On Not Losing My Father's Ashes in the Flood. Richard Harrison. Buckrider Books. Wolsak & Wynn. Hamilton, Ontario. 2016.
Micheline Maylor recently referred to Richard Harrison as the best narrative poet in Canada. Those could be fighting words in some circles because it is a pretty big declaration. Today's book of poetry certainly thinks that Richard Harrison's On Not Losing My Father's Ashes in the Flood certainly bolsters his case.
Richard Harrison is a masterful story teller and as a result you could be forgiven for assuming these are spontaneous histories, lovingly improvised stories for the fire or late at night in bed, but Harrison's work is anything other than off the cuff. These gentle and compassionate poems are made of interlocking puzzle pieces so meticulously set into place and rendered that the seams become invisible. The puzzle becomes a painting and the painting is the poem.
Now is the Winter
With the last ounces of his grace, my father
stands up from his wheelchair, turns toward
the bed as though the floor is ice;
he tilts his spine, knees bent, and waits to shift
his weight to mine; I lay him on the blanket
and kiss his lips. We talk of Shakespeare
who carried him line by line through tropic wars
to the final surgery on his failing hips.
Now is the winter of our discontent,
he recites from those pages of his brain
no disease has yet erased,
the words the prayer of one
who has no god to hear his cries, his powers spent.
When he asks, I promise to be with him when he dies,
and winter stirs in the broken fingers
of my hand that long ago healed winter cold
into mended bone. My father sleeps as the land sleeps --
and I am taught that nothing is immortal
and awake forever. Outside, the heroes, green,
and knowing only what they see,
take their sticks and pucks and
lean into their shots
while the mid-winter's night
dreams water turned to stone beneath their feet.
Today's book of poetry first met Richard Harrison in Peterborough back in 1978 or 1979. Our impression then was that he was a true gentleman with manners beyond his years and we all know how hard they are to find. Almost as hard to find as a poet who has stayed the course all these years. Richard Harrison had a brilliant mind when I first met him thirty-eight years ago and he has spent the intervening years honing his considerable craft. Practice and experience.
You see it in every poem in On Not Losing My Father's Ashes in the Flood, practice and experience. Today's book of poetry recently looked at the Alan Feldman's Immortality and feels Harrison can claim some of that same rarefied air. Bless the cotton socks of the poets who tell stories with experienced wisdom, razor honed craft and hearts as big as locomotives.
Maybe I forgot to mention that Harrison usually leads with his heart. Most men wouldn't dare and Harrison makes it look easy.
On a line from Margaret Laurence's The Diviners
At my feet, at a bus stop, a bumblebee and a honeybee
are stinging each other to death. At first I think it's two bees mating,
something I had seen only once: not every bee
has a queen surrounded by a hundred thousand female eunuchs
in the monarchy of a hive; the Bombini, bumblebees,
never gave up motherhood to that degree, and plenty of them pair up
to breed like you and I have done in a selfishness so great
it created more of our own.
Once, in the hot first days of autumn,
out on the soccer pitch, I heard two Bombi fucking in the grass,
buzzing as they did it, and I was afraid for them,
being out on the field where he had come to trample and kick.
So I tried to pick them up as one rich flooding coil
singing the mellifluous bumbling aria of nature and sex.
But they broke away from each other, the one flew off,
while the other let me take it out of bounds and play --
and that was it --
a coitus interrupted, yes.
but a gene code preserved that would otherwise be lost beneath a pair of cleats.
And isn't it odd that it is not odd to talk of living things this way? These days
every object is a kind of page,
every life a kind of writing.
I feel comforted, thinking of the unfathomable mystery at the heart of the bee
as piece of paper in a bottle, and on that paper, nothing more than one
among an infinite arrangement
The bee is a sentence, a line from a song.
But I know my kind.
Someone arriving after me to wait for the bus
would step on these two insects at war. So I pick them up,
and put them on the lawn away from human feet
so they can settle it in the grass undisturbed.
And I recall the fossil I saw as a child of
two dinosaurs that died together, struggling in the mud,
the carnivore with its arm down the other's throat all the way to its stomach,
the plant eater with its teeth sunk in the predator's shoulder all the way to
a poem composed in flesh,
preserved in stone
that waited 200 million years for its readers.
Our morning read was a little different this morning. I'm hoping Richard doesn't mind but Today's book of poetry called in some old favours, made a few bribes and called on some old Peterborough friends. Richard and I used to be loosely connected in a coven of misspent youth and poetry so I called in some old Peterborough Poets. Of course we already had our Sr. Editor Max, I let him out of his strongbox this morning and made him put on pants and we decided to put on a show for the youngins.
I met Max in Peterborough almost forty years ago and he was terror. I was also able to round up Riley Tench and Ian David Arlett and get them into the office this morning -- please don't ask what sort of voodoo was required to accomplish this.
We each took our enthusiastic turns with pleasure, we were all proud of our old friend and the morning wine didn't hurt either. Happy to do Richard's bidding, we bounced these poems off of the walls. My old tricks no longer have much affect on the Today's book of poetry staff but when Max, Arlett and Tench were through the effect was jaw-dropped silence. You'd have thought Marcel Marceau was on stage. I think GOB STRUCK is the word.
Yesterday I wrote a confessional poem,
but my wife, who always reads me first, said it was just a journal entry.
It's been years since I was that far from a poem and thought I was that close,
but I trust her.
Today, before class, a student was zipping through a Rubik's Cube,
knuckling the box into panels of many colours, then a couplet,
then one then many again.
Within two minutes, without looking, he was done.
I asked him to do it over so we could all watch, and, having watched,
have something with which to begin the writing of the day.
I wrote that the planes of the cube going in and out of order
as the student twisted the game were like the drafts of a poem,
sometimes deliberately torquing towards the opposite of the desired end
because the poem is a way we give in to a logic that lives within us
but is not our own.
I was thinking of that poem I couldn't write,
an apology I wish I'd made years ago,
and carry with me even though two things are true:
the person I would have apologized to is dead now,
and what I want to apologize for is speaking badly of them
thought it was only to my wife and so they never knew.
The poem was like having an argument with someone in a dream,
then going up to them in daylight wanting to make amends.
Last time I did that,
the other person reminded me
that I had done nothing.
But I apologized anyway
because they had done nothing
to deserve what I did not do.
It's an honour to tell you how much Today's book of poetry enjoyed our old friend's book. Today's book of poetry still can't tell you whether Micheline Maylor was wrong or right and we see quite a bit of poetry here in the Today's book of poetry offices. We've admired Richard Harrison's poetry since before most of you were born and On Not Losing My Father's Ashes in the Flood confirms what we already knew, Richard Harrison writes beautiful poetry.
Photo: Keeghan Rouleau
ABOUT THE AUTHORRichard Harrison’s first comic book was a Marvel Tales collection of Spider-Man’s first battle with the Hulk, Thor vs. Sandu, the Human Torch vs. the Sub-Mariner and a scary cautionary tale told by the Wasp to a kid in the hospital, “Somewhere Waits a Wobbo.” Four fantasies for a quarter: it was a steal. He’s been reading ever since. Richard is a nationally recognized poet (Hero of the Play, Big Breath of a Wish), editor and essayist on topics ranging from philosophy to prayer, literary criticism to mathematics, and poetry to hockey – as well as his work on superheroes. A professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, he teaches English, Creative Writing, and courses in comics (with Lee Easton) and the graphic novel.
School of Thought - 2016
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