The heat wave has now broken, but we had hot and extremely hot weather in Toronto over the past while. During that time, I took to walking in the streets in the evening to listen to the cicadas and crickets. I discovered, to my surprise, that I was present to listening to the sounds of the insects, birds, cars and people instead of shutting out the sounds of the city. This led me to record one of my walks, which then led me to listen to some forgotten recordings. One was of the poem in this post.
Several years ago, I spent a lot of time writing and I’d read versions of my poems out loud and record them to hear which version sounded best to me. Here’s a poem which will explain itself, followed by a recent drawing.
It’s October two thousand ten
and I’m to apply for the Old Age Security Pension,
a task made more difficult
by my originally being an immigrant
and having four different names on my papers.
These burrs that I’ve transported across borders
I now scatter on the table
as I decide which ones to carry with me,
in the hope I will be recognized
as the thread that links the different words
by which I have been known.
In the process, I contemplate my various selves,
the changing names silently
eliciting my youth and middle age
not so much in sadness as in a survey of absences.
At City Hall, I sit in a crowded room
under fluorescent lights.
I have anticipated the long wait
and help manage boredom and an undercurrent of rage
by doing crossword puzzles
and half listening to the reassuringly incomprehensible
that two young people are speaking
as they wait, likely for their marriage licence.
All of us, including the staff,
are in limbo
holding this edifice of record keeping in place,
keeping tabs on ourselves, faithlessly
leaving trails of our scant existence
on dry forms and flickering screens.
I am rescued, however, by the relief of drama.
Some people, no longer compliant, have bolted
or gone missing.
Three couples cannot be found
when their names are called for their marriage licences.
Perhaps they have broken off their engagements while waiting
or decided to live common law or
have merely gone outside for a smoke.
The staff person I eventually see is contained though cordial,
takes me for who I am
and needs few of my compiled documents.
I leave knowing I will soon receive
the form letter of approval for my pension.
Not a joyous occasion
but a quiet rite of passage
into the realm of official old age
that strange pale land in which death befriends us
whether we like its attentiveness or not
a land made more rich by its limits
and on the threshold of vast amounts of time,
oneness with ancestors human and non
and the blinding light that shields us from an unknown world.
©Lily S. May 2010 – 2014
I’ve begun making a series of postcards. Here are the first two I’ve designed, back from the printer. These are combinations of two poems I’ve written superimposed on two of my linocuts. You can also see the postcards in my etsy shop.
I decided to give the series a name and hit upon naming them in honour of my beloved childhood dog–a beagle named Cedar.
The great great poet and song writer Leonard Cohen died yesterday. I was very fortunate to see and hear him perform a few years ago in Toronto when he filled a stadium with fans of all ages. He and the musicians with him gave the most generous long gracious show.
This is in remembrance of Leonard and in honour of his poetry and songs that make it easier to carry on with life.
Saturday, Nov. 12: I learned today that Leonard Cohen didn’t die on the 10th–the day his death was reported–but a few days earlier on Monday, November 7th.
I’ve completed an accordion booklet with my writing about Milne’s Black Waterfall painting. You can see the initial idea in Poem for an Old Woodcut. There’s other related posts following that one. I decided to print my writing on thin Japanese paper and adhere it to the booklet. Here’s some photos of it from different angles. I like seeing different parts of the print showing through the paper in the light.
As I continue turning some of my early prints into booklets, I’m playing around with words I might include with the prints. This last print I’ve been working with (the one that’s also in my previous post) has a lot of black ink in it. And that got me thinking about some writing I did a few years ago. In 2014 I took a poetry writing workshop at the Art Gallery of Ontario. After our meetings, I’d often wander around the Gallery, looking at various art works. This prose and poem came out of one of those meanderings. I’m contemplating the design of the booklet and will show it to you when I’ve completed it.
Here’s another photo of the woodcut I plan to use that I’ve cut down the middle.
And here’s the prose and poem:
On a day when the tomb-like qualities of the gallery seep into me too much, I enter the rooms of David Milne’s paintings looking for peace. I find some here, away from the more flashy works of Lauren Harris and Frank Carmichael. Milne’s are quieter, less assuming, but they give back to me, emitting life.
I stand looking at one that I like. It’s called Black Waterfall, a scene in the woods by a small falls. The water is, indeed, black, the colours subdued. After many minutes, I am surprised to see what I hadn’t noticed: Milne, himself, at his easel in the upper left of the painting. He’s the same colours as the trees, rocks and earth. He has disappeared into the scene or become one with it. I like the humility, the humour and the wisdom of his image, considering where the alienation from nature has taken humanity.
This is a painting I can carry with me, softening the dense traffic of the city, helping me inhale forested air where rivers flow, while the ghost of the artist amidst the trees silently witnesses my passing presence.
By the black waterfall
the painter has disappeared
into the trees, rocks and soil
where, being invisible,
he can more closely observe passersby
and the woods and water he’s depicting
camouflaged at his easel like a deer
but not bolting
steady of hand and sight
neither a conqueror
nor a slave
embodying a gentle way
to save a life.
©Lily S. May–May 2014
A few years ago, I entered several notebooks and photographs in The Sketchbook Project. In 2012, I sent away for another moleskine book. I had previously written a poem that I thought would paradoxically work with the topic “Fill me with Stories.” I made a book using very simple line drawings and printing. I can’t recall why I didn’t send the book in. Instead, I kept it and found it again the other week while I was straightening out old sketchbooks and notebooks. Here it is.
The Emptiness We Require
We were empty of ourselves at first
part of sky and sea
feather, rock and sand.
We were sun and moon
lion and ant
wind and snow.
Then we learned our names
and felt alone.
Ocean no longer flowed in our veins
and we hunted the lion and elephant.
Now we are in need of stories
particularly those of love
that fill us with the emptiness we require
to encompass more
than we imagined our lives to be.
–Lily S. May
Last week while looking through the sketchbook in which I found the artwork for my previous post, I came upon a drawing I had forgotten. A few years ago I used the drawing as a starting point for an oil painting. The painting was, in its style, unlike other work I had done. In the painting, the little bird in the tree has disappeared and the animal on the ground is now walking alone.
A phrase just came to mind: Alone and the road before me. I knew I had heard it before somewhere. Then I remembered the magnificent poetry of Ghassan Zaqtan. One of his poems is Alone and the River Before Me, translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah in Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me. That line had morphed into the one that I thought of.
Here’s the drawing and the painting.