chesterton)
I have been avoiding this metaphor
For three days running
It is not a healthy example
Of regaining control of a life
Over which you have lost control
Surrogate what?
Well mother, of course
Then this is your child
It’s an embryo
Who bonds with an embryo?
“I-It” Martin Buber
Instead of “I-Thou”
Maybe it’s a rabbit
Maybe it’s a pig
You say it might never get human
If it’s not allowed to grow big
“I-Thou encounter rely on
Mutuality and truth-telling”
Painfully honest with who you are
Excruciatingly painful
You are mother to this child
Any other scalpelled calculation of words
Is a trick and a lie
“To engage another in anything less
Would be to engage him or her
In a way that is less than a whole being”
Embryo, surrogate
And they complain that we reduce
A woman to her
Uterus, ovaries
Blob of tissue like a Rorscharch blot
It can be anything you want
Or need it to be
With no essence in itself
A commodity, a thing, an it, and worse
“In each Thou we address
The eternal Thou”
Deny the humanity of the pre-born
Deny the existence of God
OMG has now become oIAMg
A modern anti-Mary
“Anything opposed to God”
Writes Jacques Maritain
Can never be called a good”
We have no right to idolatry
How do I respond
When something in my world
Is out of my control
Or really it is the world that is out
Of control
My life is a field of grain
Let it be of wheat
Since that was my father’s specialty
He is “the good man of the house”
In St. Matthew
Good seed, healthy shot blade
Expect a bumper crop
But someone has broadcast weeds
“An enemy hath done this”
Then doesn’t even bother
To defend these actions
“Suffer both to grow until the harvest”
Then the wheat will be separated
From the weeds
And we will rejoice in a good crop
And the land, too
Will still be ours
Until then, learn vigilance
“We shelter an angel
Whom we never cease to offend”
Jean Cocteau, quoted by Jacques Maritain
“We ought to be the guardians
Of that angel
Shelter your virtue carefully”


The Boxcar

November 13, 2017

“Fear is useless
What is needed is trust” Mark 5: 36

“What’s that?” The patient asks
He is two beds down from me
The medicine the nurses administered
Had put him to sleep
He is waking up, disjointed
I can see what he sees
While disoriented
Staring out the large window
We all share in this hospital ward
Tall stone buildings to our left
The water to our right
Each floor a geometry of precision
And parallel windows
The horizontal is the longer side
Vertical in calculated proportion
All the frames are painted brown
A different logic than the lines
Of nature in the river
His life is no longer parallel with mine
We intersect now at this one word
“What are those boxcars doing there?”
He shows early signs of dementia
Confuses Rosetown with Saskatoon
Insists on getting out of bed himself
So quickly after his return
From surgery on his left hip
And risks another fall
“How can you tell which one
Is broken?”
“A senior nurse asked a student
On her apprenticeship
“The shorter leg
With the foot turned out”
I am training, too
He has taught me how to be poetic
I wish I’d thought of that
I can see the simile in what he said
“Windows like railway boxcars
One long line on top
Of another
Floor upon floor
All the way up the building
Silent, as if parked
On an abandoned branch line
At the outskirts of a prairie village
That will only survive
If the railway thrives
The occasional rhythmic clatter
In a sudden gust of wind”
John of St. Thomas gives a clue:
“It is in the mind
Where art resides”
This exclamation a projection
Of his internal state
Like the answer to a question
“What one word
Describes your life?”
The iconic picture of a boxcar
On the prairie landscape
From the decades he worked his farm
This patient is from my dad’s generation
But I know a boxcar when I see one
This obscure question
A puzzle for the nurses
Has become for me a symbol
And he doesn’t even realize
He wants us to know it
That distinctive association
With the great depression
Wide sliding doors on one side
For grain or cattle and freight from mines
And for men who rode the rails east
Three generations back in time
(Both he and I have been spared the memory
Of boxcars used for people
Deported to Majdanek or Siberia)
This hospital room
Is now our boxcar
Travelling east is good
The sunrise when the patient recovers
And the resurrection
When the train of one’s health
Follows the rails of a singularly Compelling logic
And comes to a complete stop
In a terminal that intersects
With eternity

