The Valley

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all those years after Vimy Ridge
after Amiens and Passchendaele
and all the other hellish places
where by rights he should have
died with his comrades of
the Fighting Twenty-Fifth
L Cpl Harry Lee Blaikie
of Truro, Nova Scotia
sitting in a suit on
long afternoons in our living room
when church was done
legs crossed, tie clip rising and
falling with each shallow breath
of the White Owl cigar that
burned oh so slowly in his right hand
the smoke as low as his voice
talking with my father
of the car and lumber business
of the garage and mill and stock market
and the weather, always the weather
when all else failed, as if that alone
could affirm the bond between them
a code for everything left unspoken
how hot it was, how cold, and
‘minds me of the time in Burnside’
or ‘those winters in the woods’
the two of them turning in unison
to stare at the pale curtain window
and my mother serving tea
and sweets on good china plates
with pleasantries
and never a word of the war
on any occasion in all those years
not even second hand from my father
and thus I knew my uncle not
but the quiet man with the town cigar
and the pale blue eyes
behind thin-rimmed glasses
and the good felt hats and pastel cars
it was not until he was very old
and near death himself that he finally
spoke - to the paper - of the gas
the mud and shells
machine gun bullets
the stench and din of the trenches
horrors that even then he could
scarcely bring himself to mention
you did what you had to do, he said
I shot at people - my uncle
backing out the laneway into the dusk
gone like the wars we never knew

© 2012


Some things are never true,
like finding god.
Some things become true over time,
like finding god approximately,
and some things are true from
the exact moment they hit the earth,
like Johnny Cash’s voice
in I walk the line. It still
fills my head in the same way
it crackled from the old black radio
in my father’s kitchen
the same hard box that said
JFK was shot and
Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston.
That radio was true
but not as true as Johnny Cash
in I walk the line.
Nothing was ever just that true again.


Alden Nowlan came close
and he’s not finished yet,
though he’s been dead since 1983.
I still hear his post-cancer voice
- like truck bolts falling down
a pipe at night - true in a
hoarse and rattling way.
Poems could have hidden in there
whether he wrote them down or not.
I hardly dared turn when he passed
in the Telegraph-Journal news room,
too shy to ask for autographs
of the books I bought at
the little store on King Street.
If truck drivers ever read poetry, he said,
they would start with his.
I never drove a truck but
that line runs through his poems.


When Alden sat with John Diefenbaker
in the basement of the Hartland Observer
in the 1950s
and listened to the great man
read his own words aloud
from a back issue of the newspaper,
I think he saw what I did
many years later on Parliament Hill,
a vainglorious trembling man
with a handshake like a shark’s mouth
and eyes so blue they drained the sky.
Dief was his own god
and everything else was props -
one Canada, roads to resources,
the buffalo head in his office.
He was riveting - I’d pay to
watch him in the Commons again
but he was a man with no pure line.

© 2011


Why is it I feel shame
for small things long ago?
Things I have not even done?
I stumbled on a neighbor
in the woods, saw the blood
upon the moss and heard a
strangeness in his voice.
I knew at once he had
shot a deer out of season,
the carcass barely dead
somewhere close
in the under brush.
He sat on his tractor,
gripping the wheel and stared
at the gun in my hands.
“Seen any partridge?” he asked,
and I felt the ice in his eyes.
“Not yet,” I said, and turned
toward the abandoned farm,
almost ran down the path
through the fragrant fir
and birches. And still,
after all this time, the man
long dead in his grave,
those eyes burn after me.

© 2011

Stray dog

I did not see
but I could hear
hundreds of yards away
the precise moment
that the farmer next door,
– a big man who also
kicked his cows as
they lumbered home
at evening, great beasts
with swaying udders, and
struck them with sticks
for passing too slowly
through his wooden gate –
I knew the moment
he bragged of later in
his rough cigarette voice
at the Co-op Store
when he poured
raw turpentine onto
the anus of that
small stray dog
and sent it shreiking
through the field,
howling as though its
very skin had been torn
from its flesh, the sound
so scalding I still hear it
fifty years later and
still see that crazed
creature hurling itself
down the thistled slope
toward the river.

© 2011

The pilgrim

I see my father walking
in dusty boots from the mill
through piles of golden lumber
row on row in the butter light
of evening below the church,
and the air is cool and
tinged with words that flow
as fish in summer currents
and seep to the dark embrace
of the earth beneath his feet.
Love is patient love is kind
unto the hills amazing grace
for now and ever more amen.
I breathe the scent
of strawberries in a field
and salt on red rut roads
and hear hymns that flit
on swallow wings
to waiting nests against
the weathered barn.
This is where I learned
that truth is fluid and
sings along the hydro wires
from pole to silent pole
and winters with the geese
and lovely butterflies
and never wears a ring
or agrees to glint on
anything but bottles cast
by pilgrims into ditches
on their way to Santiago.
And my father was a pilgrim
in this village where he
wandered through his days
and he never knew a morning
that was old or came to
evening with an empty bowl.

