Elegy as a message left on an answering machine

Hello, you’ve reached 542-8942. I’m unable to answer the phone
just now, but just leave a message after the beep and I’ll be sure
to return your call.
Goodbye for now


Won’t bother waiting up for you
to get back to me on this one. Waste of time.
My dime
in a bar by the water, your factory-new

answering machine is—like anything bereaved—still
full of your words, the waves
of your voice, the nervous laugh that gave us,
sometimes, “cause” to laugh. And which we now miss. Well,

human nature. I say Fuck my own. I own
up: this stinks. Too late
to erase all the crap, a Watergate
of gossip, off-hand words, no time to phone

in those last minute changes, additions, to say
what we find so impossible to say—
I find. So cut all this can’t
come to the phone right now cant, I don’t

buy it, I figure you’re in there somewhere, still
screening your calls, you
secretive bastard, pick up the phone right now if you
would hear a friend. Don’t stall,

don’t, like me. Thinking
there’s time, there’s still time enough, or rather
not thinking enough. Now look, I’m not sure whether
the executors will be disconnecting

you—your line—tomorrow (nurses, almost, pulling closed
the green curtain & tearing
out of your torso the drips & plugs & electrodes
to leave you drifting

with that astronaut in the film
who squirms awhile, signals some last, frantic word
then spins away into the void)—
that’s why I’m here. Sky’s clear tonight, by the way, calm

the wind, the water. Not sure really
why I called—
gesture of a drunk old
friend and ally.

Anyway it was pretty good
for a second or two, to
get through,
Tom. Good-


Questions and Answers

What inspired “Elegy as a message left on an answering machine”?

Simple answer here. The poem was inspired by the death, in 1993, of my friend Tom Marshall, an older writer who lived a few blocks from me here in Kingston and who had read and critiqued and encouraged me since the mid-eighties, when I started to write poems. Tom taught at Queen’s University and published fiction, criticism, and poetry in many journals, including Canadian Literature. His selected poems, The Elements, is still in print.

What poetic techniques did you use in “Elegy as a message left on an answering machine”?

The poem is written in slant-rhymed quatrains, generally in a nesting pattern (abba, cddc). But I’ve taken the liberty of varying the pattern when necessary, instead of getting out the shears and the shoehorn. So stanza four (aabb) and stanza seven (cbcb) follow a different scheme. As for metre, I’ve given myself complete freedom, allowing my instincts and emotion to dictate the flow of the line. Turn the page sideways, with the left margin downward, and you can see the lines blipping upward and then shortening a bit like the line on an ECG. Of course by the end of the elegy those blips fade down to nothing on the final word, “goodbye.”

I wanted to use a somewhat constraining form for this poem as a counterpoise to the strong emotion that fuelled it. Not that the form is meant to deaden the emotion. Just the opposite: it should intensify it by means of compression. In the end—like a bottle of wine left overnight in a car in the dead of winter—the contained liquor of the poem should burst open the container.

This poem “Elegy as a message left on an answering machine” originally appeared in East Asian-Canadian Connections. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 140 (Spring 1994) (Spring 1994): 161-162.

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