City of Regina Writing Award

This address and reading was delivered at the Awards Ceremony for the City of Regina Writing Award, in the Blue Room, Hotel Saskatchewan, Regina, Saskatchewan on Wednesday, 04 May 2005. Since this was a live delivery, there will be changes between the text, as written, and the live text, as it was delivered on the night.

Deputy Mayor Wade Murray, Citizens of Regina, Members of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild, Award Winner Tracy Hamon, Runner up, Fellowship of Entrants, Ladies and Gentlemen.

As I unload my briefcase, and place all these books and manuscripts here, on the desk, in front of you, I will tell you exactly what I always tell my students: "Read all of this by tomorrow morning, and I'll test you on it, first thing." Of course, half the students in the classroom clear out and I am always left with the dozen who really wanted to be there and learn something all along. That, by the way, is a teaching tip from the top!

Just before I stood up, I was encouraged to lose my nervousness by thinking of you, the audience, as sitting there naked. I don't know why that should make me feel less nervous, but I do know that it spoils my opening statement. Because, when I read at an important event in a major city like this, I feel that although I am wearing clothes, as soon as I begin to read, you will discover that my words are empty and, like the Emperor in the Fairy Tale, I am wearing no clothes. It is always my fear that I will not live up to the expectations and the emotional atmosphere surrounding such an event as this.

That said, I want to begin by stating what a great honour it is for me to be here tonight at this City of Regina Writing Award ceremony. It is also a very unsettling experience, because, as one of the competition’s judges, I have read the manuscripts which many of you here submitted and I can tell you, in all honesty, that there are a dozen or more potential award winners in this room. The quality of your writing here in Saskatchewan is immensely high and it was a humbling experience for me to realize how good you all were. It was also a very difficult task for myself and the other judge to come to a final decision.

How did we do it? Well, we read all the entries and then we each made a short list. We talked on the telephone, then we reread the mss. on each other’s short list. Next, we established a joint short list and then we re-read all the mss. on our joint shortlist. Finally, we talked on the telephone once more and we chose two mss from a final short list of five. Of these five finalists, any one could have won the award. Yet we agreed that Tracy Hamon would be the one chosen. Permit me to congratulate her now, on behalf of myself and my fellow judge. Permit me also to congratulate all present for the high standard of Saskatchewan writing. Award or no award, all entrants in this year’s competition can be proud of their writing skills.

Now, I have also been asked to say a few words about Tracy Hamon. However, I know very little about Tracy, except what the Deputy Mayor has already told you: she is a Regina student, a mother, and a barber, who writes poetry in her spare time. So, I don't really know what to say about Tracy, except that she is an excellent writer with a great deal of potential. So, having very little to say, I'll let Tracy speak for herself. This first poem is called Tracy's Poem and it is made up from Tracy’s poems. I call it Tracy’s Poem, because although Tracy has never read it or heard it, she actually wrote every word of it herself.

Tracy’s Poem

Taste someone else’s words. Stare at them like a cat. Don’t blink. Find a snowman. The cold will hold him, the hardness underneath is a sheet of affection. Engrave his name on a grain of ice.

The moment you wake is this stark realization: clarity is precision, an obsession that flies keening in the form of a postcard sent to an empty house with no address on the fixed scar of an anonymous journey.

The pull of life, of breath, and the heart sawing at the weeds running wild, saffron against blue jeans. Yellow spirits filling raw holes, an earth floor concealed.

My mind’s heat carrying me into the night.

Walking head down. It all starts like this.

Even without knowing all of you, and without knowing Tracy, I love Regina. This is my third visit to your city. So, what do I love about Regina? Well, apart from the welcome you gave me when I came here, I love the glass wheat field in the Regina Plains Museum, I love the iron bones in the shape of a buffalo piled on the square outside, and I adore the iron cow that chews the cud in the shop window down the road. That cow reminds me that many of us have humble beginnings and that we all share a common heritage of farms and farming.

I am originally from Wales and there are cows in Wales, you know! I don’t suppose that Welsh cows are much different, though their circumstances may change. Here are some Welsh cows.

