Sandy Shreve
Paintings, Photo Art, Poetry

Blog - Wednesday Poems

(posted on 19 Jun 2024)

With the first day of summer coming right up, I thought I’d post another poem from my book
Belonging (Sono Nis Press).  As a kid, a favourite early summer (and late spring) ritual was the 
search for a blade of grass wide enough that when positioned just so, you could blow into it and
make a harsh squawk. The longer you could make the sound last, the better.  That memory 
prompted me to write Improvisation.

Decades later, this poem along with some of my favourite jazz pieces, inspired a painting, Jazz,
the image shown above. In the past, I’ve written poems responding to paintings (a method
called ekphrasis) but this was the first time I’d responded the other way around. 
A few years later,
artist Annie Smith (https://anniesmith.ca/) taught me how to make accordion books, so I made
one, shown below, to go with this pair. For this book I photographed details from the painting
to fill the panels on one side, and printed stanzas of the poem for the reverse panels.

 

“One of the boys and I got out the guitar and mandolin and sat on #5 hatch outside focsle strumming away at them.  I made an awful noise but a picture Tim took of us looks as if I was actually playing!” – Jack Shreve, 1936

With Father’s Day coming up this weekend, I thought I’d post another poem from Waiting For the Albatross (Oolichan Books) – a collection of poems I crafted by quite liberally rearranging words, phrases and sentences I borrowed from a diary my dad wrote when he was 21 and working as a deck hand on a Canadian Steamships freighter during the Great Depression.  (For more about the book, see my May 1st Wednesday Poem at https://www.sandyshreve.ca/blog.)

In the photo here, dad is the one pretending to play the mandolin. And for those who might not know what a tin pan trappist is, here is how Jesse Selengut, of New York’s Tin Pan Band explained it to me in a 2011 email:  “In older music parlance, the drum set is oft referred to as the traps set. A trappist is probably a made up, clever word to describe a drummer. A tin pan trappist would mean someone who took out some pots and pans and made a make-shift drum kit for jamming on the boat.”

Today’s poem is a madrigal, a form invented by Chaucer in the 14th century, featuring among other things, three refrains (lines 1, 6 & 11; lines 2, 7 & 12; and lines 3 & 13, with which I’ve played fast and loose).

(posted on 5 Jun 2024)

 

There have been too many funerals in my life lately. But they reminded me of my poem, “Crows”, from my book Suddenly, So Much (Exile Editions). It feels right to make it this week’s Wednesday Poem, in part because of the story behind it. (The image here is another of the poetry postcards I talked about in my May 15 post.) Here’s an excerpt from my longer post about this poem, published in 2013, in Ooligan Books’ Alive at the Centre Where Poems Begin blog:

“Crows” began with a chance encounter on my way home from work one overcast February afternoon in 1998.  An older man walking ahead of me slowed to a saunter as I approached, as if waiting for me to catch up to him.  When I did, he peered at me from under his nondescript cap and pointed to a couple of vacant lots beside us, asking if I’d noticed there were more crows around than usual.  “Not really,” I confessed, looking at what seemed a rather normal number pecking at the ground.  Then he told me how hundreds upon hundreds had arrived earlier that day, covering the field, the trees, the street – and then took off, darkening the sky.  “I think they came for my neighbour,” he said, nodding at an old house across the way.  “She died last night.”  A little farther on, he explained that when we die, crows come to escort our souls to heaven; how he hoped, when the time came, they’d show him the way, too.  A few paces later, he turned off the path and I continued on my way.  But the man and his words stayed with me.

I’ve long been fond of crows.  Growing up in New Brunswick, I’d often wake to their boisterous heckling across the Tantramar Marsh.  Others were annoyed by the ‘noise’ but I heard the possibilities for a new day in those voices.  Yet I’d never written about them; at most, crows made a passing appearance in a few of my poems.  While I knew about and admired their intelligence, I’d never read up on what they might stand for in world cultures or religions.  Given what the man I’d met earlier in the day had said, I realized I needed to look into this, so I turned to one of my favourite reference books – Barbara G. Walker’s The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects (Harper and Rowe, 1988) – and read every crow entry.  From Walker I learned, among other things, that to the Roman ear the crow’s call sounded like their word for tomorrow – and so, to them, this bird was “a symbol of the future”.

