TORONTO • The RYERSON PRESS
This is Chap-Book 182
OF THIS EDITION OF POEMS, BY MICHAEL COLLIE, TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY COPIES ONLY HAVE BEEN PRINTED.
Copyright, Canada, 1959, by The Ryerson Press, Toronto.
Some of these poems have previously
appeared in Canadian Poetry Magazine
and Queen’s Quarterly.
PRINTED AND BOUND IN CANADA
BY THE RYERSON PRESS, TORONTO
THERE is no poem for sceptics who desire
a rigid logic behind each event,
who dare not watch the castles in the air
without the vain empiricist’s consent.
So do not read these lines unless
you’re free to feel for instance the night air
irrationally calm, and to confess
the quaint serenity of one’s despair
when faced with such ambiguous delight.
If therefore from one’s window one can hear
the distant children singing through the night
though with no possible cause, why fear
that incongruity, that casual pain?
Children will match the blood’s instinctive dance
though questing intellect may strain
to stigmatise each pleasure as mere chance.
IF a season’s gloss on the lustreless lake
renders too harshly what the mind fears,
that what falcons draw, or hawks delineate
has only the meaning that the lakeshore bears
when leaves are rankled by a chafing wind,
then why should man fret that his thoughts rescind
the laboured passions of his nettled flesh,
since all he knows is a febrile lust
where an apt wind whittles at the water’s edge,
and the rocks are ground to a pedant’s dust? [page 3]
But suppose man rows to a distant shore
where the falcon builds and the sun destroys,
where the rocks hide nothing that has gone before,
and he need not grope, or grovel, or toil
for a clue to the meaning that an old world holds,
is it not enough that the day withholds
the shame of his civilized hypocrite life,
and the sun draws up with the warmth of wine
the scents of the forest, and the air is light
with the brittle tang of the seasoned pine?
Or suppose where the harsh sun fires his flesh
(where the bay had only his swimming for form)
should the mind retain—like the innocent pledge
that a woman keeps when the child has gone—
some single thought too ingrained to fade,
as that crumbled book which he did not trade
for bread or wine while a war was fought,
is it not enough that this strain of fact
has the charm of some old ceramic art,
and a strength that mechanic nature lacks?
Then there is no need for the incense jar
that pitches the head to a fragrant dream,
nor cause that the fevered hands explore
each lake-washed stone for an ancient creed.
For the nerves are fretted to such design
as no Word may mark, nor bowl confine.
And the man who stands on the shore alone
(as a bell may construct a countryside
though the church is locked, and the priests are gone)
so inscribes the scene with his own delight [page 4]
that when he returns, the varnished lake
is distinctly glazed with the ordered stroke
of thought. And the stencilled pines, and the great
unreflecting creek, where the boat turns home,
have stiffened and set to a man’s hard sight.
No rendering will mitigate this slight
pain—this finger groping out for fact
and stubbing blindly at enamelled clues,
yet throbbing sometimes where the glaze is cracked
and a broken line seems to yield of truth.
NOW when the brash jay
ordered those woods
no longer he prayed
god always to let
each moment be understood.
Now when he walked no
friend he desired
but merely took note
to himself of the hare
that was trapped and had died.
Now when a bright flower
caught at his mind
and gave peace, that hint
of some glimpse of the truth
to himself was confined.
And now in his woods
if strangers came
no longer he talked
or showed them his jay
for all talk was in vain. [page 5]
AT LAC DU BONNET
WOOD strawberries or aqualegia have
more subtlety than I can feel,
or should I pause than words of mine can tell.
And deep conjunctions of grey rock,
rose-tipped and blackcurrant, whose harsh
texture seems inscrutable, —these rocks I pass
knowing the language is too glib to catch
their truth. Mere granite is the working of my mind
that cannot name a rock’s ornate design,
or give account of sun-sealed days now done.
Bleached lakeshore roots and driftwood somehow show
more delicate sympathy than I yet know
for fact. My facts are grossly marked.
They have the imprint of crude glacial force,
stony austere and gaunt, without a trace
even of woodland flower marking their fertile depth.
A girl may wear wild roses in her hair
yet her tanned face delineates the vague
inconsequential beauty of the rock
as fashioned by the winter windspun lake,
or bleached lays bear mortality too late.
