Morris entered the busy diner at noon, coughing and agitated. He grabbed a coffee and a ham and cheese on rye, then was beaten to the last empty table by a quartet of skateboarders. Annoyed, he started for the door and around the corner back to work, but spied an open chair across from a man just finishing his soup while reading a book. Perhaps he’d leave soon and Morris could eat his sandwich in peace, away from vulgar idiots at his nine-to-five, or well-dressed soup-sippers with manners and self-assurance.
“Mind if I join you? All the other spots are taken.”
The man paused, tablespoon of minestrone mid-air, while peering over his book. He then glanced about and, after corroborating Morris’ assertion, indicated the chair opposite without a word. He returned to the thin volume, pupils tracking horizontally like the bars on a slow-starting computer.
Morris read Margaret Atwood’s back cover quotation, which shielded the man’s face from further distraction: “I am very pleased to have been able to help with the inception of this important prize. Poetry is at the heart of language; it’s good to see it given the recognition it deserves.”
Peculiar, thought Morris. Why the defensiveness? He remembered similar reverential entreaties from instructors throughout elementary and high school. What put him off was that poetry didn’t need the special treatment. He couldn’t stomach most of it – precious or ill-written – although a few stray lines from those texts still echoed in the distance. What was it Keats said about dying? “To take into the air my quiet breath.”
The man put down his book, arose, and lined up for a pastry.
Morris couldn’t resist. He twisted the rectangle. ‘The Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology. A selection of the 2001 shortlist.’ He read the list of names, then discovered, from the inner flap, that the poets were divided into international and Canadian categories. Was this like the Canadian-born quota for our national football league where half the team had to be homegrown? What if this Don McKay chap was better than the other contestants in the international category? With these and other questions of self-protection snapping in his neocortex, Morris turned to the brief McKay section.
“Now I need a scrap of night to wrap up in and sleep who knows how many eons until something – maybe dotted, maybe ragged, maybe dun – unfolds. Something quick.
Something helpful to the air.”
Something, something, something. Well, if Don McKay doesn’t know what his something – present or future – is about, thought Morris, I’m no more enlightened by the poem than that guy next table reading a sofa ad. I get it. The narrator is yearning. Yearning is good and noble. Well, not always. Not when aspiration, confusion, desire and diversionary hope are mixed up and equitable.
He pushed the slim anthology into its approximately original position before the man spun around with his nanaimo bar. Morris’ series of trailing coughs resembled an old gas lawnmower that wouldn’t fire after many violent cord-yanks.
“You shouldn’t be spreading your germs in public,” said the man.
“I don’t have a cold, it’s nothing contagious. I’m an auto detailer. Lotta paint fumes.”
The man frowned while inhaling first the bar, then a tart.
“You like it?” Morris pointed to the book with an oil-creased finger.
“Yes. It’s not often you get to read Amichai, Celan, Murray, Howe, and our country’s finest between the same covers.”
“Do you write?”
“I teach. At UBC.”
“And you think McKay is one of our best.”
The man pushed back in his chair and smiled. “It’s not just me. He’s widely admired.”
“Could you be specific?”
“You’re into poetry?”
Laughter from both.
“Humour me, Harold.”
“I like McKay because he’s not afraid of approaching nature with personal quirks and levity.”
“Hmm. I don’t know. When I’m in nature, so-called, I lose myself. Where’re these personal quirks then?”
“Losing yourself doesn’t mean your personality vanishes. And the observer is part of nature, too,” said Harold.
“Excuse me, but I couldn’t help but overhear,” said the sofa ad peruser at the next table. “I have to agree with Morris here. McKay once criticized the Romantics by saying they started with contemplating nature, but ended up celebrating the creative imagination itself. Aside from confusing nature and the artifice needed to mirror or distort it – is Picasso to be exempt from his gently poisonous stance? McKay, ironically, is all about landing in those birds’ nests, chirping and twittering about his own possible transformations.”
“McKay’s on Twitter?” asked Morris.
“But surely, Keats is completely consumed by possible transformation in many poems,” said Harold.
“Yes, but the opposites – life and death – are squeezed together, their meaning charged with elation and danger. What, exactly, is transformation, then? May I?”
The sofa ad man then picked up the Griffin anthology and leafed through it before finding a desired poem. “Les Murray’s ‘The Tin Wash Dish’: ‘Lank poverty, dank poverty—’.”
“Whoa, wait a second. I don’t have time for a poetry reading now,” said Harold. “Sorry, but I must be going.”
The reader and Morris prevailed in their requests, however, and sofa man finished his reading with a pleasing combo of stentorian brio and inflective awe.
After scattered applause from the clientele, Harold accepted his book, nodded to both men, and exited.
Morris thanked the reader and returned to work, preoccupied, the scent of the poem seeding his pores: “Rank poverty, lank poverty,/ chafe in its crotch and sores in its hair,/ still a window’s clean if it’s made of air …” »
From subTerrain #66