Category Archives: Poetry

Flyway- A Captivating Family Story That Will Have You Asking Hard Questions

In her beautiful book Flyway Sarah Ens tells her Mennonite grandmother Anni’s story in the form of a long poem. We begin in Ukraine during the period between 1929 and 1945. Anni’s little sister dies, the churches close and Anni’s father is arrested and taken away. Famine comes.

Hunger taught us to wake slowly, to lift, as if from water.
If you did not starve, hunger taught you

to watch and wait. If you did not starve,
the stone of your stomach turned traitor.


Anni does housework and childcare for her younger siblings while attending school and then graduates just as the Germans invade Ukraine. Amid the war Anni’s brother Peter drowns.

Where is God my mother said.
I saw his body blue beneath a smooth skin of water

After a time of German occupation the Red Army approaches and

evacuees crawled the road……..
35,000 stumbling through the murk. You could hear

their hungry animals in the night, the digging of shallow pits
to hold their dead.

Anni’s family flees their home and her older brother Hans leaves them to fight with the Germans.

Hans stood shifting, crossed one leg behind the other while Mother

warbled. Please God.

Hans would not let her kiss him good-bye.

Anni, her mother and her sister then begin a trek to freedom which takes them through occupied Yugoslavia to Germany and finally to Canada.

Three women flying with what we could carry

Once the women arrive in Canada the family story is told partially through letters which are exchanged between Anni’s brother Hans who remains behind and his mother and sister. The letters in Flyway were inspired by actual family letters collected and translated by one of Sarah’s uncles.

At her book launch last night Sarah said her grandmother’s story has become a type of family myth and in her poetry she wanted to explore how that myth had shaped her. Although her grandmother’s story is clearly marked by tragedy Sarah said her legacy from her Oma Anni would best be characterized as one of joy and love.

The family story in Flyway is interspersed with scenes set in Manitoba’s tall grass prairie where the migration of the poet’s family is compared to the migration of the grassland birds

savannah sparrow; clay coloured sparrow; red-winged blackbird; brown-headed cowbird; western meadowlark; mourning dove

Opening image from the Flyway book launch hosted by McNally Robinson Booksellers which I watched online and can still be viewed there

There are many other threads to follow in Flyway and hard questions evoked by Sarah’s meaningful and striking words. I have read the book three times now and each time have been prompted to consider some new questions.

Is religious faith more about what you shouldn’t do or what you should do? How do we respond to the reality that Indigenous people were displaced so Mennonite immigrants would have land on which to settle? What should we do about the fact that one third of migratory grassland birds are on the verge of extinction?

I am the librarian at the church Sarah attends and bought a copy of her book to place on its shelves. But now that I have read Flyway I will be buying a copy of my own as well as several for friends and family who I know will appreciate as I did, its captivating story, exquisite poetry and thought-provoking questions.

Other posts………

The Tree of Life- Poems by Sarah Klassen

Cattail Skyline- Personal Connections

Intimacy and Poetry

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Intimacy and Poetry

Did you know April is National Poetry Month in Canada? To celebrate each year The League of Canadian Poets picks a theme and encourages members to write poetry or select poetry to read with that theme in mind. This year the theme is Intimacy and it is described simply as……. a closeness we feel. Artist Megan Fildes has created a marvellous poster that illustrates all kinds of intimacy.

I thought it would be interesting to look for photos in my albums that illustrate the same kinds of intimacy the poster does.

You can foster intimacy with music. At Christmas time my Mom plays carols on the piano and my grandmother sings.
You can feel intimate about something you write. Our son writes a personal wish on a rock when we visited Walden Pond.

You can have intimate friendships. I get together regularly with this group of long- time friends.

Grandparents and grandchildren share a unique and intimate kind of relationship like my Mom had with her grandsons.
You can have an intimate relationship with a spouse or partner. Here Dave tries to get intimate with me on a boat in Barcelona.

Start dancing with others and you have to establish a kind of intimacy quickly as you try to match your steps and movements. Here I am dancing with some women near Shangri- La City in Yunnan province in China.

I’ve had an intimate relationship with books for a long time. Her I am in 1963 reading on the couch.

I have been forced to reinvent my relationship with my Dad since dementia has changed him. In some ways this has meant our relationship has become more intimate than ever before because he was always an extremely independent person and now he needs my support and help.

During my career a teacher I established some intimate relationships with my work colleagues and some of those relationships have lasted to this day. Here I am with the wonderful staff members I taught with at Elmdale School in Steinbach.
At a nature preserve in Croatia I had a little more intimate relationship with an owl than I might have thought I ever would

Since intimacy is the word for National Poetry month here is a list poem inspired by the photos I found.

