Last night I was asked to appear before city council here and read a poem. I chose to read one about Alexander Bartlet, Windsor’s first town clerk (born 1780). He was also a magistrate. He resided at the corner of Chatham and Ferry Streets in a building that was replaced by the Old Fish Market. The house he owned was moved to a nearby street. For years, I have gone in search of this old Georgian residence. I haven’t located it. I’ve seen two or three that could possibly be Bartlet’s home.

The poem begins with that search, but tells about the morning that Bartlet heard about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. The poem is dedicated to Bartlet, but also to Thomas Hines who was chased in Detroit on April 16th because people mistook him for Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, who was still on the run. Hines made his way to the ferry docks in Detroit, forced a ferry boat operator at gunpoint to take him across to Windsor. So overwhelmed with guilt over having treated the man that way, Hines offered the operator $5 for the trouble. The story I am telling in this narrative is based in part — with a lot of poetic licence — on the diaries Bartlet left behind. These are housed at the University of Windsor Archives in the basement of the university library. Here is the poem:

The Magistrate’s House

For Alexander Bartlet and Thomas Hines


Sometimes I go out

in early morning

cruising up and down Windsor streets

in search of his house

—its sprawling Georgian verandah

the usual sash windows

sturdy front door with transom

and sidelights

They’ve moved it, but not far

I’ve narrowed it down

to two or three —

In a way I don’t want to know

I want to paint my own story

of that that morning: 1865

of the billy-goat bearded town clerk

racing down a flight of stairs

to the landing —

paperboys fanning out into Ferry Street

from the ferry docks

a cold Easter Monday

the boys shouting “Lincoln Shot!”

I see the magistrate’s frown

in the dim April dawn

his voice summoning the boys

to bring him the paper

see him pausing there in the gaping entrance

wondering what went wrong

a civil war across the river

the flight of slaves to his shores

now rumours of John Wilkes Booth

making his own run across the river

That Easter Monday

a sleepy town rouses itself awake

to the scuttlebutts

of a ferry boat captain

who stopped at nothing to spin the legend

of being held at gunpoint

by Lincoln’s assassin

and the magistrate sorts out

the hearsay down by the docks

wind howling up that street

sweeping its way into the

shopkeepers’ doorways

on that spit-gray day

It’s all gone now but for that story

and the ramshackle house

that sits somewhere

quietly breathing

telling no one

the truth



Canada’s Poet Laureate

Fred Wah, newly appointed as the parliamentary poet laureate for Canada, was in Windsor this week to read at The Capitol Theatre. The event was sponsored generously both by the cultural affairs office of the City of Windsor and the English Department at the University of Windsor. And I was asked to host the event. For me, it was not only an honour representing the city as this municipality’s own first poet laureate, it was also a bit of a homecoming. I had a chance to talk with Wah before the event. We sat in the lumpy up old theatre seats at the front of the room, and talked about the 1960s. Both of us were focused on our careers as poets back then. Or maybe we never thought of ourselves as carving out for ourselves an actual “career,” but poetry some 40 years ago consumed us. It’s what we were reading, and what we were writing. Wah was on the west coast then at UBC working under the tutelage of Warren Tallman and the American poet Robert Creeley. He was part of a group that started a magazine called “Tish.” This zine threatened the conventions of writing in this country, and later George Fetherling would declare it to be “the most influential literary magazine” ever to exist in Canadian literary history. True enough. It spawned a generation of writers whose observations about the world, and about writing, changed the way we put words on a page.

Much later, the legendary Earle Birney would acknowledge the imagination of these younger writers, and would set out to rewrite many of his time-worn poems, the ones that first catapulted him into fame. Birney’s mentor became the young and energized bp Nichol. It was like W. B. Yeats turning to the inspired youthful Ezra Pound.

But there we were. I sat beside Fred and we talked about that period. We both recounted stories of going to see a skeptical Birney who scanned our writing. We had brought samples of our poetry to him, and in both instances, we believe they were never read. Both of us were quickly dismissed and sent on our way. We had a good laugh over that experience. We also talked about hitchhiking across the country in the 1960s, and I told him how I was stopped in Swift Current, the place of his birth, and was stuck there for two days. I couldn’t get a ride out of the town, until a preacher pulled up — very reluctantly but overcome with guilt for abandoning me — and drove me to Calgary. I always say he saved my soul — so to speak. Wah, for his part, was hitchhiking east with his wife, Pauline, and got a ride in a sports car. In those days, I was living in Toronto, and Yorkville (“The Village”) was crammed with hippies. The old Riverboat club in those days featured Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell. In those days, I was hanging out at The Book Cellar and The Village Books and reading all the poets whose books were being printed at Coach House Press. I was also devouring all the work in the “little magazines” that came out of Toronto and Montreal and Halifax. I was also being introduced to writings by Gary Snyder (“The Beats”), and Ginsberg, and of course, Jack Kerouac. But it was these Canadian poets on the West Coast whose work fascinated me. I was drawn to the Tish writers like George Bowering, Lionel Kearns, Robert Hogg and Fred Wah. They were experimenting with writing and pushing the boundaries. I always likened them to the Romantic poets — Wordsworth and Coleridge — publishing The Lyrical Ballads in 1798. Though that book’s immediate effects were modest, it is regarded today as marking the beginning of the Romantic movement in English Literature, and the landmark event that transformed the way poetry was written.

