Just returned from a weekend at Cypress Hills, a park in the southern region of the province.
Accompanied by my pal Laird, I attended a “stag party” for our mutual friend Tom. Ten guys in the semi-wilderness, celebrating the betrothal of one of their own. And a good time was had by all.
While I was there, I wrote three short pieces, inspired by the environment or conversations around the fire.
* * * *
The weather is strange these days
overcast with a chance of melancholy;
on the weekend, the sun never shines
and the grass smells of tears.
The Elements (An Introduction)
There is a tendency to
envy fire for its clear conscience
or over-praise the transparent,
placid gaze of water.
Yet no one spoils the
earth with lavish gifts
and we frequently embarrass
the air with our coughing.
Might as well fear the clouds
or prostrate yourself
before a 1000-year old
Jesus, put away your cross
Buddha, no thanks
I’m investing my faith
in some special place
worshipping where there
are no altars
July, 2017 (All Rights Reserved)
Because later this afternoon my youngest son and I will be driving in to the City (Saskatoon) in order to see Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” on the big screen. I’ve been a fan of the Tark’s for ages and to have the opportunity to view his work on something other than a 32″ television is a temptation too good to pass up.
A few announcements to get out of the way, some housekeeping to tend to:
This Saturday, June 17th, as part of the W.I.P. Dance Series at the Free Flow Dance Centre in Saskatoon (224 25th St. W.), Jackie Latendresse’s group will be performing several new works-in-progress, utilizing some of my ambient music. Doors open at 7:30 and the performances start at 8:00. Interested in modern, creative dance? Drop in for a look…and a listen. For more info, see here.
If you’d like to experience some of my odd, spacey music, check it out either here or on BandCamp.
Snapdragon: A Journal of Art and Healing recently published a poem of mine (now there’s a rare occurrence). You’ll find “Covenant” on page 67 of their latest issue, read it here.
* * * *
I don’t have a lot of friends.
My social network is pretty limited, the time I can devote to cultivating friendships—phone calls, writing letters and e-mails—almost nonexistent. What can I tell you? I’m a pretty driven fellow and creating things (novels, stories, paintings, short films, music) is the central, defining focus of my life.
Those few pals I do have are acquaintances of long standing, people who have proven they can put up with my temperament and endure my frequent and lengthy silences. If you’re looking for a high maintenance relationship, you’re scratching at the wrong door (my wife will confirm as much).
I got to know Gord Ames in the early 1990s.
I think we were still living in Iqaluit at the time and came back to Regina during the summer to visit family. I’d heard about the new bookstore on 13th Avenue and, of course, the bibliomaniac in me was dying to see it.
I wandered into Buzzword Books, casting a glance at the fellow behind the counter, who gave me a nod. No ebullient welcome, no attempt to strike up a conversation, no friendly banter.
Then I realized why.
The books said it all. The longer I spent in the store, the more I loved it. It wasn’t a big space but the selection was absolutely wondrous. No commercial crap or braindead best-sellers.
Real writers: Alexander Trocchi, Richard Ford, James Crumley, DeLillo, Pynchon, Harry Crews, etc. etc. etc.
Once I’d taken the store’s measure, I approached the counter with two or three books and raved at the bookseller on the quality of his stock. He offered some droll, funny response, and a friendship was born.
Sadly, the bookstore is no more and Gord and his wife Caroline have moved to the West Coast (might as well be Mars, sigh). But they’re still an important presence in my life, two unique spirits and true blue, dyed-in-the-wool characters.
It’s Gord’s birthday today and this morning I want to pay tribute to a man who is a friend, mentor and a valued confidante. The breadth of his knowledge, the sharpness of his wit, never cease surprising and astonishing me. His taste is exceptional, his editorial eye (and ear) peerless. He’s turned me on to so many brilliant authors, musicians, film-makers over the years, drawing my attention to obscure, forgotten talents I would have otherwise overlooked. How would I have managed without him?
That rare combination of intelligence, erudition and caustic, irreverent humor—you just don’t find that in too many people these days. My friend is a pearl of exceeding value and uniqueness; a one-off, a mutant, a genius.
