Private Grief

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  • 7/28/2019 Private Grief


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    Revised 2011 Edition

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    Poems in this collection also appeared in Active Voice, Alberta

    Poetry Yearbook, The Antigonish Review, Ariel, Athanor, The

    Blotter, Canadian Literature, Clarity Between Clouds,

    Cross-Canada Writers= Quarterly, Descant, Erindale Review,

    Exchanges Between Us: More Intergenerational Connections

    Germination, The Longship Review, The Malahat Review,

    Mamashee, The New Quarterly, Of Cabbages & Kings (6X FM

    Radio, London), OSSTF Forum, Other Channels, Parthenon Poetry

    Anthology, Pierian Spring, Poetry Canada Review, Prism

    International, Quarry, Secrets from the Orange Couch,, Simcoe Review, Songs from the North, Spare Words,

    The Squatchberry Journal, A Tapestry in Six Textures, The Third

    Taboo, Tower, Treeline, West Coast Review, Where the Light Waits,

    Whetstone, White Wall Review, Wordloom, and Ygdrasil.

    Second Digital Edition

    ISBN 978-0-920835-38-8Copyright 2011 by Susan Ioannou.

    First Digital Edition

    ISBN 978-0-920835-26-5

    Copyright 2005 by Susan Ioannou.

    First Print Edition

    ISBN 978-0-920835-01-2Copyright 1986 by Susan Ioannou

    All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,

    stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any

    means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or

    otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.

    Wordwrights Canada

    [email protected]
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    Familiar Faces1 Mosaic

    2 Editorial

    3 A Critics Choice4 Writers:


    Rival Poets

    A Literary Affair

    5 Coffee House Reading

    6 First Writing Workshop

    7 Chaucer Class8 Dropout

    9 Metaphors to My Students

    10 Valedictory

    11 Daedalus Last Words to Icarus

    12 Lake Simcoe with My Father

    14 July Beach

    15 Welcome16 Couplets for Poet and Pianist

    17 Lace

    18 Le Misrable

    19 Aunty

    20 Mary Jane Elder

    21 Wire

    22 Mrs. Minton Confides23 Convalescent

    24 Waves

    25 Kathleen Marshall

    26 Fast Exit

    27 Adjuster, Leaving

    28 For My Husband

    29 Plaza: Late December30 Giagia

    31 The Widows

    33 Gathering

    34 Eileen and Jean

    35 In Your Light

    37 In Memory of Sophia Maniates

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    Private Grief39 Miserere

    49 You Are There41 Elegy

    42 Glimpsing the Dark

    43 Advance Elegies:

    My Mother and Me

    Father and I


    45 Somewhere Between47 Reflections, on Hearing a Crow

    48 Caw

    49 Prayer for Grandma Zoe

    50 Four Poems for Greta Ebel:

    Last Words

    The Angel of Death Visits

    InheritancesAt Gretas

    55 Last Days

    56 Gone

    58 Visitation

    59 The Funeral

    60 Mourner

    60 Angelicide61 Memoriam

    63 Three Poems for My Father:


    77th Birthday Dinner

    February 1985

    66 The Green Room

    67 Home Going69 Afterlife

    70 Ancestors

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    For Merla

    . . . without whom . . .

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/ 1

    Familiar Faces


    Smiling, among the hanging ferns

    she waits, Byzantine.

    Icons of singleness

    consecrate her walls:a lovers bamboo fan,

    two pen-and-inks of Cambridge,

    Vogue cover in gilt frame.

    Across the evening stillness

    Mahler chants.

    Brown bandana pillows sinkupon beige velvet as the sofa kneels.

    Deep in thick Persian carpet

    patterns genuflect,

    while glass, gold table legs lift up

    old cognac, coral rosebuds

    taking communion in a crystal vase.

    And smiling, in off-white silk

    elegant, elongated,

    larger than life

    she waits, Byzantine

    in a godless age.

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/ 2


    Facing blankness at thirty-eight,before her private metal desk

    she sits down undismayed.

    Four times a day she runs,

    drumming awkward lust

    into asphalt. Now explains,

    sipping iced tea, serene,

    how life is pasted to a page,

    emotions pencilled blue.

