Aug 202011

This is the copyediting desk (the rim) at the Montreal Star in 1976, probably just before 8 a.m., the paper has been put to bed and we're just hanging around. I am across the desk on the left. Peter Leney with the long hair is next to me, The gray-haired gent is Walter Christopherson, the copy boss. Barry Johnson would normally be seated on my right, but most of the sub-editors appear to have momentarily disappeared.

I just discovered this obituary from the Vancouver Province. I worked as a copyeditor (we called them sub-editors) at the Montreal Star in 1975 and 1976. We worked the graveyard shift, midnight to 8 a.m., putting the paper to bed around 6 or so, then often adjourning to a bar across the street for a morning drink. Barry Johnson, a handsome, florid-faced old-hand, usually sat to my right on the rim, no doubt placed there to keep the new boy out of trouble. He had been trained as an air force pilot, but he knew his grammar and punctuation inside out and could amalgamate a dozen wire-service reports into a gorgeous 10-para story with nothing but a steel ruler, a ballpoint pen and a gluepot (these were the old days, let me tell you). He had stories to tell: how he got his nickname Precious, his career as a foreign correspondent, his sideline in the movies (spaghetti Westerns in Italy, a part in a TV mini-series on Casanova in France), his rather hasty escape from Greece in obscure and unseemly circumstances. Barry was a legend, a man bigger than life, but his star was falling, age was creeping on him. Sitting next to him as the newspaper technology changed around us (we were dinosaurs of several varieties), I was always in a spin, in awe and yet aware of the ache of loss, time moving on. I soaked up his stories, while at the same time incubating an idea for my first (published) novel Precious.

Years later, the Star shut down and Barry went through a bad patch. He ended up in Toronto, unemployed, scrambling. My book was out. I didn’t know if Barry knew how much he had influenced me. An old friend from my newspaper days (we worked at the Peterborough Examiner and the Montreal Star together), Mal Aird, arranged for us to meet at the Spadina Tavern. It was a stirring thing, handing Barry a copy of the book. It meant a lot to me; clearly it meant a lot to him. Now both he and Mal are dead. Time eats her children.


Former Province reporter and copy editor Barry Johnson died peacefully in hospital after a long illness Saturday night, with his wife and sister at his side.

He was 74.

Johnson, who was known as “Precious” to his many friends, had a long career in Canadian newspapers, with stops at the Montreal Gazette, Montreal Star, Globe and Mail and Calgary Herald.

The former jet pilot jumped into journalism in the 1950s after a stint with the Royal Canadian Air Force. His writing career also took him to London, Greece and Rome.

“He’s been everywhere,” his sister Patricia Holland recalled Sunday.

Regarded by many as a lovable scoundrel, Johnson inspired Douglas Glover’s 1984 murder mystery Precious, the tale of “a boozy, burned-out reporter with an embarrassing nickname and a penchant for getting into trouble,” according to Glover’s website.

via Barry Johnson: A precious one gone.

But see also Barry Johnson obituary with more life details here.

From Precious:

            I stayed where I was a few minutes longer to see the hands lock down the last plates, hear the warning bells, and watch the freshly folded newspapers flooding off the line. Twenty years had fled. I hadn’t listened to Uncle Dorsey. When I got out of the air force, I had my wings and a ticket to a gold mine. In the early sixties airlines were offering a million bucks, fifty grand a year, to ex-servicemen who wanted to fly passenger jets. But the thought of turning into a glorified bus driver at the age of twenty-five chilled me. And somehow I thought the money would always be there.

On a whim I took a job covering the police beat for a small city daily not unlike the Star-Leader. Inside of a month I was hooked on the steady rhythmic surge of the deadline, dropping Dexedrine tablets and working eighty-hour weeks, drifting through my free Sundays in the company of chain-smoking, liverish veterans, their hoarse endless talk echoing in my ears and dreams. I got married; I got divorced. The years accumulated like spent butts in an ashtray. When I finally pulled my nose out of the rat race long enough to grasp the situation, when I finally realized Dorsey had been right all along, it was too late to change and too late to kick.

Twenty years.

But, as the French say, even the most beautiful woman cannot give more than she has.

