A.N. Morton (1922-2011)

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:

VE Day

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
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A poem on Mother’s Day

Last Rites

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.
All go
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.

 

Staying above/ground

Ottawa publisher rob mclennan celbrates 25 years of above/ground press. Here’s my tribute, one of many

http://abovegroundpress.blogspot.ca/2018/03/aboveground-press-25th-anniversary_23.html

Around 1993, the books editor of the Citizenphoned me to ask, for an article, who were to most promising Ottawa poets under 25. I waffled a minute, saying that 25 is young to be judging a poet, it takes years to develop, then named the most active young poet I knew, rob mclennan. “But isn’t he mainly an impresario?” replied the editor, who had been talking to others before me. I admitted that may be true, but rob got his own back a few years later, winning a national award as most promising under 30. He has not slowed down since, showing what I’ve always said: that persistence, stubbornness, is half of what it takes to be any kind of artist.

I don’t remember at what Ottawa reading or literary event I first met rob, but first he wasn’t there, and then he was everywhere, organizing readings, handing out poems on single sheets of folded coloured paper, publishing magazines and chapbooks, often of his own lines and verses, but including everyone from the established and the iconic (George Bowering) to the newly arrived (Stephanie Bolster) and the aspiring student at Canterbury high school.

On the tenth anniversary of above/ground press, rob organized a reading and asked those of us reading to write a poem for an instant anthology. My poem was called “Ten Reasons for Staying Above Ground” and included, among the ten, “to see what rob gets up to next.” He hasn’t disappointed. There’s always something new, and the Internet has only amplified the range of his hyperactivity.

Mainly an impresario? It’s hard to maintain that about a writer with such a bibliography, but even if so, isn’t that great for the many he has helped? I’m still curious about what he’ll do next.

Trimming my shelves

To get ready for some renovations in the basement, I am shedding books. Shelves have to go, and so do most of their denizens.

Trimming the bookshelves has become a pastime in recent years, as I have moved to smaller digs and must make room for the books I continue to buy every week or so. This time, the trimming is radical. I have four messy piles: books and printed matter to recycle; books to trade in at the used bookstore; books to give to charity; books I’ll keep, at least until next time.

Trashing or recycling books seems reckless, but these ones have yellowed over the decades, or been read to tatters, and may have already been passed over by the bookstores. Along with them go dozens of the literary magazines I read and aspired to publish in back in the 70s, 80s and 90s (and later). I’ll keep the ones that do have my writing in them, for now. It’s interesting to look at the tables of contents and see not only friends but other writers I know now but didn’t know when our poems and stories and reviews were published together.

The signed and inscribed books, especially, are not for discarding. I don’t want my friends finding a copy of their own book on a discount shelf somewhere, their warm greetings to me on view to the curious. Even after my death, I’d prefer that they stay together, these three or four hundred personal invitations to art. I doubt, however, that there are enough libraries or poets’ centres or archives to make room for all these collection of preserved moments – for certainly hundreds of my fellow poets have similar book collections on their shelves.

Unfortunately, I know what will happen to a lot of these collections. After the death of the person who owned and cherished them, the books will be discarded by the harried inheritors – sold by the box at estate sales, broken up to disparate collectors, pulped, discarded, turned into cardboard boxes. This is the way of all things: they decay, they annoy, they take up space, they are taken care of to make space, they are gone, forgotten. There is a long history of lost books, and the digital age will not bring it to an end.

Against mortality, however, I’ve decided to look again through all these book signed to me personally, to remember the poet I shared a moment or an evening with, or many evenings over a lifetime, to appreciate that, yes, though I seemed most of the time to be waiting, striving, failing, I was also living the life of a writer, sharing that life with other writersThe bookstores are picky about what they will take in trade. For some, they already have enough copies; for others (especially the contemporary poetry books I’ve collected in the hundreds) there is no demand, and sometimes even disparaging remarks. The rejects can go to charity.

The keepers, of course, include books I’ve written myself and haven’t yet sold (if you want to have one, five dollars includes shipping); also books I still intend to read and ones I know I will reread – the books I love. Then there are the many books that have been inscribed to me by the author when I purchased them at a reading or festival. These will find a place on my shelves somehow. Still, in the midst of those messy piles, I take to time to look at them again, to read a few pages, and to enjoy the inscriptions written on the title page by the proud authors.

To linger over these shelves is to look back on what has been a long career in the ranks of aspiring writers. It’s a way of reconnecting with writers I’ve befriended over the years. And it’s a reminder that I’m one of them, regarded with respect by people I admire. Of course, there are many formulaic greetings among them: “best wishes,” “with respect” and so on. Some, often from first-time authors, are kind of humorous: “thanks for buying this book.”

