- December 8, 2018 – New poem “Riposte” is an above/ground press broadside, published to mark my taking part in the Arc Walk in Ottawa’s Byward Market. It was in the market building that Ottawa’s Tree reading series sponsored the first WordFest poetry festival back in the summer of 1982. I edited a chapbook of work by the featured writers for that festival and afterward went home and wrote a “Poem without Shame,” which I soon published as a broadside, the first of my Ouroboros editions. By chance, I found a few copies of the original broadside in my basement and handed them out to the poetry lovers who came out on a cold day to tour poetry sites in Ottawa.
above/ground publisher rob mclennan also handed out a new broadside with this poem, which commemorates some memorable murders on the streets of usually peaceful Ottawa:
- November 30, 2018 – “Crepuscule,” a villanelle that takes a good-humoured look at an old couple’s physical decay, is a new poetry selection at Ascent magazine.
- November 8, 2018 – “Tree Planting” makes an appearance in the League of Canadian Poets’ anthology Heartland.
Editors Lesley Strutt and Claudia Coutu Radmore staged an Ottawa launch where several of the poets read their work and viewed the award-winning film Call of the Forest.
- October 23, 2018 – Ottawa’s Poets’ Pathway has completed its objective of placing bronze poetry plaques on stones along the city’s walking trail from Britannia Beach to Beechwood Cemetery. To cap the project, the organizers invited the region’s poets to respond to a 19th century poem by Archibald Lampman. The “winning” poems, selected by Sarnia poet James Deahl, came together in a chapbook launched at the old firehall in Old Ottawa South. My poem in the chapbook recalls Ontario’s and Quebec’s great ice storm of January 1998:
That was the winter of our disconnect,
when towering trees, weighed down,
fell through our powers lines, and ice
paved the roads, if clear, with peril.
Neighbours sawed up fallen trees
and kept fires going for some who fled
to shelters when the lights went out.
The rest kept busy to keep warm
Nothing in the freezer spoiled
though it became instead and ice-box
as we ate our way through summer’s
surplus tomatoes and stews.
Blankets, Afghans, quilts our grandmas
sewed for us when we were born
all found love again as we
huddled under them by the fire.
At night the streets were dark,
silent as in Lampman’s time.
Over gleaming fields of snow
the stars looked near, and cold.
All this and some anthology publications yet to be launched. It looks like I’ve been busy. But I’m merely slow to collect the news. More later.
They gave us their hearts
with leaky valves.
The tools they fashioned
hang on our walls
though we no longer reap or sow.
They lumber through our dreams
murmuring of blood
till morning mist rises
and we wake
wearing their faces, our voices theirs.
The Undead in the title of my new collection of poems are the ones who came before us, who in part made us the way we are, who defined the limits of our hopes. It’s spooky, but it’s not supernatural. Our collective history on this continent has been misrepresented, misremembered and, most often forgotten. Our settler ancestors have been too busy transforming the environment to really know and understand it, with consequences still to be seen. Some say the past is best forgotten, or better, repudiated. But not so fast. With no sense of the past behind us, the fast-approaching future haunts us.
Most of my forebears emigrated from England and Ireland directly to Canada in the 1830s and 1840s, but very soon, as they married the locals and became Canadian, their children and grandchildren had ancestors, through their Canadian spouses, who had been Champlain’s filles du roi or, like mine, had been Puritans and Separatists seeking religious freedom in New England in the 1600s. Even now immigrants from, say, Taiwan or Syria settle in Canada and before long, some of their children or grandchildren will probably be able to trace their ancestry back to the Mayflower. That’s part of our story, and it holds some of the answers to how our country got to be the way it is. Faulkner said “the past is never dead, it’s not even past.”
Anyway, how about my book, The Undead?
Beginning with a family history compiled in 1927 and presented by his sons to my great-grandfather Eli Morton on the shores of Lake Simcoe north of Toronto, I try to follow the path Mortons and the neighbours they married trod from the northern States to the shores of Lake Simcoe (in what was then the Home District of Upper Canada). That was home to my greatgrand-father Eli’s grandfather, Elder Squire Morton. An itinerant lay preacher, Squire ranged widely on his twice-yearly missionary trips, between Niagara in the west and Oshawa in the east, and he gave a corner of his farm for the first Methodist (“Christian”) church in his community. His grave marker in Unionville cemetery quotes New Testament scripture about having “fought the good fight” and continues with ever smaller, more cramped and illegible scripture, indicative perhaps of the sermons the elder gave in kitchens, school rooms, and on hillsides “from Sharon north to the lake.”
That evangelical streak, which continued well into the 20th century in parts of the family, was deeply grounded on the other side of the family too. In my poems I’ve focused on only a few of them, because I have an idea of how quickly such stories get boring.
Also, I don’t look only at my direct forebears – my interest isn’t about blood lines or even DNA, the family tree is wide. It’s the cultural baggage we carry (sure, white privilege, in my case) that I’d like to understand and, if possible, influence. In this I guess I’m like the radical dissenters in colonial New England. Like Obadiah Holmes (my wife Mary Lee Bragg’s direct ancestor, as well as Abraham Lincoln’s), who took his thirty lashes at the Boston whipping post for false preaching and afterward said they felt like rose petals. Like Jonathon and Richard Dunham, alias Singletary, whose wanderings and rantings brought him charges of witchcraft in Salem (and one of whose descendants, Barack Obama, became president).
The Puritans arrived on the continent not so much as invaders but as refugees from religious persecution, wanting to be left alone to create their new Jerusalem in peace,
where dwelt “none of contrary view”
Neither Quaker nor Baptist
nor vagrant nor vagabond.”
