EXCERPT FROM OCEAN
The harbour didn’t like being held captive by the shadows
of our buildings. We treated it well but still its dorsal fins
weakened and flopped. The tide was nothing more than
a sleepy scratch of water up over rocks
and then a yawn back down. The balls we threw to it
sank. It stopped slurping, it stopped nibbling.
It hardly growled. Some days it looked like a carpet,
other days, a flooded campsite: disks of paper plates,
lipsticked cigarette butts, the wet embers
of our vacations. What was the fun of these skyscrapers
if the only view we had was a petulant body of water?
We bought fish from the market to feed it. The older women
crocheted the most tender dialogue skimmed from our dreams,
carrying afghans by the armload down to its shore.
In this way, they invented nets and managed to catch
the grit of starlight from previous nights. With the right amount
of sugar and boiled darkness, we soon had vats
of a nectar so potent it bubbled. It wasn’t that we got drunk
but forgetful and became so greedy for more, we over-fished
our dreams for their tenderness. When poverty arrived,
we were down to the bones of our talk. If we rubbed
two sticks together, briefly we’d be nourished by the smell
of their wood.
Our elders insisted the ocean was still there.
That we were born with a seed of it and when we spoke,
its waves pressed against our words for a further shore.
But we had let ourselves become sub-divided and suburban,
buckling our talk into seatbelts, mad always for safety.
When had our schedules become the new mountains?
We were doing our best to ignore how grey our memories
were becoming, how stooped and hard of hearing our laughter was.
The ocean, apparently, was right in front of us and we were dropping
like flies. We bought the dried flowertops of our politicians’
explanations. We tuned our radios to the sunsets and downloaded
whalesong overdubbed with protest songs. Our intent was good
but with airbags. The poets rigged antennas to the antique words
of gratitude with a cayenne of the unexpected but we were tired
of the poets, they were chesterfields or they were curtains.
We wanted pure ocean podcast into our veins but tethered
while we slept. We wanted death to be a stranger we’d never have to
give directions to. We consulted the beekeepers infamous
for not getting stung but they were in a meeting with the poets.
We consulted the gamblers but they wanted to see us only to raise us
ten. Our voices were rarely coming home covered in mud anymore.
Filmmakers had started making films of the ocean
in 3D. Scratch and sniff coastal cards were sold
at lottery booths. Material for dresses was cut with the froth
of tide in mind. We had wanted the ocean to be the new
flavour, the new sound. We’d drive for miles to get a glimpse
of it because, let’s face it, it revitalized the part of us
we kept rooting for, that apple seed of energy that defied
multiple choice career options. The ocean had egged the best part
of us on. And it scared us. We never knew what it was thinking
and spent thousands on specialists who could make predictions.
And the predictions always required hard hats and building permits,
furrowed eyebrows and downward trends. Why is it so hard
to trust something that leaps, disappears and then reappears
spouting more light? When had our hearts become badly behaved
dogs we had to keep the screen door closed to? Have you ever run
along its shore, the pant of it coming closer? And that feeling
that yipped inside of you, the Ginger Rogers of your feet, your ability
to not get caught then, yes, get soaked. Didn’t you feel like it was
part of your pack? When it whistled, whatever it is in you
that defies being named, didn’t that part of you perk up?
And didn’t you let it tousle you to the ground,
let it clean between your ears before it left you?
Wasn’t that all right? That it left you? That we all will?
"forty-nine,""fifty-five," and "fifty-six" published in Ocean (Gaspereau, 2013)
Sue Goyette lives in K'jipuktuk (Halifax), the unceded and unsurrendered land of the Mi’kmaq peoples. She has published six books of poems and a novel. Her latest collection is Penelope (Gaspereau Press, 2017). She has been nominated for the 2014 Griffin Poetry Prize and the Governor General’s Award and has won several awards including the 2015 Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia Masterworks Arts Award for her collection, Ocean. Sue teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Dalhousie University.
