THE BALM OF POETRY #10 — BOB DYLAN AND THE “SIN” OF ANGER

Black Lives Matter is everywhere, in a way we haven’t seen since the civil rights marches of the 1960s. The outpouring of rage and demands for real change have travelled well beyond the United States, forcing country after country to confront its own treatment of racial minorities. Being old, it has sent me back to those earlier protest days when, basically for the first time, discrimination, crimes and injustices, which had been inflicted on Blacks in the U.S. since the end of the Civil War without much notice, became widespread rallying cries for Freedom at last. They hit a high water mark with the massive March on Washington in the late summer of 1963.

Reaction in the South was fierce. Dogs, fire hoses and police clubs were unleashed against peaceful marchers. Blacks were attacked by mobs of angry whites. And there were cold-blooded killings. One of the most prominent victims was Medgar Evers, a defiant, high-profile Black leader in Mississippi. His chilling murder, by a hidden, white assailant as Evers stood in his front yard, shocked America. Within days, Bob Dylan, then at the height of his protest song-writing prowess, had penned a reaction. Only a Pawn in Their Game is not an uplifting, resistance song in the manner of We Shall Overcome. It is an intensely angry song. Instead of the killer, Dylan daringly focuses his anger on the white power structure of the South, itself, which manipulates “poor whites” to take out the frustration of their own miserable lives on Blacks. The nameless trigger-man can’t be blamed. He’s only a pawn in their game.

It’s amazing to think he wrote this startling song when he was barely 22, a mere few years removed from his senior high school year in Hibbing, Minnesota. Less than a month after Evers’ murder, Dylan was singing it at a voter registration rally in rural Mississippi.

Six weeks after that, Dylan was invited to sing at the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King delivered his unforgettable speech, “I Have a Dream.” Before crowds that stretched as far as the eye could see, Dylan chose to reprise Only a Pawn in Their Game. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KY2lQV3ADfc

march-on-washington-for-jobs-and-freedom-1

Dylan stopped singing the song in 1964, as he moved away from protest, and it’s fair to say it’s been pretty well forgotten over the years. But returning to it nearly 60 years later, I was struck by just how powerful it remains. Short, pithy words. Incessant, pulsating rhyme. Strong enough, methinks, to include its lyrics as poetry, without resurrecting the tired argument over whether Dylan is a poet or a songwriter, or, of course, both.

ONLY A PAWN IN THEIR GAME

A bullet from the back of a bush
Took Medgar Evers’ blood
A finger fired the trigger to his name
A handle hid out in the dark
A hand set the spark
Two eyes took the aim
Behind a man’s brain
But he can’t be blamed
He’s only a pawn in their game

A South politician preaches to the poor white man
“You got more than the blacks, don’t complain
You’re better than them, you been born with white skin, ” they explain
And the Negro’s name
Is used, it is plain
For the politician’s gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game

The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid
And the marshals and cops get the same
But the poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
‘Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game

From the poverty shacks, he looks from the cracks to the tracks
And the hoofbeats pound in his brain
And he’s taught how to walk in a pack
Shoot in the back
With his fist in a clinch
To hang and to lynch
To hide ‘neath the hood
To kill with no pain
Like a dog on a chain
He ain’t got no name
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game

Today, Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught
They lowered him down as a king
But when the shadowy sun sets on the one
That fired the gun
He’ll see by his grave
On the stone that remains
Carved next to his name
His epitaph plain
Only a pawn in their game

Christopher Ricks, an eminent scholar of Victorian poetry, who can quote reams of Tennyson or Housman at the drop of a pen, is a fervent admirer of Bob Dylan. His book, Dylan’s Visions of Sin, is a fascinating, detailed examination of his output as literature and poetry, grounded in the poets of the past. Lest you dismiss Ricks as some sort of pompous pseud, he is a former professor of poetry at Oxford, lauded by no less than the late W.H. Auden as “exactly the kind of critic every poet dreams of finding”. In the book, he organizes specific Dylan songs into biblical categories: the seven deadly sins, the four cardinal virtues and the three heavenly graces.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dylan%27s_Visions_of_Sin

For Anger, one of the seven sins, Ricks discusses just one song: Only a Pawn in their Game.

(Note: This is about a different time. It is not designed in any way to reflect what is happening in the streets today.)

 

THE BALM OF POETRY #9 MACHU PICCHU, PATRICK LANE AND ME

Sometimes you luck out. So it was that a mere few months before the treacherous COVID-19 virus swept the world, including South America, I was fortunate enough to finally visit Machu Picchu, the spectacular, fabled Inca citadel high in the Andes Mountains. In spite of worries that I might be disappointed, given sky-high expectations and those gazillions of dazzling photos, the site more than lived up to its magical reputation. I was overwhelmed.

(Rod Mickleburgh photo)

There was so much more to take in than the famous Temple of the Sun and adjacent peak of Huayna Picchu, which towers over the ruins and anchors all those familiar, panoramic views. Unlike other Inca sites, Machu Picchu is quite well-preserved, since it was never discovered and plundered by the Conquistadores, before abandoned and swallowed up by the jungle. It was saved by its remoteness and status as a royal estate, rather than a heavily-populated, fortified city. Photographs don’t convey the vastness of Machu Picchu, just how spectacular its surroundings really are, and the many fascinating structures off the well-worn paths of the mandatory guided tours. There’s also the bonus of an up-close glimpse of the Incas’ astounding terracing, which managed, as I read somewhere, to turn mountainous terrain into an agricultural “bread basket”. No wonder I didn’t want to leave. That may be why there are no bathrooms on site – as a crowd-control measure designed to force lingering tourists like myself to finally head for the exit.

(The Temple of the Sun — Rod Mickleburgh photo)

I also fell under the spell of the Incas, themselves, of whom I knew little more than the basics, before touring their magnificent stomping grounds in south-eastern Peru. There is so much to admire. Like the Romans, they were ingenious builders. They preferred negotiation over military conquest, and their basic economy was communal. Citizens exchanging military obligations for guaranteed supplies of food and security. Yet their sprawling, sophisticated empire, the largest in the Americas, lasted barely more than a hundred years. Tragically, they were done in by smallpox and a few hundred ruthless, gold-thirsty Spaniards, who had horses, armour and guns. When the Inca fought, they lost. When they tried to buy peace, they were tricked and betrayed by their deceitful conquerers. It’s a heartbreaking saga.

The late Canadian poet Patrick Lane spent several years travelling in South America in the early 1970s, when one could wander the site at will and sleep there overnight. He, too, fell under the spell of the Inca and Machu Picchu. He wrote this poem for the long-gone literary publication Blackfish in 1973. I liked it before, and now, having visited Machu Picchu, myself, I like it even more. (Note: Manco Capac was a king of the Incas. Cuzco was their capital, where remnants of their magnificent stone walls and foundations are still used. And Patrick spells “Machu” with two c’s….)

