Wind Elegy

The lake waves
are blue light

undulating shoreward
tipped here and there

with white: swells

that transform to an audible mist
as they land on rock, sand,

beached logs
while the masts of boats

fastened to buoys offshore
oscillate and clang

like bells. A wind
clear and chill as light

pushes that water south
between green autumn mountains,

wind that, once inland,
becomes steady surges

of twirling dust
that pulse along the streets of the village

at water’s edge
—a motion that makes an absence palpable

in the sunshine, though that result is not
wind’s purpose, any more than

a village’s purpose
is to craft new window frames, imagine a design

for a garden shed
or tile a kitchen floor. Yet these tasks

are part of what a village does,
or did, along with being a father,

stepson, brother, husband,
assessor of dietary trends, of alternate

electrical generation technologies,
of the calmness of a fellow citizen’s mind.

Lake water
that rises and falls at wind’s behest

in fact remains in situ: the illusion of wave
is what appears to travel.

The village, too, emptied of
a life we living cherished and

lost, remains stationary,
as occupied by its Saturday’s

activities, its Wednesday’s, as wind is:
heeling a sail toward

water, through wave
after wave.

Questions and Answers

What inspired or motivated you to write this poem?

A friend of mine who lived in a village about 15 minutes’ drive north of my acreage died rather suddenly in 2015 of a brain tumor. Mike was one of those guys who can fashion or fix anything, figuring out from first principles what needs to be done, and able to put his hands on the tools needed to complete whatever task he has been set or sets for himself. If a problem or chore stumps him, and he absolutely can’t solve or accomplish it, these guys also know enough to call in an expert—though that is rare.

In the small communities in B.C.’s southeastern mountains where I live, everybody contributes for better or worse to the overall quality of life of the place. My friend was no exception, steadily making friends after retiring to this lakeside village after decades he and his family had spent in northern Alberta.

With every elegy I write, I swear off writing this type of poem. I figure I’ve written enough of these over the years. But Mike’s death bothered me, because he was so full of energy and plans and projects, as well as always badgering me to go sailing with him in a uniquely designed sailboat he’d built himself.

For months after he died, I felt the poem nudging at me to let it be born. Finally, his memorial service was held beside the lake. While people gave moving testimonials about what his life had meant to them (about half the small town near where he and his family had lived in Alberta had driven the hundreds of kilometres to the service), the autumn wind blowing southward down the lake set ropes vibrating noisily against the masts of small sailboats anchored just offshore. That sound, and the waves breaking on the nearby beach, were a constant, almost musical, rhythmic background to the funny, moving, tender and informative words being spoken about Mike.

Hearing the sounds of his memorial service was part of what finally led me to sit down and start work on the poem. Also, because I’m very interested in the concept of community (my most recent collection of short stories, The Shadows We Mistake for Love, is all about the community in the valleywhere I live), I wanted to work the concept of community into the poem: how the life and death of each of us are like waves rising and falling in water. Just as the lake endures even though any individual wave doesn’t, the community continues to travel forward through time whether or not we’re still alive to participate in the community’s existence.

What poetic techniques did you use in this poem? How much attention do you pay to form and metre?

The poem is in couplets, a form which results in a lot of white space on the page, causing the poem to advance slowly, calmly. I first saw how effective this could be in a poem by the English poet Ernest Dowson (1867-1900) , “Spleen,” about ennui. The number of lines in a stanza, if a poem is composed of a series of stanzas of the same length, generate different responses in a reader: a three-line stanza (as used, for example, in a blues song) generates a different feel than a four-line stanza (which is the ballad form, especially good for narrative).

When I draft a poem, I generally let the poem tell me what form it wants to be in, what shape the poem feels most comfortable or satisfied occupying. Here, because the poem starts off with the waves striking the shore in a regular way, the poem said it preferred to be contained in some sort of regular form. And because the poem is meditative, rather than, say, an elegy that is anguished or one that urges the reader to act in a particular way in response to a death, a two-line stanza seemed the perfect form for the poem.

Form is important to me. My first drafts are often tower poems—one long unbroken stack of lines (without stanzas). But as I work and rewrite and rethink and polish and recast the poem, most often the poem finally convinces me to adopt a form it’s most happy to assume. That form can include stanzas, but also (although not in this poem) indents of  words, lines, or whole stanzas as a means to mimic the pauses in thought or speech, or how our voice varies when we want to emphasize (or minimize) something we’re saying.

My poems are audio scores—that is, intended to be read aloud—so metre plays a role, too. Mine are conversational poems, with the rhythms and stress patterns of someone talking. That is, I don’t shape my poems into any of the traditional regular repeated stress patterns or metrical feet—anapests, say. But the poem has to sound aloud like a person is speaking. Thus part of my compositional process is to read my draft aloud over and over, making changes in the poem until it sounds to my ear to be creating the effect I desire.

What did you find particularly challenging in writing this poem?

Two problems face any elegist: the first is not to be sentimental, and the second is to be sure that the poem is about, celebrates, the person who has died and isn’t just about the poet’s feelings. You’ll instantly note that these are exactly the same two challenges that a love poet faces. First, how to say something original about the surge of emotion that has resulted from a new relationship with another person, or the initiation of a delightful new attitude toward another person, while allowing this emotion to be articulated in all its complexity. Many emotions besides joy swirl around a new love—self-doubt, fear, obligation, guilt at abandoning some former love object. Similarly the feeling of profound loss that a death forces into our lives is not monochromatic. Anger at the person for leaving, fears connected with our own mortality, remembrances of the person’s shortcomings as well as their virtues all can accompany grief.

Second, many a love poem turns out to be an expression of how the narrator feels about the love object. When we try to learn from the poem or song about any specific aspects of the person who is the cause of all this excitement, we find such information either  missing entirely, or so generalized as to apply to just about anybody, or at best thin on the ground. Similarly the challenge of an elegy, in my eyes, is to show something of the person whose absence we mourn, and not just to express a feeling of loss that actually could apply to the death of almost anyone the poet feels sad about losing.

This poem “Wind Elegy” originally appeared in Canadian Literature: 234 Eclectic Mix (Autumn 2017): 109-110.

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