Aug 202011

Here’s a charming romantic comedy that turns on the presence of an eccentric cimbalom player named Lazlo. Julie Marden is a violinist and she writes fiction about musicians, with verve and wry touch of comedy. She’s one of dg’s former students at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and she has already contributed mightily to Numéro Cinq—see especially her lovely essay on the use of thematic passages in Chekhov’s short stories.

Right now, in addition to performing with various professional orchestras, she teaches chamber music to children at the Tufts Community Music School in Medford, MA, tutors Boston area children in reading and math (through the “No Child Left Behind” program), and teaches academic writing skills at an on-line college.  On the side, she also performs in amateur theater productions: Clytaemnestra in Euripides’ Elektra (in ancient Greek), Puck, Hippolyta, and Snout in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,”  Hermione in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” and Elena in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.”  She lives with her daughter Nora, their dog Gracie and a cat Panther in Concord, Massachusetts and Walpole, New Hampshire.




By Julie Marden


When Jeff first recognized Nina’s voice, he was relieved he hadn’t answered the phone. He’d just walked into his two-room Washington Heights apartment, carrying a package of unassembled moving boxes. Nina was leaving a message, offering him a weekend job playing principal percussion in a college orchestra in Vermont.

“The piece we need you for is Kodaly’s Hary Janos Suite . . .  rehearsals Thursday and Friday evenings, dress rehearsal Saturday morning and the concert Saturday night . . .  pays three hundred dollars plus hotel room . . . it would be great see you again, Jeff, how are you?  Please let me know right away if you can do this.  The concert’s in ten days. I’ll have to keep calling people if I don’t hear from you soon.”

Jeff leaned the flattened boxes against the wall. He hadn’t seen Nina in over a decade, but her breezy, lyrical voice hadn’t changed.  Fourteen, fifteen years ago, they’d been students at the New England Conservatory of Music.  They’d never so much as made out, but Jeff remembered her thick red hair, sonorous viola playing, and a forwardness that had sometimes puzzled him.

He took a beer from the fridge and brought it to the sofa.  He wouldn’t take the job. Three hundred dollars to drive three hundred miles to play with an amateur, student orchestra.  No wonder he was moving, leaving music altogether.   In his twenties, Jeff had gone to conservatory hoping to win a job in a full-time, first-rate orchestra, like the Boston or Chicago Symphony. But he’d never won a job with any full-time, professional orchestra.  Now, thirty-seven, he lived hand-to-mouth, job-to-job: a club-date here, a recording session there, the occasional freelance gig, a handful of private students. He wasn’t starving, but he’d had enough.  In less than two weeks, he was moving back to Hammond, Indiana to live and work with his widower father, who ran the tool and die company that Jeff’s grandfather had started in 1942.

Jeff finished his beer and set the can on the coffee table, next to his answering machine. The room was dim. The red light on the answering machine was still blinking.  Jeff reached over and erased Nina’s message.

By Sunday afternoon, most of the moving boxes were assembled and packed. One remained open, though, parked by the fridge, filling with last minute objects like the fake-copper-rimmed clock Jeff had once found in his parents’ attic and brought to his first apartment in Boston.  He’d just removed it from the wall by the stove and was lowering it into the box, next to a framed, bubble-wrapped photograph of his mother. The phone rang.   Jeff was sure his father was calling. He reached to answer, glancing habitually above the stove, only to see empty air and a circle of clean white paint where the clock had just been. He forgot to speak.

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Aug 192011

There is a mystery, nature’s shadow, that haunts our relationship with our pets. So often they are the reservoirs of the love, pity and dreams of connection for which we are not allowed an outlet in our ordinary lives. The fierce intensity of this relationship is easy fodder for satire, but the utter strangeness of the attachment subverts easy criticism. There is something exceedingly human about our love for small, furry non-humans. Human beings use language, make art and keep pets. Go figure.

Karen Mulhallen is an old and dear friend. DG and his sons have stayed at the cottage in Irondale and the house on Markham Street. We knew Lucy (pictured with Karen in the accompanying photograph; NB dg’s dog is named Lucy, too) and Starlight and Dawn and Dusk, the whole menagerie and their successors. So these poems have a special, personal importance. Karen has published 16 books (and numerous articles), including anthologies, a travel-fiction memoir, poetry and criticism. She has edited more than 100 issues of Descant magazine. She is a Blake scholar and a professor of English at Ryerson University in Toronto. DG edited and wrote an introduction for her book of selected poems Acquainted With Absence. Her most recent collection, The Pillow Books, will be published by Black Moss Press this fall (see cover at the bottom of this post; see also three poems from this book published on NC in February).

