Category Archives: poems

sidewalk

Sidewalk. Just side and walk. A place to the side where you may walk. Something concrete to put your feet on, a safe lane whereon vehicles will not pass (you hope).

Streets didn’t use to have sidewalks. They were for walking on, and for riding horses on and pulling carriages on if you could make your way. Nobody went a whole lot faster than anyone else, generally. And much of the time it was all dirt and mud, and “mud” often meant what was left behind by the horses.

When it first appeared, in the 1600s, sidewalk meant a minor lane or path off to the side of a main one. We might call those alleys and side streets now. By the early 1700s it was also used to mean a raised pavement alongside the carriageway. And outside of North America, pavement is still the term commonly used for what Canadians and Americans call a sidewalk. But where I’m from, pavement is what’s on the streets – meaning where the cars drive, the asphalt – while the concrete on the sides is a sidewalk.

Which tells us that the foot-passers, the people walking and running and sometimes wheeling in wheelchairs and scooters, everyone who is not going forth clad in two or three tons of metal – a rigid, awkward mobility suit that takes up more than fifty times the space of the person in it (and most of the time it is just one person at a time) – is off to the side: peripheral, accessory, less important, less vital. 

In dense traffic, a city block can fit about 40 cars, which will typically hold about 50 people. The sidewalk can hold hundreds moving smoothly without collision. But our heavy expensive devices are our empires of the mind. No matter that every car must park sooner or later and the person inside go walking; no matter that streets were made for walking before they were given to cars. Walking is off to the side. It’s where you meet and pass people, where people ask you for money and directions, where you go into and out of stores, where you see the weather and the birds and the buildings close up and in detail. It’s where you truly encounter the concrete. But it’s off to the side now, and going-somewhere-else, insulated in a big expensive box, is the rule.

I’ve been thinking recently, for some reason, about a poem I wrote in 2007. It’s really why I decided to taste this word sidewalk today. Here it is.

A patch of sidewalk speaks

Well, I was
a rock, yes,
I did that thing
for a few million years.
It was fun, it had
a certain solidity,
and you know how
people think of rocks.
It was good.
But things change.
And I’m not willing
to say it was not
for the better, or it was
somehow not good;
I think I’ve been opened
to a whole new set 
of experiences:
soles, paws, 
tires, papers.
Where I was before,
those trees, that grass, 
the other rocks, 
they can be peaceful, 
but it loses its attraction.
Now every hour brings
thousands of new 
fascinations.
And I have new friends, 
we’re all in this together,
a lot of us who
did the rock thing back when
(though it doesn’t seem
so long ago, in
the grand scheme of things).
And I’m not kidding
myself, I won’t be
a rock again.
So I have to accept it.
But things change.
What’s not to like?

lutarious

From Latin lutarius, from lutum, ‘mud’. As the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, lutarious means “inhabiting mud.” Wiktionary (like others) expands the definition a bit: “of, pertaining to, or like, mud; living in mud.” But both agree the word is obsolete.

As though living in mud, being like mud, sheer muddiness of nature and dwelling, mind and body, were obsolete. As though the world were not a big ball of wet dirt.

Here’s a poem.

lutarious

I am lutarious, I
like fresh wet soil under my
fingernails, between my toes,
squishing in and out of my pores.

You like it clean and dry,
the dust, the rocks, blue sky,
hard, and whispering of death,
no muck, no suck, no breath.

You scorn my wormsome ways,
streambeds, puddles, bays,
ooze, nematodes, cnidaria,
as though you contained no bacteria.

But in a millennium or two,
when they find mummified you,
your face like a parchment scroll
unchanged and unread in your hole,

I’ll be dissolved, remixed,
reborn, remade, unfixed,
untraceable, fungible, teeming
with living and loving and dreaming.

exit

Exeō, exīs, exit, exīmus, exītis, exeunt: I go out, thou goest out, she or he or it goes out, we go out, you go out, they go out. From ex ‘out’ and  ‘I go’ et cetera. “Exit rex”: “The king goes out.” 

Technically, our English noun exit comes from the Latin noun exitus, and our verb exit comes in turn from our noun, so Latin exit went from being a verb to being a noun exitus, then went out into English and again became exit and then came back to being a verb.

