TEN HOURS A DAY PAINTING IN THE HALF WILD FIELDS
Ten hours a day painting in the half wild fields
at Long Bay, eleven miles outside of Westport
for four and a half years without
seeing another human for months in the winter
except when we drove into Perth every six weeks
for smokes and groceries.
A quarter mile of treacherous driveway,
mud, ice, freezing rain, you had to accelerate
just right, and steadily, to keep the car
from sliding back down the hill.
Sometimes two or three attempts
like a long distance Olympic ski jumper
and you standing at the top of the ninety metre hill
so I didn’t kill you going backwards,
one hand on a shovel
planted in a small grey pyramid of rock salt
like a sign of readiness and ownership
that always made me think
this is what an hourglass must look like
when it finally hits bottom.
Four miles of treacherous dirt road
one car wide
six deaths down and counting
and the schoolbus always coming our way
just as we were
without being able to brake or pass.
And then twenty perilous miles,
a hot knife of anxiety in the back of my neck,
riding the rat snake of black ice
through a gauntlet of frozen road kill
on the back of Sunset Boulevard all the way to Perth.
Coffee at Tinker’s or the Red Fox,
groceries at Loeb’s,
dog kibble and wet food for the cats at Berry’s,
you’d buy something wholly intriguing to an Aquarius
and I’d buy another tool at Canadian Tire
without even knowing what is was for
but always intended to find out and use
because you never know
when you’re living on a farm
twenty-five miles outside of town
when someone who’s come over
to give you hand fixing something,
usually a car,
is going to ask you for something
everything else in the world
depends upon you having
at that one crucial moment
even if you don’t know what it’s for.
Country makes you feel
there’s a practical purpose
to being a useless poet with tools.
Months of slushy quick mud roads
where no one could get in or out
without chains on a backhoe and even then,
long soporific embering nights
when the drifts were up over the windowsills
and there was a human glow on the snow
that quietly defied all death threats from the weather
and we were all, just you and I,
and the cats and the dogs
as Willie P. would say
all safe inside and warm somewhere.
You were a witch of a cook
that would put most survivalists to shame
if they could have seen what you could do
with a bit of stew, cardboard and cornmeal.
Comes of being raised on welfare
in Westmount I suppose
and looking like a cross
between Nefertiti and Sophia Loren
with a nickname like Black Savage
who collected feathers, and rocks, and bones
and whispered to the albino skulls of small mammals
as if they and you were happy about something certain
I wasn’t privy to
nor ever thought to ask.
For nine years I’d felt
I’d fallen into paradise by accident
and kept my mouth shut lest
anybody discovered I was there by mistake.
Long walks with the sun going down over the treeline
of the island in the bay
with a long caravan of seven dogs and eleven cats
because we couldn’t bear to give them away
and they all had a big abandoned barn to sleep in
when the weather wasn’t out to kill anything that lived.
Gumboots and walking sticks in the spring
that would make me alternately feel
like Merlin or Moses
though that’s where the comparison ends,
because we’d only get as far as the fire pits
on the shore of Bob’s Lake
without ever intending to cross it
before turning back
without having killed anyone
except for the occasional groundhog
the dogs would seize by the neck ferociously,
snap it like a castanet with one shake of their head
and carry on as if nothing had happened
out of the ordinary in a dog’s life,
because we were already living in the promised land.
Years of living with a woman from Montreal
called Black Savage
who had the courage of gunpowder
the instincts of a queen cobra
and the finesse of a white-tailed doe.
And knew how to paint and write and make love as well.
And to be out in the fields with you
on those warm August afternoons
hazy with dragonflies down by the beaver pond
where you painted the dead trees
as if they’d all had the same hysterectomy you had
at twenty-three, shapely denuded torsos
missing their arms like the Venus de Milo,
and I’d try to catch the inflections of light on the water
so totally absorbed in the scene
the beavers decided despite appearances
I wasn’t there
and went on working behind me.
And once a fox sat outside its den all day
over my left shoulder
with its forelegs crossed
wondering what this curious, harmless human
was doing that so intrigued the both of us.
We painted hundreds and hundreds of landscapes
in the depths of our perfect isolation
working for hours beside each other
without ever saying a word
our brushes hadn’t already said for us
as if they had rooted themselves in the scene
and begun to sprout leaves.
But if I were able to say something to you now
looking back on it through
this aerially blue perspective of time
I’d say we weren’t painting landscapes
but the topology of bliss
when you know it’s been there
a long, long time
like the prophetic skulls
of the grey fieldstones
and the wild grapevines that covered them.
Now all that long black hair of yours
I hear is as grey as a winter dawn.
I left the farm a week after you
put all the cats and dogs down
to make me feel what it was like
to be savaged in paradise
and thoroughly abandoned
for being untrue to your paranoia
though we were joined at the hip for years
and never felt crowded
except when other people were around.
