By Sonja Skarstedt

Dwarf Rise

Hunched as a monk in a secretive trance
Madame Soleil’s Zebulon Helianthus
meditates at the corner of Rachel and Drolet
its seed-packed solitary sunburst

guides the solstice, its compass sweet as August silence
over front yards whose crabgrass is too sharp for summer feet
and even Felix the Wily who takes flight when Madame
comes outside to stoke the janitor’s compost

fill her umber sack with brown-toothed bicycle chains
tidbits of Honda and broken fax machines that clutter the alley
and finally prunes the hedge that conceals her weekly forage

for chickweed to replenish her medicine chest
issuing war cries at the high school refugees
who come to kick at her dollar store fence
and poke fun at her botanical triumph

peculiar as a child’s plastic windmill on a stick
its priestly tilt and in yellow petal cowl
drive its hankerings for water and north end rays
that barely reach the tilled circumference
where beetles feast and excavate

until September’s grand slam
wilts its buttercup yellow to dead-leaf brown
distributes its harvest to rats crows and those
who cannot understand Madame’s devotion to the perennial

her holier-than-thou aplomb as she
prepares for winter’s embalming
winding down to preschoolers’ singsongs
from the backs of yellow buses
unable to stop her tears as its once-stately stem

folds under November next year, next year
a grave marker’s whisper.

Rue de Bienville

Burnt offerings of eggplant and skewered lamb
add to pearls of twenty first century smog
from Rue Saint Denis to Rue de Mentana
                               under Narnian skies

the evening chef reconstructs her déjà vu
to the buttery burst of innards
beer and lemonade chez nous
the Plateau, liberation from downtown.

Rue de Bienville redolent of regentrification
                     shakes its once rundown mane
refuses to divulge its scantiest dreams
as it tucks its secrets under flowerpot porches
rattles its screen doors and benches
invites the wind to taste every Balconville brushstroke
in its post-tenement rouges et verts
and most of all renders no judgement
                     on that calliope of faces
besieging its midsummer breezes
live orchestrations from Parc Lafontaine

is there anything sweeter than ‘Mon Pays’
                               turning cartwheels in July?

over rooftop terraces then down to street level
where de Bienville is a float of existential layers
           a multifleshed carnival
of lonely romantic exotic pastels
Franco Haïti Greek Italo Anglo Portugese
who dowse for libations between Croque Monsieurs
and the intimate sorrows of fellow dépanneuristes
on the troll for cigarettes in the wake
                     of a skateboarder’s dive
over midsize bumpers and recycle bins
packed with yesterday’s La Presse.

The sidewalk surfer grabs a side view mirror
with a diva’s abandon and jumps aboard the Number 11
Rolls Royce of city buses
connects the gritty east with the tree-plush west end
a lifetime removed from that hole in the wall
slated to re-open as a Vélotique in a place
where la bicyclette will always be king.

de Bienville recalibrates in the late fleur-de-lys afternoon
‘Mon Pays’ was a good dream while it lasted
Pierre the Hippie whose beard
                     is an alpaca avalanche
and whose generosity of spirit
only the decades could have divined
lends his neighbourhood a smile
and sweeps the lost agonies of rebellion
from the stairs he painted purple
nearly fifty years ago.

Five minutes later a man and woman
wrapped in BMW exhaust
drive up to his door
impatient for the day he’ll bid his triplex adieu.

Note: Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville (1680-1767). Born in Montreal, Quebec, member of the prestigious Le Moyne military family, Jean-Baptiste de Bienville is known as “the father of Louisiana” and founder of New Orleans.

Complexe Desjardins

The fountain hums like an electric drum
through Guillaume on his way to divorce court
in Old Montreal, his eyes torn as the satchel
slung over his shoulder he barely remembers what it was like
to be twenty-two long before the brunt of his days
outweighed the shed skins of his fortitude.

He passes a row of public benches
oak exhumations turned on their backs
complete with granite footings
all grazes chafes and splinters trapped like insects
in an industrial polisher’s amber.

Nearby fake-wood substitutes
buttress an obsidian basin whose jets
are programmed to soar fifty feet
above shoppers and one hundred-plus emporia
from the foot-savvy Sabotier
to the lottery-cigarette-breath-minty Tabatière
extravagances unknown to those whose housing
was mown down, the Quiet Revolution’s response
to the Anglos’ own Place Ville Marie.