 

MACCHU PICCHU

(for Earle Birney)

I

THE HITCHING POST OF THE SUN

Father Condor, take me,

Brother Falcon, take me,

Tell my little mother I am coming,

For five days I have not eaten, or drank a drop,

Father messenger, bearer of signs, swift messenger,

Carry me off, I beg you, little mouth, little heart,

Tell my little father and little mother, I beg you,

that I am coming.

Condemned lovers death song.

From the Quechua.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Standing on the highest rung of the city

we place our hands on polished stone

that was a hitching-post for the sun.

Now there is nothing but silence.

We watch the sun fall into the Andes.

 

The first cold shafts of night

reach into the river far below.

In a gathering mist I feel

we are growing out of

the body of something dead.

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

Today we lay in the Temple of Virgins

as centuries filled our mouths with moss.

They have stripped away the jungle.

They have torn the winding cloths.

They have scattered bones to the wind.

 

Strangers walk through the ruins.

They talk of where they come from,

where they are going.

As we lay in the roofless room

they stoned a snake.

 

It crawled out of the earth

to lie in the brilliant sun.

Coils of its body like plaited hair,

eyes of cracked stones. They left it

broken, draped on a fallen wall.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * *

We have been cursed with dreams.

This city was meant to be lost.

Those who died here did not want it to be found.

I pick up our blanket and find a place

to sleep in the Temple of the Sun.

 

But even he has hidden his face…

yellow bruise of light, lost to us,

who could heal everything.

we began when the sun fell.

Now there is nothing but shadows.

 

I imagine women moving with their men.

They surround us with their eyes,

here in the high Andes

in a city that was lost and found again

by men who came to unhitch the sun.

 

II

 

THE VIRGIN OF THE SUN

 

In the jungle tombs they found only women.

One held a child in her womb; her hands

like roots, wrapped around his face.

There were no men.

The city belonged to the Virgins of the Sun.

One by one the tombs were broken,

the jungle torn away:

 

Manco Capac

and his Incas dead.

The empire fallen.

 

Here they tied the sun at the end of seasons.

Here they tilled the soil under the eyes

of warriors who stood between the portals

 

of the sun, waiting for the Spanish horse.

Here the virgins were buried.

The Spanish never came.

 

Betrayed, the last Inca left for Cuzco

to bargain with the Viceroy of Spain.

He died in an ambuscade.

 

The bridges were cut behind him.

The road forgotten, the jungle grew a mantle

for the dead.       The sun rose and fell on the temple

 

and in the dark tombs the Virgins slept

waiting for the Inca to return

and restore them to the sun.

 

Let the grave-robbers go.

Let the city grow back to jungle,

back to the speechless things.

The Virgins have left their tombs

with their unborn child.

Let the city grow back to jungle.

Let the graves like wounds be closed again.

 

III

 

MANCO CAPAC – LAST INCA

 

Today I leave for the great capital.

Much has been said of the wisdom

Of this move.       In Macchu Picchu

I have ruled.         It is as if the empire was

 

Still water curled in a jug’s curve,

Spilled like this river into jungle.

Lately numerous stars have crossed

The heaven.     As it was for Huaina Capac.

 

So for me.       Huarascar and Atahualpa dead.

They have raised the bloodstone cross

In Cuzco.     The people are afraid.

But the Viceroy of Spain has asked me

 

To return.     He wishes me in the Temple.

What is that to me?       My people burn

In the great square.           My houses are

Plundered.   The empire come and gone.

 

The golden rod that was planted in

The beginning is removed — melted

For the Three-In-One in Spain.

My warriors will stand at the bridges

 

And along the great road.   If I do not

Return, all will be destroyed.

My people starve in the high passes.

My people die in the streets.

 

My priests have read the omens.

Still I must go.        Perhaps the Spaniard

Speaks truth.   I no longer know what

Their truth is.     I have spoken with the dead

 

by the hitching-post of the sun.

I have returned them to their tombs.

I am Manco Capac, Lord of the Inca.

The words of Pachacutec are my words:

 

Born like a lily in the garden

I grew like a lily

Ad when the time came

I withered and died.

Macchu Picchu – Peru 72

(Manco Capac)

We lost Patrick Lane last year, just before he was to receive the George Woodcock Award for Lifetime Achievement. In addition to the passing of one of Canada’s best writers, someone I had known and admired since first meeting him in his home town of Vernon,  I felt an added, personal disappointment. Coincidentally, I had won the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness for my BC labour history book On the Line. The plan was to have both of us accept our awards at the same ceremony in Victoria. Sharing such an event with Patrick would have been one of the highlights of my life. But it was not to be. Instead we were left to mourn an outstanding poet, the winner of so many awards over the years, who turned his early, hard-edged life, often full of anger, into one that celebrated love, gardens and grace. A beautiful soul.

(If you are new to his work, you can get a measure of Patrick Lane from this blog I wrote in 2013 that highlights two spell-binding addresses he gave, after being awarded honorary degrees at UBC’s Okanagan campus and the University of Victoria/ Both moved many in the audience to tears. https://mickleblog.wordpress.com/2013/12/02/patrick-lane-poet/ )

SAVE THE HOITO!

Okay, Canadian trivia fans. What’s the only restaurant in this great country where, depending on your palate, you can order mojakka, suolaka, lohiperunalaatikko or kalakeitto, finished off, if there’s room, with a delicious dessert of karjalapiiraka? A free canoe trip to the nearest Hudson Bay Company trading post if you correctly answered: The Hoito, Thunder Bay’s renowned landmark eatery that has been filling bellies with traditional Finnish food for more than 100 years.

But now, as if there were not enough bad news, word has come through that the beloved institution is at risk of keeping its doors, already closed by COVID-19, shut forever. Faced with renovation debt and a refusal by the RBC to defer loan payments in spite of the pandemic, members of the Finlandia Association, which owns both the Hoito and the heritage Finnish Labour Temple that houses it, voted May 20 to liquidate. Ugh.

The end of the historic restaurant would be a terrible loss, not only to my ancestral Swede-Finnish roots, but to Thunder Bay and lovers of heritage everywhere. It’s no overstatement to call the Hoito a national treasure.

And just to be clear. We are not talking about some forlorn vestige of a once-thriving enterprise falling victim to changing times, preserved in nostalgic amber. Before the lockdown, the Hoito was way popular, with weekend lineups and high marks on all those Yelp and Trip Advisor sites from charmed tourists. I was there for Sunday brunch last summer and, the place was packed. Orders for its thin Finnish pancakes, which our family calls Swedish pancakes, kept the friendly servers run off their feet.

