Against This Death

We present this work in honor of the 15th anniversary of the poet’s death.

Irving Layton
Canadian
1912 – 2006

 

I have seen respectable
death
served up like bread and wine
in stores and offices,
in club and hostel,
and from the streetcorner
church
that faces
two ways
I have seen death
served up
like ice.

Against this death,
slow, certain:
the body,
this burly sun,
the exhalations
of your breath,
your cheeks
rose and lovely,
and the secret
life
of the imagination
scheming freedom
from labour
and stone.

The Wreck of the “Julie Plante”

William Henry Drummond
Canadian
1854 – 1907

 

On wan dark night on Lac St. Pierre,
De win’ she blow, blow, blow,
An’ de crew of de wood scow “Julie Plante”
Got scar’t an’ run below—
For de win’ she blow lak hurricane,
Bimeby she blow some more,
An’ de scow bus’ up on Lac St. Pierre
Wan arpent from de shore.

De captinne walk on de fronte deck,
An’ walk de hin’ deck too—
He call de crew from up de hole,
He call de cook also.
De cook she ‘s name was Rosie,
She come from Montreal,
Was chambre maid on lumber barge,
On de Grande Lachine Canal.

De win’ she blow from nor’ -eas’ -wes’,—
De sout’ win’ she blow too,
W’en Rosie cry, “Mon cher captinne,
Mon cher, w’at I shall do ?”
Den de captinne t’row de beeg ankerre,
But still de scow she dreef,
De crew he can’t pass on de shore,
Becos’ he los’ hees skeef.

De night was dark lak wan black cat,
De wave run high an’ fas’,
W’en de captinne tak’ de Rosie girl
An’ tie her to de mas’.
Den he also tak’ de life preserve,
An’ jomp off on de lak’,
An’ say, “Good-bye, ma Rosie dear,
I go drown for your sak’.”

Nex’ morning very early
‘Bout ha’f-pas’ two—t’ree—four—
De captinne—scow—an’ de poor Rosie
Was corpses on de shore,
For de win’ she blow lak hurricane,
Bimeby she blow some more,
An’ de scow bus’ up on Lac St. Pierre,
Wan arpent from de shore.

MORAL

Now all good wood scow sailor man
Tak’ warning by dat storm
An’ go an’ marry some nice French girl
An’ leev on wan beeg farm.
De win’ can blow lak hurricane
An’ s’pose she blow some more,
You can’t get drown on Lac St. Pierre
So long you stay on shore.

The Cremation of Sam McGee

Robert Service
Canadian
1874 – 1958

 

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam ‘round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he’d often say in his homely way that he’d “sooner live in hell”.

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see;
It wasn’t much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o’erhead were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and “Cap,” says he, “I’ll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I’m asking that you won’t refuse my last request.”

Well, he seemed so low that I couldn’t say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
“It’s the cursed cold, and it’s got right hold till I’m chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet ‘tain’t being dead — it’s my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you’ll cremate my last remains.”

A pal’s last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.

There wasn’t a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn’t get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say:
“You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it’s up to you to cremate those last remains.”

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows — O God! how I loathed the thing.

And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low;
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
And I’d often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.

Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the “Alice May”.
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then “Here,” said I, with a sudden cry, “is my cre-ma-tor-eum.”

Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared — such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.

Then I made a hike, for I didn’t like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don’t know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.

I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: “I’ll just take a peep inside.
I guess he’s cooked, and it’s time I looked”;… then the door I opened wide.

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm —
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Antidotes to Fear of Death

Rebecca Elson
Canadian
1960 – 1999

 

Sometimes as an antidote
To fear of death,
I eat the stars.

Those nights, lying on my back,
I suck them from the quenching dark
Til they are all, all inside me,
Pepper hot and sharp.

Sometimes, instead, I stir myself
Into a universe still young,
Still warm as blood:

No outer space, just space,
The light of all the not yet stars
Drifting like a bright mist,
And all of us, and everything
Already there
But unconstrained by form.

