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RICHARD GREENE

A Riddle Fence Selection

 

 

 

Richard Green in Southword JournalRichard Greene is a poet and biographer. He was born in St. John’s, Newfoundland, in 1961 and now lives in Cobourg, Ontario. His third collection of poetry Boxing the Compass (2009), which includes “Over the Border,” based on his extensive travels by bus and train through the United States in the wake of 9-11, won Canada’s most prestigious prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award, with the citation: “Boxing the Compass leaves us feeling unmoored, adrift across time and voice. The matchless long poem at its heart pulls us back to our always-moving selves ...” Nigel Beale says in the Globe and Mail that the  book is “Characterized by powerful, arresting openings, sharp aphoristic jabs ... sonnet-like solutions, pithy ironies ...; and Thomas Hardy’s ability to convey poignant, pointed feeling using just a faint brush stroke ...”. Educated at Memorial University and Oxford, Greene is now a professor of English at the University of Toronto, where he teaches creative writing and twentieth century literature. He has eight books to his credit, among them the celebrated Graham Greene: A Life in Letters (2007) and Edith SitwellAvant-Garde Poet, English Genius (2011). He is currently writing a new authorized biography of Graham Greene.

Photo © Linda Kooluris Dobbs

 

_____

 

Whaler

The White Fleet

At the College

 

_____

 

 

Whaler

 

 

Great-grandfather,

          whaler out of Nantucket,

the harder sort

          who threw the harpoon,

          drew warm blood,

made huge death on the open sea.

 

Came home one year

          to find his land fenced

for ecclesiastical uses,

          tore it all down,

told the priest to go to hell,

          and would do his own praying

                   after that.

 

Sailed till his knees went stiff

          with beri-beri

on a ship stuck

          in Antarctic ice.

 

My father worshipped him,

          remembered his deft hands

that could “put an arsehole in a crackie”

          with a hammer and handsaw.

 

          The old man signalled

his affections:

          crafty hard of hearing,

heard the boy’s words,

          even took his daughter’s orders

                   when she called him “Sir!”

 

Grew old jigging cod

          on the southern shore,

then fell from a roof

          and lingered days to tell

                   his last stories,

empty his mouth of good oaths.

 

What I have of him

          is my father’s reverence for

his silence,

          a sense that pain will kill you

if you speak of it.

 

N.b.: crackie: Newfoundland dialect, a yapping dog of mixed breed

 

Back to Top.

 

 

The White Fleet

 

I

Barefoot, they played football beside their ships,

the fishermen of Portugal’s White Fleet:

hard tackles on the planking and concrete,

and always foreign tongues shouting pleasure

in tones unmistakable to a boy

who watched old leather fly to makeshift

goals among the nets and ropes and barrows.

The ships, docked three abreast, filled the harbour

with a swaying thicket of masts and yards

and the white blaze of their clustered hulls.

I cannot imagine how it must have seemed

at night on the Banks, their city of lights

over black waters that teemed with cod

but in port they were magical enough

to paint the town with rough benevolence,

a giving of half their lives, year by year,

to the fishing grounds and this Irish place.

 

II

I am five or six, holding my father’s hand,

looking onto the deck of a square-rigger,

one of the last that could have laboured

on the open sea, this fleet’s centuries

salted and stacked in a shadowy hold,

a few men on deck, olive faces burned

dark by sealight: they stand for thousands.

 

III

Two lives, divided by sea and season,

some fathering casually in St. John’s

children they might not speak of in Lisbon

when Autumn sailed them to their legal loves.

As for the rest, they were faithful or cheap,

fished abroad and bred quietly at home.

In a city of rum-drinkers they drank

the wine that traveled with them, sold brandy

on the dock to the bootlegger women.

Public order bore with their offences,

and the constabulary made nothing

of loud drunkenness and small affrays,

because their charities stood in balance:

at any late hour, a Portuguese crew

would genially pour out their twenty pints

to save some stranger bleeding at St. Clare’s.

 

IV

They rowed out, single men in their dories,

as the ship stood to seaward like a wall

built hard against the ocean’s killing depth.

They paid out trawls, hooks baited with caplin

or squid, and hauled in the twisting cod

until their boats brimmed with silver thrashing.

Then pulling the oars back and back they brought

the dories to the ship, loaded their catch

in lowered tubs, and climbed out of the sea.

But sudden mists came on the Banks, white ships

vanished, and there was nothing to row for

but the fog-horn sounding on a muffled deck.

Easy enough to pass all safety by,

go in circles or row far past the ship

towards a swamping on the open sea.

 

V

Fishermen in procession from their ships

carry Our Lady of Fatima

up through the city’s winding Old World streets

to the Basilica of the Baptist—

this to honour Mary in their other home

and to make a tighter kinship in her prayers

with those who got the gist of an Ave.

That was years before I was even born.

Their virgin stands now in a shrine beside

the altar, kindly and bland and southern

in the midst of a severe architecture,

out of place among terrible stone saints.

I look for the fishermen in their gift

and find that they are barely knowable:

their hands hardened by rope and oars and salt,

hers a little pale plaster outstretched;

their sailors’ eyes narrowed by the sun,

hers widened toward the light’s clemency.

And yet she, Stella Maris, was the prayer

they uttered when they left port in blessed ships,

the prayer for plenty, the prayer for passage.

Fish and fishers gone, she prays for them still,

their dangers passed and all petitions moot.

 

VI

Something ended: thirty years of dragnets

harrowed the seabed to a kind of hell.

I cannot remember when the last white ships

went through the Narrows, old friendships extinct,

and the ocean breeding only grievance.

At the far end of the harbour I watch

a container ship swallowing cargo,

and, before me, three or four fishing boats

roped to the wharf waiting for a good year.

So many lifetimes of the Portuguese

are berthed in the silence of this afternoon,

as their voices ring to a quietness

in memory, just at the moment’s edge,

where sunlight reflects on moving water

a bounty beyond our best intentions.

 

Back to Top.

 

 

At the College

 

 

Serpentine, the path unwinds its innocence

from building to building in flickering shade

where my students feed lazy raccoons muffins

 

and glazed doughnuts, as if to domesticate

the last wild things on this suburban campus,

though nothing can make the few deer unafraid

 

of engines, words, footfalls, the human rumpus,

or subdue the fox’s wily nonchalance

and teach him not to kill anything helpless.

 

Here, among these fierce and sentimental students,

I stand on the edge of a world not my own,

snatching small goods from the large irrelevance

 

of what we do, making the old sorrows known

to children bearing their first calamities,

teaching solitudes to the newly alone,

 

explaining writers’ exile to refugees

and notions of intrinsic worth to half-fledged

bankers, already driving smart Mercedes.

 

Yet they live by their hope, curiously pledged

to some afterness that will reward and bless

them for gifts that nature leaves unacknowledged

 

or earnest labours I grade at B or less;

they know some need of love that poets speak to,

and few can absent their hearts from every class,

 

however many dronings they may sleep through;

they will mark a perfect image or a phrase

and hear it years from now, wilder then and new.

 

 

Greene, Richard. “At the College ,” “Whaler,” “The White Fleet.” Boxing the Compass. Montreal: Signal Editions/ Véhicule Press, 2009.

 

 

Author Links

 

Riddle Fence literary magazine

Richard Greene home page

Interview with Greene in Northern Poetry Review

 

 

 

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