(Rod Mickleburgh photo)

Not surprisingly, news that the Hotio may have served its last lätty has prompted a wave of dismay in Thunder Bay. Local Finnish-Canadians have banded together to explore a new, cooperative direction for the beleaguered Finnish Labour Temple, itself proclaimed a national heritage site in 2015. And a GoFundMe drive has been launched aimed specifically at saving the Hoito, which had been the major revenue producer for the Labour Temple. It didn’t take me long to donate.

Besides the Hoito’s long culinary tradition, the restaurant has a fascinating, working-class history. It was launched in 1918 as a workers’ cooperative by supporters of the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World. The IWW was the union of choice for immigrant Finnish loggers cutting trees in the rugged, isolated bush camps of Northern Ontario. In the early years of the 20th century, the camps had some of the worst working conditions and poor pay in Canada. So perhaps it was only natural that they came to be populated in large numbers by tough, independent immigrants from Finland, used to hard work and drawn to the bush by the same conifer forests and cold weather that prevailed in their hardscrabble homeland. Their urban base was Port Arthur, which amalgamated with adjacent Fort William in 1970 to form present day Thunder Bay.

Many were radicals, already politicized by the state of affairs in Tsarist-ruled Finland or driven leftward by the harsh capitalism they found in Canada. They shared a strong cooperative spirit, preferring collective action over individualism and leaders. To fight back against the lumber camp bosses, the loggers shunned centralized unions in favour of the IWW, the legendary Wobblies, even as support for these warriors of the working class waned in the rest of Canada.

By 1910, Port Arthur had an imposing Finnish Labour Temple, which quickly became a hotbed of socialist and cultural activities for the city’s growing Finnish community. A few years later, IWW organizer Armas Topias Hill heard from men in the lumber camps of their pressing need for a place to eat inexpensive, home-cooked meals when, they came to Port Arthur. The Labour Temple’s board of directors agreed, and the Hoito restaurant opened in the building’s lower floor on May Day, 1918.

It was a cooperative from the start, financed by 59 member shareholders, who each kicked in $5 “comrade loans”. The name was chosen from the Finnish word for ‘care’: hoito. Customers ate at long communal tables. With Hill, the IWW organizer as its first manager, and all restaurant staff members belonging to the Wobblies, the workers were in charge. The Hoito advertised itself as “the only restaurant in the city owned and controlled by the (customers and workers) themselves”. When revenue eclipsed costs, prices came down. The restaurant’s communal policies were vital during the dark days of the Depression, as its hastily-established food kitchens helped feed many of the impoverished unemployed that crowded into the city.

The Finnish Labour Temple upstairs, meanwhile, buzzed with political and cultural activities with a socialist slant. Where else could you see such plays as Luokkaviah (Class Hatred), Yleislakko (The General Strike), or Tukkijoella (The Lumberjacks)? The Wobblies maintained office space there for years, including the Canadian bureau of the Industrialisti, the Finnish-language IWW newspaper that did not cease publication until 1975. All this reflected the fact that the large majority of Finnish immigrants to Northern Ontario were “Red Finns”, as opposed to the right-wing “White Finn” faction that emerged triumphant from the vicious civil war that convulsed Finland, after the country’s independence from Russia. One of the women cooks at the Hoito had spent a year in jail in Finland for her Red Finn activities during the civil war.

LIke the IWW labour martyr Joe Hill, the Hoito never died. It survived the economic ravages of the Depression, World War Two, the gradual disappearance of the radical left and anti-capitalist loggers who provided its base for so many years , changing eating habits, and a decline in the city’s once-significant Finnish-Canadian population. And let’s say it one more time: it was revenue from the still-popular, bare-bones Hoito that helped keep the Finlandia Association going, not the other way around. Let’s hope it doesn’t go down with the ship.

Five years ago, the last time the Hoito’s future was threatened by the financial predicament of the Finlandia Association, local filmmaker Kelly Saxberg, a great grand-daughter of Finnish immigration, issued an impassioned plea on its behalf: “It’s time to say, ‘listen, this is an historic landmark, this is a unique restaurant, this is the only living monument to Finnish immigration in North America.’” That hasn’t changed.

My Canada includes the Hoito. There’s no place like it. Please help, if you can. You can donate here: https://ca.gofundme.com/f/save-the-hoito?utm_source=tbnewswatch.com&utm_campaign=tbnewswatch.com&utm_medium=referral

 

 

 

THE BALM OF POETRY #8 — SHAKESPEARE SONNET NO. 73

Forsooth! Another 14-liner read out by the marvelous Sir Patrick Stewart, who is gainfully employing himself by methodically sharing with us all of Shakespeare’s sonnets at the rate of one a day. All told, there are 154 sonnets penned by the Bard, a number I can never hear without thinking of the 154 games that comprised the full major league season when I first fell in love with baseball. And of course there was the brief appearance on Monty Python’s game show “Stake Your Claim” by Mr. Norman Voles from Gravesend, whose claim that he and his wife wrote all of Shakespeare’s sonnets was torn to shreds by host John Cleese. To wit…Host: ”How was it possible for you to have written (works) over 300 years before you were born?” Mr. Voles: “Ah well. This is where my claim falls to the ground….I can see you’re more than a match for me.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3WaumqE7gug

But I digress….

Stewart has made a few Enterprise-like, sonnet diversions. He skipped No 20, because he was uncomfortable with its treatment of women. No. 57 featured his first guest reader, none other than Jonathan Frakes, better known as Commander Riker on the best of all the Star Trek series, Star Trek: The Next Generation. Stewart, of course, was his consummate superior, Captain Picard. Further, Frankes directed Patrick Stewart in this year’s brilliant revival, Star Trek: Picard.

Plus this poem, No. 73, read out of turn last month to mark the previous day’s passing of one of Sir Patrick’s heroes, British motor racing legend, Stirling Moss. It is a sombre poem, appropriate both for the death of Moss and the ongoing toll claimed by this ruthless virus that is re-shaping our world beyond all imaginings. Yet, it’s beautiful.

Sonnet No. 73

By William Shakespeare.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou see’st the twilight of such day

As after sunset fadeth in the west,

Which by and by black night doth take away,

Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire

That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,

As the death-bed whereon it must expire,

Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Here is Sir Patrick’s reading: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=581229385842927

It was certainly news to me that Stewart has been a fan of motor racing all his life, even obtaining his own licence to race at the age of 72, and that Stirling Moss was an all-time hero of his. No wonder he wanted to disrupt his sonnet pecking order to pay tribute. “If the title of national treasure were ever bestowed on anyone in this country, I think the first in line should be Stirling Moss,” intoned Sir Patrick a few years back.

Even as a kid in far off Canada, who wouldn’t know a camshaft from a driveshaft, or a crankshaft for that matter, I had heard of Stirling Moss. Although he never won the Formula One World Drivers’ Championship, finishing second four years in a row, Moss was the most celebrated motorcar racer of his time. He was renowned for his daredevil skill at the wheel, pushing cars to their limit and winning races against competitors driving faster vehicles with more powerful engines.