Absorbing

Surprising

Unique

Humorous

Changing

Long lasting

Momentary

Lyrical

Inspiring

Sad

Joyful

Intimacy

Other posts………

Teenagers and Poetry

The Power of a Poem

Life is Messy

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Ageing

I like the freedom of it, constructing my days as I like, an extra cup of coffee in the morning, an extra glass of wine in the evening

Exploring new ideas and places, the delight of a grandchild’s love, stretching my comfort zone, reading books in stacks, time to create and think and write and volunteer

No longer at an employer’s beck and call, I can defy convention, have opinions of my own, spend time with those I like, do things my way 

More cavalier about my appearance, less attached to stuff, less cleaning, long walks

The twinge in my knees, knowing my mother only as a memory, thinking more about my childhood, a friend’s dementia diagnosis

Lost keys, a missed appointment, the forgotten name of a former student

Repeating stories, mourning lost ideals, screens bombarding me with Twitter and Facebook and What’s App and Instagram

Like the screen on the heart monitor erratic and then slowing to a flatline. 

Other posts………..

Supporting Each Other

The Tree of Life- Poems by Sarah Klassen

The Power of a Poem

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Filed under Poetry, Retirement

Inspired by Mary and John

I haven’t had my usual drive lately and there are projects littered across my desk and on my computer that I just don’t seem to have the energy to tackle. I’ve been neglecting regular exercise and wasting time on shallow pursuits that don’t benefit me or others. This morning I looked to the poet Mary Oliver for inspiration and found it in the third stanza of her poem Fourth Sign of the Zodiac.

I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.

so why not get started immediately.

I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.

And to write music or poems about.

Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
Bless touching.

You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
Or not.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime

Keats Shelley Memorial House in Rome

When we were in Rome we visited the house where John Keats spent the last few months before he died of tuberculosis at age 25.

In the bedroom of the Keats apartment in Rome

I stood in his bedroom and saw the alcove where he may have sat at a desk and penned some of his last writings.

As Mary Oliver reminds us Keats lived a short life but hardly a wasted one. He wrote lines of poetry that still inspire us.

A thing of beauty is a joy forever
Its loveliness increases; it will never 
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep 

A bower quiet for us, and a sleep 
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

Today a new week begins and I’m going to let John and Mary inspire me to make it a productive and positive one.

Other posts………..

My Talented Friends

They Jump Into the Work Head First

Inspiration From Maya Angelou

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To Pay Attention

In her beautiful and important poem Yes! No! Mary Oliver asks us to remember……..

How important it is to walk along, not in haste but slowly, looking at everything

She tells us that ………..

To pay attention. This is our endless and proper work.

Mary’s words remind me that whatever I am doing if I pay attention I will find things.……

to surprise me,

to make me think

to humble me

to make me laugh

to engage me

to connect me

to awe me

to delight me

to challenge me

to restore me

to interest me

and inspire me

Mary Oliver has another poem Summer Day in which she says

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is

I do know how to pay attention.

To pay attention. This is our endless and proper work.”

Other posts………….

Wild Grasses- A Love Story

And That Led Me

When They Look Back

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Filed under Poetry, Reflections

Cattail Skyline-Personal Connections

Joanne Epp’s new book of poetry Cattail Skyline

If you are like me you have a kind of love-hate relationship with berries. I LOVE eating them but childhood memories of picking them in prickly heat amid clouds of mosquitoes are also vivid. Joanne Epp captures the two sides of the berry experience perfectly in five poems about berries in her new book Cattail Skyline.

Joanne made me recall the discomfort of….. branchfuls of prickles that scrape the forearm skin

but she also brought to mind the…… sharp sweetness…… of newly picked berries and the way berry jam…….. eaten on a fresh bun after school ……tasted…. cool and tart.

Photo of Joanne Epp from the Canadian Mennonite University blog

I so enjoyed the tour of rural Saskatchewan Joanne gives us in her How far can we follow part of the book. Many happy days of my childhood were spent on my grandparents’ farm near Drake Saskatchewan so Joanne’s experiences and evocative descriptions rang true for me.

Red Winged Blackbird on a Cattail- photo by David Driedger

Lanigan Creek from this section of poems gives the book its title

Swaying on cattails, the blackbirds—

yellow-headed, red-winged—see it all:

their domain and one intruder.

I sidestep down the bank, crouch low.

Blackbirds whistle. I wait.…….

Below the cattail skyline, time

becomes elastic. The silence hums.

With a teacher at the Goldstone school in Phnom Penh where I worked as a volunteer

I have spent a fair bit of time in Cambodia and so it was Joanne Epp’s poems about her visit there that perhaps resonated with me most as she described the country’s ambience with lines like

the monks in orange yellow robes some of them just boys

the air’s too thick to wade through

Buddha looking down from his dais pink and smiling

sticky rice and cans of Coke for sale.

