No holding on

This is the Dog-eared Blog for a number of reasons:

  • It’s a doggily bookish pun, and that corners two main areas of interest
  • I feel fairly dog-eared myself these days
  • Dog-eared pages have something in them a reader did not want to lose
  • I like the near-homonyn and undertow of ‘dogged’ in the phrase

But most of all it’s for the haphazard and accosting way little bits of books or poem surface in my mind in the midst of doing other things entirely, usually while walking the dogs. I like overhearing my subconscious mind’s selection of words—oh, you think that, do you?—and, as a lazy person, I value the seemingly involuntary mode of thinking.

I don’t know if anyone will ever read this but if you do, please use the Comments to tell me some of the recurring quotations that grab you. Do they feel significant or are they earworms? Why is it that phrases come running after you when you’ve turned your back on the book?

This is one I often find myself reciting (or is it hearing?) from Anne Michaels’ long poem, ‘Miner’s Pond’:

                    When my brothers told me
I’d never seen the stars, that light’s too slow,
That looking up is looking back,
There was no holding on.

In the poem, Anne Michaels is very young and her brothers are older, a decade between her and the oldest, and they are fascinated by science and the natural world, half teasing her with insights she’s too young to understand, half just pouring this stuff out in excitement. But I love the physicality of the way her mind (then or now?) feels the meaning as it happens. She thought she was looking at space; she finds she is looking at incalculable time. It’s a huge adjustment framed in the here and now so that the simple act of looking up makes a kind of vertigo, ‘There was no holding on’.

Isn’t this exactly what poetry is for? The phrasing of moments where a new awareness enters and transforms our sense of reality. And it is all so clean and visible here, built on prepositions rather than adjectives or effort, like a magician showing you there’s nothing up his sleeve.

It’s all one sentence stretching over four lines and dependent on the opening occasion, ‘When my brothers told me’, and yet the essential experience is not one of stretching and continuousness but instead one of rupture as the sense of the familiar world is broken apart—and continues.

This is why stories and poetry seem to me central to our ability to change to meet the demands of ecology. They rest upon an openness to imaginative overthrow, a readiness to see things entirely differently, which is what we need to grasp hold of in order to survive. We’ve got to go back to fundamentals and change things.


This is the whole poem. It’s a beautiful entwining of family memory and science in the raw.

Miner’s Pond

in memory of Elie David Michaels

1

A caver under stalactites,
the moon searches the stars.

In the low field, pools turn to stone.
Starlight scratches the pond,
penetrates in white threads;
in a quick breath, it fogs into ice.
A lava of fish murmurs the tightening film.

The crow is darkness’s calculation;
all absence in that black moment’s ragged span.

.

Above Miner’s Pond, geese break out of the sky’s
pale shell. They speak non-stop, amazed
they’ve returned from the stars,
hundreds of miles to describe.

It’s not that they’re wild, but
their will is the same as desire.
The sky peels back under their blade.

Like a train trestle, something in us rattles.
All November, under their passing.

.

Necks stiff as compass needles,
skeletons filled with air;
osmosis of emptiness, the space in them
equals space.

Their flight is a stria, a certainty;
sexual, one prolonged
reflex.

Cold lacquering speed, feathers oiled by wind,
surface of complete transfluency.
The sky rides with tremors in the night’s milky grain.

.

Windows freeze over like shallow ponds,
hexagonally blooming.
The last syrup of light boils out from under the lid
of clouds; sky the colour of tarnish.
Like paperweights, cows hold down the horizon.

Even in a place you know intimately,
each night’s darkness is different.

They aren’t calling down to us.
We’re nothing to them, unfortunates
in our heaviness.
We watch at the edge of words.

At Miner’s Pond we use the past
to pull ourselves forward; rowing.

2

It was the tambourine that pushed my father
over the edge in 1962. His patience
a unit of time we never learned to measure.
The threat to “drive into a post”
was a landmark we recognized and raced towards
with delirious intent,
challenging the sound barrier of the car roof.

We were wild with stories we were living.
The front seat was another time zone
in which my parents were imprisoned, and from which
we offered to rescue them, again and again.

That day we went too far.
They left us at the side of the road
above St. Mary’s quarry. My mother insists
it was my father’s idea, she never wanted to drive away,
but in retrospect, I don’t believe her.

This was no penalty; drilled in wilderness protocol,
happy as scouts, my brothers
planned food and shelter.
The youngest, I knew they’d come back for us,
but wasn’t sure.

Hot August, trees above the quarry like green flames,
dry grass sharpened by the heat, and
dusty yellow soil “dry as mummy skin,”
a description meant to torment me.

