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The Flash of Longing

Poems by Gwendolyn Guth

To my grandmother and first muse
Mary Jean Gemmell (1908-1998)

as promised


She lifts her arms skyward
through night air, tracing
a faint trio of planets
with fingers of a bone white hand.

Two hundred twenty two years
have a song:
they sing Venus Saturn Mars.
She hears them, touches
their cool pearl throats
unscathed as white rooms

Tonight, she says, she will dream a dream
of three white rooms
cool as a line of stars.
Clean white floors will poise her dream
and ceilings tall as a voice.
Refreshed, she will rise from a clean white bed
having dreamt of a bed freshly made.
She will dream the heavens aligned
without hallucination.

She sings a song, dim starry dream
arms outstretched
fingertips touching galaxies.

(I know of pills and perversions, of unspeakable
deaths in darkness.
I stretch to clasp her hand —)

She says, here is creation

                                 Alignment of planets, last seen 1769


It's you there, in the brocade gown,
showing the unicorn his reflection.

Don't mind the tiny animals
in the jungle dark grass
(thumb-sized rabbit, sausagey leopard).
Their eyes are beading elsewhere.
They cannot help you.

You are beautiful. Your hair
is a golden rope, frayed
like a fountain.
The unicorn kneels, his hooves
on your silk-swathed thighs.

And where are his eyes? You
cannot play coy. They are
all for the jewelled glass
that catches his fancy.
Your hand on his nape
is an aid to his better seeing.
You have learned
to turn him so well
towards himself.

They'll tell you this is right, your role
in his self-birth. Your sweet smell,
luring chastity, provoked
the tender taming, swift leap
to your lap
in the lurking woods.

His horn parts the leafy red air,
a portal for flowers.
His horn is a sword of bone,
tranced romancer of stoney faces.
He will put that pout
in its place, young lady,
with a goatee smile
and haunches ready to spring.

Think of pomegranates, think of duty.
A garden, perfectly enclosed.
Think of nothing: invisible hands,
a virgin birth.

They'll tell you this is right,
this heavy-lidded yes.

But above you are two moons
in a strip of black time:
enough to go by.


          I stank in your eyes.
          (St. Augustine, Confessions II.iii)

Fifteen years faithful, I bore all
your turgid passion
and one son, Adeodatus,
fruit of my womb
core of our shared apple

But then you
cast me off
perverse sweetness
sent me weeping back to Africa
without a name
or a heart

Even now I could kill Ambrose of Milan
the bishop who bullied you out of my bed
and into the splayed arms
of your Christ

When you arose
from the waters of blessing
did my memory drip
unknown from your Christian pores?
No longer could I hold you
never again
by an inferior love

They say your God
made only Man
in his image
Thus by woman
there is sin
harsh necessity

They say
you speak of saints
as the teeth of the Church
cutting off men from their errors
or else as shorn sheep
who have put aside the burden of the world
like so much fleece

But I recall words kissed into my ear
with the voice of love
from your Song of Songs:
Thy teeth are like a flock of sheep
come up from the washing
each one with its twin, not one unpaired
with another

As you with me

You are solitary now
forgetter of words

They say you speak
with eloquence, wisdom
and also disdain

Though I lift up my finger
to point to something there
(the old or the new moon or some very small star)
I cannot supply the vision by means of which
this gesture or what it indicates
can be seen

Point again
perhaps your God will reveal
my black absence
riven in the sky



Valentine's Day
feast of lovers
I remember your parka
your frosted lashes and sudden smile
  and your gift   rock hard
in a frozen plastic bag —
not chocolates not perfume or flowers
but fish:
four speckled trout
with their death masks on
smelling of ice shacks
and February

How to remember the pull of the knife
across frozen gills
the staring fish eyes
of a discarded head
  my first time
  my first time
with you


Before the novelty drowned
before insistence sharpened
to a sharp point
there were humming motors
and photos of a lake in love
with itself
our catch swimming along
on a silver stringer   as if happy
wired through the gills

