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John Pass


Cartier's Glossary

At the end of the account of his first voyage to Canadian waters there is a brief glossary of Indian words, a vade mecum of empire: In that little dictionary the first word is 'God' (for which the Hurons had no term), the last is 'Sword' (for which they did), and at the heart of the list, at the absolute center of Cartier's testament, is the fatal word, 'Gold'.
                                            — Seelye, Prophetic Waters

The winter my asthma goes clinical
and the wandering shrews expire in number
along the trails and driveway edges, intact,
apparently healthy (of some nameless terror, it must be
some owl-shadow winging over...)

Bouchard goes south with the S word
and I start to get visits from Jacques Cartier.
"Jacques," I say, "what's finished won't sustain us,"
thinking of the house I've built, my remaindered titles
him turned back at the Lachine rapids, pyrite in the hold.
"So, what's next, eh," I ask rhetorically,

thinking to distract him with the joke
of the disproportionate maps.  Lake Superior
in Hudson's Bay.  Florida in Appalachia.
Then Radisson, La Vérendrye and the rest

taking the trade west
till the Co. went retail near Fort Langley.

But he's darkly serious, a Gallic melancholic.
That stagey faraway cast to his eye.
The cross on the headland over his shoulder.

It's Saquenay.

"Sacrebleu," I tell him, "a minor river only!
No high civilization.  No fabulous Huron treasure hoard.
You mistook their propensity to please, to agree
when trading, to keep things going, to keep you happy,

for a real place.
C'mon, I'll take you fishing."

On the lake we catch nothing.
The watery reflections illusive as ever.
The deep jade of the shady bays unworked, unworkable.
"It ain't the Grand Banks, Jacques," I say
coming to my last lure, a red devil.
(I'm thinking 1534, you understand)

and he pulls out his glossary, revised, updated.
'Cod' reads the first entry, and half-way through
that tired jibe at the country: 'Cold'.  Well, okay

so there's no more wit
in the spirit world than ours
but now 'Word' is his last word, his horizon
a post-modern/biblical riddle.

I get schitzy, panicky, at this
as if in the orchard with the dormant oil
too late in the season, pushy
bright scraps of March sky escaping.
Dropped stitches of wren-trill.

Screwed up in the twist in the bud
of the careless moments, thinking, always thinking

how to bring them to bear, when needed
when the weight comes down
on my breathing, on my thinking
about my breathing.

"You mistake their propensity to please
to keep things going, for fantasy, your need only,"
he's saying (in surprising English) "mais régardez-moi

coming to that clearing, settlement
on the Great River of Canada.

She's a real place: here, eventual.
The only enigma her wild, untranslatable name."

    Originally published in Poetry Ireland Review.


Adam's River

Walter Moberly reports that, when he visited the lake in 1865, he 'made acquaintance of Adam and Eve, an Indian and his wife.'
                                                 — Akrigg, British Columbia Place Names

Downstream ever further from our native
nowheres (paradise, wilderness)
we ooh and aah harder over
these sockeye come three hundred miles upstream

enamoured of their exactitude of instinct
sniffing out birth-scrabbled gravel and graves
as if home were the whole story

and not how far we've signalled in the circuitry
of the higher brain, how deep in its ocean
dropping off the ledges of the sonar.

Through all the known and unknown world
in widening reflection float
our theorems, overtures, internets 

in the spacey self-consciousness
between available flavours, tasty speciation.

Anyone's buffed-up antique couple (singular, original
pre-parental statuary, isolate and looming
within each life's parentheses)

rubs uneasy shoulders on this crowded little bridge
with massive, loafing miracle, the amazing many
roughening, reddening the water, push

come to shove of populations
pursued, pursuing increase. 

A hunger past naming, past feeding
firm-bodied flash and fluid mastery

bellies down best
against the streambed
against the steady current under
rib, under root, under rafter
                              gnaws inward...

leaves generation diddling
in its little hollow...

pleads synapse to the elements.

