Feb 162014

I heard Catherine Greenwood read “The Texada Queen” during Poetry Weekend in Fredericton last fall and was smitten with her poetry there and then. Such life, wit and narrative drive. Amazing presence. Today we have four poems from her recent collection The Lost Letters, including two from the stunning Abelard & Eloise sequence of which our reviewer Sydney Lea wrote:

This story is famous: Abelard, renowned twelfth-century logician, seduced and impregnated his brilliant student Heloise, whom he spirited away to live with relatives of his. She bore a male child, after which, infuriated by her teacher’s behavior, Heloise’s uncle hired thugs to castrate the scholar. Soon, however recalcitrantly, Heloise became a nun.

So richly detailed and so narratively compelling are these poems that to excerpt from them seems almost an impertinence. Her evocation’s sheer sensory accuracy is enviable, but her rendering of motherly love, mixed with anxiety, amusement, frustration, and protectiveness, however obliquely rendered, is more than that– it’s stirring. Whether Greenwood has children or not I can’t say; but she keenly understands, when it comes to one’s offspring, what complexities underlie a parent’s urgent wish that her child have the very best. The entire Heloise-Abelard portion of The Lost Letters shows Greenwood as above all a supreme chronicler of longings, often as not unfulfilled. 




Silver-Haired Bat Caught in a Ceiling Lamp

Following twilight
appetites, he swallowed
unthinking the aphrodisiac
rumour of moths.

Conducting an inquiry
into brightness, he saw
the light and followed
their sputtering flight

over the lamp’s smooth lip,
seduced by what drew
those unblinking orbs
charcoaled on their wings.

Now the world’s outside
in, hunger become entrapment.
Still blind, he smells
sizzled flutters, singed fur.

Struggling to climb out
he slips on walls
the shape of an upturned bell,
his body an ashen clapper.


And what of us
headed upstairs to bed expecting
nothing but summer air
to enter the open window?

The sight of a dark
silhouette projected
against the opaque white
globe – a hundred watts

baking him like a chick
in an incubator, Hell’s
hatchling – provokes horror
and pity. A stepladder!

How many sets of hands
does it take to open hope, unscrew
the lid tightened on that jar
of misguided longings?


Tipped from the lamp
out he spills on the sill,
still as a lump of silvery coal
dumped from a scuttle.

Black cloak collapsed, bones
poke beneath the membrane
of his skin like spokes
of a broken umbrella.

Above the lawn mosquitoes hum.
He unfolds webbed fingers,
his singular pair of wings.
Singing, re-enters the night.



A typical barbwire fence on wood posts surrounded the field about six kilometres east of McBride…. [I]t looked like the whole area was covered with an opaque, white plastic grocery store bag. —CBC News, November 27, 2002

no alcazars or office towers
parliament buildings shopping centers
pavilions minarets

the spiders have set up their looms
in the cow pasture
pitched gauzy white tents
on the fence posts

silken energies pour
like water from spinnerets
clear caramelized wires run out
from the spigots of being

above the frozen dung
of a few trodden acres of soil
they have chosen to drape
the delicate sheets of their art


each spider toils a tiny allotment
paving with crystalline filaments
a single square inch of air

spires spun of mist turrets of frost
this city will not stand
ten thousand years ten winters
ten weeks until summer fallow

each night that feudal lord
the wind like a second thought
rends the structure
confiscating rags to repair
the underbellies of cloud


across this tattered white page
ten million spiders swarm
the living ink of their spinning
writing a letter to be read
when all moments coincide

meantime they mend the torn shroud
adorning the veil
with the gleaming black pearls
of their bodies

revealing the face of a bride
hiding who she will turn out to be


Yes and No

Heloise my sister, once dear to me in the world, now dearest to me in Christ, logic has made me hated by the world. —Abelard’s Confession of Faith

Devoted heretic, rewarded
for your efforts
with an eviction notice,
your philosophy was simple –
find a place where
the thorniest contradictions
could peaceably coexist.
The last time I saw you
you were moving
from a grey area of faith
to an open concept space
constructed solely of questions:

Would the animal shelter
find a home for your
ancient one-eyed tabby?

