Winning Text: Poetry (2010):
Second Prize

Natural Cause by Gerald Hill

1. Marilyn Monroe, movie star

Knocker, knocker. Come in. The minute she enters
the room reads polka-dot white dress
tight at the knees, white blonde, dark
in one eye, scared in the other,
swallowing hard candies whole.

Give me the smokey, the free, she says,
crossing to the dresser stacked
with rum, rye, beer, pineapple, ice. We're light
or scenery she moves with her eyes.
Lots of ice, please, she says,
in my highball. She's about to sit down.

She chooses the divan, well, I have no
divan, it's an extra bed and wool blankets,
a pillow or two. A tick swelled in my foot,
the size of a blueberry. She waggles
a white pump. This one.

I'm stung, the beauty of this spot.
I think I'm from here, pause. Say,
is one of you fellas my father? Here
she laughs. Take it easy, boys. I don't mind.
She laughs, rocking her shoulders back. When still,
her body ripples. Our breath
does what hers does.

Listen, the wind off the lake
damn near butterflies on us.
Ice cubes crack in her glass.
••••

2. E.G.H., grandfather

Butts his cane at my door,
smoking his pipe already.
I let him in. Thank you, sir, he says
in I don't know what accent. No thank you,
sir, when I offer him food. He's thicker
than I imagine, whiter through the beard.
The sun is a warm one today. He takes a rum
in a hand stronger than mine and tells
a story. I was 45 by the time I got to Saskatchewan
by train, with three children, in winter (froze my
whiskers off getting to the farm, needed help),
five more children in the next twelve years,
good years except for the last ones.

He walked forty miles to get here, he said,
and that was nothing.

He won't have another rum right now, thanks.

He tries my peanut-and-cheese hors d'oeuvres,
seems fussy, won't stay long. Stout
handshake, he's gone

Not sure he liked company.

A man at home with a single chair.

Only wind could make him laugh.
••••

3. Virginia Woolf, writer

Arrives, by hackney cab,
half-hour early, I've barely swept
the doorway, cut the rind off
days-old cheddar. She's seated
like folded leaves facing one way,
thinking another, the thought of hours,
she admits, when I inquire.

Today's light begins dark
and finds surface, one line
pushing the one Woolf sees
through my polka-dot curtains,
a torrent of leaves lit or shadowed.
I slip a cup of tea to her seizing mind.

The party turns, she's fixed
at the eyes to a tremor
I must cross, she says,
tightening her wrap. The wind blows
this room of her long skirts.

Later I spot her
down by the beach hucking stones.
••••

4. Jack Kerouac, writer

Digs what roads do, wheels
a '54 Chev right up to the cabin,
grabs his smokes, heads in.
Almost sundown when he shows up.
Over there, pointing to it.

Talk about quiet - he parks himself
by the window and darkens, looking out, in his flannel
shirt (sleeves rolled up, been bitten
out there, I see) and jeans,
sneakers. Talk turns to loneliness.
We talk, he's lonely, downing wine
soaking from a fringe of clouds,
sadder than ever, then Yeah,
he says. Yeah! By God he's writing
his "Sundown Sutra" on the back
of his pack of Luckies he tosses
my way as he leaves. It begins:
that fever through the eyes today was light.
••••

5. Brother B., OSB, monk

I've put things away, lined up
my shoes, set out the radishes
and baby dills when Brother B. appears.
First thing, he's a chuckler. Second,
he hands me a pail of berries,
looks the place over. Come on, he says.
I've got half an hour. Cribbage, your deal.

I'm skunked in minutes. He works
the cards as if dealing for a front-end
loader tractor. I'd pray but what good
does that do when the cards
have nothing to say.

Saw a doe and two fawns,
wish I'd seen them sooner.
Right out there, he points
with one hand, slaps down
a double run of three with the other,
fifteen-four and eight's a dozen.
By the way, they were mule deer,
not whitetails, he says. I'm busy
counting my hand, pair of queens is all.

Going to be cool in Regina
tomorrow, plus 14. Whatever
you need to know, B. can tell,
lay it all out for you, open it
with his jackknife if need be,
while he lays down his cards
and buries you.
••••

6. Ella Fitzgerald, singer

Ella's a listener, big fan
of breeze or reeds brighter
by the word. She picks up
swing in no time, greets warmly
the room she just now entered
as if time cut a record.
Sure, I'll try the rye, she says, yes, I'll try
the rye and scatters her laugh
in a song that never worked
until she sang it.

She goes by
moon but maybe the moon is wrong,
the moon is wrong,
the moon is, a chorus
a calm
boat and should lightning strike - (snap)
God forbid but should lightning
strike - that'll be Ella
loose with her band.
••••

7. Robert Kroetsch, writer

White hair, white beard, Kroetsch
old as hockey legend Gordie Howe
and golf legend Arnie Palmer
worries about too much sun, he says,
sitting in my cabin with a beer.