Or if behind that face I should perceive
wild stratagem, or delicate desire
somehow to live, to cradle thought, or bear
a more-than-natural distinctive strain
to truth, or think I read perverse delight
to be not call-girl to blind cultured lust, [page 6]
no words describe, nor pen can signify
what that asserts and fashions, how it tears
and rips, draws blood on nature’s face, and breaks
right through sophisticated poise, —
man wryly balanced to the earth’s trite law.
Were such the case, I should feel no more sure
perhaps, nor trust what I perceived,
than had these strawberries and columbine
woven some lakeshore fancy, and combined
tow minds within the fretted stiffening blood,
and the water’s play on the rocks and sand
had been all of that passion I could understand.
Nor have I tact to comprehend
the subtle marks of a soul’s quiet stir,
as even the lilies and vetch confer
mysterious limits to my probing mind,
confusing each granite day with their obscure
magic, and unnecessary lure
to make believe there’s meaning to be found,
where only indifferent birches bend
with a gentle grace to the earth’s end. [page 7]
SUPPOSE two minds should accidentally meet,
—as though one heard slow footsteps on a stair
in some high house, and waited there
merely to know who else might come
to search this town with quaint deliberate care:
suppose one heard the stiffly muttered words
while room by room was rummaged, as by death,
and listened to the toiling heavy breath—
then saw the man, like Durer’s father, hard,
with eyes that pierced: suppose that each confessed
no practical aim to kill or loot or lust,
but turned and through the garret window saw
the town, and where no meaning was before
saw truth: would not such minds find sense
which might transcend all mere conformity to law?
CONVENTIONAL SONNET ON A MATCHBOX
THIS matchbox is the measure of my mind,
and silently my thoughts like drifting swans
group round, and without protest are confined.
Each instant is this pain that’s undergone
when by some chance coherence is achieved,
when Hume and Breughel do not seem opposed,
when soul meets soul, and beauty is conceived
behind these faces, passive and composed.
So memory is measured, though that night
nine swans inconsequentially brought peace,
then turned and beat the surface into flight
breaking its lucid image piece by piece.
But now my children, or the cleaning man
will take this box—I’m back where I began. [page 8]
ALL morning I have wondered who the man
might be, who knew to work and fire and glaze
this local clay. Your face is porcelain white, and
hard, high-cheeked, and in a way
most like ceramic symbols in the east,
as I imagine their impassiveness. I am amazed,
however, holding this head, that I should feel
more than of delicately fragile craft,
and more than those features that are clearly real
impressions, moulded from life. Beneath this glaze,
eyes are too deeply fired for artist’s hands
and local knowledge, since his task
is not to catch the measure of the mind
but play his plastic pleasures on a mask.
REPRESS a river to conceive its roar
in Spring, yet sound has not its name,
nor has this ice the violence, flood the power,
to break the language, as before I came
they told me ice would move. All those Dakota Hills
produce is noise at nightfall like the linking trains
in shunting yards. One listens anyway until
some image comes to catch precisely faint
inflections—drag and catch of ice-floes as they move,
as by that river one may hope to tell
the neat distinction of his cautious love
with words well chosen, like a parable.
But I shall wait for violent ice next year;
what words can say I do not wish to hear. [page 9]
AT first the fir tree by my window side
was alien, stiff and dusty, with a green
matted dulness, in every way unlike
those English beeches with their clean
distinction, lining my youth.
And yet I learned its beauty, came to see
within its cone a delicate truth
of intersecting line, and with this free
regard searched out the world.
Even that face
which I first saw as stolid, hard and taut,
gaunt with the meanings that constrained the race
to type—even that face became a thought
of deeper grace, just as my fir tree had assumed
articulate gestures in this stranger’s room.
THE brake of owl at nightfall makes a breach
as lethal as the rasping failing cry
of falling mountain boy, or as the screech
of tyres at roadside, when an old man dies
uncommented. Its warning call breaks through
my doomsday peace, and forces me at dusk
stiffly to know that stench which once I knew
of woodland carnage, or of soldier’s lust.
But if across the river I should sight
its perch, erect and brazen to the sun,
or later watch its twilight downstream flight
to hunt, I would already have begun
to salve its wisdom to my finite tomb,
catching incongruous beauties from the gloom. [page 10]
AT daybreak I can hear its liquid song
yet should I put on clothes and go outside
despite my care the bird has always gone.
I read the books at breakfast which confide
the range of calls which local birds might make,
yet as I did not know her till she died
so now I cannot realize my mistake
in thinking I can hunt out beauty’s source,
and comprehend each day when I awake
why nature’s casual sounds should have such force.
