Code Orange is a hospital term, a warning to staff indicating a bomb threat, a radioactive spill, a person with mental issues is loose in the halls of the hospital. Sometimes it means everyone should evacuate a soon as possible. Karen Mulhallen’s “Code Orange Emblazoned Suite” is among other things a meditation upon the possibility that we are living in a Code Orange world, that we should all get ready to evacuate, though in the event she finds moments of beauty even in the midst of war.
…………………..…some old god
rising tall below the Red City,
or his companion, younger, seated still
smiling archaically before the caves
Karen Mulhallen is an old friend, a child of Souwesto (as am I), that triangle of cultural territory that stretches south of Toronto to Windsor and north to Alice Munro country. She is a Blake scholar, founder and publisher of Descant Magazine in Toronto, and a prolific poet, undersung, protean, brilliant. I edited her collection of selected poems Acquainted With Absence and wrote the introduction, which you can read here, and tells you all you need to know.
I began to write the Code Orange poems as a response to the invasions of Afghanistan and the media flurry of photographs. There was such a disjunction between what one saw and what one was told to see that the formality of the quatrain seem to create a frame around the physical beauty, a beauty which was destroyed not only by the Taliban, but also by all the invading forces. “The Elegy” which follows on the death of the book man, and perhaps on the death of libraries, also required some classical interventions. Iambic pentameter, but also blank verse stanzas in the way of Milton’s Paradise Lost with intervention within passages of psalmic structures, their repetitive harmony: “perhaps he felt, perhaps he felt.” Throughout the whole suite I was drawn to the hymns of my childhood, spent on hard pews, snuggled in damp proximity to my nana’s big black sheared beaver coat on cold wet snowy days. And finally, as I moved through the whole sequence I felt a need to explore other stanzaic forms, the two-line, the four-line, even for moments William Carlos William’s three-lined, stepped stanza. I needed all of these to contrast to the media bullets which were pervading my consciousness as I wrote. My most recent title for the sequence is “The Code Orange Emblazoned Suite” since to emblazon is to embellish, but to blazon a body is to hack that body into pieces to create fragments as trophies.
To emblazon is to embellish
but to blazon a body is to hack
that body into pieces to create fragments as trophies.
In the sweet, (In the sweet), by and by, (by and by),
We shall meet on that beautiful shore, (by and by),
In the sweet, (In the sweet), by and by, (by and by),
We shall meet on that beautiful shore.
Two gates there are that give passage to fleeting dreams;
one is made of horn, one of ivory.
The dreams that pass through sawn ivory are deceitful,
bearing messages that will never be fulfilled;
The dreams that pass through the gates of polished horn
are future truths for the dreamers who can see them.
Homer, The Odyssey, Book XIX
The First War
Afghanistan, first war of the twenty-first century
in our shame little did we anticipate the rewards
those dailies pounding out
the propaganda brought us
faces of startling beauty. Some man,
some woman, some children, each assembled
so that Vermeer waking from his northern grave
would have gasped with joy.
Here a lip, there a profile,
always the superb curve of the head
blowing demonic rhetoric to smithereens,
not by a smart bomb,
but by a smarter one, some old god
rising tall below the Red City,
or his companion, younger, seated still
smiling archaically before the caves
and tunnels and frescoes, in the rubble
of the Valley of Bamiyan, his hands
resting on the knees of his crossed legs,
his pakhool brim rolled and set
at a cocky angle, his thumbs and first fingers
forming an eternal oval, the other
six fingers extended to catch the rain
of his own blessings.
Revolutionary Meeting at the Royal Ontario Museum
After we met you, under the Moorish cupola,
in the foyer of the palatial Art Deco museum.
After we stood silently, Simon, Mairi and I—
Simon, Jewish, Glaswegian, a Londoner,
Mairi, his wife, Christian, Scottish, a Londoner,
I, the Canadian, mongrel yoking of Mediterranean
and Caucasus, sea, desert, mountain: people of the book all.
Have we given away too much?
You come rushing in, lanky like a colt, getting its first legs,
your wonderful smile, your brown teeth,
late, held up by an eager interviewer,
asking more and more and more.
We ascend to the restaurant, overlooking the street,
four displaced persons, one a refugee, all perched
in Toronto’s shopping danger zone, where clothes
change hands for thousands of dollars,
and begin to order lunch, but first, you say, something to drink—
La Heim, Prosit, Cheers. I give you Simic, Louvish, Lakowitz,
Laucke, MacDonald, Nejedsky, Nelles and Naylor.
You don’t eat much, and Simon doesn’t drink,
so Mairi and I do our best to right the balance,
as you begin to discuss artillery and your interview.
You are wearing a black sweater and black jeans.
You are always in black, I’ve noticed, and the two of you talk
about your brothers, the right wing Israeli—
the father Moishe Dayan’s right hand man—
and the Bosnian General, you spoke to him only last night,
carefully, evading the war, your exile, your Moslem wife,
your children. Your beautiful thin face, its Oriental eyelids
heavily laced, like the intricate ethnic lines of a Serbo-Croatian-
Bosnian-Montenegrin topographical map. You are used to interviews,
and your brother whom you love, so you talked of fishing,
never mentioned the two-page spread in Le Figaro
that other morning. You’ve been on the road two years
fleeing the war, Italy, Belgium, Scotland, England,
Canada. Now here, Toronto, a real pause,
Luna, and Darius, happy, Amela, not too lonely;
you always out front, on the road, on the stage.
