We went north to the Athabasca, to the place the ferry
used to cross outside Blue Ridge. That time I was a child,
taken by my mother and my grandmother,
the day dark after rain, the air like crystal but the sky opaque,
the ferry swung out wildly in the current, yanked and shuddered, the cable
taut and straining. But that other afternoon, there was sun,
late summer, and a new bridge, swallows
packing mud up to their tenements, a long unbroken line of them
under the railings either side. We crossed
and took the turn a half mile on and bumped back
through the trees towards the north bank. Beer cans,
condoms, scattered blackened sticks. The warm light, northern, slanting,
filtered through the poplars. Chickadees and kinglets. Two cottonwoods
had grown huge, they’d become great trees: six feet around and one
at least a hundred high. Rare in Alberta. They made me
think of Europe, and that made me think
of how I’d thought of Europe as a child: a place of spaciousness
and shade, of nuance without malice, justice without carnage,
that there might be peace and wit and ease, how I’d wanted
what I’d never seen, what I had no word for,
style, and I glimpsed the poverty of how I’d lived,
how everyone I’d known had lived, but what I see now
is how deadly that wish was, not to be lost. Those cottonwoods,
it was twenty years ago, there’ve been bad floods. Not old
if they’d been oaks but still, the fierce inconsequence
of beauty, that hard tug underneath the breastbone as we’re swung out
in the current, the cutbank steep above us, pocked with swallow holes,
the sharp edge of the mountain air, shadows
Wind hurls itself through the streets
on some terrible mission. Best not
to look. Down in the basement,
it’s cool; you can’t hear the glass.
Late nights in the boiler room of the spirit,
our bad conscience like that cough
we won’t take to the doctor.
Floors of locked hallways above us.
We could automate, you know. No need
for solitaire. Imagine
the freedom: when the weather’s good enough,
picnics in the scorched weeds, they’ll
rope off the jellyfish at the beach.
We’ll stride from the waves,
plastic flecking our hair
been in love with men:
of the lover
who never had a name. The one
you never told about,
although you loved him
as no other.
Perhaps he was your brother,
or the lover of your sister.
Perhaps he was the boy
whom, had your father known,
he would have killed.
Think on him now:
that boy, that man.
How you went to him,
and how he entered you.
And is he dead? Is he
married to another?
Perhaps he left
and no one heard from him
again. But if he came to you once more,
my sisters — dead,
or old, or married to another —
what would startle in your eyes?
Would it be joy,
Hold the ghost inside you
to the light, my sisters,
say to him, This is my life
and what my life
became. Yes, what my life becomes still,
thanks to you.
Poems copyright © Jan Zwicky.