“…clay I felt my father fumble”

I was just sorting some photographs taken a month ago, in Ottawa. There was a moment in late afternoon, in Forrest and Manon’s back garden, when I was sitting on their deck and looked over to see my sons holding their babies above them.

their babies.jpg

And looking at the photograph a few minutes ago, I heard so clearly a few lines from one of John’s poems, in which he meditates briefly on fatherhood in the larger context of house-building.

                       …the deck
I built in a blur but sit on

with a view — definite trees– an acreage
to be landscaped — orchard to complement
woodlot. I’ll work it for years. For my sons

I’ve apprehensions, don’t care
for legacy, paternal imposition, clay
I felt my father fumble handling me.

But I build, deep-bearing
in fluid bonds gone concrete
a southwest exposure.
I live in it for love…

                          —John Pass, “Days in the Dark of Building”, from Forecast: Selected Early Poems (1970-1990) (Harbour Publishing, 2015)

It’s always been one of my favourite poems, one I’ve heard at public readings many times but without the sense that one day it would mean something more. That the sons would hold their own children — a son, a daughter — aloft with their strong hands. Tomorrow is Fathers Day. The sons are far away, the father will be celebrated with barbequed steak and good red wine, and the concrete still supports the house we live in for love, after all these years.

fire-camp, and stars

Yesterday, after a walk along the trail we call Cedar Bridge, it seemed like a good idea to have an outdoor campfire (or “fire-camp”, as Francophone Manon calls it). John was delegated to make the fire and Forrest arranged chairs around it. I made hot chocolate, tucked a bottle of Carolans Irish Cream into the basket, along with gingerbreads and leftover Christmas cake. I found the marshmallow forks hung in the rafters of the workshop. It would Arthur’s first fire-camp.

The fire crozzled (a good Yorkshire word). Lots of smoke. No heat. The hot chocolate was lukewarm. The marshmallows burst into flame instead of toasting to a golden brown. Arthur was fussing and maybe the smoke stung his eyes.

But then it got dark. An owl hooted far away (though when we hooted back, it went quiet). The fire caught nicely and the last marshmallows on the fork were just the way I like them. The moon rose over Hallowell, smudgy in the fog. And the stars came out, one by one, in the western sky, visible between passing clouds and branches of high fir. I thought of an old poem of John’s, written for Arthur’s father Forrest during the summer we lived in a tent with a young baby and worked on the lumber and concrete footings that eventually became a house. Then a home.

When you sleep I look up

from the fire cleansed


of names, any further

attempt at description, all

but the absurdities of range I fathom


laughing a little, amazed

to see them.

— John Pass, from “The Stars”, publishing in Forecast: Selected Early Poems (1970-1990)