Humanist Perspectives: issue 183: A Poet’s Voice

A Poet’s Voice
by Henry Beissel

Henry Beissel is a poet, playwright, essayist, translator and editor with over 30 publications that have brought him international recognition and awards. He is a Distinguished Emeritus Professor of English from Concordia University, Montreal, and now lives with his wife Arlette Francière, the painter and translator, in Ottawa. (

Author’s Statement: Poetry invites us to the joy of living by making us know and celebrate the uniqueness, fragility and evanescence of life. Thus poetry reconciles us to the tragic flaw in all conscious existence. It can take us to the edge of knowing and point beyond itself into the mystery that surrounds us.

Today, when commercialization is poisoning the space in which the arts can flourish, poetry also has a political function: to be the conscience of our tribe by bearing witness in truth to the corruption of civil society and challenging our humanity to come into its own.
Coming to Terms with a Child: Once upon a time

Praise be to the years that unspooled
from the skein of uncertain destinies
hour by hour and month after month
the improbable stitch in time to mark
the spot where something popped to which
I am the sole survivor and the last witness.

Anniversaries are wayside inns to unfold
maps, confirm roads traveled and mark
routes yet to be explored: the eightieth calls
for a weather check as well, and time out
to tank new energies while puzzling over
aging monuments and promising geographies.

But maps don't tell the story of a life
even if memory could locate and describe
the thirty thousand dawns that roused me
from thirty thousand sleeps, even if it could
trace the thirty thousand lines light drew
along the edge of darkness, along the edge
of the river whose eddies and currents model
destiny – even if memory could connect
the dots dreams and nightmares left
across thirty thousand windows onto reality,
the resulting maps would still fail to chart
the unaccountable twists and turns, intricate
and intimate, a journey takes in a life
moving boldly, blindly from childhood
to old age knowingly ignorant.

Once upon a time and once only
then and there were here and now
but how to find them
behind so many veils and screens...
* * *

Koeln 1945
Coming to Terms with a Child: Country of Origin
Open a map of Germany and locate the city
of Cologne. Who could've known that a bend
in the river would become the colonial capital
of Rome's northern empire, acquire a cardinal's
hat and privileges, hatch from a clutch of churches
a cathedral to challenge heaven, then flourish
for a time as a port commanding one of Europe's
major shipping lanes before the iron horse
and the mechanical bird, before fossil-fed
monsters heated up the ancient games of greed
and power the few have always played with
the many, staking nations on a dare, banking
on turning strangers into scapegoats, whipping
generations into orgies of hatred and violence
till the whole continent caught fire and twice
in a single century even the honorable succumbed
to the poison of patriotism. Deluded by drill
and discipline they followed the false lead
of flags and marching bands herding the sheep
heroically to their slaughter and leaving Cologne
ingloriously in ruins – bombed into heaps of brick
scrap metal craters shells of homes broken doors
unhinged wall paper peeling across smashed tables
cracked kitchen sinks Dürer's Hands crushed
askew behind shattered glass collapsed floors
a toilet bowl open-mouthed as though petrified
at the height of a primal scream: ashes ashes
everywhere: the city 32 million cubic meters
of rubble where 262 air raids buried 20,000 dead –
and somewhere in among the debris the bruised
and battered dreams of a child turned into a nightmare.

