The Invitation

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~~a glosa~~

If you are
my friend, stand up
before me and scatter
the grace that’s in your eyes.

—Sappho

~~~

Come with me, come away
to the blesséd isle while there
is yet time, while the wind
still sings your name before
the doldrums seize and pull
you under. The island is not far
except to those who sour life’s milk
with all they’ve sought and missed.
The future circles, an obliging star
if you are.

You’ve turned this invitation down
before, and in your place diminished
hopefuls gathered, minions with their
optic shards attempting to trap love
songs, SOSing—See us, over here!
There are no second sips. The pleasure cup
is full and never empties, but corks you
have collected as your proof seal tight.
They bottle lips & now you’re stuck,
my friend. Stand up!

Place one foot on the best
of all you’ve known, and shake
the other free. Your balls—and I
speak boldly now—are only chained
as tightly as your need to rectify
what others choose to matter
and believe. Intolerance intolerates.
It stews miasmic, grasping fears of who
might pull the plug. Such Illusions shatter
before me and scatter

as they must and will
with every choice I make to bypass
ignorance and steer my craft toward
Golden Ages that have been and are, full
visible, charting cross imaginable currents.
The stones you cast, your needful lies
reached long ago these island shores.
We’ve kept them all, turned pearls now
and music celebrated to reprise
the grace that’s in your eyes.

~~~

© Elaine Stirling, 2016
Image: Detail from a fresco, portrait of a young woman
thought to be Sappho, at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale,
Naples

Tulips and Thistles

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~~a pantoum~~

You who insist you’re a lover, I want
you to bring me six tulips
the colour of kisses, and thistles
majestic as lace on a queen’s bridal bed.

You, to bring me six tulips
in a knightly manner of ease and grace
majestic as lace on a queen’s bridal bed,
might reverse this kingdom’s weary intent.

In a knightly manner of ease and grace
with a butterfly’s poise, the glance of your sword
might reverse this kingdom’s weary intent
of depressives, defeated. Restore the good word.

With a butterfly’s poise, the glance of your sword
the colour of kisses and thistles
of depressives, defeated, restore the good word!
You who insist you’re a lover, I want.

~~~

The thistles off to the side of this patch of tulips are still in bud. When they open they will be astonishing.

© Elaine Stirling, 2016

“Sisyphus, it’s Zeus.”

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~~three triolets~~

I

Sisyphus, it’s Zeus, your ancient cortical
connection to full power over gods.

You no longer stand so vertical,
Sisyphus. It’s Zeus, your ancient cortical

desire to dominate, toppled to diagonal.
Where wisdom finds no purchase, idiocy plods.

Sisyphys, it’s Zeus, your ancient cortical
connection to full power over gods.

II

Oh, suspicious Sisyphus, your sibilance
sprays pointlessly like toms among the spayed.

What use is your opinionated vigilance,
oh, suspicious Sisyphus? Your sibilance,

unlike my rain, is spit and spit upon. To push against
resistance steepens your already hopeless grade.

Oh, suspicious Sisyphus, your sibilance
sprays pointlessly like toms among the spayed.

III

Thanatos (Death) and I with Hermes have conferred.
You’ve pushed your rock up long enough. No more!

So what, you’re man enough to give the gods a bird?
Thanatos (Death) and I with Hermes have conferred.

It’s time you faced downhill, my friend, and heard
what sings beyond the morbid river Styx dark shore.

Thanatos (Death) and I with Hermes have conferred.
You’ve pushed your rock up long enough. No more!

~~~

Some years ago, I co-facilitated a series of goddess workshops for women, based on my adaptation of The Hero’s Journey (called The Heroine’s Journey). We rented the upstairs floor of a Starbucks convenient to us all. The name of the Starbucks manager? Zeus. You can’t make that sh*t happen.

The tight, repetitive form of the triolet seemed to lend itself nicely to poor, boulder-pushing Sisyphus. It also gives a sense of how it might feel to have the father of the gods spray-talking at you.

© Elaine Stirling, 2016

This Play Called Today

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~~a ringelreim~~

Long live life, and live it long! Everyone stars
in this play called today. While the bars
I perceive in my role may confine, drop or raise,
I am free to define, independent of praise
or its lack. I can pickle or smash any memory that jars.

To muddy and stir up the past by reflecting on scars
reverses the fields that have healed to perpetual wars
in meadows where fresh thoughts might graze. Long live life!

