I wrote these poems to go with paintings that I had made from 2013 to 2018. But sometimes it was the other way around – I did the poems first and the paintings followed. In any case, they make better sense with each other. Sometimes the painting is better than the poem, other times vice versa. I think Viggo Mortensen has done this pairing of images and poetry in one of his poetry collections, called Coincidence of Memory.
(Next collection of paintings: Up North and Back)
List of poems
- Things get better (tanka)
- Spring Snow (tanka)
- At the station
- Snow for Breakfast
- Flash Photo
- Small Critters
- Duffey Lake
- The Guardian of the Lake
- Horses Seen From the Car
- Waltz for Mount Victoria
- Salmon Run
- Morning on the River
- Two for the road
- Debris (haiku)
- Better Than Snow
- Winter Hymnal
- New Country
- Snow Music
Things get better (tanka)
Like that black river I felt, and to graven wood lay my future, but I know now the sunset glow is the promise of the dawn.
*A tanka is a 31-syllable poem form of Japanese origin, usually of a single, unbroken line. In Western writing the form is usually 5 lines with 5/7/5/7/7 syllables per line.
Spring Snow (tanka)
Springtime petals drift down into blushing flurries, passersby raise their faces to the rosy breeze of snowflakes that don’t dissolve.
The seagull sits and looks far out over the sea I look back, turn to find your footprints following me The seagull sits and looks at what there is to see Blue, white, sea and clouds And you, following me Waves break, the seagull looks And waits for what I cannot see But still your footprints carve the sand And still you follow me
At the station
This morning, ghastly yellow, the train howled past, into the fog, another emerged from the depths like a tree floating up from a bog. Lights like gassy blobs in the murk, People’s blurry silhouettes. The ochre light of pre-dawn drifted down in smoky pirouettes.
Where we come from there are raindrops that instantly evaporate on hot tar like a field of tiny smoking fires, low-running, brownish rivers filled with rusty sludge and simmering rocks, muddy dams with chalky banks and wormy, warmish, silty bottoms. heat that hits you in the chest and wipes its oven mitt paw over your face, white skies, or palest blue or yellow and boiling, like curry, from the dust. We were born creatures of arid habits: - the subconscious searching of the sky for rain clouds, the inborn waiting for the rain, the constant sniffing for the ozone after thunder, the habitual drawing towards water, always looking for some dampness in the cracked, jigsaw-puzzle earth. Where we live now there is Snow, that goes away but not far, and always comes back, Water, that burbles and rushes always somewhere close, glistening underneath jungly things, Green things, the tree-green, frog-green, grass-green, bird-green, moss-green of our replete dreams, the green, wet, snowy, tree-y place we call home.
Snow for Breakfast
The trees are russet whorls blending into milky white, mocha foliage swirling, blending into the light, ice edging the creamy froth, dawning: the first cuppa snow of the morning.
The amber flash of the camera on the frozen snow scene, before dawn, warms it domestically, instantly lights up a fire in the hearth of the groves, burnishes the tree trunks into polished doors, presents the plump seats of white-heaped brambles and the starry carpet of snow underfoot, enfolds the velvet dark more closely, like walls and reveals the snowflakes tumbling, twinkling like welcoming lights popping on in the breathlessly waiting forest home.
Of straw these ditches are lined, these paths outlined in white. Of dead grass the dykes defined, palest yellow, like the light. Through tan and sallow sedge the beaver dam runs slow. In white sand at the water’s edge lies the promise of coming snow.
Tiny pairs of clawed paw-prints, running along. Each edge glistens blue: a pristine, snowy epitaph there, on the deserted path, to their frantic morning searches for food amongst the frozen birches.
A tongue-twister of lilies, lilts, largos, oohs, exotic-sounding, an unlikely destination perched on a bench above the river like a call-girl all done up waiting on the porch calling out to passers-by. Still flaunting her finery, her glory days. Fancy murals, jade on plinths, intricate porch brackets, grandiose façades, riotous flower gardens, hippie post boxes. A feisty little town, a shabby haven welcoming us hoping we’ll see past its faded glamour.
Travelling down to Whistler we come upon a slab of pure jade around the corner of a plain road, with the normal blackish trees and nondescript muddy rocks: water made solid gem. Like gems glittering in solid rock – it’s the miracle of something smooth, valuable – carve-able, born from dull stone, porphyry, quartz. It’s the surprise of a jade mirror here, in the middle of an average day, road, place, out of a normal brownish river, inviting us to look into it, inviting us to carve it into memory.