Photo taken during my visit to the Tuol Sleng high school in Phnom Penh

Like Joanne, I visited Tuol Sleng a former high school turned interrogation centre during the Pol Phot regime. Thousands of people were tortured and killed there and Joanne’s words captured the scene graphically

In the bare room, an iron bed,

shackles, chains.

Photo on the wall verifies

the bloodstain on the floor.

On the footbridge in Omand’s Creek Park

I have biked through Omand’s Creek Park more times than I can count and have picnicked there while canoeing down the Red River. In her set of a dozen poems Joanne takes us through a whole year in the park telling us what is happening there each month. On my most recent visit I noted things from Joanne’s April entry about the park.

Welcome the warbler, the mourning dove,

startled wings rising from footpaths.

Welcome the prelude to leaves, red

stamens clustered on maples.

Welcome the footbridge rising from water,

the creek receding, fish odour of mud.

My grandparents’ tombstone in Winkler Manitoba- photo by Al Loeppky

Cemeteries are one of my favourite places to visit so the eight poems about cemeteries in Cattail Skyline were very meaningful. For me the lines where Joanne best captures the experience of a cemetery visit are…..

you range back through decades, reading grey limestone

obelisks, concrete pillows, slant markers in granite. A

marble tablet, date of death: 1908—the oldest stone your

haphazard search has discovered. Almost ninety years

before your son’s birth—your grandparents were children

then. What else was here? Wagon tracks, pine seedlings

in rows, houses small against the horizon—straight lines

scratched into the landscape. You look up: against the tall

hedge, a cloud of tiny flying things. A shimmer—

I am not a poet so I always appreciate it when a poet can bring to life experiences of mine in beautiful and memorable ways. Joanne Epp did exactly that for me with Cattail Skyline.

The poems in her collection which will resonate with you might be quite different than mine but you are sure to find them.

Other posts……..

The Tree of Life by Sarah Klassen

Two Poets on Prayer

Poetry and Teenagers

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Even the gods speak of God

A book I am currently reading has introduced me to the poetry of David Whyte.

Self Portrait is one of my favourite poems so far.

Maori Jesus in the window of the Faith Anglican Church
Rotorua New Zealand

Self Portrait

It doesn’t interest me if there is one God
Or many gods.
I want to know if you belong — or feel abandoned;
If you know despair
Or can see it in others.
I want to know
If you are prepared to live in the world
With its harsh need to change you;
If you can look back with firm eyes
Saying “this is where I stand.”
I want to know if you know how to melt
Into that fierce heat of living
Falling toward the centre of your longing.
I want to know if you are willing
To live day by day
With the consequence of love
And the bitter unwanted passion
Of your sure defeat.
I have been told
In that fierce embrace
Even the gods
Speak of God.

~ David Whyte ~

With my older son

Other posts…………

Two Poets on Prayer

Sweets For A Hundred Flowery Springs

A New Poet

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The Power of A Poem

As far as I’m concerned the poet stole the show at yesterday’s inauguration of American President Joe Biden. Standing full of promise in her bright yellow coat and bold red hat twenty-two-year-old Amanda Gorman’s voice rang true and clear across her country and the world as she recited the rich and rhythmic words she had written especially for the occasion. What passion! What poise! What purpose! I’ve listened to Amanda recite her poem The Hill We Climb about half a dozen times now and so far I just can’t choose which is my favorite line.

We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another

Even as we grieved we grew, even as we hurt we hoped, even as we tired we tried

Victory won’t lie in the blade but in all the bridges we’ve made

We will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one

If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and changes our children’s birthright.

Let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left

For there is always light if only we are brave enough to see it. If only we are brave enough to be it.

I have a feeling Amanda’s poem will be read or listened to in many classrooms this morning. By yesterday afternoon my Twitter feed was lighting up with ideas from teachers about how they might share The Hill We Climb with their students.

I was thrilled about that. I taught high school English for six years and inevitably when I would introduce our poetry unit there would be groans in the classroom. Teenagers thought poetry was boring, hard to understand, and certainly not something they could write. I loved to watch them develop personal preferences for certain poems and poets, learn that a poem could mean something different and true to every person who read it, and realize they too could be poets.

Amanda’s poem will certainly become one that is oft-recited and loved and its words will be interpreted in a myriad of ways as people think about how its message applies to them. I wonder if it may have the power to inspire a whole generation to believe they can be poets and also practical people of principle who dream they can change the world and then go out and do it.

A very young and incredibly gifted Black female poet stole the show at yesterday’s American presidential inauguration. What could be more fitting or give the world more faith in the future?