Welsh Cows

Here they come!
The first one rumoured
to have tossed a little girl
gored a dog
broken the farmer’s leg
with a well-aimed kick
as he sat on his stool

Behind their leader
a sinister platoon
horns hooking sideways

Night cows!
Dark terrors
stalking the room at night
calving wild dreams
our bodies
trampled tossed turned
in sweat-filled darkness

We escape
by climbing high across the pillow’s hedge
impaling our backs on the bed’s sharp thorns

So, you see, I don't have nightmares: I have nightcows! And there are cows in Atlantic Canada, too; but our cows are Maritime cows, and they are not that much different from Welsh cows, nor from Prairie cows, I guess. Here’s a set of cows from Prince Edward Island. These cows are photogenic and fairly famous: you may have seen them on the Cows tee shirts!

Cows on PEI

Black and white cud-chewing stubby-horned heads leaning on fences with their forefeet braced against the highway's caravan of traffic local-yokel straw dangling stupidly from thick pale lips white foam balling on chin and slowly dribbling to knot itself into Queen Ann’s daisy-chains of frothy lace-crocheted necklaces chocolate ice cream eyes watching the world pass by taking in show after summertime show newly-washed spotted costumes and cloven high-heeled shoes with spots hung out to drip-drip-dry in a summer's breeze freshness escaped from a bleach-the-unbleachables baking soda box how now this brown cow tugging at a tassle mirrored in this looking-glass world and conscious of this tee-shirt with its painted cow staring -- how long? -- at what inner worlds of mangers and word magic?

I can’t believe that I came to Regina to talk to you about cows! I bet you can’t either. You know, inviting a guest speaker from one edge of this enormous country to a celebration 2000 miles away, is a bit like going out on a blind date. You don’t know exactly what you’re getting, if you see what I mean. And what if the blind date really is blind? Here’s a blind date for you.

Blind Date

You couldn't see the holes the doctor drilled in my head when he thought he was a woodpecker. You were oblivious to the bland, black splinters sprouting from my fingers and my neck. Unseen and unheard, the ladderback drowsed its feathered siesta as peace descended to the cluttered attic of my mind. When push came to new love, the bluebird couldn't find the old silver ring I borrowed from the curtains. How could you care about its failure to sparkle in the sun? When you ran your fingers through my hair, you cut yourself on a feather's edge and my shirt rose up in the air and flapped with sudden writing, as red as blossoming flowers. You sensed their crimson dampness, but couldn't see the petals turning skywards to a pallid moon. The clockwork mouse ran down the tower. The clock struck the chaos of a universe at sixes instead of sevens and we knew we two would never be one. Before you drove away, you told me to keep my pity for falling leaves, for sparrows in winter, and for the defenseless chickadees who quest at the feeder and leave in fear of the kitchen cat with her dogged stealth: a game of paws and pause, crisp and silent through the green hair of the grass.

So what can I bring you from the East Coast of this country? What do we have in New Brunswick that you don’t have in Regina? Well, we have beaches, with high tides and sand dunes. And where there is sand, there are buckets and spades and you can become a child again and you can build sand-castles and wait behind their walls for the incoming tide to scale the beach and turn you into an island. So here’s a sandcastle that I built, just for you:

Sand Castle

The turncoat tide climbed up the beach and betrayed my sand castle's walls. In a fit of pique, I poured Greek fire on the central keep and it became a palace of unscaleable glass. Nocturnal manoeuvres: white waves of crystalline horses running wild, cresting with fear at the approaching storm. Sometimes in bed at night my heart pumps rapid blood through restless veins. Marooned in a commercial cul-de-sac, I go round and round in rigid corporate circles. Someone once locked me in a sandcastle labyrinth of disconnected courtyards where sticky cobwebs bound windows, doors, lips, and wrists. Are there no survivors? Asleep beneath the pier, like a tramp with his dog, I am wrapped in a coat of many-coloured dreams. Senses deceive and fingers fail to unravel the knots I have tied in my bones to hold myself together.