Nor can I reconcile my being struck
by bird’s lost melody, or by remorse,
with dawntime clumsiness, or this absurd
ignorance of the silent flight of birds.
THIS lady is to me as laughing girls
in foreign streets whose language is obscure.
Whose voices are anonymous delight
sung to the pattern of a silent care.
At dawn I see her as she dusts her flowers,
iris from England, or deep peonies,
and perhaps in midsummer she will cut a bloom,
and carry it to a neighbour in a shallow basket.
Her veins are purple, ridging her skin
to something like a delicate transparency.
And should I pass, she speaks in metaphor
interpreting whatever I might say,
just as in youth her voice had melody,
when flowers were twisted in her stubborn hands. [page 11]
ST. BOLTOPH’S LANE
ST. BOLTOPH tolls my mind
and in its lane I pay my daily fee
and hear its bell, its resonant sound
and token of mortality.
The bell at sunrise calls me to my creed
and takes its toll of restlessness and doubt,
and yet I can only use that street
for the avoidance of the crowd
upon my daily trek to work.
And in addition when I see the church
and crocuses are flowering in the dirt
of all men’s lives, and roses search
the sunwashed sandstone for their life,
only old demons peer out from its porch
who scarred my childhood with their knife,
and blurred my vision with their ritual torch.
And yet I pause within the curving lane
to rummage out some paltry note
as change—bail out my mind again
avoiding both corrupt and the devout.
And through my day St. Botolph’s bell
sounds out my progress as I chart
a new existence and at evening tell
its antique meanings in my painful art. [page 12]
ON A PAINTING NOTICED BY CHANCE
AS photographers place an impersonal mask
over taut features, for example of men studied in a jail,
so one eye in that painting was rectangular, and deep
and black with a depth of heavy paint precisely laid,
and the other an inscrutable triangle freed
from its ligatures and blood, with the quality of still
water, unreflecting, immutable, in the quiet hills.
This painter’s artifice when he comes to his task
of constructing equivalents of life’s mystery, and the bland grief
of a Jewish girl, hollow-eyed, and arched in her wedding shawl,
is the power—when your look seems most open and frank—that I need.
I search as painters search your tense eyes. But all
I perceive, each movement and grace, has this quality of still
water, an unfathomable depth in the quiet hills.
THE PEMBINA HIGHWAY BY NIGHT
THE pulsing neon is the mountain stream
a lord diverted to his cobbled yard
with intricate mechanic skill, to learn
wisdom of movement, and to ease his heart
of seeing clearly his dispassionate life.
The highway is his avenue of elm, though here
not sunlight slants but potent primal light
pierces distracts and mitigates the fear
of seeing clearly a dispassionate town.
The rasping flash across each brittle sore
which warms the traveller to his frigid home
mock innocent blue, like lilac sprays, or the raw [page 13]
red reassuring anatomy of the street,
that each quaint man should see his pulsing soul
illuminate the flashy hour, and feel
not fragmentary, insignificant, but a whole
man—these fluorescent fancies are the art
dispassionate lords and ladies on a bridge
applauded, when they watched the trembling rocket’s arch
of light, and sacrificed decorum while they judged
some smart mechanic’s pyro-technic skill,
and slept in comfort since their ordered world
had fireworks but no vehemence at all.
Movement and light no mysteries unfold:
the highway is man’s brash courageous flare
to catch chromatic fancies in cold light,
create his own perspective, and to fear
no specious artifice behind delight.
IN TIME OF AERIAL WARFARE
RECOLLECTION is kindled by that high kite flying
and flinging its string tail to the summer wind.
Its stress and balance is of children spinning
and tossing fine dreams to the quiet sky.
Its cord through raw fingers is a tearing
and searing, as love that parts at the break of day,
in a land where tired eyes are forever craving
the thrill of a kite’s climb from the heart’s care.
There was once a time when a high kite flying
was the contact simply between hand and wind,
though the tense hand weakened, and the wind died, —
and a time when a careless child was winding
his turning world on an innocent string
where no man feared to scrutinize his sky. [page 14]
A CANDLE flame betrays the mind
to gentle pleasures; like being caught
fingering the fretted stone of an old archway,
or found stretching at the taut
springtime buds of a familiar elm,
innocently testing their resilience
and probing their hard buds with solemn
delight. A candle is perversely persistent.
It distracts and teases the mind
already on guard for facile sentiment,
as a bandaged soldier who fears he will be blind.