First they told me
the future would solve
Then they told me
would solve the future.
The present is the world
I’m not allowed there.
They know this.
I begin a string
of letters, picketing
in the babies’ cups
are full of Roundup.
one girl chirps.
"Circles" previously appeared in Conjunctions 73.
Rae Armantrout's book Wobble (Wesleyan, 2018) was a finalist for the National Book Award. A new collection, Conjure, is forthcoming from Wesleyan in Sept. 2020. She was recently interviewed in The Paris Review's "Art of Poetry" series.
They go down to the expressways, baskets
In hand, they go down with rakes, shovels
And watering cans, they go down to pick
Beans and trim tomato plants, they go down
In wide-brimmed hats and boots, passing
By the glass-pickers, the Geiger counters, those
Guarding the toxic wastes. They go down
Remembering the glide of automobiles, the
Swelter of children in back seats, pinching, twitching,
Sand in their bathing suits, two-fours of Molson’s
In the trunk of the car. They go down, past
The sifters, the tunnellers, those who transport
Soil from deep in the earth, and are content
To have the day before them, are content to imagine
Futures they will inhabit, beautiful futures
Filled with unimagined species, new varieties of
Plant life, sustainable abundance,
An idea of sufficient that is global. Or,
Because cars now move on rails underground,
The elevated roads are covered in earth,
Vines drape around belts of green, snake
Through cities, overgrown and teeming
With grackles and rats’ nests, a wall
Of our own devising, and the night
Watchmen with their machine guns
Keeping humans, the intoxicated,
Out. I am sorry for this vision, offer
You coffee, hot while there is still
Coffee this far north, while there is still news
To wake up to, and seasons
Vaguely reminiscent of seasons.
Web-toed she walks into the land, fins
Carving out river bottoms, each hesitation
A lakebed, each mid-afternoon nap, a plateau,
Quaint, at least that is my dream of her,
Big shouldered, out there daydreaming
The world into existence, pleasuring herself
With lines and pauses. How else? What is a lake
But a pause? People circling it with structures, dipping
In their poles? Once she thought she could pass by
Harmless. Scraping wet shale, her knees down in it, she
Tries to remember earth, that ground cover. She tries
To reattach things, but why? What if the world
Is all action? What if thought isn’t glue, but tearing?
She sits at the lake edge where the water never meets
Earth, never touches, not really, is always pulling
Itself on to the next.
Now she sits by her memory of meadow, forlorn, shoeless.
She could scoop PCBs from the Hudson, she is
Always picking up after someone. But what? What
Is the primary trope of this romp? Where her uterus
Was the smell of buckshot and tar, an old man chasing
Her with a shotgun across his range. Cow pies and
Hornets’ nests, gangly boys shooting cats with BB guns,
Boys summering from Calgary, trees hollowed out,
Hiding all manner of contraband goods. When she peers
In the knotted oak, classic movies run on
The hour, Scout on the dark bark, Mildred
Pierce with a squirrel tale wrap. Nature is over,
She concludes. Nature is what is caught, cellular,
Celluloid. She sticks a thumb in another tree, a
Brownstone, a small girl—her heart a thing locked.
It’s been so long since she felt hopeful. (Perhaps nature
Is childhood.) The morning after Chernobyl
Out there with tiny umbrellas. All those internal
Combustions. This is a country that has accepted death
As an industry, it is not news. She has been warned.
Her ratings sag. She scans her least apocalyptic
Self and sees mariners floating, Ben
Franklin penning daily axioms, glasses lifting
From the river bank, planked skirts on Front,
China-like through the industrious, thinking, traffic
Clogged city, its brick heavy with desire for good.
Memory of meadow, Dickinson an ice pick scratching
Wings in her brain: if you see her standing, if you move
Too quickly, if you locate the centre, if you have other
Opportunities, by all means if you have other opportunities.