Latin for ‘goes in’ is init, by the way. And Latin for ‘comes out’ is ēvenit, and Latin for ‘comes in’ is invenit.

Here’s a poem.

Exit

Let us go out
as the green of the leaves goes out
and the red and yellow come out
and the warm summer sun goes out
and the morning frosts come out

Let us go out in it
while the letters go out
and the news comes out
and summer fashions go out
and new books come out

Let us go out and invent events
and watch the people come out
and watch the money come in
until the word goes out
and the furniture goes in

Let us get up, get out, go out
once we’ve found something to go in
and someone to ask us to come in
and as the moon comes out we will go in
and find what flavours friendship comes in

And then we will at last go out
as the night comes in
and the moon comes out
and all wintering beasts go in
and one last light goes out.

selenotropic

This word seems so serene and tropical – and it is, in its way. It is from Classical Greek σελήνη seléné ‘moon’ (also the name of the moon goddess: Σελήνη) and τροπος tropos ‘turning’, and it means ‘turning to the moon’. It is used technically of plants that follow the cold mottled white orb of the night in its celestial transit, but all humans (and not just on tropical nights) – and especially all poets – do it too.

The noun from which selenotropic is derived, selenotropism, was confected by M.C. Musset in 1883 following an experiment (read his short summary) in which he raised plants in darkness and then exposed them to moonlight to see if they would follow it, and they did.

I’ve written a poem on this theme. While you read it, why not listen to Claude Débussy playing his own Clair de Lune, recorded on piano roll, inspired by Paul Verlaine’s poem of the same name?

You can read Verlaine’s poem in the description on the video, if you click through to YouTube. Here is mine:

selenotropic

Did you turn to the moon?

After sprouting in shadow,
after you grew in darkness,
grew slender, long, sun-starved,
grew leaves and tendrils knowing
no warmth, no joy, no mist,
no riot of birds, no bee-kiss,
nothing to trample or eat you,
nothing to touch or greet you,

after one warm hand took you,
after your captor exposed you,
exposed you to glass, to sky,
exposed you to whispers, to watching
your stems, your terminal buds,
your eyes, your fingers of blood
wanting the sun, the rain,
wanting the wings, the pain,

did you pull at your roots,
did you lean to see
what this lover was,
what this almost-light—
not sun, not day, not bulb,
not flame, not lightning flash—
wanted, running and sinking,
wanted behind the mountain?

Did you, in all your paleness,
did you, in never-green,
in your concavities,
in your internal cause,
know then that you were seen,
know then that you were named,
and glow with unowned light,
and grow, and shine, and fade?

Did you turn to the moon?

chirocracy

Today, another poem, a triolet. The word that inspires it, chirocracy, is from Greek χείρ kheir (cheir) ‘hand’ and κρατία kratia ‘power rule’; the chir is the same as in chiropractor, with a “hard” ch and an i like “eye,” but the stress is on the o as in democracy. It literally means ‘rule by hand’, but it doesn’t mean just any hand; it means strong-handed rule, rule by force. The sole citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1677 History of the Government of Venice, and it uses an older style of spelling: “It might rather have been called Chirocratie, all things being managed by Violence and Tumult.”

chirocracy
The strong hand breaks all that resists.
Force, might, and will soon overcome.

Your sticks and eggs and bricks and fists
the strong hand breaks. All that resists
is one smooth stone, which still persists
serenely as the grip grows numb.

The strong hand breaks. All that resists
force might—and will soon—overcome.

Tellus, telluric, tellurian

Tellus is a Roman goddess of the earth (yes, goddess in spite of being -us), and is earth personified, because earth is tellus. You may know our planet as terra, but that comes (it seems) from tersa tellus, ‘dry earth’ – yes, terra is not related to tellus but is from a word meaning ‘dry’. Tellus traces back to Proto-Indo-European *telh₂-, also source of Irish talamh (‘ground’) and Hindi तल tal (‘bottom, floor’). Adjectives relating to earth include tellurian and telluric; the element tellurium makes an ion, telluride, and from gold telluride we get the name of the Colorado town Telluride.

It deserves a poem.