This sounds wrong to us now, when diversity has replaced piety as a social virtue, and the Puritans’ wish to remain separate from the rest of the world was as doomed as that of the native peoples. But I’m afraid that their conviction they were saved and everyone else was damned got in the way of peace and respect, and shades of that attitude linger in some minds today, hindering us in getting to reconciliation. Just one of the ways the undead continue to haunt us.
A breaking point came in 1676 with what is known as King Phillip’s War. The war ended terribly for King Phillip, the Wampanoag chief who tried to take back the land he had sold. Many died in the fighting, and more from disease or starvation after being driven out of their villages. The rest were taken in and absorbed by neighboring tribes. English settlers suffered badly too: in proportion in the population, King Phillip’s War was more devastating than the Civil War two centuries later. A third of English towns and villages were destroyed or abandoned, including Groton, Massachusetts, where two of my ancestors (John Nutting and his son John) were killed, and another (Major Simon Willard) led the militia that raised the siege of the town. In the kind of collective punishment that I decried when practised against Sitting Bull’s Lakota in my book The Hundred Cuts, the Wampanoag and their allies attacked English farms at random, including the home of my ancestor Thomas Eames, who left an itemized account of every lamb, wagon, blanket and sack of corn he lost, beginning with “a wife and nine children.” The compensation awarded him by the colonial government after the war was “200 acres near to Mount Waite,” a fair description of where King Phillip’s home village had been located, the last piece of land he did not sell.
Working back through time, the way researchers do, my series attempts to wind back the centuries to the moment when a Wampanoag walked out of the forest and said to the Pilgrims, “Welcome English, let us help each other.”
Then I step back to the present, with the future careening toward us at a terrifying pace. We face tough challenges, steep odds. But then, so did they, the undead.
Have we all now turned millennial?
Après moi, you say, the year of the flood.
But we’ve seen the world end before, on the big screen,
and we feel helpless. Hopeless.
For each of us the future is brief.
Maybe that’s why imagination
turns dystopian. Without us, we say
the world will be empty, desolate.
Look back. They had so much
to look forward to then –
ourselves, strong and free,
wearing their faces.
This poem, from my collection The Local Cluster, is featured in the 2018 Poem-in-Your-Pocket online anthology coproduced by the American Academy of Poets and the League of Canadian Poets. The anthology is free for download and full of fine words. So download it and keep it handy. Meanwhile, here is my poem from the anthology. If you like it and would like to receive my book, email me at email@example.com
In the summer of 1945, in Holland awaiting repatriation, my father wrote and distributed a tabloid magazine for the members of his Royal Regiment group. Of course it included an interview with his chaplain and personal friend, Rev. Curry, who gave him some packages from home that could not be delivered, to help out. Thus my father “sold dead men’s cigarettes on the streets of Utrecht to pay the printer.” Here’s a poem I wrote much later:
The day peace was declared
he stood ankle deep in the flooded Rhine.
While squadrons of air command passed overhead
he walked out into a pitted field
and said to himself, What now?
I’m out of a job.
That summer he kept busy
writing, designing, collecting stories
for his regiment’s tabloid.
Sold dead men’s cigarettes on the streets of Utrecht
to pay the printer.
At home he worked behind a desk
accounting for products he had no hand in.
He ran an office here or there,
moved cities, joined clubs, had a hobby or two.
And on cool spring nights
he sometimes went walking
out beyond the streetlights where
he’d stop and stare up
at the starless sky.
- Colin Morton
With the albums of snapshots
pretty as a postcard
go the half-spent rolls of wrapping paper,
old Time and People magazines,
half jars of relish,
the dried pens she meant to buy refills for,
and my mother’s button jar
I used to sort – coloured and clear ones,
navy buttons with anchor insignia –
beach pebbles picked up on travels,
seashells in which you can hear the tide,
all the memories that once clung to these things
like coral to stone.
since our own weigh heavy already
and we want to travel light when we go.
The snaps we once made fun of, these we keep,
if only to bury in closets of our own:
Mom in front of a mountain or cathedral
smiling with friends none of us knew
or knew she knew, on field trips we
were no part of, with X and Y,
without Z, who must have been behind the lens.
Furniture went first, to family or friends in town,
the Sally Ann, or just as far as the curb;
hazardous lamps with hanging heads and scruffy cords;
the toaster that either scorched or left the bread limp;
unreadable diskettes with copies of letters
we discarded soon after they arrived at our doors.
The walker and oxygen tanks go back to the clinic
where someone is breathlessly waiting.
Garbage bags of unsorted debris pile up at the door,
and someone has to rummage
for the coffee maker discarded in haste,
for now her apartment is bare
we can’t just lock the door and go
the way she did, too suddenly.
So we stand, door open,
for last goodbyes, one more story.
We have been too hasty,
impatient to finish the unwanted job.
The coffee is stale, she long ago lost the taste for it.
But we linger at the kitchen counter,
nowhere left to sit,
and wonder which of us will be next
to impose this burden on the others.
A story that always made us laugh
has a hollow echo now.
We look into one another’s eyes
a bit longer than usual, uncertain
who should take her keys and lock the door.
I ask myself, how often will my writing be included in an anthology with Louise Gluck, W.S. Merwin, C.D. Wright and the rest, and my answer is, this bears repeating. Here is my poem from Poem in Your Pocket. You can download a free copy of the anthology from the Academy of American Poets or from the League of Canadian Poets.