Poems by Philip Marley

 Philip Marley works as a writer and poet in Toronto, Ontario. He has sat on the editorial board for the literary journal Descant, written book reviews for Canada’s National Post, the magazines Quill & Quire  and Canadian Notes & Queries, and he briefly wrote a books column for the film magazine, Montage. His poetry has been shortlisted for the Arc Poetry Magazine’s “Poem of the Year;” Malahat’s “Far Horizon’s Award for Poetry;” and Contemporary Verse 2’s “Two Day Poetry Contest.” More recently, Philip was the recipient of a fellowship for the SLS Writer’s Program in Vilnius, Lithuania. Two of his poems and a brief interview can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/ld5l89f.


and be


An Ontology of Chairs

the image of the
child dancing on
a narrow chair,
stamped as the
seal of the universe.

wide chairs at
the tops of stairs
to protect us
from dreams-

when you licked
my face
because our chairs

that raised chair
for those
who have the Latin:

any fire you
set that
burns a chair
as a potential

the child
dances until
Tereus eats
at his ancestral chair.

though I tremble
with the thought
of being eaten, any
lone chair wrings out
my death.

all the hard
bones carved
into us; half-
blind from chair’s

too many
have been asked
to hold
a mind together.

as blue heron
on chair— still,
calm, heedful —
my thin legs,
my wings.

Thames Valley Eclogue
(after Bann Valley Eclogue)

“Since I write you I well know / What you will doubtless say / That every word
I write must go / The dusty change of vowel way.” — “The Poet”
in “The
Dance of Death in London, Ontario” by James Reaney

POET:      Thames Valley Muses, give us a song
worth remembering…
to sing —
a song that holds us captive in both
word and melody — words
that weather vain through windhat
and breathy — to call, nay hearken!
— the blessed sounding of the
green lion: songs for better times for
their generation, beyond our “barking,
meowing…and carolling.”

REANEY:      Dare ye call upon that
sacred sound that joins
bud to decay; that roars —
yes, roars!— through
loose time, and steals our hope
to thicken the blood of
the green lion?      Leave the lion be!
Red Hearts! Red Hearts for thicker
tongues! Red Hearts through the
Thames Valley!

CHAMBERS: My name is not lost on me.
The Holy Green, in essence,
sits at the right hand of the
right atrium — enchambered.
I take in poor blood in
to pool the philosopher’s
gold. Thy plaintive cry hath reached me
and your breathiness doth wind up the
traveller! And now the lion, restless,
moves past the cold river and through
the vines and roots, each step a pattern
woven, a chain to the rest, as spoken of
by the poet!

POET: But still I fear the lion (tyger? please) will devour
us whole, find us in the stones…— yes! devour us.
And yet, maybe the lion isn’t for renewal, perhaps
our blood not an emblem. Aphrodite, born of the
sea-spray, can take fire in love? Both of the earth
and sky? Why not here? I remember one Spring
morning, as a child, finding burdock with its spiny
orb, and naming it “pincushion” and then changing
it to “pinheart.” Later, I would learn the word “sinople,”
so that now I can weep for the red orb caught by its
own spiny, green lion.

Notes: Windhat is from James Reaney’s poem, “The Windyard.” 1962.

“barking, meowing…and carolling” from Reaney’s “The
Windyard.” 1962.

The Red Heart is James Reaney’s first collection from 1949.

Jack Chambers’ was an acclaimed Artist, who, along with James Reaney
and Ross, came from London, Ontario. Mr. Chambers composed
an intriguing memoir entitled, Red and Green: An Artist’s Inquiry
into the Nature of Meaning, and “decrypted” by Tom Smart, 2013.

“the poet” spoken of is Seamus Heaney.

You should know the tyger.

Wildfield’s Porch

The late afternoon light on the porch at the back
of your house as if we might enter sun
the more the windows and door darkened.