Massacre of children and their mothers, of the sick
and the old, civilians mutilated to demoralize
the troops, dismembered, incinerated in numbers
ten times the days so far recorded in my life.
In the acrid incense of burning flesh a pathetic
God choked to death in his vomit, his blessings
cut to ribbons, his faith in rags of disbelief
as flames danced on the river whose dark waters
flowed silently under bridges linking firestorms.
To have survived this inferno is no more miraculous
than to have been born into it. The luck of a throw
of fate’s dice assigns to each of us a country of origin,
the luck of countless draws between male and female
lined up all the way back into precambrian mists.
It’s not always the fastest and most forceful sperm
that enters the egg; sometimes the dreamy-eyed
latecomer is admitted and the strongest shut out.
It seems that cells that have no mind have a mind
and meaning of their own. Every birth refutes
the law of probability by the caprice of conception
and survival. None of us should have come into being
in the first place, none could have been predicted.
Nor would I have chosen of all times and places
the time and place there and then. But you don’t
negotiate chaos. In the casino of life too the odds are
stacked against you. To escape flying bullets or bombs
warrants no pride and no merit: you can’t dodge them;
you wait and when you hear them, you’re safe.
Their whistle lets you know they’ve missed you.
Only silent shrieks kill, shrieks for the lucky to hear.

I was not always so lucky in my dreams. There
they assaulted me for decades and woke me
in fear and panic for without a sound they found
their target. I died a thousand deaths and lived
to see another dawn when the sun slapped my face
back into affirmation. Slowly the years grounded
the Lancasters and Flying Fortresses. An uneasy
armistice came to prevail in the land of my dreams
after I moved to a world where war was hearsay.
Here vast solitudes are invaded only by the wind
and the dark skies flash only with dying comets
and the ghostly dances of northern lights. Night
now brings forgetting, offers coveted oblivion.
The bloodthirsty beasts of war swoop down on me
in broad daylight instead. They bear different names:
Bosnia, Chechnya, Iraq, Rwanda, Afghanistan
and Gaza, each of them recalling reenacting reviving
the surreal scenes I witnessed in those years of terror
and tyranny so bone-chillingly beyond belief and bearance
I can no longer be sure what fevered fear projects
on the walls of memory and what I experienced,
what panic stampedes into images and what I saw
turn ten thousand childhoods into one long nightmare.
* * *

Find the Mot Juste
In the sultry gloom of a summer’s night
fireflies flick their lights on and off
like children discovering electricity.
Stars veil their distances by signalling
their presence long after they’ve moved on.
By the pond a solitary bullfrog throbs
unctuously like a baritone practising a bark.
Suddenly in a flash the children and the fireflies,
The bullfrog and the baritone fuse with the stars
And flood you with a feeling of affiliation –
or is it wholeness, harmony in alienation?
You search for the word to define the moment
till you find the mot juste
does not exist.

The robin’s sprightly ululations wake you.
Through the open window you inhale the scent
of combative greens and cut-throat flowers in the grass.
A multitude of hands reach from the maple tree
for the limits of the sky. Your mind comes to rest
on a cloudbank propped against the horizon.
You try to store all that against a wintry day,
trying to name the singularity of the instant
in which the robin rose from your dreams
and a daisy opens one eye to an uncertain future.
By the flicker in the tree and the scent you knew
that you knew something you cannot know
because you find the mot juste
does not exist.

The dark taste of coffee drifts across
a conversation about the weather. You register
the egg stain on the table cloth as the radio reports
floods have triggered a famine for 20 million people
in Bangladesh. Something in your partner’s
knitted brow curtains a memory provoked
by a shaft of sunlight falling across the open mouth
of the sugar bowl. You hear a coloratura soprano
project her highest pitch beyond any narrative
to become the focal point of all that is
there now and forever in that piercing note
for which the mot juste
does not exist.

But you can find a just word
for the famine that entered your kitchen
between the tongue-twisting grapefruit
and the bacon-and-eggs over easy.
It must be a tough word because half the world’s
people live each day on less than the popsicle
your child sucks between meals. Their children
are chained to sewing-machines and what they suck
is the gross indecency of our assets. You don’t need
imagination to see beyond your tourist guide
or look under your luxuriously appointed dinner
table and observe the skeletal dog to know
that for all this the mot juste
does indeed exist –
find it or it’ll choke you.
* * *

Once upon a Time and Country of Origin are the first two of fourteen sections of Coming to Terms with a Child, published in 2011 by Black Moss Press.