Introductory Cantos of Songs of Aron:
An Émigré's Poetry Journal
The moon losing its shape
in the window of chalk sky as morning fog
floats the blue ridge of Vedder Mountain,
shoulders it out of hiding like a lover
darkening in a long night's dream.
In Crimea the mist brooded just offshore
then pulled further back
and my feet felt each thin sea-finger
drawing sand toward the deep,
my body staying behind
with the screams of crows and gulls,
and when I turned shoreward
to the hills, the sheep were white as stones,
and between the hills I could see tree
corridors where streams join and run to the sea.
Here on our Yarrow Central Road
the heart's clatter in the street's loose
gravel, and I stop counting our geese
to watch the long nuzzle of cows
moving as one, coming home to evening
from the common pasture to the passageway
of memory, each finding its yard, ours too,
each turning with a sway of head and neck,
the young herdsman embellishing
simple notes of a hymn, his stick
a baton, a heifer near the rear
moaning like a fog horn.
Yarrow, British Columbia, booby prize
of our wandering,
inheritor of fears and otherworldliness
salvaged from ancestral wreckage,
long-axes and unease its strongest
advocates, hope for this new world, watching
on platforms yet to be built
for trains that haven't arrived,
five-acre farmsteads on Central Road
our bequest for what is to come.
The glory of an amber sky peering down
between the clouds' milky white;
the nakedness of a valley at sunset.
A train's long whistle on the valley's
far side, adjustments of the oncoming
as it arrives, the burst of the moment, rupture
as the last car rushes away.
Gone. It's hard to describe—
this strange beauty of desolation.
There was a moment last night
that entered the stars' privacy,
burning them out as my ears buzzed
with nerves of air. Then a gauze-work
of light on dust in the window pane
and now my wife, my Helena, singing
as I grasp the stone to whet my knife blade's
appetite for a paper-thin edge,
a fly buzzing its passion for just this light,
the pencil sharp, pen beside the page.
Another fly, large, single-minded
as Doctor Epp as he cut away the last piece
of my smashed fingernail.
I hit the fly with the back of my
hand, watch it recover in the inkwell,
swim across, walk to my journal,
write its drunken entry across the page,
lift off up-tempo, then mostly quiet
on the window pane.
My wife says it was our neighbour
who stole four of our geese last week;
two others are laying eggs,
a third began yesterday.
Sometimes I feel at home because people
friendlier than me are also poor
but I wonder how the future will be
without poetry, without
the wonder of words dreaming within us,
urging us beyond pent-up lives
and minced words. "And washing
away virtue": two visiting preachers
warned me as though a mountain-high
monolith had been entrusted to them.
I have asked them not to return.
I understand why church members
call each other Brother and Sister—the saints'
way of taking sides and taking each other in.
Without brothers I would be lost.
But should I listen to preachers afraid to visit
with me? I understand why they dress
like one another, why their sermons long
for a righteousness farther from
their virtue and mine than Russia, why they wish
it here to sweep the unwanted away.
Lips narrowing to smiles emptied of teeth.
A mullah in the Crimean village
next to ours required his sheep and lambs
to fast for the entire month of Ramadan
water and a handful of food after dark.
The clarity of morning light.
Helena is baking bread, three crows
are harrying an eagle's wide turn above
the tree line, and I have stepped outside
to wait with our cow, to watch herdsman
and cows file by to the village pasture
and what's left of this departure, the crows
screaming as one.
If our neighbour filches our cow's milk
in our small lean-to shed after dark
as he did Penner's milk, our cow will surely
step into his pail or kick it on its side.
No thief can remain faceless forever like God.
I will count our geese again because
this neighbour, destitute as we, steals
at night like several local Russians my father
trained to complain quietly and work
horses in the field four rows at a time
with a hint of reins and Low German commands.
I too was taught, and I felt the horses
liked to hear me sing hymns and folksongs
or let Pushkin's poems yearn back
word for word in a wounded land,
poetry and hard labour in tandem.
To keep saplings in our greenhouses
from spindly and weak proportions, Father and I
shook their trunks hard to weather them.
He only broke his silence to break mine.
Father named me after himself,
his mustached face bristled with sweat,
keeping his straight rows company.
Had they been children
instead of black earth there would have been
an unbelievable restraint. Mother named
my sisters, others named our Crimean estate,
fields of hybrids and grafted plants,
experimental plots, greenhouses,
summer house and gardens,
sheepcote white-washed each spring,
chaise horses black as our shining gigs
and coaches, and the brown Belgians
looking to the barn-door light,
snorting their impatience, in the field
the metronomic, indolent sound
of harness and the silence of a dust devil
outrunning its spin, in the spring the ploughed
edge shining in the notch between their ears,
hawks gliding back and forth
off to the side above the slope as though
to watch what happens to the earth
when it is ploughed.
Pushkin gave Russian poetry a gift
that is now a fugitive in hiding like
so many of the poets—voice—
the spoken word, its intimacy and drama,
the lived-in poem, the idiosyncrasy
of the authentic.
Few roads here in Yarrow, and most of them
like our lives here deeply rutted
and commandeered by a mountain's sudden slope
of forest, or the dikes by the river and canal
or by the edge we call The Bush.