Tell us, mother Tellus, come,
tell your rich telluric tale;
I’ll lay my ear upon your earth,
I’ll ground myself and I’ll be ground,
so I will understand your story
when I lie under your understorey.
Tell your intelligence, tellurian tellings
of talus and tells and tillings and deltas,
sediments, sentiments, humus and humours
and transhumant humans in tents and tenements,
and anthills, Antilles, and atolls, all told
with dust and mud and minds and mouths:
moors and mountains, tuff and tuffet,
repeated in peat and petroglyph.
Take me in your rootbound whole:
I will lie to find your truth,
for I have felt your fallow field,
I’ve been cradled in your rocks,
deposited in river banks,
turned a pirouette in your
terpsichorean petrichor.
Let me dig you, till you, Tellus,
till you take me as a seed
seen sown in sod to plan my root
so that leaves growing in relief
may let all nose all that transpires
in tellurian eternal turns.
Tellus mother, tell us, then
take our tales to you again.

apartment

I grew up in houses, which are about as apart as a dwelling place can be, especially when they’re far out in the country with no one else in sight. Now my wife and I live in the city, so far downtown that downtown is up, with people living all around us, hundreds of them even within wifi radius, and somehow the space we have walled off for us in the middle of all that is an apartment. You’d think they might call the whole building a togetherment, but no. Well, each unit is its own little world, set apart from all the others, except for the noise that leaks through the ceiling, floor, and wall from those on the other side.

Anyway, here’s a poem, in fairly free verse.

 

Come in, welcome, let me
show you around. This
is the front door closing behind you and
this is the front closet, where
we keep a thousand pounds
of coats, but half of that
weight is dust and dead bugs.
If you push to the back of the closet,
far beyond the jumbled
stack of suitcases and tubes
of awkward wrapping paper, and step
where no foot has set in a decade
and shove through the fabric, you
will enter a different world—
of dead bugs and dust and wall.
And the stacks of boxes will all
collapse behind you and bury you.
Don’t go in there. Come.

Ahead is the door to the bedroom,
where you do not belong. This way.

Here is the guest toilet, with the tap
that is easy to use, except
if you are that one person for whom
it will always fall apart suddenly.
The walls in here are red, as red
as fresh blood, and I recommend
that if you shut the door, you
keep your eyes shut too. No,
we didn’t paint it that colour;
it was the previous owners.

Here is the hall and here
is a cute door that you must
never open, because—wait—no—
oh, ha ha, just kidding, it’s
our washer and dryer. Moving on.

Ahead is a view of the city,
as much of it as you can see,
which is about three blocks, because
all the other buildings
around us are taller. But
if you just press your face
against the window, you
can see the tower. Wait.
Here, this is paper towel
and this is Windex. Please
remove the greasy faceprint
you’ve just made on the glass.

Through that sliding door is
the little solarium, which
is small and contains nothing
that would interest you, just
cameras and boxes and boxes
and chairs and papers. The walls?
Oh, yes, you see that they
are murder red as well. Guess why.
Yes, the previous owners. Move
on, don’t bother, don’t touch that.

You are in the dining room.
You can see that it is part
of the same amorphous space
that is most of the dwelling;
we arbitrarily divide it
into nominal rooms,
each a part apart of apartment,
like Europe divided from Asia or
work time from happy time or
joy from terror, pet
from meat, head from neck.
Oh, now you’ve stepped
out of the dining room. Oh,
now you’re back in. Do you see?
Imagine a line from this shelf
to this liquor cabinet that
is next to my desk here. Look,
this matters. You should always
be able to say where you are. Here,
have a drink. Step this way.

And here, as you pass between
the computer desk Charybdis
and the Scylla of chaise longue,
is the library, so called
because obvious reasons.
Here, sit down, have a chair
that I’ve dragged from the dining room
to set your drink on. Good.
Sit on the chaise longue. No,
you can’t sit on the big
baseball-glove-shaped chair.
Why? It’s mine. Sit. Drink!
The wall? Behind the books? You
can see it? Oh. No, heh, that
was the previous owners.

Sorry, I don’t know. We still
get mail for them, all these
dozen or so years later. Huh.

As you can see from your seat
on the chaise longue, over here
is the kitchen: where the magic
happens. No, no, stay there.
Yes, iron pan, yes, fridge, yes,
knives, only the best, you know,
and behind all those jars are jars.
No. Stay there. You can hear me
well enough as I cook.
There is one thing you should know
about my kitchen, and that is
stay out.