Moss first became a national hero in 1955 by winning the British Grand Prix at Aintree, the first Brit to do so. It didn’t hurt his status when he declared: “It’s better to lose honourably in a British car than win in a foreign car.” His marriage to Katie Molson of the Canadian beer mogul family two years later was front page news all over Britain. When he suffered catastrophic injuries in crash that ended his professional racing career in 1962, the entire country held its breath, as Moss languished in a coma for a full month, before recovering.

All told, Moss won 16 Formula One races. Even more astonishingly, as a driver who would compete in all kinds of different category races around the world, he finished first in 212 of the 529 races he entered. He continued to drive competitively, though not for money, until he was 81.

This is a sweet BBC video of Patrick Stewart meeting Stirling Moss for the first time in 2012. They go for a spin in the vintage Austin on which Moss said he learned to drive at some ridiculously young age. And then Stewart dons Moss’s helmet and gloves, steps into one of the famous, British-built Vanwall racing cars used by Moss and takes it for a lap or two around the storied Aintree track, albeit not quite at warp speed. Afterwards, Stewart said it was “as big a pinch myself moment as I’ve ever had in my life.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wWGkwupgaQU

 

 

 

 

 

POETRY BLOG #7 MINERS AND HUMMINGBIRDS

This poem was written, who knows when, by my redoubtable Auntie Irene, aka Irene Howard, who continues to keep on ticking at the impressive age of 97. It is a working-class poem, inspired by her father Alfred. Arriving from Sweden in 1905, Nils Alfred Nelson worked hard all his life, helped raise five children, never got rich, and died at the age of 71 from tuberculosis, brought on by the miner’s disease, silicosis. One of his first jobs was working construction on the building of the Grand Trunk Railway as it stretched east from Prince Rupert. You can tell by the poem that he had a Swede’s sardonic sense of humour.

Let me tell you about Auntie Irene, sister of my Uncle Ed, who married my mother’s sister, Greta. She was born in Prince Rupert in 1922, shortly before the family decamped for the remote Duthie Mine on Smither’s Hudson Bay Mountain, where Alfred found work as a hard-rock miner. It was the trade he pursued for the rest of his working life. The family of seven – Alfred, his wife Ingeborg, and their five kids — took up residence in an abandoned, prospector’s cabin in the woods. Irene was 9 months old. They moved from mine-to-mine four more times over the next 10 years, sometimes living in nothing fancier than a big tent. In Kamloops, Ingeborg, worn out and worn down, passed away shortly after the stillbirth of a sixth child. She was 42.

(Their log cabin near Smithers. From left, Arthur, Edwin, Ingeborg, Irene, Alfred, Verner)

This was the life of so many BC miners, whose hard work helped build this province and for which they got little thanks or compensation. Auntie Irene emerged from her hardscrabble childhood to become an academic/historian. A strong feminist, she wrote many articles on progressive movements involving women, along with several books, including the definitive biography of Helena Gutteridge, a suffragist, trade union organizer and the first woman elected to Vancouver City Council. When the city recently named a new plaza after Gutteridge, Auntie Irene was front and centre as a special, invited guest. (https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/helena-gutteridge-plaza-first-female-vancouver-city-councillor-1.4568793)

(Former Vancouver City Councillor Ellen Woodsworth and Auntie Irene, at the opening of Helena Gutteridge Plaza on a blustery day in March, 2018.)

But her tour de force is Gold Dust On His Shirt, The True Story of an Immigrant Mining Family. Published when she was 86 (!), the book weaves the moving story of her own family with accounts of the struggle and conditions faced by all working people in the province. It’s a beautiful, bittersweet tale.

CANADIAN VETERANS REMEMBER THE LAST DAYS OF THE WAR

To mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe (VE Day), here are some Canadian veterans of World War Two recounting their varied, often sobering experiences as the war drew to a close. They are excerpted from interviews I did for my oral history book, Rare Courage, Veterans of the Second World War Remember, published my McClelland & Stewart in 2005. We owe them so much.

Estelle Tritt-Aspler, 1919-2007.

(Tritt-Aspler spent three years overseas as a Lt. Nursing Sister. She relates her emotional experience as a Jew in Holland, gradually discovering the terrible impact of the Holocaust and taking part in a Seder, the first for a handful survivors in four years.)

“When we went up to Holland, I started searching for other Jewish people. There just seemed to be no Jews around. I found some who had been hidden, some who had served in the underground. But the Jewish population was just destroyed. What do you say when you meet someone who was taken for forced labour and managed to escape and went back home to find his wife and child had been deported? What do you say to a woman who says her daughter was deported? There were things like that. We didn’t know the full extent. We knew people had been deported, but we didn’t quite know what had happened to them. Some survived because people took them in. It was amazing what some people did. A lot of them paid with their lives. One woman showed me a picture of a child holding someone’s hand. You couldn’t see whose hand she was holding. You couldn’t tell what street they were on. You couldn’t tell anything. But this was the only proof she had that her child was okay.

“I was posted to ‘s-Hertogenbosch, which was known for its chocolate. Another Jewish nursing sister and I attended a Seder together. We had met some people there and they invited us. There were about 10 or 12 of us, and for some of them, it was their first Seder in a long time. They were traumatized and in rough shape. There were a lot of tears and emotion. It was a very unusual evening. The family that gave the Seder had two teenaged children who refused to speak German. There was another lad there, and he was wondering what happened to his parents. Should he stay and look for them, or join the Dutch Army? There was also a rabbi from Germany who looked as if he’d had TB. He was underground during the war, in the Resistance. It was the only Seder I attended until I returned to Canada. I always had my Jewish faith. I didn’t always observe it, but I tried to observe it more after this. Wherever I went, I tried to find Jewish people.

“The day the war ended, there wasn’t a big celebration. There was only one feeling. Relief. We just sat around and said, ‘Thank God.’”

 

Michael Fedoruk , 1921-

(The only survivor of his downed bomber, Fedoruk managed to elude capture for 13 months, seven of them while being looked after by a rural Dutch family near Nijverdal.)

“In a few days, I was transported back to England. The family never talked about why they were risking their lives for us. I think they were just being friendly to people who were trying to free them. They got money and ration coupons from the underground. In return, they kept us hidden. I always said to myself, I could never repay those people for the good they did me. I wish I’d had the bucks to do it. But you just can’t repay kindness like that. I figured maybe the army and the air force would repay them a little bit. Because they suffered an awful lot. Food in Nijverdal was very, very scarce. They had a terrible time. I was just skin and bones. When I got back to England, I went to a warehouse where the parcels sent to me were stored. I had smokes. I had jam, jellies, fruits, canned goods, everything. My kid brother was in Holland and he came to England to visit me. We spent VE day together. For his return, I gave him kit bags full of grub. ‘Take them back to my family at Nijverdal.’ And he did just that, and they were happy.”

