Congratulations to the writers of the five shortlisted poems for the inaugural Walrus Poetry Prize, co-presented by founding partner the Hal Jackman Foundation. Voting is now open for the $1,000 Readers’ Choice award. Read the finalists here, then cast your vote (limited by cookies to one per visitor) using the widget at the bottom of this post.
by Méira Cook
My lords and ladies, gentlemen of the jury—
when you hear hoofbeats, assume horses. Not zebras.
This is true in almost all parts of the world
except the African savannah, where it is safer
to assume zebras. Also eland, giraffes, herds
of this and that. In India, assume cows; in Spain,
bulls, matadors in their sun-blurred hooves.
In Tuscany, angels, in kingdom-come horses again,
pale quartets of “Wish You Were Here.” My client
sends his regrets. He is busy
falling through blank verse for all eternity while a mere afternoon
passes its shadow over us. The sun moves from one window
of the courthouse to the next, and then it is tea time.
One sugar or two? Perhaps a bun. Stretch
and yawn and back we go. I submit
for your perusal Exhibit A.
This is a map of the world, of God, and of everything.
Above is heaven, below is hell.
The future is to the right, the past is to the left.
My client, in his plea for mercy, wishes me to recall
his salient points. His sense of humour, direction, and yes, style,
his tendency to violent foreshortenings, and that finding
himself irredeemably zebra, he hoofed the streets
of his brawling, captious nature, kicking
up dust and all the limping platitudes
of this earth, our home. They tell you dreams
don’t come true. But they never tell you how.
by Nyla Matuk
The stoat takes a last stand, and, turning white
ermine as winter’s breath, would rather face its hunters
than soil its fur in a chase, buying purity
with its own death. This cui candor morte redemptus
is the word in the dream made flesh.
Look at the choppy surface on these headwaters.
How should I presume, excited to the moon,
the difference between such raptures?
In Mad Men, every car scene is a wavy ur-dream,
clouds from the recent past that seem
a reminder that I used to take a man
at his word. The feeling hovers, then begs,
finally coming to small death. I will buy
my own purity, wearing a red dress.
They say “rave” is from the French rêve.
Who are the great, mad men? Spell it “small death.”
Consider that the dream, riding the horns
of ornamental dilemmas, feels like mortality.
For and against the grain. Rave, death, rêve, dress,
the spotted stoat’s last stand, the dream the ermine’s last breath.
by Stevie Howell
Almosted into marble by the Medusa-eyed hoi polloi,
The Queen’s stone jowls, éraillure of crow’s feet,
are freshly quarried—fifty years late,
her face is lithic-flaked into a new lustrous, toothy smile,
as electricity excites mercury vapour, she is light-boxed,
backlit, mounted, thrust every few paces in the chambers
of the London tube. Her
cumulonimbus-hued bust, the size of Easter Island moai,
is shit-grinning over diamonds, on exhibit for the great
unwashed to grub up drool over. Jewels encased in
UV-proof acrylic vitrines, whettingly
argon-sandwiched, cannot be made stonier by our
brutish, countryside-bred, dazed unblink. We share
our sheep’s hypoxic shrug at the Lorenz curve of the earth,
we leap magpie flat-footed, shriek obsidian
disbelief tidings, genetic-fervent for useless, shiny things.
The Janus of the Jubilee and Olympics has the Queen
loitering in tunnels, her visage pinned to brick; a tattered
flag to the proclaimed, uncharted
country of herself billows above the footbridge—
the gammon display reminiscent of Styrofoam castles,
glue and sand. Mickey Mouse and the Magic Kingdom, Iraq
under Saddam. But my companion says no,
she looks like an albino Grinch. She looks like Rip Torn
in a Swarovski choker and cotton candy wig.
by Bardia Sinaee
Barnacle geese enjoy Nordic palatals,
stone relief fish beds and aberrant gulls.
When shellfish submerge and wash up riding buoys,
the geese fly one lap, plunge into fjord, ease
back their black neckties and splurge.
Barnacle geese sing hymns to their children
then push them off cliffs to see if they live.
No trust falls. No terranean birds.
Barnacle geese sing hymns to their children
then teach them the words. We’d call this stoic:
ask Goose Dad for insects and have your pick,
but ask about sex and he’ll make you eat fins.
