No Help But Laughter

when I hold a book, my dad said, I think about where this paper came from, the mill, the men who worked in the mill, the men who logged the paper, what kind—the smell of cedar, Doug fir, familiar nickname, scraps not good enough for a house but mulched into pulp—and I know, my dad said, that’s not what you are supposed to be thinking when you read


tangle of jumper cables in the trunk, positive, negative, the power he connects


sound when I was alone, dee, chickadee, slowness at the slim limbs of a child so different from the frantic chickadee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee when my dad’s strength sauntered with me


their call is now outside his range


can you hear that, Dad


no words, just an old man shaking his head


my teacher didn’t know where I came from, visiting my home that existed without a single book


if my neighbour doesn’t have medical care, my dad said, I am less wealthy


I used the word soffit—you know it, the overhang of a roof, protection you take for granted without a worry for its name


my professor circled it, in red ink


this is not a word in the dictionary


he asked me if English was my second language, I knew that was a bad thing


well, it’s a word alright, my dad said


if you drive past someone who has stopped by the side of the road, and you don’t help, my dad said, where I grew up, let’s say somewhere between logging camp B and camp C, you could be sentencing them to death


nights in the backseat, back before seatbelts, when my driving dad had sideburns and the pinwheel of street lights slipped across faces, slide of my slack body round the corners dark, as good as asleep, hum of car under me, rumble of engine stilling at the curb and a sigh I release when my dad holds the fake, innocent as a girl, awkward under stars, through the metal door to the wooden home, bundle of child, one arm slipping free, but he braced all of her up each stair like he never knew how to do if I was awake


afternoons at the daycare beside my old parents, the young parents arrive to pick up children, easy lift of that wrangling toddler into air, burden almost weightless, a father off work and made new, big hands a love shape more than a word as a child lets small legs bob, releasing any morning no no no no to gaze at this world from a man’s height


my father cannot hear them, sweet soft high-pitched voices of a two-year-old, three-year-old, too much for the beige antennae at his ear


his mask keeps catching his hearing when he doesn’t notice, pulls a buzzing aid off, and I drive with him in pulsing rain to Save-On where he gives me credit like never before, saved by some stranger who found a tiny tool and handed the clerk what my dad needs, vulnerable cough drop of sound, slick concrete


the frame for valuable, passersby chatter over unbroken under clatter of cart and crying child, what did it hear


you, my dad says to me, are good luck


he used to tear the teacher’s comment off some essay I wrote, red words of praise he showed to every man rigging a stage for some actress who said the lines of someone else


stomping upstairs while my dad stepped down, yellow shag carpet an embarrassment, brown tracks to the bathroom and bedrooms certain as curves of a flow-chart, yeah, I said, contempt digging my voice, passing my dad, read a book


it’s a painful part of my life, my dad said at the wheel of the car when I asked him to tell me the steering of his young adulthood away from anything that could be bound, I don’t want to talk about it


why don’t you read a book why don’t you


I don’t remind him about the time he thought nite and lite were the American spellings, neon spilling Seattle commerce into black rain, words as efficient as the absence inside colour and his discomfort at discovering his mistake


now he tells it as a joke


isn’t that funny


my mom and I repeat the mishearing his hearing aids make, no help but laughter


can’t remember a single example but trust me, funny


like the time my nana died—my mom and dad they drove to the university, stood on the wound-down carpet of my dorm room the plum shade of a B movie and their faces, still young and he could still hear


I gasped the news


give me your professors’ names


this is what happens when your grandmother dies at exam time so it could all be a fake to avoid being tested and still you have to go tell your professors your grandmother died at exam time who will believe anything you say


my dad will do the work of phoning professors, it is true, the funeral, his voice, the event


my nana slept on the top bunk, closer than any parent who comes to turn out the light


meanwhile are we lying


why should she not be with us, perhaps not standing but resting her energy to instruct the whole family on what was right


could my professors believe my dad


has this man ever called a professor


we might be making this up, I don’t have to write an exam, in which case she hasn’t died


I am alone in a dorm room beside my lamp phantom to spell check an assignment for six hours because what else is there to do


this night I have a dry piece of rye toast


but before even that is possible, I give my dad explicit instructions on the names


Quarterbrain he repeats as I say the professor’s name and we are in a bad poem on the scribble pad my dad brought to my dorm for this purpose


nothing wrong with his hearing but my dad distorts meaning like a cassette tape at the warped end where words don’t work


no, main, I say, like the street




between my mom and me something horrible is laughing at the confusion of my professor’s name in my dad’s mouth and my nana should be alive to hear it


nite lite, aren’t those words how it should be if they are there, those letters square bright glowing in the sky more real than black characters inert on pale retreating as you age


can you read this


he lost his hearing at the mill, not right away but waiting in a play, the old plot, loaded


