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Three Poems by Michael Harris

Diving Man

The Gamekeeper

The salmon is still
in the noiseless black; she was quick-silvered
                   star to the ship whose hull
         has sunk below the bottom of the lake.
                   The weeds stand stiff
in the shivering dark, and the gamekeeper’s gone
 
whose bears are now shadows
long done with their powers
                   in the mud-and-cold land.
         The vixen’s neat paws print
                   the news in black stars
but the secret’s gone quick
                   and dug deeper. Autumn’s hold
                has been broken
a million times over
and it’s snowing.
 
The bright hummingbirds flew
         to find their hearts in
         a frenzy, for the sky was a flower
that had lost its center
                   and the swarms in the air
were snow. Now they know all there is to know
of dark. And the gamekeeper’s gone
 
whose crow’s a tattoo
at the top of a tree, losing his grip
         at the too-thin tip
of the cold that is pricking him bare.
                   He thinks war
and it’s war though the summer’s surrendered
         and raised its white flag
a million times over
and it’s snowing.
 
Now the waddling porcupine’s swaying his quills
         all at sea in the swaddle
                   of his winter fat;
he is slow in the sudden
         and no match at all
                   for the silk and soft skins
of winter. He chews bark,
for the gamekeeper’s gone
 
whose snakes took green with them
         and wove it in a bundle
                   and buried it under a rock,
for the earth had stopped in tatters
         and lay down dead-white
                   dead-skinned, belly-up
and not right. Then the wind coiled hugely,
         struck and coiled and shed its white
a million times over
and it’s snowing.
 
Plump rats and grey weasels channel blindly
         their fright, clawing squealing
at their tunnels: to core them, seal them, escape
         from the light, from the ache
of a world wide with snow; but their black brains
are caught, are furnaced with the spark:
the gamekeeper’s gone
 
whose starving, still hopeful, pure panic of deer
         tiptoe the brittle-twigged landscape to silence
to a deadhalt
at the appletree; and the appletree’s victory stays
                   stiff-necked, full of thrash
in its iron-bare head of black antler,
in the slow-moving barrens of its branches
                   where the sky falls to pieces
sinking deeper and deeper
a million times over;
 
and it’s snowing on the otter
whose eye is a film of ice.
It whispers blessing the shivering field-mouse
whose heaven is black with snow.
It is snowing on the hare
whose fur is a layer of winter.
It falls against the houses,
against the drinkers in the bars,
a million times over. The gamekeeper’s gone.
 
The fields harden fast
around their stone.


The Cupboard is Bare

i.m. A.C

We have gone into the poet’s house and found the kitchen bare.
Not a mouse-turd of comma, not one peppercorn full-stop.
He is bankrupt of the wherewithal to hear the penne drop.
 
Gone the moths that flew like muses when he burned the midnight oil.
Gone the sunlit daily bread of books on the windowsill,
the tongue-loosening whisky of company come for a meal.
 
Gone the bouillabaisse of gossip. The manly meat of talk.
Not a simile left to dog us, nor any metaphoric cat. All his passion
cobwebbed in the corner. All our pleasure dust on the floor.
 
Elsewhere midwives tend to their glistening aubergines;
jewellers’ pomegranates gleam in a ruby of grenadine.
Cauliflowers blanch under the neurosurgeons’ care: but here –
 
not a fork to poke nor a knife to slice nor a cleaver to cut things out.
Not a skewer in the drawer to string them back together.
Not a draught of thought left anywhere
 
but it’s gone down the kitchen sink.
Gone back to Scotland, to cold rock and bare hill
and pibrochs full and emptier than the grave.
 
The table’s an empty altar
with its supplicant of chair,
when the cupboard is bare.


The Swimmer

They abandoned their houses, the people of Troon,
in 1950, on the 4th of June, in the one hour of sunlight,
that one day a year when the wind went back
to Iceland whence it came.
The water itself was calm as the sea
in some postcard that relatives sent from away.
And there on the street a band of pipes-and-drums
for all the world walking their leisurely, steadily
marching walk, down the long road by the bend of the sea,
down by the seaside and into the square.
Elspeth Morrison met me there.
 
I was five, she was ten. It didn’t matter then
she was plump as a pudding and stuttered when she talked.
I held her hand. We followed the band.
 
From the beach you could see the municipal pool
with its high-diving tower above the stone wall,
over families on blankets with jam tarts and tea,
over children building castles with seashells and sand,
over Mrs. Finlay’s youngest stuffing seaweed down his pants.
 
Beside my own folks in deckchairs and rugs,
an old man sitting at the edge of the pool,
his teeth and a cake of soap nested neatly on his towel,
his blue wool trunks secured by a length of string
and a knot held fast by collective prayer.
Other elders lounging with their legs in the gelid pool,
that flesh pale as fish chilled in aspic.
 
Water piped in from the depths of the Irish Sea,
in a line direct from the icy heart of Calvin:
a murky gelatinous bone-numbing slush,
a sludge the consistency 
of jellyfish ground through a sieve.
 
But I would swim
for Elspeth Morrison.
 
I let her hand go and climbed up the ladder,
past two shivering divingboards
to the platform of the Tower.
 
Beyond my feet my body wobbling,
a small shadow hovering 
in that patient block of water
like a shark.
 
In the distance rose the ferris wheel
down at the local fair, and long roads leading
to I didn’t know where.
And the sea itself 
the simplest map of all—
of how to get to Arran,
to Ireland, to America!
 
Behind me in line, the old man
clambering stiffly up, one testicle
descended pinkly 
from his blue wool trunks.
 
How still the world stood
beyond that twenty-foot drop,
that three-second measure
of the pleasure of Elspeth Morrison.
 
“Well now, young Jimmy: jump
or get off the pot.”
 
Down on the deck my mother stood,
one hand to her mouth, one hand on the head
of my big-eyed little brother. My father
sucking carefully at the ember in his pipe.
 
That 4th day of June,
in the one hour of sunlight
at the swimming pool in Troon,
I found the world.
 
But I jumped 
for Elspeth Morrison.


Born in Glasgow, Scotland, and raised in Montreal, Michael Harris has enjoyed a varied career as an author, editor and educator. He has taught English and Creative Writing at McGill, Concordia and Dawson College, and spent twenty years as poetry editor of the Vehicle Press imprint Signal Editions. He is author of several well-regarded poetry collections, including Circus (2010). His most recent publication is Field Notes: Prose Pieces 1969-2012 (2013). His works of poetry and prose have been published in leading journals and magazines across North America.

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