I saw it last Christmas: Mom gutting the bird,
bailing fistfuls of pebbles and sand from its craw.
She took out its windpipe and voice box intact
and blew out a goose call the neighbours all heard.
Goose heads on platters with poppy seed loaf.
Goose born of driftwood in barnacled reeds.
Goose on the cliff with sisters and brothers.
A few on the ledge, a few in the water.
by Nyla Matuk
I noticed you first, your birth a paranormal float on that sintered
causeway of white light. As a gift moves us to tears, so your
amatory pleas reamortized all our uses for Moreau and Mastroianni
in La Notte, along Rome’s hospital road, the grace of her hardened outbacks
swayed by illuminations of buxom blondes on ceramic piazzas.
Do I take this man as a full bouquet? I do.
Bus stations when they mattered—when they épatait la bourgeoisie…
rounded the corners of each View-Master slide.
They called me the hyacinth girl, an allusive-historical
moment propice that fairly educated T.S. Eliot on Henry James.
Then James was labelled “pale porpoise” by Vladimir Nabokov.
Quick to judge; aesthetically judgmental. In truth, like a hyacinth,
a limp handkerchief, a little goodbye. Whosoever has reason to object.
Juror, face the accused. Accused, face the juror. There’s that star moment,
the delicate cliffhanger when an Olympian gymnast’s taped feet come into focus
on TV, and it is the cliché, it is the still point of the turning of the world,
from which an analogical chain forms in our minds: torrential rain
to missed balance beam; Ayers Rock, resting as some junked furnace of the gods,
to a motherboard that, from Central Command on the deity’s planet,
was sent the final, last regulatory body for this mortal coil.
In front of the daily glow of your magic lantern, how do you adopt the
depressive position? How can such flickerings bring on suspicion, harvest
your light from perspective studies by Flemish masters? I can’t
know this, because there are some things that remain terrible, sublime,
agglutinous, in the gulf between what I notice and what I should want.
I look back in wonder. I’m always in recovery over such things.
Maybe curatorial velocity is realized with the help
of a lever-operated Scopitone, a one-armed bandit peep show.
Sunshine, so much of it, leaving a purple sheen.
Cinema of a fairy world, chimera of woods.
Cedar- and pine-framed memories of childhood.
The soft relief of those conifers across the lake, long and late.
My melancholias were prequels to my mortsafes.
Armed with the new logic, Paul de Man played the ingenue,
a Swiss Army knife of delusion and semblance. He depended on the kindness of strangers. They fell away, and he became that awful unheimlich: himself.
Get this: Titan arum, the world’s tallest flower, bloomed. A lime green
phallus, shot from the centre of an undulated, cabbage-purple cup of shrubbery.
If Longinus had a vagina. The long story of the vagina.
Pope says science can unite humans with God (Huffington Post).
The long and vagina of it.
Science says Pope can unite God with humans.
Sarnia, Ontario has often been called the dirtiest place in Canada: it has the worst air quality of any city in the country. The community of approximately 70,000 people sits adjacent Chemical Valley, an enormous cluster of refineries and industrial facilities — including Imperial Oil, Dow Chemical Canada, Suncor Energy, and Shell Canada — which collectively represent 40 percent of Canada’s petrochemical sector.
Courtney Gilmour was born in Sarnia in 1984. Her right arm ends just above the wrist. Her left arm ends immediately below the elbow. She has one fully functional leg; the other ends mid-femur. Courtney uses a prosthetic to assist in walking. As seen in the above video, she performs trivial and complex tasks with only the “nubs” at the end of her arms.
Courtney’s mother routinely drove through Chemical Valley during her pregnancy. Shortly after their daughter’s birth, three geneticists visited the Gilmours to analyze their blood, hair, and other genetic markers. All three experts independently concluded that consistent exposure to pollutants led to Courtney’s birth defects. Her parents accepted these findings, and raised her to become a confident, independent woman. They noted her mental and physical perseverance from an early age. (more…)
Throughout human history, libraries have been targeted in seemingly personal attacks by invading forces. The immense Library of Alexandria was burned in 48 BCE — whether by accident or on purpose is not entirely clear; the Japanese army destroyed many Chinese university libraries during WWII; the Khmer Rouge burned most of the National Library of Cambodia in the 1970s; and Iraq lost huge portions of its national archives during the 2003 war, perpetrator unclear.