    Corrected, corners straight, she disdains

    passions smudge,

    the ragged right and left of love.

    Childless, manless,

    fit in efficient solitude,

    she edits into black and white

    preface, notes and index, but

    is void of contents,or a happy ending for herself.

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/ 3

    A Critics Choice

    Snake coiled to attack,she shivers black and yellow diamonds

    as I read.

    Her venom drips.

    Will I approve?

    Will I condemn?

    Or must she strike me firstCin self-defence?

    I too am forced to coil,

    my prey her strained intent,

    forked tongue flicking tact,

    and change my speckles brown to green

    to suit her mood.

    I too must writhe,

    intruder on her frightened sands,

    play hypnotic games with jewelled eyes,

    or slither soundless, serpentine

    away towards Eden.

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/ 4


    1. Collaborators

    We keep our work between usC

    a bridge and a barrier.

    2. Rival Poets

    Two itchy bears

    rubbing egos

    like ragged rumps

    against each other

    3. A Literary Affair

    You make love to me

    with your Voice

    and I respond

    in multiple poems.

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/ 5

    Coffee House Reading

    Egos and nerves, poets hunchtight over little tables,

    shuffling poems, wondering, When

    will I get to read?

    Another open set?

    I got a bus to catch!

    (Really, just want a beer.)

    Earless, robots clap

    relief as one more ends

    and their turn edgesCcloser.

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/ 6

    First Writing Workshop

    (for Rose)

    A rose by any other name,

    you uncurl poems toward the light,

    but when sheers snip a twigCit stings!

    Green stems bend back.

    You want to shoot

    thorns into the gardeners palm.

    Instead, like rain, you drop and hide

    dismayed sap bleeds,

    as if you are the only one.

    Rose, by many other names,

    Ive watched you burstto spread your petals red and wide.

    Like mauve, pink, white, already flared,

    you want to share

    the gardens tint and scent,

    match daisies ease, sophisticated iris,the subtle violets whose practised growing

    turns shadows into light.

    What is a metaphor?

    Where rain grows sun,

    and past and future root within one moment.

    Rose, keep reaching higher.

    What briar beauty

    awaits your breaking through.

    I know. We all dig the same

    who garden our passions

    among weeds, in words.

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/ 7

    Chaucer Class: a Tale of Middle Age

    The Pardoner=s Tale drones on.Across the touching desks,

    lolling on the crooks of elbows,

    the two stretch closer.

    Hands share scribbles on a single paper

    to quell the arms from reaching to embrace.

    Hes gat-toothed like the Wyf of Bathe

    and she a coy Madame Eglantyne,all Amor Vincit Omnia.

    They listen for a moment to my drone,

    then dream themselves away upon a smile,

    the Millers Handy Nicholas and Alisoun

    before the flood.

    And I, sag-shouldered and distended belly,so very married, middle-aged and stagnant,

    ponder the Pardoners words: lust, gluttony and greed.

    I miss his ageless sins,

    the nights we gorged on kisses till we hurt

    and drank ourselves to bed with promises,

    every hill and valley of the body plundered

    and its pleasures won.

    Profane delightCtwenty years ago?

    Im not the Merchants January yet,

    though May Id long forgotten.

    September nudges.

    Tumbling leaves curl dry,

    though outwardly still golden.

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/ 8


    The most important thing in life is money,you insist.

    What have I done?

    What have I not done

    to change your mind?

    Where did you learn that whine?

    A motto of the toughest school downtown?A mouthful that you swallowed

    with the guys while drinking drafts?

    Or a back-street hawkers con

    barking up your neon night?

    Are you prepared for life

    or for an overdrawn account?Will forty see you Chairman of the Board

    or simply bought?

    And ever after

    happy? Or instead

    threadbare of meaning,

    will devalued,breathing hollow in an empty room,

    bankrupt when you face internal audit?

    Whose words will you quote then?

    Or will you smash the next guys dream

    and deal him double what you got?

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/ 9

    Metaphors to My Students

    One up on youand nearer to myself

    (to death still dearer)

    Ill rock times ladder.

    You down there,

    how beautiful you are!

