The Tongue’s Allotment

I.
3Prospero in a family Shakespeare fest
4in 1800, four years after failing
5to keep the Calibanish Dorchester
6from breaking up his cloud-capped Georgian palace
7(schemes for "Gibraltar" -- his name for the sandbank --
8dissolved along with dreams of lofty rank)
9could not have dreamt a tempest would sever
10the curling tongue of land, its yellow sand
11scattered like ashes, sown under the waves
12to seed unyielding pastures, lakebed headlands
13ploughed by the tide's wrecks and the shore's debris:
15John's "Naval Arsenal" of "incomparable" worth
16sunk to "the Coney Island of the North,"
17even its name suffering a sea-change --
18Gibraltar whittled down to Hanlan's Point
19in habit's shallow wash. The heritage
20slipped with the salmon from their lakeside haunts.
21The creeks they named are lost in shunts of sewage
22under long-shadowed hulks. Their dream castle
24a subway stop on a fouled river's bank.
II.
25What was it like to play Adam and Eve
26  and hatch the printless woods with names?
31on such a scale demanded nothing less
32than lake-sized fonts and squalls of sprinkled blessings.
33They poured out hallowed sounds, but as the sand
34  loses the water it admits,
35the land made little of their baptisms.
36Either a muddled earthiness silted
37  the banks of memory ("Francis"
38sliding into "Grape" Island) or, skull-like,
40(old word for "water") bedded with concrete.
41So the ships' cannon loosed their iron tongues
42  and puffed their Gloria Patri
43over the bay, igniting the damp morning
44when muddy "York" sputtered to life -- to die
45  soon as the grand old blundering
46of that same Duke made his paternity
47less prized: the newly fathered Indian
50  Didn't its fond godfather see
51his castle's keep was sand? Didn't his "dear
53  how gunsmoke, curled along the shore,
54"ran with a singular appearance" --
55see those cursives as the serpent's calling card
56inviting them to scrub their garden party?
III.
57The names that we compose years decompose.
59Indian trading post, totem as old
60as life on this half of the earth, now one
61  with the spent breath of those who spoke
62it into life, air over a dead tongue.
63Teiaiagon, war-whoop of braves wiped out,
64  means no more than its own lament.
65This was their place of meeting: Indians,
66  John, and Elizabeth pitched camp
67on this same ground of sand, one audience
68swept by the strains of the same requiem.
69  Like blood that kept time in their veins,
71Graves) the black notes ran through the thin fences
72  and hammered at the tall, doomed pines.
73Natives and strangers staked their settlement
74  on names, knowing that names are breath,
75and in the play on words we all present,
76breath runs and runs, but never outruns death,
77  its shadow-rhyme; yet death goes mute
78unless breath sings both parts in their duet.
79So Shakespeare's namer, mindful of his grave,
80  spelled the snake's hiss to tune the waves.
81Strangers and natives swapped spells. In exchange
82  for labials, the Iroquois
83anointed English with their glides: young Frank
86Elizabeth (no Indian name recorded)
87stubbing her tongue against his honorific,
88  might coolly sip the irony
89that "one-whose-door-is-always-open" should
90  baffle its callers like a wall.
91Her tongue had also tasted the hot need
92the Indians felt to keep one brand alive
93  from ruins of a lost Eden:
94Tioga, once hub of their hunting trails.
95She too would turn a burnt end into kindling,
96  and name her next girl Katherine.
POSTSCRIPT
97  The second Katherine was born in 1801. Five years later, John Graves
98Simcoe fell ill at sea and died in the port of Exeter soon after being rushed
99home. He was buried after a torchlight procession arranged by Elizabeth,
100who lived on as a widow until 1850.

Notes

1] Ariel's song in Shakespeare's Tempest luring shipwrecked Ferdinand away to meet with Prospero's daughter Miranda. Back to Line
2] Simcoe: John Graves Simcoe (1752-1806), first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, prevented by the Governor General, Lord Dorchester, to make present-day London (Ontario) its capital, settled for Toronto instead (then named York). Some of York's earlier settlers established themselves at Gibraltar Point (later called Hanlan's Point) on Toronto Island, a sandy peninsula which has been severed from the mainland by a series of storms culminizing in 1858. Back to Line
14] Elizabeth: John's wife (1766-1850), came out to Upper Canada with him in 1792. Back to Line
23] Castle Frank: a subway stop just west of the Don Valley on the Bloor-Danforth west-east line in Toronto. It is named after the Simcoe summer residence. Back to Line
27] George Yonge: (1731-1812), a member of the parliament of Upper Canada after whom the world's largest street, Yonge St., is named (stretching north in Toronto from Lake Ontario for 1900 kilometres), Back to Line
28] Holland Landing: a small town between Newmarket and Bradford, and the terminus for Simcoe's Yonge Street in 1797. The Holland River flowed north to Lake Simcoe. Back to Line
29] Grand River: southern Ontario's largest river, flowing south into Lake Erie. Back to Line
30] Dundas: a town on the Niagara Escarpment. Back to Line
39] Don: Don River: this runs south through central Toronto to Lake Ontario and is straitjacketed by roads on both sides. Back to Line
48] Toronto: a native word meaning 'meeting place'. Back to Line
49] a play on Hamlet's ."Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio.." Back to Line
52] diary: See the diary, partly online; or fully edited in The Diary of Mrs. John Graves Simcoe (1911). Back to Line
58] Teiaiagon: name of a Seneca village occupied as early as 1678 on the east side of the Humber River, which divides central Toronto from its suburb Etobicoke. Back to Line
70] Posthuma: Elizabeth's middle name. Back to Line
84] Tioga: an Iroquois place-name meaning 'at the forks.' Back to Line
85] Deyonguhokrawen: the name given by the native peoples to Simcoe: ."he whose door is always open.." Back to Line
Publication Notes: 
Morning Watch (Montreal: Véhicule Press, 1995): 41.
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire