Russian Mennonites arrive at Rosthern, Saskatchewan

– July 21, 1923

One by one they step from train to earth
and feel the soil’s assent.
Plants blossom in the chest, expelling melody.

Like flung grain,
voices disperse across the land
and germinate a cappella.
In turned soil
the seeds intone a level harmony.
Wheat stalks in the wind are vocal cords.

From this new ground grow hymns that hint at peace,
white armies only of December blizzards.

Break the ground and bread will come.
Wake the grain, and choirs in the close cathedral of the mind will sing:
there is no king but work, no god but peace.

© Douglas Elves 2013, set to choral music by composer Paul Suchan (under the title ‘Wake the Grain’) with performances in North Battleford, Saskatoon, Regina, Pointe-Claire and the National Arts Centre, Ottawa. Listen to the Prairie Chamber Choir performance HERE .

Dweller by the Dark Stream

– for John Walter, Edmonton pioneer york boat builder, ferryman and mining, telegraph and lumber entrepreneur, whose wealth was wiped out in the 1915 flood. At 65, he was too old to start over.

I move about on this dark stream.
Every morning I unhook my vessel
for the day-long skimming,
constructing brief passages across it.
Those who take the passage
give me things to live by:
coins, creeds, and second thoughts.
At night I let the undercurrents
draw me limbs, lungs, and head below the surface.
There I come upon notions:
this will speed the passages next morning,
that will harness idle time.
I will find a use for whatever lies to hand.
I ignore the warnings of my swim,
though I dread the flood of more notions,
more things to do than can be laid hand to,
and my hand stayed.

© 1995 Douglas Elves; broadcast 2005 on CBC Alberta Anthology as part of a prize-winning suite of poems; and used in province-wide final examinations by Saskatchewan Learning, 2007.

Recruits in Physical Training outside the Prince of Wales Armoury, 1940

So hung with rain, this June green morning,
–water pleating the air–
that vapour rebounding veils the grass.

Such young dreams as drench the uniform
seep from the earth as much as weep from clouds.

Behind swift shins and marching feet
the mist of unremembered fathers eddies upward
as though breath still too young
or sweat too fresh to foul the air.

These many young men sprint and leap
through white cross clouded grass.
Their hearts heave grandfathers’ blood over fathers’ trenches.

And later sons of sons, men alone or many-gathered,
will come here in the rain,
water beating the ear,
their own lungs lunging to fill with cool, moist air.

© Douglas Elves, published in Legacy magazine, Alberta, 1998

I need to know you in my cloudless days

I need to know you in my cloudless days,
when knees in peasant solitude caress
the slow sun’s wheat, and lifted elbows graze
the brow where drops of blindness coalesce.

I need to know you in the blinding storm,
when pinwheel limbs for sullen wages work
the thieving windmill, and doubts of justice swarm
where labourers in cold-sweat legions lurk

and await their hour. I need to know you now,
as wrist and will begin to move as one
against profit’s piracy, and as the brow
beads clear thoughts of struggle and battles won.

I need to know that from my labour grow
such fruits of freedom as you may come to know.

© Douglas Elves 1985, set to music by Alan Gilliland, 1997, and performed by Pro Coro Choir, Edmonton. See and listen.

Song of the Accountant

I count amphorae;
I keep track of jugs of olive oil, honey, grain and wine;
of spears, chariots, greaves and helmets.

I have also counted cattle, horses
and the fields that nurture them.

I’ve even counted people;
slaves the heady essence of whose work is in the wine;
serfs who keep their breakfasts while I their suppers, and
wage labourers who sell their grain to buy it back as supper.

I count it all and turn it into gold.
I am the original alchemist,
essayed but never equalled.
As long as I match it somewhere with a Credit,
I can Debit anything I like.
From Revenue to Asset, Asset to Equity,
the livelihood of masses rolls across my palm;
and I count them, assign them to the ledgers,
post, adjust, balance, close and summarize.

Opportunity for graft? Fraud?
Perhaps, but what I covet most
I can never embezzle:
I yearn for the giving unaware,
the rhythmic integrity of labour.
Produce and gather;
produce, refine and gather;
produce, refine, adapt and gather
simply for the joy of doing what one cannot help but do.

And so I keep accounts
on hard clay tablets, on parchment and on floppy disks.
I measure this one’s work, that one’s enterprise;
and should the profit fall to an interloper wielding spear and laws,
so much the better.
To such a one I rank among the labourers giving unaware,
and share their dignity.

© Douglas Elves

Previously published in the journal “Other Voices” and in the McGraw-Hill textbook, Work and Leisure.

The Black Swans of Gorky Park

The black swans of Gorky Park seem still:
no ripples ring them.
Their feathers swallow sunlight,
letting fall no drop of green or blue reflection.
Their backs, piled high with folded wings,
are dark sails trimmed to billow:
were there motive, they would move.

Children sit nearby transfixed
or lie, chest to lawn and chin to palm,
vigilant for motion.
From the children’s narrow vantage the water is a mirror,
buoying swans on inverted clouds, upended trees
and compatriots hanging headlong from the other shore.

Parents watch, but from their standing vantage
they perceive the water’s depth:
to them the mystery of webbed feet
is only half obscured.

All are silent yet intent:
young ones prostrate with expectation;
old ones waiting, waiting;
and the black swans of Gorky Park floating,
their long, high necks curving into midnight question marks.

© Douglas Elves

This poem won the Edmonton Journal Literary Contest, Short Poem Category, of 1991

Discoverer of the New World at Age 41

The endless sea had drawn him to the beach before,
had more than once blown hold of him with clouds like fists
and pulled him and a keel’s-cradle of mates
below the far horizon.
Now rumours reached him of an end that starts again,
of an out-and-downward voyage that rounds upon itself
and turns escape to refuge. He called,
and men around him filled the ship.
They pushed, paddled, gained the bay, turned about
and there, bright sails unfurled with sun in tow,
the westbound ship set fire to the mists of fear.
The docks behind him sang with crowds invoking
fair winds and only highest hopes for whitecaps.
But the Discoverer could not wave or even look behind
to see them wait from their port in California.

© Douglas Elves

This version written 1991. An earlier version was published in 1970 in Evergreen and Gold, the University of Alberta student yearbook.

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