There’s a sense of loss, of not belonging in that poem. Did you notice it? Also, there’s a sense of the person coming apart. And I find that’s happening all over Canada at the moment. People, young and old, are falling apart. And it’s a very difficult thing to deal with. We are beginning to see things, too. Shadows where shadows shouldn’t be, and images that impinge upon the corner of the eye and then flit out of sight. Have you noticed them? Here’s one:

The Shadow

The janitor said that the shadow had been seen lying down at midnight on the corridor floor. Someone dialed 911 and a police car came with a bucket and a mop to sweep this nonsense under the carpet. But the shadow wasn't there; it must have climbed to its feet and scuttled away like a vagabond crab clicking its pincers over dry moonlight on the sanded floor. It ran to an elevator and the janitor watched as the needle jerked to a stop at every floor. Now there is a fear of shadows in the washrooms. People stare at themselves in mirrors and see the devil looking out with an offer of work for idle hands. He is horned and hoofed and breathes heavily as they clean their teeth and leave the cold tap running. When the water's turned off, long, thin fingers pluck the strings of their hearts and a quaint fibrillation fills the silence of this haunted house.

And it gets worse. When we start falling apart, there are several things we can do. We can tie knots in our bones to hold ourselves together; we can strip labels from beer bottles; we can roll breadcrumbs round our plates. But are these enough, I ask. And the answer is “No!” There must be a better way to hold yourself together in times of crisis. And I have found one! Crazy Glue! If you are falling apart and you haven’t tried Crazy Glue, I recommend it strongly. Here's my poem on Crazy Glue!

Crazy Glue

Yesterday, I got lost in the mirror. I know how to swim, but I would have drowned, except the light was too shallow and my feet touched bottom when I let the wheels down. I swam on and in looking for a deserted island on which to build idle sand castle dreams. Two people said they saw my reflection swimming like a goldfish in the silver of that secret space. They said I stared back out at them with circles of longing ringing my eyes; but I laughed when they said they had seen me, for when I looked in the mirror this morning to shave, I just wasn't there. My razor dragged itself over an empty space and its sharpened blade scraped white music from the margin of a cd rom that spun on edge like dust rings round a vanished planet. Now there is a black hole where my passport photo used to thrive. Someone plucked me from the circle and cut me out in the dance last night. And now I'm looking for a scrap book into which I can stick myself with crazy glue that can never, never, never, come undone.

Have you ever done that? Have you looked in the mirror to shave? Or to put on your lipstick? Or to clean your teeth? And found that you weren’t there? There was just the empty mirror looking back at you with nothing in it at all? Sure wakes you up in the morning. You go running all over the house, looking for yourself. So here’s the message:

The Message

You cannot hide when the black angel taps you on the shoulder. "Wait a minute!" you say, "While I change my clothes and comb my hair." But he is there before you, in the clothes closet, pulling your arm. You move to the bathroom to brush your teeth. "Now!" says the angel. Your eyes mist over. You know you are there, but you can no longer see your own reflection in the mirror.

Hang in there! It’s not that bad. Tie a few knots in the old feeble bones, slap a bit of crazy glue on the toothbrush, and you’ll soon recove. Black angels, crows, cows: have you noticed that there’s only one letter between cows and crows? And they’re everywhere, the crows, I mean. Here’s one we found in the woods, at the back of our house.

Crucified Crow, Old Logging Road, NB

Head twisted slightly to one side he watched us enter the woods. His fingers were splayed like feathers. Wide spread wings, he was nailed there, poised for instant flight. For how many revolutions of the sun had he hung in that space watching the world wheel slowly by? Strung between two trees, wind and weather slowly breaking him down into this lump of solidified silence. When we cut his body down, it folded like a pack of cards, all jacks, all black, all value peeled away in fifty two faceless moments. I opened a door in my head to let in sunlight. It filtered through high, leafless branches, until the late spring sunshine rang out like a cracked bell. Raven coughed his broken twelve o’ clock chime. His voice was that of an adolescent, breaking like a sea wave on a waterside woodlot, dousing the slumbering fires in the lumber room of my coal mine mind.