The current poems published below are from an even newer book, Domestic Love, of which Karen writes: “It is about our relationship to domestic animals, cats dogs etc. The history of visual art is so rich in human interactions with their pets. And there are some wonderful prose and poetry books which also explore this. I thought, having written so many things which include pets it was time to devote an entire book to our relationship with these creatures with whom we are so privileged to share our lives.”



Poems from Domestic Love

By Karen Muhallen


May on the Haliburton Road Number 23
No Exit

A fallen bird’s egg, broken blue
white stars of snow drops
masses of trilliums dog-toothed yellow
violets pendulous bells, the deep yellow fuzz of dandelions
moss, spikes and fur, acid green softness
violets deep
myrtle light
sky blue cumulus puffs
a few threads of cirrus
beaver pond a blue eye trees at far shore
waterlily pads in the morning gold
dried pods of rushes ellipse of pond
milk weed
verticals and horizontals of fallen trees
wind, hardwood
scrub with elder flower pods
white birch
lake caught from elevation

No Exit Road
hump, rise and fall and then fall no more.
Over the quiet a bird calls,
a plane leaves a stream a double wake,
alone on the lake one power boat
time and it passage
from light to dark.
The fox crosses as the sun rises from right to left
taking gold on his tale

Six in the morning and no one on the lake,
gold spreads
shore approaches shore
bird calls and calls again,
chorus begins.
The birch tree is white, luminous white against the even
morning light which spreads
down the hill to the eastern shore.
Every sapling, every green branch

Gold becomes greener, hill becomes
clearer, bird song

I lift my eyes to the hills whence
cometh my peace, comforts do increase,
gold moves off from shore becomes
dark mirror moves toward
the south. North becomes day
gold takes the lake, silver
birches spread their limbs, tall
white. Birdsong becomes even, continuous
No exit from Road 23.

The fox crosses down as the sun rises right to left
taking the gold on his tail
road and trees are dark, the black top smooth
then the city spires arise
on the road a small mound of dead fox.
One option, no exit,
out out brief candle.

Once there was a carpet,
..there was a road,
..there was a woman;
..and nobody loved as much as she,
..but me I loved him more…


Spitz of the Cimelia

It was a misty early morning when the boy first saw the shadow
move from the stand of willows behind the burnt red of the
dogwoods near the pond’s edge across the grass toward his
bedroom window.

Not yet nine o’clock and not a school day and he blinked the sleep
from his eyes and looked again
but there was nothing there.

The mist never lifted that morning, the sky was an even light grey,
and the trees, black willows
arms stood dark but blurry in the density of the watery air.

All night the sound of the rain had entered his dreams,
and this morning there was still a drip drip drip from the trees
and the roofs of the farm buildings lying low on the land,

not far from the quaking bog.
The birds began their commotion despite the grey of the morning,
and one of the farm cats, a male, the large orange tabby

began to yowl near the back door.
All early winter they would leave their wet mittens
and soaked boots on the small side porch.

Gradually a boot or a mitten would disappear from the heap, and
throughout that early winter morning departures for school would
become moments of crisis, one child or another

hopping on mismatched footgear down the lane to the school bus.
He was only seven, going on eight, his brother was five and in
kindergarten, one older sister, only a year older,

and at home a little sister, a toddler.

One late spring day, when the day lilies were just in bloom, we
were out in the woods playing and stopped to eat our lunches,
peanut butter sandwiches. Out of the brush streaked a comet of
white fluff

and the sandwich was gone. He was ready.
After that we went to the woods to see him, and we always
took him his own lunch of peanut butter sandwiches.

And we were not afraid, though he was a wild dog.
A wolverine, perchance.
A good dog, as Beowulf might say.

As the bog flowers began to appear, pitchers opening to swallow
the first insects of summer, he led us deeper and deeper into the
woods and one day showed us his cache,

his cimelia
of all the lost boots and mittens.
He was aerialist, master of the woods and grasses,
leaping in the air to catch a field mouse,

all summer he was our companion in the woods and the vly
but  each day with us he moved closer and closer to the house
and then he began to sleep out on the porch until winter came.

