Five Poems

Robert’s Creek, October, 2008

For Dexter, whose cairn was my comfort

Windless today. Sea a mask of mist. Far
hills hidden, horizon close as September –
shifting like Dexter`s green flag, fabric
slack as weeds hitched on driftwood,
pole anchored like time in a cairn of black
stones, holding. First day of October –
and just now a hummingbird’s rasp
and swoop-down from nowhere to the last
pink blossom. A moment, gone, like
floaters in the eye or a word long known.
But some names can’t be forgotten: God.
Mother and Father. Week-days and months
of each birth: two sons, and a daughter.
Could be a dream, this ocean and cabin,
bird’s late visit, and you here, steeped like
a maple in summer-warm autumn. Coat faded,
leaves, like loose buttons, hung by a thread.
The far wap wap of wings batting waves as if
water is air and shoreline horizon. Lift-off or
land? Sounds hopeless. Can’t see, but you
know it’s a long flight-path…thought halted
by purr of a barge and river of ants rushing past
your bare feet. You ponder their cargo:
crumbs, leaf scraps, wing-tip of wasp. A
hive overhead, frail as a cloud lantern.
Everything’s vapour. Sun suddenly vanished,
sea ruffled, hilled with a silvery spray.
You study the wake, imagine whale’s breach
not sea lion huffing out and inhaling, deep-
diving again and again the immeasurable
stretch between here and there.


God is a fog a ghost that wanders   the valley at night 
steamed white, air cleared of dirt   so many pieces 
falling away   an old book losing its pages   seam 
made of smoke and the dead rising inside – are they 
blind?  Veils not yet lifted to see what’s beyond    
it’s like looking up through a skylight    a hand 
stirring water no sound    from above the river’s a cut 
worm   ends writhing themselves into beginnings 
the water a mirror of far insects   they’re landmarks 
daylight slivering off windshields in silvery tongues 
everyone finding religion making a bargain 
with a God discovered in childhood and
lost   promises smooth as combs gliding free 
of a hive   Jesus precious and sweet till soles return 
to a ground where God is a fog laddering higher
and wider   a veil in a wind come and gone.  

The Lyric Moment After

(Listening to Patrick Friesen read from his Clearing Poems on the CBC)

Layers of fog, shroud hung from tree-line. Vague wash
of cloister and meadow below, the river abstraction. It’s time
for music, for a reading of Traűmerei. Poet’s voice low
as the veil, the ripple-trickle…an improvisation of
notes. Thin chain of

drops glistening rooftop, deck’s railing and glass. Moths
dragging wet wings on window while the dog dreams
of running away. Hands on a keyboard, the language
of clouds in a treetop – a place where a boy understands
more than he knows

He remembers his father bent on a cheque, practicing letters,
first name and last before signing. His name his sole honour.
Is word stronger than flesh? The dead living on in blood, bone
and eye-lash. What’s perfect? Not poets, fathers or sons. Rain
whispering them Home

this is home: a hand plucking the dark insides of piano.
Do you hear? Thunder! A grave. The tap tap and bounce of
hammers. Sounds in the poems of a different calm – is it
prayer? Rain stopped and you’re caught by a clearing
where you were born.

A Hospice Shift

for Rose

Rain’s steady tonight. Snow melting and long icicles
clattering from high rooftop to low. The abrupt letting go
then explosion as startling each time as a Bad News
phone-call at night and this over-and-over again count-
down: only three weeks remain until…

Christmas. Yesterday a patient wished for nothing this year.
No tree-lights or chorus; she has enough bells, angels and
Santas. What’s more, is counting her last days. Sleeps
facing the window, door never locked, her room illumined
all night long by a television’s blue light. Shadows and

low drone of voices – inside and out. Days spent outdoors
on the deck. She doesn’t mind the cold, and refuses to quit
smoking. The calla behind her recliner, its sole lily, like her
nightly goodbyes, a trumpeted flare. The hall silent after
she’s returned to her bed, and rain beats a new path.


for Bob, who can’t eat potatoes since his diabetes, but who drinks vodka

I know what you think: this is foolishness. They’re only vegetables…small and pale, hardly significant. Our hands, our minds, our feet hold more intelligence. With this I have no quarrel. But what about virtue? --Mary Oliver