    Originally published in Prism International.


Canal Flats / Grand Canal

Stand with Baillie-Grohman in 1882
on the shoulder of the Purcells gazing
east and north up the Rocky Mountain trench
but bear with his southwest intentions

for the arable flood plain near Creston
he'll sell once reclaimed from the Kootenay's high water
re-routing its headwaters here with a trench of his own

into the Columbia.  Or step back a year into Venice
at Renoir's elbow as he fires up his colours' crucible
to melt the flowering gothic facades, the delicate loggias
into their original mercantile energies—

the bloods and golds of lucre and sunset and feeling
aflame where we live between sky and water.

Each knows flow, control, connection
from opposite poles of the Great Western Power Project
the heat and buzz at their backs building
on invention/reinvention

a virtual immensity of NOW:ME.
Our big-boned, weanling century drags its heel
between the puddles.  Its spillway opens

and closes the rivers
like a kid playing with a lightswitch.
Its cinematic evening hues, its radio shadow

set me humming The Red River Valley to the rhythm
of blue snow squeaking beneath my moccasins
in Charleswood. In the dark between houses

where my paper-route's path was a neighbour's trap-line
a rabbit squeals in its wire noose. Beginnings
of the winter constellations rise
and snag in the treetops

ice-up down the tributaries. Canal Flats
sounds more like Missippippi blues
than that land-locked valley ships came through—
first Gwendoline , then, in 1902, North Star

whose captain blew out the locks' gates
to do it. He blew out the stops
where Thompson portaged

(and would have to portage today
in the silted channel)

while Renoir's purplish horizontals
keep right on doing their gondola impressions
for new money. What are continents, places

when somebody's beachcombing tale is a bottle
of New York mineral water
washed ashore in the Charlottes?

And all of us here via neither
land nor sea, but by body, mystery.....

My daughter navigating through
a living room strewn with the flotsam
of tinsel and ribbon (an art-class paper angel
in one hand, blue glass star in the other)

slips against me just under my arm holding up
a string of lights I'm testing.
Something's jostled and they come on.

Our awkward hug's brief charm lights up
in the picture window like reflection
in held water. Comes deeply, grandly, true.

    Originally published in Event.


House Posts

One world, here and beyond us
so that reaching for it, into it

hog-ties the shaman blind in his blanket
face-down on the floor, seals out every sliver
of light from the windows to sound the rattles

from everywhere, the muffled voices, sparks
and crescendos erratic in the air.  Whether spirits

or apparatus who can say with the fine threads
of the four directions stretched among the supplicants
miraculously intact next morning, and by morning

we're boating, skeptical, talking metaphor, joking.
There's our parallel universe: the bluffs

of arbutus and shore pine slipping past,
the island we're approaching friends call

"going to Greece" when we go there
for its shimmering slopes in high summer
of dry moss and gold, flattened grasses,
its hollows here and there as welcoming

as a wife's body, as sharply aromatic.
Wet rock, yarrow, manzanita.

I've no vows, no chanting but this
to hold these shocking constancies, expanses, open

spaces between the trees complete
and sadder than made places...

          the trees         just where

          house posts      would be.

Stepping amidst them, within, I'm over-
hearing my own voice disown me, "yes,

              you belong here
              but cannot stay."


John Pass's poetry has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies in Canada, the U.S., and Ireland.  In 1988 Mr. Pass won the Canada Poetry Prize, an international competition sponsored by Canada/India Village Aid.  He was Visiting Poet at Utah's Brigham Young University in 1990.  His book The Hour's Acropolis (Harbour, 1991) was short-listed for The Dorothy Livesay Prize (BC Book Award), while "Reprieve for the Body," from his most recent book, Radical Innocence (Harbour, 1994), won second prize in The League of Canadian Poets National Poetry Contest 1994.  In 1996 he received a British Columbia Cultural Services Award to work on Water Stair, published by Oolichan Books.
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