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Poetic Justice


It’s never too late to make things right


A few days before the new year it struck me. It was while I was reading a scruffy paperback copy of Canadian Poetry (volume one) that had been banging around since high school. (I only read it because I felt a pang of guilt for jamming the book beneath a closet door to keep it from swinging open—debunking, in the process, the myth that poetry is without practical application.) In The Fertile Muck, Irving Layton (longtime Leonard Cohen chum) writes:


There are brightest apples on those trees

but until I, fabulist, have spoken

they do not know their significance

or what other legends are hung like garlands 

on their black boughs twisting 

like a rumour. The wind’s noise is empty. 

The wind’s noise is empty. I splayed the book face down on the table and savoured the line again. No-one knows wind noise like a motorcyclist. And then the sun, which has been off somewhere else most of this winter, broke cloud cover and lit the kitchen ablaze. A shaft of light bounced off the stainless stove and backlit a half-empty bottle of eight dollar wine. The wine appeared just as it tasted, like fuel stabilizer. Fuel stabilizer. How could I have forgotten?


I love ritual. The morning espresso; the fall dredging of leaves from eavestroughs; the spring trip down the laneway with rubber gloves and garbage bag to corral a winter’s worth of pop cans and cigarette butts and grocery-store flyers. But this year I neglected my favourite ritual: preparing the Ducati for its foul-season slumber. 


In the garage I moved the air compressor and my daughter’s bicycle and a stool and a hydraulic jack and a Russian-made toboggan and a few too many empty bottles of eight dollar wine to reach the Ducati. I squeezed between the bike and the cinderblock wall on my hands and knees and unhooked the cover that had snagged on the tail section. While backing out the foot peg gently lifted (first) my jacket (and then) my shirt and (finally) carved a deep groove in my lower back. 


A rag from the workbench tucked into the waistband of my jeans stopped blood from draining into my underwear. I decanted fuel stabilizer into a graduated cylinder then poured it into the fuel tank. When I turned the ignition switch on, the Ducati’s fuel pump let out an oscillating warble like a teenage voice straddling adolescence and adulthood. The engine started but died, and let out a long, sad, asthmatic wheeze. I jabbed the starter again. Success. 


Snow lined the road and two kids with ice skates draped about their shoulders froze on the sidewalk and pointed at me when I left the laneway to ride to the gas station. My first exhalation fogged the visor and I rode with an elevated shield in below-freezing temperatures, streaming tears down my cheeks. The five minute jaunt would ensure that stabilizer worked its way throughout the fuel injection system, and at the station I’d top up to prevent fuel tank corrosion from condensation.


Despite wearing my Swedish skiing gloves, my fingers lost feeling and I had to rub hands together and huff moist breath on them to regain dexterity before I could squeeze the pump’s nozzle. (The man filling up opposite shot me an odd look. Why, he likely wondered, is he riding a motorcycle is this weather? And why is he crying?) Back home I slid the bike back into its spot and repacked the fertile muck of bicycles and compressors to its flanks.


Never underestimate the usefulness—or the limitation—of a poet’s words. That the poet (the “fabulist”) enables the dim-witted apple the opportunity to shine in a book of poetry is incontestable. But “the wind’s noise is empty” is as problematic as it is clear-eyed. How can something “empty” have caused my fingers to throb in numb misery and made the typing of these words so difficult? Perhaps it’s that elevating the spirit doesn’t necessarily walk in lockstep with an ability to thaw the ice. 

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