Yikes! Poetry Too?
Although best known as a songwriter and lyricist, Tom is also a poet whose work has appeared in The Fiddlehead, Descant and several other poetry magazines. This page will feature some of his poems, old and new.
The green hill hulks above the town.
Exhausted clouds are hunkered down
among the cedars, silent, drear,
at the descending of the year.
Like building blocks set down in play,
clutches of buildings crowd the way
between the treeline and the shore:
hangars, houses, a church, a store,
all fragile-seeming, gaudy, thin.
The dark woods always pressing in,
such human handiwork appears
a line of flotsam by the piers.
(c)Tom Lips, August 30, 2019
“Democracy” seems like a grandiose name for this feline:
ill-favoured, half-feral, malnourished, and missing an eye.
Had he been my cat, I just hope I’d have cared for him better.
The neighbours refer to him lovingly, summon him loudly;
they say he’s their fur baby, boast of the brand of his food.
But he shows no interest in mice, and I’ve noticed him limping,
bedraggled, from under their porch, his hair matted and filthy,
a look of bewilderment blurring his lone eye like milk,
as if there is something he desperately needs to remember.
And then there’s the box. I suppose they consider it “treatment”
to lock him in there every couple of years for a day,
with some quantum gizmo that shoots out a gas, or else doesn’t,
while pundits predict and prevaricate over the outcome:
Which wave will collapse, and will this be the kill or the cure?
Nine lives and nine deaths tumble blindly like socks in a dryer.
So much seems to ride on the life or the death of this creature
that I have to think about anything other than cats
each time he is sealed in that chamber and mailed to the future.
I hum a thin tune against thinking, or try to envision
a happier, healthier, rat-catching feline’s return
to people who know how to feed him and keep him from freezing.
Update: they have opened the box and the cat is still breathing,
and I breathe a sigh of relief, though I’d say he looks frail.
“Not Fascism Yet” is the name I would stitch on his collar.
©Tom Lips, November 18, 2022
Yukon winter morning
The sun today is paper-white,
no trace of yellow in its light,
above the hills a hand’s-breadth high,
blinding against the eastern sky.
The moon’s white wafer, still and spare,
floats like a memory on the air,
imbibing the surrounding blue
as if the sky were staining through.
Snow on the shoulders of the spruce,
as yet by no wind shaken loose,
redoubles to the dazzled sight
the sun’s uncompromising light;
or, if in shade, foretells with gray
the swift declining of the day.
Tom Lips 25/11/2021
I have been reading Stephen Fry's The Ode Less Travelled, and taking up his challenge of writing poems in a variety of verse forms. The results are seldom profound, but can be strangely satisfying--largely because of the sense of having solved a technical conundrum. Here is my first exercise, in the verse form made famous by Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy:
To write in terza rima is my aim,
as Dante (in Italian) chose to do.
This first attempt is fatuous, but game,
and I’ll get better as the lines renew
(at least I hope I will–no guarantees).
I know that my competitors are few:
Young poets never dream that rhyme can please.
They all opine that metre’s had its day,
and prosody’s a lingering disease.
Yet still among the tercets I will play,
with rhyme-scheme ABA BCB D
et cetera, et cetera. Okay?
Go ye and write free verse, and let me be.
Tom Lips, April, 2021
Frail as a cobweb
Shakespeare and his cronies notwithstanding,
a poem is a frail boat to send
down the broad river of time; mostly you see it
capsizing in the first two hundred metres,
pounding itself to flotsam at the rapids.
One in a million makes it through the delta,
then, in the vast impartiality of ocean,
One in ten million bobs for a while
among the whitecaps within sight of shore,
noticed and remarked on by a few,
giving heart briefly, perhaps, to one or two.
So if your poetry, your slender volume
slides under the surface with no splash
and is remembered only by you
and maybe your mother or her ghost,
you have this in common
with most of the Sangha of poets
--and, eventually, with all.
Frail as a cobweb or a ziggurat, your poem
is only an inbreath and an outbreath;
at best a moment partly realized
before it moves from the is to the is not.
The dance you danced
at your cousin’s wedding
with that redhead you met
for the first and last time;
you had had a couple of drinks
and your body felt an unaccustomed glory,
and the eyes that met yours had a language,
and your feet for once did not stumble,
and afterward, that kiss in the darkened stairwell:
that was a poem,
and you never wrote it down,
could no more write it down than fly.
That moment also when your son
relied on you, and you failed him,
knowing too late no possible amends
could purchase back that trust
and make it whole:
that was as much a poem
as any of the Sonnets.