 

Grant McRae, 1922 –

(Shot down over Germany, McRae survived a year in the notorious POW camp, Stalag Luff III, and the deadly winter march, when weakened prisoners were forced out into the bitter cold to barely livable, new quarters to avoid the advancing Red Army.)

“The war was over in May, but we stayed in the camp because the Russians wouldn’t let us leave. Some American truck drivers came one day with orders from Eisenhower to liberate all British and American personnel. So we got back in the back of the trucks, but the Russians, who were supposed to be our Allies, fired over our heads. We had to get off. Some of the guys were practically crying because they’d been there three or our years and this was their first chance to get out. The Russians said the orders had to come from Moscow. They said they didn’t know anything about Eisenhower. The trucks went back empty. We had no way out. We wondered if the Russians were going to send us to the salt mines. At last, some Russian troops took us back to the Elbe. That’s where the dividing line was. We got out of the trucks and walked across a Bailey Bridge built by the American engineers. We were liberated.”

 

Peter Cottingham, 1921-2014.

(Cottingham served with the legendary Devils Brigade, a joint Special Services, Canadian-American commando force. He was bitter about how they were deployed, feeling they were used more as expendable, shock troops, than in any strategic way.)

“The Special Services unit was disbanded in December 1944. They felt the war had advanced beyond the point where they needed us. They could now spearhead with tanks and stuff like that. Some people like to say there wasn’t a dry eye when we held our last parade, but I wasn’t crying. I’m sure we spent about 200 days in contact with the enemy. It was awful. But in retrospect, you couldn’t pay to do what I did. It was just so fantastic to know the guys I knew. It was a lifetime experience that very people should have. Once you have it, you can’t take it away. I’m glad I experienced it.

“After VE Day, I was in an officers school in Burma, learning how to fight in the jungles of Burma. The army owned me. I was just a bloody volunteer, you know, but once you sign up, they own you. When they dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, I thought, I’m going to live.”

 

Rex Fendick, 1924-2010.

(A Canadian volunteer with the British Army, Fendick served as a crack machine-gunner.)

“As we moved through Germany, we began to see all kinds of refugees on the road. There were a lot of concentration camp uniforms mixed in with them. The first camp to be liberated was in our sector. Belsen. I always remember when our CO came back and told us about it. He’d seen Belsen. Been in it. He was just livid. He was almost speechless. It was unbelievable. They wouldn’t let the troops go into those places, so I didn’t see it myself. But we did see a lot of concentration camp survivors wandering the roads in their black-and-white-striped uniforms with the little pillbox hat. It’s the saddest memory I have of the way the Germans treated people.”

 

Stanley Grizzle, 1918-2016.

(Grizzle served overseas with the Medical Corps, for a country that was capable of denying him a room in Toronto’s Royal York Hotel on his wedding night, because he was black.)

“The week after we got to Germany, the war ended. We had instructions before we got there. No talking to any German women or men. No conversation. The day the war ended, the quartermaster gave us each a bottle of Scotch. I didn’t drink, so I brought it home and gave it to my dad. I got back to Canada in 1946. I saw my daughter for the first time.

“When I look back at the war, I thank God for the experience. It matured me. Because of my army life experiences, I became a strong advocate of non-violent direct action in the settling of human differences. I was a chairman of the Toronto chapter of the Martin Luther King Fund, the only chapter in Canada raising funds for Dr. King’s American struggle. In 1983, Prime Minister Trudeau appointed me a judge of the Court of Canadian Citizenship – the first Afro-Canadian to serve in that position.”

 

William Newell, 1922-2011.

(A member of the Canadian Navy, Newell was in Halifax when the war ended. What followed wasn’t what anyone expected.)

“I went through the Halifax Riots at the end of the war. Halifax was anticipating a big celebration, because there were something like 40,000 sailors there. So everyone was afraid of a big rough party, I guess. About a week before, they began boarding up the restaurants and the liquor and beer stores. They boarded everything up. Barrington Street was vacant. This was the wrong thing to do. When the ships came in, the sailors were given leave and they just ganged up. First they broke into a beer store, then they took five liquor stores. Three fellows were killed in the riots. They found one of them outside my bedroom window, out in Dalhousie. They finally imposed martial law. It was quite an experience.”

 

(Gould, centre, greeted by his family on his return home.)

T. Garry Gould, 1922-2015.

(Gould drove tanks with the Sherbrooke Fusiliers. He was badly wounded by a direct mortar hit during an advance on the Siegfried Line.)

“They evacuated me by air for England. There was a fair amount of metal in me: in the backside, the back, the legs. One arm broken. One hand in pieces. I had been knocked unconscious and had back strain. I was in hospital there for five months. One time I woke up screaming because I saw this horde of German uniforms coming at me, and there was no way I could stop them. The fear and trauma finally caught up with me. I came home on a hospital ship in July, 1945. The war was something I wanted to do. I hope I did it well. I had my Bible all the way through and the regimental badge. That’s something you don’t dishonour.”

 

Yvonne Jukes, 1921-2011.

(Jukes served fearlessly in the Women’s Division of the RCAF, narrowly escaping bombing raids and a hail of bullets from a German plane late in the war.)

“The war ended when I was on leave in London, but I couldn’t celebrate. We had to rush back by train to our headquarters to help in the repatriation of prisoners of war. We didn’t waste any time. Our squadron flew out to Germany the day after VE Day to pick up the Canadian prisoners. It was a great feeling of relief that we were not going to lose any more of our young friends. We had high hopes that those still listed as missing might turn up. Some did, but we did get bad news about the others. After that, I spent five months in Torquay, repatriating aircrews. Finally, there were just a few of us left and it was my turn.

“I was relieved but I also apprehensive about going home. We lost so many friends. Three went down on the British battleship Hood. Our navy friend Johnny Stubbs’ destroyer went down off the coast of France. He came up on shore and was murdered by the Germans. Two of my air-force friends from Victoria went missing and have no known graves. Another was shot down and evaded the Germans for six months in a Belgian town where he organized an underground movement. He was betrayed and ended up in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where he later died.

“I had to start over, build a new life. But I could not have stayed home. Although many times were stressful and painful, I was proud to have served. Before the war, women could be housewives, nurses, and teachers, but little else. The war changed all that. It altered the whole structure of the workforce for women. After having been part of the war, women grew more independent and asserted their rights.

“I celebrate all veterans who have a right to be proud of the part they played in defeating the greatest evil the world has ever known.”

Lest We Forget.

 

 

LIBERATING THE NETHERLANDS, THROUGH THE EYES OF A HEROIC CANADIAN SOLDIER.

(Members of Vancouver’s Seaforth Highlanders celebrate the Liberation of the Netherlands.)