Kroetsch is to blame for today's light,
which splinters and flares for his arrival
in his horsefly tractor, his bucking dock.
Twelve hours earlier, a football moon
scored behind a blade of spruce top.
I'm writing poems, he says. I love it.

Halfway through his beer he recalls
with a laugh he'd seen a man swimming
in marsh-like conditions, wind
blowing in the swimmer's mouth.
Must have been a farm kid,
thinks he's found the Riviera.

Lightly clouded day after solstice,
twenty degrees in wind and blue
and we're indoors
far from the trembling,
with music on. No mosquitoes
in here, he says. It's good to just
sit for a while.
••••

Okay, Decay

Mud-rich, a dragonfly daddy
lousy with breeze, Stan Still could be
breathing, the way Emma's lake fills
and empties. He could catch and eat
     the quiet things, give his body their air.

He could spark his birdsong motor,
preen and eat till the stars come home.
He could dissolve to sand, come back
as current pressing the bottom
     of a feel-good canoe, could come back heard.

Stan and the red bunchberries pace
each other's sight path. He could fake
petals, could stir or carry cloud
debris, could run for blue, could tell
     by shadows what tomorrow's sky will be.

If rain will pick up so will Stan.
He could draw himself in rainstrokes
if he wanted to or sleep, he
could sleep, o how lovely the sleep
     sensation, nothing but natural cause.

 

AFTERWORDS

1. Dear Stan,

I see it's almost over.
You've put your mind on for the last time, have you?

I've never told you this - you remind me
of that Canadian soldier at Fish Creek,
of that visual man, of the man
from Saskatchewan, of Spike (the guy
named after a spike I found on the CNR
mainline at Muenster), of Bob Senior (going
way back) married to Phoebe, and their son,
Bob Senior Jr., of Henry, the bald kid,
of every time I used the word I.

Well, pretty soon it's time to lay down
your last word. Any idea what it will be?
I'm guessing not light or wind
or breath, which are more like
first words, not hand or tongue or love
(which goes without saying), or the tag end
of some story. Depends on the time of day
and where you are, I suppose. You'll walk,
then come back, take a look (you would say
give a look) out the nearest window,
see where you are in the line and let
it go.

As ever,
G.
••••

2. Dear Stan,

Better the long way home, than home, John Ashbery
writes. Well, anything I find in a book
I could give to you. Certain fears, regrets, my own
histories, whatever I'd done that day - all yours,
my man, my pretty good man.
Like today when I want to write
cougar in the underpass and have you
make something of it (may I suggest
a song?). Or the time I got a letter
but you were the one to read it and say
what it means. I used to say
you let me do anything in writing.
I pretended that was true, was it? Was I
fooling with myself or just fooling? The way
I answer is to remember that people I love,
love you. They think it's a little weird,
but they're with you, maybe even right now,
swinging left with every line (at first I wrote
loin, the kind of thing you'd do or
claim to have done). If this book
gets published I might have to rig up
a costume, disguise my voice, sign with a single
letter that might be me.

As ever,
G.
••••

3. Dear Stan,

Just about running out of sky or words
that end that way, dusky for one,
risky for another. But why fool around
shoving pages in an evening book.
Pretty soon the paths turn cool, minus one
overnight. (Put your overnight on, Stan buddy.
See what happens in the trees when you're not
watching.) There's a woman next door,
an Aussie, Suzie, asking about you,
wondering - which I told her is a word
you use - she's wondering, Stan,
what you do when you're not on
the page, so to speak. Would you go for
her accent? Take her pictures?
Tell her how to loon? She gave me
her card. Turns out she thinks there's not enough
visible art, I told her about your idea (which
I pretended was mine) called "My Dead
Body," a series of installations around
the Banff Centre of a life-size fabric body,
yours, draped over recycling bins,
the dock and so on. Yeah, she said,
the way Aussies say it, yeah,
that would be all right.

I can see the lake from here.
It's a good night.

As ever,
G.
••••

4. Dear Stan,

I wish the Kerouac thing went further.
I'd like to have said more, but he didn't.

I see a lot of Kerouac in you - or is it
the other way around? - the two of you
riding in a Dodge or that '54 Chev
someone else drives. High times,
a public incident or two nobody
remembers but you. Sure enough,
ten years later you write a book
(the kind of thing you'd been heading to
for years) and the book hits
at the right time, Zeitgeist-wise,
and you're the hero, even though
you rode in the passenger seat.

The rest of it is unhappy. You die.
It rains at the cemetery in Lowell, Mass.
Corso and Ginsberg show up,
a photographer from Rolling Stone.
It's cold, you're cold, we're all cold.

I might rent a Chev and drive
to Massachusetts this fall.

As ever,
G.

Click here to read the text as it appears in the July 2011 issue of Air Canada's enRoute Magazine.

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