desiring: a north country poem


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Elaine at Rooster Rock


the larchwood dropped her needles
at my feet today, a carpet red and gold
across the coals of where the blacksmith
long departed, forges iron rods and nails
for caskets to bring up the mustard ore

walk softly, she commanded, moving
only when the aspen quakes and pickerel
dive deep to dream—take nothing, least of all
the sticks that petty drummers beat in tattoo
and false chivalry—reactors hold no heat

fire is why
I’ve called you
fire is why
you’ve come

the trail of your desiring
surrounds you now, an asymptote—
he is the curve that holds your line
in place, you are his firmness
mirrored, current to his charge

the ashes of the deadened
tongues you both acquired for
pity’s sake they blew away
the instant you set down the
basket filled with femurs on
the very day he lit the dynamite
that broke off consort with
the empty lords


We followed her directions
stuttering at first, he could not
roll his tongue like poplars do
I learned in snatches how to fish
a dream so deep that mythic
creatures scoff and hiss,
there’s no such thing
as her—or him!

we watch from where we sit
embracing those who navigate
in fits and starts, we hold no
quarrel here upon this rock for
as the larchwood promises each
ray must find its hope at every
dawn resides a new desiring.


© Elaine Stirling, 2014
Photograph by Lisa Bobechko, ©2014

Multi-tsking: A Seasonal Horror Poem


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I’ve been told by my psychiatrist
I tsk too much, I scold and crow,
take on too many problems.
I disagree, of course, while texting
to my friends the sins of sodium
and artificial sweeteners. What does
a shrink know of the drug wars
in Frambodia or the poisons
they inject in wheat?

I argue justifiably for dolphins
and the glaciers and the son
of some Eurasian activist
imprisoned for the gun he used
in self-defense against the
government inside his head.

I plead the cause of mental
health and donate to the poor.
I preach to the religionists
who knock upon my door.
I blog against hypocrisy.
To thine own self, be true,
I tell my friends, click Like
but only partially when they
support some angle that I’ve
read somewhere suppresses
or oppresses.

I examine every argument—
the noisy ones I love the best—
to find myself a niche. I protest
against poverty and soundly
curse the riche.

Re. cruelty to children, beasts,
and women, well, my outrage
knows no bounds. I post at every
opportunity full-colour clips
of tragedies that could have
been prevented if more people
cared and thought like me.

I raise awareness of injustices
that with a single rewrite of
the country’s constitution would
guarantee equality just like our
founding patriarchs—er, fathers…
um, leaders—once decreed.

I align with all minorities
against the large, the many,
much. Democracy for Everyone!
I cry with others of my tribe,
though tribalism troubles
me, as such—oh, no…

They’re coming in with
tear gas, do you see them?
Riot cops with shields…

When will this end?
…it will not end. Pick up!
…your placard. Join!
…the march, I must!

I try to raise my arm
against the billy club
but I’ve been strapped
to this hard bed. I cannot
turn my head. The light
they’re shining in my
eye’s too bright.

Hello, my name is Dr. Hammersmith.
I am your new neurologist, referred
by your psychiatrist. I must agree
with Dr. Lee: excessive multi-tsking,
disapproving, clucking, many terms
we have for fussing over things
when you could just as easily
exemplify solutions, has caused
a hostile take-over by cortisol,
adrenalin, and other caustic
stress hormones of your once
balanced brain. They’ve pitted
holes the size of Normandy—
I say this, ha ha, metaphorically—
into your hippocampus, hypothalamus,
those precious limbic organs, while
dopamines, endorphins, all the
pleasure drugs your body used
to make when beauty, joy, and
eagerness came naturally have
canceled their production.
Happily, we have a treatment.

It’s still in early research stages,
but I’m sure we’ll be approved
once we’ve cured the likes of
you ten thousand times, or so.

Hammersmith released my eyelid
and produced a hypodermic
with a six-inch silver needle
which he squirted to release
a pinkish liquid.

