JAMES SWAFFORD - POEMS
PXO (PEDESTRIAN CROSSOVER)
If you want to cross the Esplanade
protected, you hope,
by X signs and flashing ambers,
the instructions advise you to
click the button and
“Look” and “Point.”
Point? At what?
Modestly, at yourself?
Yes, sorry, I’m the clicker.
Boldly, at the park?
That’s where I’m going.
Accusingly, at the approaching car?
I’m walking here!
Sorrowfully, at the ragged canopy of trees?
Ashes, doomed by the emerald borer.
Disgustedly, at the sparrows and pigeons?
Reverently, at the sky?
Blue, mostly, for the moment.
Amazedly, at the walked dogs?
So many, so many . . .
Vaguely, toward the obscured lake?
Under the train tracks, across Lakeshore, under the expressway, down there somewhere.
Gratefully, in acknowledgement that you stand on the traditional territory of many nations?
The Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa,
the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples . . .
Tentatively, into the future?
Tremblingly, toward what might lie beyond the veil?
A shame to point merely at
the white stripes on the street,
as if to say, “How handy.”
Signs and Wonders
Proceed with caution.
Trip hazard. Buckle up.
Read instructions carefully. Safety rules.
Keep right. Keep calm. Keep clean.
Mind the gap. Mind your head.
No smoking. No food or drink.
No shirt, no shoes, no service.
No texting. No talking. No stopping. No reversing.
No cameras. No sparks. No sharps. No jake brake.
No strollers. No flyers. No exceptions.
Be alert. Xing. Deer. Bear. Moose. Turtle.
Children. Elderly. Blind. Deaf. Ped.
Warning. Night danger.
Adders. Armadillos. Tsunamis. Golf. Coconuts.
Hot surface. Low beams. High voltage. Thin ice.
Open pit. Closed circuit. Strong currents. Weak bridge.
Quick sand. Slow school. Falling rocks. Rising bollards.
Yield. Give way. Stay back.
Do not enter.
Know before you go.
As a morbid child, I had a premonition
that I would die some day of lung disease,
inspired, I guess, by all my time in bed
with what Gramps called brownchitis. Now, as morbid
urban adult, I have the premonition
that I will die under the wheels of something.
I’ve never been close to psychic. I know odds are
I won’t end up run down on public pavements.
A list of my somatic defects shows
more likely threats to my longevity:
my heart skips beats, my gut should be replaced,
blood pressure, LDL, they both read iffy.
My body gives me nothing to brag about,
except for brain acuity (for now).
Yet at some level, maybe I prefer
that death from outside wreck this shabby temple
rather than the structure rot from inwards.
To give the premonition its due credit,
downtown Toronto’s full of wheeled dangers:
the twenty-four hour madness of expressways,
cars hustling late through ambers or right on reds,
wheelchairs with joysticks at hard forward,
bikes switching from vehicle to pedestrian
as whim or occasion suit, self-absorbed skateboards,
roller derbies way off track. My vision
of demise, in fact, came just today, mid-street,
with a skater flashing past before I knew.
(Thanks for the fright – and for the inspiration.)
And of course, the worst worst-case scenario,
the sudden shove across the yellow line
and off the subway platform.
Though I sound paranoid, I really don’t
fear every set of city wheels: the folks
on Segways, mostly, roll with some discretion,
and streetcars never scare me, I love streetcars
and like to believe the feeling’s mutual.
Oh, I just now thought: what if,
in my premonitory anxieties,
I’ve missed some Delphic ambiguity?
What if I’ve worried overliterally?
What if the wheels are not vehicular
but sections of the nested spheres of sky
(see Ptolemaic diagram), and death
by wheels is merely life ground down to dust
in crystal millstones of the remote First Cause.
Too antiquarian? Too esoteric?
Well, then, an oracle more suited to our times:
earthly eco-wheels of the Great Cycles –
water, carbon, nitrogen – disperse
my molecules into the rounds of seasons.
Okay by me. I feel much better now.
Either wheel will do, to do me in.
Not individually targeted
by cold machines or human carelessness,
I’d share the common mortal lot.
I’m not Saint Catherine nor was meant to be.
Yet in my chair, relaxed, assured that I
am no more victim than the average Jim,
I can’t help thinking: what about the wheels
I’m riding now, the busy circuits, charged
electrochemically, in the brain I count on?
Those wheels keep turning, even in my sleep.
They spin ideas, unspool dreams, click out
poetic rhythms, speed through time and space,
entangle playful work with solemn jokes.
Often they can’t gain traction, and they twirl
like fidget toys or wobble as if their lug
nuts have come loose. Sometimes they bind or jam
or toss out skeins of nonsense. Then – surprise! –
from secret depths they reel in strange treasures.
I’m spying in a mobile funhouse that
both seems and doesn’t seem a part of me.
It fascinates, exhilarates, exhausts.
I hope that my incessant inner wheels
are strong enough to outlast the rest of me,
that all their exercise will keep them fit
and lubricated; why, though, would they be
much different from a cartilaginous joint
wearing smooth, then down and out? After all,
more clever metaphors than this careen
out of control, get overplayed, and crash.
Too many wheels on mental wheels at double-
time, on overtime, turning against themselves.
If my brain is a computer, I don’t see
a slim, efficient laptop; my model,
left over from the 1950s, clatters
in – no, it is – a cluttered lab with reels
of frayed magnetic tape and discs that jerk
and judder and spit out strips of paper to
whitecoated analysts who never rest,
whose whiskers once belonged to Matthew Arnold,
who scratch their whirling heads and note
in spiral books, with wonder, scorn, and pity,
my mono-, dia-, multilogue of mind.
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