The poem on the page
is the second poem,
the less important one.
First, breathe in, breathe out,
witness the snowflake
on the raven’s wing,
feel the barb of the fishhook
as it enters your thumb.
Be alive to these things.
You will not live on in your verse.
January 11, 2021
the burden of snow on the branches
the sway of the spruce in the breeze
the rippling note of the raven
the silent communion of trees
the footprint of fox in the clearing
the squeak of the trail where I tread
all thoughts of the town disappearing
wild music within me instead
the rosehips like red, shrunken jewels
gray sky with illusions of blue
the sun looming low on the mountain
the world giving winter its due
though I may set words to my walking
there’s little a man can explain
I soon walk away from the keyboard
to walk in the forest again
©Tom Lips, November 21, 2020
One windy day and the yellow is stripped from the mountains:
Limbs that were radiant are skeletal tracings of grey.
Aspens and birches, and even the willows and alders
Squandered the gold of the season in one autumn gale.
Spruces and pines are again the commanders of colour;
Green once again has no rival in sun or in shade.
Even the ground is forgetting the brightness of branches:
Leaf-paven paths turning copper that once were of gold.
(c) Tom Lips, October 1, 2020
Yesterday I made my first poetry mini-workshop video with the Artist in the School program (www.artistintheschool.ca) and videographers Marty O’Brian and Naomi Mark (www.midnightlight.ca). This was a first for me, and I had a great time. The AIS program is developing a series of short videos for use online by students who are not in the classroom on account of COVID-19. The idea is to present arts activities that students can do at home with available materials, to supplement online and in-person instruction. The maximum length of the video is 20 minutes, and the maximum shooting time is one hour. My proposal focused on poetry. It took me a while to narrow the focus to something that could be completed in 20 minutes; I settled on introducing students to the use of similes in the writing of poems. This seems like a tiny subject, but once I started to unpack it and translate it into a couple of doable activities, I found it was hard to keep it under 20 minutes. Another key challenge was to transform what I think of as an interactive process into a video (in which, of course, I can only imagine how students are receiving what I present). I have a good feeling about how it went, and I am looking forward to seeing the finished product next month.
The culmination of the mini-workshop is to challenge the students to create a poem that will make extensive use of similes, “colour words,” “size words” and “feeling words,” using a simple prescribed pattern based on repetition with variation. The point is not to impose a rigid template, but to ensure that students have a starting place and a clear roadmap for completing the exercise successfully, regardless of their verbal sophistication. Colourful nonsense poems are the most likely result, but surprising things can happen if students can relax their self-critical minds and play with words and thoughts. Here is the sample poem that resulted for me:
In my dream I saw a tiny house like a happy green pancake.
In my dream I saw a yellow sadness like a huge, confused cat.
In my dream I saw a large brown truck like a lonely bear.
In my dream I saw a happy thought like a gigantic pink pudding.
In my dream I saw a raven like a big, black, grumpy question mark.
The sun comes up on Solstice day,
The bright commander of the sky!
He acts as if he means to stay,
O’er the horizon riding high.
For now we stand at summer’s height,
And all before us we can mark
The days of almost endless light,
The nights that barely kiss the dark.
The sun comes up on Solstice Day;
His golden light he gladly spills
Upon the river’s shining way,
Upon the forest and the hills.
And though my heart be slow to rise,
And though I’ve kept my curtains drawn,
I’ll heed the summons of the skies,
I’ll learn the lesson of the dawn.
I’ll praise the sun while he is here,
But never with a grasping soul,
Because the turning of the year
Is not a thing I can control.
I’ll celebrate the dance of light,
And when the endless summer ends
Into my home I’ll welcome night:
The moon and stars will be my friends.
By Tom Lips, ©June 2020
A Whitehorse Raven
If I could be any bird, I’d be
a Whitehorse raven,
blessed with the heft of a hen,
yet sleek when airborne
playful as a human child, or sometimes
a portent of prophecy
a black, dancing gracenote
in the spare-boned symphony of sky.
If I could be any bird, I’d be
a Whitehorse raven,
ruffling yet unruffled,
shrugging off cold so deep
it cracks the plastic parts of cars
battling other birds for
broken meats stuck to the sidewalk
cocking at passersby
an ancient, impertinent eye.
© Tom Lips, January 2020
I began writing something approximating verse when I was 11 years old, and I am still learning. Poetry, good or bad, arises from observation, experience, and the sheer love of playing with language.