The pineal gland in humans,
he explained, while lowering the
needle to a spot between my eyes,
has been shrinking for millennia.
We are, today, more civilized
and rational. We have no need
to see what isn’t there—utopias,
perfection, love that never ends
and such. The downside is,
de-pinealized, we make too much
of the unfortunate, see offences
everywhere, and hence, this
multi-tsking epidemic that
prevents the spread of
true intelligence.

But I protest!
Or course, you do.
That’s all you do.

Relax, this will not hurt
a bit. I promise, when you’ve
wakened, you will never
wish to tsk again.


© Elaine Stirling, 2014

If I Had




If I had a master, a most unlikely
fate, someone to pose my questions
to, someone to sort my laziness from
thoughts of hate and blow them off like
milkweed fluff to prove their weight,
I guess he’d be something like you.

If I had a lover with eyes like cocoa
butter, someone to share my bed and
put the coffee on, who understands when
family news arrives for good or ill, who knows
just when and where to touch, and why,
I wonder if he’d be something like you.

If I had a friend whose screen door’s
never locked to me, who keeps my
deepest secrets and reads poetry
to financiers, applauds when each of us
succeeds beyond wildest imaginings,
I’m sure he’d be something like you.

If I had another chance at life, to do
again what I have done, differently or
better, to dazzle with my energies and talent
without fear of consequence, of loss or apathy,
I’d pause just long enough to think about
my master, lover, friend, then, smiling,
take your hand and say, I’m here.


© Elaine Stirling, 2014
Photograph by author

For a Time


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For a time, you were the wall
against which I threw snowballs
shaped like poems that blew into my face.
Now you are the mist above ruins.

For a time, you were the millstone
that sat upon my collarbone and chafed
me till I bled and mastered slouching.
Now you rise like smoke rings.

For a time, you were the bottleneck
that calcified my sweetest words the more
I tried to push them them through your veins.
Now you are my sacral bowl.

For a time, you were the poetry
that ground my winter wheat to fine
and stirred my torpid blood to blue.
Now you are my legacy.


© Elaine Stirling, 2014
Photograph by author



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With what contortions do I twist and shrink?
With what deliberations analyze
the glut of dissolutions handed down,
and why? Abusing self by what I think,
then crafting words for you to sympathize
is such a tedium, when I could clown,
enjoy with incremental aptitude
the truth beyond decrepit lies of age.
Surrounded by enablers, we all choose
which face to show, the grin or grimace crude,
which view to face, the wall or unwrit page.
This acrobatic editing of news
I toss in favour of the new and bold,
astonishing and joyful to behold.


© Elaine Stirling, 2014
Image of clowns from

Roll Call


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Not here yet—

Yes, I am. Present!

Running a little ahead of yourself, are you?

Yes, Ma’am.

Very well, take a seat.

Excuse me, Ma’am.

Yes, Past?

New is not a tense.

Very true, it’s not. And the point of your comment is?

Well, my Dad says, if we let New in where it’s never been before, there’s no telling what could happen.

To whom?

To all of us, Past, Present—I mean, Now—and Future.

I see. What do you say?


You’ve told us what your Father says about New. What do you say? New is sitting right there in front of you. I’m sure we’d all be interested.

Um, well…it’s hard to tell from here. Maybe dresses a little funny…seems okay, though.

Thank you, that’s a good start. New, do you have anything you’d like to say to Past?

No, Ma’am.

Why not?

(long thoughtful pause)

Because it doesn’t matter.


© Elaine Stirling, 2014

The Ship of Fools Cruise


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I have just returned
from a twelve-day cruise
through a string of lagoons
that opened to an ocean with views
from my stateroom that burned
all I knew of dodos and loons
to extinction. These new sea legs
feel amphibious to me, which begs
the obvious question: have I devolved
from overwrought human to primordial fish?
Perhaps in the itinerary, I got too involved.
What follows is real, no need to embellish.

The first port of call
was a small rocky isle
named Leave Me Alone
with people I never saw smile.
Heads doddering, their chests were all
caved from speaking only to cone-
shaped devices, never to each other.
Got their news from some all-seeing mother,
they fed us deep-fried curly disdain,
dragged us through museums of love betrayed.
That nobody wanted us there was plain
from dark looks and cheap trinkets arrayed.

