by Bill Arnott
for National Poetry Month, April 2020
A world of poetry. This, I understand. Being witness to stomped-verse haka in Waitangi, the lyrical thrum of Outback didgeridoo, breathy sax in a wet London underpass, red slashed characters on a mud wall in Hebei, tanka blurred through joss smoke in Kyoto, rantings of a street poet in Times Square, the guttural slur of a Greenlandic hymn, and a master’s spoken-word reverberating on old timber, sibilant sea hissing through cracked glass. Musicality of lyrics, prose and rhyme. All of it a poem. Of course we have this here. From a familiar, atmospheric view of three shored coast, mosaic nations bound in part through flag and song. Maybe even Stompin’ Tom, curling and K’naan.
A particular visual stays with me – a midwinter night in the bleak-beauty grit of an urban neighbourhood not in transition. Boarded shopfronts. Needles underfoot. The oddly comforting cacophony of one-sided conversation, solitary souls broadcasting to the world. I took refuge in a pine-walled bookstore, poetry stacks beyond retail rationality. Nothing “picked” by a logo CEO. Just authenticity, accumulating dust.
I was one of the misfits keeping a poetry reading series on life support. Resuscitation by mouth-to-mouth. We’d done a decent job, packing the compact space, a standing-room-only affair. But it was the makeup of the room that warmed me – a national snapshot, LGBTQ2S-indigenous-eurasian rainbow framed in maple leaf red and white. Poets shared their work; spoken-word and storytelling – humour, horror and healing, sentiments of a reconciliatory process, all on unceded land.
I’d read with some of the artists at talking stick festivals – communal meals and moiety heritage bound in poetic verse, part of an impromptu series of cross-country travels I’d undertaken by rail, road, and air. From west coast islands, tent towns and highrise glass through foothills and lowlands, Group of Seven vistas, la belle province and Atlantic, with swathes of taiga and tundra. I envisioned pins thrust in a topographical map, linking this vast home with poetically spun yarn – Crozier, Lane, Warland, Bowering, Zwicky, Birney, Wah, Livesay, Purdy, Atwood, Ondaatje, L’Abbé, Kaur, McCrae, Clarke, Layton, Cohen, Bissett, Koyczan, and Service – a subjective west-east-north 2020 twenty. Memories of the journey remain, scribbled in all-weather journals with greasy grey waterproof pencil:
The stammering of a young poet, first time before a mic, reading work she’d never dared to share until that moment, seeing dimmed light begin to brighten.
At the bear-footed base of a squat cedar totem, witnessing raw anger dissolve through cadence of rap – half lisped, half screamed.
Embraces at a grief-filled reading, mourning children none of us had known, tears binding strangers.
The dissolution of a stuffy conference as one hundred suits explode in diaphragm laughter, ennui of P&L statements replaced with rhymed couplets and play.
The jarring joy of off-tempo clapping to accompany layered song – a round – young and old rising from seats, swaying to sung words, improvised druidic dance.
Rail wheels on steel – binding borders, the pain of history – pine-tar ties unending lines of open-end verse.
A community centre, the essential untuned piano, mismatched chairs in a lopsided oval. Type-written pages (type written!) read in the warble of vulnerability. An RN’s hand-painted A4 accompanies work-based ekphrasis – her experience – sonnets of death and syringe.
Home of a late-life painter, nestled in deciduous, the warmth of her ghost a welcome, coaxing craft at the threshold.
A gallery popped into being, ground level attic of art, canvassed acrylic with plastic cups of red.
Low-ceilinged library, upstairs and echoey, where a scowling stone bust spends life on a sill, disapproving of everything.
Watercolour shades that can only be learned through a life of repression, removed.
The rubbery hum of whitewalls on asphalt – mile after potholed mile – biblical wheat-belt storms, antenna scratch of CBC, jigs and reels strung and spun on watered roads and harbour towns where every chantey’s sung alongside psalms.
At the opposite end from where I began, I ate lobster, ripped into buttery chunks in a roll and listened to an O’Brien sing his poems – meter of four-four, concrete-mixer baritone of early Sunday, the gravelled pitch of poets on the road. Somewhere in that onshore breeze, a whiff of salinated Heaney. From a dark lacquered high-top I glimpsed a great big sea, home of the same-named band. It would be seven months and seven thousand kilometers in the other direction before I’d meet the man named Alan who hailed from that compact bend of coastline, shifting his poetry from lyrics to prose, transnational poetry set to bodhrán.
I read the work of one of the Daves I know, another lyricist metamorphosing poetry to prose in winged hardback, a musician journalist traversing dotted-lined bitumen stitching our land in a quilt. Each of us nodding to a bald young man from Kingston, singing, dying, and pleading our first minister to change what’s wrong. Once more I stood in a room of strangers, watching the CBC, silently crying as a poet gave his all, a nation grieving innocence and youth real time.
My journey wound down in a tiny room in a tiny town. I drank weak coffee and listened to a grab bag of wide-eyed youth, odds stacked against them in more ways than any of us could conceive, each of them writing with unabashed adolescence. Later, in a university, I heard a doctor write in the voice of the dead, scant weeks before he learned of his pending demise. And in a pocket of lakes I read the stilted verse of a young mom, optimism of new life, here, in a world we too easily discount. Hope remains in our midst, the cling of rudimentary organisms, determined and eternal. It’s too simple to write of doom, Orwellian views of razor-wired towers and endless sweep of searchlight. We know better. Sure, our shores recede as seas encroach and livability wanes in its inconceivably juxtaposed connection to GNP while Janus looks the other way. But like a new, incessant weed, a blade of grass appears, breaks through broken concrete, certain that this world is good. In poetry we persevere, the best way we know how. Through written, spoken words we share in rhyme and verse and song. A world of poetry. This, I understand.
Vancouver author, poet, songwriter Bill Arnott is the bestselling author of Gone Viking: A Travel Saga, Dromomania, and Allan’s Wishes. His Indie Folk CD is Studio 6. Bill Arnott’s Beat appears in magazines and literary journals. Bill’s work is published in Canada, the US, UK, Europe and Asia. Bill’s received poetry prizes with honorable mention and is a Whistler Independent Book Awards Finalist with Gone Viking: A Travel Saga. @billarnott_aps