Archive for September, 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