On my stage, I use mirrors and mist and gold samovars
to embody delights that arrive from above and afar.
Thinking too much about right and wrong ways
of the grim-faced around me confuses and weighs.
What a drag—and what a production we are. Long live life!

~~~

Ringelreim means wrap-around rhyme in German. The form is one of many variations of a rondeau.

© Elaine Stirling, 2016
Image from http://www.favin.com

Horizons

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There may come a time when I tire
of freighters on horizons
when the press of industry
and expectation
grinds
these optic pleasures
fine
to dust subsumed
arising as intelligence
that aggravates.
That time has not yet come.

Agrarian hypocrisy
would have us travel
to our all-inclusive paradise
on hand-wove balsa rafts propelled
by solar flares, organically conceived.

Let me not be misjudged—
though if I am, so what?
I too despise dependencies,
depletions and demonics that
would tear from fellow humankind
their choice to be employed
or sweetly idle, but do not think
that I would sacrifice my breadth
and depth and height to lessen
the distress of wearied and regretful
thoughts not mine. Horizons
are the diametric measurement
of me, of you, to anywhere.

And having measured, I’m quite sure.
Of vast, gray ships on mighty tides,
I shall never tire.

~~~

Author’s note: More than a few mayflies died untimely squashes in the lakeside writing of this poem.

© Elaine Stirling, 2016

No Guilt, No Shame

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~~a chant royal~~

Ignis

O daughter mine, beloved son, the fires
of grim politic spit and lick, intent
on luring joy toward funeral pyres.
Singed by consuming, first hand testament,
oppressed against oppressors, human greed
the mean accelerant, an arson’s feed,
your clamour rises. We must not sit by!
Past apathies have brought us here. To die
and not have tried offends the sacred flame
that burns within, but drowns the finer cry—
Set down what condescends. No guilt, no shame.

Terra

The soil you grasped with fists before the mires
of cleanliness and godliness misspent
your jubilance, remembers and desires
that you reclaim your youthful merriment.
Sex void of love, dry acts that plant a seed
of not enough, erode the lust we need
like rain and sun to reach unfettered sky.
Comparison, the asp that bites is sly,
pretends to be your ally in this game
of changing climates while your soul weeps dry.
Set down what condescends. No guilt, no shame.

Aqua

What drought is this, you talk about? One tires
of opinions hammered and never bent.
My ears have heard you plenty. What transpires
when the current flows feels more provident
of who we are and where we’ll be. A bead
of optimism’s sweet. To mourn and bleed,
a suicide where answers come to die;
I much prefer the dew and butterfly.
A portrait Earth with ocean as her frame
displays us all, prudes, libertines, and spy.
Set down what condescends. No guilt, no shame.

Aeris

Oh, mind, how split and vast you are, with gyres
of ascending hopes, prone to accident.
You twirl on grief and rage like rubber tires
hung by rope, stalled, frustration evident.
I’m made far less of latex, more of steed,
jump easily low fences choked with weed
of disapproval. I’m a kite. I’ll fly
because I can and want to. By and by,
I’ll lose this learned capacity to blame,
give reason the respect it’s due when I
set down what condescends. No guilt, no shame.

Anima

I’ve bounced you across continents, brought liars
to our home, demanding you be silent.
Fear displaced my spirit, sowing briars
where you needed from me roses. I meant
harm at times, but regret’s a curved reed,
so all of it’s blown back to me, indeed.
Know this one thing, dear child, before I die.
I loved how long and often you did try
to heal what I had broken and inflamed.
If effort’s gold, you’ve laid great fortunes by.
Set down what condescends. No guilt, no shame.