There is anyway in a candle flame
something incongruous. The brash glare
as the mountain water pulses the highway
and the neon interrogates and tears
open one’s conception of solitude,
or the splash and spray of the multi-coloured lights
in the city square, blazing a crude
attempt at public festivity, these make the slight
assertion of taper and wax
an inconsiderable charm, like the casual bright
friendliness of a stranger who makes one relax.
But to picture your figure in a quiet room
with book held aslant to the candle light
has too much of sentiment. For should one assume
some faint imponderable sign
of grace (and not the chimerical delight of childhood)
there seems at least an even chance
brash light will flood one’s vision, and the rude
incoherence of the town’s lights dance
their rough rhythms on that head and book, and the face
of the stranger be averted or askance,
and the soldier grope unguided to his finite grave. [page 15]
IT sometimes happens that one’s weight in gold
lacks purchase: when fleece coats come in well,
(since brilliance has no virtue in the cold,)
or flasks or rum. Perhaps the eskimo might tell,
with ponderous accent, just who should survive,
whether he carried coins, or books, or no.
Still, as one froze and died, one might contrive
some verbal alchemy which eskimo
art, in all its rich utility, ignored.
Better, that man should barter off his goods
exchanging food and oil, for ancient lore,
than ever fear his motives understood.
But do not try to fleece the arctic sun,
good friends, or square the polar bears with rum.
A FAMILIAR VOICE
THREE centuries’ sophisticated thought
has not provided language to record
the meaningful inflections of a voice;
and man’s perceptions cannot be contained
within the crusted syntax of a horde
who use their ancient idiom without choice;
nor can new words be coined to catch the soul
of each new moment and its random joy;
nor may an image testify the sense
of real events, for metaphor conceals
the essence and its images destroy
the understanding which mere reticence
preserves, as now. For now I know the whole
frustration of communicating all
one’s thought, without half measure and without [page 16]
restraint. I know the glibness of all speech.
For subtlety is deadened by the drawl
of modern thinkers who still claim that doubt
will teach: to disbelieve is right.
And yet a voice still lingers in my mind
that cancels rage, and lingers like the sound
of homing waggons in the autumn sun:
or like the owl that still calls through the night
haunting with meanings that are not designed
and yet accord completely with the truth:
or like unfashionable music that still finds
response despite the intellect and strikes
down through rich treasures that one’s age preserves:
still this voice lingers, like the call that winds
its distant melodies about my soul,
for in its casual utterance it can chart
more meaning than three hundred years of art.
I KNEW all beauty and had measured it
against the fine-spun complex of my soul.
I knew each insect’s markings, how they fit
its need, observed of nature’s art its whole
functional gaudiness—as tinsel lines
reveal the wealth and structure of the rock:
or superficial portraiture defines
the random pattern of an ancient stock.
My mind had hardened to mere visual right
relationship—each splendour was no more
than mere coincidence to form: delight,
like measurable fact, conformed to law—
and yet this river’s sullen, noiseless flow
asserts dim meanings that man cannot know. [page 17]
NOTES FOR A POEM OF MEANING
THE clockmaker Giovanni de’Dondi
knew more than Aristotle taught
at least on that one point, or thought he did.
His random guess was thought
for all quaint men who studied hot salt springs
and volcanoes, or who dabbled in alchemy.
In physics, Giovanni Battista Benedetti
had some notion of truth, and in a way
helped to redirect inquiry away from the accepted
norm. But he could not say
exactly why Leonardo was right
or what could be meant by weight and gravity.
But even his guesswork is a substantial
assertion, comparable to the harsh
hand hacked chiselling of the hard stone
and the stubborn clash
with a man’s mind, though certainly no proof exists
that man or stone entails identity.
Still there is something fine in that delicacy
which first balanced and geared
Chaucer’s may mornings in a wrought iron clock,
or in making clear
how stars may neatly be ordered and put to use,
or in weighing infinity.
And perhaps if these early scientists
had something of truth which now touches my soul,
perhaps that talk we had together in the high room
was not without meaning, the whole
world being ordered by the fragrance of pear-blossom,
and words toughened by uncertainty. [page 18]
THEY told me that the river when it cracked
would break my sleep, and grate and roar, and cut
to pieces all a winter’s dream.
The told me that the water when it rose
would break my peace, and when I fought the flood
all vague imagining would be destroyed,
since danger was the mind’s securest stay,
surviving no dream.