From Here We Begin Anew

November 11, 2017

(0n Remembrance Day)
“Let Israel rejoice in him that made him” Psalm 149
Lord, teach us to pray
As Christians, as humans
Even let it be
As spiritual people
But those who know the difference
Between God and not gods
Being a creation
Of the God of nature
We have forgotten this information
Knowledge, wisdom, enlightenment
“The important thing
Is to distinguish the authentic
From the fake” – Jacques Maritain
“They sometimes bear the same name”
The true is known by liberty
And a preference for reality
Over illusion
I stand in the middle
Of this sanctuary
Room 4102
“University Hospital Chapel
Furnished 1981”
The wrist band with my name
And designation IP
In-hospital patient
Proves my right to be here
As does my name tag
Spiritual and Cultural Care
Ukrainian Catholic Clergy
Others, too have this same right
No permission needed to enter
“This room is to remain unlocked
At all times”
Like the young man
Beseeching the Lord
That his family think again
And not rush to donate organs
Of someone he clearly loves
“Why decide under such
Insane stress”
The World Health Organization itself
Identifies human nature
As body, mind, and spirit
The logic of our human structure
An architecture worth stopping at
And having the courage to enter
Even when everyone else
Walks right by and they
Mistake it for something it isn’t
“The whole life of the age
Is far removed from Christ” –
Maritain writes about human nature
“What men and women
Of their own free will
Can obey
Or destroy”
On this same floor workers
Renovate the building
Behind tell-tale drapes
“Heavy duty construction barrier
For dust particle containment”
And signs: “No entry
Without permission”
They have form behind this veil
Distinguishable just dimly
They are there nonetheless
If all this floor were torn down
Medicine, surgery, maternity
Cardiac, neonatal, cancer
Long removed to other rooms
And just the chapel left
It would be enough
For a brand new start
Like a phrase by Fra Angelico
A middle ages Italian artist
The only words of his preserved
“Art demands great tranquility”
This sacred space creates it well
“Be still and know
That I am God”
It sure is quiet here
“And to paint the things of Christ
The artist must live with Christ.”
Crumbs that have fallen from the table
Evoke excitement still
In those who need them
“Grace heals the wounds of nature”
A renewal from within the space
These bricks and mortar hold open
The altar of sacrifice
Of praise and song
And humble heart
The sacrifice of body and blood
Has already been made
It does not need to be made again
By anyone else
The cross of humiliation
And glory
Repulsive to one
Draws another in
To paradise
The lectern for the word
Authentic, physical sounds
That evoke a presence
Of one who has promised
To be with us, always
With Maritain:
“The modern world is shaping
Human activity in a properly
Inhuman way”
Insistence on the existence
Of the physical alone
“The ultimate end of this frenzy
Is to prevent man from
Remembering God”
Constant in thought
Devoid of all
But reason alone
“And regard as useless
And therefore despicable
Everything which bears
The mark of the spirit”
We have something to defend
That which is revealed
As fully human
From here we begin anew
Someone is about to open
The door

A Trial By Fire in Saskatchewan

November 7, 2017

“Every activity we undertake in defense of the sanctity of life is prophetic….the day is coming when all evil will be conquered.” 40 Days for Life prayer on Day 40