That long Parisian print interview, the war,
the death of your mother, the sorrow of Sarajevo,
opening it that morning, having poured out your heart,
to find opposite your own hollow cheeks, bloodshot eyes
creased and rimmed in wrinkles, your brother’s round
well-fed cheeks, greased and smiling like a pig.
The Bookman’s Passing
The sinews no longer hold flesh and bones together—
these are all prey to the resistless power of fire
which burns the body to ashes, once life slips from the bones;
and the soul takes wing as a dream takes wing,
and afterward hovers to and fro.
Homer, The Odyssey, Book XI
There is something final about an obituary.
Not the brief death notice.
It is the testimonials—a sentence or two, please—encapsulating—
What would you say he was?
How was? How important?
How would you characterize? When did you meet?
And then the career path, marriages,
Born on a farm, you say? A real horse trader?
Shaggy. Loved to smoke and drink…never before noon—
Are you sure?
Cancer, a pity—common enough these days—
So, a generation—
But wait a minute—a library—nearly a million volumes—
The house that Richard built.
There were many stops on that last road.
Sometimes you were at home, taking the sun on your deck.
Enjoying a drink at last, after so much treatment.
And your hair, beginning to grow back, whisps of white beard.
St Michael’s Hospital, where I came early one morning,
bearing the Farmers’ Market flowers.
Your face smeared with peanut butter, yoghurt—
who would have thought you’d have an appetite?
But you were farm bred, all appetite:
The dance of libido and intellect, a real farm bred appetite,
and that’s the nature of a true horse trader.
You got it, sport those cowboy boots, that Stetson hat,
stompin’ Richie has got the mojo,
and he’s making a whole world of words.
Mount Sinai Hospital where meals appeared punctually:
Breakfast at 7:30, lunch at 12:30, dinner at 5 p.m.
Marie on the bed holding your head,
Sweetheart, sweetheart, I am here.
And first you were eating. Emptying the trays,
the meals, the treats from Harbord House,
and other friends’ small packaged offerings.
But there were no nuts at the last stop, at Perram House,
except the bereaved. The end of life hospice,
no charge, and no expectations.
I feel like I am in transit—
You are in transit.
I am crossing the border, the time zone between north and south.
You can’t come here because you would disappear—
I will meet you anywhere.
Last sighting, Wednesday, Toronto, Perram House,
heading for Room 8, 4 Wellesley Place.
The pick up ambulance arrives promptly at 10 a.m.
In the street, in front of Perram House, a film is being shot
as the ambulance arrives from Mount Sinai hospital.
The attendants move him out of the ambulance.
They carry him across the divide, between the film crew,
the cameras, the electrical lines, the catering van and dressing rooms,
the outside and the inside, the before and the after,
the now and the not now.
They are nearing the front door of Perram House;
the elevator to the second storey is out of order:
Perhaps he felt the air in the street, as he became agitated.
Perhaps he felt the hesitation at the portal.
Perhaps he felt the line between then and now, before and after.
Perhaps he sensed the beginning of an ending.
Nothing convenient in a death.
Moments later, in the parlour, he died.
The parlour, they said, was just like home.
Pavilioned in splendour,
like the Ancient of Days, girded with praise:
So the earth with its store of wonders untold
bountiful is—what tongue could recite
how streams from the hills, descend to the plain
………………………………..and are sweetly distilled, in the dew and the rain.
For the past two days I had been thinking about the story
told to me by a friend last Wednesday evening.
It was a story about a doctor, a Chinese woman
who had examined a very young girl in the emergency department
of a suburban hospital in the north east of a large urban centre.
The girl had bleeding from her anus; the doctor found a two-inch tear.
It was odd, she thought, how could there be such a tear?
As she talked to the girl, who was nearly silent,
she noticed that her head was tilted strangely,
her neck tipped to one side.
The more she looked at her, the more uneasy she became,
not about the anus, but about her head.
She called another friend, a doctor with access to an MRI machine,
and she sent the girl for an immediate MRI.
The results were astonishing.
On one half of the girl’s head there was a tumour
which was growing down the neck from the brain stem.
It was a tumour of the sort sometimes found in AIDS patients.
She called in the girl’s mother; she talked to the girl.
The girl had been repeatedly raped and sodomized,
first by her father, and then by her father and her older brother.
The mother denied the story; the girl refused to repeat it for the police.
There is a green hill far away, outside a city wall
where the dear lord was crucified, who died to save us all.
The End of September
Early evening, and we meet to talk over the last events.
You said, you said, he said, he said,
I said, I said,
………all have their lists, and learn
….learn to put aside lists, list to
the list, what’s at issue here,
what’s to be seen,
seen, seem, scene, difference,
different desires, different capacities,
sense, a sense, the sense of an ending:
Arranged I wait, as the light falls,
as the light falls on College Street, in Toronto.