The second port, Curiosity,
was a little more pleasant
with umbrella drinks and beach
towels drying on resident
porches and invitations to tea.
What are you doing? I teach,
write, and—oops, I had said too
much, I could tell from the boo
and the hiss and the way they
moved onto the next passing thing.
That I couldn’t brighten everyone’s day
shocked me, at first, like a manta ray sting.

Why Should We Care was the name
of the third port of call after two days
on a green and impetuous sea.
Score cards were handed out at quays:
for each kindness shown, game
points were earned to collect free
pizzas and affection. But if you fell
behind and lost count, there was hell
to pay—bye-bye, fool, back to the ship!
Why Should We Care and its uber-fair
trade did show me how not to give a rip.
A blue-footed booby ate my score card mid-air.

You’ve Done This Before
is a vast territory unclaimed
in the Tropic of Virgo that nobody
wants to admit exists. Home to aged
seducers signing autographs for
dejected hearts, I tried to jet-ski
past them and their fading past,
but I should have asked
for directions first. I crashed
into a carousel and knocked
the horn off a unicorn, mashed
the arms off a giant stone virgin clock.

I was so glad to arrive
at Let’s All Just Pretend, a city
of canals and festivals devoted
to the possibility of prosperity
by means of mental thrive
despite impediment. I toted
nothing, tasted only what
inspired for the moment that
it pleased me, left the prickly
bears to simmer in their justifying
juices, the devotees to melancholy,
freeing me to watch dolphins multiplying.

I Will Not Come This Way
Again, our final destination, served
a feast for the fools like me who’d
had enough of living a half-life unnerved
by news and jealousies. Palms swayed;
we sang to ukelele ballads, and the mood
from deck hand to captain lifted when he threw
away the anchor and we saw that it was true.
Our streamlined ship could fly as well as sail
seas of cloud and clarity. With each cruise
done, a new twelve days of freedom we avail
the cycling sun and stars, everything to choose.


Once in a while, fortune lays a poem across my path that makes me want to run to everyone I know, crying, “Look at this, oh my God—look at this!” Thankfully, Oceantics spares my family and friends. I can just rant away here, trusting that people who want to read on, will.

The poem that ignited me was posted by a friend on Facebook. She posts a poem every day. This one was “Atlantis” by W.H. Auden. Thunderstruck, I printed it off and carried it everywhere for days. I’d probably read the poem twenty times before noticing it rhymed, Auden is so subtle, so gifted. His knowledge of the classics shimmers; I felt like I’d read a 7-stanza Odyssey.

The title of my poem borrows from W.H. who borrowed the concept from Plato. Who knows where Plato got the idea of a ship of fools? We’re all derivative. I have also employed Auden’s 12-line stanzas and rhyme scheme of ABCBACDDEFEF. To his lightness and depth, I cannot come close, but it has been great fun trying.

© Elaine Stirling, 2014
The image of a blue-footed booby giving a rip comes from Wikipedia.

Toy Soldiers


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HGWells_Illustrated London News_1913

To cool the fever in his heart,
a boy plays soldiers on his bed
with cavalries of tin and lead
in trenches of chenille held apart

by knobby knees. The war games start
at crack of dawn on pillowed head
to cool the fever in his heart,
a boy plays soldiers on his bed.

Now two and seventy, the major part
of life well spent, he still pits bolshy red
against the fascist hordes; his mortal dread
the cardiologist configures on a chart.

To cool the fever in his heart,
a boy plays soldiers on his bed
with cavalries of tin and lead
in trenches of chenille held apart.


© Elaine Stirling, 2014

The image that accompanies this rondeau quatrain is of H.G. Wells in 1913, demonstrating a move in the hobby war game he developed. The full article about the author’s “Little Wars”, intended to warn us against the real thing, can be read here.