The invasion of York during the War of 1812 contained a touch of “comic opera” quality, as historian and former University of Toronto professor George Glazebrook called it in his 1971 book, The Story of Toronto, that was especially evident in the looting of the first-ever Toronto Library. As a long-time librarian, I often think that libraries are special; this part of the war’s history suggests that they may indeed be considered sacrosanct in the conduct of warfare.
The fifteen-ship American fleet first appeared in the York harbour on April 27, 1813. According to Glazebrook, York was “defended by a few obsolete cannons and 300 regulars, with the shaky support of an equal number of inexperienced militia against an invading army of 1,700 supported by powerful guns on a ship that moved at will.” Despite the weak defensive line, Canadian and British casualties in the invasion were less than half those of the Americans. (more…)
In this episode, US publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin takes stock of the industry’s current environment. Shatzkin is founder and CEO of the Idea Logical Company and author of the ebook The Shatzkin Files. He delivered this talk, “Publishing into the Flood,” at Book Summit, presented in partnership by Humber College and the Book and Periodical Council, and held at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre on June 21.
JOHNNY WAS DEAD WHEN I got home.
I opened the door, and do you know what? I knew. I couldn’t feel him anymore, is the only way I can describe it. You might think that’s crazy, but that’s the way it was.
After a while, I found him in the coat closet, curled up in the back corner. He hardly took up any room — he was the smallest I’d seen him since he was a kitten. I crawled in there with him and took one of his tiny paws between my fingers, and I thought of little Andrew Lloyd Webber all alone in Wendy’s empty apartment. And I started to cry. I cried for him, and I cried for all the cats in the world who don’t have love, and at least that’s one thing Johnny had. You can take everything else away, but at the very least he had love.
THAT NIGHT MY PHONE rang, and it was Sherry, which is funny because I couldn’t remember ever giving her my home number.
“I’ve been calling everyone.” She sounded out of breath. “Something awful’s happened.”
“Oh, no,” I said. “Is it Wendy?”
“Oh, Eunice,” she said, and that’s when I heard the catch in her voice, and a second later, she was sobbing.
“Shhh,” I said. “It’s okay. Let it out.”
By this time, I’d taken Johnny to the vet. I’d said goodbye to him, and the nurse had given me a big hug, and then I’d come home to my empty apartment.
“Wendy, she —”
“I know. I know it’s hard. Shhh.” (more…)
THE NEXT DAY WAS a Friday so I had my reports to do, and I was also preoccupied with thinking about the night before.
The clinic had been decorated with garlands and plastic holly, and the vet had poked and prodded Johnny, and he didn’t complain — he never was a complainer — but I could tell he was feeling anxious. Before we left, they recommended lots of rest, and I told them he’d been doing that already, and they said that’s good, but then I caught the vet and the nurse exchanging a glance that they didn’t think I saw.
I was also feeling bad for how short I’d been with Sherry the day before, because all she’d really wanted was my company, and all she wanted us to do was help a sick friend — a dying friend — together. I was planning on saying something nice to her when I went to deliver my reports, but she beat me to it.
She walked by on her way to lunch and stopped in front of my desk and smiled at me. “Eunice,” she said in a very sincere voice, and I knew she was going to ask me about Johnny because Sherry is the type to look to the future and let bygones be bygones. “Eunice,” she said, “how is your day going?”
“Oh, Sherry,” I said and heard my voice catch, “he’s not doing very well.” Then I realized she hadn’t asked about Johnny at all.
Sherry made a sad face where she stuck out her bottom lip and sort of folded it over her top lip, and she stared at me for a good fifteen seconds before I mustered up a smile and said, “Thanks for asking, Sherry.”
“Well,” she said with a wink, “you know me!”
I nodded and switched my gaze to the Grand Canyon. The way the edges of my computer screen framed that natural wonder, it humbled me to see it. Johnny and I are specks, I thought to myself. We are teeny-tiny specks, the two of us. (more…)
THE NEXT DAY, SHERRY and Val and Ruth P. went to visit Wendy on their lunch hour. I could’ve gone with them if I wanted to, but it was a Thursday and my reports are due on Friday, and the three of them were gone for more than an hour, and I can’t afford that kind of time the day before I have to hand in my reports.