    Heed my voice:pull the hours from your ears.

    You star-dazzled

    climbers of the morning,

    you lineless and lucent,


    Where you stand

    the ascent is long,

    so much to gain

    (and so much lost)

    upon each rung.

    You just begin.I am half done.

    Hips heavy,

    mind wrinkled,

    hide thickened,

    the hand grips harder.

    Few stars in my eyes

    when the sun settles down

    past four in the afternoon.

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/10


    Dont believe them.Beyond texts and tests,

    beyond projects overdue,

    beyond 3 1/2 hours nightly recommended study,

    beyond no-drinking-at-the-fountain-or-


    beyond these grey walls

    there is joy.


    Cso much awaits you.


    and find yourself.


    breath perfumes the body,colours rock the eye,

    words break open

    music in the mind.

    There are three dimensions,

    not just pass or fail.

    Buds swell into apples.

    Caterpillars graduate to rainbows.

    Pebbles roar in chorus on the shore,

    There is more!

    If I could tell you where . . .

    Dont believe them.

    You don=t need them.

    Arc into a clear unknown!

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/11

    Daedalus Last Words to Icarus

    Love made me push youpast yourself,

    out of your lizard skin

    off mottled rocks,

    squawking at first,

    then flapping higher, higher,

    nakedness plunging

    through the sky.

    Invisible to all but me you soared

    one with the blue,

    sun-bold and swift as light.

    I shone along your flaming hair

    Cthen watched

    mortal explode into infinity.

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/13

    Growing up means swimming alone

    or taking a daughter, a son

    with me, over the rocksto run for the highest waves

    and dive toward our own


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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/15


    Alma & Verne welcome you with their namesswinging from little black chains

    on a postcard lawn.

    Come on in

    a pansy-filled swan

    floats at the edge of the walk.

    Come on in

    wrought iron curls

    up white steps to the porch.

    Come on in

    geraniums nod

    over a red window box.

    A breeze rushes off the lake.

    Waving by hedges, it skips

    over the gravelled drive.

    Spin-ninn, cut-out geese whirl.

    Hee, hee, a lawn squirrel squeaks.Three wooden skunks won=t budge.

    Come on home. . . .

    Gone down the block,

    you hear the pansy-filled swan.

    But now a marmalade catbrushing your knee, meows.

    CDid Alma & Verne say goodbye?

    Only the wind hears them whisper

    behind the panes potted fern,

    through the lace curtains rustle.

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/16

    Couplets for Poet and Pianist

    (for a wedding anniversary)

    She is the words to his music,

    he, the variations on her theme.

    Her images lighten his fingers,

    his chords ripple her dreams.

    She accents his measure,his signature marks her key.

    Each honours the thoughtful caesura

    between the others beats.

    Two movements performed together

    shared intricate leitmotifs.

    Andante to allegretto

    what will the thirds tempo be?

    May octaves rhyme into sestets,

    and verses sing harmonies,

    old lovers creating new couplets

    to gracefully play out the years.

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/17


    As winter stiffens quivering hands,gift after gift Thea* Helene crochets:

    web-light doilies for her favourites

    far away, foreign wife.

    Each loop, a moment remembered,

    Arachnes straggling fly.

    Greek, Canadian interconnectfilaments dainty as pulse.

    Whereverchryso mouhergolden onesmoothes

    lace on a polished dresser or chair,

    Thea Helene takes comfort. Their love

    tightens in unsnappable threads.

    Across an ocean, fine borders,

    two women, day after day, lighten death

    * Thea is the Greek word meaning Aunt.

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/18

    Le Misrable

    He has the desperate certaintyof a man cheated by life:

    two canes, arthritic knees,

    back a stiff confusion of wires and pins.

    Each Friday night at ballet class

    the mothers cringe.

    Women stir up problemsand men solve em, eh?

    He chuckles to the silenced room,

    then slashes down his list:

    teacher, Frog, Jew-boy, postie, copC

    he jabs obliquely some close corner

    in each womans life,

    setting her lips, thin steel,upon cold rage.

    To fight back is futile

    Ca screaming tantrum with closed mind.

    The women know: theyve watched each other

    grind against frustration, bleed.

