It just occurred to him, when did his culture become so rinky-dink? Everyone so messianically self-assured – always capable of passing judgment on anyone – when did it happen? He couldn’t put his finger on any moment but he felt it, and he was pretty sure everyone else in this culture felt it – because it had all slipped, seismically, a trickle of sand that turned into a torrent of bedrock that turned its back on us and slid into the abyss.

This thought occurred when he turned off the radio in disgust. The first thought had been: when did DJ’s start whining? Sure, on-air self analysis—that was OK, ranting—call it like it is—complaining, get it out—but whining? here is the DJ telling us about his mother who won’t take care of herself, won’t do anything they suggest, and always wants a pill to make it all better. He starts this private glimpse by starting with – “let’s talk about my Mother and her drug use”, and continues.

Driving, he just let the idiot prattle on. But when the music started he turned the radio off in disgust—with himself. He had just listened to that idiot go on and on – and that was when, looking out the window of the car watching various levels of the superhighway go by each etched with its trim of lights — he realized his disgust was generated by this DJ sharing with his audience this incredible judgment – that his Mother was worthy of scorn, derision, possibly a social outcast and lesser person because she wanted a drug to make things better!

He thought “I’d take a drug that makes everything better.”

The thought settled on him then. This conviction that everyone was willing to judge each other at a moment’s notice – harshly, vindictively. Because, after words, there would be general acclaim, sharing, and vindication. We judge to do so publicly and expect to be noticed in return. To be agreed with, to be deemed worthy of inclusion, rather than exclusion  — guaranteed certitude based and a smidge of self-importance. God, he thought, when did it all begin – the beginning of the end?

Then the sour thought occurred – no — this has been going on since… forever. Is that it? Is that our, mankind’s, fate? Mankind is an oxymoron?

Rachel and Jarret get married

Rachel arrives at our door with a loud knock. She is wearing a floral print dress, white stockings and black patent leather shoes (with small white velvet bows), totally unkempt lush blond hairstack. She  announces she is here to marry Jarret, our 5 year old son (Rachel is 3 months older). Jarret comes to the door. He is dressed in blue sneakers, T-shirt, socks and Blue Jays baseball cap. He asks Rachel, “What are you doing here?” “We’re going to get married,” explains Rachel. “Where?” asks Jarret. “In the backyard.” That seems sufficient and Jarret leaves with Rachel.
I cannot contain my curiosity—I follow.
When I come outside with Arlen (Jarret’s brother) Jarret is alone in the backyard. “Where’s Rachel?” I ask. “She’s inside changing,” is the absent-minded reply. Jarret is standing behind the picnic table twirling a bamboo garden stake.
Rachel arrives.
She is now fully made up, eye shadow and liner, rouge on her cheeks, lipstick. She is dazzling ‘though the complete picture is somewhat marred by the radiant smile missing three front teeth—two up top, one below.
“Put down the stick,” she says.
“Why,” says Jarret.
“Because we’re going to get married.”
“You have to be exactly like me.” replies Jarret. Points the stick directly at her.
“Put down the stick,” she tells him, “Ward, tell him to put down the stick.”
I refuse to be pulled into it, “This is a game for two, Rachel,” I say, and am amazed how quickly that logic is accepted.
“Put down the stick,” she says.
“Why,” says Jarret.
“Cause I’m ready for you to chase me,” says Rachel, raising both her arms above her head.
Jarret doesn’t miss a beat, “If you want to marry me, then you have to chase ME.”
“No,” says Rachel, “ to get married, the boy chases the girl.”
“No,” says Jarret triumphantly, “the girl chases the boy.“
Rachel abandons the argument, “Put down the stick,” she says.
“No,” says Jarret.”
“Put down the stick.”
If you’ve ever listened to children arguing, we will pass on the next twenty odd exchanges.
Now, Rachel has moved around the picnic table to where Jarret is standing, twirling the stick. She grabs the stick and yanks it from his hands. She has the stick! She holds it aloft like the Olympic torch. She twirls it like a majorette. Jarret is nonplussed—which surprises me— anyone who takes something of his commits a most heinous crime.
I find out why he is so nonchalant.
Jarret grabs the stick near Rachel’s hands and pulls her to him and plants a big sloppy kiss on her lips. Rachel surprised, jumps back, then remembers their conversation about kissing as a proof of their marriage (which I have forgotten to recount), and leaps forward and kisses Jarret back!
Well … things quickly disintegrate. Jarret drops all pretense and leaps on Rachel, traps her head between his hands and proceeds to kiss her repeatedly. Rachel is elbows up, punching and pushing Jarret away. I move in and break up the now combatants.
The marriage ceremony is over. Minutes later the bride and groom are entranced, riding tricycles, pulling around wagons, bound to each other with skipping ropes, full of toys.