Happy birthday to a man who is a daily reminder that the world is not as foolish, arbitrary and ugly as it seems. There are still men and women whose very existence serves to reassure us: though we may have descendants among lower order animals, we still possess minds and virtues that can defeat our humble origins…and carry us to the stars.
Gord Ames is my friend.
And for that, I will never, ever cease being grateful.
You’re one in a trillion.
“True friendship resists time, distance and silence.”
The morning after the Manchester bombing
an old grey tomcat sleeps under a white maple
in our backyard, oblivious to human affairs,
indifferent to the harm we inflict on one another.
I wish I had his equanimity, then I wouldn’t feel
so bewildered by a universe that seems to condone
random violence, so disappointed in a species that has
forgotten the simple joy of napping beneath a shady tree.
A few days ago I was sitting in my favourite pub in Saskatoon, having a pint of Guinness (and to hell with the Celiac nonsense), with a chaser of Tallisker, occasionally glancing outside at passersby—
—and then suddenly I was scrabbling for my notebook as the following came to me:
framed for a moment
like aquarium fish
I’ve been going through a notebook I’ve been keeping since 2010—kind of a “scratch” book, to horse around in. Poems, lyrics, essays and short stories, in very raw form.
Found the following two poems, which may or may not make it into my next compilation, slated for release Spring, 2018:
We emulate our gods
by turns jealous and paranoid
desirous of silver and gold
hiding our indifference
behind impassive masks
reluctantly doling out favours
callow, prone to deceit
* * * *
Nothing to do with rockets
miles off course
spiralling out of control
threatening civilian populations
programmed for self-destruction
to prevent serious harm
© 2017 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
“So tribe on tribe, pouring out of the ships and shelters,
marched across the Scamander plain and the earth shook,
tremendous thunder from under trampling men and horses
drawing into position down the Scamander meadow flats
breaking into flower—men by the thousands, numberless
as the leaves and spears that flower forth in spring.”
The Iliad (Translated by Robert Fagles)
It almost didn’t happen.
I mean, it was that close.
I’d checked into some bus tours to Troy before we left home. I knew there were day trips from Istanbul and they weren’t cheap. But we decided to wait to actually book the Troy excursion until we got to Turkey—I think we held out hope that our hosts would know the best and cheapest method of getting there. In retrospect, maybe not the wisest course of action.
As it turned out, neither of our Istanbul hosts had contacts in the travel industry, so with the help of Sherron’s cell phone (and a good wi-fi connection), I started searching for tour operators that included Troy in their itinerary. There were a few and, as I feared, they turned out to be quite pricey; indeed, too pricey for my tastes. I started pondering the possibility of leaving Turkey without seeing the plain of Scamander and the remnants of the Scaean Gate—I have to say, it didn’t sit well with me.
I read Peggy Albion-Meek’s The Great Adventurer, a young adult re-telling of the story of Odysseus, when I was nine years and was enraptured.
The prolonged siege of Troy figures prominently in the book, the wily King of Ithaca responsible for coming up with the scheme that finally breaks the stalemate. Other famous figures put in appearances and I soon developed a loathing for the haughty Agamemnon, while cheering as the god-like Achilles hacked his way through half the Trojan infantry, displaying a bloodlust that made even the mighty Hector quail before him.
Troy, needless to say, holds a special place in my heart. I’d put it right near the top of my “bucket list”. But it seemed like fate was intervening and unless I was willing to pay an arm and a leg, Troy might be out of reach.
Then, a sudden breakthrough.
A communication from one company confirmed a coach was available, quoted a fee that seemed reasonable…was I interested?
The mode of conveyance was a comfortable Mercedes mini-bus, extra spacious because there were only about six or seven other people accompanying us (most of them bound for the nearby the Gallipoli battlefield, not Troy). It was a lengthy drive, down the Anatolian coast, and at one point we had to ferry across the Dardanelles to get to Canakkale on the other side, where a different bus was waiting to take us the rest of the way to Troy.
And there it was. And there I was, standing amidst the weathered, crumbling remains of a place I’d dreamed about since childhood. Well…
A peak moment. Who would’ve believed it possible?