They were rockhounds howling in the plastic light
melting over fossil hills;
at home among eras.

It was fifteen minutes, maybe less,
and as punishment, useless.
But the afternoon of the quarry lives on,
a geological glimpse;
my first grasp of time,
not continuous present.

.

Their language took apart landscapes,
stories of sastrugi and sandstreams,
shelves and rain shadow.
Atoms vibrating to solids,
waves into colours. Everything stone
began to swirl. Did the land sink
or the sea rise? When my brothers told me
I’d never seen the stars, that light’s too slow,
that looking up is looking back,
there was no holding on. Beyond my tilting room
night swarmed with forest eyes and flying rats,
insects that look like branches, reptiles like rocks.
Words like solfatara, solfatara,
slipping me down like terraced water, into sleep.

.

Full of worlds they couldn’t keep to themselves,
my brothers were deviant programmers of nightmares.
Descriptions of families just like ours,
with tongues petrified and forks welded to their teeth,
who’d sat down to Sunday dinner
and were flooded by molten rock;
explorers gnawing on boots in the world’s dark attic;
Stadacona’s sons, lured onto Cartier’s ship and held hostage,
never to see home again.

When the lights were out
my free will disappeared.
Eyes dry with terror, I plummeted
to the limbo of tormented sisters, that global sorority
with chapters in every quiet neighbourhood, linked by fear
of volcanic explosions and frostbite, polar darkness,
and kidnapping by Frenchmen.

.

The ritual walk to the bakery, Fridays
before supper. Guided by my eldest brother
through streets made unfamiliar by twilight,
a decade between us.
I learned about invisibility:
the sudden disappearance of Röntgen’s skin—
his hand gone to bones—and the discovery of X-rays.
Pasteur’s germs, milk souring on the doorsteps of Arbois,
and microbe-laden wine — “what kind of wine?”—
the word “microbe”
rolling in my brother’s fourteen-year-old mouth
like an outstanding beaujolais.
On these walks, frogs came back to life with electricity.
Sheep were cured of sheep-sickness.
Father Time, Einstein, never wore a watch.
Galileo saw the smooth face of the moon

instantly grow old,
more beautiful for being the truth.
The Curies found what they’d been looking for
only after giving up; they opened the lab and saw the glow,
incorruptible residue, radiant stain!

In winter, Glenholme Avenue was already dark,
with glass trees, elms shivering in their ice-sleeves.
As we walked, the essence of fresh bread
whirled into the secular air,
the street hungry for its pure smell.

Even now, I wrap what’s most fragile
in the long gauze of science.
The more elusive the truth,
the more carefully it must be carried.

Remembering those walks,
I think of Darwin—
“no object in nature could avoid his loving recognition”—
on the bunk of the Beagle,
green with sea-sickness and the vertigo
of time. He was away five years
but the earth aged by millions.
Greeting him at Falmouth dock, his father cried:
“Why the shape of his head has changed!”
Stepping from cold night into the bright house,
I knew I’d been given privileged information,
because the excitement in my brother’s voice
was exclusive to the street, temporary,
a spell.

.

Brother love, like the old family boat
we call the tin can: dented, awkward,
but still able to slice the lake’s pink skin.

.

A family is a study in plate-tectonics, flow-folding.
Something inside shifts; suddenly we’re closer or apart.

There are things brothers and sisters know—
the kind of details a spy uses
to prove his identity—
fears that slide through childhood’s long grass,
things that dart out later; and pleasures like toucans,
their brightness weighing down the boughs.

Who but a brother calls from another hemisphere
to read a passage describing the strange
blip in evolution, when reptiles looked like
“alligator-covered coffee tables,”
evolution’s teenagers, with a “severe case of the jimjams
during the therapsid heyday”—
remembering those were the creatures we loved best,
with bulky limbs and backs like sails.

Memory is cumulative selection.
It’s an undersea cable connecting one continent
to another,
electric in the black brine of distance.

3

Migrating underground, miles below the path of the geese,
currents and pale gases
stray like ghosts through walls of rock.
Above and below, the way is known;
but here, we’re blind.

The earth means something different now.
It never heals, upturned constantly.

Now stones have different names.

Now there’s a darkness like the lakes of the moon;
you don’t have to be close to see it.

.

My brother’s son lived
one fall, one spring.

We’re pushed outside, towards open fields,
by the feeling he’s trying to find us.

Overhead the geese are a line,
a moving scar. Wavering
like a strand of pollen on the surface of a pond.
Like them, we carry each year in our bodies.
Our blood is time.

From Miner’s Pond (1991) published in a single volume with Weight of Oranges in 1997.

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