Trails in His Head

the old man
in boots that creak
his hurt breath in the air
theres always a chance
short of breath  hearing it

that old man on the radio
looking for his son
he went to hunt rabbits
& didn’t come back

five years & he looks
every day scrunchh  unnchh
every day through the forest at Beausejour
he walks across the snow over &
over & I don’t find nothing
his eyes lost in the frost

his voice sounds old
in the cracks   in the air
it is pinched off somewhere
like a creek in winter

he knew every side road within five miles
he couldn’t have got lost

his head aches
like birch when they fur
& burst with frost
the old man looking
crunnch  crunchh
in parka & heavy boots that creak
his hurt breath in the air
there’s always a chance

trails freezing up
in his head where rabbits & snow
shoes go where his sons face goes &
wakes his feet walking & walking
across pages of snow

his son’s face five years
whiting out   his eyes  bewildered
in blizzards of air
his eyes  lost  in the frost
his thots  ripped
on the bright snow
bright on snow

Questions and Answers

What inspired “Trails in His Head”?

It’s been many years since I wrote it, so what I have to say will be coloured by that distance, as well as my own suspect understandings in the first place. Often it’s hard to say where any poem originated, or what might have set it off, since they usually have no particular or discernbile beginning. At least that’s been my experience. But in this case there were, as I recall, a couple of identifiable provocations. One was a newscast on CBC radio. A father somewhere in Manitoba (north of Winnipeg as I recall) faced the horror of his son’s going missing. A journalist interviewed him, recorded his voice and the sounds of his walking through the snow. I was moved by the report and prompted to write something out of that story. A second impulse was a dissatisfaction I felt in hearing some arugments that had gained prominence at the time-claims about the presumed insensitivity of men. This is what I ended up with.
“Trails in his head” ended up in a collection, Dedications, which included a closely related poem,
“father song.”

What poetic techniques did you use in “Trails in His Head”?

I used quite a bit of rhyming, much of it inconspicuous because it does not appear in metered lines, does not usually appear in VC or CV patterns, and never, of course, at the end of metered lines where it would be highly audible. Often the rhyme consists of CvC patterns, in assonance or consonance, and at some distance across the text, as in “creak” and “cracks” or, more closely clustered, “birch” and “fur” and “burst” and “frost.” There obviously are imitative sounds, suggesting the man’s walking over the snow; and, of course, the inclusion of someone’s voice (the old man’s). There is a fair bit of repetition to suggest the persistence of the man in his unending search for his son, especially, with some modification, the words about the old man in his hurt breath and his boots that creak. The lineation at times suggests the kind of supension the father might have felt in his hopes and in his speech. For instance, the line “five years & he looks” seems to give us some grammatical closure, some halt as the unit seemingly completes itself. But then, in the next line, we read “every day” and the poem reopens to another understanding: “he looks every day.” In the interim, however, the poem allows us, perhaps asks us, to take a breath, then redirects us, much as the father himself might have adjusted his words and thoughts in the rhythm of his recounting, so that “every day” takes on added stress, as if in painful expression.

I was working, too, with the erasure in the winter landscape (winter is relatively rare in poetry, including Canadian poetry) as emblem of the speaker’s loss and distress.

This poem “Trails in His Head” originally appeared in Popular Culture. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 108 (Spring 1986): 103-104.

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