Meditation at Lost Creek

There are spots along the creekside path — if you can tune out
the highways’ hum, and overlook the pipe from the storm drain
spilling its effluent into the stream, and the plastic bag
caught in a tangle of tree branch reaching down into the water,
between the graffitied bridge supports and the signposts warning
against littering — where you can almost imagine what this place
would have seemed like a hundred, or more, years ago. The anglers
on the banks with their lines trailing in the current, the moss
hanging down from sagging trunks, the way that rock jutting up
from the creek bed snags the surface of the water and roils it
briefly before letting it pass. Walking here gives the mind space
to open, to branch out, drift in the current, allows time
for the mind to breathe in between the buds on the young branches,
a place for memory to grow in the shade beneath the trees.
Step. Step. Each one slightly different in measure, in tempo,
in pitch. The off-key deleted, like the drain pipe and the traffic
noise, the screeching of rails from above, leaving only
the whispered echo of the twenty-three Japanese rail workers
who died here, a little over a hundred years ago, according
to the plaque embedded in a stone along the creekside path.

 

 

© Mark Milner, Burnaby, 2020

Self Portrait

not as i am, but
the way i’d like to be seen
(by myself most of all)

any resemblance
to what you think you know
is just a tactic in support of that strategy

surprises couched
in the comfort of preconceptions

the bald head
and general roundness
somehow make the rest more believable

i never imagined he was
such an accomplished musician

the bass makes sense
he was always preoccupied with rhythm

and will you overlook the exaggerations
of my virtues
or at least forgive them
if i overstate my vices?

i will show them here
like a badge of honour
like scars from not yet rumoured duels

such honesty
you will say
so brave

not at all
i will say

and that will be the only truth i tell you here

© Mark Milner, 2019

Work

Voices in another room are speaking important
Meaningless words. Something about process,
Workflow, who needs to do what before some
Other thing can happen. I know all the words
But the sentences are empty. And I know
I often speak such empty phrases, too.
I’m not judging the speaker. It’s their job
To empty language of significance,
Reduce words to simple cyphers and glyphs,
Just as it is my job, when I am not
Trying vainly to accomplish the opposite.
The job of the professional versus
The job of the poet. The voices are calm.
They lack urgency. Schedules and budgets
Will shift, humans will be reduced to resources.
Tasks will be performed without personality,
And these words, these words will be forgotten.

 

© Mark Milner, 2019

poem

Last night I dreamed you were running
away. I chased after you
like a confused dog, followed
you through strange cities and airports.
I climbed the outsides of office towers and hotels,
searched libraries and salons. When I found you
alone in a café, you closed your notebook
(in which every word was goodbye)
and you stood without looking
at me, and walked away in silence.

When I woke, you were lying
beside me, dreaming
you were traveling alone.

 

© Mark Milner
Vancouver, 2019

Cosmology — fragments

say the world is filled
mainly with emptiness

gaps
between trees

space
between stars and planets
atoms and particles

tiny fragments
of presence
surrounded by absence

sounds break up silence
into song, measured and measurable
ordered on mathematical principles
numbered and arranged
in defiance of zero
of nothing
of space

vain desire that there be
something rather than nothing

lonely beauty of a dying star
on the remote edge
of a galaxy
a billion light years away
spinning and whirling
on the edge of annihilation
dancing and singing
its brief being
into the void

is it just a habit of mind
this conflict between something and nothing?
Manichaean tendency to believe
that everything requires an opposite?
polarizing instinct to divide
rather than blend?

say
we are atoms thrown defiantly together
we are particles cast out from stars
we are energy
time and motion

and when our time is done
cast off again
thrown together again
reused and recycled

old notes for new songs
new arrangements of old harmonies

in the end there is silence

that music had a dying fall
but does nothing follow?

the musicians put away their instruments
the audience departs, the hall is empty

say there will be other songs, other performances
other musicians and audiences

say each performance will be something new
or a remembrance of something that never was
and never will be again

maybe it’s a failure of imagination
that I don’t believe

in angels or gods, or
feel a connection to something beyond

that I don’t fill emptiness with purpose
suppose that planets have plans for me
or that they rest on spheres moved by celestial harmonies

that the inert remembers
the briefly living, that there is justice
more satisfying than dissolution

although I sometimes hope for a thread of memory
stitched into a corner of the fabric of time

