Sandy Shreve
Paintings, Photo Art, Poetry

Blog - Wednesday Poems

(posted on 17 Jul 2024)

Above: Detail of reflected cattails and reeds taken in 2016 from the walkway in the Sackville Waterfowl Park, alongside the old railway bed that now forms part of the Trans Canada Trail.  Below: A small stretch of the railway where I played as a child – photo taken in 1980, before the rails were removed.

The other evening, friends were reminiscing over dinner about our childhood antics.  A few of us described a summer ritual of putting pennies on railroad tracks to see what shape they would take after the train ran them over. Then as I perused my Facebook feed the next morning, up popped a photo of wild strawberry jam, posted by a close friend of my sister's. That picture brought back memories of growing up in the Maritimes and especially the glorious scent of those berries filling the air as my sister and I picked them for our mother, who also turned them into a delicious jam.

These two events reminded me of what I think of as my quintessential summer /nostalgia poem.  It seems fitting to make this one of my July Wednesday Poems, so below is Wild Strawberries, from my book Belonging (Sono Nis Press). Though written in the third person, the ‘she’ in the poem is very much me.  Also, I should note that when I wrote it, I was experimenting with letting line breaks take the place of punctuation, following on something I’d read by Al Purdy about superfluous periods and commas etc.  Looking back, I’m not so sure the experiment was useful, and am always tempted to add punctuation at the ends of those lines.  But for now I’ll leave the poem as I wrote it. Oh – and a geographical note for those unfamiliar with the Maritimes:  The Tantramar marshes are on the Chignecto Isthmus around the Bay of Fundy, and are part of the traditional territories of the Mi’kmaq First Nations; the Northumberland Strait is the body of water between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia on the one side and Prince Edward Island on the other.

 

Wild Strawberries

On this July morning, the Fundy breeze makes waves
on its distant bay
sends gusts like messengers to the marsh
where a young girl stands
still and silent, only her wild hair flying

These are the days when freight trains still speed
across the Tantramar to Cape Tormentine
She rolls the word, terminus, in her mouth
imagines the end of the line, the engine and every boxcar
rising into the sky, their bulk a weightless chain
with the will to glide high and soundless as clouds
above the blue Northumberland tides
Then come to ground at the edge of the Island
ease their wheels back onto beginnings
wherever the rails wait

the way she waits, now
for the rhythm of elsewhere
the click-clack of dreams
and for the call to Come Alo-o-ng, Come Alo-o-ng
an impossible song on a soft wind
that cups her face like the comfort
of her mother’s hands
on this hot day

The girl kneels, knows to put
her weight down slow on the stones
nudge out a blunt nest for her knees
She places her hand on the rail, feels only heat
no shudder
Leans low to listen, ear to steel
her brown eyes wide, watching, just to be safe

She adores the smell of rust and tar and it is
best this close to the track
but on this day the air is also sweet
her nose tingles with the idea of sliced strawberries
She lifts her head
centres her penny on the rail

sniffs at the air, transformed to her rabbit self
leaps across the tracks as if startled
though her flight follows a geography
of other summers, the knowledge of red, ripe
and speckled with the seeds of sunlight

The train rumbles toward her now
its destination west and one day she will follow
see the rest of the world for herself
but this is her place, already she is certain
she will return

What she cannot imagine is a future
when the last caboose will fade into the distance
forever, the rails here lifted from their beds
stacked and abandoned on some vacant lot
herself long gone

She picks up a penny, a good one today
heads home with the promise
of a new shape of copper shining in her hand
the shout of wild strawberries on her tongue

 

 

Image:  Things Fall Apart, 36" x 36", oil and cold wax on cradled wood panel.

 

Today, instead of posting one of my own poems, I thought I’d post a classic: The Second Coming, by W. B. Yeats, which in large part inspired the above painting.

For the past decade, this poem has haunted me.  History, it seems, is repeating itself, too often featuring the worst of human failings.  When Russia invaded Ukraine, I was experimenting with oil and cold wax on a large cradled wood panel. As I laid down layer after layer of disparate shapes tumbling through space, a line from that poem, “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold,” kept coming to mind. I soon realized I was painting the first phrase of that line. I still hope the second phrase might not come to pass, though since then the world seems to be slipping further into the abyss, with yet more unconscionable wars raging, a worsening climate crisis and the rise of the far right (though happily, the recent British and French elections held the latter at bay, at least for now).