Vale

So now the apron’s cut. Your single eye
discerns. You’ve gleaned all that you need from my
history. Don’t look back. Forget my name,
but if you must record, aim true and high.
Set down what condescends. No guilt, no shame.

~~~

Chant royals—or are they chants royal?—were all the rage in 14th century northern France, while courts in southern France entertained sestinas. I’ve gone into detail on their form and rhyme elsewhere in Oceantics. What makes these 60 to 62-line poems a rare bird in my experience is the challenge of finding a final line that I can tolerate repeating six times. They are, after all, chants, not rants, with an expectation of dignity, given the audience for whom they were composed.

© Elaine Stirling, 2016

Five Things I’ve Learned as a Finalist in the 2016 CBC Short Story Prize

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1. Opportunity abounds.

On February 26 of this year, I was working on a short story when an email arrived. I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the opening line, “Congratulations! You’ve made the longlist…” because I only had three days until the contest deadline for the story I was writing. And honestly, who pays attention to emails that begin with “Congratulations!”?

Happily, it wasn’t spam. Thirty-one writers had, indeed, made the longlist for the 2016 CBC Short Story Prize, and I was one of them. It had been months since I wrote the piece. I couldn’t remember the title and certainly hadn’t read it since then. I rummaged through a beautiful box that I keep just for stories, and there it was: “Restitution”.

Eight weeks have passed since that wonderful day. The experience has been unequivocally joyful, all the way through making the shortlist, and listening to David Heubert read his extraordinary winning story, “Enigma”, on the CBC Books website.

If you’ve spent any time with writers, or people who wish they were, or people who call themselves writers yet spend most of their energy making sure no one gets too happy, you may be persuaded it’s a doomed art. All the great writers are dead, they’ll tell you, or unapproachably brilliant. And then there are the ones who use the upcoming end of the world as their excuse for not finishing or not starting something. Fine. Whatever.

Fact is, there are more opportunities for writers these days than I’ve ever known. You can enter contests, submit manuscripts online (no more SASE, yay!), start a blog, share your work through dozens of social networks. Who cares if no one reads it? Someone might! What writing comes down to is output—i.e. putting it out there.

As it happens, I decided this year to take on Ray Bradbury’s challenge: “Write a short story every week,” he dares us. “It’s not possible to write 52 bad stories.” Turns out, the guy was right. I have written at least one good story, so far, with the creds to prove it. I have also learned that producing a story every week leaves you no time for hanging out with end-of-the-world whingers.

2. Enthusiasm is a flame. Fan it.

As emotions go, enthusiasm can be a matchstick. If you don’t bring it near kindling or a wick, it flares up and out. Life pushes in, wanting to look the way life did before that lovely but temporary thing interrupted it.

The hard-working, enthusiastic team at CBC Books made sure that didn’t happen for us finalists. They fanned our fires, both longlist and short, with Facebook posts, tweets, retweets, and frequent shout-outs. They created beautiful quote graphics, like the one you see at the top of this blog. When I read the longlist excerpt they’d created, I didn’t recognize it as my own writing. I was viewing my work through enthusiastic eyes. Fire fed!

What delighted me most was the attention CBC Books pays to the craft of writing. They wanted to know how it felt to write “Restitution”. What was the aftermath? Which author influences me most? Why? And my personal favourite: describe your story in five words.

As finalists, we basked in the enthusiasm of a publicist who shared (and continues to share) our bios and stories coast-to-coast. You begin to get the sense that, oh my gosh, this really is Canadian Broadcasting!

3. People’s reactions are their privilege. Enjoy and appreciate them.

The response from family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers has been tremendous. Until something like this happens, you just don’t realize how much love and support is ready to burst into bloom around you. Maybe the impulse to cheer is part of who we are—I believe it is—so any opportunity to celebrate each other is a good one.

On the other hand, there were silences. There were lukewarm, unconvincing responses from people whose opinion I cherish. That was enlightening too, a reminder like a bug bite that what others think, say, and feel about me will stop itching if I leave it alone.

The same holds true for what I write. My subject matter, genre, style, even my punctuation may rub some people the wrong way, and that’s fine. Each of us is free to choose where we place our attention and how we respond to what crosses our paths. For myself, I cheer what I love, I appreciate those who cheer me, and allow the rest their freedoms.

4. Disappointment is a fog. Walk through it.

On Tuesday, April 19, the winner of the 2016 CBC Short Story Prize was announced, and it wasn’t me. As a writer, I know I’ll be able to milk that whomp to my stomach and heart for years to come.

The day before, I’d prepared for the eventuality of hard news by completing a 6600 word story and walking it to the post office with days to spare before another contest deadline. I was proud of myself for that. From that low rung of positivity, I thought about the other three finalists somewhere in Canada and knew what they were feeling. Empathy: climb another rung.

I have other writing deadlines, in addition to Ray B. sitting on my shoulder, but I didn’t go near them yesterday. Instead, I spent time with friends, visited the library and bookstore—found treasures in both—and saw “The Jungle Book”. Bless you, Rudyard Kipling!

The email from CBC Books from a person I’d come to know as a true heart, was addressed to us four finalists. She offered commiserations and congrats! Our writing, after all, had risen above thousands of entrants. We had every reason to feel proud. And there would always be next year, and the year after that.

Disappointment is a fog. Today is sunny.

5. To be treated like a VIW is a reminder, not a fluke.

When you enter the CBC Short Story Prize, you can be sure of one thing. Your story will be read. The jurors are seasoned and respected in their fields. To be read by them is no small privilege.

From the moment you are longlisted to the moment of the final announcement and beyond, you’ll be treated like a VIW, Very Important Writer. Like a luxury spa or world cruise, the experience is delicious, and a part of you wants it never to end.

Good news is, there is no ending. Writing is important, and we humans cannot live without our storytellers. CBC Books keeps these truths alive by offering prizes and opportunities, year after year, to writers. I am forever grateful.