Trying to make a strange world real,
ending short of niceties. I walk
them all, speaking with the inaudible
until I feel I've walked for days and something
I can't name has been knocked out of me,
letting go what I was clenching in my fist.
The latest newcomers call their dirt
road Hallelujah Street,
the shortest in our village, an everyday
ungravelled welcome between hope
and the railway's high levee.
They are bound to the name as surely as our calf
is tied to our Mirabell plum tree.
When they arrived the land agent shook
everyone's hand as though settling here
was deserving, and left five dollars in it.
Emigrés just outside the grassy terraces
of a lake drained eight years ago,
each spring new cut banks
along the Vedder River, overhang
of soil at the top like a too large hairpiece,
bars of gravel and sand shifting with
estimates of what may have been,
walking home in deer trails through
cottonwoods, poplars, willows, quaking aspen,
alders, blackberry brambles.
The common pasture on the west side,
like our back yard pimpled with molehills
greying in the sun.
Emigrés. It is left to us to see this through,
the ignorance of so many around us, our laughter
at their words as bitter as their fears.
The Chilliwack newspaper writes that we
are not of a desirable class and according to
the Vancouver Sun, we place our young
with the pigs in the sty when we go to work
for the day. I imagine these oldtimers
slowly flopping down to bed on their sides
like an old sow whose better days have gone.
I dislike mindless people less
if I write about them.
We are a simple people, Low-German Dutch
and Mennonite, brooding regret along
the edges of our past, colonials in Russia,
familiar places appearing only to disappear
except in dreams or like stars at dawn.
Stars are a passion with me,
I know where to find them, and if not,
I leave finding to surprise
like the birth of the first star
or God's uncreated light pulled back
an inch or two at a time
and wider in a moment of hope.
unwilling exile in Ravenna and unwilling
to separate the passionate from the divine,
dreamt of how earth and sun and stars flew
into the void to their appointed place,
circling hell and paradise.
My passport bears the circles of hell's
large round stamp, the finality
of the past severed from itself like my brother's
leg, the pain still keening,
still letting go.
Home, a dark word
for the uprooted, as tremulous as all
this talk of forgetting. My son says he speaks
for the village, but what has been lost
finds us as the militia did, the leader's
beard beaded with venereal pustules,
men who wanted our women, who rode stolen
horses poorly, who took our animals
and useless rubles and finally the soil
drenched like the sawdust floor of a slaughterhouse,
shapes familiar still dear, the smell
not going away, the smell of fear, knife,
guts, of blood running to the door.
Madness serving notice: the house will be
picked clean forever, even if
the future screams itself hoarse, and we say,
"There. What we had belonged not to us"
but to entranced time.
At night the empty sound of knuckles cracking
a clarion silence is all that's needed to summon
armies and medals, uniforms
worn through by those who disappeared
and those who betrayed them,
labour camps, cities of exile,
deserters with shoulders bleeding from rifle
straps, friends who changed names
and forgot their parents, lights guttering
behind window shades of half-unroofed houses
that hide small illegal gardens
and a few chickens in the back
deaf to any sound but mutual warning,
rosewood clocks without hands, the numbers
belonging to anyone,
rivers of migrants crowding like ancestors,
thousands of orders at odds, people exchanging
fevered mistrust at the exit visa office,
another exchange on the station
platform beneath posters massive with people's
hopes in black and white,
scythe and rifle over the world's harvest
laying siege to the future, about to march
forward, demand its surrender.
Not even a river changes anything
as it muses through the Crimea's overripeness
where the village shivered into a trembling sky
in the current's mirror near our estate and in smaller
hummocked hamlets farther off
where Turkic women, mothers mostly,
their eyes doorless thresholds, wove
hopelessness with worry beads through
four-fingered woof, thumb urgent,
the children little more than scavenged clothes
that sleep with numb flies until
sundown in barns
much smaller than ours. No hearth smoke
in December to give away their latest position
to informants casual as fur coats
and half smiles like those of travellers
looking for people in a crowd.
No rehearsals for a train to Riga,
a ship heaving through chevrons of waves,
and we as well, a voyage so long
I feared it was the whiteness of oblivion
we sailed toward, and then our legs swaying
down the gangway to Pier 21
and through the hardly friendly vestibule
of the Immigration House in Halifax,
our tall son ahead as always, Sara,
our daughter, between us, carrying bags,
bodies still swaying on a train
reaching forward around bends for days
beyond what my thoughts could reach
to a valley sharply dividing earth and sky,
whatever lay outside of it
to be guessed at as we turned to our new work,
the clank of the hoe against buried stones,
the painful surprise in the wrists.
Another night spent in the collapsed house
of the past, crawling out from underneath
toward a strange light, a habit bad
as Russia's drunkenness or one of her
spasms of cruelty or my derelict clothes.
Stake this day to the universe
with my scarecrow self even if the deed
we signed for exile allows every one
of us to search for what's missing
and throw into the stream keys
we brought along. I have steeled myself as always,
and I must write more frugally, memory
not palpated by those who claim
forgetfulness as my duty, memory
stepping carefully over the glare of glass
fragments in shadows
bleeding from burned-out windows and doors,
reaching out a hand like a friend who knows
he doesn't have to tell me
how much the world has changed.
"The opening cantos to a journal-like poem
about a pioneer Mennonite settler in Yarrow."
© Leonard Neufeldt