Then there are the ones that remind me of strong bonds of friendship and the places those bonds were formed. Many years ago, I moved from Western to Eastern Canada, and the move is commemorated in some of the signed books on my shelf: “We miss you out west!” writes a Governor-General’s Award winner. Another, on a visit east, writes “in friendship, like poetry, that shows itself from time to time, and yet is always there.” Yet another prize-winner recalls, in his inscriptions, the first time we met: “with admiration and thanks for a fifteen year connection” he wrote in 2004, and in 2013, “thanks and admiration after 25 years.” Some writers will quote a line from the book they are signing, or will refer to the title of a book of mine. Others thank me, and I take a moment to recall what I might have done for them, and perhaps to regret that we have not kept in closer contact over the years.

Then there are the poets I will never be able to reconnect with because they have died. Only now do I wonder what became of the books I signed for them. (No, I’m afraid I already know.)

It’s a great privilege to have these books as a record of my life as a poet. Yet every shelf of books we choose to keep is a testament to a life as a reader. It isn’t easy to let go. It would be a tiny home indeed that had only one bookshelf in it. I am not at that extreme yet, and I don’t want to contemplate which books I would have to dispose of if I were. Time is eroding my mental space now, and in the end it will devour all. In the meantime, I’m taking a moment to look at each item as it leaves the shelves and is sorted into one of the piles. It’s a bit discouraging – so much effort gone to trash – but also very rewarding to have these reminders. I’m sure I will go down this well-worn path again someday.

Summer in review

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I’ve been quiet here, but a few things have been happening this summer. It’s the season for poetry in the park, and it began on Canada Day weekend, with readings at ArtFest in Kingston, Ontario, a fun gathering of artists, craftspeople and, in the big tent, poets. I was one of about 60 readers over the 3-day weekend, most of us included in a commemorative anthology edited by Kingston poetry impresario Bruce Kaufman. You can listen to the reading here.

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Home in Ottawa, small groups gathered to read poetry along the Poets’ Pathway, a 35-km trail through the green space around the city, the tramping ground of Canada’s “Confederation Poets” in the late 1800s. Here poets Mary Lee Bragg and Ronnie R. Brown confer under the trees on a summer Sunday afternoon.

On a sunny August evening, Ottawa poet Susan McMaster read with guitar accompaniment in an outdoor courtyard downtown.

Near the end of summer, on September 9, the Poet’s Pathway celebrated the completion of its mission by unveiling the last of 14 bronze plaques scattered along the length of the pathway, featuring poems by 19th century poets like Archibald Lampman and Pauline Johnson.

Our mayor and other officials turned out in tribute, and some stayed for a poetry reading by Canada’s poet laureate, George Elliot Clarke and Ottawa’s two (French and English) laureates, Andree Lacelles and Just Jamal the Poet.

20170909_163629And as fall begins, the literary life starts to get busy again. For a poet, however, being busy can look a lot like idling. It’s the quiet we seek, so we can hear our own inner voice and try to get down what it is telling us. Poet and blogger rob mclennan ask me to blog about my “typical writing day” and you can read about it here: https://mysmallpresswritingday.blogspot.ca/2017/09/colin-morton-my-small-press-writing-day.html

The Ghost of Burwash Hall

What to get Dad for Father’s Day … something I never wondered while he was alive, since he had no patience for such things. Five years after his death, here’s what I have: a series of poems, including a couple of actual quotations from his unpublished memoir, acknowledging that the central event of his life took place before I was born yet overshadowed his life, and to a lesser extent, mine, ever after. I was able to show Dad a few of these poems before he died, and he seemed content that, although I was a writer, I wasn’t a complete loss. Most of this series made it into my book Winds and Strings.

 

The Ghost of Burwash Hall

  1. No. 1 Canadian Army Course, University of Toronto, 1943

The regimental portrait curls at the ends

from years in the closet rolled in a tube

but the eye still goes to one face in the centre.

Among a hundred and more in uniform

on the stairs of Hart House, the camera

lingers on one young recruit who,

as officer material, has grown a moustache.

All autumn he plotted trajectories –

art44

charges needed to bring down the vaulted

gothic university towers

mock gargoyles, latin inscriptions and all.

Humid nights in the college dorm

he lay sleepless till he could lie no more

then wandered the stairwells like the colonel

who in passing dubbed him Ghost of Burwash Hall.

 

A year on, he passes unnoticed

between the lines of a flooded battlefield.

No witness remains to sign for his medal.

Either his unit is lost or he is.

Only sleep is his reward,

a dry place and an hour’s sleep.

 

2. The Door

Sixty years later, showing holiday slides,

his breath quickens at the sudden image

of a wooden door in an old stone wall.

