James Owens

Ontario

James Owens

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  Die Welt ist fort, ich muß dich tragen.

  --- Paul Celan

  --- For Erin

1.

Fourth grade, we were all in love with Mrs. Dale,

the pretty, dark-haired teacher, who was kind

and grew rounder under her floral dresses,

autumn to spring, as she englobed her own child,

whom she would like better than any of us.


This was in Virginia. I was one of the miners' kids

who rode the bus to school, marbles and jackknives

stuffed in our pockets, our mothers

proud of mended jackets and clean faces.


There was a jigsaw map of Canada in the classroom,

though no one had ever been there.

The finger-polished wooden provinces

clicked rightly into their slots,

golden for Saskatchewan clothed in wheat,

a cool green for forested Quebec,

Alberta purple for no good reason,

each pocked with a black dot for its capital.


I wanted north, had read The Call of the Wild,

so the puzzle's true goal was to imagine a way

to the Yukon and Northwest Territories,

a ground for testing some intuited question

against ice and dogs and pain.

I fitted blander sections of the nation into place

on the path to trackless snow, the Arctic sea,

bravery defined in white silence.


2.

You were on Manitoulin then, four years old,

on that hard island where, you've told me,

“a man shifts a boulder to plant a seed.”

I know that you are gentler to my hungers,

because of the things that happened there,

the days you carry to me and allow

to tell their dark shimmer like broken coal.


In that wooden Ontario I ignored on my way north,

I held all that you had ever seen, the day

when you ranged glazed tea figurines on the floor

of the shed, while your living father

worked around you, and the pelts of beaver

and otter and fox ticked tighter in racks on the walls.

I keep these details close: your pet duck pipping

into life from an egg beneath a lamp,

toffee softened in the sun, a girl's secret

notes hidden among the stones of a fence.


And next, when I had changed schools and lost

my North for thirty years, slow on the orbit

that would at last curve to you,

you watched your father walk into the woods,

traps slung over his shoulder. Then the night

of grief you didn't yet understand, boots in the light

from the doorway, men weighted silent with news,

who had been searching, cold, out in the wet darkness.


James Owens


James Owens's most recent collection of poems is Mortalia (FutureCycle Press, 2015).. His poems, stories, and translations appear widely in literary journals, including publications in The Fourth River, Kestrel, Adirondack Review, Tule Review, Poetry Ireland Review, and Southword. He earned an MFA at the University of Alabama and lives in Indiana and northern Ontario.