 

The Second Coming

 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   
The darkness drops again; but now I know   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
 

- William Butler Yeats, 1920

(posted on 3 Jul 2024)

 

My friend Donna Shanley recently introduced me to the world of flash fiction. Hers have been widely published and are marvellous. You can find one example here: https://crowcrosskeys.com/2024/05/15/tresses-donna-shanley/

Thinking about flash fiction reminded me that every now and then I’ve turned my pen toward prose poems, so I’ve decided to post one today:  Edith and Alba, from my book Belonging (Sono Nis Press).  This also reminds me that, even though Kate Braid and I discussed what prose poems might be in In Fine Form: A Contemporary Look at Form Poetry (Caitlin Press), I have never been entirely sure how to distinguish them from short prose.  So perhaps, after all, what I wrote was flash fiction?  And does it even matter?  Either way, the two women in the piece are real – Edith was my grandmother and Alba, my great aunt.  The visit depicted in this piece is obviously fiction, even a bit surreal – but many of the details are drawn from my memories of visiting them as a child.

Edith and Alba are shown with friends in the above photo, taken on July 10, 1937. Edith is third from the left and Alba is at the far right.

 

 

Edith and Alba

It is a late January afternoon and the sun, flicking a few last prisms across frozen snow, is yawning toward the horizon.  Two women sit in the living room, showered with a wide fan of light from the bay window, dropping in through blinds, slats angled like lowered eyelids.  Between them, the silver tea set glows on a glass topped coffee table.

Edith leans forward to pour.  Faint sounds of a distant ritual might be heard, a delicate clink as the pot is lifted from the tray, a quick splash and gurgle in each antique china cup, a prattle of spoons stirring, then placed upon their saucers.  Always on these occasions an aura of Earl Grey curls through the house on ghostly fingers, as if beckoning memories.  The women  –  careful to visit when the house they shared for nearly forty years is empty, as they do not come to haunt and have no wish to startle or frighten the young couple that lives here now – relax in ornate wing-backed chairs, sip their tea, and listen.

The walls let go of voices.  Alba hears the front doorbell chime.  A shy girl slides onto the piano stool, arranges her fingers over the keys, her saddle-shoed feet at the pedals.  The metronome ticks behind Beethoven's beautiful Fur Elise.  Edith's grandchildren hop from foot to foot in the front hallway, begging entry to the mothball closet under the staircase where wooden toys from another generation are stored way in the back, below plastic wrapped suits and sweaters.

Dusk casually descends around these two Victorian-born women, the one who married the other's brother, the other who remained a spinster.  They meet here when they can, taste the details of their lives.  Sometimes, like today, they arrive to laughter and song; other afternoons it might be an illness or even a death; as often as not it's just the ordinariness of any day, something as simple as a favourite breakfast — the rustle of the morning paper, the scrape of forks and knives against plates, the thick scent of sausages and eggs, toast or donuts or fresh baked bread. 

In shadow now, Edith reaches over, pats Alba's hand, the years of care between them so long ago grown soft with sagging skin.  Alba smiles, says nothing.  It never fails.  Between their visits, each conjures up these fleeting moments, imagines conversation.  But everything that they've saved up to say will take too many words to fit this tiny vessel of disappearing time they savour, sitting here, the darkened parlour brimming with their silence.

(posted on 26 Jun 2024)

 

For this week’s Wednesday Poem, I’ve chosen another one from Suddenly, So Much (Exile Editions). Today, A Cormorant also appears on one of my poetry postcards, alongside a photo I took at Trout Lake when I was living in Vancouver. (The story behind the poetry postcards is in my June 5 Wednesday Poem, Crows.)