A trial by fire in Saskatchewan
Means a trial by frost
I close my eyes where I stand
And imagine the fresh cold wind warm
The Book of Daniel description
Of the three young men
In the fiery furnace
Describes the flames alight
As a refreshing breeze
“You rescued the three holy youths
From the fire
You saved Daniel from the mouths
Of the lions”
I am not the one being martyred
I just stand with my sign
“Pray for an end to abortion”
Both hands curled into fists
In my mitts
To stay warm in the setting sun
A posture of defence
For the pre-born
A battle worth fighting
I am not mad at anyone
Not even the attractive young driver
Who gave us the middle finger salute
Driving past on Queen Street
She is too beautiful
To be that angry
At us
There are eight of us here
On the public sidewalk
Our hour vigil
In front of City Hospital
We seek the true, the good
And the beautiful
“It is for its beauty
That wisdom is loved”
Writes Jacques Maritain
Quoting St. Denys:
“The beautiful is good
And desirable and delightful
And loved”
Abortion is just thoroughly ugly
And corrupts all beauty
With hatred and death
I vibrate in the cold
Like a conveyor belt
That mechanical principle
Of separation
To extract gold from stone
A rumbling, repeatable
Law of nature
(The crucible is what is endured by pregnant moms
Manipulated, coerced,exploited
Into believing in abortion
At a time when they disbelieved
In the truth, goodness, beauty
Of their own already motherhood
Tempted to throw the gold
We believe in these non-mechanical Perfectly human principles:
When cursed, we bless
Do not do evil thinking
That good may come of it
You are a child
Of the living God
The child of your pregnancy
Is already truly and fully
A human being
Since conception
You are not the force
That generated this life
And the force you yield
To destroy it
Is not a right
These are our rules
There may be ones more sophisticated
But these are the ones that warm
The will
When the November air is cold
With the thought of innocent people
Being willed out of existence
To paraphrase a soldier’s motto
They came into existence
To live, and not to die
I close my eyes where I stand
And imagine the sharp cold wind warm
I am not the one being martyred
Lord, save these Daniels
From the lions

How Curling Was Invented

November 5, 2017

Pumpkins line the concrete steps
To your front door
And resonate like coins
When they’re dropped
They froze through the night
Small kitty outline
Medium Belle and Beast
Large monsteresque smiles
On skeletal faces
Grit their teeth from the cold
Solid orange against fresh gray cement
Neither surface succumbs
The pumpkins glide without resistance
Like rocks on ice
When nature sends you winter
Make a game
I sweep away the snow
Powdered and light
Winter boot impressions
The size worn by five year old twins
Stamped into the white
All the way down to the curb
Our November winter storm
Happy to visit my daughter
Son-in-law and grandchildren
And see her so domestic
Meanwhile the great gathering of geese
Clutter the field across the street
The civic water reservoir
Is now their town square
A flurry of salt and pepper feathers
Their numbers create an air
Of weight and importance
As they communicate their autumn commands
Sounds and bodies swell and recede
While they practice take off
And landing
Before they migrate south until spring
And follow a path charted by nature
Unbeknown to us
I hunch down and swing my broom
In rhythm to their cackle
They seem angry
At the snow
At the cold
At the compulsion of instinct
At me
I am too slow when I move
They will have to leave me behind
My nature is a mystery to them
Less instinct and habit
More intuition
Added to reason
And love
For all I know
Their sounds are shouts
That could very well mean
For me and for them
Hurry, hurry hard
When life sends you hardships
Make a family

Open Letter to Provincial Leadership Candidates: II

October 24, 2017

“An unjust law, even if it expresses the will of the people, is not law.” – Jacques Maritain
There is the agenda
What you want to speak about
Everyone is in agreement
The candidate hopes to evoke
Your good will and vote
On the coattails of his word of thanks
For the privilege to serve
The model of an elected politician, accountable
To those same ones who are now governed
An unseparate elite
Divided as a superior from those
Who have been at the polls
Lincoln’s government “of the people
By the people, for the people”
Jacques Maritain’s government of the people
“By those whom they themselves have chosen
And entrusted with a right to command
Within certain fixed limits of duration and power”
Then there is the hidden agenda
What people really want to address
It rises to the surface one way
Or another, first a hesitant veil of cynicism
Then swelling into the open like water
Flooding farmland around Big Quill
“If our farms were high-end resort cabins
You’d unburden us of this weight”
Which also raises the question
Of special interest groups
How to say no when words are propelled
By the shouts of those who have made themselves
Judge, jury, executioner
Play one group off against the other
Let the abortionists pull off a leg to the knee
But give unto us the rest of
The condemned one
It is better for thee with one leg to proceed
Into this State, living
Separate and distinct
Breathing, blood circulating
Through thine phantom foot
And the parts of your body
That remain
Than to be enrolled with both feet
Into the statistics of the abortionist paradise
When more than just the navel-string
Is severed, and everything that distinguishes thee
Is blurred in a beaker of earthly remains
(Or am I thinking of a different phrase?)
Here’s another one, this time from Jacques Maritain
“The people will pay for the decisions
Made by the State in the name of their Sovereignty”
When unaccountability is inserted as an absolute
“The Sovereignty of the totalitarian State
Is the master of good and evil as well
As of life and death”
What we have in common
With China and North Korea
Especially over the pre-born
Who are always the same ones
Getting killed
“Ce sont toujours les mêmes qui se font tuer”
This special interest group
Can shout as loudly as it wants
That’s why Bernard Nathanson describes
A girl in the pre-born time of her life
Who bolts as far away as humanly possible
From the forceps of foreclosure
To pay with her life the balance of a debt
She never knew she owed
In a movie he names
The Silent Scream