I am lucky enough never to work anywhere near a screeching saw, a shrill-pitched mill, a falling tree making the insides of this thing I could drop without hurting anyone


chokerman, chaser, rigging slinger, high rigger, this is all the poetry he was


were you ever a hook tender


no, no, that I wasn’t, and you know we just said hooker, not like in the books


alphabet of logging camps scripted the ragged coast


can a letter grip


can you sing the touch of land


where was this paper pulped


have you ever ripped a piece and let it drop









again his hearing aid escapes, slips out of an old ear to plant itself like a seed, dirty the pages of fresh life, and he scratches for it and finds twigs, that matchbox car my brother buried, not one useful thing until my dad isn’t looking and there it is


he taught me how to tie a Molly Hogan Eye


can you tell that story


take a look at this stump, you know how to read the rings of this tree you can measure them against your finger nail, see, the wide rings tell you when growing was good, lots of rain, not too cold, and that black narrow line, there, that’s fire, forest fire big enough to become history, all that destruction, and yet this tree lived another good forty years, I remember that fire, I was a boy then, we could count forward and find the year you were born


he paid for the hearing aid with the workers’ comp he organized for the men he knew, the way he can tuck the aid inside the canal


can you hear him shout—over the crowd, into the crowd, eyes rising to rights


what does your paper smell like now


the mills of my father’s adolescence contained two boys who fell into the pulper


what happened to them


they fell into the pulper, what do you think happened to them


yeah, well, read a book


skyline, eye splice, cunt splice


slack the line


tight the line


what’s got you so worried, doesn’t sound to me like those people know anything about logging


sometimes as I pedal back to my apartment, wicker basketful of books, I imagine shifting my adult body into neutral, no force of my own, no line to find alone but the rocking block of myself carried


school marm


nurse stump


his gruff booming voice on our family’s answering machine greeting for us in our place, symmetry he knew to find, how we matched, how we rhymed, you’ve reached the home of the palindrome


you weren’t expecting that, were you


widow maker


whistle punk his first job, beep beep, a pause, then beep beep beep beep beep means slack the haul back, beep beep beep then beep means go ahead on the straw line, beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep means man dead


when I visit a class, a student corrects one of my stories, a logger wouldn’t know the word reciprocal


two men on either side of a Swedish fiddle, misery whip, a long two-handed saw, their stagged legs perched on spring boards, rain bouncing sweat as bodies become rhythm of cutting, aching sway of Douglas fir that could kill them both


it’s not just what you’ve accomplished, a professor once told me, our hands to those straps that keep us from tumbling in a bus, cotton stretch of armpits visible in that packed swaying away from the rock walls of university, but how far you’ve come


my dad balance  e  d on the neighbour’s r   oof   to st ring a set of colou  red lights with such care, tendering the mouths of for gotten k   nots to r   each straight as a ray, no matter how   you spell what his hands held


Erin Soros is a recipient of the CBC Literary Award and the Commonwealth Award for the Short Story.

Questions and Answers

1. Is there a specific moment that inspired you to pursue poetry?

When I was in my twenties, I worked full-time as a secretary. At one point, our union was on strike and I was walking back and forth holding a picket sign in one hand and Dionne Brand’s No Language is Neutral in the other. Someone asked if I too wrote. I said I didn’t. He said “well you have a break from the job”—we were only on the picket line four hours a day—”so now is the time to do it.”  I went home and wrote poems about my grandmother. I eventually sent these poems to the Canada Council and received an explorations grant that enabled me to quit secretarial work. Those pieces I developed to publish as essays and stories. I don’t know that what I write is poetry. I write sentences, sometimes fractured.

2. As a published writer, what are your tips or words of motivation for the aspiring poet?

I’d suggest that emerging writers find ways to inhabit other people’s poetry—writing it long-hand, reciting, memorizing, typing a published poem and looking at how it appears on screen, maybe moving it around in new shapes or juxtapositions.  I didn’t grow up around readers or writers, but I knew musicians and so I understood the necessity to develop a daily bodily practice in an art form.  There is humility and reassurance and quiet intimacy in typing out a beautiful paragraph or stanza from another writer: just sit down, inspired or not, and play scales.

I’d also suggest that young people pay attention to the poetry in their familial life, their culture, workplaces, generations, kitchens, neighborhoods, street signs, street talk, the lingo of gym or store or bed, all that, how jokes too are a form of poetry, how our secrets create gaps, how pain breaks language. I think we need books, but we can find our poems by learning to listen appreciatively and imaginatively to what is most our own.

3. What inspired or motivated you to write this poem?

I was thinking about my dad’s hearing loss in a steel mill and how his work as a union leader for this same job would secure his access to a hearing aid—a circular and poetic logic. I was also thinking about paper—logging, pulp mills—as the material condition of literature and academic life and what communities we negate as part of our elevated, creative and intellectual investigations. And about how when I was young I used reading, the privileged habit of reading, as a bludgeon to hurt someone I love. It took me years past graduation to realize that I came from a working-class culture with its own ethics of reciprocity and its own imagistic vernacular—the very poetic language that I thought I needed a university to reach.

4. How did your writing process unfold around this poem? How did you write, edit, and refine it?

When I first wrote this poem, it was flashier and varied in form. But that felt like I was trying to impress someone. So I pulled back the experimentation and relaxed almost into prose, giving the language I hope a hushed and overheard feel, like recollections emerging through a place, oral stories collecting on a long drive or in the rhythms of shared work, words cast off, hovering in the air, falling on the page. The last passage, that pulling-apart of letters to mimic Christmas lights, came easefully and felt immediately right, even though my dad would wonder what the hell it means.

This poem “No Help But Laughter” originally appeared in Poetics and Extraction Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 251 (2022): 126-133.

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