Elegy on War: Invention of the Sword
This piece is about 7 printed pages long.
It is copyright © Peter Van Toorn and Jacket magazine 2007.
For pitee renneth soone in gentil herte — Chaucer
As fit for swinging and full of good oak
as the day it was cut down for a walk;
and taken for granted on any hike
till out climbing up a bouldershot brook
one fall, up mountain; and stopping to shake
the stiffness out of my walk, and just make
some tea in the shade by the brook, I woke
to a moon; and like the world’s oldest book
I read my father’s spiral in the stick’s
bronze skin, with flowers here and there cut out,
a line no shoulderload, sweaty hands, nicks
or scratches from years of walking would flout:
a lifeline–one world, one heart, one motion–
swinging through darkness with the sun and moon.
In art, content is very tiny, content. — de Kooning
O peppermint moon behind the loud running clouds!
O aspirin violets!
O the cue to look up splickering out there in the u-sphere!
O nick nock of madder smoosh!
O the sparks when she peels her sweater in the dark!
O sepia blush!
O pink pink: the fingers’ rinks winking with quick!
O no go zipper zinc!
O comet locked up in the shed by mistake!
O the worm in the wick of the fire!
O that sienna stays!
O baby’s milkteeth loose in a hailstorm!
O bright-assed baboon who sat on the peacock’s glory!
O blue pencils of rain on the rooftiles!
O leapfrog green!
O mouse on the telephone: dunk your biscuit static!
O tapioca from Oka tango!
O chrome shimmy of blackfly blood!
O dill to pistachio!
O trout with a rainbow up, lungs two feet deep in sharp air!
O tobacco nutmegs!
O angel hairs tuned in a cigarbox: viola! Le clavecin!
O tiny chrome haypiles of the stars!
O calico cat with the spaghetti whiskers!
O blizzard whites!
O piano crates unloading: thunder over Chinatown!
O old plum tree with the joker of jade up your sleeves!
O peonies! the flutes of spice!
O spinach wrinkles!
O fire chopping a log to strips of ash!
O yoghurt thwop!
O clam-shell tulip-cheeks!
O pink-spoggled eggs on umber craterboard!
O saffron velleity!
O opal winter lightning through the onyx glass!
O bamboo arpeggio!
O magnolia stalled like creamy brookwater!
O icicle pearls!
O for some steamy silvers to kick the goop out of flamingo balls!
O mustard glush!
O coffee, khaki, cookie, banana!
O peachy rum goo!
O sunladder yellow!
O amber hoofclick!
O cowlick of cobalt left in for the last failing argument!
O ozone manure!
O lake red with gold-ishings in it!
O bronze leaf hopping a highway of mint & toffee headlights!
O cigarette paper rolled by fog tongue!
O crumpled copper onionwrap!
O perfume of the stars around the moon!
O barnstraw blond!
O lollipop lick of streaming tangerine air!
There’s a rumour that starts like a rune
in the earth, seeding the tunnels of bones;
then travels away like a tune–
commuting by wind through every season,
working its way into the blood:
a heresy even the rains applaud
most recklessly...From warbling grass a young
boy takes it–like a frog, a bird, a song
or a stone; takes it home, holds it like light
in butterfly fingers; keeps it close,
under a pillow. Dreams it. Never knows
(till he dreams it at the speed of light)
how it can crush the skull’s tiny glass,
change the balance of grass,
or float its blossoms on the rickety
evening surf...If it travels alone
like a song in a box, it’s an echo
muffled by mould; or runs like a clock
but keeps changing time, it’s a walk
in somebody’s bones. Even the blind can see
it opens and closes and lives on like snow.
Frogs croak it, birds fly it, and songs referee.
In a poem it boasts all colours of the sun.
Like a bronze Pope, it salutes no one.
Elegy on War: Invention of the Sword
Who was he, this first butcher and weaponmaker
who simplified dying and growing up for a boy?
He must have been old and grisly, this first soldier
(poured in the same mould as his pig-iron sword),
forgetting to patent the world’s most patented toy.
Old fool, probably forged it for hacking up wood
or butchering bears; and no one understood–
till there was a market for it. All the same,
his armlong blade was soon tooled into a cold
killing machine. I suppose brains are to blame–
or this Age of Iron with its manic drive for gold.