Not a soul wandered the house, even though
moments earlier you had left for the
kitchen. There were no sightings once that

Sliding door finally closed, that great stone
scraping along the channel. Took two of us,
sometimes, to roll it back. You would return,

Unseen, barely tapping at the glass, your
hands filled. “Lazarus, come forth!” I said.
Always said. You in front of me.

Now the porch is gone, (you fell through one day,
remember?); and since, you have fallen through
this earth hundreds of times, your dark hands

Brushing the body of things, bending
light toward the house and revealing
the ghosts, the dust inside.

[not titled]

With the rich missed
for the last time, and
our eyes wiped of
grief, the gazing up, over,
done, and our homes now
facing Babylon; — it seems
time to let out the pink rabbits;
sing for what’s unbidden;
sight the silent hoof in dim
moonlight; brush; ask
the time of every home in
Bedlam; fling back the trollies;
wave our handkerchiefs as
hammers; and come back
through the same eye of
the needle.

Jack Chambers Mows His Lawn

Probably seeing each blade
of grass, maybe thinking
the cutting more a threshing
and waiting for a fighting back.

Probably no static once the
assault begins, since the work
happens before and remains
devoted to the discipline of the

Probable line. Best to work the area
as a property, a green canvas even,
with an impasto. Not a thin, gold grain
in sight. No harvesting.

Probably nothing pioneering in the
suburban. No trees to fell.
Lots of weed metaphors, though.
And babies born….

Probably enough will to wait for
a sea of grass, varying depths,
maybe even the thought of
digging up that scythe.

Probably an erasure here, too;
then an understanding that
different directions, over & over,
create depth-of-field.

Probably a crack in his earth
when he catches the whole of him
self reflected in a window, then squints
to see his young sons beyond the glass,

Probably as the same boy at first,
then — with a quick change of light —
as two swift shoots breaking the
canvased ground beneath his feet.

Sent Oh!

to comforting
of an unnamed thing that seems more rare:
I left long ago, from all such occasions and
I can reach out and find a kindred heart expressing a depth of experience:
hope and love win over fear
heart floats but knees ache—
follow me if you want to escape.

My Dearest Dead, How Do You Pray For Me?

My dearest dead, how do you pray for me?

Why have you washed your delicious palms,

purged your tongues? I can see you licking

at God’s mantle when I sleep, you know,

ignoring your duty to me — slow-witted

non-dreamers, out-breath bombasts!

No more tricks with light. No more uncertain

steps for your eternal amusement. I have

absorbed your smell, that unearthly bloodstone,

turnsole bittered to skin. O Waste of Blood!

O Waste of Stone! And my knees hardened

weak in supplication. And my mad invocations,

the caught breath all-harrowed ground. No

recondite treatise on worship here: My devoted

body just cleaves light for my dead; splits, claps

flat to destitute, while you, dearest dead, size up

your haloes. Come to me! Come back to me and

lie with me, awake! Unhidden, feckless. Let me

kiss your darkened brow, burn manna for your tired

feet, take what you hold true, strip you of your

death and devour you. This will be your prayer.

Twined: a Villanelle

The tree swayed. A child reached through the wind
And grasped the branch above her head.
And from there, so much was heard beyond the din

Of the tree’s rushes and creaks brought out from within,
That she thought herself as one hanging dead.
The tree swayed. The child reached through the wind

To Song Sparrow seen only in flight trilled thin,
Stuttered through far bees’ droning dread —
Still, so much was heard beyond this din.

Through the fields to houses where she had just been,
Past the trap and bounce of children’s shouts of good stead,
A tree swayed. A child reached through the wind

From another high branch; he somehow apart, somehow akin.
Was this a distant pledge? An omen unwed?
So much they heard beyond the din.

Now, beneath the earth, with its roots and branches fast twinned,
A deep plaint sounds to open ground and overhead—
Till a tree sways; a child reaches through the wind
And from there, so much can be heard beyond the din.

Short Song of Praise for an Unused Ladder

Rungs near-worn
thin as slim dips
of “U’s”

though still held tight
to each rail.