Waterside woodlots, sea waves breaking, slumber in the lumber rooms: only in New Brunswick, you say! What a pity! We have rivers in New Brunswick, you know. And our rivers have mist on them, and seagulls, too! So here, fresh from New Brunswick, is the River Saint John, with some mist, and some seagulls!

Mist on the River Saint John

Slowly, trees grow downwards, topmost branches solid now, mottled trunks emergent. Sun grows stronger, second by second. Mist flows out like a tide, lingers, melts, weaves itself into clotted knots, then fades away. Trees wade waist deep in filmy fabric, bending slightly in a tranquil sea of soft, moist light. Land and river slip mist's mask from their faces. Now you see them, now soft grey wool rides over each mirage and your eyes are pulled into darkness. Suddenly, ghostly gulls guide an ice floe, fast, down river. Their pinions are trimmed to uniform grey, to this seething sackcloth swishing silently by. Seagulls slice mist with beaks as sharp as morning razor blades, ringed with blood. Long John Gull, perched on one leg, steers heroically through mist, all hope centered on some distant horizon filled with memories of a long lost sun. Now mist renews itself, is born again from some strange, fundamental funnel. It clamps its final, fatal curtain down and down until water flows invisible: an unseen presence sensed and believed in. Each concrete city bridge is a leap of faith, spanning from known to unknown.

New Brunswick, as you all probably know, is the only bilingual province in Canada. As such, we have two languages, English and French, and, to celebrate our bilingual heritage, I will read you a poem, with some words of French in it, not about the Acadians, but about Claude Monet and his paintings.


Clos Normand and the Grande Allée closed to him now; folded his flowers, their petals tight at his nightfall; dark their colours, mourning for his mornings of light, fled far from him now. The Lady of the Lake holds out her hand and hands him an apple: l'offrande du coeur. A scarlet heart of flame and world and word regenerate in tulips. Especially when the dying sun spreads molten fire over a crimson lake and the limpid sky brims over into low clouds trapping a slash of colour here, and there a tree, a fountain of gold. If the sun is an apple blushing on a setting branch, the money plant is the silver-white of moonlight between fine-tuned fingers. When it rattles its seeds, coins blunt the moon's sharp edge, and earth is eclipsed by nickels and dimes. The breeze bowls clean dry bones across the sky. Wind of change: that first fast bite too bitter to remember and timeless this tide, this ebb and flow, this great pond-serpent coiled around the foot of the tree, devouring its tale, dictating itself to death, forever.

There: that wasn’t so bad, only eight words of French and the Devil himself dictating himself to death as he coils round the foot of the tree. But we must be impartial! So, if I can read you eight words of French, I must also attempt to read you some words in what is possibly the second language of Saskatchewan.

So, from my last visit here, come these words which I read to the Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick, His Honour Herménégilde Chiasson, in a bilingual poetry reading at his residence. I quote from that reading: “To be bilingual is not just to speak French and English. I was reminded of this fact last week, in Regina, when I wrote a French phrase on the black board at the annual general meeting of the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild and was told that Cree was the city’s second language! So here, for you, is a poem partially translated from the Cree: 

Poem from the Cree

The Cree have retreated from the streets.
Their violinist has taken time out, leaving
his last notes dancing from a street lamp.
Only the fire brave remains, inhaling thick
black oily smoke. He juggles twin balls of fire.
Bones gather together to gather dry dust: hollow
metal buffalo, a cold wind blew and plucked out
his heart. Five climate controlled pedestrian
walkways cross the prairie, linking building
to building. A glass wheat field shimmers
and tinkles to the rhythm of air conditioning.
The black cow, cast iron hide set free from rust,
ruminates behind its plate glass window.
The night wind whisks white buffalo bones
pale across the sky. Oskana ka asasteki.

And with those words, I will leave you, suddenly, abruptly. Like a light like going out. Now I am here. Thank you. Oskana ka asasteki. And now I am gone.

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