Long gone are the spiral stairs whose mezzanine’s
wall to wall carpeted sharps flats and twinkles
lent luster to low-cut necklines, big hair
and platinum pinkies awash in Eighties
coke dust and cigars a fortissimo of which
lingers in the pre-recorded lull of a food court
bubbling with medallions of Berlioz Beethoven and Bach
where guzzlers no longer spend Fridays after work
on smokes rants snorts cackles, sending skids of empty tumblers
over white plastic cylinders created back when mushrooms
were magic and experimentation de rigeur.

Bienvenue le printemps!

Guillaume bestows an emphysematic cough
                     on a cargo of pre-antiquated tiles
workers buzz past him softly as bees
on their way to disassemble the gardening expo
flagstones bulbs trellises and raw black earth
unaware of his tears or the desiccated strip
between his lips drying a pathway to his lungs
as relentless as the lawyer who told him to go for the throat
wring every last coin from the wreckage of his dreams.

Outside April flurries climb the bricks like playful albino spiders
their desperate attempt to flee the salty pavement
before they finally expire on early gasps of narcissi
while back deep inside
the fountain’s exhalations
           all pinnacle
                     all pizzazz
the inexhaustible implausible indoors.

Friperie Swing

Harmonica Herc blows his ice-lunged best
under a January moon on the dark side of Pine
where November constellations keep watch
over a blue and white sign where mother and son
wait for the twice-an-hour bus beside Friperie Swing

whose dark plate glass glistens with second-hand
midnight vamps and smoky-eyed chanteuses
whose ballroom gowns’ ochres and oranges
glide through imaginary corporate soirées

their elbow-length calfskin gloves rusted to cream
as inevitably as black and white posters of Miss Brooks’
nifty fifties bouffants and Clara Bow’s bee-stung roaring twenties
behind a holiday wreath propped in front of the only mirror

where customers can gauge the shrinkage
in deerskin vests, the remnant flower power
in paisley print dresses or the sitcom fray
on a Gilligan cap as it sets sail on a boiled wool skirt
                                         and plop-handled purse

dragged to teacher galas on nights
as bitter as this accompanied by loafers
whose distended backs thick as stampede mud
on cowboy soles are not nearly as steadfast

as the mocha wedgies strained by maiden aunts
who strolled through Birks on Tuesday mornings
in search of the perfect Royal Albert teapot
followed by tea and apple pie at Morgan’s

back in the days when elderly uncles
coddled black-poodle chapeaux
and trotted to lodge meetings
all gin and cigars and Saturday night girlie guffaws

to the amusement of a mannequin punk
decked out in cotton tank and green mohican
a homage to the disparate 80s as Harmonica Herc
shivers under his neon halo on the dark side of Pine

sacrifices his last warmth with the abandon of the Little Match Girl
tastes the past as it exits his mouth to revisit a world
where the north wind always has the last say

and where his ears catch every jag of a single mother’s angst
as she pulls the third-hand toque over her son’s blue ears
and picks at her lint-stricken coat, at one with every struggle
every demise and every strain in every castaway thread

until the bus arrives and Friperie Swing
adjourns to that black hole
where only nostalgia can sing.

Café Rasputin

Cuban voices toss and turn inside Guillermo’s Grill
under the cumin-scented afternoon where the October sun
leaves its crosshatchings on terrace tables and chairs
not yet relegated to the rear of the resto’s
rum-blessed espresso rumba mambo air

while Porfirio Hector Joaquin and Anastasio
whose faces a coppery mosaic
shimmer back into the pristine glass
of a showcase that holds the cream of comida criolla

croquetas tostones empanaditas frituritas de bucalao
yucca con mojo sofrito fricase de pollo
bowls of congri

plates of Marquitas for the public at large
but for those in the know
a stash of fresh-peeled bananas
smothered in refugee cheese

real Cubans never eat pizza
but we’re crazy about bananas

the Mad Monk makes his entrance
the skunky unhinged gray of foot-long tresses
snaggling down his lank shoulders.

