Friday, 18 April 2014

Andalusian Poems by Erling Friis-Baastad

Welcome to Episode 2 of Poetry? I Just Don’t Get It. A series where I post a poem or group of poems by one author, followed by anything the author wants to say about the work. It’s my small attempt to bridge what I see as a huge gap between readers (who are not poets themselves) and great contemporary poetry. 

In this episode I am posting a suite of poems by Canadian poet Erling Friis-Baastad. 

Erling was born in Norway, raised in the US, and has spent most of his adult life in the Yukon Territory, Canada. I first encountered his work in the early 90’s, in a magazine published out of Montreal called Alpha Beat Soup. His poem, The Exile House, leapt right into me. Back then I had a small poetry press called BEgiNNer’s MIND, publishing poetry chapbooks and broadsides alongside art, so I immediately sent a letter to him through the magazine asking if I could publish The Exile House as a broadside (The Exile House ended up as the title of his first collection from Salmon Poetry in 2001). When he wrote back I discovered he lived in the Yukon. Wait…the Yukon? Like, up by the Arctic Circle? The Exile House is still one of my favorite poems. 

He is a poet of the far north, but this particular suite of poems is from Spain; specifically, Andalusia. It was written while he was in residence at Fundación Valparaíso in Mojácar, Spain.The distance and closeness he felt in writing in a region so different than the Yukon he addresses in the mini-essay that follows the poems. 

His most recent collection is Wood Spoken: New & Selected Poems (Harbour Publishing, 2005). 

The Andalusia poems were previously published in Errant. They will be part of a new collection entitled Fossil Light

Erling Friis-Baastad

for Giuliano Capecelatro


Do not rush
into a desert night
Shield your eyes
against these stars

Recall the North—
decades demanded
simply to hint
at spruce or ice

Move a hand slowly here
The wide-eyed lizard
beside your pen
has seen a ghost 


I have packed
the wrong books
into this desert—

of northern gods
who rage and sweat
in their dark fur

Here, a languid demon
only nods
toward the courtyard

and the smallest of ants
silently removes
a dying cricket

from the hot
white stone


As the shard
works its way
through stone
up into the sun
you will rise
from night’s matrix

Today, you will brush
centuries of earth
from a fragment
of thought, reveal
an ancient potter’s
perfect green and blue

Later, in the heat
you will obsess
over white,
then sleep
without closing your eyes


I would never thrive here
but I might survive
as a fragment, of course,
as a shard

something once fashioned
by a strong brown hand
then aged in sand,
sturdy and simple—

or as a scavenger
whose rare cry
might be heard at dusk
in deference, in homage, to all

something that small: the slave
of a slave, shadow of a shadow
who worships among cactus
trusts to thorns

and begins each night with please


Too much history here
I cannot sleep

Cold lightning
to the west
over the Sierra Nevada
startles the centuries
awake and back
into hunger—

Huge black horses
trample winter’s
garden again

dark matter
made flesh


by some fierce new god
striking the old mountains

exhumed by his storm
I sit up
after centuries

abraded but amazed
to feel
desert wind again

I have survived all
I was meant

to placate or reveal

And am now pure—
art and in anyone’s service

Fundación Valparaíso, Mojacar, Spain/Erling Friis-Baastad

Erling Friis-Baastad

I first stepped off the Alaska Highway, travel-worn but expectant, into the Yukon Territory in 1974. After years in cities like Toronto and New York and their suburbs, I felt propelled by heroes of the San Francisco Renaissance, poets like Lew Welch, Gary Snyder and Kenneth Rexroth, to explore a western wilderness.

I found myself, that first summer, in a tiny cabin on a lake. There, I imitated those California artists, imposing their interpretations of their coastal stomping grounds on my new boreal landscape. It took years of writing in and from the Yukon to produce a poem that actually sounded like it had been written among black spruce, not under an arbutus, and further years to develop upon that discovery. It also took a stay in Andalusian Spain.
Since before the time of Homer, poets have been created by landscapes every bit as often as they sought to portray and respond to them. And that’s fine, as far as it goes, but as a northern poet it is possible to get very stuck in one place and never get to draw parallels to, or explore differences with, other regions.

Time and again, we poets of the North, as infatuated by our boreal or Arctic identities as by our home, are called upon by editors to contribute work to special “northern issues” of magazines. We comply, being both understandably proud of where we live, and eager to be included among our northern neighbours. Some marvellous publications have resulted. But a steady diet of that editorial preference can lead to parochialism and severe artistic malnutrition. We become complacent, endlessly rework expected myths and legends and allow northern lights and moose to do the heavy lifting. Time spent elsewhere revitalizes one’s art, even if the quotidian home is as exotic as the Far North.

