Thursday, November 8, 2018

CBC Poetry Prize

I'm doing very little freelance work these days because I'm doing a lot more other work than I used to, but one thing I did recently was serve as a reader for CBC's annual poetry contest. It's a complex process, with twelve readers each assessing over 500 entries (I read 515) and submitting a list of their top 12. There is some overlap, as I understand it--i.e., there aren't 6000+ entries, but over 2500--so they must aggregate the lists somehow to come up with their longlist of 30, which is then whittled to a shortlist of 5, before a winner is finally crowned. Three of my picks made the longlist, including my top pick, a poem called "Migrations" by a poet named Mark Wagenaar, who also had another entry make the longlist. I only learned the identity of the author when the list was published, because the judging is completely blind. Wagenaar's name and work wasn't known to me (which shows how little attention I pay to these contests normally, since he won it in 2015) previously, so this was one of the bonuses of doing this work. Wagenaar's poem, I will say, was easily my first choice, so I was disappointed that it didn't make the shortlist. But so it goes with contests.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018


Having, by any actuary's reckoning,
logged half the days due me, here I hunker
in the chilly gloom of my third mortgage,
shivering and doubting the wisdom of this dead
pledge: petty rent-seeker and prompt payer
of bills, fetcher of foodstuffs, keeper of the dulled blade
of concupiscent bliss, alchemic converter of hours
into shekels deferred for the decades
ahead. When did I grow so prudent,
when tripped I over the threshold
dividing fresh from old, when did contingent
thoughts lodge, throttle and square this cold
shoulder to the wheel? Numb and dumb,
I hold a lit candle to my quivering palm.

I hold a lit candle to my quivering palm
and marvel at the metacarpals dark
against an orange lantern glow—then jerk
the hand aloft before the skin begins
to sizzle. Had pain the power of a balm
to turn tortured thought away from work
and aim it on the path of art or at some mark
more worthy than the burthens of a citizen,
then might I persist, burn black the skin,
obliterate the fortune-teller's lines
and bear the molten stigma like a blaze
while I wander nameless among pines
and cedars, unheeded prophet of unknown
gospels, wending along dim holloways.

Gospels of wind along dim holloways
blow, and no prophet there to hear them;
footsteps on the stone of cthonic hallways
echo, and no homeless there to fear them;
pastures abandoned to spruce and grey jays,
with no pioneer's handsaw to clear them;
directors stage cycles of mystery plays,
but no audience shows up to cheer them;
councillors conspire to deflect sun's rays,
and no activists gather to jeer them;
slouching toward man's penultimate days,
like Zeno, we can only draw near them—
My friends, this is the way the world ends:
nothing is shattered, but everything bends.

Nothing is shattered, but everything bends
beneath the weight of airborne drops of ice.
Birches bowed over the track scrape ends
on this train's steel and glass as we pass
through a light-latticed tunnel. No passengers
sit in the dome to take in this marvel;
they're all in the wifi zone, tapping messages
of all-caps outrage at the late arrival
announced, wailing like Lear at the weather.
A heavy branch glances off the glass dome.
I flinch, but settle into the leather
of my seat, bound to wait this out. Bound home.
Half of my days are spent away
in a limbo zone between go and stay.

In a limbo zone between go and stay
is where our hero finds himself at home,
less foreign, least strange; starring in a staged play
on steel wheels, your working-class-hero-cum-
boho-hobo-cum-minor-magnate struts
and frets, stumbles, sways, lurches and lunges
through the switches, crossings and slack action
of his days. Gravity and inch-high flanges
keep this rolling show on rails gauged to ruts
in Roman roads, which is to say the way
is wide as two horses' rumps, a fraction
of which—one half, I'll own—you'd fairly say
our hero is, bytimes. Bytimes, he earns
our trust and love. Bytimes, he even learns.

Trust and love, bytimes, even I have learned
to honour, however strange they might be
to my soul—a notion I've a half-mind
to dismiss, since soul is nothing I can see,
flipping by-catch in a neural net designed—
if that conceit my judgment might concede—
to keep this body breathing. I have yearned—
yea, even burned—for purpose, for meaning
beyond bare-forked, basic need to light me
down this darkling road toward gold-greening
rolling fields, clear streams and feral orchards
dropping windfall fruit free for my gleaning—
but snap back from dreaming to data and facts.
No haphazard drift can sanctify profane acts.

No haphazard drift sanctifies my profane acts,
therefore have I made this drift my mission
statement to the stars, whose distant fission
fuels my hours and lifts dim cataracts
of mist from the bustled harbour narrows,
above which sit my debt-beleaguered homes.
The water and the interest rate arrow
ever upwards, precipitation comes
slashing crabwise at my asphalt shingles,
unraked rotting leaves festoon the flower
beds. Across the Northwest Arm, the Dingle
Tower pokes through fog. Church bells toll the hour.
The balance of my days are beckoning—
Half, by any actuary's reckoning.