For long ago there were no wars; and no weapon-
makers. Our food was served up in beechwood bowls.
Those days even a herdsman could safely bed down
among his slugcoloured flocks and claim a day’s work
without reporting to ramparts, forts and foxholes.
Imagine living then–even as a herdsman: no hand
in this racket of arms, bivouac and command.
And this insanity–for years on end; stuck
far from home, only one song in your head:
your life made lousy by bum gear, piles, pot luck
and the endless bungling bureaucrats–the sweat
pouring down at the sound of each bugle call.
Like the one that’s blasting us out for a roll call
right now. Just think of it: some energetic jerk
on the other side’s probably polishing blades.
Maybe just for the sake of doing some work.
Chances are one of them is going to stay
behind and rust away in my guts one of these days.
Blue is the smoke of war, white are the bones of men.–Tu Fu
Shake off the crazies! Sober up, Li Po!
Thousands of wine-cups and moon-cakes ago
your voice used to make people’s faces glow,
and could catch the sparks of hooves in a poem,
or scarves of dew dropped by the low-flying clouds.
Things change. Swallows nest under your roof now,
and wind holds the door. Why wait till there’s snow
in the picture here, up at Old Man’s Brow?
(Mountains are mountains, you know.) Come back home!
Bring your lightningrod pen. Forget the crowds!
from Tu Fu
Moor of Moors, Moor of Moor people,
the day you were born there were rare
and marvelous signs in the air.
The sea was without a wrinkle;
the moon, fresh as a slice of pear.
A man born under such signs, Moor
of Moors, should never tell a lie.”
Now hear what the Moor had to say;
now listen to the Moor’s reply.
“My Lord, as night comes after day,
and though it may cost me my life,
please know: my father was a Moor
and my mother a Christian slave,
won in war and taken for wife.
And when I was young, not much more
than a boy, my mother told me:
‘Always tell the truth. Never lie.
There is nothing worse than a lie.’
So tell me, my King, what you crave
to know. I will tell you no lie.”
“I am grateful, Abenamar,
and thank you for your courtesy.
Those castles up in the clouds there–
How they twist and climb and glitter!”
“First, my Lord, with the mosque nearby,
comes the Alhambra. And next, there,
is the Alexares. They are
too strong for words, too marvellous.
And the Moor, my Lord, who made those
earned a hundred pieces of gold
a day, each day that he worked there;
other days, he lost that much gold.
The job done, my Lord, to make sure
the Moor made no more like them, for
Andalusia’s king, or for
any other, this king, my Lord,
to make sure, he had the Moor murdered.
Next, the Generalife, there:
its gardens are still unsurpassed.
Last comes the Torres Bermejas–
Worth more than any mountain pass.”
Now hear what King Juan had to say;
now hear Don Juan’s reply.
“If you would le me, Granada,
I would keep you here as my wife,
and both Seville and Cordoba
I would give you for a dowry.”
“King Juan, I’m already a wife,
not a widow who can marry.
And the moor to whom I belong
loves me. His love is very strong.”
from Spanish, Anon
Peter Van Toorn was born in Holland in 1944 and moved to Montreal as a child. He attended McGill University and taught for almost 30 years at John Abbott College in Ste Anne de Bellevue, where he now lives, rather out of the limelight. He is the author of Leeway Grass (1970) and In Guildenstern County (1973). His masterpiece is the originally critically-neglected Mountain Tea and other Poems which was published by Véhicule Press in 2003 in a revised second edition. Mountain Tea and other Poems has received much recognition from a younger poetic generation and suggests he is one of the key contemporary Canadian poets. Van Toorn co-edited (with Ken Norris) Cross/cut: Contemporary English Quebec Poetry (1982) and The Insecurity of Art: Essays on Poetics (1982).
Acknowledgments: “Mountain Stick”, “Mountain Boogie”, “Rune”, “Elegy on War: Invention of the Sword”, “Mountain Memo”, “Mountain Ballad”. From Mountain Tea and Other Poems (McClelland & Stewart, 1984/Véhicule Press, 2003)
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