I do not know how things begin
or end, or even if

or say
beginning and end are one and the same
seen from different angles

a lone whale sings her grief
to an almost empty ocean

in the middle of Ireland
stones still hold the shape
of an old church
carved and carefully stacked
into walls defying entropy
which has already claimed the roof
ruined the choir
where now even birds are not singing

other stones remember
lives no one recalls
history does not remark

only a fugitive cow grazes in the long grass
honeybees stir the pestles of wildflowers in the shade of a stone wall

and I have stopped to capture a moment in a photograph

how much longer will these stones cling to each other?
to the idea of order that placed them here?
how long can names and dates resist the wind and rain?

one year and eight hours away
I sat on the bench near my father’s stone
having cleared away the encroaching grass
and dirt that filled in the letters
of his name

and I spoke to him as if he were alive
spoke in a way I never did
while he was alive

I spoke as if he could hear me
as if it were a prayer

the wind stirred the leaves in the trees
and brought the rainclouds closer

somewhere a bird sang
a melody I couldn’t follow
and a hare stopped briefly
to consider my presence
then carried on with his day

 

© Mark Milner, Burnaby, BC, July 2019

Loss in the supermarket

This poem grew out of a story my cousin-in-law (that’s a thing, right?) posted on Facebook. It stuck in my mind, as some things do, where it got reshaped (not to say warped) as everything tends to. This is for her, and her son.

Loss In The Supermarket

a woman and her young son
are in the supermarket
looking at steaks when the boy asks
are those dead cows?
and the woman answers, yes
and the boy asks
why are they dead?

before she can answer
a man nearby says, because they’re delicious

she doesn’t tell the boy this is wrong
or at least, not entirely right
she doesn’t tell him that everything dies
and some things that die are eaten
she doesn’t say that the cows were always
going to be food (and shoes and jackets and
baseball gloves) and that some people think that’s wrong and others think it’s delicious

she doesn’t say the cows
(and pigs and chickens)
only exist to be cut up and shrink
wrapped on styrofoam trays

she doesn’t say that someday she
will fade and fall like the leaves that litter
the lawns on their street, and that
so will he and so will his older brother
and their father, too

and everyone they know
who doesn’t come
to a more unseasonable end

she doesn’t talk about
the hospital where she works
about the overflowing cancer ward
that his grandfather has survived
twice now

she doesn’t say there is really no surviving
but only temporary reprieves

she hopes he will not learn this too soon

she chooses her steaks and smiles to him
should we buy ice cream for dessert?

© Mark Milner, 2018, Vancouver

Morning run

metronomic slap slap slap
footfalls like rain falling
wet on the pavement
hard to believe it’s almost six

pair of headlights
slip out of an alleyway
slither through a puddle
depart

and me in XTC
senses working overtime

and crossing the bridge
mind out over the water
heart up over the moon

it is only one step and then another and
another like words falling
wet on the pavement

hard to believe
hard to believe
it’s ten past six and almost home

© Mark Milner, Vancouver, 2018

Postscript

I’ve been home for about 40 hours now, and little by little my body is readjusting to the eight-hour time lag between Ireland and the west coast of Canada. Before my thoughts on my trip recede too much into the distorting waters of memory and forgetting, I thought I’d dash off a few observations in postscript, and post a few more pictures from some of the places I visited.

The bike

Whe I first started planning my trip, I had intended to ship my own motorcycle across to Europe. The more I looked into this, though, the more I realized that it made more sense to hire a bike that was already there. This was mainly about cost-benefit. The relatively short length of my time overseas meant the total cost of renting a brand new bike wasn’t much greater than the cost of shipping my own. When I included the various fees and taxes, insurance costs, and what I would need to do with my bike to get it ready for the trip, it was more or less a wash. My wife pointed out that I was less likely to have  expensive and frustrating mechanical issues with a brand new bike than with my ageing warhorse, and since the chances of finding a qualified BMW mechanic in remote areas of the Highlands didn’t seem good, and since the hire bike included roadside assistance in the cost of the rental, I decided she was right (as is often the case).

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My hire bike: a 2018 Triumph Tiger 800 XRT.

I’m glad I made that choice. The Triumph Tiger 800 is a fantastic bike, and while I don’t like it better than my old R1150GS, certain features definitely came in handy. I’m quite sure that cruise control, for example, helped save me from speeding tickets, especially in Scotland, where speed cameras are ubiquitous. Over time I got used to working with – and more often around – the ridiculous number of controls on the left handlebar, although I’d still suggest Triumph take a look at how this is all arranged. I suspect that something like BMW’s thumb wheel would be easier to use, and help prevent unwanted selections (like inadvertently switching on the heated seats when turning on the fog lamps).