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Liberation of the Netherlands on May 5, 1945. The victory came only after nine months of hard, deadly slogging by our soldiers across the country’s treacherous flat landscape, against crack German troops. More than 7,600 Canadians lost their lives. The Dutch have never forgotten their sacrifice. Whenever our vets have returned to the Netherlands, they are showered with cheers and tears of gratitude. Every school child is taught about the brave young Canadians, who fought to free their country from the Nazis. Their graves are kept in meticulous order, and every year, they are remembered as part of the Netherland’s official Remembrance Day holiday on May 4.

With surviving veterans now well into their 90’s, this year was to have been their last official return. A host of commemorative ceremonies had been planned. But of course, COVID-19 cancelled everything. Those few who had been planning to make the trip are unlikely to have another chance.

As a reminder of the terrible fighting Canadian troops had to endure, I offer the personal reminiscence of Charles Forbes, who recounts in harrowing detail one particularly fierce battle in the fall of 1944. Forbes was among 20 veterans I interviewed for my oral history book, Rare Courage, Veterans of the Second World War Remember, published by McCelland & Stewart in 2005. He was with Montreal’s Maisonneuve Regiment, which took part in the bloody battle for Walcheren Island against dug-in, heavily armed German forces. It is a gripping account. Forbes tells it like it was, including the stress and mental breakdowns, with no attempt to gussy it up. War, he reminds us, is not for the faint of heart. What follows is taken from Rare Courage.

Forbes starts with an extraordinary tribute to “the guts of the Canadian soldier.”

“I was a platoon commander, and you are the one in closest contact with the enemy because you have to lead your men. You don’t tell them to ‘go there.’ You say, ‘Follow me.’ That’s the way we fought in the Canadian Army. We had no professionalism, but we were adventurers. We were go-getters. We were voyageurs. We were full of courage. I lift my hat to the guts of the Canadian soldier. A German officer said once, ‘I know why the Canadians fight so well. It is because their officers fight with them.’ By the end of October, we were tired. Really beat. We had been in battle in France, northern France, Belgium, and Holland. No rest since July.

“Walcheren Island was the final battle for the liberation of Antwerp….The harbour entrance was controlled by eight-inch, ten-inch, twelve-inch German guns buried in concrete casements on Walcheren Island. On Oct. 31, the weather was very bad. It was freezing. It was raining….The Black Watch was ordered to walk across the causeway and capture the dikes on the other banks of the island. The causeway was a thousand yards long, a sixty-foot wide target with water on each side. The Black Watch had a hell of a time. They went in with no preparation. The brigade major, George Hees, who became minister of Veterans Affairs, was a glorious man, but the operation was in daylight and utterly ridiculous. Once they were 500 yards across the causeway, the Germans put a terrific bombardment on and they had to be pulled back.

“Then the brigadier committed what I call a major mistake in tactics. Reinforced failure. If a one-inch cork doesn’t fit in a bottle, don’t try again with a one-inch cork. But he tried to cross the causeway again, this time with the Calgary Highlanders, a fantastic battalion. They made it across to the dikes, but the Germans threw in another murderous counterattack and the Calgarys suffered heavy casualties….

“That night, my Maisonneuve Regiment had been ordered on leave to the city of Liere. This would be our first rest since Normandy, so we were all anxious to go. We were shaving, cleaning up. We knew the Calgarys would make it. But soon I could hear the guns and I knew something was wrong. When the CO wanted to see me, my hat turned green. He told me, ‘Charley, we’re attacking over the causeway, through the Calgarys position, to capture the right- and left-hand dikes. You’re going to be leading the attack with your platoon. You go at four o’clock tomorrow morning.’

“At four o’clock, we were standing by, and the artillery bombardment began. A huge bombardment. And away we went. I had my machine-gun guys on each side. The Arsenault brothers from New Brunswick. I told them, ‘If you see anything, just fire and keep firing until we reach the other side.’ I saw some troops moving towards us. We couldn’t identify them clearly, so the Arsenault brothers started to fire. Suddenly, in the flash of an explosion, I saw the steel helmets of the Calgarys. We were shooting our own troops down! I had to jump on their backs to stop them. It was a very, very bad start. It more or less broke our spirit and our momentum. We had to regroup. But we did make it to the island.

(Detail from an oil painting by Charles Forbes, portraying the battle of Walcheren in Holland, Nov. 2, 1944)

“When we got there, an anti-tank gun was firing. So the boys jumped on the two gunners. They surrendered. Guy Demarie was following me with the No. 17 Platoon. I told him, ‘Lets go.’ But we couldn’t see. The artillery had stopped firing. There was no longer any light. We were on the island and all we could see was water. I figured we still had to get to the two dikes. So we kept on running. His platoon on the left side, mine on the right. There was no opposition. We didn’t see a single German soldier. We ran and ran until we came to an overpass. We suddenly realized in the excitement, we had bypassed our objectives and gone 500 yards inside the island. Jesus. We decided to hold it there, and wait for the British to come.

“Six o’clock passed. Seven o’clock. We didn’t see any Brits. We waited and waited, hanging on, ladderlike, to the bank of the dike. Then I saw movement in the fog and the rain. A column of troops was coming towards us along the bank. I yelled to m boys, ‘Be careful now. I think it’s the Brits. Don’t fire. Let’s go and meet them.’ I’m about to pull myself out of the water, and I recognized the German helmet. Lord and God! So I got back into my hole, holding my pistol in one hand, and I waited for the Germans to come. I yelled, ‘When I open fire, fire!’ We fired on them at close range. I hit the first one in the shoulder with my pistol. He fell in the water. Then we emptied a couple of mags of Bren guns and rifle fire. There was a moment of quiet, and 50 to 60 Germans troops were then withdrawing along the bank. But we were right in the middle of a bees’ nest. What could we do? We were all lying in water, as close to the banks as we could, to protect ourselves. We tried to pull the man I had shot out of the water, as the tide was going up. But I pulled on the arm that had been dislocated, where he was bleeding badly. He yelled, so I had to leave him there. I was exposed. The Germans started to creep toward our position. Sniping at us. By then, it was four o’clock in the afternoon. At last we were given orders to withdraw and we made it back to the start of the causeway.

“I asked for a smokescreen and started to run back across the causeway toward the mainland. We had a thousand yards to go. As we were running, one of the German heavy guns was firing at the causeway. A shell hit one of my soldiers, Talbot. Shrapnel in the spine, I said. ‘Don’t move. I’ll drag you into a hole.’ We took cover and I looked at his wound. There seemed to be a bit of steel caught between two vertebrae. I decided to pull it out right there, and he felt better.

