Porcupine's Quill

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The Essential John Glassco

The Burden of Junk

April again, and its message unvaried, the same old impromptu
Dinned in our ears by the tireless dispassionate chortling of Nature,
Sunlight on grey land, the grey of the past like a landscape around us
Caught in its moment of nakedness also, a pitiful prospect
Bared to the cognitive cruelty shining upon it: O season,
Season that leads me again, like this road going over the mountain,
Past the old landmarks and ruins, the holdfasts of hope and ambition--

Why is the light doubly hard on the desolate places? why even
Hardest of all on the tumbledown cabin of Corby the Trader?
See, with its tarpaper hanging in tatters, the doorstep awash in a
Puddle of cow-piss and kindling-chips, ringed with the mud of a fenceless
Yardful of rusty and broken machinery, washstands and bedsteads,
Bodies of buggies and berlots, the back seats of autos, bundles of
Chicken-wire, leaves of old wagon-springs and miscellaneous wheels.... But

There is Corby himself in the mud and the sunshine, in front of the
Lean-to cowshed, examining something that looks like a sideboard,
Bidding me stop and admire, and possibly make him an offer:
'Swapped the old three-teated cow for a genuine walnut harmonium!
Look, ain't a scratch or a brack in it anywhere--pedals and stopples
Work just as good as a fellow could ask for! Over to Broome they
Say they used to cost four hundred dollars apiece from the factory ...'

Here is the happy collector of objects, the absolute type of
All who engage in the business of buying and shifting, the man who
Turns a putative profit into an immediate pleasure,
Simply by adding a zero to his account with a self-owned
Bank of Junk, and creates a beautiful mood of achievement
Out of nothing at all! Ah here is the lord of the cipher,
This is the Man of the Springtime, the avatar of Lyaeus!

We should be trading indeed, if we could, I think as I leave him.
Mine is a burden of lumber that ought to be left with him also:
This is where it belongs, with the wheels and the beds and the organ,
With all the personal trash that the spirit acquires and abandons,
Things that have made the heart warm and bewildered the senses with beauty
Long ago--but that weakened and crumbled away with the passion
Born of their brightness, the loves that a dreary process of dumping
Leaves at last on a hillside to rot away with the seasons.

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Artful Flight

Artful Flight

Essays and Reviews 1985-2019
More Info

From the Introduction

In June of 2017, I began putting together a selection of my essays and reviews. Because I had blithely binned some of these pieces just three years prior-when I gave my musician son my office to turn into his music studio and moved myself into a smaller space, recycling 25 bags of paper in the process-I spent that summer sleuthing out lost work on the internet and at the library, retyping some essays and photocopying others. Eventually I had over 500 pages of prose, including teaching notes, online interviews, and letters written in answer to high school and university students' questions about my books.

Even I was surprised to discover how much fugitive prose I had written since the early 1980s, when I finished a doctorate on Shakespeare's dramaturgy and started teaching at the University of Toronto. I'd never published anything on my thesis topic, having recognized belatedly-when my first book of poetry came out in 1983 and the English Department insisted that 'it didn't count as a publication'-that I would have to establish expertise in a different area to find a job that rewarded creative work. So instead of seeking further employment as a Renaissance scholar I got a post-doctoral fellowship, which became The Picturesque and the Sublime: A Poetics of the Canadian Landscape (1998). During those years of study, I read and wrote about as much Canadian poetry as I could. Many of the critical pieces included here were written then.

After I dropped out of academia for a few years to have children, those doors swung shut behind me and I never got my 'career' back. But I had already got in the habit of writing essays and kept on doing so through six more volumes of poetry, four novels, and three children's books. Sometimes people invited me to write stuff; other times I needed to figure something out for myself by working it through on paper. The word 'essay', as first used by Michel de Montaigne, means 'an attempt', and that's what these are.


I am writing this introduction in July 2020, the summer of Covid-19. The only such summer, I hope, but we never know what the future holds. In the midst of a pandemic, this gathering of belle-lettres seems superfluous, but I keep reminding myself that the plague was raging in Paris in 1580, the year Montaigne's Essays were first published, and that Shakespeare just kept on writing whenever rampant infection closed the theatres in London, confident that they would eventually reopen. The example of these masters persuades me that there will again be a time when writing about poetry will not seem frivolous to everyone except poets.

