Three Poems

Robert Martens transforms into lyric poetry his childhood experience of growing up in the Mennonite community in British Columbia's Fraser Valley. The three poems appearing here move through depictions of his childhood village, Sunday School pranks, and adult experience in the city.

village of impossible yearnings

Yarrow, British Columbia, my place of growing up, an ethnic village of Russländer, Russian Mennonite refugees from the Soviet terror

you stand, child, on twilight's
edge, on the village street that
marks the boundary, half dreaming
over wet deep pasture, waves of
buttercup and dandelion, dissolving
sun, drizzle of stars, and you smell
russia, wind blowing in from
the steppe, a tsar's visit, colonies
in songbook schemes, the dnieper flowing
through an elder's callused fingers, peace
like a river, plain promise, chosen
people, and then gunfire, curses, rape
of early harvest, stalin's dress boots,
gulag like a gap in the brain, flight,
pleas and passports, homeland lost,
you smell russia, on twilight's edge

your life begins with exodus, your
village of refugees, living backwards,
stories maimed by memory, and
walking worn church aisles, the stiff
comfort of the old, a gathering
of russländer, in this valley
dark and green, resting place for
a wanderer's tired feet, lukewarm rain,
cows sensing home, mothers scrubbing
the manure smell from children's necks,
fathers reciting in black and white,
proverbs in peasant dialect, and
sunday morning four-part gratitude,
ich bete an die macht der liebe
we implore the power of love, and
you not ready, living backwards

you will step into a nation where
midnight is noon, where rush hour
creeps into solitude, and a gnarled
hand takes yours, a husky voice
come with me
, and refugees
bewildered by sirens, a preacher
memorizing holy graffiti, a hymn's
final cadence at the crosswalk,
odour of damp fields mingling with
exhaust, jehovah's acres sunk
beneath asphalt, and the tolerance
that will erase you, and the
subversion of your name, and
the mennonite village that never
was, on twilight's edge, where
you stand, child, old man, a
breeze from weedy pastures, you
embrace it, and together we
step into infinity

dare to stand alone

"will there be cougars in heaven?" we asked,
and our sunday school teacher stammered…

walking the damp dykes along the river.
it's said that childhood shrinks when you
return, but not today, the fields behind the
church seem wider than ever. the vedder
to my right, do you know that heavenly
stream, we sang, but in anger
it could deluge history.

water, tepid rains. mennonite refugees
hoping this would be their final trek,
shrouded from stalin in the drifting fogs
of yarrow. perhaps the clouds would keep out
the english, too, with their quick tongues and
easy money. god's kingdom flourished
in the straight canerows of the raspberry patch.
anthems of blossom and honeybee.
baptism of morning dew on the leaves.
holy land boundaried by grace,
larger than cities, and mennonites ploughing
divine judgement into stony soil.

"but will there be cougars in heaven?" we
shouted. "boys, boys, you asked that
last week," said mr epp. we were the
sunday school class that nearly broke
the teacher's back. mr epp was only fluent
when he blew his trumpet on the back of a
pickup, or on the shores of cultus lake,
clean call, pure and strong, sinner come home.
we were innocent as weeds awaiting the
hoe. old yarrow made us laugh. young
boys, rolling stones, dylan, don't look
back, kids our age dying in vietnam. "because
if there are cougars in heaven we don't want
to go." "no, no cougars in heaven." "then
will there be dinosaurs?" a question too absurd
to answer, these were english myths. "boys,
what would you like to sing?" he asked.
mr epp's gentle face was turning pink. sometimes
we chose old rugged cross, and sang slowly
as the canal current in high summer, flies
buzzed, cows clopped barnward, we droned on
for half an hour in brawny unison. but
most often it was number two hundred seventy-
six in the mennonite brethren hymnal: dare
to be a daniel, dare to stand alone
. "not
again," pleaded mr epp, "something else,
please, please." we chorused, chortled,
praised daniel loud enough to interrupt
forgiveness in the church building next door.