He spent an hour, he says, searching the village

he once helped free, at last found the dairy –

stone floor still showing the wear

of generations’ wooden shoes,

and the door that saved his life.

One morning, in search of his unit

after a night behind the lines,

he turned a corner nearly face to face

with  a squad of Germans retaking the village

street by street and house by house.

He backed away into shadow

while dairy workers kept skimming cream

and wrapping cheese as if they didn’t see him

for a look or word could bring down fire.

 Somehow, short of breath,

he pauses to light a cigarette, somehow

I shrank behind this door.

His breath comes heavy as if he’s still there

staring at scarred wooden planks while

a ghost of smoke drifts through the projector’s light.

How I got out of that village

or found my way back to my unit

is what I’ll never know.

 

3. Deep into the Lines

We wore no divisional or regimental badges or flashes.

We each had a rifle, a Sten gun, one of the new P-38 pistols,

camouflage jackets, black berets instead of the regular brown ones,

and I had the knife I made in Ghent from a bayonet.

Never went anywhere without it.

We stripped our weapons down to bare essentials.

Slings removed from rifles,

stocks and slings removed from Stens.

Knives securely strapped to the leg,

and we wore balaclavas instead of helmets.

Occasionally if we were on a perimeter check,

and the night was cold and crisp

we would remove our boots and stash them on the trail.

This would cut down any noise our hob-nailed boots would make.

We did not however go deep into the lines without our boots.

 

So you slog through the blood and shit of a European war. You stare through the fog at the ghostly cliffs of Dieppe and swear at the universe. Ride in tin-can troop carriers being bombed by the Luftwaffe and RAF. Scrub your mess tin out with sand and learn to live with diarrhoea. Learn to kill for a living with gun, grenade or bayonet; no commission.

 I heard a sound behind me, and thinking it might be Jack or Harry,

I rolled over and found a Hitler Youth looking down at me

with his Schmeisser pointed at my chest.

 I tried to bring my Sten to bear,

but I had rolled onto it, and it was partly beneath me.

 The German pulled his trigger, but the Schmeisser jammed,

I lunged and my Belgian bayonet knife

came up below his rib cage and into his heart

without a noise being made.

 I think I shook for about two days after that

and was given that much time off.

 

 One day you are pinned down by sniper fire, hit once. Your buddies on either side of you die before your eyes. You go into shock and wake up on a stretcher. Through a night of pain your only comfort is the darkness. A tin can drags you through the ruts and ditches of Normandy to a field hospital under canvas. Drinking water. Sleep

 

4. With Distinction

A qualified dispatch rider

he rebuilt an Indian found in a ditchart45

and gave it to his captain.

Offered a post on the sniper team

he chose instead to be a scout

so he’d depend on no one

and no one would have to depend on him.

Thanks to As in high school

he was sent with a band of Free French

to rescue their captured leader from a church

– carried her broken frame in his arms

all the way to safety.

His sister being deaf he knew sign language

and so was chosen for one last mission:

thrown from a low-flying plane before dawn

– parachute on a short string –

with orders to creep close to the prison wire

and tell POWs not to revolt

but sit tight and wait for rescue by noon.

Seems now I was always on my own

seldom knew where my unit was.

Tomorrow, yesterday, nothing mattered

I guess it’s a kind of freedom.

 

5.The Hand Grenade

It sat on a shelf by the telephone

with bowling trophies and souvenir seashells

Pineapple shaped to spray blunt steel

when the pin’s spring-loaded

rod strikes the cap that lights the fuse

Pull the pin, release and throw

before the deadly count of seven

U.S. Army issue accepted in trade

when orders came down banning enemy gear

taken home as souvenirs

The disarmed grenade sat on a shelf

a fossil from explosive times

in the gloom of black-and-white TV movies

I lay awake in bed rehearsing

the  release   the lob   the count of seven

 

6. Battle Fatigue

Years afterward he slept till five

on a Sunday afternoon

Sleepwalked through two divorces

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with little more than a wounded grunt

 

A widower now

 

he dozes through the game of the week

Between innings switches to the history channel

 

to revisit the foxholes of his youth

 

Though he lives alone he still goes outside

to smoke beneath the stars

 

 

7. The Royals attacked at 0200 hours (it was always 0200 hours)

 

At two in the morning my father

trying to get some sleep

is ambushed again by a moment’s memory.

A path through snowy fields, a towering fir

– beneath it huddled round a coffee pot

men in Yankee uniforms.

Were these the ones he was sent to find?

he wonders decades later

trying as always to get to sleep.

Who sent him, with what message

he cannot recall, so much

is foggy from those days.

Patrolling alone toward dawn

he remembers only a snowy field

a tall tree, a circle of uniformed men.