Alexandra Oliver

The Promise We Made to the Earthquake

I'm going to turn my back on death, forsaking
Fatalistic nothingness. I'll make
A human heart from rogue tectonic plates,
A way to make the flocks of birds return.
I'll wait until the church has ceased to burn,
The arms to pull away from iron gates.
I'll do it all with love, for its own sake.
I swear I'll do it when my hands stop shaking.

I'm going to turn the world back by a day,
Raise the walls and conjure sheets of glass
From mournful piles of sand and broken streets.
I'll tell my neighbor what he means to me,
Give back his toaster, skis, and new TV.
I'll make the rude wind raise tarpaulin sheets
And let them part until the children pass
To parents resurrected from the clay.

I'm turning over fifty-two new leaves.
I'm going to speak with kindness to my wife
And leave my blonde receptionist alone.
I will not steal my brother's medications,
Fake illness at my in-laws' celebrations,
Or work my office intern to the bone.
I fell apart so I could make my life
A purer thing within a den of thieves.

I swear to you that, when the ground stops shaking,
I'll put this day behind me like a dream.
I'll step out with my ordinary hands,
Clear lumber and lay bricks for twenty years,
Re-irrigate the gardens with my tears,
Endeavour to be one who understands
How our own better nature can redeem
A country from the hell of earth's own making.

Chinese Food with Gavra, Aged Three

We choose a corner table, far away
from jars of chopsticks, tempting potted trees.
The wine list? No. The lunchtime special? Please.
You thrill to this diversion in your day,
the clack of plastic spoons, the smooth ballet
of plates and bowls passed out in Cantonese
and then, you're craning forward on your knees,
and rocking on your chair. Mum look! You say.

Our placemats swirl with dragons, dogs, and rats,
an explanation of the beasts within
each one of us, born under some mute star
of venom, talons, teeth. Please tell me that's
the other ones, my joyful mandarin,
You, crowing like the rooster that you are.

The Widows

Djenovici, Montenegro

We who regard the undertow
We swim in, when black clouds are creeping,
Have learned no fear; death lives in us,
Ripening wealth, like green vines sleeping.

Treading in the quiet dust,
Miracles fade-- our young are going.
We broach the sea to find our own:
A god in a boat of silver, rowing.

Template for a Conversation with a Single Friend

I'll call you back when Junior is in bed
(Addressed to Isa/Janet/Winifred).
My hands are full of turkey parts and string;
I know you want to talk about the thing
That happened at the staff retreat with Ted.

I have to see the kids are bathed and fed.
Of course I'd rather talk to you instead.
I'm sure he doesn't view it as a fling--
I'll call you back.

I'm sure he only means to clear his head.
You can't expect a man to go to bed
With someone from the office and then ring.
You have a lot to give. Stop hollering,
Stop saying that you wish that you were dead.
I'll call you back.

Voted Best Place to Live

The bend of the lake is deceptively perfect;
Its water shines silver in punishing sunlight
As seen from the pier, where the park was constructed.
Now, calm and unruffled, its threat is the greatest:
It promises shelter to all that it swallows.

See how the sun travels up, travels down,
Throws petals of gold in the hair of the parents,
Their hopes climbing high as they wait at the gates
That split themselves open at three on the dot,
Spilling the children in red tartan uniforms.

A town full of children is anyone's garden.
They tended me till I could take it no more.
I knew I would bloom when I looked at the lake,
The flatness of rubber, the odour of tar--
United, they whispered, it's fine under here.

I left a short note with my shoes at the railing.
No one had pegged me as that kind of person,
As I was in second year law at McMaster,
Liked to run marathons, played the piano,
And never gave anyone cause for alarm.

My mother and father grew prize-winning roses,
Copied by no-one; a beauty so terrible,
Rumored to rival the best in Ontario,
Quietly, quietly growing and dying
And always remembered in ribbons and silver.