And sometime it’s enough
To lie down here on earth
Beside our long ancestral bones:

To walk across the cobble fields
Of our discarded skulls,
Each like a treasure, like a chrysalis,
Thinking: whatever left these husks
Flew off on bright wings.

The Child of Promise

Evan MacColl
Canadian
1808 – 1898

 

She died — as die the roses
On the ruddy clouds of dawn,
When the envious sun discloses
His flame and morning’s gone.
She died—like waves of sun-glow
By fleeting shadows chased;
She died— like heaven’s rainbow
By gushing showers effaced.
She died—like snow glad-gracing
Some sea-marge fair, when lo!
Rude waves each other chasing,
Quick hide it ‘neath their flow.
She died— as dies the glory
Of music’s sweetest swell:

She died—as dies the story
When the best is still to tell
She died— as dies moon-beaming.
When scowls the rayless main:
She died— like sweetest dreaming
Quick changed to waking pain.
She died— and died she early;
Heaven wearied for its own.
As the dipping sun, my Mary,
Thy morning ray went down!

A Bonus

Elizabeth Smart
Canadian
1913 – 1986

 

That day i finished
A small piece
For an obscure magazine
I popped it in the box

And such a starry elation
Came over me
That I got whistled at in the street
For the first time in a long time.

I was dirty and roughly dressed
And had circles under my eyes
And far far from flirtation
But so full of completion
Of a deed duly done
An act of consummation
That the freedom and force it engendered
Shone and spun
Out of my old raincoat.

It must have looked like love
Or a fabulous free holiday
To the young men sauntering
Down Berwick Street.
I still think this is most mysterious
For while I was writing it
It was gritty it felt like self-abuse
Constipation, desperately unsocial.
But done done done
Everything in the world
Flowed back
Like a huge bonus.

For Dinah, the Adeney’s Cat

We present this work in honor of the poet’s 110th birthday.

Anne Wilkinson
Canadian
1910 – 1961

 

Thirty elongated seconds
By the sun
We stare, the cat and I,
Strangers, cool and crouched
Behind unwinking green

Till flick
Along the spine, a whip
Of recognition cut
Our masks of fur and skin,
Cat-o’-nine-tails with a sting
Neither hinted at
By curl of lip
Or spitting tongue.

Then one cat turned
With poise of air
And washed a spotless paw,
The other took a tortoiseshell comb
And almost yawned
As she combed her tatless hair.

The Bear on the Delhi Road

We present this work in honor of the 25th anniversary of the poet’s death.

Earle Birney
Canadian
1904 – 1995

 

Unreal tall as a myth
by the road the Himalayan bear
is beating the brilliant air
with his crooked arms
About him two men bare
spindly as locusts leap
One pulls on a ring
in the great soft nose His mate
flicks flicks with a stick
up at the rolling eyes

They have not led him here
down from the fabulous hills
to this bald alien plain
and the clamorous world to kill
but simply to teach him to dance

They are peaceful both these spare
men of Kashmir and the bear
alive is their living too
If far on the Delhi way
around him galvanic they dance
it is merely to wear wear
from his shaggy body the tranced
wish forever to stay
only an ambling bear
four-footed in berries

It is no more joyous for them
in this hot dust to prance
out of reach of the praying claws
sharpened to paw for ants
in the shadows of deodars
It is not easy to free
myth from reality
or rear this fellow up
to lurch lurch with them
in the tranced dancing of men

Stone Breaking

In honor of Civic Day, we present this work by a noteworthy Canadian civil servant.

Duncan Campbell Scott
Canadian
1862 – 1947

 

March wind rough
Clashed the trees,
Flung the snow;
Breaking stones,
In the cold,
Germans slow
Toiled and toiled;
Arrowy sun
Glanced and sprang,
One right blithe
German sang:
Songs of home,
Fatherland:
Syenite hard,
Weary lot,
Callous hand,
All forgot:
Hammers pound,
Ringing round;
Rise the heaps,
To his voice,
Bounds and leaps
Toise on toise:
Toil is long,
But dear God
Gives us song,
At the end
Gives us test,
Toil is best.