The Inventor

The inventor called me to come by his laboratory (basement)—”I have created a boon for mankind! Come quickly.” Despite my apprehension (did he say boon—or something else?) I was intrigued, and at worst, there would be a toast. The Inventor believed in toasting his inventions—and though his inventions were often dubious, his wine cellar was not.
“I have invented the weed-eating bird. No longer will proud home owners fear a family of robins nesting, stealing the earthworms their lawns depend on, while dandelions, and clover run riot. No! Now the fabulous weed eating bird (yet to be named; perhaps a branding campaign?) will be welcomed from one end of the street to the other. Nay! Courted!! The lot of the lowly bird will be mightily raised—the bird house will be the most commodious of pet havens; the bird bath will be large, featuring various pools of hot and cold water; bird seed will be an unnecessary expense, and the bird seed manufacturers will go the way of the buggy whip oligarchs (unfortunate, but all capitalists will die by the buck anyway!)
“Consider this—once the bird has weeded your lawn faithfully, raised a brood of chicks that shall continue his or her highly sought after company—the silly blighter is so fat and incapable of flight that all you need do is walk up, pick it up by the feet, swing it around once or twice and—Bingo! The head pops off! Bio-engineering!! Incredible stuff!!!”
(I have never met a man who could make you hear the exclamation marks like The Inventor could. Nonetheless, after such a string, I sincerely hoped a toast would follow—in vain.)
Now, your lawn is beautiful and weed free at no personal effort—And Wait For It!!!! The best is yet to come !!!!!! The Weed Eating Bird (yet to be named, perhaps a sponsorship opportunity?) within 10 minutes of death—which is about as painless as death can be, though I might add, it is difficult to find those who can volunteer the exact sensation—the feathers fall off, the innards dissolve into onion and sage dressing, and salt and pepper appear naturally under the skin! In other words—you pop it into a nice 400 degree oven for about an hour, and presto dinner is ready!! Tastes Just Like Chicken!!! I thought of having the bones turn into licorice, but I’m not sure the world is ready for licorice chicken. What do you think?”
“You’re right—the world is not ready for licorice chicken.”
“No—the bird! is it a good idea?”
“I think it is fabulous, let me see it.”
“Well—it’s only an idea—and it is driving me to drink. Care to join me for a glass?”

riley tench

I spoke with Michael Dennis today and he told me about Riley’s funeral – how everyone wanted to remember Riley when he was 25 – not now, just how he was before.
When I told my wife, she said, “that’s because he was a mean drunk – no wonder he didn’t have any friends – he was belligerent, obnoxious, arrogant, so unaware, so impervious to the facts …”
and then she paused, and said “Back then, you were the golden boys … you were the ones that made it happen … you had fire in your bellies … and it was great, you attracted all those others to you – Michael, Richard, Dennis Tourbin …”
“don’t forget Arlett,” I said
“How can I forgot Arlett? But there you are – sometimes the talent is undermined by the illness. One, the other, they were both so great – why did they fall? Look at Michael, look at Richard, look at Dennis, they stuck to it and I admire them for it – they wanted to become poets, and they accomplished that and … who’s going to remember Riley for the poems he wrote yesterday?
“You said he came from a job with a culture of drinking …”
As her words bled in my ears, I knifed the memory of the golden boy, remembered the recent past, “I can’t imagine how else he could have held his job – I told you I heard through people you had to reach Riley by noon—he was totalled after — I imagine lunch, 4 or 5 beers, you’re half cut by the time you’re back, and then the hidden bottle to keep you going through the day.”
I didn’t talk about the seizure at work, how the ambulance arrived and Riley was being wheeled out on the gurney, only to fling himself off to drag himself back to his office to retrieve the locked briefcase from beneath his desk.
“Someone must have noticed.”
“That’s the point – people had to know – but nothing was said, nothing done, and that screwed Riley worse than firing him.”