The pawls strong,
clicking through

once resolute me —

Eaves cleaned
clear for new nests;
a squirrel’s narrow
civility channeled
by aqueduct.

Shingles laid one layer over the next…

And oh! what sights from such heights!

Now all distance
let out and
brought in

bare with a
halyard’s silent
play at

the horizon,

with me

The Fits of Shoe

shöoe     lazes

farnear the sink, weighting,

b4      flowndering

absinthe 2     the lackedoor,

wherelong, I lets

the god in, untilled, then thother

shöoe     dropsies

somever the floor,

tripping the blest of us with suddentary.

What Holds

His ring arrives from Tyne & Wear,
moored with a small, purple ribbon

in its box. We are left to study
his hands. Still stubs, churned & gnarled

from building and rebuilding. Strong, though.
Forged even then gifted him.

His wrists, though, show the illness’s end;
once dense, basaltic shoots from where

his ageless strength took root, now —
in my hands — seem all the stops &

starts of brittle snap. When was the time
we last held hands? Mine gone to his?

My whole body held to his earth?
The open fields of him…

My lit face cupped in hands above all things.
A child’s wishes slipped through his wildness.

Alone, I spread his fingers
and slide on the ring.

The engraving, faded, looks to be
of a swirled letter. But the ring won’t fit.

It just floats there, unanchored, on a
finger that only moments ago belonged

to this weighted hand. Later, I will lose
the ring while working in the back garden.

When it’s unearthed again, I will see
him by the shed worrying the ring

with his thumb and tracing its worn
letter with his thick finger.

The Art of Lynx
(split and spilt couplets for Emma, Declan, Benjamin, and Jude)

One bowl of milk below the step
        where lynx soon met.

Each best the next of each his own
        thought best alone;

But soon trapped cats beheld a sight
        that shattered might:

Another lynx that held a brush,
        wild flash then flush

That made a portrait of them both,
        no lynx to loathe.

And now both lynx a friend to each
        from art to teach

That fighting for a bowl of milk
        before its spilt

Will soon produce a work of art
        much full of heart.

So when you’re trapped before the bowl
        unlove your goal

To welcome in what greed has sealed
        and art revealed.

This Morning

Far from
sleep, my
lost hours —

but near —

each bird
bends back
its wings,

dives deep
through sloe-
black air,

and claims
first light
from me.

April 12, 1980

Look at his leg. Dipped shallow
in the cold sea. Right side up Achilles,
his wet heel still vulnerable. That camera
angle tight-away from any horizon,
zoomed in on not-leg and the near sea
greys. Dull as one step, no awkward stones.
(At least for one half of his body.) Footage.

Look at your eyes that day. Who didn’t
bourgeois worry that running shoe wet,
that dead foot phantom
aching our precious own? He could have
run out to sea for all we cared. Hell,
he could’ve run on the water even. And
was our best to catch the lightning moment
in the long gaze of his considering —
which direction is worth this?

Listen to the earliest gait. I want nothing
more than its feet here in these lines.
guh / de-dit / guh / de-dit
strong / weakstrong / strong / weakstrong
each metre…

And arms wearing
his chest.
no body
of time

Listen to any invocation. What mad
apostrophe could not apply?
Is “Sing, Heavenly Muse” too
much for who we are? Does
“O Rose thou art sick!” trip up
his step? We waited for the Fall
before our souls, unsilenced, level-spoke,
before alms strapped us
to each other.

Look at the balance shifted. Neither here
not there from that first day. From
pulled, taut, to the hollow instep
of emptied out: Kouros now, threading
the windless air through us all and
kicking at our sea legs.

Through the heavy stone
the deep river carves its path
In sun, the rose blooms.