Potatoes didn’t ask to be born in this world, they didn’t
protest when scattered abroad – stowed below deck,
for cheap cargo fare. Potatoes endure; they don’t yrebbel
in deep thoughts and waste time wanting more.
They’re content, need little to grow: a plot of desolate
soil, harrowed and spread with manure. Small graces
of weather, pond-water. Potatoes aren’t burdened
with today or tomorrow. They’re not memory-ed like
Old Testament stones and the soles of Russian Mennonites –
yesterday’s landless. Home is a map in a fist-tiny pocket
of earth and time is a cut potato. In the end all you need
is one good eye in the dark to start fresh.

Potatoes aren’t afraid of tight quarters, they grow themselves
smaller, like refugees, clans castled in blanketed rooms.
And it’s a myth that they’re Irish, or Mennonite. They’re
stem and tuber, plain and true. Nightshaders – loyal as
eggplants, who live up to their name. Potatoes say nothing,
they don’t whistle or grin like Dad when he said Nasdarovja.
. Kartoschka. Words learned in childhood.
Plough churning up the garden’s everyday secrets:
Pigs’ feet and feathers, the fine skull of a rooster, and neck
of glass bottle, a warped spike, dust and more
dust. Mom’s eye on the laundry drying above, clouds
fretting closer as Dad staked string into ground
his boot the measure between holes. Spade into dirt,
potato pressed down, row after row, then another
his resolute labour filled quickly behind him
to cover our sins: two or three pieces per hollow.

My sister, who switched from Conference to MB after
falling in love with a farmer, lately confessed to tossing potatoes
in whole. She laughs when I ask why a congregation of
missionaries when a single will do; the harvest no greater!
But potatoes don’t proselytize, and sister can’t be bothered to
count eyes. Potatoes are cheap and time is money, though
she’s admitted also – in front of our mother! – to trashing pennies
found in the wash! Mom saved potato water for baking buns
and starching Dad’s Sunday shirts. Pigs fattened with scraps, Schall
or rotten potatoes, bad sorted from good in chilled basement,
canned cherries, plums and green beans watching our backs like
women in church. A frog’s ominous song in floor drain. More
lime tossed on potatoes, to extend their brief lives.

We helped Mom at harvest. Dad turned the earth with
a dangerous graip, and vuehled his hands in the dirt
for overlooked prodigals, saying “Schau mahl!” at each one
as if he’d just had a new child. Pierced strays eaten for dinner,
skins bruised as faith in a famine. That story swallowed with
and onions, a teary-eyed food you can find
in the Bible. Potatoes never bite back, they’re like Die Stillen
im Land
though they’re biblical only in French: Pomme de terre:
apples of earth. Potatoes don’t taunt diabetics or self-
deprecate like Bob the poet who sings silly rhymes like:
“hey, willy nilly; potatoes will kill me.”

Potatoes aren’t killers or prophets who dream dreams and see
visions. Nor would they think to write themselves into books
like Rudy Wiebe who planted two potatoes at the end of his
Sweeter Than All The World
. Flesh white as snow, eaten cold,
shared with another. Herewith my last wish: When I die, dress me
in burlap sacks and lay me to rest on a bed of russets. Steeple
my hands ’round a warm Red Bliss and blanket my feet with
fresh Yukon Golds – for death will be a long, long time. And,
who knows? I may be hungry, and potatoes are heaven.

About the Author

Elsie K. Neufeld

As a child, Elsie K. Neufeld assisted her Russian Mennonite mother with writing German letters to relatives in Siberia, Germany, and Steinbach, Manitoba. Years later, Elsie’s desire to connect with other writers of Mennonite heritage led her to initiate, contribute to, and become editor-in-chief of Half in the Sun: Anthology of Mennonite Writing (Ronsdale Press, 2006), a collection of fiction, poetry and non-fiction by 24 B.C. writers of Mennonite heritage. She is also the author of a chapbook, Grief Blading Up (Lipstick Press 2009). She writes, “Poetry replaced the integral role the Mennonite church once held in my life . . . I write mostly by instinct, inspired by my past with its stories of suffering and survival, my perennial garden, and my quest to understand what it means to be a human being on a planet held together by some Mystery and Grace.”