History

Original Text: 

Matt Rader. A Doctor Pedalled Her Bicycle Over the River Arno. Toronto, Ontario: House of Anansi Press, 2011.

I.
1That August all along the Yellowhead Highway
2As the shadow of our car rippled across
3The roadside, and my father and I, at thirty,
4Went looking for his past on the Skeena River,
5All the tinctures of the north—copper, gold,
6Moly blue—bubbled into a carnage of colours
7Not even Caravaggio or his Flemish disciple
8Could have captured completely: the white
9Petals of oxeyes seeping from under the crust
10Of the earth like the pustules of lead carbonate
11Horrified London curators have uncovered
12Pocking the flank of an old master’s horse
13In the National Gallery; that purple shroud
14Of pine trees on the mountainside the beetles
15Feasted on and abandoned as those thieves
16Of Judea whom the fifth procurator sentenced
17To die were abandoned on crude desert trees.
18My father loved to drive and he loved wild-
19Flowers and when we came upon a hillside
20Of complete destruction, obliterated by petals,
21He’d stop the conversation but not the car
22And we’d float by like time and river water,
23Like the Allied shadows that rippled across
24The German hayfield where my grandfather
25Toiled in the last days of the war by mercy
26And pen of an unknown Nazi administrator,
27Where everyone, the farmer and prisoners,
28Had gone hungry long enough to resemble
29One another unmistakably, bare winter trees.
30That summer all along the Highway of Tears,
31As it’s known for the women who have gone
32Missing from its shoulders, who have been
33Surrendered to absence and in that absence
34Become a presence felt by all travelers and me,
35Among the paintbrush, buttercup, red clover,
36Flared fireweed, also known as evening primrose,
37A fine tea. In bomb-pocked London, near the end
38Of the war, as my grandfather abandoned the field
39He’d been tilling and began his long walk out
40Of Germany into northern British Columbia,
41There appeared, for the first time in generations,
42Fireweed. The same fiery flower that burned
43That summer in the ditches all along the highway
44As my father and I burned by in search of his
45Story which was mine too or so I told myself
46As he told me about the fireweed and that other
47Summer of his early life, nineteen-fifty-five,
48When the Russian landlord took Aunt Allie’s door
49In lieu of eviction, and that still other summer
50When two boys who lived close to my father
51Met at a front door a block from his own,
52And one carried a rifle and with his finger
53Tucked a wildflower in the heart of the other.
54The wound of the first home will never close.
55It’s valleys and terraces darken, it’s mills spin
56Into silence but always a susurrus of wildflowers
57Shoals inside us when we are quiet or when
58The world is too loud. Hear it in the white
59Pox of chemistry in a Rubens or Caravaggio,
60In the cinquefoil, figwort and Canada thistle
61That simmer in northern ditches and gravel,
62Effervesce in the footprints of young women.
63On the banks of the Skeena, in a field of grass
64And wildflowers where the summer heat lay
65Close to the earth and the cold river went on
66Without stopping, as it always had, oblivious
67To cars and conversation, I abandoned my father
68To his childhood, to the middle of the last
69Century among daisies and pearly everlasting,
70As if he’d never left it, as if the river were
71More than historical, as if it could be stopped.
II.
72Once, in Firenze, on the Feast of Ferragosto,
73When the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin,
74The real physical elevation of her sinless soul
75And incorrupt body to the Body of Heaven
76And the wounded side of her son, is observed
77By Holy Obligation, I awoke next to the woman
78Who had nursed me as a child and nursed me
79Again through that fever-thick August night
80In the Old Country where every dark-eyed man
81Who made the sign of the cross, the father,
82The son, and the holy ghost, at the threshold
83Of the Duomo was her own father as he crept
84Out of the burning-cold north Pacific Ocean
85Into nineteen-forty-four, at the head of a swarm,
86One hundred Canadian soldiers disgorged
87From the ocean onto the abandoned Aleutian
88Shore, frozen and hunched and petrified, sea-
89Things, belly down, slithering out of the sea.
90All over Italy, Italians were leaving the city
91For the beach while I was sick in a third-floor
92Pensione, half-delirious for the bottle blonde
93At reception who spoke English in a Bronx
94Accent as if she’d learned the language from
95Martin Scorcese or Francis Ford Coppola,
96As if she’d asked me to stay away from her
97Simply by speaking words I could understand,
98As if by some long-forgotten myth or custom
99We were doomed to awaken one night on
100Either side of a severed horse head. Tell me,
101How could I not want her? How could I not
102Cover the shoal of welts across my body
103With a white cotton sheet? Beyond the brick
104Walls, across the old city, a doctor pedalled
105Her bicycle over the River Arno towards me,
106Past the Uffizi and the tortured gorgon head
107Of Caravaggio, passed Museo dell'Opera
108Where the hooded face of Nicodemus is
109Disguised behind Michelangelo’s own visage
110Frozen by art in a moment of imagined history
111When two men and an unfinished woman
112Removed the body of Christ from the cross.
113I was sick and I sank deeper into the hollow
114In the rented bed. Even Christ, my mother
115Said, lay for three days in the tomb of another
116Man but she grew so young with every word
117That when she finished I was no longer alive,
118I had never been born and had never left her,
119And everything that was happening to me
120Had already happened to someone else who
121Was me once before at a later stage of history
122But who I would never know. The stranger
123In me touched his fingers to my face and felt
124The thrum of life beneath the hives. The doctor
125Opened her black bag and the whole black
126Universe exploded into place: my grandfather
127Crawled out of the water and walked on two feet
128Into the future, carrying my mother and me
129In his shriveled testicles; Nicodemus returned
130Christ to the Cross and the cross to the cedar
131Of Lebanon that grew once in Golgotha dust;
132And Mary put down the phone at reception
133With Gabriel’s voice barking from the receiver.
RPO poem Editors: 
Jim Johnstone
RPO Edition: 
2013
Special Copyright: 

Reproduced with permission from House of Anansi Press, Toronto.