“I stayed with Talbot until 11 o’clock at night. When we finally made it back to our lines, they put Talbot in an ambulance and I looked around for the soldiers of our battalion. There wasn’t a goddamned soul to be seen. The ambulance driver told me, ‘Your battalion has gone to Belgium for a rest. Enjoy yourself, buster.’ I got so sour and sad inside. I started to shake. I was wet. I was frozen. I was hungry. And particularly, I was hurt inside. I thought at least someone could have been left behind when they went on leave. There were some Dutch resistance there, and I said, ‘I’m completely finished. I’m out. I’m going nuts. I could hear the sound of machine guns flying through my head. They took me to a Dutch house and the girls made some hot-water bottles and they laid me on a bed and I stayed there for a couple of days. They looked after me as if I was a 20-carat diamond. I regained some of my energy. In the meantime, my mother received a telegram that I’d been reported missing. Eventually, she got another wire saying they had found me. Or that I had found myself.

“I finally hooked up with my battalion in Liere, but five days later, on the way back to cross the Maas River, a German artillery shell killed my driver and wounded my right eye quite deeply. The medics picked me up and put me in a barber’s chair. They put a piece of wood in my teeth and a corporal sewed my eye up cold. No injections whatsoever. He did a rough job. He told me it would have to be redone. ‘but I’m going to do it so you don’t get infected.’ They fixed it up with plastic surgery back in England.

“In 1945, the corps commander approved that I be the recipient of the highest Dutch decoration, which is their equivalent of the Victoria Cross. Then the war ended, and that was that.

“I have asked myself many times how I did it. Six months under terrible stress, enduring war with all its ugliness. I have killed three times. It is terrible to kill to save your skin. It’s shoot or get shot. Like what happened on Walcheren Island with the man I shot in the shoulder. And when Fortie, one of my men, was killed and left behind. All these things. You get to be a zombie. One day after the other. One step at a time. The left foot goes down. The right foot replaces it. That’s the way an operation goes. You do your best, but you wear down. One of my corporals broke down in Brussels. He had come all the way with me from Caen. He was dressed like a funeral director: top hat and a black coattail. He was arrested by a British MP. My case was the same after I was hit in the eye. I was shaking all over. I had lost my place. You have no idea what it’s like, when you’re lying on the frozen ground, scratches on your hand that are full of puss, and you are trying to grab a bit of sleep, and you start to urinate. You’re like a spring on a clock that goes and goes, and as long as there’s some energy left, it keeps marking the time.”

Lt. Col. Jean Charles Forbes (1921-2010). Lest We Forget.

(Lt. Col. Forbes stayed with the Canadian Armed Forces for his entire career, also fighting with the Royal 22nd Regiment, 2nd Battalion in the Korean War.)

THE BALM OF POETRY #6…TELL THE ONES YOU LOVE

A short, sweet poem about love. As we struggle to cope with the terrible sweep of this unforgiving virus, I find it particularly apt.

TELL THE ONES YOU LOVE

By Dennis Lee

Tell the ones you love, you

                                                        love them;

                                     tell them now.

                 For the day is coming, and also the night will come,

when you will neither say it, nor hear it, nor care.

                                        Tell the ones you love.

     I have lost many who mattered, and I will say it again:

                           tell the ones you love, you love them.

                                                   Tell them today.

This affecting poem was written by one of Canada’s best poets, Dennis Lee. His marvelous Civil Elegies, a long, often angry but elegantly written meditation on Toronto, Canada and its colonization by the United States, anchored a collection of his poetry that won the Governor General’s Award in 1972. Award-winning Canadian literature critic Wayne Mount has called Civil Elegies “our Waste Land.”

Of course, Lee may be most known to Canadians for his wonderful, zany poems for children, first collected together in Alligator Pie. They were so good, observed pre-eminent Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence, “you can almost hear skipping rope slapping the sidewalk”. Many referenced Canada. Dead Men in Edmonton, Kahshe or Chicoutimi and my favourite: William Lyon Mackenzie King/Sat in the middle & played with string/And he loved his mother like anything –/William Lyon Mackenzie King. Who could resist? Parents couldn’t. They bought his book for their kids in the hundreds of thousands, because, one suspects, many of them secretly adored the poems themselves. All told, Canada’s “poet laureate for children” has written more than 15 books of children’s poems.

Yet, Dennis Lee is such a fine poet, it would be a shame if Alligator Pie were all Canadians knew about his way with verse. It just shines, poem after poem. And not only that, there is more to Lee than his poetry. With apologies to François Girard’s fine film, 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, here are 10 Short (Other) Things About Dennis Lee.

  1. Dennis Lee and Margaret Atwood were university contemporaries, who worked together on Acta Victoriana, the literary publication of U of T’s Victoria College in 1958.
  2. Along with David Godfrey, Dennis Lee co-founded the venerable, groundbreaking and purposefully nationalist literary press, House of Anansi, a home for so many great Canadian writers over the years.
  3. In the heyday of the Sixties, Dennis Lee was heavily involved in the establishment of Rochdale College, a multi-storied, idealistic experiment in student co-operative living and alternative education in downtown Toronto that eventually degenerated into a chaotic haven for drugs and crime.
  4. At about the same time, he co-edited, with Howard Edelman, a series of essays on breaking down the rigidity of university education, called The University Game.
  5. Dennis Lee wrote the lyrics and Canadian composer Philip Balsam the music for nearly 200 songs, including the theme, for Jim Henson’s beloved muppet show, Fraggle Rock.
  6. The album, Jim Henson’s Muppets present Fraggle Rock, featuring many of their numbers, shared the 1985 Grammy Award for Best Children’s Album with Shel Silverstein.
  7. Dennis Lee wrote the commissioned novella that formed the basis of Jim Henson’s last movie Labyrinth, with a finished screenplay by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame and featuring an interesting fellow in a starring role named David Bowie.
  8. A line from Civil Elegies, slightly revised by Scottish nationalist Alasdair Gray, is one of 24 inscriptions on the Scottish Parliament’s Canongate Wall.
  9. Dennis Lee’s first book of poetry, Kingdom of Absence, was also the first book published by House of Anansi in 1967. Fifty years later, his definitive collection, Heart Residence, Collected Poems 1967-2017, was also published by House of Anansi.
  10. Dennis Lee is married to my good friend, the Canadian novelist Susan Perly, with whom I “worked” for two unforgettable, laugh-filled years on U of T’s student newspaper, The Varsity.

Dennis Lee. One of the best.

(As a late bonus, Lee has provided his recollection of what triggered the poem, which he wrote 25 years ago. “I don’t think there was anything specific that triggered it…or rather I don’t think it was something external, like a dear one dying. What I (vaguely) recall is sensing the music of it — a grave, cello-like processional kind of music. With no idea what the content would be. And then it filled itself it, as I tried to be open to words that embodied that gravitas and amplitude.”)

(Susan Perly, at the Vancouver Writers Festival in 2016. Photo by me.)