My husband and I first started visiting Pender Island in the late 80s/early 90s. On one of our first visits, I came across a chapbook of Pender Island poetry. There, I found The Gift Shop, by Gudrun Wight, a two-stanza poem in which the lines in verse one are repeated in verse two, but in the opposite order. This was the first time I’d come across a poem written as a palindrome, which I usually thought of as a word or phrase spelled the same both ways (kayak; Able Was I Ere I Saw Elba).  I was just beginning to explore writing in various forms, and was drawn to those that featured lines repeated in a particular pattern – pantoums, villanelles and the like.  So this poem intrigued me.  How difficult would it be to write a poem to this structure and still have it make sense?  Not easy, I discovered.  Over the years I’ve managed to write only two palindromes that I felt succeeded. In today’s poem, I’ve used punctuation to alter the sense of some lines in each stanza, subtly shifting emphasis or meaning. I’ve also varied the form a wee bit, making it four stanzas instead of two, and in the second verse where the lines begin to appear in reverse order, I’ve inserted the poem’s title to smooth out the turn.

Some years ago, poet Kate Braid and I co-edited In Fine Form, A Contemporary Look at Canadian Form Poetry (Caitlin Press). Our chapter on the palindrome has a discussion of this form and more examples of how various poets have approached it.

 

(posted on 19 Jun 2024)

With the first day of summer coming right up, I thought I’d post another poem from my book
Belonging (Sono Nis Press).  As a kid, a favourite early summer (and late spring) ritual was the 
search for a blade of grass wide enough that when positioned just so, you could blow into it and
make a harsh squawk. The longer you could make the sound last, the better.  That memory 
prompted me to write Improvisation.

Decades later, this poem along with some of my favourite jazz pieces, inspired a painting, Jazz,
the image shown above. In the past, I’ve written poems responding to paintings (a method
called ekphrasis) but this was the first time I’d responded the other way around. 
A few years later,
artist Annie Smith (https://anniesmith.ca/) taught me how to make accordion books, so I made
one, shown below, to go with this pair. For this book I photographed details from the painting
to fill the panels on one side, and printed stanzas of the poem for the reverse panels.

 

“One of the boys and I got out the guitar and mandolin and sat on #5 hatch outside focsle strumming away at them.  I made an awful noise but a picture Tim took of us looks as if I was actually playing!” – Jack Shreve, 1936

With Father’s Day coming up this weekend, I thought I’d post another poem from Waiting For the Albatross (Oolichan Books) – a collection of poems I crafted by quite liberally rearranging words, phrases and sentences I borrowed from a diary my dad wrote when he was 21 and working as a deck hand on a Canadian Steamships freighter during the Great Depression.  (For more about the book, see my May 1st Wednesday Poem at https://www.sandyshreve.ca/blog.)

In the photo here, dad is the one pretending to play the mandolin. And for those who might not know what a tin pan trappist is, here is how Jesse Selengut, of New York’s Tin Pan Band explained it to me in a 2011 email:  “In older music parlance, the drum set is oft referred to as the traps set. A trappist is probably a made up, clever word to describe a drummer. A tin pan trappist would mean someone who took out some pots and pans and made a make-shift drum kit for jamming on the boat.”

Today’s poem is a madrigal, a form invented by Chaucer in the 14th century, featuring among other things, three refrains (lines 1, 6 & 11; lines 2, 7 & 12; and lines 3 & 13, with which I’ve played fast and loose).

(posted on 5 Jun 2024)

 

There have been too many funerals in my life lately. But they reminded me of my poem, “Crows”, from my book Suddenly, So Much (Exile Editions). It feels right to make it this week’s Wednesday Poem, in part because of the story behind it. (The image here is another of the poetry postcards I talked about in my May 15 post.) Here’s an excerpt from my longer post about this poem, published in 2013, in Ooligan Books’ Alive at the Centre Where Poems Begin blog:

“Crows” began with a chance encounter on my way home from work one overcast February afternoon in 1998.  An older man walking ahead of me slowed to a saunter as I approached, as if waiting for me to catch up to him.  When I did, he peered at me from under his nondescript cap and pointed to a couple of vacant lots beside us, asking if I’d noticed there were more crows around than usual.  “Not really,” I confessed, looking at what seemed a rather normal number pecking at the ground.  Then he told me how hundreds upon hundreds had arrived earlier that day, covering the field, the trees, the street – and then took off, darkening the sky.  “I think they came for my neighbour,” he said, nodding at an old house across the way.  “She died last night.”  A little farther on, he explained that when we die, crows come to escort our souls to heaven; how he hoped, when the time came, they’d show him the way, too.  A few paces later, he turned off the path and I continued on my way.  But the man and his words stayed with me.