You were beautiful, you were talented,
you were as spooky as deadly nightshade,
as loyal as a female consigliere,
as true as the wing of a hawk
to the same bird I was,
and we rode the wild thermals
of our hearts and bodies and mind and art
like two halves of the same helical chromosome
and even when we painted together
until nightfall and and stars
and way off on the hill
the tiny windows of our farmhouse
filled with the welcoming warmth
of the light we’d left on to guide us back
out of the woods to our place in the distance
and a crockpot of stew that tasted
like all that was good about the human heart,
even standing at our separate easels
among the New England asters
and English ox-eyed daisies
trying to keep the powder-blue damselflies
out of the paint without hurting them
or working them into the sky on our canvases,
like a pre-mixed shade
of value nine celestial cerulean blue,
even standing in the crows-nest of our easels
like the rigging of separate ships
that could have easily passed in the night
your brush going one way
and mine the other
I never thought for a second
we weren’t rowing in the same lifeboat
toward the same lunar shore.
And you must know this before
either one of us dies
and the ear and the mouth
lose their chance to say and hear the truth,
and I say it like a bird
into the mesmeric eclipses of your Medusan eyes
without turning into unfeeling stone
like some albino rogue moon
that’s got a grudge against the darkness,
I say it in humility and gratitude
and deep reverence I seldom accord the gods
when I think of you
as this dark lighthouse of a lover
painting with me in those beautiful fields back then,
and what a witch-magnet among women you were
whenever you were among them
like a black rose at a coven of apostate doves,
your dark energy as ferocious and Mongolian as mine,
and how fastidiously noble and compassionate
you were about most things,
listening to anyone with rapt attention for hours
who wanted to convince of the uniqueness of their pain
and you’d suggest pithy strategies
like the snakey oracle of Delphi
and quite rightly they’d fall in love with you.
But not once did I ever doubt your fidelity
mostly because no one had walked out on me
after a month of marriage
and emptied my bank account and apartment
without a word of why
while I was at art school
watching my wedding ring turn green
before I came home to nothing
to find out my marriage was just a cheap hustle.
And I said to myself if it had happened to me
I might even be more paranoid about my next lover,
than you were of me from the very start,
and I loved you and it hurt
to see that massive black hole
in the center of your galactic heart.
And I know how spaced-out I am
so there’s never any lack of room for more
in this expanding universe
and it’s so rare that I feel crowded,
I said stand at my side twenty-four seven
and whatever I do you do with me
and you’ll never need fear
because you have certainty of sight
that I could possibly be untrue to you
and in time, things will heal
and you’ll be able to trust again.
And by that I thought to remove
that arrowhead of pain from your life.
When you love someone the way I loved you,
what else are you supposed to do
but make sure everytime you see one
there’s one snake less under the rosebush
that could bite either one of us
when we least expected it?
But your paranoia was hydra-headed
and as fast as I cut the head of one snake off
another grew back as venomous.
I could walk on beer when I was drinking.
I can walk on stars when I want.
I never managed water
though I still don’t think I tried hard enough,
but walking on snakes without getting bit
was a different order of ordeal
and I could tell from the way I was going numb
from the number of hits I took,
and how my heart was turning into dry ice
so I could go straight from a solid state
everytime you accused me out of the blue
of things that never even remotely crossed my mind
like planets in transit across the black sun
of a completely alien solar system
to the one you and I were living in
to a ghost
without all the intervening tears
that don’t make a damn bit of difference
to reptiles without lachrymal glands.
And one day without warning
after nine years of being constant companions,
compatible familiars in every other way but one,
you just walked out,
forgiving me for something I hadn’t done,
and I let you go
like that raccoon we raised
and returned to the wild
though it tore our hearts out to do so.
Four years later, the first time
I talked to you since you left
I asked you over the phone,
after we’d both gone on to other lovers,
you walking out on yours
because they didn’t like your art,
and mine leaving me like waterbirds
as the leaves fell from the trees in the fall,
I asked you from the bottom of my fathomless heart
if you still believed I’d been untrue to you
and you said, yes,
and that’s about the saddest thing
I’ve ever heard in my life,
and said quietly out of the wounded silence
I really hope you learn differently one day
and hung up somehow knowing
I could never talk to you again about anything.
You weren’t Eve.
And there was never a Lilith in that garden.
Our innocence was home-made.
Death was already a raccoon skull when we got there,
and if you want to blame the snakes
you might as well blame the fireflies.
You were betrayed. Badly. It’s true
but by someone else not us.
You were Black Savage,
the Aquarian beast-mistress
who could speak with such tenderness
to skulls and dead trees,
the minutiae of death
that lined your windowsill
with the bones of hummingbirds and killdeer
beside tubes of viridian green
and alizarin crimson paint
and that serious violet
only you could manage to mix
in a small jar with a dead honeybee on top.
Thank-you for nine great years
of painting beside you in those fields.
I haven’t enjoyed the like of them since.
Nor ever met anyone quite like you.
Hope you’ve learned to keep better track
of what snake belongs to what garden
so you don’t hurt the innocent ones.
I don’t blame you.
Given how deeply you were hurt.
Who else could you have been?
Personally I would have betrayed the betrayer
but he was long gone
and all that was left you could do I suppose
to take the black thorn out of your heart
was to succumb to betraying the betrayed.
And if I ever meet your ex-husband
I promise you I’ll do it for you.
And send you the skull
to put on your windowsill
between the fossil of the moon
and your red-tailed hawk feather.