What fried fresh by the lakeside
in butter and crumbs
I'll never remember
any other way


I see now
this game is round
though you thought in verticals —
rods    lines   tips
of hooks
the silent sheath
of your fileting knife

What cuts sideways
along the backbone
can tear ragged and rip
can leave a mess of entrails
for greedy flies

Rocks are round
I like rocks    all kinds
the kind
that swallows your hook
and breaks your line

I like
the rock that gets away
glimmering black and cold and far

                          beneath the water's hands


Picked me up on a bird-shit bank
towel hot sun and good cheese on my thigh
told him no    like the inside of a can
shiny edges sharp
He tried to kiss     ha
I rolled around the world
puppy liked my face
glass in my smile
            into green


The herring on my plate said
"Watch out for the sweet mustard sauce,
It might make you sick."

I didn't listen. The table rose
like a gentleman under my plate.

My curtsy was a mess.


Shock down the waterslide
Death     decisive blur on a background
faceless in a spray of words like safe
like obituary

Look no hands takes over — it's the speed
          spray     uncaring strokes
calligraphy tears the eye smears the tongue
across a soggy page

Splashing through the skin of fear:

I know no pool so blue no word
so fierce


Those flirty afternoons in the Orangerie
even the bananas were hot —
peeling down
to bare white flesh
dreaming your ice-cream tongue
your succulent fingers.

The sun on your throat
licked mango, tangled
my better sense.
The old man on the bench moved away
with the swans.
Too much heat in our shade
too much ripeness.

Give me one more hour by that man-made lake.
Give me strawberries on a new-mown lawn
and your statuesque limbs.
Give me one more memory to make
paper gods out of hopes
living men out of fruit.


He ran his long hot finger round
the lip of my reluctance
and I hummed like fine lead crystal in his hand
my shatter coming

He toasted my tense beauty in its own
liquid swiftness
and he made my skin my memory
(to practise his hegemony)
his eyes laughed up a storm
across my sea

And through my throat he saw the clear words
rise in frantic surges
caught their froth upon his finger
and he called me his red caviar
pop-bursting on his tongue

I floundered round his equipoise
I tried to swim the truth of him
I tried to swim as swans swim
in their still discovered pools
against the night

But evening reeled its tail around
the lip of my compliance
and I placed his smile upon me
like a perfume for his pleasure
spicy tart as autumn weather
and his fingers in my hair

His humming still I hear it
where he touched me so transparent
where my crystal skin surprised him
in the morning of my memory
and he dropped me from his hand


Listen I've been
listening for
hours and hours of
just want to say     talk about

really really hot chair
thighs tight closing
too hot to

can you
feel the
chair     weight of
flesh of weight on hard oh
foam feel that
can't you just

grandmother called me
little girl blonde prim sundress small
red purse going to church
can you see me
see me from the stairs     waving then
can you figure me
figure out

undone     too little
to cover the
naked mind
nothing but
want wanting hot long
unbuckling and

fly away fly to


that fire


This seldom happens I never
like this
never wanted
your eyes     staring back
all that separates

this space
half an inch
between yes and no
is animal, is unknown
solid water
on shifting tundra

(across the ice
the shadow moves
through white
thin as breath
or glancing sun)

this can be no trick

leave now
and I'll remember
already I hear the hunters coming
with their instruments to write
infinity down in blood
everything that passes
(shadow, glance)
is game     fair as tundra flowers

they will know us by our eyes
blue fires
like ancient wolves'
burning near such
appalling danger
fur around skin
waiting for the bullet

the gap
            between wind and the land


                    When you do dance, I wish you
          A wave o' th' sea, that you might ever do
          Nothing but that; move still, still so,
          And own no other function.

                    (Shakespeare, The Winter's Tale IV.iv)

They say
rarefied air
is for mountains only
or moons

but here, in this bright kitchen
we breathe     sister
air green and aching
as the tendrilled undersides of plants
    swirling upward
        in our
            mermaid sea

I see you dance then
    the parting fronds
        the particular moving light

in your arms a cat     or a cindery broom
bending the lines you know

                    in the slope
                of your climb
            in the deep punctuation
        of your smile
    you breathe also
for me

the air celebrates
each space

you inspire

[for Jenny]


          I can talk to a dog;
          But a crab is so sensitive.

