Tabula Rasa

1
Arvo Pärt at 36,000 ft.
The voices of the strings weave
Through the air, rise and fall, play
Against each other.

Outside, the clouds
Mingle and separate, fall away
Beneath us, behind us.

Just as time
And music fade
Into silence.

2
To live without expectation,
The future as a blank slate,
To engage with what comes
As it comes
In its own time.

Trying to imagine that.
Knowing that we expect the future
To resemble the past.

The batter looking for a fastball
Doesn’t recognize the change up, and swings through it, surprised.

3
The point where the patterns intersect,
The point where the patterns disperse,
Here the mind is free to play.

Fullness and emptiness have the same rules.

Your plans cannot escape these rules, or contain them.
This is the first rule.

It doesn’t matter that you don’t acknowledge the rules.
This is the second rule.

4
I never expect the face in the mirror.
Recognize it, of course. Know it’s mine.
But it surprises me every time
Like a note played off key
Or an off-speed pitch.

5
The difference between knowledge and expectation:
We all know we will die. And yet death arrives unexpected.

The number of times I watched my father’s head
Move through shades of red and purple
As he coughed at the dinner table, then lit a cigarette.

And yet it was years later, and something else entirely.
I watched him slip quietly into Silentium, all the machines switched off.
I was utterly unprepared.

Benefits of competition

Recently, one of my poems was long-listed for the CBC Poetry Prize. (For those of you not from Canada, CBC is like BBC, only Canadian, and with fewer good shows. Or like PBS, but with ads instead of pleas for donations.) It was one of 33 poems selected from more than 2,400 submissions, which I think is a pretty cool accomplishment. I didn’t get shortlisted, but looking at the competition, I didn’t feel slighted. There were some fine poets in that group.

Not least among them – in fact, the opposite of least – was Alessandra Naccarato, the eventual winner, as announced today. I commend her and her poem to your attention.

2017 CBC Poetry Prize Winner

The best part of being part of the competition – and the longlist – is that it has provided me with some additional motivation to write more. And so I will. And you’ll see that in the coming weeks and months.

My thanks to CBC Books for the experience.

The Anniversary Party

They descended the stairs into the room.
The waiters led them to their seats. The other guests were already there.
Everyone dressed for the occasion, whatever it was.
Reflections from the lights danced in the water glasses.

They had been the last to arrive. The other guests were already there.
The table was long, and they sat far from each other.
Reflections of light danced in the water glasses.
He did his best to keep up with the conversation around him.

It was a long table, and they sat so far from each other.
He couldn’t see who she was speaking to.
He did his best to keep up with the conversations that moved around him.
Every now and then he heard her laughter from where she sat.

He couldn’t see which of the men she was speaking to.
He couldn’t hear anything that either of them said.
Every now and then he heard her laughter from where she sat.
He kept wishing the dinner would be over.

He couldn’t hear anything that she or the man said.
It was impossible to determine how she was feeling.
He just wanted the dinner to be over.
He hadn’t really wanted to come tonight anyway.

He could never really tell how she was feeling.
They didn’t speak about things like that.
He hadn’t even wanted to come here tonight.
Things hadn’t been quite right between them lately.

She said she couldn’t tell him how she was feeling.
Something always made her hold back.
Things hadn’t been quite right between them lately.
He couldn’t put his finger on what it was.

Something was making her hold back.
He had a growing but vague sense of unease.
He couldn’t put his finger on what it was.
It felt like something or someone was dying.

He had a vague but growing sense of unease.
They descended the stairs into the room.
It felt more funereal than celebratory.
They were dressed for the occasion, whatever it was.

©  Mark Milner, 2017

The last words

are for Sava Welsh
who made the best Spanish coffee in the New World,
who gave the shirt literally off his back to a woman because she said she liked it,
who worked with me in the bookstore on Robson Street for most of the thirteen
months I’ve been there,

who worked there for over twenty years,
who used to disappear every Sunday at quarter to five, as he said, “like a donkey in
the fog,”
who would not let even his dead mother in once the place was locked,

who bought me lunch at Griffins the Friday before he retired (we had duck and smoked salmon and desserts that would make a marxist cringe, and
Sava ordered himself a Spanish coffee, telling the waitress, “this could kill
me”),

who used to call me “my hero” — I don’t know why,
who nursed his lover of over twenty years until he died last November, after more
than two years of sickness,
who thought the card I bought him when Victor died was beautiful (thank you,
Robert Mapplethorpe) and the poem I quoted, too (Langston Hughes),

who retired on a Tuesday in February,
who called me from the back hallway half way through his last shift to show the bag
full of blood he had coughed up,

who smiled when the nurse in the hospital asked me if I was his son,
whose liver had been shot for years,
who kept living, I think, for Victor,

who called me from home on a Tuesday evening in March to say he was feeling
much better and was going to fly to Europe in April and would come to see
me before he went away
who died on the Wednesday of the following week,

who died nearly two months ago now,

who we drank to a month ago in the bar at Griffins, almost without mentioning his name, and I went home thinking Sava, Sava, Sava,
who disappeared like a donkey in the fog, although I still think about him sometimes, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Sundays.

These last words are meant to remember him.
They are not enough.

 

© Mark Milner, Vancouver 1997

Tremor

you wore a dress like moonlight
your eyes shone black, you did not speak

i wrapped myself in your hair
i sang like the wind in the leaves

together we made the sea dance
the clouds hid our names

you touched me like a rumour
of spring,

I shook the seismologists
from their quiet dreams

 

© Mark Milner

Nightlife

1.

Now that you are home
Safely another night
And the window’s closed and locked
The door bolted and chained, and the world
Outside — with its sirens,
Floods, wars, murders, poverty
And all the rest of the usual
Catalogue — is no more
Than the unreal space between
Commercials for beer and deodorant;

And I’ve stopped chain-smoking,
And the newspaper lies
In the recycling box,
Already fading;

And the old man
Upstairs has stopped screaming
At the cars in the alley
To shut it off
Or get the hell outta here;

Now that the coffee’s been drunk,
The dishes done, bath water poured,
And the day’s work unwound;

Now I will lie down in bed
And listen to quiet
Water splashing on breasts, and wait
For the lights to be shut out, for you
To join me, for sleep
And something like healing.

2.

To the occupants, apt. 107,

Your energy
If not your duration made
Me jealous last night.

Your short-lived grunts
And wails (sounding
Like you were just outside
On my balcony) had me
Blushing in my bed.
I couldn’t help myself,
I put down my book and
Listened while you lasted.

Then turned out the light and
Tried to sleep. Too tired to attempt
An echo.

Sincerely,
Apt. 209

 

© Mark Milner

Lament

it would be nice
maybe
never to doubt
meaning
think about things
self included

to unwavering
as a razorblade
nevermind What if? or regret

things before
they possibly never
happen

to just happen
like trees or earthquakes
not counting
nickels every second
thursday

i’d like never wondering how the
rentphonehydrostudentloans

and these socks all got holes
and these jeans in the knees from
When is my 50 cent raise?

it must
be i mean just to know yes
i’ll have another
beer keep the change
i think
nice

 

© Mark Milner