As cold deepened he moved inside
usually slept next to my bed, the lower bunk.
He would not be in the same room as my father,

nor any other person over six feet tall
even though my father fed him most of the time.
Table scraps, never dog food.

He refused dog food.

We were four, but he hung out with me most of the time
because I did the most  things a feral dog would be interested in-—
woodsy things.

His name was Duffy, but I don’t remember how he got it.
He was a whitish spitz, sort of a cross between a Finnish spitz
and the yappy cotton candy dogs you see.

Canis pomeranus,  according to Linnaeus, not nearly so big
as a Siberian husky, or one of those Asian Chow-Chows
but his tail curled up and he had a thick coat and small ears.

Spitze are wolves of course, but he never barked like a wolf.
And if he were in touch with his ancestors he wouldn’t say.
He did not like cats, but he was otherwise purely virtuous.

The quaking bogs were our playgrounds.
The one nearest to Oneonata is completely closed over by moss,
with no trees until you get right to the edge.

In the middle it’s like being on the sea on a huge underinflated
air mattress. Its border is all cattails, large sausage spikes rising up
nine feet, rushes with their rounded stems and small yellow

flowers. Thick mats of sedges in circular mounds moving out from
the shore of the bog, their sharp edges cut us as we played, and the
bulrushes protruded from the watery bits of the bog.

The part I didn’t tell is the one instance a dog ever talked to me.
I was ten, just about to turn eleven, and out by a stream
on our farm, the sky was a very deep blue above the cumulus

clouds but their bottom edges were slate grey and threatening,
suddenly I thought he was there with me, saying goodbye.
Though neither his presence nor his talking was finite

or organical, as Blake would say.
And I never saw nor heard of him again.


Elegy for Starlight

Like a flight of geese you came through a February blizzard
A small black white and bronze mass of carapace
with bright blue eyes

I warmed you by the fire as they departed.
Home, home at last.

If I were to write the chronicle of your life
staving off the maw of Father Time

devouring always his young hostages to fortune
it would be to begin now, one year after your passing

while grief is fresh, but tears
have ceased, or so I would believe.

This morning the far western shore
replicates, duplicates itself

in the glass of water.
You are my Pangaea;
I your Gondwanaland.

And now to put an end
to all my journeying

open the window
let the warm love in.

This morning at last
the lake is glass on the far side
ripples nearby, light mist rising.

This Sunday morning
just before departure

the lake at last gave back
that quiet I had sought

the mist had gone;
it was now sheer glass

so smooth a passing motorboat
made scarce a mark  or sound

to the west someone was gently
tapping, hanging perhaps a

picture of the mind or of the
thumbnail fawn toad

that hopped across my path
as I ascended to depart.


A Delight of Pigs
Overcomes Household Stigma

Singularity being the Mark of Cain in human society,
the only solution is the acquisition of a household of warm fur

Markham Street Household of large-haired warm females
language not confined but defined by barking growling hissing
chattering whistling and cooing.

Steady diets of fish and organic vegetables for Miss Lucy.
Steady diets of organic greens, melons and good books
for all other inhabitants.

Collage being the ultimate post-modern art form, democratic
and encouraging of viewer participation invites you to enter
Markham Street interactive space and play with the pigs
Dawn and Dusk

who being toupees on eight feet are easily distinguished
by colouring, Dawn of course having an orange face
and her sister a puff of smoke as light falls.

To bury one’s face in a guinea pig’s back is to smell
a meadow of wild flowers on a warm summer day

The story of how Dawn and Dusk came to live in a corner
of the dining room will have to wait for another episode of
How the House Turns

but it should be stated that Dawn and Dusk, aka the Little Girls,
prefer the corner of the dining room to the great outdoors,
to their antique carved wood Rajasthan dovecote in the garden,

to the kitchen and the living room, and might
even prefer the dining room to the grasslands of Peru
where their ancestors roamed free and mucky
for most of their organic filled green grass lives.

For Dawn and Dusk, the fly in the proverbial ointment
is the giant: ‘Pssst, Sis here comes the Giant’.
The giant like the pigs is warm blooded with immense

circular green and yellow hands off which tumble lettuces, alfalfa sprouts, melons, green peppers, apples, sliced green grapes,
coriander, swiss chard, and in spring and in summer

the sweetest of fresh grasses, lemon balm and parsley.
Before Dawn and Dusk came to live in their two-storey palace condominium, it was the home of Starlight.