October is a trigger for the seasons of the mind

1917 forever intrudes on his tawdry brows
the endless impervious shivers
of crimson tourniquets on bayonets
and the unheeded cries of ‘bread give us bread!’
from Petrograd women.

Hector orchestrates a clack of wood spoons
debauchery has many faces.

Porfirio bongos a vision of ivory toes
on stinging white sands far from the riot
of battered cars and third world streets where families
scrape for beans under an affluent El Presidente
who truly wins at the end of any revolution, my friend?

Anastasio savours each shred of his lecture on pre-Castro Havana
complete with home movies of grand pianos and other family heirlooms
being shoved out of luxury apartment windows

too many middle classes and too little bread sets the stage for revolution, si—
maybe we should applaud after all?

The Mad Monk looking over his shoulder
clears the afternoon gravel from his throat

the Bolsheviks would have understood as they did
when they pulled the rich from their palaces and dachaus
that the sale of those pianos would have fed many families.

With a shy smile Rosalita packs fresh espresso
and adds a scorch of water to the afternoon falsetto
of comers and goers whose hatred of realpolitik
drives the opulent past with a defiance
as melancholy as Ibrahim Ferrer’s
“De Camino a la Vereda” bleeding from her ipod

as Yussupov’s specter importune as Che Guevara
descends on the back of the room and nobody is listening
as he feasts on the Mad Monk’s final screams.

Expiry Date

[Global Village: The 60s; October 2, 2003 to March 7, 2004, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts]

The dusky sweetness of “Moonlight Serenade”
miraging through velvet invisible speakers
trips all op psychedelic expectations on their axes
as you try not to stumble over a desktop globe
                               swathed in Jersey cowhide
preparing for all the weightlessness and void
a museum can hold.

Where has all the acid gone?

The 1960s as reprimand.

Incongruous as Neil Armstrong’s first lunar steps
above black and white depictions of World War 2 soldiers
juxtaposed with ballroom dancers forever
doomed to wonder what on earth
they gave birth to
          as they sway off into eternity.


The closer you get to the permanent concentric
the colder the trance imposed by that place
where Andy Warhol no longer holds court
his Brillo boxes relegated to a chamber
that would impose cold turkey on a flawless teetotaler
exude an obsolescence as battered as silk screens
of Judy Mick and Jackie O whose Colgate smiles
are almost callously out of tune
tarnished as that day-in-the-life
East River cross section of greasy peels
muddy coffee cigarette butts and torn foil
focal point for the despair of the late twentieth century humanoid
its acrylic as clear as the day it was hermetically sealed
as abrupt as Lichtenstein’s Save Our Water
or Garcia’s tyrannical DDT
bulky-red above a migrant’s queasy hunch
scary as riot posters on a suburban bedroom wall
apathetic as breasts crushed against refrigerated meat
tomblike as Manzoni’s “Base Holding Up the World”
mirthful as Janis Joplin’s Porsche
          queen of a high-end generation’s toys
or Yoko Ono’s Sky TV whose static freedom blinks
                    vanish in less than a video minute
elusive as Paco Rabanne’s rhodoid dress
whose transparency will always herald the summer
that left almost everyone behind
mesmerizing as Verner Panton’s “Phantasy Landscape”
all womblike organic foam upholstery
urging us all to recline in a future

less liberating
          less mythic
                    less naïve

than anybody dreamed though nowhere near
as revelatory or as wretched as Warhola’s torso
lung esophagus gall bladder liver intestines
created by a near-assassin
five and a half hours to get through to the spleen
smashed skin over ribs cracked to liberate a heart whose bewilderment
grew more bewildered than the bullets
that heralded an epoch’s demise eight years before
its turning point when all inner rot
came squirming through an orange
purple crimson flower studded canvas
the predictable horrific dénouement

Malcolm X’s bludgeoned spectacle
flanked by Krustiev and Kennedy
tell us more somehow than any night stick
squalor of riots at all that not far removed
from the black and white enlargement of a B52 nightmare
in a no longer crystal clean box frame
whose base is piled with lipsticks
broken from their once seductive silvery capsules
their composure as defused
as fragments of human scream
confused and forgotten as chunks of crayon
on a dusty kindergarten floor
and just as you are about to leave
Nancy Graves’ facial behemoth in gray
mid-gray and white acrylic on canvas
imparts the tormented serenity
of the artist’s last stand.


