John Lent’s “Hat Trick: Democracy, Philosophy, Love” and Laurie Fuhr’s “Sunflowers for Roberta” conclude our 2018 installments of “Car Poems for Robert Kroetsch.” Lent wrote his poem just before Kroetsch’s death; Fuhr wrote hers shortly after Kroetsch’s passing. Fuhr’s poem was previously published in another form in Dear Mr. Kroetsch, an above/ground press chapbook.
I M P O S S I B L E S U B J E C T S
Democracy/ Philosophy/ Love
By John Lent for Robert Kroetsch
Walking down 25th Street this morning in the sun and the quiet—it being Sunday morning—and the air lush with lilacs because it’s their week this week, just like every early May. So I’m walking along the street and the lilacs make me think of the south-side of Edmonton in the 50s, just after the war, when I was a kid going to school for the first time in 1954 and then, even then, my child’s head registering a sweet, almost too-much-ness of the lilacs in the spring on the side-roads, coughing up their decadent, heavy artillery over the crushed gravel lanes and broken down back-alley fences, and I’m thinking this morning, exactly 56 years later, that the reason there are so many lilacs—even now, here in Vernon—is and always was because they didn’t cost much…they were easy to get and to seed…they were sturdy green shrubs the rest of the year, and on top of such serviceability, they also had this miraculous, over-the-top beauty for at least a week in May. A bonus, for sure. So what a great, abundant, resilient beauty, I tell ya! My childhood was so thick in lilac—in about a thousand different ways—I may be a lilac myself. I wouldn’t mind that one bit. Sturdy. Serviceable. Maybe over-the-top for one small stretch in a rhythm from time to time, the rest of the time just quietly there. Green. Part of the fabric. Nothing wrong with that. Humming away. Planted out on the edge of things, the periphery. Almost marking those edges or borders. Sure. Both enclosing and separating things. All right. OK. Supportive. Not too brassy. Fine.
And then this camper van begins to slide by me slowly on the street. It’s the usual old half-ton camper van, made here in the Okanagan. Made just after the time I’m thinking of in Edmonton. It trundles by me this morning, heading south, and looks to have been made in the early 60s…I’d say about 1963. And as I watch it being carried away in the blue half-ton it’s grown out of, I wonder, randomly at first, the way you do in the morning when you’re just heading out into things, and you don’t have much to say, that kind of mood, I wonder about the history of camper vans, and I’m struck immediately by the exponential proliferation of them since the early 60s in North America. And as I watch the van signal right to head west on 39th Avenue, I think, for the second time this morning, well, yeah! OF COURSE they proliferated. They were easy to get or make. They were accessible. Everybody could get his or her hands on one and all these families could head out to beaches and campgrounds and favourite fishing lakes on the prairies or forests and waterfalls in BC, and pack up their food and their beer and their children and their sleeping bags and Coleman stoves and propane lanterns and checkered tablecloths and get away for a while, lurching innocently and happily into all the imperfections and contradictions built into what we imagined and realised as vacations back then. [To vacate something? Is that the root? Or some twist on ‘calling,’ Vocation? That one doesn’t sound right to me. In the French, vacances. I’ll have to look it up. But who cares?] except anyway….what I meant to say was that these camper vans were absolutely wonderful. Accessible. Reliable. Not very mysterious, but each one completely original. Floating families, heading out, mobile, a kind of freedom. Nothing’s perfect. But nothing to be sneezed at or looked down upon either.