Starlight had blue eyes, huge testicles, and a little penis
which only appeared when his belly was gently pressed.
Starlight took tea regularly with the giant,

and the giant white fuzzy called Miss Lucy.
In the evening, he lay on the white sofa with the giants
and he smiled, and sometimes contently pooed and peed

on whomever he lay upon. The white sofa
was Starlight’s favourite corner of the universe
because it also came with a big book

which the giant of the large hands held up conveniently
for him to chew. His favourite book was The History of Reading,
though he also had a nibble on Through The Looking Glass Wood.

Alas, Starlight passed over, much to the sorrow
and the continuing depression of the giants,
but the chewed corner of his favourite book remains.

—Karen Mulhallen

See also “Solomon’s Judgement,” two poems on Carpaccio’s dog, and dg’s introduction to the selected poems—all published on NC.

Aug 182011


Ian Colford is an author and librarian (not a bad side occupation for a writer) at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He has had stories and commentary published in about 20 different print and online literary journals including “Laurianne’s Choice” in Numéro Cinq. His 2008 story collection, Evidence, was shortlisted for several prizes, among them the Thomas Raddall, the Danuta Gleed and the ReLit. It won the Margaret and John Savage Award for best first book. 

The Crimes of Hector Tomás is a novel the action of which takes place in an unnamed South American country during a period of political turmoil in the 1960s. Hector is fifteen. He has committed an assault, and rather than risk his arrest his parents are sending him away to live with his aunt and uncle on their farm in Envigado. For a number of months his father’s behaviour had aroused Hector’s suspicions, and the assault was motivated by Hector’s jealousy of another boy, Jorge, on whom his father had been lavishing attention. Nadia is Hector’s girlfriend. Hector’s brother Carlos is also mentioned. A few years earlier Carlos became involved with a resistance group. One night he was abducted by armed thugs. He has not been seen since. Parts of the novel were composed at writing retreats in the US (Yaddo) and Scotland (Hawthornden Castle).



From The Crimes of Hector Tomás

By Ian Colford


The rickety train skirted the mountains, passing villages that were no more than clusters of huts and shanties, occasionally winding its way up into the hills and chugging laboriously across a high plain. There were frequent stops. Hector could hear and see, in the warmth of greetings and in the eyes of children trying to sell plastic Virgin Marys, molasses drops, and dried figs to the passengers, that the train’s arrival was a momentous event for the people who inhabited these parts.

Progress was slow. He had plenty of time to drift from one sweltering compartment to another, to watch the ocean pass by on his right and the mountains on his left.

His belongings filled a single small valise: clothes, toiletries, a deck of cards, a few prized superhero comic books: The Flash, Spiderman. He wore his only pair of shoes, which still bore traces of Jorgé’s blood. The lazy swaying of the train made him restless and he did not like the way his traveling companions looked at him—sullenly, as if he represented all that was troublesome in their lives. The soldiers in particular, of which there were many, seemed annoyed by his presence. He did not trust any of these people and when he roamed from one compartment to another he carried the valise with him. He took it with him to the toilet. He saw how the other passengers watched him and knew they did not trust him either, and for the first time in his life he began to suspect that the black hair and swarthy complexion he had inherited from his mother’s family marked him in some way. The man who examined his ticket did so with a wary frown, as if he could hardly believe there wasn’t some trick being played on him. Sitting by the window half dozing, Hector inadvertently met the glance of a young mother, and at the moment of contact she gathered her baby close to her breast as if to protect her from the evil eye. What did they think? That he was dangerous? A murderer? Many people had black hair and skin darkened by the sun. It did not mean they were murderers. He smiled at the woman with the baby, but she lifted her chin and did not smile back. A few moments later she stood, collected her things, and left the compartment.

The landscape was parched. The sun beat down without mercy and Hector recalled the geography lesson in which his teacher had told the class that certain regions of the country had not seen a drop of rain for a hundred years. In some areas people working the fields paused and stared as if mystified, watching the train pass them by. Hunched and motionless, they seemed like stumps from huge felled trees. Oxen and goats huddled behind sun-flayed wooden fences had a look of doomed resignation about them.

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