The Guardian of the Lake
There lies the little isthmus sticking out of Island Lake, so perfect it looks posed, man-made, perhaps a fake. The trees, tidy bits of Lego, are arranged to just give height enough to draw the eager eye to a higher line of sight, to where the mountains glower, their crags streaked with glaciers, whispering on the icy wind to this sunny patch of pond and firs: The toy lake charms in apple green Under the sentinel peaks of aquamarine.
Hoar frost, hard rime, old browned icicles. Houses tilting sideways, lurching into crusted mud. Wheedling cats poking hesitant paws at frog-cold sidewalks. But always the river, a broad pewter necklace, twines and winds with sapphire currents under marcasite ice floes, between ermine-lined banks, wrapping the bare, stooped shoulders of the snowbound, shivering old town in a dazzling Winter mantle.
Horses Seen From the Car
If you blink, they're gone, the black shapes in the snow in the field in the window – Tumbling “E”s on eye charts. Close yours and you get it wrong. That was no horse, that was a shed of sorts, propped up in the clearing, against the fence. No, look back, it moved, it noses the grass makes a small puff as it treads forward. Or perhaps it was just one more letter misread on the frozen page while speeding by.
Waltz for Mount Victoria
The mountain gets looked at every day by thousands - Her name is Victoria. Some days she has a light cachet - call her Vicky with springtime euphoria. Winter again changes her mood, warlike Victor, less Victorine – Chainmail mists encircle her peaks, her icy slopes have an armoured sheen. In summer, Victoria reflects in the valley lake, clear and brilliant. Her crown is draped in sun-edged clouds, bejeweled from foothills to firmament.
the grey-blue water runs deep over the rocky bed, roiling stones thrashing around tree-trunks rushing on like it's hell-bent on ending its life in the ocean and washing frantic, raw-jawed salmon along as willing fellow suicides
Morning on the River
The sun slips over the mountains The fog pulls back to the opposite bank And the river emerges like a slug that had been sleeping under a droopy leaf that’s been pulled away to expose waves lapping in shiny copper scales, as the tide goes out and the light moves in.
All of this
There’s all of this. And then there’s you. All these cliffs, crevasses, torrents, roaring, imposing, enticing. Then there’s all of you, quietly standing there. Just you. You’re all of this to me.
Two for the road
Why go so far, so north, so long on the road Why keep going, driving one place, one spot, to the next. Another few hundred miles Another motel, more strange beds Another breakfast with plastic cutlery, blue boiled eggs, weak coffee, limp toast Why go away from our things, paths, habits Why go together Why not go alone Because nowhere is far when we’re together We take our places with us to revel in the comparisons.
If I painted in gold and green a restful little river scene, and posed the laden shrubs just so under the weight of fallen snow, would you see it and remember the road trip we made one December? I paint not just for me, you know: The highways pass, the vistas go; a cherished moment can seem then as fleeting as a mise-en-scène. But in paintings they can last– mementoes of a happy past.
*“Mise-en-scène” (French, rhymes with “men”) – a setting for a film or play, temporary by definition.
(haiku) Logs in the river A giant’s used up toothpicks Chucked in a toilet
Better Than Snow
Never say I do not love you There is not enough snow anywhere that would make me as happy as you do There is only you when I want to take someone with me into the snow Only you I can make understand why I need snow like a South African needs rain Only you take me away when it gets too warm to a cold place so I can see snow again. Never say I do not love you. You’re better than snow to me.
The poem is in the form of “couplets”, with the rhyme scheme, AA, BB, CC, DD in two quatrains. I thought a simple, repetitive rhyme scheme would suit the idea of the forest in the snow being like a church with the sounds around you like a hymn being sung. The title is a reference to a song on the band Fleet Foxes’s eponymous 2008 album, called White Winter Hymnal. That song really sticks in your head, being a “roundel”.
Back then in church we mumbled our way through hymns, stumbled over words, got the rhythm wrong, mutilated each old-fashioned song. Here, in tree-vaulted naves I feel music rise again, octaves of something grand and memorable: a song for winter in a snow-packed hymnal.
Under a big blue sky we were once Now a small house boxed together keeps us cramped and barricaded against all the foreignness of this land like a map we’d thought readable but turned illegible and obscure We belonged, we don’t fit now The sky is crowded with trees and hills the horizon stops too close, just there Will we ever belong, will we be long in belonging, in finding the spot marked home, our belonging on this new unfamiliar map Will we drive up the mountain to where the sky is as big blue and far as the familiar wide-open limitless horizon and our home, once. The ties to earth bind us Yet loose us to come back to it.
When you walk into the snowy hills, listen, there are no sounds but the shuffle of a lone bird in a bush the drip of ice melting off branches the creak of snow under your boots the sigh of trees caressed by sunbeams. But even those are small, discreet like coughs in a concert hall. So if you want to hear the snow be quiet and listen.