I’ve long been fond of crows.  Growing up in New Brunswick, I’d often wake to their boisterous heckling across the Tantramar Marsh.  Others were annoyed by the ‘noise’ but I heard the possibilities for a new day in those voices.  Yet I’d never written about them; at most, crows made a passing appearance in a few of my poems.  While I knew about and admired their intelligence, I’d never read up on what they might stand for in world cultures or religions.  Given what the man I’d met earlier in the day had said, I realized I needed to look into this, so I turned to one of my favourite reference books – Barbara G. Walker’s The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects (Harper and Rowe, 1988) – and read every crow entry.  From Walker I learned, among other things, that to the Roman ear the crow’s call sounded like their word for tomorrow – and so, to them, this bird was “a symbol of the future”.

With Walker’s information, my own enchantment with crows, their generally bad reputation (as messy, as loud, as bullies and thieves) and one man’s comment about crows and our souls, all at the back of my mind, I picked up my pen …

 

 

Last week, some of the Shreve cousins had a chat about our ancestry.  It was prompted by an email showing
our paternal line, going back a few generations.  One cousin then asked about the maternal line –
where was that in the family tree?  Which reminded me that, for years, I’ve had a sampler done by my
great grandmother on my mother’s side. A small treasure, which prompted a sonnet.  So for this
week’s Wednesday Poem, I’ve chosen Susan Dixon’s Sampler, from my book, Belonging (Sono Nis Press).

(posted on 22 May 2024)

 

A couple of years ago one of my poems, first published in the literary journal Exile, was selected for inclusion in Best Canadian Poetry 2023 (Biblioasis).  These collections come out annually, and also feature comments by the authors about their poems.  My comment on ‘Late’, is included below.

Late

Just this, the way your robe hangs from the door,
and how the deep green leaf in its floral
pattern (pink on black) is answered in the towel
dangling from a hook below the mirror –
just this, the way it’s overlooked
until one sleepless night
someone rises and flicks on the light.


Once in a while a poem arrives almost fully realized, a gift from who knows where.  This has happened to me only a few times, but ‘Late’ was one of those gifts.  One night, after tossing and turning for a while, I hauled myself out of bed and headed to the bathroom.  There, I found the most astonishing beauty. Nothing had changed from earlier in the day, or even from the day before.  The same towels on the racks, the same housecoats on the door.  But for no particular reason, in that instant when I so casually turned on the light, I noticed – and gaped at – the colours, admiring how they just happened to match so well.  This simple image became, for me, a metaphor not just for my marriage but for how the ordinary can be extraordinary. ‘Late’ speaks to how the things we usually assume are insignificant (if we think of them at all) often have something to tell us, if we just take the time to consider them. The title, besides its literal reference to the middle of the night, suggests we might not want to put off paying attention to those little things we tend to ignore.  (I should note there were a few edits after the initial writing. The word ‘pink’ in the first draft was ‘pinks’. And the editors at Exile astutely noticed a redundant phrase in the fifth line, which, once I happily removed it, called for some line break changes.)

(posted on 15 May 2024)

Sticking with the seasonal theme this week, today’s Wednesday Poem is Spring Cleaning, from my book Bewildered Rituals (Polestar Press).  I composed the  accompanying image by collaging my photographs in Photoshop.

When I retired, my husband bought me my first digital camera. I dove into taking pictures, thinking to pair them with my poems, in hopes that photographs might make the poetry more widely accessible. I made cards and calendars – and a set of postcards, like the one shown here, which I took to various stores around Vancouver, where I lived at the time, asking if they might sell these on commission.  It was an interesting, but exhausting project.  After one particularly foot wearying day, I came home and told Bill I was done. I still have a supply of the postcards, though; and I still make art cards with my photos.  Spring Cleaning is one of many poems I have written that draws on my experiences in office work.

 

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