Prolific award-winning poet, writer, playwright, and editor Gary Geddes returns with a new collection, The Oysters I Bring to Banquets (Guernica Editions). We read two elegiac poems from the collection below, with introductions from the poet himself.
From Gary: The first poem is an elegy for my late friend, the poet John Asfour, who lost his eyesight at age twelve outside the village of Aiteneit, Lebanon, when an explosive device her picked up exploded in his face. He eventually emigrated to Canada, worked at Labatt’s Brewery briefly, then complete a BA, MA and PhD at McGill in English, producing a thesis of modern Arabic poetry in translation, which I eventually published in Cormorant Books under the title, When the Words Burn. We became lifelong friends and travelled to Palestine and Israel after the signing of the Oslo Accords in the early ‘90s.
for John Asfour
Lebanon, a curious
boy, a shiny object in the sand
outside his village. With
all the lights switched
off and small metal particles
removed from his eyes,
his ruined optic nerves,
he explodes into poetry. Words
that have limped along,
taking no responsibility for themselves,
shape up and began, slowly, to bear
weight, acquire beauty,
like the one that spread
across faces in East Jerusalem,
as children in the orphanage
cling to his arms and legs,
John bent over the oud,
singing old familiar tunes in Arabic.
As for the loss, he makes
light of it, laughter
his tonic of choice. Unless,
of course, it’s ‘love,’ a concept
dismissed as sentimental
but worn like a diminutive heart
or cryptic hieroglyph on the sleeve.
A joke or satirical comment
on Israeli-Palestinian relations, beaming
faces dappled by light filtered through
Obliged to talk politics: Bedouins
displaced again in the Negev, Saib Erekat,
a walk near Abraham’s well.
Propped up in palliative care and flirting
with the duty nurse, he winces as the needle
releases a surge of morphine
into his vein. A new drug promised
reprieve, shrunk the tumour in his lung
to half its size, then stopped,
outflanked by fully-armed sleeper
cells. The dark archive of his poems
never raises the question why,
the flight of birds, a line of golden
wheat against the blue
From Gary: My second poem is a response to hearing about the terrible story of a female killer whale who pushed the dead body of her newborn calf above the water for seventeen days before surrendering it to the sea. I imagined trying to explain this story to a very young grandchild.J-35
Do animals cry? she asks.
I don’t know, I say, but I think
they grieve. I’d read about a camel
that sniffed her dead offspring
for days and wouldn’t move
until they placed its pelt on her
back. Why do you ask? Her hand
on the breakfast counter looks tiny
beside mine. A milk–ring graces
her mouth, a toasted bread-crumb
clings to her cheek. A sympathetic
smile is all I have to offer.
J-35, she says, scarcely audible.
The orca in the news has carried
her dead calf for fourteen days,
trying to keep it above water,
travelling hundreds of miles
as J-pod forages for the scarce
spring salmon. When it isn’t
resting on her head she grips
its tail with her teeth. J-35 knows
her baby’s dead, she whispers;
I think she’s trying to tell us
something. I leave the science
out for now: the most polluted
mammals on earth, the slurry
of toxins female orcas slough off
on their newborns. Extinction
looming, salmon stocks
depleted. Tanker traffic, the
old whale-road the Vikings
celebrated now a web of dirty
shipping lanes, booming
grounds, plastic archipelagos.
I think you’re right, I say,
let’s see what we can do.
* * *
Gary Geddes has written and edited more than fifty books of poetry, fiction, drama, non-fiction, criticism, translation and anthologies, including 20th-Century Poetry and Poetics, and won a dozen national and international literary awards, including the Commonwealth Poetry Prize (Americas Region), Lt.-Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence, and the Gabriela Mistral Prize.