~~~

© Elaine Stirling, 2016

Obsessing

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~~a pantoum~~

Obsessing on thoughts on streets that go nowhere
I’m hunching my shoulders, recalling
how yesterday’s runners took up all the tables.
We sedentary saints couldn’t hear ourselves think!

I’m hunching my shoulders, recalling
how someone on Facebook went apeshit again.
We sedentary saints couldn’t hear ourselves think
about hot desert islands and big fat accounts.

How someone on Facebook went apeshit again
is upsetting my mojo that loves to dream
about hot desert islands and big fat accounts—
ought to give you some pause, don’t you think?

Is upsetting my mojo that loves to dream
how yesterday’s runners took up all the tables
as easy to fix as—slow down, silly rabbit?!
Obsessing on thoughts on streets that go nowhere…

© Elaine Stirling, 2016

Luxe Poétique

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I want to wake
to a poem on my tongue
like Himalayan salt
on a sliver of truffle
effervescent verse
that lifts me
from these shopworn
clobbering times
like Veuve Clicquot
in crystal flutes

I want to walk
with a rhythm in my bones
like Thelonious Monk
befriending dissonance
through sybaritic street fests
where the roasted yam
and sweet corn waft
like silken threads
around the lovers
who’ve forgotten
all they know
of politics

I want to sail
on a schooner named for me
through Adriatic breezes
for the joy of overturning
the misnotion forged by masses
disenchanted who
think cringing
is heroic
and that constant
anniversaries of past suffering
bring us anything but more

I want to fly
with caravans of djinns
transparent beings born
of flame, light-headed
never fossil fueled
complicit in the comet’s arc
indifferent to the myth
of dust to dust

and when my ashes
coalesce with all who congregate
in halls Valhallic or Brahmanic,
shamanic, histrionic—take your pick—
I shell scatter luxe poétique
through the coral ululations
of the dreamer who hears
oceans when he wakes

~~~

© Elaine Stirling, 2016

Easter Prayer (of the faithless)

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While sleet and bitter winds compel these bones to stay inside
and blood runs hot with sorrow for the burning world,
I turn my gaze to You with whom my senses won’t abide;
for what it’s worth, I offer these few hollow words.

What’s come of life, this endless grind, I once received with joy?
The ghouls portending tragedy each day prove true.
Disclaimers, thugs, and maniacs so eager to deploy
discouragement at every turn, what’s wrong with you?

They muttered in Jerusalem, threw carnivals in Rome.
Berserkers in Byzantium, cossacks through Minsk,
at every time in every age, we’re driven from our home
by those convinced they’ve been raw dealt, same, ever since.

And yet, in each new moment, some young mother meets her child.
A father sees his daughter wed; the groom, his bride
has paid some kindness forward secretly. A teacher mild
praises; a student’s weary spirit fills with pride.

If You exist somehow beyond the cruelty and reason
or better yet reside, calm, within my choices,
then roll the stone away and lift me to the new season.
Grant us grace to hear and speak with truer voices.

~~~

This is my first attempt at a poetic meter known as the Poulter’s measure. Poulters, or sellers of poultry, were known in the Elizabethan era to vary their quantity of a dozen between 14 and 12. You may be familiar with 13 as a baker’s dozen—same idea.

A poem in Poulter’s measure alternates lines of 14 syllables with alexandrines, or lines of 12 syllables. The rhythm creates a kind of solemnity that reminds me of acolytes moving slowly down a cathedral aisle toward the altar. Wherever you reside along the spectrum of Easter, Eostre, or “Finally, a long weekend!”, may it be a happy one.

© Elaine Stirling, 2016

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