And so earlier this week, Canada’s poet laureate candidly talked about those university days when he and Bowering and Kearns were mimeographing Tish. He smiled at the question if he and the others had “a clue” as to what they were doing as young writers back then in  the mid-1960s. He acknowledged they couldn’t know they were changing the world. They were in the moment.

On the other side of the county, however, I was reading them. For me, it was exciting — it was different, it was challenging, it was unique. It opened my eyes.

Photos below were taken by Jason Rankin.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It was one of the best nights for poetry in a long time, and it happened  at Phog Lounge, perhaps the finest place for music and poetry in southwestern Ontario. Tom Lucier hosted a group of local writers, as well as the great and ever-funny poet and comedian John Wing. Leading off the night was Kate Hargreaves, a young poet and up-and-coming book designer who works with Black Moss Press and edits our on-line zine Offside. Her work is evidence of some of the best writing to come out of the University of Windsor creative writing program in a long time. She was followed by the enigmatic Vanessa Shields, whose book, Laughing Through A Second Pregnancy, was published by Black Moss last year. She read from a possible book of new poems. Vanessa was followed by Peter Hrastovec, an old friend, a lawyer and a fabulous poet. I have been after him for years to put together a book of his work. He is finally publishing some of it. And that night, he read a piece from The Windsor Review, the Filth issue that John Wing guest edited. Peter is a new writer on the scene, and his first book should appear in the fall. The featured reader that night was John Wing, and he had the crowd in stitches. But one poem in particular caught my attention, and it was the serious tone and intention of the work that sent shivers down my spine. Here was a master at work. Here is John Wing’s poem:


This is my memory,

my archive of wind and aroma,

a relic box the size of Mexico City.

Everything is arranged just so

idiotically. A blind man

runs this library.

My eyes are closed

but I’m not asleep. My memory

isn’t tired. He wants to play.

Six years old,

awake in the mid-night,

searching for my father,

and afraid I might find him.

Going from my bed

to the bathroom in the black,

running into rogue pieces

of furniture. Chairs and bureaus

surround me, the room shrinks

to the size of my chest.

I gasp my way back to bed

and scream until my father comes

in a burst of light, showing

the room as it should be.

Maybe I never got up at all.

Just a dream.

This is my memory:

Down the lane, Mary Jane, I smell

the stove in my mother’s house.

And the numbers, cucumbers, come

to me.

96: Ty Cobb, stolen bases, 1915.

101: Don Hutson, touchdown receptions – career.

58: Hank Greenberg frightens Ruth, 1938,

the year before Hitler invaded Poland.

Numbers aren’t events

that someone standing

next to you saw differently.

I am singing to a child.

Her face is pink, her eyes closed.

She reacts to sound only.

I am singing ‘Jerusalem’

softly in her ear.

Someday, in a church somewhere,

she will hear this song

and feel so strange.

She was born two minutes ago.

We’ve just met.

This is my memory:

I turn down a side street

and find everything I ever broke

accidentally or smashed on purpose.

Almost every lie I ever told cringes up

and this is more than awful, since

nothing ices the blood more than a lie

you can’t remember.

And my father’s face is high above me,

holding me as I try to skate. I am safe

between his giant Dad-legs, steadied

by his big black Dad- galoshes.

Now his face is not so high, though

still above mine. I must be older here.

He is angry and offering me his chin

Take your best shot. I wonder

if I could take him down with one punch,

break his sarcastic jaw. I am furious

but my arms refuse to call his bet.

Finally he snorts and leaves.

It is as close as we will come to blows.

I think I could beat him now.

I’m older and smarter

and he’s in a wheelchair.

This is my memory:

Listing the names of all

the women I slept with.

Names were always my problem.

By mid-page, I’m reduced to entries

like, ‘the redhead in Saginaw’.

Baseball names are easy.

Why is that? Charlie Root threw

Babe Ruth’s called shot.

Tracy Stallard – Maris’s 61st.

Al Downing – Aaron’s 715th.

If only women could pitch.

All my cities are here.

Paris, emaciated sidewalks,

tramp tramp tramp the boys

are marching. The whore-market

on St. Denis. Tramp, tramp, tramp

the girls are marching, too. Some fresh,

some way past their best before.

Dijon, the open air market,

booksellers next to sausage-makers

next to trinketeers.

Buy a tiny Eiffel Tower, in case

you ever live in a house ugly enough

to display something so boorish.

Sarnia, where I was born.

The Red Deer of the east.

The ghost of oil and cough drops.

Key West, where I walked the streets

Hemingway and Tennessee Williams

walked. Thank God they never met.

Ernest would start off with his usual

man-to-man gambit, ‘How about you

hit me as hard as you can and then

I’ll hit you as hard as I can?’

And Tennessee would counter with,

‘How about you fuck me as hard as you can…?’

This is my memory. My unpaid guide

across the river. My thrusting past.

Axe-cut steps in the icefall. Eagle

arrowheads glittering over an ancient

kill-field. A woman’s hand on my naked

skin. I am sixteen and could supply

an entire city with electricity.

This is my memory, phone numbers

and phonics, facts and faces, Galileo

and Gale Sayers. If anyone comments

on how cluttered it is, I say, ‘I have

a system.’

My eyes are closed,

but I’m not asleep.

Close, though.

My memory is drifting off,

sighing a final image.

The golf course at first light,

sky-purple, the clink of cart

and spiked shoes,

the silver-washed grass.

My father’s swing – the first swing –

full of hope, and off we go,

father and sons, dark shoeprints

into the wet green distance.

October/November, 2009

Across Canada