But why is it nobody lives by the lake now,
(The reflective waters, the furious maples
That watch as the workers add height to the railing)?
And who in the end will betray and remove
The smell of the roses from under the mud?

The bend of the lake is deceptively perfect;
(See how the sun travels up, travels down).
A town full of children is anyone's garden.
I left a short note with my shoes at the railing.
My mother and father grew prize-winning roses,
But why is it no one now lives by the lake?

Doug Hill

I want the sun to swallow up Doug Hill,
Said the tenth grade student (through her tears).
He said he loved me, but he never will;
I can't go on like this for sixty years.

Said the tenth grade student, through her tears,
He said he needed time and he would call.
I can't go on like this for sixty years.
I can't go on. I can't go on at all.

He said he needed time and he would call.
He brushed the leaves from off his pants and rose.
I can't go on. I can't go on at all,
I thought, and reached in darkness for my clothes.

He brushed the leaves from off his pants and rose
The next day. Back at school, they looked at me,
I thought. I reached in darkness for my clothes,
Feeling bare and horrible and free.

The next day, back at school. They looked at me,
But all I saw was him, though he was gone,
Feeling bare and horrible and free.
I am the one the tigers fell upon.

And all I see is him, though he is gone.
I see him in the locker doors, the sky.
I am the one the tigers fell upon.
I want the bell to ring. I want to die.

I see him in the locker doors, the sky;
He said he loved me, but he never will.
I want the bell to ring. I want to die.
I want the sun to swallow up Doug Hill.

The Gulls

The gulls come down to oversee the lake;
Their wings splay out like halves of open books.
The beach is filling up and, by the looks
Of things, we've made a vague mistake.
There's little room for us to spread our towels
Among the penguin men, the girls with rooks'
Eyes all alert, the timid matron owls.

My smiling, pale son goes off to play.
A truck is parked beside the ice cream shack
And, from a falcon's wing, big knuckles crack
Against a woman's jaw. I hear him say,
You keep your smart mouth shut. I take the fries,
Try not to watch the bruised flight of her back.
The gulls beg off now, swallowed in soft cries.

Using the Public Binoculars at Sherbet Lake Discovery Centre

They're gentrifying Sherbet Lake.
They've built a Centre on the slopes
Near waters which stretch out for miles
And weakly beat the promenade.
Despite the modern glass façade
And cheery bleached ceramic tiles,
Despite the mayor's greatest hopes,
Perhaps it's been a faint mistake.

They're chipping into Sherbet Lake.
They'll carve a diamond from the rock
Of land that once belonged to farms
And scatter it with bright boutiques.
The Centre opens in four weeks;
A giant billboard shouts its charms--
A viewing deck, a spa. A dock,
A dry martini, charbroiled steak.

But, from the deck at Sherbet Lake
I see no bistros, no vitrines.
The big box stores squat blankly by
The sad and gusting freeway mouth.
The factories are headed south.
All best-laid plans have gone awry;
They leave behind the pregnant teens,
The poor, the unspecific ache.

I turn my back on Sherbet Lake,
The blinders of this perfect park;
I see the ills with my own eyes
For fifty cents. The silent mills
Discovered by the fading hills,
Ignored, diminishing in size.
Bring on the creeping autumn dark.
The lights:
                 what difference will they make?

Mrs. Miller Lays It Out to Her Daughter at the Audition, March 23, 1985

Know that your beauty is all that you have--
A luminous, numinous guide to the dark,
To a world where the windows are fogged with desire--
A flash of the dagger, an interesting spark.

Nothing can stop what is smooth or burns bright,
Unhindered by fat or by bone or by rash;
It soars like a satellite over the heads
Of the women in vans with the milk and the ash.

And what of the book and the life of the mind
And the hair that hangs loose by the cup and the lamp
And the scratch of a pen? That was made for the men.
And you, my young cygnet, are not of that camp.