They told me that the ice was not my thought
that no-one crossed or recrossed at his will:
the owl I watched at nightfall was my foe,
and should it fly across the water still
that would not mean
more than I pondered while the old world changed,
and kept its snowflecked crossings to my dream.
They told me when the frost had left the soil
my peace would end,
since pungent odours would afflict the brain,
brash sounds would break my woods, startle the fields,
and finally the lift and strain
of axe and plough shatter my winter’s dream.
They told me that the river when it cracked
would force my speech,
or else, in silence, you should feel the wind
sift with a southern fragrance the dank woods,
or watch arriving all the summer’s birds
and catch the lilting softness of their song
out of my reach. [page 19]
WE give no credit to the flesh that stirs,
nor ponder on its feigned inconsequence.
Across the hearth steeled eyes detect the glance
as though that intimate stranger merely rose
to eat, or search some text, or dance
his formal acquiescence to our law.
But eyes had marked that strategy before
when blood rose to its antique rage:
we therefore watch him amble to the door
and feign indifference to his genteel lust.
We give no credit to the mind, nor trust
its unrelenting arrogance and wit.
By ember light impassively we watch
the elegant figure deftly cracking nuts
and, to annoy us, re-assembling shells,
just like an archaeologist, and then
brush to the fire his casual specimen.
His words make sense and manufacture joy.
And therefore, when he leaves, no looks condemn
the vain flamboyance of his self deceit.
We give no credit to the ember light
that seems to lend our apprehension depth.
The room is empty and we do not speak.
Between us only is a fragrant night
when once a child woke to be with the stars,
and while we slept was framed, and caught
within that windowed terror of a thought
that was himself. But here no tentative glance
betrays our mutual knowledge, for we sought
to probe beyond the comforts of mere chance. [page 20]
The Ryerson Poetry Chap-Books
1. THE SWEET O’ THE YEAR˚ 
Sir Charles G. D. Roberts
33. LATER POEMS AND NEW VILLANELLES
S. Frances Harrison
52. THE NAIAD AND FIVE OTHER POEMS˚
70. THE THOUSAND ISLANDS
Agnes Maule Machar
82. THE MUSIC OF EARTH˚
83. LYRICS AND SONNETS
Arthur S. Bourinot
100. SALT MARSH
115. VOYAGEUR AND OTHER POEMS
R. E. Rashley
116. POEMS: 1939-1944
124. THE SEA IS OUR DOORWAY
126. AS THE RIVER RUNS
127. SONGS FROM THEN AND NOW
132. NOT WITHOUT BEAUTY
John A. B. McLeish
133. NEW YORK NOCTURNES
135. SCRUB OAK
139. TANAGER FEATHER
141. THREE MERIDIANS
142. THE FLUTE AND OTHER POEMS
143. CALL MY PEOPLE HOME
145. EAST COAST
146. CITY HALL STREET
147. THE SEARCHING IMAGE
151. PORTRAIT AND OTHER POEMS
R. E. Rashley
*Out of Print
152. ON FRIENDSHIP
William Sherwood Fox
155. TOM THOMSON AND OTHER POEMS
Arthur S. Bourinot
156. QUEENS AND OTHERS
I. Sutherland Groom
157. PRESSED ON SAND
Alfred W. Purdy
158. COMPASS READINGS AND OTHERS
160. THE WHITE MONUMENT
A. Robert Rogers
162. REMEMBER TOGETHER
Myrtle Reynolds Adams
163. CENTAURS OF THE WIND
Marion Kathleen Henry
164. THE HALOED TREE
165. ORPHAN AND OTHER POEMS
Freda Newton Bunner
167. BIRCH LIGHT
168. THE TESTAMENT OF CRESSEID
169. THE ARROW-MAKER’S DAUGHTER
Hermia Harris Fraser
170. RECENT POEMS
171. MYTH AND MONUMENT
Theresa E. and Don W. Thomson
172. THROUGH THE GLASS, DARKLY
173. OF DIVERSE THINGS
Mary Elizabeth Bayer
174. ROADS AND OTHER POEMS
176. SAMSON IN HADES
Ella Julia Reynolds
177. MORNING ON MY STREET
Myrtle Reynolds Adams
179. SOMETHING OF A YOUNG WORLD’S DYING
180. AND SEE PENELOPE PLAIN
181. FACES OF LOVE
Mary Elizabeth Bayer
M. J. Collie
183. IN HER MIND CARRYING
Verna Loveday Harden
184. THE HEART IS FIRE