Open Poem to Provincial Leadership Candidates

October 17, 2017

At the community hall
Minus the community
Since there were only three of us
The empty hall was filled
With the elephant in the room
The candidate’s insistence
That the ideological opponents to life
Be considered equally
Even though our side was there
And their people weren’t
They never have to be
Whether standing in front of the legislature
Or outside a hospital
Before the courts or in the media
They get all the abortions, after all
Twenty thousand in the past decade
Conservatively counting
Everything else is just an abstraction
Including their non-presence
Which the candidate feels compelled to address
More than any anguish at the absence
Of 20,000 citizens
That would really fill the community hall
And the classrooms
And the job market
And the provincial coffers
There were even more boys
At the picnic table under the community billboard
Just outside the hall to the north
Excited with the snacks they bought at Family Foods
Optimistic that way, about their teenage lives
No corruption in their intentions
Like here in this empty hall
Where politics is played with whether and when and if
People exist or don’t
“I understand we have a legal requirement..”
Even though they found the courage
To risk losing money from the federal government
Over private MRIs
And even though an unjust law is not binding
On one’s conscience
Or what’s a legislature for?
“I have the caucus to consider
And the Human Services Committee”
Which insists on acting as an inhuman services committee
You’d think we had found some common ground
In a profession of faith:
“I believe in science-based decision making”
We were just talking about that
With a rep for a local ag company
And their Artificial Insemination Division
No one would ever tolerate an AI company
Speaking like abortionists
“We won’t pay you for that embryo
Until the brute is born
What you’ve touted as a sow or cow
Might prove to be a hare with horns”
Only the pro-life constituency must
Tiptoe around like being on the thin ice
Of a rural Saskatchewan slough in late October
While those who dismember hips and toes
In our city hospitals
Keep crushing skulls like eggshells
During their year-long macabre Halloween
Well, the candidate received my gifts
A newspaper and a press release
On the “Government’s Duty to Neutrality”
Or in an explanation from Jacques Maritain:
“A genuine democracy
Cannot impose on its citizens
Or demand from them
As a condition of their belonging” and
Participating in the polis
The city, the society, and where the word
Politician comes from
“Any philosophic or religious creed”
Which describes abortion to a tee
I asked that the next premier not be
Another Romanow
Who championed the rights over equality illusion
And refused to defund abortion
I would also now add
A line from Maritain
“Genuine democracy
Must bear within itself
A common human creed”
And a warning
“The dream of a ‘scientific creed’
Uniting men in peace and in common convictions”
About the nature of human life and
The purpose of government
“Vanished in our contemporary catastrophes”
By which he means first and second
World wars
And by extension the very scientific precision
Of turning a womb that already is
A coffer of great treasure, with a priceless jewel
A human being in the prenatal time
Of one’s development
Into a crucible
Intent on transforming
Pure gold
Into the faux treasure
Of a fool

October 17, 2017

Where You Are Supposed To Be

October 12, 2017

“All things seek their individual goods,
And their individual goods cooperate in an immanent
Universal good, the order of creation.” – James Matthew Wilson

Father Peter had a saying
And he might have had as many expressions
As there are students who remember them
But one coin will suffice

“Where are you supposed to be?
Or in the idiom of our school,
Hey, Stephaniuk, where are you supposed to be?
Stephaniuk, Zulak, Koroluk, Millham…

We all knew what he meant
A student has a goal, a natural place to be growing into
A grain of wheat type discipline and hope
To grow into a good student

And a teacher also has a goal according to one’s state
To work hard, to be a good teacher, like you
To be a good student of one’s craft
And to know the difference between the student and the teacher

A General Montgomery teaching a Canadian officer
That he might want to help a tired private with his kit
But he belonged way up ahead of the forced march
To prepare the best spot to camp seven hundred men

Or an Aristotle and St. Thomas, that each creation
Has a natural goal to reach in order to be what it already is
In the words of St. Augustine, “Our hearts are restless
Until the rest in You.”