Or maybe that time is actually now, when we are in suspended animation and the future and past swirl around us in a quantum rather than linear moment. An eerie quiet has fallen over my normally bustling neighbourhood. The weather is beautiful because the dwindling of the city's traffic has left the air fresh and the sky blue, day after day. Although essential workers never left their jobs, many other people have become unemployed or are struggling to work remotely. Children who lost their last three months of school are enduring a summer of limited activity, unable to play with each other. My life, however, is unchanged. Since I left the university in 1996, I have not had an office to go to; I have worked contract to contract, teaching creative writing, editing books, and taking art classes. What I once saw as insecurity I now recognize as freedom.

A contranym, perhaps? Read 'Let' and you will see what I mean.

[Continued in Artful Flight...]

-Susan Glickman, Toronto, July 2020

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The Artist and the Assassin


I am the cloud in the sky and you, artist, the cloud's shadow scurrying over the earth. I am the cloud over your shoulder, sailing through the heavens, encountering no resistance. I carry lightly the thoughts, the belief, of a man who has never known doubt, while you, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, are the shadow of the cloud on the earth, rolling up and down hills as you try to escape. Where cloud and cloud's shadow meet will be your end.

Rome 1600

He has me posing as a saint, me, Luca Passarelli, with a thief for a father and my mother a wet-nurse. To be precise, he wants me playing Saint Matthew. Matthew, the one called by Christ from the streets to his spiritual life as an apostle. I sit at a table in the vaulted cellar of a palazzo belonging to one Cardinal Del Monte. I'm waiting with the artist's other models, several older louts and two young men, boys really, snappily dressed in silks, wealthy punks out slumming with the likes of us. The artist chooses to pose me as the apostle and saint. If you can imagine that. Me a saint. I would qualify for a saint's vow of poverty, certainly, but not by choice. Me with my one set of worn, flea-ridden clothing, a shirt, a tunic, and a pair of hose with holes in the knees. I cannot afford anything else. He has made me up to look older than I am. And I am no Jew, though Matthew was.

Altogether, seven of us pose in this cellar. Two of the models stand across the room, representing Jesus and Peter. Christ himself is pointing at me. The rest of us sit around the table counting the coins I gathered as if we are preparing for a night of gambling. I am the focus. Me, Matthew, known as Levi the Tax Collector in the ancient stories. The light shines on me, and on the young scamp to my left, one of the artist's favourites, I hear. I wonder if he is bedding the boy? Could be, I wouldn't be surprised, but I can't say for sure.

Michelangelo Merisi, this artist from a little village called Caravaggio, stands across the room, gazing into his enormous canvas and working it, licking his brush before stabbing it again into his palette, and occasionally glancing out at us models posed around the table. His eyes are sharp, he bites his lip, he wears his thick, black hair longish in the front. Youthful style. A small window of this cellar is covered by a sheet of paper soaked in olive oil. I watched him early the first morning pour the oil over the sheet in a large pan. I could smell it. Expensive stuff. Enough oil for a family of six for a month.

The old guy sitting to my right complained on the second afternoon: 'Why not make a quick drawing and let us out of here, finish the painting in your studio?'

Merisi didn't even look up from his palette when he replied in a flat voice, 'I don't draw.'

He offered no more than that. Not, I cannot draw, but I don't draw. No explanation. No apology. Nothing. As if we were invisible. As if we were made of clay and he the Creator. What kind of artist is he then? I'm no expert but it seems to me an artist should at least have the skill to draw.

We sit here day after day as he vanishes into that other room in his huge canvas--it must be more than ten feet across--coming out once in a while to look at us as if ... as if we are statues. Models. Actors. Our lives disappearing, dissolving into thin air, vanishing into his great work. We are worth less than drying pigment.

'Stop moving,' he warns, when one of the boys adjusts his seat.

As long as he keeps paying me, I will sit here, but I don't have to like it.

[Continued in The Artist and the Assassin...]

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Let Go

Let Go

by (artist) Mark Huebner
tagged : literary, canadian
More Info

From Chapter 1

April 30/87

Dear Mike,

There's a rhythm inside things. Everything. Let's start with that.

I don't mean the rhythm to things, their seasons, as in that sad old Byrds song that you used to sing. Or the rhythm of things, like Dad launching a curling rock. That's not it either. I'm talking about the rhythm inside things.

Like inside my running, say, when my pace and breathing combine for a firm eighty-two beats per minute. That's always my target.

Or listen! Right now, all along the seams of my pup tent and across the perfect square of screen and dusk in my ceiling window, a vibration. Blackflies! Thousands of blackflies, or probably millions, humming with one purpose and one steady pulse. Their purpose, their crazed mission, is to get in here and taste my warm mammal blood. Their pulse is also, by chance, eighty-two beats per minute.

That is the rhythm inside a million blackflies.