In retrospect, I should have inquired more carefully about luggage capacity. I packed an appropriate amount for the cases I have on my bike, which are admittedly enormous. The aftermarket bags on my GS – Happy Trails side cases (35 and 40 litres), and a Givi top box (52 litres) – can comfortably hold more than enough for a three to four week trip. The much smaller OEM bags on the Triumph are better suited to one week. It’s my own fault for not enquiring. If I ever hire a bike again, I’ll do so.

I would also strongly recommend bringing your own riding gear, or at the very least, your own helmet. The gear I was provided with was mostly high enough quality (I’d even consider buying some RST gear if I could find it here), but it took nearly the full length of the trip for me to remember to put motorcycle pants (or ‘jeans’ as they call them over there, since ‘pants’ means underwear to them) first, then boots. My own gear has nearly full-length side zips, so I can (and usually do) put my boots on first.

The helmet was more of an issue. It fit a little snugger than my helmet, didn’t have a flip up chin bar (which meant I had to remove my glasses every time I wanted to put the helmet on or take it off) or a sun shade (so that I had to decide whether to wear my sunglasses or my regular glasses, something that can’t be changed on the fly). It also didn’t come with internal speakers, so I couldn’t get audio instructions from the GPS and had to look away from the road more often than I would have liked.

The GPS (or sat nav, over there) was an excellent thing to have, and worked well when using Google Maps (or other apps) on my phone wouldn’t have. Even though I had to look at it more than I would have liked, it was much easier to do so quickly than would have been the case on a paper map.

SIM cards

One of the best decisions I made was getting an Irish SIM card, rather than using a ‘travel plan’ from my Canadian provider. The travel plan would have cost me $150, and not even provided me with the meagre amount of data I normally have access to at home. The SIM card (which I got from 3 mobile) gave me “all you can eat” data (60GB!) in Ireland, and 6GB of roaming data for the UK, for €30 (less than a third of the cost of the Canadian travel plan). I ended up using about 17GB total, including 4.5GB in the UK. If you’re a Canadian travelling abroad for any length time, you should seriously consider getting a local SIM card when you arrive. The only downside is how ripped off you’re going to feel you are when you’re at home and paying more than twice the rate for about a tenth of the data you get in Europe.

Ireland

Ireland is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. It’s ridiculous how pretty it is, nearly everywhere.

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A typical view in the Irish countryside. This was near the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

The Irish people, especially in the Republic, are friendly and welcoming. Dublin is an incredibly cosmopolitan place, with people from all over Europe – and around the world – working and attending university and visiting there. The whole of Ireland is an incredible blend of the new and old. History is on display everywhere, and yet it’s very forward looking as well, especially in cities like Galway and Dublin.

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Thoor Ballylee, near Gort in Co. Galway, is the tower that Yeats lived in with his family. Irish literary history is rightly celebrated throughout Ireland.

Ireland has punched well above its weight in literature for more than a century, producing such important writers as Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Sean O’Casey, Louis MacNeice, and Seamus Heaney, to name just a few.

Musically, too, Ireland has provided the world with more than its fair share of artists, especially in rock and pop music. Thin Lizzy, Gary Moore, The Boomtown Rats, U2, Sinnead O’Connor, The Pogues, Rory Gallagher, and many others have made a huge impact on popular music over the past 50 years.

IMG_0712
A statue of Phil Lynott, the bassist and lead singer of Thin Lizzy, stands near Grafton Street in the centre of Dublin. In the 1970s, Thin Lizzy paved the way for many other Irish bands, like the Boomtown Rats and U2.

Scotland

Scotland has a different kind of beauty than Ireland. More rugged, less lush, but equally stunning. It’s astonishing just how much the landscape changes as you travel through Scotland. There is as much variation in geology and flora as there is in the many styles of whisky produced there.

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The road from Applecross to Shieldaig in the Scottish Highlands.

I would like to have spent more than the week I had in Scotland. It is too vast to really see much of it. What I did see, I loved. From Loch Lomond to Inverness, Moffat to Shieldaig, Elgin to Edinburgh. The beers are different from those in Ireland, and of course single malt whisky is very different from Irish whiskey (which is almost always blended). As was the case in Ireland, many of the road signs, at least in the Highlands, are in both English and Gaelic (although Scots Gaelic isn’t exactly the same as Irish).

In fact, a person could easily spend a week or more just in the Highlands. Or just in Edinburgh. And, I’m sure, the same would go for Glasgow, which I sadly didn’t get to this time around. I hope Adele and I will visit Scotland in the future, so I can see more of it.

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A lane in Edinburgh’s Dean Park neighbourhood.