Rivers Make Good Neighbours

The guy across the road moved into his house when I was just 10-years-old and doing back handsprings for the local Gymkips. I have a lot of respect for him; he’s seen some stuff and sometimes when I chat with him, and we relax into it enough, we can talk just about anything — onagers, the centre of the earth, alchemical singularities of the letter ‘o’, the 6th and 8th Heavens, regularity, earrings on men, cars, caverns, termitaria, his sick wife, scarabs, unavailable fruit — you name it, we cover it. He has sort of smoke-blood eyes and his teeth point in the opposite direction of whichever way his head moves, as though they can’t quite hang on with his every last dramatically spoken point. And does he have stories. Like the time in 1979 when he lived on his roof for two weeks trying to match up his dearest fears with the appropriate airborne bird. “A lot of these sparrows here carry my tiny self,” he tells me. Or when he cheated at Gin that one time and won this butterfly that stole his eyesight. (To win it back, he had to teach that beautiful Danaus plexippus Gin Rummy.) Or how his wife and he kept the love alive for an entire year by providing beds for the unfortunate dead. They also spent the same year in monk’s frocks. “The earth’s a shallow place,” he tells me one sunny day. “I’m learning that,” I say. “No, son, it’s shallow like in how deep the entire universe is. The whole thing. Very deep. Not wide at all. Just deep. You get me?” True enough. That day, the day he measured the earth against the universe, was the same day he traded in his hands for two winding rivers, each at the end of both his arms. Everyone that summer had a place to swim, and some of the country types, who loved to leave the city, had somewhere to fish. It was a good summer and he may just have saved our street, the whole city, really. Sometimes we’d sit on his front porch and watch the calm water. Sometimes he’d let kids throw stones for his new hands to catch. But — as funny as it sounds now — he didn’t think at all about the winter. “Why’d you go and do that for then?” I asked him the following Spring. “Well,” he said, “it seemed to me to be the only way to take away the urge to strangle God.” Then he shook off a chunk of melting ice and spoke of some of his regrets, like no more playing cards with the butterfly and never asking me, the good neighbours we were, to teach him how to execute a back handspring.

Scene From A Staircase

You are tucked
close to the spiral

the sparrow’s

in one hand tight,
balancing in the other
your painting

of the other


We are done

Osiris, perched
atop our staircase,

off and on              our landing’s light,

opens the small
and lets the sparrows

come and go.


Once laid out to good squaring for a garden,
perhaps, but now overgrown thick, covered
where a true measure might make a mark;

I find the hammer deep in the grass at
its corner, all dulled with mud, having not
reached its arc’s height for heft and strike for some

Twenty years. With the hammer’s claw I rake
and scratch, searching for the string’s end.
In hand, there’s a give at the ground, as much

As a take. And it’s twine so old — a tree’s
missing shoot, a hardened vein — this straight
scar on the earth.

Then with arm and string I follow
the staccato and glissando of the string
plucking and swooping up from the garden;

But quickly the rhythm stops near the blue spruce,
and brushing its branches, still wet from
earlier rain, I wonder in which direction

To extend this covered garden: it is so small.
Time has marked this place differently than
just with stakes and strings and hammers.

You, the Irish poet, demanding that I
make familiar this setting with portents
and stillness. I will not! Awake, I will

Push and pull at things until only sleep
take me each night; until all the string is
gathered and measured for elsewhere,
far beyond her tiny plot.

Still Collecting Giants

This many ovals of soap at the sink
need be stolen by a waiting giant
to clean his tiny second cousins,

once removed. Think of those coined bars
in his tree-trunk fingers; bars shooting off
and away to stick to the hands of his

clock, his giant wall-clock. Strange to think
about a giant’s time. Giant time!
Are there more hours? Or does he conquer

each minute in one giant second? Perhaps…
(perhaps he uses the long word from the fifteenth century,
“15thC” to us, “perhappons”).

No matter the calendar, it must be
the same sweeping sun, the same
uncertain moon, the stubborn stars.

His world, no doubt, misleads like mine:
he probably tempts his God, shoulders the
burden of symbols, will lose his teeth,

shatter, blaze. In the end, it’s language that
undoes us both — he can surround himself
with tiny relations, sure; but it’s the words,

the giant words that take our flesh.


I’m just a man who is tolled with bones:
each grave is generous.