THE BALM OF POETRY #5…THE ORIGIN OF BASEBALL

If matters had been otherwise, I would have been in Seattle earlier this month, taking in a bunch of ball games at beautiful Safeco Field (a pox on its current name, T-Mobile Park…). Two pitted the sadsack Mariners against my beloved Boston Red Sox and two were against the defending World Series champs, the Montreal Expos, er…Washington Nationals (sigh). Four dream games. I had been so looking forward to them, not just for the prospect of good baseball, but as a sign of an end to the dreariness of winter and the approaching, lazy, hazy days of summer. Despite much that is wrong with the game today, it retains that seasonal legacy of rebirth and hope for a good year.

The “grand old game” is not like other sports. At its best, with the beauteous expanse of outfield grass (astro-turf, rot in hell!), the ageless crack of a wooden bat against ye olde horsehide, the ebb and flow of the crowd, and rules that have not changed much for more than a century, baseball is as comfortable as a well-used glove. In this frantic, fast-paced age, going to the ballpark slows you down, like a reunion with an old friend. No wonder there is so much creative writing about baseball. That includes poetry, and the latest selection for my occasional poetry blog, offered as a slight respite as we try to weather this pernicious virus.

The poem by Kenneth Patchen was referred to me by my longtime friend, Bob Bossin, author, environmental activist, dramatist and co-founder of the cherished Canadian folkie group, Stringband. Bob wrote some of Stringband’s most popular songs (Dief Will Be the Chief Again, Show Us the Length and The Maple Leaf Dog). But he also wrote two excellent songs about baseball – Daddy Was a Ballplayer, inspired by Sam Jethroe, who used to play centre field for the old Toronto Maple Leafs in the International League, and a spirited narrative ballad about the legendary Satchel Paige. Bob knows his baseball. I hope you like this poem as much as I do. And it’s about more than baseball…

THE ORIGIN OF BASEBALL

By Kenneth Patchen

Someone had been walking in and out

Of the world without coming

To much decision about anything.

The sun seemed too hot most of the time.

There weren’t enough birds around

And the hills had a silly look

When he got on top of one.

The girls in heaven, however, thought

Nothing of asking to see his watch

Like you would want someone to tell

A joke–‘Time,’ they’d say, ‘what’s

That mean–time?’ laughing with the edges

Of their white mouths, like a flutter of paper

In a madhouse. And he’d stumble over

General Sherman or Elizabeth B.

Browning, muttering, ‘Can’t you keep

Your big wings out of the aisle?’ But down

Again, there’d be millions of people without

Enough to eat and men with guns just

Standing there shooting each other.

So he wanted to throw something

And he picked up a baseball.

Kenneth_Patchen

Kenneth Patchen, a lifelong pacifist, is one of those under-the-radar poets, who never attained much fame during his lifetime, but continues to be celebrated by fervent admirers. Born in Niles, Ohio in 1911, his jazzy, often syncopated work is considered a precursor to the Beats. After moving to the San Francisco area, he is said to have influenced emerging Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, founder of the renowned City Lights Bookstore, author of a pretty good baseball poem himself (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kfXtuSwiDkE) and still alive at 101. He later broke with the Beats, denouncing them for their celebration of drugs and what he considered an unhealthy interest in fame.

Patchen also had a Vancouver connection. In the 1950’s, he became increasingly interested in jazz-poetry, ie, reciting poetry accompanied by live jazz. The lasting legacy of these performances is a recording he made in Vancouver with a local jazz quartet headed by esoteric musician and performance artist, the legendary Al Neil. Entitled Kenneth Patchen Reads with Jazz in Canada, the recording was released in 1959 by Moe Asch of Folkway Records (yes, that Moe Asch and that Folkway Records). It’s on YouTube, and it’s pretty good. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9W3QN5W8fAA)

Reviewer Mike Wood praised Patchen’s reading and Neil’s musicianship. “Patchen is both relaxed and playful,” he wrote. “Neil’s piano strolls in and among the poet’s lines, each building off the other, hearing each for moments to push the narrative further.” Al Neil died two and a half years ago, at the age of 93. (If you’re interested, this is my take on his remarkable life. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/vancouver-artist-al-neil-followed-his-own-beat/article37322679/)

(Kenneth Patchen, right, with the Al Neil Quartet)

Meanwhile, I can’t help wondering if, during his time in Vancouver, Patchen found time to take in a game at Capilano Stadium…..

 

THE BALM OF POETRY #4 SONNET 21

Shakspeare

As some of you may know, renowned British actor Patrick Stewart has been reading, recording and posting one Shakespearean sonnet more or less every day to help us, in a small way, through the current crisis. The posts are touchingly ordinary. He sits on a couch, balancing a bulky collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets and poems, pages folded back to the right page and occasionally having trouble with his reading glasses. Stewart, of course, is best known for his cameo role as Karla in the excellent BBC production of John Le Carré’s Smiley’s People. He was also involved in a little-known space series, based on the adventures of Globe and Mail health policy reporter, Captain André Picard…

Pushing 80, Patrick Stewart remains the real deal in so many ways. In addition to his imposing, bald-pated presence and commanding tone, he is an outstanding human being, socially progressive on many fronts. Below is one of the sonnets he has read, No. 21. It’s far from the best or most accessible. But I chose this because I liked why Stewart said he was reciting it out of turn, rather than reading Sonnet 20. After spending several hours “wrestling” with its text, he decided the sonnet was not for him. “(It) makes me quite uncomfortable. There is an issue in how he writes about women that I don’t like.” What a guy. I wonder what he thinks of Taming of the Shrew….?

SONNET 21

So is it not with me as with that Muse,
Stirred by a painted beauty to his verse,
Who heaven itself for ornament doth use
And every fair with his fair doth rehearse,
Making a couplement of proud compare
With sun and moon, with earth and sea’s rich gems,
With April’s first-born flowers, and all things rare,
That heaven’s air in this huge rondure hems.
O! let me, true in love, but truly write,
And then believe me, my love is as fair
As any mother’s child, though not so bright
As those gold candles fixed in heaven’s air:
Let them say more that like of hearsay well;
I will not praise that purpose not to sell.

Being no poetic Muse myself , I offer this abbreviated analysis of Sonnet 21, gleaned from others. Shakespeare, it seems, is taking a shot at “that Muse” (likely a rival poet) who goes overboard praising the beauty of his loved one by using clichéd, over-the-top imagery to praise her. None of that for our Will, who vows to speak truly about his love and not praise her/him as some sort of brand to be sold.

I like the reference to “April’s first-born flowers”, which we are seeing right now in our own gardens. And I now know what a “rondure” is. According to the dictionary, it’s “a circular or gracefully rounded object”. So that clears that up. The words and phrasing, as ever, are impeccable.

At the end, Stewart added his own observation of Sonnet 21: “It’s tricky.”

Here’s the video. See for your self. https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=224370521959082

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