Die Welt ist fort, ich muß dich tragen.
--- Paul Celan
--- For Erin
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.
You were on Manitoulin then, four years
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.