© 2010

The ritual

On Christmas Eve
my father got his axe
and we walked out the road
to the woods where we
searched along the brook
for not one but two
evergreen trees
and cut them down and
carried them home.
Thus the ritual began.
The first, always
a little rough
and less pleasing,
was presented first,
my father propping it up
by the window
in the living room
for my mother and
sisters to inspect.
they circled it
like birds from the sky
until one by one
the flaws began to appear
- a thin spot here,
a poor limb there,
too spindly on the top -
and a consensus was
swiftly reached that
this tree would not do,
whereupon my father with
a certain practiced sadness,
carried it back outside
and waited just a little
before returning
with the second.
It never failed.
Invariably it was
deemed a big
improvement on the first
and granted wide approval,
some years
judged so highly that it
was still being praised
on New Year’s Day
when the lights were taken down
and the tinsel was put away
and we pitched it out
with the first one
on the snow behind the barn.

© 2007

November’s song

The American hunters
came from Boston when
the skies were gray and
the leaves were gone
from the maples,
jolly men in red hats
and plaid shirts who
drove new ‘cahs,’
smoked Camel cigarettes
and threw strange
bottles into the ditches.
They shot deer with rifles
that rang from the hills and
reverberated over the corn fields.
We stood in our tracks
and counted the blasts
until the last trace
of the last echo
died in the darkened spruces.
We never saw, we only heard.
Then followed the ceremony
of rum and ropes at the camps,
and the strapping of carcasses
to the hoods of
Buicks and Fairlanes
for the pilgrimage
home to New England.
We counted the points
on the antlers
when they stopped for gas
at the corner store,
praising the bucks
and praising the does,
sharing the happy laughter.
The fur was rough, close up,
no longer sleek.
We stared at eyes
that stared back at us,
and the blood already hard
on the shining fenders.

© 2009

Keeping the faith

We could spot the
Jehovah’s Witnesses when
they turned the corner
at the Otterbrook Road
and stopped at the end
of the laneway to let
the children out as decoys.
They always knocked
at the wrong door
and my father would usually
send them packing before
they got the Watchtower out.
There were no fundamentalists
in those days except
Billy Graham on television
and even he was suspect,
asking for money
from Minneapolis.
There was only the
United Church then;
even the Baptists seemed
extinct, remembered only by
the cemetery beyond the hall
where the grass was
rarely mowed.
There were no Jews
of course and
hardly any Catholics
though it was understood
that Ray, who lived with us,
and worked at the mill, was
a good man, if divorced,
and unable to marry Hilda,
the nurse he went to see on
Saturday nights in Truro,
all eyes watching as
he donned a dark felt hat and
drove his great blue mercury
out the laneway and
down the gravel road.

© 2007

The mill

The day Tom Fulton
cut off his thumb off
at the trimmer saw
I knew the mill was
a dangerous place.
I saw the look on
my mother’s face when
she heard the news,
and for days the tale
was told of fishing the
stub from the sawdust
and taking it with him
to the hospital - for all
the good it did.
Tom soon returned
to the dinner table but
the bandages bulged for
weeks on his hand
and the stump stayed
red and angry as long
as I lived at home and
sat in the chair beside him,
and there were other tales
from other mills like the one
in Queens County where
a sawyer caught his shovel
on a flywheel and
the handle drove
the teeth through
the back of his head.
My father was a sawyer
and I thought of that,
waiting for the whistle
at closing time as he
removed his leather apron
black with balsam
and shovelled the
sawdust from the place
he stood all day behind
the whirling saw.

© 2008

I saw no prejudice
when I was growing up.
There was no one
in the village to be
prejudiced against,
unless it was
and thankfully
none of those ever
showed at the mill.
Yet well into the sixties,
after James Meredith
went to Ole Miss,
after Rosa Parks
was jailed and
Hattie Carroll died,
after Bull Connor loosed
the dogs and hoses,
and Martin Luther King
raised up his dream
in Washington,
after all these things,
Halifax still had
an Africville and
The Island remained
a part of Truro,
and they still sold
nigger balls
three for a penny
at the Co-op store.
No one gave it
a second thought.
We bought them, ate them,
grinned our licorice grins
and went back for more.

© 2009

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