Jude Dillon presents: Tom Wayman!
Since 1973, more than 15 collections of Tom Wayman’s poems have been published in Canada and the U.S. His 2002 title, My Father’s Cup, was shortlisted for both the Governor-General’s Literary Award and the B.C. Book Prize for poetry. His latest book of poems is High Speed Through Shoaling Water (2007). Poems of his appeared in three recent (2009) anthologies: Nancy Holmes’ Open Wide a Wilderness: Canadian Nature Poems (Wilfrid Laurier UP), George McWhirter’s A Verse Map of Vancouver (Anvil), and John Bradley’s Eating the Pure Light: Homage to Thomas McGrath (Backwaters).
Wayman has edited several anthologies of poems, most recently The Dominion of Love: An Anthology of Canadian Love Poems (2001). His latest critical book is Songs Without Price: The Music of Poetry in a Discordant World (2008), based on a lecture he gave as the 2007 Ralph Gustafson Poetry Chair at the University of Vancouver Island.
Since 2002 Wayman has taught English and writing at the University of Calgary. When not away working, he lives in the Selkirk Mountains of southeastern B.C.
When I fail again
a huge cube of meat
fills my plate, a slab of steaming flesh
that must be choked down, gobbets of fat
catching in my throat
until sucked clear at the last
instant, me gulping air
while the server
already proffers another chunk
balanced on a blade.
More, he demands, his tone
anticipating my acceptance.
what you need
Where the ridge’s snowy evergreens
begin their rise toward the summit, a passage
opens through a fringe of
hazels and maples
whose emptied limbs are bowed beneath
white. The gap
leads into a clearing interrupted by piles of slash
and salvaged lumber. Here, in hot July shadow
before debouching onto a lawn
now frozen white mounds.
This December afternoon
the threshold offers an
indifference: the still cavity within neither beckons
nor refuses. The woods beyond, however, are at once
and sentient, watchful
and absorbed by inner concerns.
In the open, white flakes
form in air
and drift downwards. Their descents,
like the deer,
blind the world.
SLAVES OF CLEAVAGE
Surges of sweet creek water
lifting over stone: flesh knoll pressed
to knoll, with the shadowed valley between
promising a route back
to the dark land whose flag and treasury
were warmth and nourishment
and delight. Who could deny anything to
the possessor of this gate?
Or perhaps this shifting, rolling syncline
forms a promise of
unstinting welcome for babies, babies,
babies, or induces a dream
of sliding taut skin between these smooth rises:
a miner at the pit head
who demonstrates for company executives
the service ordinarily performed out of their vision
in the rich, black, dripping stope.
when cloth is pulled away from
these two commanding oracles
so they stand naked and separate,
their esoteric power is diminished; they become
only breasts: reduced by the process of individualization
to mere priestesses. True, these clerics
each offer a nipple for worship
by the tongue’s psalms and hymns,
the fingers’ rites of praise.
Yet though these discrete ministers
retain a simulacrum of authority,
where the duo are gathered together
the goddess speaks: apart, the two must
submit to a judgment
never dared by cleavage’s awe-filled acolytes,
faithful believers, slaves.
PRAYER IN HELL
Are there no prayers in Hell?
Or are appeals to the Divine blocked from ascending
By local or ontological edict? Or are the damned’s petitions,
Through utilization of some sort of holy call display,
Ignored at their destination? If each of us is a sinner,
And repentance the goal, and if, after fifty years or so,
A person’s arrival amid the sulfurous mists reverses her or his beliefs
Regarding the existence of the Creator or the definition of evil,
Why should such former bad behavior
Occurring over less than a heartbeat of cosmic time
Earn an eternity of pain? Is the purpose of Hell
Pure punishment, when even on post-Edenic Earth
Lip service at least is paid to correction as the aim
Of incarceration? Are no anger management courses
Or victim impact circles available to the doomed?
Are billions of years of ceaseless torment
Really required as restitution for, say, faithfulness
To incorrect doctrine? The Devil may erect signage that proclaims,
“Abandon hope,” yet the Germans displayed “Work makes you free”
At the gates of their concentration camps
Even though that turned out to be a lie. Hope makes us human;
If we’re not human after death, who or what is being chastised?
While Sabbath services might be officially banned, are there no
Clandestine prayer meetings before or after work
(Hard to imagine Hell without forced labor)?
Are messages of encouragement not whispered soul-to-soul
Under the lash? Is there no myth, or sacred story
Of a Second Harrowing, when a Redeemer will return and this time
Free not just the worthy who were unfortunate enough
To be born too soon, but all of us?
Or, given the human penchant for adherence
To an exclusionary tribe, party, faction,
All, at any rate, who affirm the right creed?
“Everything is holy!”
Snow outlines limbs of the cottonwood
along the river, while branches of evergreen spruce
are weighted with white clumps.
Midstream, a few snowy rocks
break a sheet of dark water.
Hay meadows extend pure
from the current’s edge to the forest.
Still, what use is a universe? At a moment when time and matter
were one, the location that was each possible instant
did not float in a where. The primal speck
was all. What, then, impelled existence
to abruptly form?