So the lilacs and the camper vans, after years of struggling and work, are able to set things up so their grandchildren can get what they’ve never been able to offer them: an education with all the sophistication and other classy side-effects that come with it. And just as these new lilacs and camper vans get to actually go to classes, some people decide to ramp up the usual walls of exclusivity built around knowledge and consciousness so that they are even more diabolical than they ever were, and a whole generation of lilacs and camper vans are taught how to UNDERSTAND lilacs and camper vans FOR THE FIRST TIME and they learn how to try to help them SAVE themselves FROM themselves, and these grandchildren who are, at first, puzzled and a bit confused by the machinery of this new logic that has altered what they expected from their education, eventually give in—who wouldn’t?—and find themselves learning to chuckle at the quaintness and modesty of lilacs and camper vans, then at the validity of lilacs and camper vans, then at the dysfunctional and limited lives of lilacs and camper vans, and so on as on The Quaker Oats Cereal Box, and in the end they acquire, OF COURSE, a rather mysterious, but generally patronizing view of lilacs and camper vans, so much so that one of these grandchildren—we’ll call her Beatrice—why not, eh?—is walking through a dark wood in the middle of her life one morning, almost lost, when she sees, in a field to the left of the gravel road she’s walking north on near Heisler, Alberta, that there is a rusting old Camper Van, red and white, abandoned and leaning against a grove of bright, burgundy lilacs in a farmer’s field and she wonders, vaguely at first, well that’s the haystack …this is trickster territory after all…and I’m the needle for heaven’s sake…won’t you just look at the wonderful origin of me staring right back at myself on this wonderful spring Sunday morning in my comedy, right in the middle of my comedy for fuck’s sake, and I fucking LOVE those lilacs and that van, and I’m going to stay here forever until my eyes fill up with darkness, and lilacs grow out of my ears and the radio in the camper van is playing “Your Cheating Heart” by Hank Williams over and over again and when I leave this world in time I will feel this crazy blessing here in the starting place, the ending place, all these crazy contradictions—sure, you bet, I’m not denying any of them—and I know, or I hope I know that there’s going to be, there will be more respect in the world soon….
T R I P T Y C H : P H I L O S O P H Y
For Fiona Tan
The evening grosbeaks pig out on
black-oiled sunflower seeds in front of
the window behind which my face sits
in a chair, this glass separating us.
The glass here in my house is a twelve-foot
wide series of windows with levered
openings onto screens and, finally, the air itself.
But that other glass, I’m not as sure about.
As natural as breath. Instinct.
Maybe it is constituted of breath and instinct.
I don’t know. If I move my head, though,
even slightly, the birds panic, flit
up into that vault which is also
another kind of vault. If I keep
still I can be as close as
the glass allows.
There is always a membrane between us.
And a vault we collapse up into, too,
that whooshes us up into an exhilaration
that can almost kill us both.
My feathers twitch.
My talons scratch at the carpet.
Sitting in a Starbucks on 4th Avenue
just west of MacDonald, the rain
a sheet of stumbling Tuesday color.
Grey and mint green and dark charcoal mirrors
of asphalt rolling by like something sure.
I don’t know.
I am agonizing over a piece I wrote
that might have been misinterpreted;
read, in fact, in the exact opposite
direction of where I thought it was
going, and the thing is, the thing is,
I can read it the wrong way, too,
and it makes perfect sense.
Holy crap. Literally. But it
actually does matter to me.
The problem is that, like the rolling,
mirrored asphalt carrying cars away to
somewhere sure, you could read
this piece and think I was against
education, and, having given my
whole life to that, believe me, that’s
not what I intended. What I intended
was that we have to be cautious
when we think we’re trying to save
the world by rescuing people from
themselves. We just have to be more
careful about the process, and if
the process requires an opening up
and questioning of everything, we
have to be sure we places ourselves
—all our imperfections and contra-
dictions—at the centre of that
everything. Otherwise we
make a mistake most revolutions
have made before us. That’s all.
If we allow contemporary philosophy
to atrophy into an exclusive, brittle
dogma—that we feel smug and self-
congratulatory about because of its
exclusions—we’re already too late
to apply it. We’ve missed its
boat, and it will sail on
without us. In fact, it’s
gone now. I saw it
I heard its creaking sails over
the sound of this traffic,
these sheets of rain.
Gone into tricky, but open water.
How many years have we done this?
Staying in a hotel room in Vancouver.
Down to hear a specialist interpret
the tests we’ve come down with,
so relieved when we navigate
all these swells and fades
of your body and its old,
dark side-kick, this crazy,
wise-cracking, Sancho Panza of a
chronic disease you were given
to wrestle with like an Old
Testament prophet arm-wrestling
My arm falls over your naked silk hips
twelve stories above the sea gulls
trolling for garbage down on Burrard.
The wondrous flesh on flesh with you
for thirty-five years now.
What beauty you are!
And sometimes, in moments like this one,
because of you, no separation between
the thing and the thing itself.
That is the case sometimes.
