At the Back of Our Minds

This is for those who are at peace
with failure

who have achieved a complete

and live without form
They melt through walls
we have built to contain them
flicker across mirrors
in our brains           while we sleep

As we wake

they slip through

even the most
skintight of dreams

And this is for the fear
of losing myself
in the glass while I shave
my razor cutting
deeper           deeper
How can I watch my features
shear off under the bright
edge of the blade
When will my skin peel back
reveal nothing

And this is for those who refuse
the absence that stares
out of the mirror
at them
for those who clothe its transparent
skeleton in taffeta
manners stored in cellophane
at the back of their minds
As I disappear into the grasp
of the mirror my harlequin
colours are trapped
in it and jar me

Each poem is a layer of skin
shed the moment I stop
probing what is in me
that wants

to escape judgement


* Please note that changes have been made to this poem since original publication.

Questions and Answers

What inspired “At the Back of Our Minds”?

I wrote “At the Back of Our Minds” almost thirty years ago; if I am honest, it is extremely difficult for me to recall the nature of its genesis with any reliability. However, re-reading it for the first time in two or more decades, I recognize influences and concerns that I know inspired my poetry in general in the late 1970s, early 1980s. This poem is very reminiscent of Michael Ondaatje’s work, especially his book, Rat Jelly. If I remember that book correctly, Ondaatje was obsessed with issues of incompleteness and with taking risks by pushing oneself beyond the safe bounds of convention. His writing from the beginning has been populated by outlaws, explosive and munitions experts, escape artists, gamblers, etc. The narrator of my own poem seems fearful of encountering the unknown in himself while pursuing of an as-yet ungrasped-at self-knowledge. For the poet I was at the time of this poem’s composition, poetry—as it was for Ondaatje—was a crucial vehicle of that self-exploration. Conceptualizing poems as skins to be shed in order “to escape judgment” suggests to me that I feared self-knowledge could permanently label me in some problematic way. It is important to note that the narrator’s desire to remain unjudged through a kind of poetic dance of the seven veils can also be transformative and liberating, however much anxiety may be expended as a byproduct. Will the narrator still recognize himself when, like Alice, he reemerges from the other side of the looking glass? Will he be dressed in harlequin colours—i.e., will he be a fool or victim of ridicule? I am sure the answer to such questions would have been of great concern to the poet I was back then.

What poetic techniques did you use in “At the Back of Our Minds”?

This is a free-verse poem that avoids almost all punctuation (except for initial capitals to signal the beginning of new sentences) and instead uses lateral and vertical space to create similar effects. The lack of punctuation, use of space, and erratic line-lengths all help to suggest that the poem, like the ideas it explores, is made of extremely thin verbal fabric, one that is almost ghostly in its near lack of substance. I also use repetition—”this is for…” at the beginning of each stanza (except for the last) to provide parallel structure, as if the poem were composed of a series of dedications in tribute to those intrepid souls at “peace with failure”, who are afraid to “lose” themselves, who “refuse to be absent.” Also, I recall that, at the time I wrote this poem, I was exploring how to create effects through clever line breaks, often placing them after adjectives—”complete,” “most,” “transparent,” “harlequin”—to give these parts of speech a weight and emphasis almost equivalent to that of a noun.

This poem “At the Back of Our Minds” originally appeared in Timothy Findley & the War Novel. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 91 (Winter 1981): 47-48.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.