BY ANY OTHER NAME
Out of the rubble you come
crusted with dust--
your clothes bundled in a blanket
you walk the ditches north
or trust your body
to the smugglers,
wedge inside a sweatbox,
board the overloaded trucks and boats--
shark chum, flotsam, face down
petals on the grit-sand beach.
At night you climb the fences,
thicken their dreams
with your dark-skinned hunger,
swim the river into the promised land--
wetbacks, ragheads, the hired help
to do the heavy work, dirty work.
Inside you that other too,
the one we fear and long for:
shadowed brilliance bloomed
and gone, a kiss and other shifts
to lover or brother, now they’re unfolding
your body from the wheel carriage
of a 747—runaway, refugee---
death your sole asylum
you become the blossom
on a crush of baby’s breath
in God’s most perfect vase.
Sherry: This poem was written by Derek Hanebury, who lives in Port Alberni, on Vancouver Island. It was shortlisted for the 2019 Literary Writes contest, on the theme of “the Other”.
When I saw the announcement, I asked Derek if I might feature him here. This feature is longer than usual, as I know Derek, and the subject matter of his book of poems touches on the issue of murdered and missing women in Canada, that I have covered in this column before. I know this story will touch your heart.
I was fortunate to take Derek’s creative writing class some years ago at North Island College, where he taught for 30 years. He recently retired with an Emeritus distinction.
Derek, congratulations on being shortlisted, and on the Emeritus distinction! “By Any Other Name” carries a powerful message. I especially resonate with the refugee being the blossom in “God’s most perfect vase”. Would you tell us about this poem?
Derek: I wrote this poem in response to the contest prompt but mostly in response to the demonizing of the migrant caravans coming up from South and Central America. Of course, that broadened out as the poem got going, as it seems to me that human migration has become one of the top global issues. (Sadly enough, if climate change continues its trajectory, this humanitarian crisis will only deepen as sea levels rise and habitable land begins disappearing.)
What I wanted to get at is how we use labels to shift our perceptions away from the humanity of other people. Fear is often the first response to anything different from ourselves, and it doesn’t take much rhetoric to stoke that fear, especially when it comes from people in positions of power. In the end, people are going to have to get past that fear because the blending of cultures is not about to stop or be reversed as much as they may want to curtail it.
In the latter part of the poem, I try to dig a little deeper to connect that fear to the fear we all have of parts of our own inner being. You could use the Jungian term “shadow” I suppose for those energies that we all work hard at repressing and denying, but I wanted to express some optimism too for the possibility of embracing those outcast energies and bringing them into our inner families, just as the migrants can be included in our intimate lives and treated as equals in the human family. In the poem, of course, (and too often in real life as well), those treated as “other” are only elevated after death, becoming the metaphorical roses in God’s vase. Sadly, it often takes startling images of dead or dying children in the media, to return the humanity to these people fleeing poverty and oppression, at least in the eyes of the developed world.
Sherry: Those images of children do touch our hearts, and make us more aware. We are bombarded with so many crises, I hope we remember people are still suffering, once the news media moves on to the next pressing crisis.
Would you tell us the meaning behind the title of your poetry book, Nocturnal Tonglen?
Derek: Tonglen is a Budddhist practice where a practitioner sits with another and uses his or her inbreath like a vacuum cleaner to draw out all the negativity trapped within the person, and his or her outbreath to return the purified energy to that person. Typically, the practitioner will visualize breathing in black smoke and breathing back white light. It can be a very powerful healing technique and seemed to me to be a perfect metaphor for what artists do when they tackle dark subject matter, as my book of poetry does, and try to create something beautiful out of the horror.
It also seemed to be a good metaphor for what the human psyche does when it processes traumatic experiences. This can happen consciously through hard inner work, creative effort, and therapy, or unconsciously as we go about our daily lives. I pay close attention to my dreams and found much in the symbolic content of my dreams reflecting how I was processing the disappearance of my sister-in-law, hence the “nocturnal” part of the title. In fact, I had finished what I thought was the whole book of poems, and then I had a powerful dream that became the raw material for what became the first poem in the collection. All of the imagery in there came like a gift from my subconscious, highlighting exactly what the book was documenting in my journey from trauma to healing.
Sherry: That’s amazing, Derek. Would you please share with us the story behind this collection of poems?
Derek: This book of poetry, as I mentioned earlier, came out of that horrible loss our family went through in 1984, when my 19-year-old sister-in-law was abducted and never found. On one level, it tells the physical story and the healing journey we went through, but it broadens out to explore the bigger issues of violence against women and men’s difficulty reconciling with their own feminine sides. In my short life, I’ve seen some great strides being made on the latter issue of masculine/feminine integration, but the violence against women carries on despite the #metoo movement and the public’s increased awareness of the problem. As I say in one of the poems, it’s way past time for us to say “Never again, not once, no more!” when it comes to violence against women, let alone all the other forms of misogyny that have predicated so many relationships and interactions between men and women.
On a positive note, my sister-in-law's cold case has recently been taken up under a new RCMP program that uses highly sophisticated software to re-examine all the evidence available from old investigations and suggest new avenues of exploration. Apparently, it has led to the resolution of four other cold cases already, so who knows. One can always choose to accept things as they are but still continue to hope, which is where I land by the end of the book.