We knew he was telling us to stop playing billiards
When we should be outside for soccer
To hurry up with that after school sandwich
When it was time for Ukrainian dance practice

It could have meant getting from math class to choir
From evening study hall to chapel
Or finally getting to lights out
Instead of looking for 007 reruns on television

Now it is my turn to ask him,
“Father Peter, where are you supposed to be?”
And for many years after graduation
He had been in lots of places where I was

A priest at the altar when my wife and I got married
Minister of last rites for my father on his deathbed
A co-worker when I joined him on staff
And proved that I was a good student but a terrible teacher

“I’m supposed to be as close to the Lord”
I can hear him say, “As is humanly possible”
With the joy and peace I saw in him
The last time we spoke before he got sick

So in the idiom of our school,
“Hey, Pidskalny, where are you supposed to be?”
“I’m supposed to be with our Lord in heaven
And with your help, your prayers

My restless heart will rest there soon.”

October 1, 2017

When We Cast Pebbles Through Clouds

September 23, 2017

When We Cast Pebbles Through Clouds

We knew how to let our imaginations run free
And we were running, too
On the gravel in front of the house
On the grass around the house, south
To the slough
Then towards the garage to the north
Granaries to the east
And the barn dad built further east
Down the hill to the cattle shelters
And the water well, then back up all the way
West, past the house to another slough
To where the yard meets the gate
That was the start line
For our expeditionary force
And martial games
Like warriors from a medieval Ukrainian poem
“The Exploits of Prince Ihor”
Our energy was “as explosive as that of grey wolves
Racing across a field, fighters intent
On winning a soldier’s honour
And bringing glory to our king”
Meanwhile, the king, our dad
The only real soldier among us
Was at work on the farm machinery
Turning swords into plowshares
As he had been doing for the past 25 years
The only double-edged knives he used now
Were the sections on the swather
To cut the crop for the harvest
We were brothers, brothers-in-arms, and his sons
“One brotherhood under the skies of one bright world”
As in Ihor’s poem
Both the sons of King Vasyl
In our pretend exploits
“With the iron strength of their armies
They took their place in the expedition
On behalf of the king
Through the clouds they cast
Volleys of stones
And held court with authority
All along the length of the Dunai River”
If we had thought to ask him
What he knew about regiments
Like a Roman Legion
Three companies forward
And one in reserve, to exploit
Successes, shore up against mortal threats
He would have told us again, as he had before
“I was with Headquarters Company
4th Princess Louise Dragoon Guards, the “Plugs”
Canadian Army, Italian Campaign”
The liberation of Ravenna was his big show
Dislodging the enemy by crossing the iron tracks
Of the city’s railway station
Our Operation Iron Rifle was all pretend
With poplar tree branches for guns
And it took a long time before we realized
How real his war was for him
We could have learned a sentiment of parental respect
From Beowulf
Unknown contemporary of Ihor
Countries and centuries apart
“And a young prince must be prudent like that,
giving freely while his father lives
so that afterwards in age when fighting starts
steadfast companions will stand by him…”
I would learn through study to explain what happened
It is known as peer orientation, attachment crisis
Degrading our relationship with dad
Or from the words of Ihor’s campaign:
“You have squandered your inheritance
On account of your rebelliousness”
What kind of wounds had we suffered
From our culture, a different kind of war
That made us turn against “our father’s golden throne?”
But on that day of our imaginary expedition
There were light, white clouds
In strong blue skies
Redwing blackbirds for our ravens
With sloughs as seas to carry us
Through the fog of war
We were eager to show our bravery
With the classic bravado
“We’d rather perish than be taken captive”