With Walker’s information, my own enchantment with crows, their generally bad reputation (as messy, as loud, as bullies and thieves) and one man’s comment about crows and our souls, all at the back of my mind, I picked up my pen …

 

 

Last week, some of the Shreve cousins had a chat about our ancestry.  It was prompted by an email showing
our paternal line, going back a few generations.  One cousin then asked about the maternal line –
where was that in the family tree?  Which reminded me that, for years, I’ve had a sampler done by my
great grandmother on my mother’s side. A small treasure, which prompted a sonnet.  So for this
week’s Wednesday Poem, I’ve chosen Susan Dixon’s Sampler, from my book, Belonging (Sono Nis Press).

(posted on 22 May 2024)

 

A couple of years ago one of my poems, first published in the literary journal Exile, was selected for inclusion in Best Canadian Poetry 2023 (Biblioasis).  These collections come out annually, and also feature comments by the authors about their poems.  My comment on ‘Late’, is included below.

Late

Just this, the way your robe hangs from the door,
and how the deep green leaf in its floral
pattern (pink on black) is answered in the towel
dangling from a hook below the mirror –
just this, the way it’s overlooked
until one sleepless night
someone rises and flicks on the light.


Once in a while a poem arrives almost fully realized, a gift from who knows where.  This has happened to me only a few times, but ‘Late’ was one of those gifts.  One night, after tossing and turning for a while, I hauled myself out of bed and headed to the bathroom.  There, I found the most astonishing beauty. Nothing had changed from earlier in the day, or even from the day before.  The same towels on the racks, the same housecoats on the door.  But for no particular reason, in that instant when I so casually turned on the light, I noticed – and gaped at – the colours, admiring how they just happened to match so well.  This simple image became, for me, a metaphor not just for my marriage but for how the ordinary can be extraordinary. ‘Late’ speaks to how the things we usually assume are insignificant (if we think of them at all) often have something to tell us, if we just take the time to consider them. The title, besides its literal reference to the middle of the night, suggests we might not want to put off paying attention to those little things we tend to ignore.  (I should note there were a few edits after the initial writing. The word ‘pink’ in the first draft was ‘pinks’. And the editors at Exile astutely noticed a redundant phrase in the fifth line, which, once I happily removed it, called for some line break changes.)

(posted on 15 May 2024)

Sticking with the seasonal theme this week, today’s Wednesday Poem is Spring Cleaning, from my book Bewildered Rituals (Polestar Press).  I composed the  accompanying image by collaging my photographs in Photoshop.

When I retired, my husband bought me my first digital camera. I dove into taking pictures, thinking to pair them with my poems, in hopes that photographs might make the poetry more widely accessible. I made cards and calendars – and a set of postcards, like the one shown here, which I took to various stores around Vancouver, where I lived at the time, asking if they might sell these on commission.  It was an interesting, but exhausting project.  After one particularly foot wearying day, I came home and told Bill I was done. I still have a supply of the postcards, though; and I still make art cards with my photos.  Spring Cleaning is one of many poems I have written that draws on my experiences in office work.

 

(posted on 8 May 2024)

 

Today’s poem comes from my book, Suddenly, So Much (Exile Editions);
the accompanying image is my painting, Watering Can (mixed media).

 

Appalachian Spring (Aaron Copland, 1944)

 

Because the wars are not over yet, and yet

these notes unfold

                                    leaf

 

and bud in the sun     because this

is what comes of bowing strings and breathing

 

into reeds and what breaks

the sky

                is dawn not bombs because

 

a ballet begins with a long sliver of sound

the piano

 

                    laughs, woodwinds scamper in the grass

with violins my fingers

                                             sprout green shoots

 

and my shuttered heart           opens

 

 

Copland’s Appalachian Spring is one of my favourite
pieces of music, and I play it often at this time of year.
Originally composed to accompany the ballet
choreographed by Martha Graham, Copland later
arranged it as an orchestral suite.  Created near the end
of WW II, the ballet celebrates the marriage of a young
frontier couple looking ahead to a promising future.
 