They brought Ruth P.’s card that we’d all signed with Ruth C.’s pen (I wrote, “Eat lots of Jell-O!” because I was trying to think of something nice associated with hospitals, and the fact that they often serve Jell-O was the only good thing that came to mind), and Sherry told me later that day that Wendy had been in good spirits. She was sitting up and joking with the gals about not having to do her weekly score sheets for Mr. Vanderhoeven. Wendy’s score sheets are quantitative and my reports are qualitative — there’s a big difference.
“Did you tell her about the kitten?” I said.
Sherry squinted. “No, I don’t think we mentioned the kitten. But Wendy said our card was very thoughtful, and she really appreciated my idea about us keeping up her apartment while she wasn’t there, but she said she’d like to wait for the biopsy results before we started that because she might be going home soon. She said she was hoping for the best.” Sherry took a deep breath. “And then there were tears.”
“Oh, no,” I said. “Wendy started to cry?”
“No, I did. We’ve gotten so close, Wendy and me, and I couldn’t bear to see her lying in that hospital bed wearing that ratty nightgown of hers, surrounded by all sorts of equipment. Not that she’s hooked up to any of it, but it’s there, you know?”
I stood up then, and I put my arms around Sherry. She feels so deeply about her friends, I thought, but who’s feeling deeply about her? So I hugged her and said, “Maybe there’s still good news to come.” (more…)
FOR THE NEXT FEW weeks, Sherry came by on her way to lunch to give me the latest on how Wendy was doing — “She’s sleeping better,” or “She threw up six times today, can you believe that?” You could depend on Sherry to have her finger on it.
At the end of each day, I’d go home to Johnny, and we’d sit and watch our shows together, and every so often I’d notice he was a bit lighter than before. I remembered when he used to be big and round and I’d tried to put him on a diet a few times. “To make you svelte,” I used to tell him, but it never worked because he enjoyed his food too much. I petted him and felt his ribs poking me and said, “You’re a svelte kitty now, Johnny. What a handsome, svelte kitty you are.”
ABOUT A MONTH LATER, Sherry came by my desk looking very emotional, and I could tell right away something big had happened because Sherry gets emotional when it comes to her friends.
“Eunice, you can’t imagine what I’ve been through. Yesterday I realized Wendy’s been off for a month — an entire month, Eunice. I called her up and said, ‘This is ridiculous. A person does not miss a whole month of work without something being seriously wrong.’ I said, ‘Wendy, you are unwell, and we need to get you to a doctor. And if it means me driving you to the emergency room and waiting with you until you are seen, then so be it. So that’s what I did.” Sherry gasped suddenly at my computer screen. “Oh God, look at those palm trees. What I wouldn’t give to be there right now, sipping rum punch with the sand between my toes. Right, Eunice? You know what I’m talking about.”
I didn’t, but I stared at my tropical getaway screen saver and tried to imagine the real thing.
Sherry told me she drove to Wendy’s apartment, and Wendy looked about as bad as she’d ever seen her. She was all curled up on her couch in a filthy stained nightgown, and her apartment “looked like a garbage bomb had hit it.” (more…)
OUR OFFICE IS VERY community-minded. We hold two food drives a year: the first one at Thanksgiving and the second one not at Christmas, because the poor people get so much food from other food drives at Christmas that we like to surprise them with something extra on a random day when they’re not expecting it.
We also look out for, as Sherry puts it, “our own little community.” People are always asking how everybody is, how everybody’s family is. Personally, I have never had much time for socializing at work. My reports keep me busy all day, right up until five o’clock when I would go home to Johnny.
Every so often, Sherry would come by my desk, sometimes after one of her vacations, and ask me how my day was going. That was about the extent of my socializing. I couldn’t even tell you how many places Sherry’s been; I know she’s been to China and Australia, and when you go that far away you have to go for at least three weeks because of the jet lag. I only know that from Sherry. The farthest I’ve ever been was to Florida with my family, and it wasn’t even all that warm when we went.
“That Wendy’s not right,” is what Sherry said to me when she came by my desk that October noon hour, and I honestly had to think for a minute before I could picture who she meant.
“Wendy who?” I was eating my ham sandwich, and the polar ice caps were on my computer screen. Apparently they’re starting to melt, if you can believe that. I gazed at that big stretch of white and I thought, Winter is coming. Then my wheat field scene came on, with the environmentally friendly windmills, and I felt reassured.