England and Wales

I didn’t spend much time in England or Wales. A couple of nights each. The highlight of that was the time I was in the tiny village of Laugharne, where Dylan Thomas lived and is buried. For such a small place, it packs a lot of beauty and history into it. It would be worth a second visit, if I’m ever down that way again.

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The ruins of the castle at Laugharne, on the south coast of Wales.

Midlife non-crisis

All in all, it was a fantastic journey, and an excellent, adventurous way to celebrate being 50. If I were doing it again, I’m not sure what I’d change. Add more time, maybe, if I could, and have Adele accompany me for at least part of it. Traveling alone for that length of time was a very different experience for me. I’m glad I did it, but I think I prefer having someone to share the experience with.

I don’t really have a lot more to say. I do, though, have many more pictures. Here is a sampling from them.

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Farms in the Dingle peninsula.
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Cliffs of Moher
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Connemara
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Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland
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Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland
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The road to Applecross, or Bealach na Ba, Scottish Highlands
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Highland cattle
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Sculpture near the National Gallery in Edinburgh
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Washback stills (the tall ones) and spirit stills at the Glenfiddich distillery in Dufftown, Scotland
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Cairngorms National Park, Scotland
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Scarborough Castle, Scarborough, England
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Waiting for the tide to come in. Laugharne, Wales.
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Lake District, England.
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Sandycove, Dublin, Ireland.

Laugharne

It is a beautiful evening in southern Wales. I’m sitting outside a local pub in Laugharne (rhymes, sort of, with yarn, but with a bump in the middle) drinking Welsh ale. Unfortunately all the pubs stopped serving food at 3, so I had to settle for fish & chips next door (the first place on this trip to serve it with mushy peas!). Life’s hard, but I’ll adapt.

The sun is shining, the birds are making bird noises, and every so often a car comes past.

Laugharne is a sleepy town, very small, even by Welsh standards. Dylan Thomas called it “the strangest town in Wales.” He should know, he lived here. He’s buried less than a mile from where I’m sitting. I’ve been to his grave (this is turning into the graveyard tour of Britain and Ireland), and to the old boathouse he lived in when he wrote some of his greatest work, from “Fern Hill” to Under Milk Wood; I’ve even walked the path that is said to have inspired his “Poem In October”.

No tour buses here. A simple, wooden marker, with his wife Caitlin’s name and dates on the other side.

The B&B I’m staying in is less than a mile from each, and just around the corner from the pub I’m at now. It wasn’t much to look at when I rode up, and I was afraid I’d mad a terrible mistake, but once inside my fears vanished. It’s an old, stone and plaster building, with wooden beams in the ceilings. The room is enormous compared to most B&Bs. The bathroom is almost the size of the room I had in Lisburn at the start of this trip, and is strangely modern. You can see the ruin of Laugharne Castle from my window.

Not the view from my room. I know, I said I don’t like what castles represent. I don’t. But this is a nice old ruin, and I thought it was a good picture.

Dylan Thomas is the reason I’m here. He was one of the first “serious” poets whose work I fell in love with, back when I was getting ready to begin my first university degree. The summer before I began my studies I went to Canterbury Books in Calgary, now sadly defunct, and bought a copy of his Collected Poems and Collected Short Stories, both of which I still have on my shelves more than 30 years later. I still love his pulsing, alliterative rhythms.

The day didn’t begin here. It began in a little village near Bath. The landlady of the place I stayed left me a small loaf of homemade bread and some homemade gooseberry jam, which I ate when I got up. A little later, I rode to the Hartley Farm Market & Cafe, where she said I could get a good cooked breakfast. The eggs Benedict there was excellent.

After breakfast, I rode around Bath looking for Solsbury Hill, the place that inspired one of my favourite songs. I eventually found it (I think), riding up a narrow lane (Solsbury Lane, so it sounded promising), in places walled with stone on either side, in other places bordered by hedgerows, and still others by simple fences. The hill comprised sloping enclosures for sheep and cows, mostly. I’m guessing that either I was in the wrong place, or Peter Gabriel hopped someone’s fence, or was staying with someone there, or the place has changed since the 1970s. I think, based on the rest of Bath, that last option seems the least plausible. At any rate, there was no place to stop, and although in places I could see the city, it wasn’t nighttime, so there were no lights. No eagles, either, but I didn’t really expect that.

Bath is like a museum piece. Nearly everything is as it has been for at least a century, and often much longer. There are a lot of churches. It’s pretty, but in a museumy sort of way.