…..A yellow room, the waiter’s sickled skin,
your face, your face with its tiny lines,
…….our years together:
Hail, hail and farewell.
How Beautiful With Earrings
I was thinking of that afternoon
when Nancy and Ethel and I sat in the sunlight
of the gravel court of those old barns
with the raised garden beds and espaliered trees
at the Priory of Notre Dame d’Orsan
and drank champagne
and of Nancy and Ethel and me on another afternoon
or maybe it was all one afternoon
or maybe I have merged all our afternoons
seated at tables on the gravel court
near the green glade in Nohant by George Sand’s house
and Nancy was wearing a black and white printed dress
and at her throat and on her ears
a necklace and earrings also in black and white—
some geometric design of African origin
in bone and wood
and as Nancy smoked, the sun dappled in the courtyard
and we three talking in the grace of that softness
and the light falling all around and the green glade
just beyond and the raised beds
just over there
and the little puppet theatre just inside the house
a house where she had loved the composer
but insisted on wearing the trousers
and I exclaim how beautiful you are
Nancy in pools of light, Nancy in black and white
here in this speckled gravel place
Ethel does not miss a beat chimes
so beautiful no sense jealousy.
Then, it is a fall day, New York, noon,
Gramercy Park brunch, Ethel’s ninetieth year,
her small apartment, her crazy driving
from Connecticut, her beautiful gold earrings,
how beautiful Ethel in old
gold earrings, Adam swooping her up
in his long strong young arms, so beautiful
farewell oh green eyed creatures
of the green glades, farewell.
In Slow Motion
Seeing you at table, a lunch
before Christmas, wondering if you remember,
surprised that I have.
You are much taller than I remember
I much smaller than I feel
as we walk west along Bloor Street
that summer night
decades ago, a summer evening,
my blue tube top, my long white
silk skirt, turquoise Hawaian shirt,
long black straight hair,
pushing my white bicycle
along the wide sidewalk west
from the great glass hall, out
of the Courtyard Café
into the gentle night, from the glitter
and the Basque salad you conjured for me
when it was no longer on the menu
and we talked and talked
and someone once said we were meant
for each other, but it was never so,
so out of the dining room, out of the hotel
in slow motion toward my white apartment
in slow motion toward my golden bed,
in slow motion, in slow motion
holding your cock, remembering her bangs,
as we kiss and part.
The Writer’s Saturday Night
Sure enough over night the canal had frozen
and there was ice in the Ottawa River
when I awoke after an evening at dinner
at the residence of the Turkish Ambassador;
I was due to read later that day
at the Sasquatch Performance series
and all the way here I’d dreamt I’d forgotten my book
but read Jean Rhys over and over
learning who called the shots, who cringed,
who felt the need of a fur coat for cover.
I was on a bit of a roll with Sea Light
and with the Chateau Laurier;
I had a champagne cocktail in the bar
then headed out to the Ambassador’s house.
Darkness was coming at the Sasquatch bar
the house was full and I dove right in
opening up with the light on the lake
and the birth of the world. Water, water, everywhere
time bound in to the flow of the tides.
There was an odd smell as I surfed my text,
but the audience was rapt
and I kept right on
to the final ebb and flow of the surf.
Then they took me sweetly by the hand and asked me to
come back again to read to them, real soon,
but I knew I had done my last gig in a subterranean space
with a backed up sewer
and I hopped back on that rolling train
right down to my lake and the city
where the lights never go out.
Cherries in Snow
The man in The New Yorker ad
seated on a folding wooden chair
scarf tied in a knot at his neck,
shows cherries in the snow.
He holds a single cherry by the stem
in the fingerless glove of his left hand
and in his right a simple wooden bowl
brimming with fruit.
He leans back on the chair
boots barely laced, legs splayed—
a good cap upon his head.
He is looking out at us.
Contented, conspiratorial smile,
dark beetle brows.
A friendly face, intelligent
shrewd but not unwelcoming.
The snow is white, a few trees
visible in misty distance near horizon.
An admirable open tweed top-
coat, ditto knotted sweater.
He is wedged right at the front of the magazine
just after a photograph of Ralph Lauren
advertising his own American—Made in England—
Purple Label Collection.
Cherry man has slipped in to The New Yorker
just before the Table of Contents
which this month, September,
and not winter, as in his photograph,
features men in blue and asks
Are we too hard on cops?
Should we take the kids out of the jails?
What really killed Princess Di?
Is the new Getty Art Centre too good for Los Angeles?
Can technology set Tibet free?
And so, with a kind of crazy piety
he holds his piece, leans back
offers us cherries in winter,
peaches in spring.
It’s not about weather,
And for that he’ll answer to the world.
Karen Mulhallen has edited more than 150 issues of Descant magazine. She has published eighteeen books, including books of poetry, and collections of criticism, as well as two visual arts catalogues. Her essays on the arts have been published in North America and Europe. A new volume of her poems is due out from Black Moss Press in Fall of 2014.