I had a profound few minutes in my life, where I was shown how perfection glides behind everything that happens in the world. I knew the truth of that with a certainty I had never had about anything else and have never had since. That revelation led to a deeper commitment to the meditation practice I had already begun and, ultimately, to some reconciliation to the fact that Carolyn was never coming back in that form again and that it was okay, despite the tragic nature of what happened. All of this gets explored in the poems, though often not so directly.
Sherry: It takes deep practice, and a wise soul, to reach that level of awareness. I love the idea of perfection gliding behind everything – especially now, when so much of what we witness seems so unjust.
I would love to share the following poem, from Nocturnal Tonglen, if I may.
After seven years they say
we can call her
dead but what to bury by then?
We could box this
pair of earrings ceramic
mask of tragedy the photograph
that fell from the shelf
and shattered us with glass.
Add the hair the RCMP
scrounged from her brush
a collection of Lawrence
her drama award…
all I can hear is her giggling
Guinevere unearthed and the downpour
of her voice over the phone
saying she would be the best damned
Ann Franks the world had ever seen,
still nightied at noon and cracking up
Sherry: This poem helps me see her, the giggling Baby Sister, heartbreakingly absent from the family who loves and mourns her still. It is beautiful, Derek. So sad.
Would you like to say something here about your sister-in-law, and this poem?
Derek: Yes, Carolyn was the surprise afterthought arriving a full eleven years after her next oldest sister, and consequently she was truly the baby of the family and cherished by all of us. She had an irrepressible joy for life and that joy would often spill over into giggling laughter that swept everybody up with it. She had just finished her first year of a degree in drama when she was murdered, and like many actors, she had that kind of outgoing personality that drew everyone’s attention and sparked a lot of fun. Her disappearance kicked a huge hole in family gatherings, but it’s true what they say, after enough time, it’s the good memories that stay, and I tried to catch some of those in this poem.
Sherry: Thank you, Derek. She definitely lives, in all of her youthful joy, in this poem. Are you working on a book at present?
Derek: I have enough poems for another collection (or two), but I’m working to select the ones that will link up thematically and create some kind of overall effect beyond their individual ones. It’s a process I enjoy, but I’m finding I can’t rush it. In the end, I think I’ll be glad I took the time, rather than hurrying out something I’ll have regrets about.
Sherry: I look forward to it, when it comes out. As well as poetry, you also write fiction (your first book, the novel Ginger Goodwin: Beyond the Forbidden Plateau), creative non-fiction, short fiction and even drama. When did you begin writing poetry? What do you love about it?
Derek: Poetry started early on in my life, when I was eleven or twelve, but gained momentum through my hormone enriched teens, culminating with my enrollment in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Victoria in my twenties. That’s when things really began in earnest as I learned what poetry could do and immersed myself in the work of so many great poets. I loved the more romantic poems from poets like e.e. cummings and W.B. Yeats, and went through serial monogamy with a long list of poets after them. Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were in there along with Rumi and Robert Bly, Gwendolyn MacEwan and W.S. Merwin, to name a few.
To me, the joy of discovery is what keeps me writing poetry. An idea comes, and I do my best to get out of the way and start throwing down whatever words come until they stop. Then I come back to earth and try to figure out what my subconscious was trying to write, which is sometimes a bit like going on a treasure hunt. Once I figure that out, I can start revising to that end. I love that tinkering and tweaking, and can do that forever if I let myself. In the end, it’s such a satisfying art form when something as compact as a poem can speak to someone else’s heart and move them. When you feel like you’ve really captured something, there’s nothing quite so rewarding.
Sherry: Rewarding to read, for your readers, as well. Are you enjoying retirement?
Derek: Retirement is awesome. It’s so nice to live more in tune with my natural rhythms: to eat and sleep when I feel like it, to write when the inspiration strikes, and to not have the weight of prep and marking hanging over me. I did miss the student interactions in class sometimes. Seeing poets like you catch fire was always a treat, Sherry.
Lately I’ve started monthly meetings with a few of my favourite local writers and that seems to be filling the void. We share our work over tea at the Steampunk Café and give a bit of feedback to keep each other growing, and then there’s the monthly Words on Fire open mics at Char’s Landing to test new work aloud on a live audience.
I’ve also been leading some workshop events, including a poetry workshop on May 4th at the Federation of BC Writers Conference Spring Writes in Nanaimo. Between that, other reading gigs, and some private mentoring I’ve been doing online with some talented young writers, it’s been easy to keep inspired. Yes, retired life is highly recommended!
Sherry: It all sounds wonderful! If I were still in Port, I’d pull up a chair at Steampunk!
Derek: Thanks for this chance to introduce myself to your readers, Sherry. I hope I haven’t rattled on too long about things, but I think we agree that poetry is one subject that deserves to be talked about way more. Thanks for all you do to keep people inspired and talking!
Sherry: Thank you so much for allowing me to introduce you here, Derek. When I read Nocturnal Tonglen, I knew this is a topic our readers are very concerned about, as we are about the refugee situation unfolding at the southern border, and globally.
Derek can be contacted, for mentoring or book purchases, at
Material shared in 'I Wish I'd Written This' is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings remain the property of the copyright owners, usually their authors.