Mar 112017
 

Susan Elmslie

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A Poet Has Nine Knives

One to trim the fat
One to cut the line
One for father’s back
One for that crook Time
One to keep it sharp
And to slice it thin
One that’s sly and jagged
As a gutted tin
One for keeping sheathed
One to pick the latch
One whose only deed’s
To carve your epitaph

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THREE POEMS FROM “TRIGGER WARNING”

Unteachable Moment

woe to the innocent who hears that sound!
xXX—Odyssey 12.44, Fitzgerald translation

In lockdown, I’d been desperate
to hear sirens; once outside, safe,

they were too much. Paroxysmal,
dopplered, they blared past me hur-ry

hur-ry on the way to
my daughter’s daycare,

and at home, in our living room, on the TV:
looped footage. Our near silence

punctured by the stifled lament
of police cars, ambulances careening to the ER,

converging on the scene
I’d just escaped.

My husband and I,
slumped on the couch,

unable to get out the oars, were watching
our daughter playing on the floor.

“That?” she asked, pointing
at the screen. “Ambulance,” I said,

but she shook her head, still pointing,
her finger stirring the air.

I turned it right down, but I could still hear it.
I told her, “That’s a siren,”

waited to see if she was satisfied
with just the word, or if she’d press me

for what the sound itself meant
this moment. I was queasy

watching my school on the news, as if learning
who and how many

could stanch the genre, as if the next
“kept to himself” wasn’t also taking cues,

gearing up— shooting selfies, posed with his Glock—
and again, on every channel,

sirens will serenade kids filing from schools,
some with their arms on the shoulders of the kid ahead,

looking for all the world like anguished rowers.
I got down on the floor.

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If

(after James Hoch, Miscreants)

if he had taken up guitar, played
ping pong or Ultimate Frisbee, tried
deep breathing, accepted human frailty,
adopted a mutt at the SPCA,
shovelled his neighbour’s walk,
did a year abroad
if there were more ways in than out
if he felt that someone was listening, maybe
a boy on the beach, after parasailing
at Île Sainte-Marguerite, the scent of umbrella pines
and eucalyptus in the air,
taking sips from a can of Kronenbourg
if his favourite aunt had been a police officer
if he’d had a favourite aunt
if his car had gotten a flat, and he’d taken this
as a sign to take a spiritual U-y
if he had smelled fear and been able to name it,
if he could laugh at himself
if he’d read Dostoyevsky, Ian McEwan, Tim O’Brien
if he’d preferred the Guggenheim and techno gadgets to guns
if he made a mean gulab jamun or tiramisu or quindim
if it was so simple it was beautiful
if he’d had a sibling with cystic fibrosis, a teacher from Trinidad,
a chum who medalled in Taekwondo, a summer of love,
a walk in the park, a hug around the neck,
a Sudoku habitxxxxxxif he had talked
to his doctor or mother and tried meds
and planted some sub-zero roses
if he had been pulled over for unpaid tickets,
bowed to cosmic irony and vowed to give peace
a chancexxxx.if he had not been born, or was somehow reborn
xxxxxxxxxxxxif we could recognize him this turn,
xxxxxxxxxxxxslipknot time, help him
xxxxxxxxxxxxto feel good in his skin
xxxxxxxxxxxxwhen he begins this
xxxxxxxxxxxxday and when he lays his head down to dream

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Conventions

the same message: how horrible it was, how little
there was to say about how horrible it was.
xxxxxxxxxxXXXxXXxx—Bob Hicok, “In the Loop”

The running and then
the footage of people running.
After the chaos there is silence,
a failure of words but not of sound,
which we know travels in waves,
and the speed of which is still the distance
travelled per unit of time.
The sound of a firearm going off
in a school hallway is not unlike the sound
of a metal locker slamming inside your head.
The colleagues you hugged
and who hugged you will go back
to arms’ length, which is healthy.
Maybe you will cry
one night doing dishes,
up to the elbow in thinning suds,
combing for straggling flatware,
which might suggest something poetic
about the correspondence of the elements
or, when you think about it, the extraordinary
capacity of the workaday to anchor
and unmoor us.

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Faith is a Suitcase

You’ve lugged it
down narrow aisles,
hoisted and stowed it overhead
with the ersatz pillows,

leaned on it
during the layover, dozed,
head nodding like a monk at prayer.

Hello split seam, wonky wheel.
Who wouldn’t blame the gorilla?

Locked, key lost.  It waits
in the corner of the room
like an agèd aunt.

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Ativan

Fleck of wherewithal.  Just
to have it in a tiny faux-
abalone box, to know you can
lift it with a licked pinkie,
if required.  Bitter
plaster-of-Paris smear
under the tongue
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxXxbecause
the mind’s default is flee
and your baby’s lumbar puncture
is scheduled for 2:30.  Necessity
and consent
in a slow dissolve.
Not so much a buffer
as the strength to stand
beside the hospital bed
and be two of the hands
holding him for the needle’s kiss.

Descent

My baby was still nursing, and I’d lean over
the bed’s steel rails to give him the breast,
let him twist his fingers in my hair until he slept
anchored by electrodes, gauze bonnet, fat snarl of wires
twisting into a Bob the Builder backpack
that housed the Trackit box near the call switch.
I could not leave the ward though they urged me to
go home, get a shower, change.  At night,
an infrared video camera captured our quiet ballet.

I could not leave, could not leave.  On the third day
I was sent down to the basement,
to the abandoned locker room.
Past the heavy steel door that would not quite close,
I stood under exposed ducts, frazzled fluorescent tubes
in a ship’s bilge. Whiff of mildew, occult drip.
In the dim light I found the one narrow
shower stall, the slick edge
of the torn plastic curtain, pulled it back.

No one to hear me.  My baby
lay in a bed flights up, electrodes
pasted to his scalp, helmeted in gauze.
I stripped, hung my milk-sour track suit
and hospital towel on a hook, stepped over the lip
onto a flattened shopping bag spread like a lily pad
on the blackened grout, institutional-green tiles.
The first cold water,
my baptism.

—Susan Elmslie

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Susan Elmslie is a poet and college (CEGEP) professor of English and Creative Writing in Montreal. Her collection I, Nadja, and Other Poems (Brick, 2006) won the A. M. Klein Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for the McAuslan First Book Prize, the Pat Lowther Memorial Award and a ReLit Award. Her poems have appeared in several journals and anthologies—including the Best Canadian Poetry in English (2008, 2015)—and in a prize-winning chapbook. Susan has been a Hawthornden Poetry Fellow and has read her poems in translation for the series curated by Guy Cloutier for Les poètes de l’Amérique française. A first-prize winner in the Arc Poem of the Year contest, Susan has been longlisted and shortlisted for other national and international poetry contests. Her book Museum of Kindness is forthcoming with Brick (Fall 2017).

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