In epic battles, where
“aggression has exacted the oppression
Of human free will”
And again from Ihor:
“Instead of good and fruitful seeds
The fields have been sown with the bones of our native sons”
We remained honourable in the heat of battle
“A blood-red star announced to the world of the day
Oppressive black clouds approached from the sea
Quivering with lightning
To cover the four corners of the earth
They won’t dissipate
Until the thunder releases rain
Like volleys of arrows…
And a clash of battle swords
Brings many closer to their graves…
From the first red light of dawn until the end
Of the day, nonstop from evening ‘til the return
Of light across the earth
Volleys of arrows were released with disciplined accuracy
Sabres thundered against helmets
Swords creating shock waves en masse
Throughout an anonymous field of battle”
We were liberators
Shouting commands in English
And what Ukrainian we knew
Staccato speech, like brief streams of rifle fire
Dad was the one who had a soldier’s tongue
A scout who deciphered Italian, German, and Polish
If we would have stopped to ask him
When the grey, ominous haze developed later
Over our home and fields
He and mom would be the ones to suffer most
“Early in the morning, earlier than imaginable”
The Ukrainian repetition of early morning in Ihor’s poem
Perhaps because the root of the phrase
Is common with the word for wound
A deep wound in their lives and hearts
It was early in my brother’s life, to die at seventeen
Together with his girlfriend, Terry
A car accident in civilian life
The grieving father of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf
Could be my father then:
“He begins to keen
and weep for his boy… he can be of no help.
The wisdom of age is worthless to him.
Morning after morning, he wakes to remember
that his child is gone…
Alone with his longing, he lies down on his bed
and sings a lament; everything seems too large,
The steadings and the fields.”
To make the overwhelming
More containable
First, dad made the arrangements
For his son’s funeral
Then he returned to his fields
“Maurice started hauling these bales
And I must finish now that he is dead.”
Ihor’s poem adds a feminine lament:
“What powerful wind is this
That is the master of our destiny?
Why do you bear these enemy attacks
Upon your once gentle back
And target my dear husband’s loyal soldiers?
Is it not enough for you
Under the cover of thick mists
To toy with rudderless vessels
Upon the agitated seas?
O master of the winds,
Why have you taken all my joys
And scattered them among the pale, wild weeds?”
The days before the funeral
Mom would leave the house
And wander for hours in the pasture
Past the barn
The nuances of green from the past summer
Long ago turned yellow and white
My one contribution to the release of grief
Was to place his grade Twelve photo on the table
Next to the whiskey bottle that was already there
And go around the room
For each of us to say a word
“I love you, I forgive you
Please forgive me”
It has taken decades since then
To renew, as Ihor’s bard would proclaim
“Their ancestral fame”
A healing within ourselves and in our family
With a promise to myself
And for my own children:
‘We will make men of ourselves
We will capitalize on future successes
While fairly dividing
What has already been won’
Is it no wonder then, brethren
That an old man has been made
To feel young again?”

We knew how to let our imaginations run free
And we were running, too…

September 25, 2017
In memory of +Maurice and +Terry, September 30, 1982

Quotes from Beowulf, Seamus Heaney, translation, “Beowulf” W.W. Norton and Company: New York, 2000
Quotes from “The Exploits of Prince Ihor”, commonly known as The Lay of Ihor’s Campaign, translated from Ukrainian by Jeffrey D. Stephaniuk.
Accessed at, Ukrainian translation by Maksym Rylsky (1895-1964)

Military Gas Mask From Overseas on Saskatchewan Farm

September 21, 2017

Military Gas Mask From Overseas on Saskatchewan Farm

“If one perceptible function of poetry is to write place into existence, another of its functions is to unwrite it.” Seamus Heaney