I have another good reference point for eighty-two beats per minute-another song you used to sing. 'Ain't No Sunshine (When She's Gone)' by Bill Withers. Remember? You were really good at the break in the middle of the song-the part where old Bill loses his marbles and sings that he knows, he knows, he knows over and over. Just those two words, twenty-six times in total and then back around to the sad conclusion, made even sadder somehow when he reaches the end of his tirade and comes, once again, to the realization that the titular 'she' took the sunshine with her when she left.

You muted the guitar strings and kept your eyes closed through that whole business because this is the part that freed you inside. That's what you told me. That's why I made it the first song on VOYAGER 1.

Thing is Mike, hard as it is to believe, I'm older now than you were then, and I know there's more to it. Maybe you thought you'd lose the groove, the freedom. The way you lost Trudy. That sad repetition, that circular Bill Withers groove, laid-back and unrelenting. That's why you kept your eyes closed, is my theory. Because you have to feel it-it's not just naming the tempo. I know because I'm a bass player now. My eyes are closed most of the time.

But still, I have to write this. I have to find the words, to sort all this out. I have to open my eyes and look at it.

Shit, have I wrecked it?


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The Essential Elizabeth Brewster

In the Library

Believe me, I say to the gentleman with the pince-nez,
Framed forever with one hand in his pocket,
With passion, with intensity I say it-
Believe me, oh believe me, you are not I.
Making my chair squeak on the chilly floor,
Catching up my pencil, I say-
But of course I am myself
And all the while time flows, time flows, time flows;
The minutes ripple over the varnished tables.
This is June, I say, not yesterday or tomorrow.
This is I, not Byron or Vanessa. I am not in the moon.
I must differentiate my body from all other bodies,
Realizing the mole on my neck, the scar on my hand.
I must wind my watch, say it is ten o'clock.
But I know I am not convinced, feel uneasily the lie.
Because actually I am Byron, I am Vanessa,
I am the pictured man with the frigid smile.
I am the girl at the next table, raising vague eyes,
Flicking the ash from her cigarette, the thoughts from her mind.
The elastic moment stretches to infinity,
The elastic moment, the elastic point of space.
The blessed sun becomes the blessed moon.


So that I would not pick the blueflag
in the midst of the pond
(and get my clothes wet)
my mother told me that it was poison.

I watched this beautiful, frightening flower
growing up from the water
from its green reeds,
washed blue, sunveined,
and wanted it more
than all the flowers I was allowed to pick,
wild roses, pink and smooth as soap,
or the milk-thin daisies
with butterblob centres.

I noticed that the midges
that covered the surface of the water
were not poisoned by the blueflag,
but I thought they must have
a different kind of life from mine.

Even now, if I pick one,
fear comes over me, a trembling.
I half expect to be struck dead
by the flower's magic

a potency seeping
from its dangerous blue skin
its veined centre.

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Breaking Right

From 'The Etch A Sketch Shaman'

'This guy,' asked Jessamyn as she hovered an outstretched index finger a few inches from the picture hanging before her, 'does all this with old cassette tapes?' She was pointing at an all-too familiar pose of Tom Waits on a crème-coloured canvas. His outline was dark and shiny, like the straight-edged of an oil spill.

'He does,' replied Trevor. He stood directly beside Jessamyn, closely examining the next canvas in line; a reproduction of Frank Zappa from his younger years, backlit by its mint green canvas. Zappa was majestic in stature. Trevor, in his late twenties with a mop of thick shaggy hair and mustache, attempted to match the posture before slumping back down into his comfortable farm boy slouch. Jessamyn would say Trevor was more modeled after Vonnegut in stance and form, a hint that pushed both at humility and quiet self-confidence. 'He was working on a couple when I was over at his place a few weeks back. He was using old cassettes someone had traded him for a couple of old car speakers at the booth he runs at the Flea Market over Irvington way.' Trevor had described initially Edgar Moore as that one great hustler artist that every Midwestern city should and generally manages to develop. Trevor had known him in the way that small town friends often had, in a sort of life-out-time fashion that knew no beginning and no end.

Jessamyn wiggled her finger, posited a lighter look at the picture, then dropped a step back to take in the rest of the canvases that hung on the single wall of the makeshift gallery. There were about a good ten or eleven of all the same size. The art was fairly mundane in folk art nature, but there was something near magical in the way it struck her. Jessamyn was little taller than Trevor, a year younger, and carried the dark hair and tanned complexion of her Persian father. She had the fine angular features of her mother. 'He sounds like a flea market professional,' she opined, realized that she sounded like a judgy out-of-towner and quickly added in sympathy. 'The things we go to get by.'