Because of the iffy political situation in Turkey (see: previous post), tourists were in short supply and, except for a German documentary film crew, we had the site all to ourselves.
Uran Savas is the most engaging, charming, knowledgeable guide I’ve ever encountered. Uran combines a winning personality with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of Troy and its physical environs—he knows every square foot of the place. Uran led me around the extensive ruins, which span thousands or years, each layer revealing insights into the lives or ordinary Trojans and their ruling elites. In all, there were at least ten separate cities built on this site, ten separate eras represented. Uran could point out sections of wall denoting each of these eras, his erudition and quick wit constantly in evidence. Despite the blazing heat, he set a leisurely pace, not hurrying, pausing to point out certain landmarks or patiently respond to my seemingly constant questions.
Sherron hung back, taking pictures, including one of my favourites, where I’m touching a portion of a wall that dates back to Homeric times. That’s a keeper.
As a bonus, Uran introduced me to a good friend, the man who happens to be in charge of the on-going digs at Troy, Dr. Rustem Arslan. He answered a couple of my stammered queries and posed for a picture with us, before hurrying away, back to his duties.
End of a perfect day. Oh, except for that interminable drive back to Istanbul. All and all, it amounted to a time-consuming, wearying interlude—let’s see, we were picked up around 5:30 a.m. and dropped off back in Istanbul shortly after 10:00 p.m. Wow. Time-consuming, indeed.
We left Istanbul the next day, after ten days so confident of our grasp of the city’s commendable public transportation system we travelled to Kemal Ataturk International Airport via cab, ferry, bus and monorail, arriving on time and hardly frazzled at all.
We flew out of Istanbul shortly before 5:00 that afternoon. I realize I’m skipping a lot in this account, due to space constraints (like dealing with the persistent, ingenious carpet salesmen or meeting the remarkable Emin Senyer, a preeminent performer of Karagoz shadow puppet theatre), but that’s unavoidable. We must push on to Prague.
Yes, Prague. By reputation, one of the most beautiful cities on the continent. Boasting every modern convenience while, simultaneously, possessing a lengthy, storied past, the region frequently playing a crucial role in 20th century European politics.
One thing we immediately noticed was that it was a lot cooler and drier than Greece and Turkey. Almost like back home.
Prague was the one city both Sherron and I had at the top of our lists when we were planning our proposed Grand Tour of Europe. We felt drawn there, for a variety of reasons. To me, it’s the home of Kafka, Hrabal, Meyrink and the Capek brothers. A veritable hub of surrealism and the macabre and ground zero as far as alchemy and the black arts are concerned.
For my dear, puppet-crazed wife, Prague’s status as one of the world’s hotbeds for hand-carved wooden marionettes, not to mention innovative theatre and film, made it an irresistible destination. And there was one other attraction:
We spent over a week at a small penzion a half-hour from Prague, where Sherron took part in a workshop led by Michaela Bartonova. Michaela has a long and impressive résumé as a puppeteer and master instructor. Her students come from around the world to work with her and learn from her methods. This year’s attendees included participants from Canada (us), Israel, Spain, Hungary. And they were all sweet, wonderful people; we bonded with them, had many great, raucous conversations after each day’s session was over.
While Sherron was off designing and carving her creation (from linden wood, the Czech Republic’s national tree), I kept myself busy by journaling, reading, writing poems and hanging out with Zsolt–whose wife Aggie was taking the workshop for the second year in a row–and their kids, Philip and Heidi. We had a ball together and the week seemed to zip past.
I think the only thing we didn’t manage while we were in Prague was catch a glimpse of Jan Svankmajer, the legendary Czech animator. It would have been delightful to spend an hour or two in his studio or watching him at work on his latest effort, an adaptation of a Karl Capek story that was financed through crowd-sourcing.
Visiting Kafka’s grave and the museum in his honor were high points, as was the hour or so we spent in the Communist Museum (more properly titled The Anti-Communist Museum). Trying my first shot of absinthe…guzzling Czech beer…seeing a genuine Toyen painting…
A stop of the Millennium Gallery (not far from the Kafka Museum), introduced me to the work of Jiri Sozansky. Ondrej, a fellow fan of the macabre, showed me a number of prints by Sozansky, briefing me about the artist, a man who deliberately inhabits the far fringes of Czech art; I couldn’t resist bringing one of his pieces home with me. Very disturbing, unnerving stuff; not for all tastes. Search him out, he’s amazing (you’ll find one of his short films here).