“Wendy, who sits next to me!” said Sherry. “Haven’t you seen her lately? She looks awful, and she smells awful because she’s throwing up all the time. I think she’s sick with something.” (more…)
The latest crash was, without a doubt, the best story yet. John could tell the first time he told it. He could tell by the way his listeners’ faces fell, everyone standing in a small circle holding their drinks while the last barbecue of the year heated and smoked behind them, steaks forgotten. It was late in the year, the evenings already sharp and suddenly cold, the sky grey with impending sleet. There was always someone, John thought, who just couldn’t let go, who had to keep the summer going. So there were steaks and burgers, sweaters and jackets pulled around tight, and blue smoke blowing sideways away from the barbecue while John held a beer and talked gravely about the latest accident.
“So he cut the wheel back — and that was the right thing to do, cut the wheel back, and get out of the skid — but he went too far with it, and there was this dump truck,” John said, listening to himself as he talked.
Tone it down, he told himself, pull back — not so preachy.
“Not survivable,” saying it like a judge delivering a verdict. “I could tell that right away. You didn’t even have to run — nothing anyone could have done anyway.
“Crushed them right there where they were sitting, even the kid in the back seat. Hard to even tell what parts belonged to which body.”
John hadn’t even seen the bodies — the police had come and taped off the scene after the firefighter had pushed him back, closing the road and holding up tarpaulins when the firefighters started cutting the car into pieces — but nobody knew that.
John thought about throwing in a resigned shrug, then thought better of it. He caught a glimpse of Mary’s eyes, and they looked sharp and beady and black like a crow’s.
Afterwards, when they’d left for home in the car, she started talking, her voice low, her face fixed and straight ahead so that she was talking to him without ever looking at him. “You enjoy it too much,” she said. “All these horrible things that happened to other people.” Her hands were working in her lap as if desperately trying to find something to do, he thought, or as if she was afraid he might hit her. (more…)
The third crash was different — not quite in their yard this time, but caused by too much speed on the same familiar straightaway, and by the same sharp curve just before the house. A car had swung its way almost into the ditch, one front wheel over onto the loose stones of the shoulder, but this time the driver had cut the wheel sharply, in time to get his car back onto the road. He was successful in that, but in the process he flung his car across the centre line and straight into the path of a dump truck heading in the opposite direction. Neither driver had a chance to react after that, and the accident was awesome in its sheer brutality.
There were no pieces travelling around the car in their delicate prescribed arcs, finding their way to a new position along explainable lines. This was all hard, full, spectacular stop, the car crumpling abruptly underneath the huge engine of the truck, the back of the car accordioning into the front as it kept moving forwards.
Inside the house, the head-on impact sounded like an explosion. John jumped off the couch, knowing immediately what had happened. As he ran for the door, Mary threw the book she had been reading at him, the pages whiffling and fluttering, but she missed.
John could see how serious the accident was as soon as he got out the door. It was the way the dump truck was crouched over the crushed car like a cat over a small and absolutely dead mouse. The driver’s door on the truck was open, the driver running around the car from one side to the other, trying to see inside. The roof, what you could see of it, was crushed flat down to the tops of the doors, so the vehicle looked more like a sheet-steel tank than anything else.
There was an absolute absence of sound, everything startled into silence.
John could see that other cars were stopping, people piling out in a rush until they got close enough to the car to take a good look. Then they were simply slumping away, leaning on their cars as if they needed the support, as if their bones and muscles had suddenly developed an inexplicable weakness. (more…)
In this episode, Quill & Quire web editor Sue Carter Flinn discusses the lure of Mount Everest with Toronto author and poet Tanis Rideout, whose debut novel Above All Things recounts the ill-fated final expedition of adventurer George Mallory, intertwined with a day in the life of Mallory’s wife, Ruth.
“A love story, a tale of adventure, and a study in obsession all at once, Above All Things is simply breathtaking. With Tanis Rideout’s debut, a major new voice in Canadian fiction arrives.” — Joseph Boyden, Scotiabank Giller Prize–winning author of Through Black Spruce
“Above All Things has it all: adventure, tragedy, mystery, and a deeply moving love story. It’s gorgeously written and beautifully paced. I could not put it down. Prepare to be dazzled.” — Alison Pick, author of the Man Booker Prize–nominated Far To Go