    Upon his groaning metal chairhe reigns absolute, and head braced high,

    laughs down their small truths,

    sworn deaf and blind.

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/19


    Every room in her house had its clock.Night after night, she listened to moments

    falling between shadows and moon dust

    under a smoothed bed.

    One morning she felt

    the lilacs breathing her in,

    breathing and breathing herdizzy from window to window.

    Pane after pane she slammed shut.

    Shadows resettled in corners and cupboards.

    In her drawer, white nightgowns lay down in a row,

    white slips not touching white socks.

    Never let chaos in.

    Never permit

    one inch out of place,

    not an inch.

    Behind glass, ticking

    metal hearts spun their hands,watching her watch herself

    locked in.

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/21


    When a mind is a fragile wirethat bends too far, or vibrates

    at a frequency higher than calm,

    it loses touch with the sun

    arcing through noon to night,

    and sparks an inside-out universe

    where images leap helter-skelter

    like cat-and-dog rain crowding the sky,littering unsteady ground.

    C follows Z.

    1 times 3 equals 9.

    Down jumps up, and across

    dives somewhere between.

    Words nest on unfolded palms,or caw zigzags across the page

    to flock, wings pounding, inside the ear.

    The right-angle world hums on out there,

    lodged in a corner of the eye

    or a voice knocking on the wall.

    The only password is love,patient enough to pause,

    insistent enough to wrench

    the mind back

    through a lens of frozen stars

    to calms other end

    right-side up.

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/22

    Mrs. Minton Confides

    When the Fear comesand hunched into bony shoulders

    gnarled hags hiss,

    swarming black shawls

    over my consciousness,

    I sit tight, if I can

    remember the cure:

    ride out the maelstrom of voices,show nothing, but smile

    thinly and nod at

    the world through a web.

    As long as the old women go

    and I awaken to sunlight

    wiping ashen streets cleanC

    As long as fat walls become straight,

    pictures becalmed behind glassC

    As long as reality squares

    off into three meals a day,

    my hands grow fingers from clawsC

    I pick my way between heart beats,

    serve tea, write letters, mend socks

    and arrange graceful clusters of flowers

    fresh for my dining room table.

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/23


    My last hill remembered,I look at the quiet carnations,

    fresh, white as this gleaming breakfast table.

    Lighter than yellowed leaves on the wind,

    long I had climbed, through thick grass.

    Behind me the locked white rooms,

    nightgowns cold with sweat,I felt a smooth dappled froglet

    spring from the wide, flat stones,

    rush me high into joy, and smash

    against the leaning cliffs of longing.

    Plunging breathless we broke on the water,

    splashing too dizzy to waggle

    sideways to the edge of calm.

    Now silence glows in this space between flowers,

    the pull of trees leafing

    the empty whiteness of plates.

    Orange juice is my sun in a little glass,

    the blue napkins silver ring

    a piston that moves the sky to spreadacross my lazy horizons lap.

    I shall smoke a cigarette,

    sift hard pebbles from sand at the rivers bend.

    I accept my limitations,

    cup water, memory, trees,

    kerchunkto none but lost childrenfirm as a white coffee mug,

    cling to simplicities.

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/26

    Fast Exit

    Old man Sturdwellhated Gus like blisters.

    Dang cat squatted down,

    dropped his dark gift

    always on the greenest patch of lawn,

    like a mongrel, murdered prize begonias,

    and ripped the ear near off Sandy,

    Sturdwells darlin tiger.

    Well, the old man stomped and yelled,

    pitched a closetful of boots =n shoes,

    strung a dozen cans on Guss tail,

    even fired his shotgun illegal.

    Nothin scared that animal.

    Gus come back, three times a week at least,blackern new gifts and crimes.

    One night Sturdwell whooped awake, I got it!

    Eyes agleam, he hacked up a hunka fresh liver

    and under full moon, in orange striped pyjamas,

    he crouched in the dirt, croakin, Here, kitty, kitty.

    When Gus snuck up, eager to nip his hand,Sturdwell stuffed him in an onion sack.

    Grinnin like a crazy man, in raincoat and slippers

    he hiked them half a mile to the CNR yards,

    and when no one was lookin,

    pitched sack and Gus hard

    on a fast freight for Vancouver.

