Since my early twenties, I’ve attempted an annual poem around my birthday, usually starting to think of such around mid-February. One year it was “sex at thirty-three,” another year it was a poem about being in Edmonton, and this one, from the unpublished manuscript “ruins (a book of absences,” influenced by American poet Robert Creeley, was written as I sat on my thirty-first birthday in the back room of Gamma Ray Productions, a short-lived commercial art gallery that used to exist on Somerset Street West, mere days after the opening of my second annual show of paintings. If you want people to show up to your art opening, I quickly learned, have it on or very near your birthday. Sometimes you get cards, but either way, you have a pretty good party. One person even brought me a cake.
poem for a like occasion
(after a line by Robert Creeley
today, i have three
business cards in my wallet
belonging to dead people. the phone numbers
as of today, i have been
on this fraction of poor earth, mere miles away
from where i was born.
would that i, for a like occasion,
not make an issue of it, as issues
are made, & made,
nonetheless. there are usually clouds.
or, there are often. i wake up old,
& even older, unaware. bones
& organs ache, & every door,
unlocked. would that i be so,
would that i be so,
& all that. a reverie,
of what things really are.
What is it about the poem on the occasion? Once, Ottawa poet Blaine Marchand told a story about being invited to write a poem for a friend’s birthday, only to realize at the party that everyone who had been invited had been asked to write such a piece. In his “robbing mclennan” poem, jwcurry poked fun at me for writing poems on all the neighbourhood fires around us, in Ottawa’s Chinatown, arguing that not every event required a piece, and perhaps they don’t.
Originally these pieces came out of my annual longing to write a poem as a proper response to my yet-unknown birth mother and subsequent adoption at the age of ten months, after living for months in foster care. I’ve always appreciated writing as a road to understanding, troubleshooting my own set of problems or questions, working my way through to, hopefully, some kind of resolution. Whatever happened to her? Does she think of me at all? Where was I for those first long ten months? Were there subsequent children? How did I get to where I am now?
I struggled with this for years until I finally wrote “last leaves” in 1997, a poem edited out of my fourth poetry collection, The Richard Brautigan Ahhhhhhhhhhh (Talonbooks, 1999) by editor/publisher Karl Siegler, but subsequently appearing as the fifteenth issue of my long poem journal STANZAS in March 1998 (it had actually been accepted by the journal West Coast Line, but they had neglected to tell me; my STANZAS publication thwarted that, and I ended up sending them another selection of the same manuscript, for their spring/summer 1998 issue). Feeling as though I had finally excised something from my system, the annual longing became another kind of impulse, shifting into the birthday poem. This one, for example, was written in 2003, an extension of the “sex at thirty-one” series (I’ve written, so far, a “sex at 31” poem, “sex at thirty-three,” "sex at thirty-eight: letters to unfinished g." and another shorter “sex at thirty-eight”) and part of the unpublished poetry manuscript, “the news.”
sex at thirty-three
is mere a fragment, rotation
of a memory
scratch at songs in daytime,
& dance mix all night long
some days i remember little,
need a few bars hummed
that requires filling, a lack
in a perceptual itch
as the turntable spins, the lights
play evil tricks
a perfume scent, & shoelace
a day like any other, sure,
on the tongue
For all the occasions I’ve written poems on over the years, writing piece after piece throughout the nineties and into the early parts of the new century, I think the process has, predominantly, run its natural course through my writing, once composing pieces on neighbourhood fires, on my own travels west during a reading tour, Stephen Brockwell and I travelling through Ireland, poet Michael Dennis moving to Vanier, or Stephanie Bolster to Pointe-Claire, a suburb of Montreal. Despite all of that, my birthday poems are ones that I still feel the need to write. How is it I become my own occasion? Perhaps for the same reason I’ve been hosting my own birthday parties since the mid-1990s, moving it to the Carleton Tavern by the Parkdale Market in 2001, once I moved out of the shared house on Rochester Street and couldn’t fit more than three people at a time in my new living space, down the street. As slow as it sounds, it is about moving from the surface down, year by individual year, from the immediate into something far deeper.