I do not believe poverty is holy,
nor the act of parents who sell a child,
nor men and women who preach that a god or leader
demands or condones murder.
The daily panic of individuals frightened of the world
because of a developmental flaw
is not sacred. Nor is disparagement
of others, or an intense self-absorption sliding to psychosis.
I think what is designated “holy”
by those appointed to award the term
is intended to possess qualities that transcend
the ability of humans to attain
–virtues we supposedly can only worship
or attempt to emulate. Rather than venerating
pain, or an alp, or a book
let us stand up for our wholesome selves.
Let us accept that in the presence of overwhelming beauty
–fields of snow that sparkle back at our sun–
a sensation suffuses us, as in the June woods, too,
we might be astonished by the trees’ gifts:
microorganisms that constitute nodules on
root-hairs, or the vast trunk of a giant.
We can acknowledge mystery
or the accidental cosmos
without kneeling, can experienc eawe
at kindness, at the body’s delights and weirdness,
without ceding the glory.
We do not have to terrify or
when we encounter the good. We have no way of confirming
angels feel rapturous in the divine presence
or if for them it isn’t just another day at work.
We do know exaltation is a human
possibility. Let us praise
the best of ourselves,
the bend of the winter river.
THE PROUD WALKERS
After a late spring, on a warm July morning
the valley air that rises from the river
floats a steady flow of tufted cottonwood seeds
over my trees;
the buoyant flakes
coast gravely in above the meadows,
then the lawn
toward the forested ridge
and enter my yard
like a blessing
LITTLE CHORAL SONG
Molecules of air
Hardened into white flakes
That drifted, clumped
Into a swirl that swarmed
Above black asphalt.
Specks of white: a dense cloud
As of waxwings rose, deked
Right, dropped, undulated
Back aloft–a flock
Of tiny birds.
Under the immense peaks
Of the Main Range
Between Vermillion Crossing and Mount Hector
The snow buzzed like bees
Attempting to land on the dark sky.
The ranges that walled the pass:
White. The roadside meadows,
The glacial river in the valley bottom:
White. But a black route
Cut through white air.
HOW IT HAPPENED
They were friends in grad school:
nights arguing and agreeing about
discoveries of nonrepresentational literary techniques.
Pretty soon, they had their own grad students
–not a lot, but over many years
these added up: every seven years
their incoming grad students had
grad students, all masters of why the writing
of their supervisor’s supervisor, or
of their supervisor’s good friends, or of authors touched on
in their supervisor’s thesis was worthy of a thesis
and of grants to support a well-theorized
account of how their words proved
the shortcomings of language, of material
literary production, of capitalism itself
according to the critical theories whose thick prose
they had dogpaddled through in courses,
buoyed by the enthusiasm of their instructor, and now
brought to other classes in turn
as the essence of sophisticated, albeit hermetic,
analysis–which if untrue,
since nothing authored can be true,
Of course, only a handful of opportunities
to publish existed, since most writers
refused to abandon their dreary, outmoded
and politically reactionary compositional choices,
yet a person could be assured of the hospitality of select journals
and book micropublishers, whose marginal status
represented further evidence of the oppositional quality
of the texts produced. And a person quickly became known,
especially with a recommendation. Although the same faces
constituted most of the audience at each public lecture or reading,
fresh boyfriends or girlfriends of crowd members
filled in a little, and a few of these newcomers even began
to write themselves, showed promise, applied to grad school,
crafted papers, organized conferences,
sat on panels, and defended, eventually,
their own thesis. In this manner
the world was saved.
I feel Wayman’s poems don’t deserve
more than C-minus. Neither form nor diction is energetic;
content sounds more blah-blah-blah
than chiseled, gnomic, paratactic.
On the other hand, Wayman seems a nice guy,
has read widely, and appears the sensitive type:
a C-minus could depress him. I wouldn’t want to turn him off
poetry forever–the goal of these writing courses
isn’t to discourage people, Lord knows, except for a few sad cases,
and not many readers are serious about the genre these days.
So I’d say C for him, except I’m assigning his pal Olaf
a B. Olaf’s the kind who’ll strenuously complain about any grade he receives
but our calendar states B signifies “above average knowledge of the subject”
–though no prof or student really believes the letter indicates this.
Still, when Olaf objects to his mark, I can point to
the official description as evidence I regard his work
as laudable. Yet Olaf and Wayman are likely to share information
and because the class–including me–was far more negative about Olaf’s poems
than Wayman’s, Olaf’s B may look odd compared to
even a C-plus for his friend. If I give Wayman B-minus,
should he comment, I can stress he’s in the B range,
implying his and Olaf’s mark are essentially the same.
B-minus rather than another B would also help reinforce a bell-curve
–always a concern, since the administration is convinced that creative writing
is graded too easy, despite us reminding them
our students are self-selected, and thus invariably do better
than their peers who enroll in a lit class solely to fulfill
a business, pre-med or similar program requirement
and hate every minute. Anyhow, Wayman should be grateful
not to have his poems assigned what they’re truly worth. B minus it is.