The other day, I agreed to read one of my own poems at a sixtieth wedding anniversary. There were fewer trees on the main street of the small town just north of Toronto than the last time I’d been there, reminding me of the ice storm we had back in December. Immediately, I wanted to stop the car and write some notes about the presence of such absence, how my own trees, further north where the damage was less, had glittered for days, making the street look luxurious when the sun came out. What I was doing was stalling. I was already ten minutes late. Despite the fact that the married couple were relatives of mine, I still felt like a hired entertainer.
It’s a strange thing to be asked to participate in anniversaries and funerals. Sometimes it’s just a priest or pastor and myself. No one really wants soft or quiet. It’s expected that I make some celebratory noise, raise a shingle or two of grief, remove all traces of loneliness. I’m making this particular event sound grim when it wasn’t at all. People were very graceful, everyone doing their best to be charming and open to the experience.
What was difficult was the feeling I had that no poem of mine could measure up to sixty years of marriage, four children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandson on the way. My job is to sit at my desk morning after morning and write poems that rarely make it to more than one page, poems that crease my brow with their refusal to be beautiful or profound. Sixty years together is, without a doubt, deeply meaningful. As was the elderly couple who sat at my table who had raised nine children, none of whom had ever given them a moment’s disappointment or heartbreak. Their lives were more accomplished than any poem I could offer.
When the anniversary couple were asked what the secret was to sixty years of togetherness, the woman said, “He had the rec room, I had the upstairs.” It sounds like a punch line, but I knew from experience that she was as implacable as she appeared. Nothing is easy, they knew that. They’d worked hard on their lives.
And how did the poem and I measure up? Just before I left, the husband took me aside and thanked me for the “touch of class’ my poem brought to the event and I was reminded of Flaubert’s famous quote that “Speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.” My poem was sixty seconds of those sixty years. It made them happy. It glittered every bit as much as the champagne with which we toasted them. For that brief time, it was more than enough.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.
Barry Dempster, twice nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award, is the author of fourteen poetry collections, two novels, The Ascension of Jesse Rapture and The Outside World, two volumes of short stories and a children’s book. His collection The Burning Alphabet won the Canadian Authors’ Association Chalmers Award for Poetry in 2005. In 2010, he was a finalist for the Ontario Premiers Award for Excellence in the Arts. He is also Acquisitions Editor for Brick Books.
For more information about Invisible Dogs please visit the Bricks Books website.