L O V E : A D E A D S P A R R O W
At first I registered the body out
of the corner of my eye, the way
you do, its flat eyes open, dry disc
stones staring up into the sun on
the deck. I approached where it
had fallen from the Manitoba Maple
and got down on my knees to
look at it: a sparrow, young,
neck broken, twisted to the side,
otherwise perfect. For some
reason I breathed on it, ruffling
the feathers in a soft transit,
then stared at its body, picked
it up, cupping it on the open
skin of both hands. I could see
and feel the death now and it
was too much—who knows
how these things happen
sideways on us like this
on unpredictable mornings,
coffee waiting in the kitchen
behind us—but it was too much,
and I didn’t know why. I began
to weep over the body and
I raised it up into the morning
which was cranking itself up
and over the asphalt roofs
east down the back alley
behind the house. I held it
into the sun, then dropped
on my knees again, still cupping
the small dead weight, thinking:
that’s me that has fallen, that
has overreached the precision
of stairs in the sky, the
confidence of air. That’s
me that misread everything and
has fallen so far into such
stillness. And that’s me
holding me, too. That’s the
way it always is when the
best part of me mourns the
ritual deaths flown by the
other parts of me that never
quite get it right. And I knelt
there sobbing for this piston
life out here in the height
of air and sun, the dark
earth grinning back up—
sobbing for this piston and
exulting in it, too, knowing
this small being had risked
everything to be loved
like this, cradled by such
attention. We risk
everything and often
fall into the complete
darkness of hands. Over
and over again, these errors
in physics, this misread
John Lent is a Canadian poet and novelist, as well as a college teacher of creative writing and literature. He has published ten books from 1978 to 2012, including a book of conversations with Robert Kroetsch about the writing life, called Abundance. Lent’s fiction and poetry have appeared The Malahat Review, Event, Dandelion, Grain, The Wascana Review, NeWest Review, Prairie Fire, CV2, New Quarterly, Waves, Matrix, The Fiddlehead, and The Antigonish Review. Lent currently lives in Vernon, British Columbia.
Sunflowers for Roberta
By Laurie Fuhr
Saturday we buy sunflowers for Roberta, Italian Student who drove you in your car
to Alberta sites your poems and fiction featured, made you tourguide
to her dissertation.
Turns out she’s been discharged,
gone without a trace
but not as much as you.
The sunflowers wait in the car
when we visit Cathie
at an enormous Tim Hortons
by the university hospital,
fresh grief glistens around our eyes
like honey glaze.
A man wheels in with an IV
and a hospital gown,
in a cinnamon bun.
That night, the flowers get water
in the hostel kitchen,
drink from an A&W mug.
Sunday we stay at Laurie MacFayden’s, forget them all day, all night
in the car beyond Lindy’s garden.
Monday we drink coffee
after coffee at Diner 99,
two frantic waitresses
fill our cups.
Our tired is quenched.
The flowers in the trunk
At 2:00 pm, I don’t want to look
at their withering husks
but I do. Miraculously
they seem crisp and fresh.
When we arrive at Maclab Centre,
the Kroetsch family is way ahead of us,
sunflowers by your photographs
dull compared to your Zorba smile,
to Aritha’s red jacket.
A notice says, “No flowers please”. Everyone complies.
Tuesday on the way home,
we leave sunflowers by the roadside.
Dylan suggests we say a few words,
but I’m speechless, sick.
There are car parts
and blue rubber gloves.
Back in the car, Dylan confides
he was hoping for a sign.
He’s been seeing the ghost
of Billy Cowsill for years.
No sign of him, I agree.
A horror movie set
is no place for a poet.
and nowhere now, but I’m certain
you’re nowhere near New Sarepta.
I’d break your three line stanza
to attest to that, but if I’m lucky
I’ve fit it all in.
June 28, 2011
Laurie Fuhr’s poetry has appeared in anthologies including Rogue Stimulus: The Stephen Harper Holiday Anthology for a Prorogued Parliament (2010) and Leonard Cohen: You’re Our Man (2009) as well as numerous periodicals, including Free Fall and THIS Magazine. In 2016, she was shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry judged by George Elliott Clarke and attended the Banff Centre Writing Studio. Fuhr was managing editor of filling Station Magazine for 4 years and serves on the Single Onion Poetry Society board. She teaches at the Alexandra Writers’ Centre Society.