Uncivil Elegy 1: Glassed In

by Peter Norman

Peter Norman is the author of two poetry collections, At the Gates of the Theme Park (Mansfield Press, 2010) and Water Damage (Mansfield Press, 2013), with a third on the way in 2015 from Icehouse. His first novel, Emberton, was published in Spring 2014 by Douglas & McIntyre.

Each line of this poem borrows a word from the corresponding
line in Part 1 of Dennis Lee’s “Civil Elegies.”


Glassed in at the transit stop and brooding.
Phone gone dead or comatose. Fervid for the airborne
queries, plaints and hookup invites flung across
the city via towers jammed on roofs,
skeleton sentries on windswept parapets,
thrumming with the glut of words that clogs our hive.
Losing grasp on where I am. Canada, I guess.
Sky etched with universal clouds. Trees in view are stunted,
city-grown, but native to this native land,
or look at least familiar. Citizens of nowhere, of the air,
like I am. Of a great lake simmering with spectres,
with chatter I’m shut out from. The accusing icon
shows I’ve missed new calls, can’t inhabit the invisible
compounded lives I’m ravenous to live,
the wide candescent range of pixel, byte, and beam.
When my connection’s good again I’ll be serene.
Passionate intensities await attention yet
this gutted phone won’t let me access shit.
Dark apartments rise behind. The concrete plains,
lone and level, stretch some klicks away, a righteous
landing pad for all our latent furies.

Kitty corner, bodies twist reclining like a plaster Moore
I saw once during cheap night at the AGO. They’re in
a ground floor window blazoned Yoga and they glory
in their shine and suppleness. One doorway over, making
boldly out, a squeegee couple sprawls. Their bodies teem
with drab tattoos and Morse code scabs. Their space
is claimed with sleeping bags and plain raw presence
and on its concrete walls holds notches as if time
were marked there by an inmate, or the local gangs
gave up their tags and just scored lines. The crumpled
garments of the pair wear food and cum and blood
and guarding them a scooter, riderless, leans on its kickstand,
listing to their congress as if listening. And someone cried
aloud nearby, on cue, when I said listening. Be careful with a word.
Saying it gives it body, even if it’s galaxies from true.
It wasn’t true. A scooter cannot listen. And yet bullets
punctured windows in a bar nearby last night, the gunfire
sort of tearing ears into the walls. A camera bolted
to a pole, three miles north, to surveil our misdoings,
also gained spontaneous holes of late. So yeah, there’s ears in walls
and artificial perforated eyes raised up to watch Canadians.

Above me, wires,
the power-bearing, streetcar-tugging zigzag.
Pigeons too, in sweeping clouds, persist
despite the spikes up-thrust from building ledges.
Our hive is clogged not just with words but shit
in scattered splotches from the airborne hordes, but still
we do prefer our creatures live and shit. The dead
unshitting beaver wouldn’t symbolize our Canada.

This dying phone’s a major fucking drag.
I had a witty thing to tweet, but now the moment’s past,
the glow gone promptly sullen, as I guess
the tweet’s own aura would’ve, fleeting testament
from some dumb transit-stop-bound prophet;
sent, and liked or shared perhaps, then vanished as if flushed
in a john’s great yaw. What can you do.
Easy come, such easy go. Sandcastle versus tide. A penance
popes inflicted on the rootless: vanishment.
Forebears of course are vanished too, pure dust,
and what they did or spat did not make history,
not if they’re mine. I have no notion
who those fuckers might have been, back when, in these Americas
or other motherlands. They’re dissipated utterly. I never went
for digging roots. Why bother? All that shit’s a sad infliction,
pining to find out we’re here with purpose, not just accidentally.

The streetcar takes too long. Inside this glass I might
asphyxiate. Breathing is admitting air, and air
conveys the whoop and rankle of my friends’
and followers’ effusions. In my neighbourhood
the striving trees flank curveless concrete streets
and symmetry betrays the hand of planners.
But rebel weeds nose up through gaps in asphalt
and eke a crack life, sucking light and moisture, dried
to dead-worm brown come summer’s end. A lifetime
in a season in the city, admirably pure.
And in my friends’ and followers’ neighbourhoods
the same weeds lead cloned lives, pursuing emptiness,
a modicum of womb in the city’s brute skin,
in which to foster origins.
Tough grasses lodge at hydrants’ feet.
Windborne squibs stick roots in the expressways,
begin the sober task of growth.
They’re there, and therefore they belong.
Vagrant bodies claim a space
in which to nestle and indulge desires
that shape, define, disseminate more lives,
secrete the seed that is the end of root
until the shank of summer clubs them dead.
That simple arc is my inheritance.
But there are other weeds here in our midst
and seeds get zapped on winds and bridge the cities
and lives beam signals out to other lives
until a phone dies, leaves me exiled like my forebears.

No lit screen. No ring tone. Only the avatar of dread:
my face in harsh reflection on a lifeless pad of glass.
Some kid, I heard, knelt by a clean lake
and got stuck on the image there, believing that the black
dimension past the surface held the cherished
other, who of course was him. He died. A waste
of life, I guess. But people waste their lives;
it happens. Nothing worth being haunted by.
The wasted life extrudes no ghostly presence.
My ancestors do not emerge from smog
and moan about injustice. Their habitation
is the stifling earth. They’re humus now, not human.

No spectres, then. No matter—
something far more vibrant permeates
the air around me, heats up in the sun,
and I can’t access it: the brood of lives that probe and stroke
my life’s lacunae. Smart remarks and selfies.
Meme, emoticon. Euphoric boast, exalting dis.
My dearest countrymen, my friends and followers,
whose own phones live as mine declines,
they beat their fists against the shelter glass.
I may as well be dying here. I may as well be
dead as a darkened screen and sink into the lake
of ancestors, of non-existent spectres.
Queen Street is sweltering. The weeds are brown.
Outside the shelter, prodding phones, commuters queue.
The air congeals with words. The sun does not shine through.


Peter Norman is the author of two poetry collections, At the Gates of the Theme Park (Mansfield Press, 2010) and Water Damage (Mansfield Press, 2013), with a third on the way in 2015 from Icehouse. His first novel, Emberton, was published in Spring 2014 by Douglas & McIntyre.