Other posts………

Poetry and Teenagers

Artistic Inspiration For Our Time

The Comfort of a Poem

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The Tree of Life- Poems by Sarah Klassen

 In a book chat featured on the 2020 Thin Air Writers Festival site, Sarah Klassen and Sally Ito talk about Sarah’s latest volume of poetry The Tree of Life published by Turnstone Press 

Since I had just read The Tree of Life I was interested to learn from their discussion that many of the poems in the section of the book titled Ordinary Time were inspired by things Sarah observed in nature while standing on the balcony of her fourth-floor apartment.  

Sarah introduces us to a convoy of geese as they “contemplate, courageously, the next long flight,” the sparrow with its “claws like little commas”, the hawk that “hovers, hungry, wings wide open as if in benediction,” and the bald eagle “in transit across the sky’s blue canopy.”

Readers are enchanted by foxes “yelping, chasing, wrestling on the grass like children unrestrained by fear of predators or vixen mother,”  deer who “come softly to the garden bringing nothing but their hunger and their grace,” and even wasps who “nuzzle the patio’s torn screen door seeking refuge from the autumn wind.”

In keeping with the title of Sarah’s book The Tree of Life, there is a series of thought-provoking poems in the Ordinary Time section about trees…. the apple, fig, spruce, oak, elm, and sycamore. Of an oak tree remembered from childhood Sarah writes…..

“A branch of our oak had grown thick and bent
into something resembling the handle of an oversized cup
a giant could stick his fat thumb through.”

I thought the nature poems in Ordinary Time were particularly appropriate for our current time. Of course, nothing about 2020 is ordinary. But people unable to travel or socialize have been drawn to the natural world for activity, inspiration, and reflection. Sarah is a nature watcher and she reminds us not only of the beauty but also the brutality we can witness as we observe the natural world.  In a poem about a loving pair of geese and their little family, Sarah also includes 

“A crow couple clamped to a willow branch.
Four jet eyes nail the goslings, a succulent quartet”

I was particularly drawn to the poems in the section of Sarah’s book titled Half the Sky.  The first six are about women from the Bible and Sarah makes the choice to expose the darkness in their lives. The concubine in Judges 19:22-26 who is

“gang-raped
in a town where all she wanted was
a little rest from travel and some food”

Queen Esther for whom

“days are long, and nights she is at the mercy of the king’s whim. She could live, or
she could die if she lifts onto her soft shoulders
the burden of a nation’s fate.”

There are also poems about Jephthah’s daughter who becomes a human sacrifice, Eve whose son murders his brother, Hagar who is sent into exile, and Mary who is harshly judged for her impropriety in anointing Jesus’ feet with costly oil.  

Sarah Klassen – photo from Turnstone Press by Nadine Kampen

During her interview with Sally Ito, Sarah revealed she had not written the poems that appear in The Tree of Life in any particular order and certainly not with the idea they would fit into a certain section of a book. I felt that gave me a kind of license to skip around the book too, savouring Sarah’s rich and riveting texts, one at a time, thinking about the questions they raised and the personal connections they brought to mind. 

Four of my favourite poems in The Tree of Life were Country which turns a pedicure into a moving experience, New Music where a young violinist inspires an ageing heart, Itinerary which catalogues the anxieties of travel, and Tower which offers a child’s perspective on a tragedy. I could connect with each poem in such a personal way. 

I can highly recommend Sarah Klassen’s The Tree of Life.  You are sure to find poems on its pages that will inspire you to look at the natural world with new eyes, help you see old stories from new points of view, and poems that will make you think about your own personal experiences in new ways. 

Other posts……….

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Oh Great Spirit

My friend Esther introduced me to the beautiful Great Spirit Prayer. She learned it from the children in an inner-city Winnipeg school where she was a student-teacher. It’s words have stayed with her over many decades.  I thought I’d share it this Sunday morning along with some photos I’ve taken that I thought might illustrate it well. 
Oh, Great Spirit, whose voice I hear in the wind, whose breath gives life to all the world. 

Hear me; I need your strength and wisdom. 

Let me walk in beauty, and make my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset. 

Make my hands respect the things you have made and my ears sharp to hear your voice. 

Make me wise so that I may understand the things you have taught my people. 

Help me to remain calm and strong in the face of all that comes towards me. 

Let me learn the lessons you have hidden in every leaf and rock. 

Help me seek pure thoughts and act with the intention of helping others. 

Help me find compassion without empathy overwhelming me. 

I seek strength, not to be greater than the other, but to fight my greatest enemy, Myself. 

Make me always ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes. 

So when life fades, as the fading sunset, my spirit may come to you without shame. 

Chief Yellow Lark – 1887- Lakota

Other posts ……………..

A Change of Prayer

Prayer- A Kick in the Pants

The Artist’s Prayer

The Journalist’s Prayer

 

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