    These days Sturdwells got the greenest grass in town.

    Begonias took second in Sunday=s garden show.

    Sandy sprawls in sunshine,

    watchin birds, washin her silk ears,

    and Sturdwell grins from sleep as

    the 2:00 a.m. express whistles.

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/27

    Adjuster, Leaving

    My office echoes, a grey boxdusty with privacy.

    Against the dark,

    filing cabinets lean,

    their long, straight drawers gaping.

    No more will I sort and assign

    their eccentricities:Policy Lapsed

    Claim Closed

    Beware of Dog

    Pulled out

    they dream their phantom pages leaf,

    flower into a highway of whitecoffee-stained words speed down,

    skidding the corners of risk,

    burning past settlements,

    riderless reinstatements

    contesting death.

    Slammed back on themselves,their ghostly passions file

    Fire, Negligence, Theft

    underGCfor Gone.

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/29

    Plaza: Late December

    Propped along a plastic benchOld Greek men in black bend

    stiff as sticks inward.

    Although they clasp each other=s hands,

    nod, share gritty laughter,

    over snugly knotted scarves the eyes

    wait as silent as slow cigarettes.

    Around them flows the mall, bright red and green,

    snowsuits, parcels, carols flashing

    Christmas off wide tinselled walls.

    Santa in a plywood sleigh

    Ho-Ho-Hos and doles out candy,

    cotton his white fantasy for age.

    The old Greek men in black chat on,

    each within his private winter

    needing ask no more if God

    exists or Heaven waits.

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/30


    From the ominous cornerwhere sofa arm and darkness meet,

    fixed against sea green folds of velvet drape,

    black crag of chipped and weathered flesh

    Giagia through twilight looms.

    Her fists are rocks

    slung in a shallow valley of taut crepe,skirt overhanging the void

    between harsh widow=s knees,

    feet flat spits of land

    eroded but unmoving in the wave-blue rug.

    Solid at base, silent, secure and strong

    or so the massive body says.

    But in the face

    under forever=s mourning band,

    pain, fear, bewilderment

    flicker like fireflies

    to leap out, flames

    when no ones in the room

    to watch her crumble.

    * Giagia (pronounced YAW-yaw) is the Greek word

    meaning Grandma.

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/31

    The Widows

    Pale among damask and flowersDora passed Mavis the teapot

    and watched how her bone cup and saucer

    balanced on tweed knees.

    Dora, stop staring! snapped Mavis.

    You look like a mislaid spoon.

    Who said the universehad to be paired off?CNo cream.

    Dora folded thin hands

    tight in her lavender lap.

    Forever=s a long time, my dear.

    Forever! barked Mavis. Two yearsI mourned Hugh. Thats enough.

    Stopped it the morning I met him

    smack on my green garden bench.

    Sun lit his face gold,

    body fleshed as a peach,

    not a rack of bones like the end.

    Drat that man, he just sat,but I read in his eyes this was it:

    Good-bye, Mavis. You=re free.

    Gave him my bestCthen got stuck

    knitting the nights by myself.

    Dora looked past her and sighed.

    We were closer than leaves:thirty-nine years, four children,

    and one long winter to die.

    Cancer cut off both legs.

    Pain! My beads begged him dead.

    Ever since, nothing seems real.

    I hang in shadows. Why go

    out? Each footstep echoes.

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/33


    Earnest chickens,white permed, spectacled,

    six old ladies bob and cluck

    round an orange plastic mushroom,

    pecking tea from styrofoam.

    Their barnyard a suburban mall

    (roosters roasted long ago)this hour suns fluorescent bright,

    fences straight as glass, and chrome

    gate secure that locks them

    spindly, darting-eyed

    (oh relief) together.

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/35

    In Your Light

    (for Grandmother Wright)

    Without frame or lens

    to freeze this pine-narrowed bay,

    you are clear to me still as shallows

    glassing over ridged sand

    the acid clarity of northern rains.

    Years have rippled your skin.Hands like rugged mounts

    fist through fishless water,

    thrusting cedar and spruce against

    skys low, inverted bowl.

