IN THAT SLUM OF A NEIGHBOURHOOD
In that slum of a neighbourhood
you were the Butterscotch Man.
Old. East Indian. Seikh. Kind.
Long white beard and hair
pouring out of your turbin.
And as I can remember you now
fifty-four years later
you were a cloud circling the peak
of Mt. Sumeru
the world mountain
that walked among children
handing out one hard butterscotch candy to each.
You’re always there in my childhood
on the corner of Douglas and Hillside
by the totem-pole telephone booth
everyone jimmied for change,
reaching deep into your tattered sportscoat pocket
with a look of gleeful gratitude on your face
that the light had smiled upon you like a child
asking for a candy.
We were too busy playing for keeps
to know how or when you died.
One day we just knew you did.
And we broke into your small ratty house,
that crutch of a box that could barely stand,
and we saw how poor you were
so much poorer than us
and even though you had an address
here in Canada among us
and stared out through the same windows
at the same demeaning day
at the doors of the deperately poor as we did,
how inestimably far you really were from home
and how alone.
There was so little to steal
who could have robbed you?
But I remember the strange calendars
no one could tell the time by in sanskrit
shedding the pictures
of the same unnamed goddess
in flaming sunset colours
like the petals of a lotus with its eyes closed.
I can’t forget the calendars.
Or how we went on looking
for large hairy black wolfspiders
hiding in the darker corners
of your abandoned rooms
we could drop hot match-heads on
to watch them run like startled wicks.
Some kids grow up like saplings.
We grew up like sticks.
But that one butterscotch candy
you were always good for
like some unknown kindness
we could infallibly depend on
however the rest of it hurt
has kept on releasing its sweetness in me
over the years
like some philosopher’s stone
that rolled down from a very high mountain of a man
that still stands before me in his turbin
even at this distance
through the bluing of time.
I can still see you on any clear day
like snow-capped Mt. Baker on the horizon
across the Straits of Georgia
all the way to Washington State
from the southern tip of Vancouver Island.
And if you were alive now
I would thank you better than I ever did then
when we approached you like a bird-feeder
apprehensively as birds.
You were handing out
your wisdom your life your light
the largesse of your spirit
Now I’ve come back alone
for all of us who’ve gone our different ways
like the wind and the waves
and the heavy clouds
of the world we shared back then,
some to prison
some to god knows where
and some to early graves
like the seeds of bad beginnings.
And it’s not that I want to set things right
because things are never really wrong
to a strong mountain
that knows how to stand on its own
without blocking the light
and there never was a time
whenever I saw you as a child
I didn’t look upon you with delight.
But now as a man
I see you as a long dark night
streaming with stars down the Himalayas
like the eternal Ganges whose waters
I imagine myself standing by for your sake
to throw my heart in
like that shoot of a rose of blood
you rooted in our ancestral starmud
like a Taj Mahal of light in the slums
of a North American night on earth
where the children who went to bed
in that cast-off neighbourhood
like unanswered prayers
stoically beyond their years
like prodigies of disappointment
brutally acquainted with the dark side of Santa Claus
wondering why they weren’t worth much
to the people who were supposed to love them,
and how much of the world can be saved forever
like the taste of kindness
in a half-finished butterscoth candy under a pillow
as hard as stone
dreaming of a huge big-hearted mountain
that thawed the milk of human kindness
to run down our lives like the lifelines
of the melting ice-cream cone
you looked like to us in your turbin.
May this rose of a poem
find you everywhere
like the children’s eyes
you opened like moments of light
to star in a dark world
as if every one of those timeless moments
were the lifespan of one of your many afterlives
handing out candies on the corners
of all the myriad worlds
where the children run to your shining
like children of the morning
with eyes as bright as morning dew
to greet the Butterscotch Man
and pry open his fingers
like the sun on Kashmiri flowers
to see what he’s got in his hand
that would taste like love on the native tongue
of any land as wise and old
and as compassionate as his forever is
or as ours was then
unfeelingly young by ten.
So thank you.
Thank-you from all the children of when
the world was a shabbier place
than this homelessness of now
but somehow you always managed
to corner a little kind place for each of us
in that spacious heart
that seemed to understand
how to stand forever before us
in a turbin of snow
like a sacred mountain
in the body of an aging holy man
as if the deepest secret of life
were as childishly simple
as a hardrock candy in the open hand
of the Butterscotch Man.