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 great-grandfather 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 the district. 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 preachers in colonial New England. Like Obadiah Holmes (actually 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 whose descendant Barack Obama became president).
The Puritans arrived on the continent not so much as invaders but as refugees from religious discrimination, 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 that 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 still lingers in some minds today, hindering us in getting to reconciliation. Just one of the ways the “undead” continue to haunt us.
The breaking point came in 1676 with what has been called 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, but more from disease or starvation after being driven out of their villages. The rest were taken in and absorbed by neighboring tribes. The 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 the “frontier” town of Groton, Massachusetts, where two of my direct 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”; coincidentally “near to Mount Waite” in Rhode Island is 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
Ottawa publisher rob mclennan celbrates 25 years of above/ground press. Here’s my tribute, one of many
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.
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.