Abondoned mine shafts on either side, those
Tight curves between Kaslo and New Denver,
Hairpin at glacial creek, splash of red
Bellies muscling, streaming up, we see them
From the open window. Or once did. Even here?
Salmon stocks diminish, mammals dying off.
No, he said, not in your lifetime. Vertical;
Traces where the charge went off,
Ruggedness is your only defence, he
Said, be difficult to cultivate, navigate. Offer
No hint of paradise, no whiff of
Golf course. Uninhabitability your only
Recourse. Lashed, that moment, prolonged
Leaving, her father on the roadside
Dreaming his world fitting in some place,
Without being reigned in, her father’s fathers
Throwing rocks down on Hannibal,
Straddling the last large elm in the valley,
Knowing where and how to lay the charge, or
Sucking shrapnel from an open wound,
The lambs all around, bleating.
Which liftetime? Beyond what brawn? Who
Knew where the road would take us?
Neat, neat, the rows of apple trees
There in the valley, red summers, the heat
Of Quebecois pickers, VWs in a circle,
Firepit and strum. Men from Thetford
Mines dreaming peaches, dreaming
Clean soil. Hour upon hour the self
Becomes less aware of the self.
Beautiful, beautiful, the centre line, the road,
This power station and control tower, these
Weigh scales, these curves, that mountain
Goat, those cut lines, these rail lines, that
Canyon, the Fraser, the Thompson,
The old highways hyphenating
Sagebrush, dead-ending on chain
Link, old cars collecting like bugs
On the roadside, overturned, curled, astute,
Memory of the Overlanders,
Optimism, headlong into
Hell’s Gate. Churn of now,
The sound barriers, the steering
Wheel, the gas pedal, the gearshift,
The dice dangling, fuzzy,
Teal, dual ashtrays, AM radio
Tuned to CBC, no draft, six cylinders,
The gas tank, the gearshift, easing
Into the sweet spot behind
The semi, flying through Roger’s
Pass; the snowplow, the Park
Pass, sun on mud flap, the rest stop
Rock slides, glint of snow, the runaway
Lanes, the grades steep as skyscrapers,
The road cutting through cities,
Slicing towns, dividing parks,
The road over lakes, under rivers,
The road right through a redwood,
Driving on top of cities, all eyes
On the DVD screen,
All minds on the cellphone,
The safari not around, but inside
Us: that which fuels.
No matter, the slither of pavement is endless,
Today the rain, a gold standard, all the
Earmarks of, never mind, all is well, all
Is well, and who doesn’t want to hear that?
She gets on her scooter and roars, she gets
On her skateboard and feels the air under
Foot, she shakes out her hair, thinking of California,
Thinking of allergies, thinking of the wreck
Of place: who ever promised more? The iris
With its feigned restraint, the daring tuba,
The horn of shoe, utilitarian, delicate. Such
Useful domesticity, such hopeful electronics.
Once she disappeared by turning sideways.
Now she finds it difficult to reappear. She lifts
The sediment of time to her palm, feels it sift
Between her fingers: bone, bits of event. Aren’t
We all a bit fluish this century? Nothing bearing any
Mark of otherwise. No prescript, nothing a bit of hope
Won’t cure. Such a churn of optimism:
That which consecrates will not kill. Maybe New York?
She fits herself on an easterly course: been done,
Been done, but what better than the well-trodden
Path? Beautiful, beautiful, the seams
Of the rich, their folded linens,
Their soft bags of money. If it ain’t broke
Don’t fix, if it ain’t resistant, don’t
Wince, if it fits like a boot, then boot it.
And so she does.
Sina Queyras, “Endless Inter-States” from Expressway. Copyright © 2009 by Sina Queyras. Reprinted by permission of Coach House Books.
Source: Expressway (Coach House Press, 2009)
Watch Your Head is an online anthology of creative works devoted to the climate crisis and climate justice.
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