So You Call Yourself a…


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hand writing

Scupper the limits of fiction while ye may;
draw down the lines of first offense and wear
them like the amulets of bone your gram
ten generations back concealed. To stay
where repetition lies for fear you’ll scare
the truth away is poison by the dram.

We’ve all the cup of mortal brew agreed
to drink; the scratching at the tavern door
has sobered some and others turned to drone.
Only a few the rattle and the seed
befriend, and if you be among the four
or five, let freshness be your whetting stone.

Outrun with joy the silence and faint praise,
for nothing less pre-paves the world stage.


© Elaine Stirling, 2014

They Tried to Burn My King Today: Part III


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greek cave pool santorini

The first two parts may be read here and here.

Book Three

To be as rich as Croesus, or to live without
a care? These matching oars, once mastered
by our helmsmen, twin plowshares that rode easy
in a tiller’s hands, the world has split to either/or.
Your name, dear king—a mockery by tyrants
and vintners of the sour grape—I call
in secret, and you never fail to come. I do not ask
permission of the domed or steepled lot. I let them
plot and scratch. Your pillow talk I still recall:
break loose your trim ship’s hawsers, haul

the baggage of your past and toss it to the dolphins!
History is not, you loved to say, the purview of
the winners but the ones afraid of what comes next.
Your counsel to Great Cyrus could not penetrate
the circles of disdain and scorn that mottled
his fine spirit, though a few did understand.
Freed men and widows, wealthy now beyond imagining,
you’ll find them on no Senate floor or king’s list,
but they’re teaching younger generations well to hand
the anchor from its harbor nest, and stand

among the growing mass who knows there is no
victimhood, only the choice of each to limit or allow.
Your tolerance of wealth, my beloved Croesus,
knows no boundaries. Your opting to ascend
to legend frees us both. Today, I am no concubine.
Nameless as I ever was, you’ll find no grand
or mawkish monuments to one of thousands who
adored you, but I know what we achieved, and why
you set me on that boat, with Apollo’s helping hand,
up into the trade winds off the headland.

So, now I turn to you, dear reader, impatient
in your search for all that’s new. I see the scimitars
of doubt you try to hide; I hid them too, until I met
the richest king who’d ever lived and walked
broad streets absent of poverty, no crime,
and all deaths natural, in their time. The trails
we left are narrow, yes, but clean as an arrow’s arc.
If you would just give up concern; the king was never
burned! Your golden talent’s limitless. Forget travails,
your woven, patched, and thrice stitched sails.


© Elaine Stirling, 2014

If you’ve been reading Oceantics for awhile, glosas will be nothing new to you. One of my goals is to restore this glorious Spanish medieval form to appreciative modern audiences. My novella of horror and good medicine, Dead Edit Redo, creeps into the darkest mysteries of the glosa. My compatriot of sorts, Alain C. Dexter, published a whole book of them called Dead to Rights. And while we’re on the topic of self promotion, please take a peek at my newest novel of mystery and magical realism, Daughters of Babylon.

Now I should like to give credit to two other poets, without whom this glosa could not have been written. Antipater of Sidon lived in Greece in the 2nd century. His poem, “The Bidding of the Harbor God”, forms the tenth line of every stanza and drives the glosa’s rhyme scheme. The masterful translation is by Sherod Santos, an American poet and author of Greek Lyric Poetry: A New Translation. I’ve included Antipater’s full poem here, Santos’s translation, so you, too, can appreciate the talent of both poets.

The Bidding of the Harbor God

Take your thwarts, oarsmen, it’s time to carve
new sea-lanes through the breasting swells.
Wild gales no longer avalanche the shoals
or harrow the rigging of a sail’s nerve,

and already out of mud and clay, swallows
build their jug-nests underneath your eaves.
So quickly now, before the gulled moon leaves
its slumberous lightweight in the meadows,

break loose your trim ship’s hawsers, haul
the anchor from its harbor nest, and stand
up into the trade winds off the headland
your woven, patched, and thrice stitched sails.

—Antipater of Sidon, circa 150 BCE
Translation by Sherod Santos, © 2005


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