    Eyes almost transparent,

    you root along this rock. Through evergreen shadetwisted feet scramble the slope,

    shore to stairway, step to shore,

    refilling an emptied pail.

    When you ease into the boathouse chair,

    pink and mauve pansies

    bob under white eaves.

    Sunned into morning,your chocolate home sways above water

    with love.

    A finger begins

    curling, uncurling,

    a single strand of white hair.

    Memorys mainspring unwindsclear as the norths thin light.

    It was all forest, then,

    clustered thick to the sand,

    trees chopped down, one by one,

    another rock for the pilings dragged up.

    A few feet further each yearthe fiddlehead tangle flattened,

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/37

    In Memory of Sophia Maniates

    Be a garbage man if you want to,but be the best that you can,

    urged the doctors youngest daughter

    from an island of Greeks so stubborn

    when a man bit a block of soap

    believing it to be cheese,

    bubbling, he chewed the rest

    to swallow his moneys worth.

    SophiaCyour name meant wisdom

    enough to teach at nineteen,

    enough, when your father passed on,

    to shy from Canadas cold.

    Sophia also meant yearning:

    months you lingered in sunshinewhile over the ocean a young man

    waited to make you his own.

    Once ringed for life, fine hands

    served onion rings in his diner,

    circled three childrens misspellings,

    kept little fingers in tune.Your family grew, until letters

    stiffened fine hands and harder

    drove you across deep water

    lap after lap every morning,

    then to your countrymen,

    helping in churches, the courts,where over and over you turned

    broken English to Greek.

    Not even a numbing stroke

    kept them far from your bed.

    Sophia, please help us,

    many would swallow you still.

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/42

    Advance Elegies

    1. My Mother and Me

    We watch dead leaves drift

    past her kitchen window,

    islands of stillness

    seaed in childrens chatter ebbing

    down the hall.

    We sit, stir silence

    round bone coffee cups,

    mine half full,

    hers a drop or two.

    Wordless, we drink

    comfort from each other.We have faced the waves dark rim

    and are agreed:

    her ashes to be scattered

    among rushes, river stones,

    home behind long fields

    and for dusts hard return

    I, calm now, the one . . .

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/44

    3. Faces

    Faces from childhood, nowrutted deeply, gaunt and frail,

    snap short-tempered, suffer long

    a jaw that trembles,

    eyes blank stones, ears hollow.

    Such near-skeletons they

    totter towards death.

    Faces from childhood, then

    with careful red lips praised

    or arched neat brows

    above a manicured warning.

    Under mistletoe or a birthday balloon

    they flashed down winks from cocktail glasses

    while across my innocent skythey gossiped in cigarette clouds.

    Blond, red, brunette,

    they bobbed spit curls, French braids,

    chic amidst olive crepe,

    fox and silk shoulder pads.

    Wafting Parisian perfume,

    air rippled theirExquisite!, Prosit, Mdear.

    Our past, mute chiaroscuro,

    remembrance two-edged: to face

    my guides, my gods,

    magnificent mothers friends,

    shells that totter towards death

    COh, we mourn each other.

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    Somewhere Between

    Grandmother in mail-order paisley,poured tightly in a rocking chair,

    what do you watch in the starched-lace window

    passing above geranium leaves?

    Johnny, your cousins half-brother

    in his high box borne, black soil

    heavy for pale city sons,down back roads to a Lutheran plot?

    Or Lizzy, a Mennonites daughter,

    lent white by the Ladies Aid

    to wed the towns wan student-preacher,

    springs most parlour-prattled event?

    Or children on church stairs playing robbers,

    impiety that begs a few stiff switchings

    to keep Our Lords afternoon

    tranquil for hymns you strain to hear?

    Grandmother, what does it mean to your old heart

    beating fainter than cedars whispers down on the farmwhere hands never ached from five minutes crocheting

    and you read egg prices by candlelight?

    Grandmother, what does it come to:

    eighty-nine years work, a family of ten

    struggling on sausage, potatoes,

    hand-stitched clothes and three to a bed?