I was accepted as a fellow at Fundación Valparaíso in Andalusia more than seven years ago, and during my month on the southeastern coast of Spain I was given time to explore a new place, made more vivid for me by some surprising similarities to my Yukon home. I sensed a haunting, just beneath the obvious, but by new ghosts from other histories.
Both the desert and the boreal hills allowed the small and elemental to break through humanity’s current burst of desperate territorial chatter. As a result I discovered that the spare poem is best suited to translating rocks, bones, birds, shrubs, worked chert, and ceramic shards into art, while recalling the dreams and chaos played out by humanity among them.
I brought my new, pared-down poetry back from Spain to the Yukon. The handful of Andalusian poems may well be my favourite of all my work, in part because they return me to such an absorbing time and place among new friends, living and dead, and in part because of what those small songs taught me about individual words and the spaces between them. A desert landscape released the power concentrated in the smallest things: lizards, ants, feathers, thorns, photons...  

I recently completed a 200-poem manuscript of even leaner work, The Pencil Poems, mostly set in Yukon mountains and on the coast of British Columbia, poems of flower petals, spider webs, snow crystals, and drops of rain. The six poems of the Andalusia suite were the slightly more wordy progenitors of that collection.




A late





(from Pencil Poems)

Erling Friis-Baastad
Whitehorse, Yukon

Links to some of Erling’s poems

Erling's Books 

Saturday, 8 February 2014

A Short-Short: Blackout on St. John's Avenue

Here's a short-short fiction, part of an interlinked manuscript-in-progress of short fictions called How the World was Made.

It comes from a time living on St. John’s Avenue in Jacksonville, Florida. Massive thunderstorms would shut down the grid in my section of town every summer. There were candles in windows, rats on the phone wires, shadows in doorways.

Mystery & Melancholy of a Street/de Chirico
I was also reading a lot of Pablo Neruda and Cesar Vallejo. There were lines bouncing around in my head like:

Strike the old flints
to kindle ancient lamps, light up the whips
glued to your wounds throughout the centuries
and light the axes gleaming with your blood.

I come to speak for your dead mouths...

(from "The Heights of Macchu Picchu", Neruda)

And lines like:

From the Champs Elysées or as the strange
alley of the Moon makes a turn,
my death goes away, my cradle leaves,
and, surrounded by people, alone, cut loose,
my human resemblance turns around
and dispatches its shadows one by one...

(from "October, 1936", Vallejo)

Love song/de Chirico
Blackout On St. John’s Avenue

Black out all down the street. Children are ghosts, moving through trees, phone poles. An old woman crouches in the darkness in front of an old folk’s home, smoking. The burning tobacco is trying to become a saint.   
Someone is slipping through backyard fences, along the tops of low walls. A girl who was playing hide and seek when all the streetlights went down, forgotten by her friends, quietly follows. They enter the alley behind the old folk’s home and the smell of cafeteria food – soggy okra, boiled meat, stewed carrots – fills the girl with pain. School, tomorrow. But what if the electricity’s still down? What would she do with her life if she didn’t have to go back to school?
Down by the river, the one who has been wondering how to go about putting out the eyes of all the children in his neighborhood – to save their innocence – skips a stone across black water.  The Tao Te Ching is right, he thinks, was right all along: “Give up sainthood, renounce wisdom.”   

Soothsayer's Recompense/de Chirico
The girl watches the figure open the back kitchen door of the old folk’s home. This might be a way out, she thinks. It does not occur to her that she might be following in the footsteps of a murderer or rapist. She slips through the closing door.
A man plays a harmonica by the river wall. Bearded eels rise up to the surface of the water to listen. The musician is not afraid. He thinks he’s invisible.

The girl follows the figure down a long hall, into a lounge where old men and women sit staring out a large picture window. They could be dead but for the reflection of revolving yellow truck lights shining in their eyes. The figure leans down and kisses an old woman full on the mouth, as if to swallow her. This is not what the girl expected. She feels she is watching something secret, not hers. Is this what death looks like? She runs.
Emergency candles shine in windows up and down the street. No one really wants the lights to go back on. Not right this minute. They want to give the manatees time to become mermaids. 

Melancholy of a Beautiful Day/de Chirico
The girl runs until she’s out of breath.  She looks down into the slush garbage collecting against the concrete river wall. Is someone waiting at home? A mother, father, sister? She cannot remember. She puts her finger up into the sky, touches the sound of a rat scurrying along the phone wire. 

(Previously published in Quarterly West)