Say, if you’re getting bored
with the view of my three thousand books
while I whip up dinner for you,
here’s a special treat:
let’s go see the view
from the bedroom window. No, really.
It’s OK. I’ll go with you.

Why is that door open?
Yes, still the washer and dryer.

Here is the bedroom, and as
you can see, it is facing the other
way. Ignore those books. Yes,
there is a bed under all that.
Here is the window. See? There
is the island, and the tracks,
and the freeway, and the holes
in which they are going to put
more huge buildings. Yay.
In there is the master
bathroom, but wait, no,
don’t look, it’s, no, wait,
no, you don’t, ah, no, well,
yes, as you can see, there is
a shower and a separate tub,
and some shelves and dust and a sink
and, oh, that wall? Sorry, that
was the previous owners. Now
do come have a sit
and let me refresh your drink
and I’ll go cut some things.

snidge, snudge

A snidge is a greedy, miserly person. You can almost hear it, can’t you? The sniffly nasal “sn” and the incisor-biting “idge” – it’s a word that could be muttered sotto voce.

Where does this word come from? It’s an altered version of snudge, which also means a miser, but can also be a verb meaning either ‘be miserly’ or ‘walk in a stooped manner, looking down’ (and possibly also some meanings relating to snug, depending on the dictionary you look in). And where does snudge come from? The historical record is keeping that to itself.

Here’s a poem, for sharing.

Neither hoard your affections nor snudge,
For no int’rest accrues to the snidge,
But fortune and love hold a grudge
To curmudgeons who seek to abridge

And store sweets in their hearts like a fridge.
Oh, the courts of the courting will judge
Those whose love-bug’s as pinched as a midge.
Neither hoard your affections nor snudge—

Take touches and winks as a nudge:
Love’s coinage is nothing to gnidge,
For no treasure was found by a drudge,
And no int’rest accrues to the snidge.

(You may remember from my poem on tregetour that gnidge means ‘rub, squeeze, press’.)

plummet

A plummet, as you may know, is a little bit of lead (hence the name: from plumb, from Latin plumbum ‘lead’, plus diminutive –et) used to weight a line for sounding depths or determining vertical. It is also a word for a stick of lead for writing with. We have had the noun since the 1300s. The verb plummet first (in the early 1600s) meant to use a plummet to sound the depth of water; more recently (from the mid-1800s) it has meant to fall precipitously – like a plummet being dropped, I guess. It has nothing to do with plums… except when they fall from the tree, of course.

Here is a poem. I hope it goes down well. Continue reading

ranticle

The other day, while playing Scrabble, I saw that I could play the word RANTICLE… if only it were a word. Well, I want it to be a word. And obviously it’s a canticle that’s a rant, or a rant that’s a canticle. Or maybe it’s just a little rant. Whatever. Here is a ranticle for you! (Click on the audio above to hear me sing it.)

Here’s to the people you see every day
Who stop on the sidewalk, ignoring the fray,
In ones, twos, and sixes, and get in the way:
Watch what you do! What’s wrong with you!

Here’s to the chuckers of trash on the street,
Of wrappers and cigarettes under your feet,
Who think it’s for others to keep the world neat:
Watch what you do! What’s wrong with you!

Here’s to the grammar creeps stuck on correct
Who pounce on each error they chance to detect
But treat fellow humans with zero respect:
Watch what you do! What’s wrong with you!

Here’s to the journalists, eager for story,
Who haunt the bereaved any time it turns gory,
And zoom in on tears of the upset and sorry:
Watch what you do! What’s wrong with you!

Here’s to the drivers, lead foot on the gas,
Who hang on your bumper, so eager to pass
That if you slowed down they’d ram right up your… tailpipe:
Watch what you do! What’s wrong with you!

Here’s to the whiners who always protest
When some inequality might be redressed
And by “common sense” mean they get to be best:
Watch what you do! What’s wrong with you!

Here’s to the thoughtless, whatever their station,
In things of the neighbourhood and of the nation,
Who can’t spare two seconds for consideration:
Watch what you do! What’s wrong with you!