The ride here from there was mostly unremarkable, except for a detour necessitated by the police having closed the A46 to Stroud, likely due to a crash, and the GPS occasionally not keeping up to itself, so that I zipped past exits I should have taken requiring me to backtrack. It also meant I missed the turn off to avoid the M4 toll bridge to Wales. I got to pay £5.60 to nearly get blown off the bike by the strongest wind I’ve experienced on this trip next to Hector. This might have been worse, though, since they’ve used cable barriers down the centre of the bridge that would have sliced me like cheese if I’d hit them.

Otherwise, it was dull, efficient mile munching, until just outside Cardiff I saw another vehicle on the shoulder with its front end completely engulfed in flames. I’ll have to look into that in case Adele and I do a road trip here someday.

Everything is closing up in Laugharne. The pubs, which aren’t serving food, will still serve beer a while longer, but they’re not busy. The convenience store won’t close for another couple of hours. But it’s sleepy here.

Tomorrow I’m going to follow the coast north and then east, and stop for the night in a town whose name I can’t pronounce. For now, I’ll wander back to room and read for a while.

Excerpt from Under Milk Wood

Under Ben Bulben

I left David & Lin’s place this morning filled with gratitude, and just a hint of sadness that I won’t see them (or Davey) again for… who knows how long? The sky was grey with low clouds, and the air was cool and damp. The forecast said rain, but less than it had threatened when I looked yesterday. I loaded the bike and said my goodbyes, and then I was off.

David suggested going to Roundstone, on the south coast of Connemara, and I was happy to take his advice. The ride was brilliant, and it wasn’t long before the low cloud burned off and the air warmed itself in the sunshine yet again. With the exception of about a quarter hour on the bus ride to Lisburn, I’ve had exceptional weather so far on this trip. Knock on wood.

The N59 was a brilliant ride, and could, in different stretches, be renamed The Ram Road, given the number of horned sheep grazing along the verge. (In fairness, there were likely some ewes, and definitely some lambs, but those don’t alliterate.) At one point there was a ram standing on the centre line of the road staring in my direction, as if to say, “Go on, I feckin dare ye.” But I slid past without incident.

The landscape in much of Connemara is, as Oscar Wilde said of, savagely beautiful. Reminiscent of parts of the Rocky Mountains back home, and yet different enough to have a wonderful strangeness mixed with that familiarity. So different from what I’d experienced elsewhere in Co. Galway, or anywhere else in Ireland for that matter. In place of the lush vegetation I’d grown used to, here everything was rock and scrub, with only the occasional gnarled tree jutting up above the level of the ubiquitous stone walls. No hedgerows here. I have a notion the Highlands will be similarly austere and beautiful, but I’ll find that out soon enough.

After stopping for coffee and a scone (with clotted cream and raspberry jam!) at the Bogbean Cafe, I rode through Cliffden to Westport, watching the landscape transform itself back to lushness, while still retaining a certain wildness.

After a quick lunch (Irish Toasty with salad), I was back on the road and heading steadily northward, through Co. Mayo to Sligo. The N5 has wide lanes with broad shoulders, and the optimism of Irish speed limits finally felt well placed. That wasn’t encouragement enough for some drivers, though, who insisted on keeping to 80 kmh in a hundred zone. I passed them happily, and they seemed happy enough to be passed, pulling a little to the left as I zipped past.

I passed through Sligo all too quickly. I should have stuck to my plan about not booking accommodations until I arrive in a place lesson learned, which I’ll apply in Scotland (or try to).

Just outside the city, I found the churchyard in Drumcliff, where Yeats is buried. I studied Yeats in university, of course, but I had already introduced myself to his poetry in the summer before I began my undergrad in Calgary. I looked at the inscription on the stone, which he composed in his famous poem “Under Ben Bulben”:

Cast a cold eye

On life, on death.

Horseman, pass by.

A motorcyclist, I thought, is as close as we come now to a horseman.

Riding past Ben Bulben, I think I understand why Yeats was so impressed. It stands out from the landscape with conspicuous enormity, much as his poetry stands out. No photograph could hope to convey the feeling – at least, not one I’m capable of taking – so I didn’t stop for it.

Tonight I’m in Bundoran, a slightly sad little seaside resort on Ireland’s northwest coast, in the nicest hotel I’ve stayed in so far. Tomorrow I head eastward, and a little further north, to the Giants’ Causeway, then down to Newtown Abbey, before leaving Ireland behind for Scotland. The threatened rain still hasn’t materialized, and I’m hoping my weather luck holds for a couple more weeks. But, as I’ve said before, I’ll take things as they come. I’m not made of sugar after all.