'He is known to work in the flea market,' offered Trevor. 'But a little better known as artist. A shamanic artist, a real healer of sorts.'

Jessamyn paused to consider. 'Shamanic?' she repeated. She was a newcomer to Indianapolis. She had come to know Trevor in the last few months. She had got to talking to him at a Pacer's game during an event held by the pharmaceutical company she works for. A mere few weeks into her new job in the research lab position and Trevor had become her one other single and 'hip' friend actually from the city. He was a bonafide Hoosier and good company in the way very few other men or women at work had managed to be. She might have called this particular night a date, seeing as it was only her and Trevor. It could have seemed that way quite easily, except that the two had managed to be both awkward together and quite comfortable at the same time. There was an emotional and physical line that neither one had been willing to cross.

'Yeah,' said Trevor, 'like the Lenape kind we stole the state from. He used to be pretty famous about it.'

Jessamyn hummed a reply to this. This idea fascinated her. Back home, Indiana was often referred to as the backwoods kind of place down south full of farmers, conservatives, and religious zealots. Out of something that was undoubtedly not a coincidence, Toledo's local bible thumping television station ads would be majority from Indiana PO boxes. There was something evangelical about the land she had come to inhabit. A lot of her neighbours had seemingly bought into it, for good or bad. And the daughter of Muslim auto workers with an undergraduate degree in microbiology was left more curious and wanting about spirituality in America. Edgar Moore the shamanic healer artist was about as interesting as it got for Jessamyn.

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Urban Disturbances

From 'Birding with Dad'

The last time Paul went for a walk with his father, they'd descended from their fifth-floor apartment and trudged into the hydro field behind the building, pushing through the long grass until their pant legs were damp and covered in seeds. Before they reached the other side of the field, his father twisted his ankle in a gopher hole and had to lean on his son as they made their way home again. Paul had felt proud to feel his father's weight on his shoulder, but his father had been grumpy for the next week.

Paul liked it when his dad included him in his walks. It made him feel hopeful and mature, as if his father regarded him as a trusted partner rather than a nuisance or an agent of his mother. This evening, he let Paul run ahead of him along the path that led from their apartment building through the hydro field. The sun was starting to set. A man with a dog angled through the long grass ahead of them toward a barrier between the field and a dead-end road. The man loaded his dog into the back seat of a black car and drove away. Paul plunged ahead of his father into the thick grass, then returned to the path and waited for him to catch up. The damp grass soaked his canvas running shoes. Small green seeds stuck to his arms.

Black cables hung between the outstretched metal arms of the hydro towers like skipping ropes in a game played by skeletal giants. Standing near the base of one of the towers, Paul and his father gazed upward into the maze of metal beams and porcelain insulators until they spotted a birds' nest wedged into a corner. Paul's father took a slingshot from his pocket. He picked up a rock and fired it at the nest. He tried three times, but each time he missed the nest. He handed the slingshot to his son. 'You try,' he said.

Paul kicked at the dirt around his feet until he found a smooth pebble. He looked up at the nest, placed the pebble in the leather pouch of the slingshot, pulled back on the rubber bands and fired. The pebble struck the bottom of the nest. The nest dangled above the ground like a spectator's dislodged hat. Paul could see a cluster of chicks clinging to the ragged edges of the nest. They squeaked like rusty hinges as they blindly opened their beaks, waiting for food. 'Try again,' his father said. When Paul hit the nest a second time, one of the chicks spilled to the ground. Paul's father walked over to the stunned bundle of feathers. He looked down, raised his boot and stepped on the bird. 'Sometimes I'd like to do this to your mother,' he said, and then he made a guttural sound intended as laughter.

In the pause between his father's words and his chuckle, Paul caught a glimpse of his father's anger. It was no joke.

When they walked home, Paul's father said, 'Tell your mother that you want to sleep tonight in your own bed.' They walked farther. 'A boy your age shouldn't be sleeping with his mother,' his father said. When they got home, Paul's father lay down on the couch and turned on the TV. Paul walked down the hall to his mother's bedroom, knocked and waited for his mother to give him permission to enter.

His mother was leaning against a satin pillow propped against the headboard, blowing on her nails. There was a bottle of nail polish on the table beside the bed. She was wearing a pink slip that left the tops of her breasts exposed. Paul said, 'I should sleep in my own bed.'

'Who told you that?' his mother said.


His mother sighed. 'How many times do I have to tell you?' she said.

Paul had heard the same story from his mother many times. It all began, she told him again, with her wish to protect him from harm. 'The world can be a dangerous place,' she said.

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