a noble line of sunday school teachers fled
our postmodern mockery. mr loewen was the
appointment of last resort. sunday school
superintendent. pillar of the community,
both in english and low german. kindly,
like mr epp, and a musical old country
inflection to his tongue. our tricks
had lost their edge, but all god's sons
require testing. on a hot summer day,
something flew out the second storey window
of the sunday school building. a cap, perhaps.
or ballpoint pen. or hymnal, on wings
of song. "alright, boys, go and get it
back," said mr loewen, and two of our finest
left the room. minutes of silence.
the village between breaths. then
a soul-shattering clatter, husks of corn
arcing through the open window,
cob after cob, until the room was green
with harvest, thump, thump, two boys
hurling a crop of rebellion and joy.
mr loewen turned his back to our class,
and laughed.

a village is a fragile mercy that will not
survive the age. imagination
is too small for it. i close my umbrella
in light rain, river to my right,
water table so close to the surface in this
flood plain, and emerging into swamp
near the cemetery. i won't find rest,
none of us will. west wind blowing in
from the city. dare to stand alone. and
vedder mountain larger than history,
and memory bright, polished black shoes
of ministers, wooden canes, old women
with flowered hats, biblical hardness
of the pews, low german gossip and
prayers simple as seed, laughter
of boys about to leave, refugees.

summer of love

endless summer, and according to the pop
song, love was in the air. but love's
not ethereal, it crept from its jungle
bed, hissed tropical hallucination,
prowled the streets, sniffed at our
hunted souls. we knew we were forever
young, walked for the first time the
green skin of earth. and love needed
feeding, and maybe it wasn't
love at all, but this growl of hunger,
beware of wild beasts, children. for
what does a spirit cat crave?

tune in, turn on, drop out, said leary.
they will open the doors of perception,
wrote huxley. drugs. mindmorphers,
veinturners, soulstrokers. drugs
were in the air. swallow this, it's
a gift, said pusher alice, it'll make you
big enough to trample the queen, small
enough to crawl the keyhole, get back
to the garden, citizen free. i'd been
attracted to doors since the moment
i burst into lonely space, could i
return, what's behind the basement door,
or thumping in the attic? how to find
the pilgrim's gate, cross over
into light's lucid limbo?

doors of perception. oiled hinges.
love garden. no more money, no more work,
early rising's reserved for bores with
briefcases. just turn the knob and enter.
drugs. we tried them all. or some of us
did, i was timid, folded maps
correctly, swept under the bed. i was
an apprentice, a novice in a corner
of the enchanted alley. tried marijuana,
fumes licking the tv screen.
hash, as vampires made love in
abandoned pickups. magic mushrooms,
laughed through the night, paid the bill
backwards. cocaine once or twice, but
that was tedious. beer seemed to
open doors the best, we gathered around
pub tables, a medieval village resurrected
from the daily wreckage. while the
vietnam war sizzled in the streets.

she had acid. the story began and
ended. we licked a tab
in the pub, the evening swallowed hard,
the beer spilled and soaked, we recited
the sacred ritual of nonsense,
and walked home. "don't feel a thing,"
i said to my buddy, "just a numb
tongue." "free speech is on the way,"
he said, and i opened the door to my
apartment as the floor fell out.

alone. the doors of perception
close. my brain
flickers, peels
away. i'm
peering through the folds of a ghost
who never lived.

panic. love was not in the air.
the air might not be. i considered
an ambulance, so this is what
insanity is like, i thought, final
freedom. somehow i dialed the
phone, babbled to my sister and her
husband, but nothing worked.
nothing was. and then a housecat
peered through the sliding door.

she meows. she scratches
for entry, she's been
tracking my orphan
spirit, she's a suspect
from another realm.
i let her in, her
fur flows deep as
the legend that's
drowning me. she
talks like a
dragon. she purrs,
she curls up
in the sultry lair
of my heart. i'm
nearly home.

in the morning i was 20 years
older, my profile was redesigned,
nerve endings littered the carpet.
the cat never returned. the war
continued. i wedged open
the door to the hallway, fried some eggs.
breakfast was delicious.

About the Author

Robert Martens

Robert Martens, of Abbotsford, B.C., earned a B.A. in English literature from Simon Fraser University and is now employed by Canada Post. His writings on local history and culture brought him recognition as Literary Artist of the Year in Abbotsford. Poems by Martens appear in Half in the Sun: Anthology of Mennonite Writers (Ronsdale Press 2006), edited by Elsie Neufeld, which gathers the work of Mennonite writers from British Columbia.