                (Leonard Gasparini, "In the Tropics")

In a prairie July
you were born: Gott sei Dank.
Seventh child, in your own strange
house of starry flesh
orbited by twelve others.
Wary boy
with too many sisters.

Small wonder if you had your pincers out
from the beginning —
searching for water and philosophy
in the cracks
under a dusty sun.

You moved sideways across land to escape
the white-blond bleach of grainy thought
that seemed your destiny.
But in your skin
you carried its memory
like a brand.
A taste and a stinging.

What coincidence of astrology
and Saskatchewan wheat
cultivated in Kant and seasons of sharp logic
formed the carapace of mind
the shell over flesh
that cases your feelings?
Oh father —

I knew it would happen someday.

You would pinch yourself unknowingly
in the height of an Ontario summer
and emotions would rush to surface:
a flower of black cells
bursting through
to find the sun.

Why can we speak of
this cancer

and not of the other?


Each afternoon you were looked for, awaited;
each sunset, as day cast turmeric light into wind
and seeded the clouds with shimmers of spice.

When it rained, you seemed in each drop,
and suddenly rosewater filled the house with scent,
spooning itself over the air like a dessert.

Your mother uncurled in the incense of your coming,
moved her hands through the swirling motions she knew
were you, as she knew her own breath.

She spoke words that had never left her body before,
so utterly changed, your presence in all:
in mango, in curry, in window, in tree.

She began thinking of the Himalayas, and of how it is said

that once every thousand years there flies over
a solitary bird with a scarf in its beak,
brushing the granite ranges as it passes.
The Himalayas, they say, will be worn away like this,
and only a single day
will have elapsed in the mind of God.

She imagined a field grown brown with autumn
as far as the eye can see. She strained for you there,
a shape or bird, or streamer of silk, like a flag of arrival.

What she found was a limit as artificial as the senses,
as undiscovered as your features, moments before your birth.

She found the fine line where the horizon meets the sky,
saw it in the brown-blue iris of your eyes,
so new to clay and soaring.

She named you for that margin,
and for what lies beyond.

[for Ishan Kanungo]



The blanket holds you, freer than my embrace —
as if your small body, a thousand wings,
were the air's bright creation,
not mine

We share a peach
mother and son
and the shape
that for a moment
is the O
of your suckling mouth
flutters away in a shadow of leaves.
Hands, insistent, yours, fly up,
grabbing at peach flesh
my heart     the pit
a deepening shadow


Grass, beyond the blanket's edge. Greener
than my motherhood
and more candid.
Strange discovery, the unplumbed depths you sound:
             I am your raft
             You are my anchor
No one told me
such love floods the whole world
to buoy up only you

Only a matter of time
before your fingers
are sunfish
swimming from our blanket boat
nosing the flash of longing

             movement       squirrel
you will be gone
that suddenly
                             green wave closing over my head


When, one day in Strathcona Park,
you pushed up on two flat feet, facing the world
you spoke
you shared
a certain leaf-language
with this place
something rooted
and apt to shift
without sound
or even love

What you did confused me

I had forgotten
or maybe I never knew
the ecstasy of being
a grain
of joy

You must teach me
patient boy

Take me in your
small, irreplaceable hands
rub my coarse life soft
in your skin

shake me, when life is lived,
out of shoes
as grown men stand in

when they look from a hill
to the river

February 8, 1998
[for Joshua]


Some of these poems have appeared previously in Bywords, Carleton Arts Review, the audiotape Ottawa Poets, Outlook: Archibald Lampman Commemorative Reading (Friday Circle), and Remembered Earth, Volume II (Bywords).

Copyright © 2000, 2003 by Gwendolyn Guth

Print edition, 2000. ISBN 1-896362-15-X
Electronic edition, 2003. ISBN 1-896362-25-7