(posted on 1 May 2024)

"Snapped cook, 2nd cook, 2nd steward and mess boy outside galley. Also took one of cook handing Dave a tray with three chickens on it, the officers’ Sunday dinner."  (Jack Shreve, Journal entry, April 26.)

Today’s poem, in honour of May 1st, is called, fittingly, May Day. It’s from my book, Waiting for the Albatross (Oolichan Books), a collection of poems based on a diary my father, Jack Shreve, kept while working as a deck hand on a Canadian Steamships freighter when he was 21. The nearly five-month trip, from February through June 1936, took him from Halifax, down the Atlantic Seaboard, through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific to New Zealand and Australia; then back again, finally docking at Montreal.

This poem is a villanelle, which features two alternating refrains:

May Day

I wonder what’s going on in the world to-day.  
The “storm petrels” I saw yesterday lived up to their name
and we’re rolling all over the ocean.

We got that damned rice for dessert, and stewed prunes,
but the officers got apple dumplings and fancy biscuits.
I wonder what’s going on in the world to-day.  

In the water alongside us, a huge shark was rolling back
and forth and every once in a while turned belly up
as we rolled all over the ocean.

Told steward about the maggots we found in our biscuits.  “Fresh
meat”, as they call it or no, I’d sooner starve than eat that filthy food. 
I wonder what’s going on in the world to-day.  

We’ve been taking some pretty bad rolls. Got a snap
of the Bon Scot heeled right over and dipping her starboard rails
with her infernal tossing and rolling.

We’ve taken several seas and lots of spray; I got caught
in one and was washed to the side.
I wonder what’s going on in the world to-day,
while we’re rolling all over the ocean.  

 

I came across Dad’s diary in the early 1990s, some 30 years after he’d died. I was riveted – every day during that trip he wrote down his observations and opinions about everything from the mundane to the amazing, portraying life among men isolated at sea for weeks at a time – and letting loose when they got ashore. He described the work the men did, the conditions they lived in and their often volatile relationships – from sing-alongs on the poop deck to fist-fights in the foc’sle. Then, around 2002 one of my uncles left me a couple of Dad's photo albums – and there, I found the pictures he and some of the crew took during the trip.  

At that point I knew I had to do something with this fabulous material, but what?  I finally settled on a book of found poetry, meaning I’ve I crafted the poems by quite liberally rearranging words, phrases and sentences I borrowed from Dad's prose. In the few prose poems, everything is taken directly from his diary. The result is his stories, his voice and my manipulations … interspersed with many of the photographs, like the one here. Most of the poems are written in given forms that feature some kind of repetition, which I chose for how they act as a metaphor for the relentless routine of life on a freighter.

I've been feeling sorry for my poems lately, stuck as they are between the covers of the books they live in.  I'm thinking it might be fun to bring them out into the open.  So I am starting a Wednesday Poems blog, which I will also post on my Instagram and Facebook pages.

Since I recently resumed a tai chi practice, I thought I'd start with a poem from the Tai Chi Variations sequence in my book Suddenly, So Much (Exile Editions) - cover art shown here is by the wonderful artist Gabriela Campos.  Here's this week's poem:

Grasp the Sparrow's Tail

You want to fly with your feet
anchored to the ground, like

bamboo in the wind

where sparrows congregate,
impatient,
they do not wait
long for another turn at the feeder,
are quick to flap chickadees
away from their seeds.

More like demons
than souls released from the bondage
of our bodies, these birds
flick their little tails,
insolent.

You happily snatch one
down from its ecstasy in sky

and as you pull it back to live
on this earth again,
its heart turns to a terror
your fingers cannot bear to hold.

When you let go,
your feathered hands soar.

 

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