I can frame the space
Where dad’s soldier’s gas mask was placed
Hung for years as a souvenir
On a wall in his farmyard workshop
But I had no frame of reference
As a child, a veteran’s son
To grasp what it possibly could mean
Ever to have needed one
Or why it had such value for dad
Like a pearl of great price
Discovered and hidden again
In a field he now owns
Giving the appearance of something nearly discarded
He kept asking us not to touch it
Even though as boys we would try it on for size
When he was on the field
Cultivating or seeding or combining
I couldn’t know then if it shaped his identity
As securely as the material from which it was made
Shaped his face
Or if he had a phantom feeling of it still
Like an amputee, a survivor
The war was no longer there
Except for an invisible presence
The mask dangling around his neck
A pendulum of uncertain times
With his sten gun over his shoulder
And his shovel behind his back
To dig slit trenches and fox holes
In the dirt and mud and clay
As protections from volleys of fire
And aerial bombardments
Years before it ever got hung
On the wooden granary wall
He had been a Canadian test subject
Suffield, Alberta, 1942
And had experience with chlorine gas
Even before he travelled safely overseas
Through waters threatened by U-boats and icebergs
Later, I would learn a poem about that mustard gas
“Gas boys, gas. An ecstasy
Of fumbling”
Though I was never clever enough
To connect that poem with a better understanding
Of my own father’s experience
Or draw me closer to him
All my childhood
This gas mask was right there on a wall
Part of a frame of a common wooden granary
Seasoned by decades of harvest
Now seconded for use as a tool shop
Repair shop, two by four floor well worn
From dad’s diligent attention to his work
The entire inside dark with oil, dirt, and metal filings
That small space held everything
Grinder, bearings, nails, bolts
Air compressor, oil cans,step ladders
Tools on the floor and bench and shelf
All with the smell of grease and grinding fumes
With just enough of a pathway
To maneuver all this valuable collection
Like the bees and flies weaving in
And out of this same space
This clutter that makes a jack-of-all trades independent
And successful on a family farm
Meanwhile the gas mask could always be seen
On the wall across from the doorway
As soon as you entered the building
If you were looking for it
And for years, until now, I had stopped
There it remained
Among the rakes and garden hoes and scythes
Practical technology of farm life
With the leather straps and breathing apparatus
Of the military gas mask
Not quite the look of a skull
Though anthropomorphic enough
To be dissimilar to a cattle skull
Or small animal heads we might find
In the bush
To the north of the yard
That brilliant windbreak
From bone-chilling winter storms
The mask silent and impractical
Among all this utility
Of civilian life
Its invisible value to dad
Worth more than any use it might still provide
It served its first reason for being years ago
Like the work of a tree’s green leaves
In that great care of life under the sun
Before an unutility emerges
In the changing of the colours
After the work is done
An ecstatic artistry in all that uselessness
Of autumn glory
“Things are transformed
Into that which cannot be grasped”
Writes Maurice Blanchot, “The Space of Literature”
I could not grasp the grasp
In which dad was held by the mask
Stronger now than any functional use
It might retain
“Out of use, beyond wear
They are not in our possession”
Of course, it was a part of dad’s belongings
A wartime souvenir, like the wooden Dutch shoes
And his 1939-1945 Star and Volunteer medal
Italy Star
From that era when he was a young man
With the Canadian Army in Italy
But also part of his emotional belongings
Like his startle reflex during thunder storms
And all that restlessness at night when he slept
About which only mom knew the details
Which is why she never put us into bed with him
When we were little
And had our own innocent bad dreams
“But they are the movement of dispossession
Which releases us both from them
And from ourselves”
He must have been happy to be free
Of any further need for it
Among the necessary clutter on a soldier’s body
Dispossessed of it after the final orders to disarm
When he began to learn to live
In a veteran’s body instead
In that epic mass return to life
During peacetime
He had no fear to need it ever again
Against mustard gas
The need of it was different now
A thanksgiving for survival
A remembrance of fellow soldiers,many
Who can only be visited now
By journeys to Commonwealth War Graves in Italy
Or by revisiting and re-membering memories of them
“I have no words to describe this
To someone who wasn’t there”
He used to say to us
The silent mask has begun to speak
When practical words are mute
Or from Blanchot, such a possibility
“Belongs neither to the day
Nor to the night
But is always spoken
Between night and day
And one single time speaks the truth
And leaves it unspoken”
Mom, a veteran’s wife
Harboured tenderly that untender pillow talk
In her own great care
To affirm the goodness of his humanity
In that life project known as a return
To self
And civilian life
After participating in what such a mask
Was needed for in the first place
And make possible the experience
Of more fruitful ecstasies
Marriage, family, owning his own land
For which he often longed
And did express, until his death
A word of thanks