Books·CBC Literary Prizes

"Tar Swan" by David Martin

David Martin won the 2014 CBC Poetry Prize for "Tar Swan."
David Martin won the 2014 CBC Poetry Prize for "Tar Swan." (Courtesy of David Martin)


As I've told you tide and tide again, 
you're not the first to strike the bell
undertoe. I witnessed a single cygnet, 
abandoned by cob and pen, fending 
in the lichen. His sobs skip-dripped
from sockets and slithered into deep 
pools of felicity. Doodle-buggers 
and orange-worms will soon mine his
blistered lore. He busked his flags, 
heralding a black egg along slipshod
Athabaska, spit the yoke, and under
my fluted lip, a tar-cleaned tongue.
Hold, before your hand-made eyes, 
I offer a soup to eat your reflection.


Say Alexander Mackenzie once 
netted an elephant by the jugular, 
a vein he blotted ashore, and ashore 
he cajoled a catheter up its trunk, 
a trunk that smelled of sea coal. 
Believe me, he never imagined 
his dead mammal would tender 
its supreme body as petroleum.
We are bitumen farmers, gleaners,
and I wield the wide metal plough, 
a plough with ragged furrow-slice 
my coulter's wake. Wake, and never
again will Virgil warn, Let the horns
of the moon govern a Soiler's work.


All magicians know stubholders 
double watch: convincing heart
that behind the trick is trick, 
hoodwinking mind-be-body to lunch
with wonder. It's simple, then: 
Threshing bitumen is the Devil's 
Handkerchief followed by a Question
of Sympathy. Suckers agog, exposed
by boreal thugs who conjure a terrible 
prophesy, stringing out Dionysian 
muck to smear on highway blacktop. 
Finally, by sleight of hand, they 
sluice foaming shades from the body, 
as the stage manager skins his take.


Behold, the Plant is alive! I give you 
the loafing-crunch of Draglined Sand; 
the shut-eye-beak-oool of Feed Hopper; 
the scheming-sheaths of Toothed Rollers; 
the rumen-torque of Pug Mill; 
the pupa-soup-gyrate of Separator; 
the moulted-scales of Tailings Pond; 
the magpie appraisal of Settling Tank; 
the shadow-tailed-cache of Elephant Storage; 
the nagging scent of Water Drained to River. 
I submit Nature's Supreme Gift to Industry.
Muskeg, glacial tills, sandstone and shale — 
all useless like a turf cutter's scraw,
for we are gouging at a forest sea.


As I slept, a creature brewed for me:
head a white-tongued lion, body 
the blood of a cinnamon hermit, feet 
the sheaths of a fire moth — and as I 
pounced, flailing hands, hurling clods 
of black sand in its mask, biting
out eyes — nothing would cripple
the monster, no wound appeared
on craning form. At last, I choked 
its throat with heavy stones, crushing a
gaunt neck, peeled back layers 
of rotted cloak to find brittle feathers, 
no bulk beneath, but a black egg — 
a single black egg wrapped in moss.


Broken-teeth roads disappear where 
photographs split by half-dash light, 
and make this quickening my home. 
Peel back overburden, lie down in 
elephant drool like a swan that sinks
into song. Wheels turn, and I'm the 
undercarriage. Children with trowels 
excavate my flesh. They clutch feathers, 
demanding I give back the nest egg
wrapped in moss, rotting moss held 
in a deer-skin sack, the sack sewn 
in my chest, chest bearing me cusp
to cusp on river taunts, taunts that turn
the wheel and pull me into undercarriage.


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