Poems about Paintings from a Bear of Little Brain

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

  1. Things get better (tanka)
  2. Spring Snow (tanka)
  3. Roundel
  4. At the station
  5. Home
  6. Snow for Breakfast
  7. Flash Photo
  8. Midsummer
  9. Small Critters
  10. Lillooet
  11. Duffey Lake
  12. The Guardian of the Lake
  13. Revelstoke
  14. Horses Seen From the Car
  15. Waltz for Mount Victoria
  16. Salmon Run
  17. Morning on the River
  18. Two for the road
  19. Paintings
  20. Debris (haiku)
  21. Better Than Snow
  22. Winter Hymnal
  23. New Country
  24. Snow Music

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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
Title: “Sunrise over Revelstoke III” (May 2015)

Spring Snow (tanka)

Springtime petals drift
down into blushing flurries
Passersby raise their
faces to the rosy breeze
of snowflakes that don’t dissolve
Title: “Summer walk in Hagley Park, Christchurch” (2015)

Roundel

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
Title: Gull on a tree stump at Rialto Beach (2014)

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.
Title: Foggy Station (2015)

Home

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 are 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 are
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.
Title: Waterfall in the forest (2014)

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.
Title: “Winter Light” (2013)

Flash Photo

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.
Title: “The Forest Is On Fire and The River is an Icy Slash” (2018)

Midsummer

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.
Title: “Before sunrise, Pitt River” (2014)

Small Critters

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.
Title: “Kootenay River near Fort Steele” (2016)

Lillooet

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.
Title: “Thunder storm in Lillooet” (2014)

Duffey Lake

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.
Title: “Duffey Lake, Lillooet II” (2016)

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.
Title: “Little Island in the Lake” (2017)

Revelstoke

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.
Title: “Disused Mountain View School, Revelstoke, BC, in Winter”  (2016) – sold

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.
title: “Speeding past horses in a snowy field” (2014)

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 wood,
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,
bejewelled from foothills to firmament.

Title: “Mount Victoria reflected in Wapta Lake, Yoho National Park”(2014)

Salmon Run

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
Title: “Cold river” (2013)

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.
Title: “Pitt River at Dawn” (2013)

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.
Painting on metal panel of “Mount Robson, Canadian Rockies, Winter” (2017)

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.


Title: “Cerulean Winter Morning” (2014)

Paintings

If I painted in gold and green
a restful little river scene,
and posed the laden shrubs just so
under the wright 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;
cherished moments can all seem
as fleeting as a mise-en-scène.
But in paintings they can last –
documentation of a happy past.


Title: “Snow on the river” (2014)

Debris

(haiku)

Logs in the river
A giant’s used up toothpicks
Chucked in a toilet
Title: “East end of Burrard Inlet at Port Moody” (2017)

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.
Title: “Gullfoss, Iceland” (2018)

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”.

Winter Hymnal

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.
Title: “The Forest Out Back” (2017)

New Country

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.
Title: “Canadian Rockies, Winter” (2016)

Snow Music

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.


Title: “Tangled Forest” (2018)