What I won’t miss are those wicked, uneven cobblestone streets. For a metropolis renowned for being “walking city”, Prague’s city fathers couldn’t have picked a worse road surface. After the first few days traipsing around, my lower back and hips were in rough shape. Stretching and anti-inflammatories helped, some.
That said, I’ll put up with the cobblestones, endure the natural surliness that seems to be part of the Czech national character, I’ll even forgive the less than thrilling cuisine—
But how do they tolerate the tourists?
Yes, the tourists. Out of the various spots we visited in Europe, they were at their worst in Prague (particularly in “Old Town”). Swarming and pointing and gawping and barking at each other in a dozen different languages and dialects–and you could tell what they were saying always amounted to little more than: “Lookit that, honey, ain’t it neat?” Snapping selfies at every opportunity, imbuing each and every street corner or jutting steeple with significance. I was seated at a small diner and watched as a tubby, rather bookish fellow a few tables away took a picture of himself with his plate of food.
Selfies at a wall dedicated to the memory of John Lennon. Selfies in Wenceslas Square. Selfies framed in front of one of the innumerable castles or cathedrals…
I hate tourists and tried very hard never to act like one. We usually shunned areas where there was a high concentration of idiot foreigners but sometimes they were unavoidable. Streaming down the winding, constricted sidestreets, moving in groups, often consulting handheld gadgets, heads swivelling back and forth, eagerly seeking out the next attraction or point of interest.
Prague, you old whore
coquette of Mitteleuropa
adorned in gothic finery
enduring the rough pleasure
of marauding hordes
secretly derisive of their
offering your best
most familiar features
while assuring each of them
you’ve never done this before.
Every so often, Sherron and I would consciously try to slow things down, take a moment, seat ourselves on a bench or at an outdoor café and just look around, absorb what we were seeing, the little details that we might revisit later, in recollection. Trying to retain the strongest possible impression of that locale, that instant in time.
Who knew if we’d be able to manage another trip of that magnitude? Was it likely, given our financial situation? And maybe that’s why for us it was never about rushing around, patronizing all the usual tourist traps, checking them off our list and then moving on. Never stopping to reflect, experiencing Europe on the fly, through the window of a car or bus, doing our level best not to interact too much with the locals…
Interact we did, chatting with folks from every walk of life, people who quite often weren’t shy about sharing their views with us, once they realized they had an attentive, appreciative audience. We tried to be open, receptive, patient…and were rewarded with some memorable encounters and exchanges. Mustafa, one of our guides on the bus to Troy, so passionate and knowledgeable about Middle Eastern history, comes to mind; and what about Anke and Dick, Alex and Suzanne, Michaela and Ralph and Uran and Zsolt and Aggie and Emin and Ali and Eva and so many others. They shared their stories with us, welcomed us into their lives and homes, offering fresh perspectives, opinions that often didn’t jibe with what we were hearing back home.
That is the greatest benefit of traveling to a distant land and no virtual environment, no documentary can come close to emulating the experience of physically being there, at Mycenae or Epidaurus or Troy…or even buying bottled water from a cheerful vendor not far from Galata Tower.
Feeling the ground beneath your feet, hot sun directly overhead, the welcome chill of the plastic bottle against your skin. Knowing this is real, an authentic moment.
Turning to each other, clasping hands, conscious of the adjacent funicular tracks. The vendor wants to know where we’re from.
“Canada?” He grins. “Very far. Welcome! Welcome!”
Bidding us good day and waving once we’re underway, another smiling face, another encounter to add to our scrapbook, situated alongside brochures, ticket stubs and a smooth, streaked pebble collected from the beach at Kiveri.
Mementos, when photographs no longer suffice.
The final two lines of my travel journal, composed upon our return to Canada:
“For a time, I was able to forget who I was, see the world through young and innocent eyes. What do you call that, except a blessing?”