Did God the Father,
like a heavenly sea horse cradling comets
in the pipe bowl of his belly,
or a holy penguin in an arctic
of unending patience coddling the egg
of Christ’s being on chilblained feet,
actually birth his own son?

Do you still love me (assuming
you once did)?

……………………… ….Yes
and no, black and white, hot
and cold. A stew of antonyms
sustained you like a hobo’s dish
of sautéed boot. As proof
we were poles apart
you opened your fridge to reveal
the package of snow peas
you intended to subsist upon
for the balance of your tenancy
on earth. The cardboard boxes
I’d brought from the liquor store
were heavier empty than you
might imagine. Even now, it doesn’t bear
thinking, you on your knees
after midnight in the circum-
fused light of one unpacked lamp,
trying in vain to fit everything in.
As if an earthquake had shaken
open all the cupboards in your head,
the floor was strewn with pill
bottles, undeveloped negatives,
pages of sheet music out of
Guitar Hits from the Sixties
and the same leaky wineskin
we used on our honeymoon.

In the midst of such ruin
the smell of Earl Grey tea brewing
over the steady flame of books
crackling in the wood stove
was a welcome comfort.
Like the leaves
of the coffee plant you grew
from a bean into a gangly stalk
I once deemed aesthetically
annoying, our old familiarities
had withered from lack
of attention. How strange it felt
to be drinking once more
from the last of those unbreakable
white mugs rimmed
around the lip with blue
flowers! Cheery, testy,
and reserved by turns, we coughed
politely into our cuffs, ignoring
the embarrassment of smoke
in an atmosphere grown mildly
poisonous. Your magnanimity
regarding my impending nuptials
irked me. Reduced to living
on tips saved up in a pickle jar,
you gave me a piece
of unleavened advice
with which I was to buy
a loaf of whole grain bread
on my way back to the nunnery.

You swore I would taste
the difference between us
like day and night. Weary of pondering
the long and short of it all
– buy high, sell low?–
by the time I left
my pockets were weighted
with wooden nickels.
When you waved at the door
I could see from the Taser
scorch on your palm
how you’d been pinned
like a butterfly against
a brisk and cloudless sky, hung
out to dry, rumpled shirt
washed once too often. Old love,
dear heart, now that you’ve slipped
the stigmata of clothes pegs,
escaped my unforgiving grip
to fall crumpled as a leaf
into a final pile of ironing,
allow me to admit how deeply
I regret not kissing you
hello and goodbye.

Author’s Note: “Yes and No” takes its title from one of Peter Abelard’s book’s on logic, Sic et Non.


Riddle for Two Voices Staged in an Confessional Stall

[By] a kind of holy presage of his name he marked you out to be especially his when he named you Heloise, after his own name, Elohim. —Abelard to Heloise, Letter 4





—Catherine Greenwood

Catherine Greenwood has a BA in English and Writing from the University of Victoria, and an MA in English from the University of New Brunswick. She has held a variety of jobs over the years, from working in a community services thrift store to teaching literary theory in a Chinese university. Her poetry and fiction has been widely published in magazines and anthologies, and her poems have won several prizes, including a National Magazine Gold Award.  Her first book, The Pearl King and Other Poems, based upon the life of the inventor of the cultured pearl, was a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book.  At the center of her new collection, The Lost Letters, is a sequence of poems inspired by the story of Heloise and Abelard. Catherine lives in Victoria, BC, where she currently works for the Ministry of Justice.


  2 Responses to “Yes & No: Poems — Catherine Greenwood”

  1. I remembered “The Texada Queen” from the CBC Literary Awards and was glad to see more of Catherine Greenwood’s tremendous work here. I keep coming back to check on the bat.

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