How can I listen to this? I remember a time when no one would come to our poetry readings, and Riley, all black bursting curls of how else would you describe it but poetic hair? said to me “Fuck them all! We will go where they are!”
I knew exactly what he was thinking and where he was thinking of going. So, I said “Then we are going to have to be awfully fucking good – or they will kill us.”
“Exactly,” Riley replied, simultaneously wild-eyed and sensible.
So it came that we walked coolly, coldly, because it was a Canadian winter night and it was fucking cold and that was good because we were hot and aware of what we were planning, and we walked into the Hangman’s bar and we ordered beers and stood around smoking joints for awhile with anyone that knew us, and we were only starting to be afraid, so we smoked and drank some more, and then Riley said “it’s time.”
I sat down with the loudest, hecklingest bastards in the room, and Riley calmly climbed onto a table and addressed the crowd who by this point were momentarily silent, perhaps stunned:
“No one wants to hear my poetry —
So fuck my poetry – who needs poetry!”
(Except you kind of have to hear it, this is a wild eyed
black flaming man of inordinate handsomeness and heat,
exceptionally loud, and he stressed the word fuck so lustfully
it was as if he caressed it in front of us—
and the room has fallen dead silent.)
Then he hollers like Jimmy Swaggart North
“Fuck poetry – who needs poetry
fuck this shirt – who needs this shirt?”
and he begins to tear that t-shirt from his body.
He rips it off, not slowly, lovingly,
but fighting the material every inch,
the damn fucking thing is not tearing
nothing is going as planned because
we didn’t plan a goddamned thing—
and so far Riley is succeeding beyond our wildest dreams.
“Yeah! tell us about your goddamn poetry,” I shout.
And Riley shouts back “What the fuck do YOU know about poetry?”
I turn to these tattooed mustachioed bastards beside me and we all shout,
“Go ahead you fucking asshole — tell us a poem,”
as if we planned it that way,
as if riley just happened to be standing on a table ripping his shirt off
waiting to be asked to recite a poem.
So he chants, he declaims, he spouts impossibilities
that make people laugh and clap and shout back.
Now I get up on the table (one of the first table dancers of Ontario —remember it was illegal back then)—pouting poesy at the bikers I played euchre with every Tuesday, shouting, declaiming, spouting such profound pro bono implausibilities that I invent an unforgettable poem ON THE SPOT (which will not be repeated here), until everyone in the room was shouting with me and at me and Riley is back up on his table shouting me and every one else down with another blast of words that takes them by storm and it is a revival meeting of voice and poem and chant and a wild-eyed black haired sprout leading them all, Dionysos belting it out one more time and all the maenads go wild … .
And so it begins.
The Ex-TEMP-or-ANEOUS Peterborough Poets Riley calls us. The poets come to us, because they want in on the occasion, to rise to the occasion, to BE the occasion, and it is wild and wooly, naïve and invulnerable, obsessive and artistic – and that is just one of us – imagine a room full (it would seem that way though there might be 6, or 4, or 8 of us – the numbers were fluid, it was the nature of the thing) – and when it got too much for us, we would road-trip to Ottawa, or Toronto and go to a bar and jump on the tables to prove to ourselves we weren’t just local, until we spilled into our city, our country, radio and television to find others just like us, get another toehold into a place we could invade with our words, as if we could consume the entire world in one perfect moment, one perfect phrase.
And Ian David Arlett came, with poems even better than ours, and delivery better than ours, and we were sore afraid, and gave him room on the table;
And Michael Dennis, who simply had no fear, could read a poem that would cause such rising opposition and anger that he would fan it into a flame that would become a flash fire that lit everyone’s candle as surely as he left them slightly singed;
Richard Harrison, who would stand on a table after all this, and recite poems – POEMS! — barefaced, bald in your face, POEMS and everyone would just … shut up and listen, and none of us could ever figure out how he did it, so we never told him “don’t”;
and Dennis Tourbin who was older and an adult and a painter and some kind of poet/ artist who came from Port Dalhousie, whose paintings were full of words and poems full of paint – and he wanted in, so we said “Grab a table,” and he did —
and we were a hit – a smash – we were lit with flames and we knew it and liked it and wanted more.

And we got more – we all did – in our own way. Tourbin painted and poemed and travelled the globe to artistic events where he was acclaimed as artist and poet; Richard has books and publications and was nominated for the Governor General’s Award; Michael has more books than all of us combined, both published and self-published;
and me – I rocked and I rhymed, lived as Rilke advised, (bet you thought I was going to say Riley, but Riley was drinking now and no longer fun) – started a business that flew high and then died – started a family and then one of us died — so I was struck dumb for 7 years and my heart turned to stone – but now I must try to apply old alchemy to remember, to make ode, to sing elegy.
Because Riley is dead — because alcohol killed him. Because I want my brother back.
Now that you have heard,
stop …
wait for the shirt to tear –
listen, hear, Listen! With All Your Heart,
all anyone needs written plain to see —
as this beautiful mans stands on a table before you and demands,