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Poems from The Cottage Builder's Letter by George Murray. Copyright © 2001. Used by permission, McClelland & Stewart, Ltd. The Canadian Publishers.

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Excerpts from Great Literatures of the Past

I suddenly can't remember the text—
did Mary hold Jesus to her breast
to feed? was she bare to the waist in public?

and was Felicité the name of the maid
in Madame Bovary, the one who stole sugar
from the sideboard and ate it alone in her bed

and what was the deal with Chiron, that bit about
the poison arrow striking his centaur hide
and sending him into a flight of constellation

O Sagittarius! O Nostradamus! O Census!
Where are my predictions?
I was promised a few things in the seventies

and have yet to receive them—
I can only remember what I myself have written
like a youngster with his first publication,

flipping past all the good pieces to his own.
Was it the Germans who were the bad guys?
the Koreans? the Iraqis? the Canadians?

Did Abraham actually kill his own son
or did he, Isaac, and Ishmael
go on to build the Kaaba at Mecca?

This I know: that little poor girl, Oliver Twist,
she just wanted a wee bit more food—
and the man who wrote her suffering and denial

now hangs upside down with the Devil,
turning as though he were a goose on a spit.

The Third Ewe on the Left Behind the Nativity

When one of her sisters nosed up to the manger,
she did as well, hoping for a meal of grain, spring grass,
a lick of salt, or even, considering the season,

the placenta of a lamb being shared by
its mother: nothing more than something to eat,
where nothing other than food had been before —

but when she broke the woolly wall of those
next to whom she slept, she was disappointed,
exhaling her hot breath on an inedible human child.

Back in the fall, when the days first became colder,
sheep started disappearing, one every third morning—
the innkeeper or his wife arriving with a long knife

and sleep in their eyes, working black fingers
into hocks, under ribs, making a fist of wool behind
the fattest ewe's ears and dragging her off,

bleating in the steaming air, leaving the rest
to cower by the back wall of the stable. She, like all
her kind, had been a follower for as long as she

could remember: was used to moving like birds
in flight, the title of leader constantly shifting,
reserved for whoever happened to be in front —

there was less thinking involved that way, no need
to remember who was who, more attention left
for foraging and chewing, for waiting out the hours

until one of the humans came to either pour feed
in the trough or drag a sibling off under the blade.
And while, back when the flock was larger, the odds

of any visit seemed to favour her being fed,
with no mind for rhythm she grew to expect only
dinner, even as their numbers declined. Yet still,

perhaps by some intuition of fear, she, like the others,
willingly followed anyone but a man with a knife—
huddling instead in the straw of the stall,

waiting for the innkeeper to return with bloody hands
and a fork of grass: her tiny memory
already adjusting to the population change. And when,

with the weather warming and more men
than ever entering the mews, no food
was brought nor any sibling pulled away—

she was confused. And, as the men pushed
through the stable with the same breath,
laying unpalatable gifts by the man-child's side,

the flock, now dwindled to three, watched—
the third ewe from the left eyeing the procession,
sitting quietly apart from where her sisters

lay curled together for safety and warmth,
chewing on nothing, half-lidded as though
from boredom, yet secretly hopeful.

She was waiting patiently for the long night
of visitations to end and morning to come,
waiting to see if any of the assembled remembered

to bring offerings other than baubles for the child,
waiting for what she remembered
as important and inevitable—

for the flock to be fed or culled as always,
for some sedge or a handful of millet to be meted
out, for one of their number to be dragged off

like yesterday and the days before, bawling:
taking its small, but predictable, place in history.

Despite the Hunger and Delicious Taste

Despite the hunger and delicious taste of it,
knowledge frightens me—
I don't want to know how lightning works,
or gravity, or the speech-dance of bees.
Cuneiform markings on clay tablets should,
in my opinion, have stayed unreadable—
there would still be wonder, no disappointment
in the boredom between farmers.
I want to live without an awareness
that day and night are simultaneous,
without the ability to reach the white beaches
of Greece on a day's notice,
without the surety that thoughts are not
created and housed in my heart.
I want to believe that a cold spread of fear
that feels like déjà vu is déjà vu,
that when cats stare and hiss at nothing
they are actually confronting something,
that the red and purple spots left floating after
staring into a light are visions.
Is there no recourse for the simple soul
who won't let himself think in allegory—
the impregnation of women by the sun,
the healing properties of musical instruments,
that the sea was once stirred to procreate
by the consumption of severed testicles?
What I'd give to exist
in a state of perpetual ignorance
of things like the distance between stars,
perhaps hundreds of miles above—
or to live thinking the moon has a first name
and children, that they fall in the rain
to be raised by her lover, the sea—
that sometimes when she touches the hills
in the distance someone is crushed—
or that a companion sits there,
some ancient shepherd or dirty satyr
waiting to greet her, to help ease her
creaking bones down into a wide bed of earth.

Escaping Laughter

The first time I was unsure
of a woman's laugh
was when I was twelve—
trying out on the schoolyard
soccer pitch, mud and bruises
worn like a uniform,
the boys crashing into
each other like blind birds.
I had trotted to the sideline
where the coach paced
near the ranking board—
my name three from the top,
a small white chit
pinned to the plywood
like a broken tooth
barely left in a bully's victim.
I looked to where some girls
sat braiding and said to
my favourite Jennifer,
First Team, Inside Left—
that's good in soccer.

Behind her hand her teeth
were sparking,
above it her eyes held mine
then squinted out at the field.
Her laughter came short
and hard, like it was escaping
from somewhere under her chin.
I backed out into the safety
of the rough scrimmage
on the shaky legs of a survivor.