Stones, plotted thick grass, dark elms,
my hand the cupped calyx.

My pressed lips on the tears of Priam;
the closed flower my kingdom.

I will cry for my body:
I have borrowed the Father’s name;

am listening for the cracking urn,
burnt seed in my mouth.

What do I pray? Do I bound and blaze
on this heavy earth?

My hands raw with digging,
the soil has its own.


(after John Thompson’s “Barn”)

Emptied of hay,
her stalls made one
by giant, perfect hammers;

the high mow soon open to sky,
(from mow to maw)
the owl holes unmade by
her razed posts and beams;

a clay floor will be last,
and soon we will be standing
on grass in the open wind:

to one side, a tree’s branches
search for a roof

and on the other, our garden,
from where, while harvesting

squash and cucumbers one clear, cool night,
we will see the moon for the first time

and dance.


That last night we tripped over the same foul stone at the exact same time. We were older— older with a little blazing left— and off we fell to the ends of the earth, almost gone, but for the belled night sky compassing us both. “We should talk,” you said, “before we smash our faces on this unforgiving ground.” I didn’t feel much like talking through surprise, though, since we had rarely felt it of late. In a way, I could see that this was the closest we had ever been. No one else was falling, the world was absent, and there we were with the opportunity to negotiate re-entry. That’s also a lonely thing. “This is the perfect exile,” one of us said. That was comforting. Exodus with destination takes the edge off. Almost a spiritual clarity — no, more a spiritual saturation…I’m not sure, but I am sure you did mention that that was what sacred meant. “It’s funny,” I said, “how we wait so long for enlightenment and it never comes. There’s a sum to all the reaches, but each day we subtract with prayer and memory.” Still, after all that, there is a weight to the reach. Maybe a counterweight. Maybe resilience. “Something or other to provoke Aidos and Nemesis,” you said. We laughed at that one. Right on the nose. Always on the nose. “So sweet a place this for love.” Then, blind now, we hit the ground running with such a determined gait. You one way me the other.


I want to say that the hand that holds the sun like the severed head it is can
only do so with great, gulping fingers. Cynicism is not an option.

I want to say that tact will not melt this winter’s snow, bring an early Spring,
and then mottle the first flowers.

I want to say that there can be no harmony if Red remains abandoned on that mountain, spinning Lord knows what threads to ward off another bitterly cold night.

I want to say that we should tip plinths instead of cows.

I want to say that anything that builds up in the chest can be immediately forgotten by cooking fish and then reconciling with the words we use to describe delicate eyes.

I want to say that the moon is no more a fossil than you or I and that we have both been tempted to gorge on stars. (A most effective way to cut one’s throat.)

I want to say: I dug up this decree with my bare hands, ignored the unearthed citadel next to it, and then —the good shepherd I am— returned the godhead to its firmament.


(for Paul)


A small shoe with its lace woven through eye-
lets: the folded tongue caught below.

It is Thursday. I feel the hard step against
my legs. You sense my knots, so name everything,

brother: upper, sole, heel, collar, eyelets, tongue.


supper old heal colour I-lets tung and
(what is this last?) I have freed my tired

fingers from their pinching grip and slip
to waggle away from the task at hand,

tracing a line of rhyme.


From our front porch the street below dims:
its sound and light drifting as I pull

the playful words back from your voice —
one is a hoop and now find the rabbit.

It is Friday. My feet in socks wet from rain.
The rest of me cloistered mad at the calmest

hour of the day…


There should be a third day here shouldn’t there,
brother. sun loop mind the rabbit until

the hoop becomes a hole, a lace becomes the hare:
and on the third day he poked through again.

Alas! the tree, we forgot to go round the tree!


But it happened. Shapes and sounds seized us,
corralled our looseness, and yes, tied it

to neat rhythms that have us so well
tethered. Still, you weren’t there that final night

I tied my shoes for the first time. No, you were
away scaring rabbits and bagging words

for my seeing everything as it isn’t.