The other girls wait with their freckles and hands
Full of flowers and notes. Their voices are real
But their friendship is not. They will use you for blood.
They will crumple you under their terrible wheel.

Hold on to your weapons, the spike and the tooth.
Go out there and slay them. The day will come soon
When you stand on the roof and it dawns on you there:
You are nothing, outshone by the unaging sun.

Over a Fabergé Owl

A bright-eyed but a humorless thing
Stands vigil, as the day grows dark,
Its plume its shield, with a shield's cold.
Its gaze avoids the view, the park.

Fussed over for its wild worth,
Described in estimates and wills,
It disregards all human ills,
While the inheritors of Earth

(Unmarbled, with no Tsarist sheens),
Outside, as roughened moonlight blanches,
Wait: keen wrath in the evergreens,
Claws in calm grip on those live branches.

The Toy Catalogue of the Afterlife

Plane that takes rejection to the moon;
Table soccer set that comes with cheers;
Drum that bangs the first-remembered tune;
Science kit that runs on bread and tears.

Whistle (when you blow it, falcons come);
Sword designed to rise from silver lakes;
Grand piano smaller than a thumb;
Baking set for pearl and diamond cakes.

Slinky made from lovers' DNA;
Magnet letters for the anguished tongue;
Robot spouting Crane and Mallarmé;
Superhero cape that keeps you young.

Kite that gets away in calmest weather;
Talking bear that tells you come back soon;
Lego blocks that put the soul together;
Plane that takes rejection to the moon.

Why Girls Need Poetry

In '92, I saw three giant paintings
Their subjects were the insects, born among
The many in the rubble of Chernobyl
One was like a small antennaed lung,

Another like a tiger-mottled shield,
A glossy thing, so vivid and so round
Whose battle duty, being legless, was
To bravely lie and wobble on the ground.

The third, pistachio and lacy pink
Had apparatus once designed for flight
But stopped in growth and welded like a stem
And why do I remember them tonight,

These creatures of the great soft, poisoned wind
That had its way with malleable genes
And left a blind and mouthless mass behind?
I read about the girls today, the teens

And younger, blinking in the blast
Of modern times, required to be sleeker,
More desired, needed by the rest
Mandibles stretched out to clamp the weaker,

Fingers rattling against their phones
Berating, pleading, sprouting acronyms
Mutated stumps of meaning, limbless lines
Emoticons. Regardless of their homes,

The parents who produced them, taught them sound
As conduit for feelings, plus the books
Flopped on their desks like dying birds on sand,
They feel the DNA of speech relax

And fall apart, rebuild to monster form;
Their hundred eyes and mile-reaching stings
Not saving them from knowing that a storm
A gentle dust, has robbed them of their wings.


Featured poet Alexandra Oliver was born in Vancouver and currently lives in Toronto. She has been nominated for a CBC Literary Award and the Pushcart Prize. Her poetry regularly appears in journals worldwide, and her first collection, Where the English Housewife Shines, was published in 2007, by Tin Press in London, England. She has performed her poems at Lollapalooza and The National Poetry Slam, and on CBC Radio One and National Public Radio, and was a featured performer and interviewee in the 1998 documentary, Slam Nation. Oliver holds and MA in Drama from the University of Toronto and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine. She is co-editing (with Annie Finch) an anthology of poetry in non-iambic meters. Her second collection is due out soon. Other earlier work in Mezzo Cammin: 2009.2


Nicole Caruso Garcia
Claudia Gary
Tracey Gratch
Kathryn Jacobs
Erin Jones
Jean Kreiling
Angela Alaimo O'Donnell
Alexandra Oliver (Featured Poet)
Liz Robbins
Doris Watts
Marly Youmans
Claire Zoghb

> A panel on The Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline has been accepted at this year's Southern Women Writers Conference.
Rhea Nowak: I am always intrigued by the relationships between clarity and chaos, rhythm and awkwardness, mark and intention, presence and absence.
32 Poems
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