    Old woman, forgotten in helplessness,

    leaning on gossips lame housekeeper,

    and once a season written by grandchildren

    far away, at mothers strict requests,

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    Cawa cry sandpapers

    fields glassy with sunlight


    a rusty gate

    grates on its single hinge


    a pail scrapes

    along white stable stones


    rips out a throat

    mouse-tufts, bit of bone

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/51

    2. The Angel of Death Visits

    At your little white table, snug by the window,Frau Ebel, I must pull back a vacant chair.

    Yes, I will whisper verses from Ringelnatz first.*

    . . . Ill give my book a name of my own make,

    Use words and spell them any way I care!

    Who does not want to read me may forbear . . .

    You lean against the past for support,

    framed among Solingen watercolours,

    crooked streets jutting pink upper storeys

    stubborn chins over cobblestones,

    like you, refusing to crumble.

    . . . He died playing billiards. At his last shot,Seraphim carried him heavenward unto Abram . . .

    Indeed, one last time, let us raise

    an invisible tumbler ofschnapps,

    smiling up from the gold-rimmed photo of Max

    sleek as hair crme, brown double-breasted

    arm hooking your plump silk waist.In black and white, you are thirty forever;

    husband, ashes ten years.

    . . . Now youve become brooches and pictures

    and rings,

    And I have an ashtray thats made from your wings . . .

    Admit the old days are gone,

    the past is a needlepoint rose,

    although, Our Lady of Lace-Doilied-Tables,

    you lovingly polish theHummels and Rosenthal vase,

    and underneath a starched housedress wear opals

    to feather dust from memories crystal.

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/53

    3. Inheritances

    Like a clear blue stoneyour memory is set in silver in my house.

    Your love embroiders pillows

    flowering on my bed,

    hangs rushes, reeds, green music

    among the quiet frames of watercolour towns

    black-inked bridges, lost roads:

    an old worldCand you, young.

    My mother wraps herself gold and brown

    crocheted into afghan affection.

    She dreams a pinkfraulein,

    daisies, three wine glasses poised,

    a river winding deeper through white days.

    Along the crystal vase

    my sister hears you sing,

    ping beneath her fingernails.

    You are pearls in her ears.

    TheHummelboy stomps homeward,

    little basket filling up with dusk.

    We all walk that way,

    only you have gone before.

    The rest of us

    watch for signs.

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/54

    4. At Gretas

    In August,wallpaper roses blue as her eyes

    meandered beneath the chandelier

    past Hummelfigurines fishing the top glass shelf,

    round gold-framed sepia husband, godchildren,

    to where we sat by the screen door

    and sipped lemonade.

    At Christmas,

    through the kitchen archway

    hair like spun sugar

    bobbed above flour-white hands

    grating nutmeg, our laughter

    into a silver bowl.

    On February afternoons,

    coffee perked us together.

    As sun crept across her sitting-room window

    embroidery grew in our laps.

    Silver threaded through yellow.

    Mauve restitched her years alone.

    In June, legs blackened,

    mind, a glass shelf layered with dust,

    Hummels shattered, a thousand fish mouths. . . .

    Without her, I sat and watched.

    No moon ever rises from the west.

    Darkened roses twist and die.

    On the tongue bitter coffee lingers.

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/56


    (for Doug)


    the baldness and boldness of it

    the round, shiny, metallic

    truth ofgone

    stuns like a gong, struck

    with blunted love

    the numbness ofgone

    the forgetting that a familiar

    hump in the feel of our world


    the gapingafter a finger snaps

    on off

    white black

    now and for(n)ever

    an encyclopaedia

    poofed into dustshocking!

    in time we forget

    a little

    (we never recover)


    heel before toe

    teeters, Earths edge

    every year sharper

    peering at space

    we taste

    a black hole

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/57


    unendingand alone

    what comforts

    the naked moment?

    we all face it

    in turn

    dying, if we reflect,

    makes living kinder

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    By the wall,on overstuffed chairs, they crouch,

    two, dark combed and pressed.

    Eyes ice,

    they nod at each other,

    voices skating slow, as if


    shots and penalties

    from last night=s hockey game

    except thin hands fiddle

    empty at the net,

    zero, the final score:

    . . . to think

    that this is all

    a human life comes to . . .

