JOHN WING AT PHOG LOUNGE, WINDSOR, ONTARIO

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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:

MEMORY

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

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