    Hard words

    no one can pass,fatherless at fifteen.

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    The Funeral

    (for Aunt Mary)

    Great comfort flocks from family:

    stately birds descend,

    aged aunts and uncles of a gnarled tree

    spreading far back

    across old meadows, mists and umber forests

    past remembering.

    Sombre they assemble,

    softly nodding words of consanguinity,

    cluster closer,

    bend dark heads

    and in a sudden rush of wide black wings

    sweep the new-flown spirit to their midst.

    Remote she watches

    us at graveside weep,

    and puzzled as a faded photograph

    cocks a sparrow head

    in curiosity.

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/60


    Invisible dark glassescant shut the fright from his eyes.

    Fog thins

    and under his feet, the edge


    how far, far down

    a figure has disappeared.

    An aftershock of sparks flies up

    singeing his skin,

    Cpromises unkept too long:

    shes gone.


    Wipe wings

    off emptied sky.

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/63

    Three Poems for My Father

    1. When

    When mowing one ragged row

    triumphs over lungs clogged with mucous,

    shrinking toward suffocations last thick breath

    When climbing four steps exhausts, like Sisyphus stone

    grinding down yet another hill of weak muscle,never quite reaching yesterdays open door

    When night collapses sleep with choking half-hours,

    fumbles across bedside darkness to snatch

    one more small round of relief

    It is time to relent,look death in the face,

    a long-neglected friend

    Time to count off diminishing days

    with the tattered grace of those who accept

    what cannot be changed or brought back

    from vanished power and beauty again.

    It is time. Have courage.

    We watch you curl and fold,

    a paper slowly consumed by cold, thick flames

    silently, but for the rasping cough

    that spits insistence louder and louder

    against defeat.

    We stand in your thinning shadow,

    unable to stop the moons sad, sure rise,

    but shaking hands limp at our sides,

    here, awkwardly here.

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    2.77th Birthday Dinner

    The chandelier trembles.Cling to the velvet-flocked walls

    holding back death.

    Flag down the matre d with a handkerchief napkin,

    jab a tarnished fork in the oysterless shell.

    Why must bones snap brittle as crusts,

    breath sour to lukewarm wine?Send back the overripe camembert.

    Rattle your cup at the curdled cream.

    Death creeps over the tablecloth nonetheless,

    nibbles your fingertips, gnaws on the limp yellow rose.

    Demand the bill be tallied again,

    no tip on the Absolute, after taxes.Refuse to let the captain pull back your chair.

    The dining room closes at midnight.

    Stop our clocked hearts if you can.

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    3. February 1985

    This is the end.Good-bye, good-bye, by degrees.

    Slowly you turn away from me,

    nod toward the transparent multitudes

    clutching no cracked loaves,

    no slippery fishes.

    They have come to partake of you.

    Day by day they press closer,

    reaching long quiet arms

    to fold you into themselves,

    their white calm.

    Soon you will fill their invisible eyes.

    There are no choices left.Thin and frail you are wedged

    deeper into their midst.

    This is the end

    Cthe slow swallow of memories.

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    Familiar Faces / Private Grief/67

    Home Going

    As spring rushes down grey snowrunning hills to rivulets,

    round this weary house worn shutters

    sigh and swing out wide.

    Sun embraces potted flowers

    on rough window sills.

    Brightness flaps from curtain lace.Bricks blush, mellow woodwork,

    dappled ceilings celebrate:

    hatchings, greening orchards.

    I too am thankful,

    I too have survived

    cold brittle to the bone.I too am wild

    when buds bump bark

    and black field ants

    swarm up a crumbling porch.

    Beside this house

    checkered gingham dreamseased from endless

    peeling old potatoes, wiping eggs.

    My own, her mother and grandmother

    blossomed, ripened, in this earth

    now rest. They too felt spring

    sun weariness from hearts,

    aches from tightened hands.

    Each year as hills run wet

    I stand and watch

    house burst shutters,

    sighs spill over grass,

    but as sun marries rooms, and joy

    hatches, buds, swells fields,

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    When we liebeneath the earth,

    children, why weep?


    our white crocuses

    fingertipping up.

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    - FINIS