Rainy Day Women buzzes ears set adrift on Highway 61 Revisited
in a Sherbrooke Street café whose cinnamon-laced smiles
were born at least two decades after Bobby Z’s rule

bowls of au lait in the clutter of their hands
The Times They Are A-Changing might as well
be The Sixties As Stone Age but Like A Rolling Stone
still embroiders the status quo in a Blackberry jungle

backpacks brimming with books bus tickets and sugarless gum
tumble out for the world to see against exposed brick
All Along the Watchtower what would Bobby say
about the political correctness of say, no smoking allowed
except perhaps that Tomorrow Is A Long Time

each huzz and huzzah carries a fresh clash of cultures
the sweet Zimbabwean nods to an El Salvadoran
who fled here so many years ago such an expert
on survival post-refugee style he even
passes for second generation Canuck

You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere believing that her smile
has jettisoned him to first base he invites her
to his place for Ethiopian hors d’oeuvres
followed by a slide show of the Arab Emirates

she smiles and picks up her books
maybe I’ll see you here again
maybe sometime next month

and slams the afternoon in his face

he nibbles a cigarette and reminds himself that women
are impossible in every country and every language
seduction nevertheless will always work out
if you can pull the right strings as Lay Lady Lay
twangs through speakers that once
resonated with Mozart and Tchaicovsky.

Jazz Belles

Downtown is a boom box
drowning in world beat

Montreal’s east end cusp
is a jazzophile’s frenzy

spectacle taps the eye
rides the ear over a hip hop precipice
of samba reggae rock Mariachi bagpipes
street-corner Barbershop and Irish spoons
sufficient to drive Charlie Parker’s B-flat allergy

the masses encroach all the way
from Toronto to Biarritz
Cincinatti locks shades with Singapore
Ohio et l’Afrique Sud
c’est plus Québec!

under white awnings
where ginseng wrappers
meet the zing of orange rinds
time is a discard

row after row of sunburned knees
pray to the fountain’s watery arcs
for bouquets of relief

lungs full of suds
a drifter peruses his lamppost
mumbles his tenth anniversary pledge
not to razz any tourists

too hell with intellect
take a chill pill, bro

go spread the word
thank heaven Metheney’s still got it

something new to tell the neighbours
back home in Kalimazoo

keep the beat
keep the beat

under the corporate headdress
ubiquitous as cellphones and Coke
plastered with last month’s b’en oui!
a microbrew circus
juggles a glint of homegrown

order a Miles Davis litho
to go with your pale ale

even the tent sweepers whistle in C sharp
to a tambourine’s rattlesnake discord

and two blocks away
the supper hour Angelus
flowers from an obsolete steeple.


“The art of letters will come to an end before A.D. 2000. I shall survive as a curiosity.” —Ezra Pound

1963 a bed of poppies
in a neglected Chinese garden
shudders its impenetrable reds
up at the sky

recalcitrant as a mule
I contemplate the pink
hand-painted ties of my youth
o memory!

even here in my hospital gloom
the passing of time’s colours
inhibits my thirst for the sun
the idiocy of politics
kulchur and divigations

my beard’s furious barb blood-specked
           with leftover youth
                     stealthy as locoweed
formal and funereal
as the mummified expanse of my face

my tongue a mere thistle
caged and pruned
a burnt ochre bag of nettles
once a vulture unto itself
whose vex of a dance
           annointed the static
                     with tigerlily words

still my antennae cruise for cantos
                                fresh tantrums
                      unholy diatribes
bits of imagist egoist flotsam
                                potable seed
           incendiary balloons
blown-up buttercup pollens.

When at last I am permitted to stand
collapsed as a cotton picker
dragged in from the fields
my fingers harsh and needling
more like withered cacti
than perpetrators of poetic justice
           dissonance and reason


My reward for twenty quicksand years
a handful of naïve academics
and the occasional literary concubine.

The door swings open.

On the road to Tirolo
           I shake my cane
                      and embrace the sun
in the sky’s distant vortex

my fists disgorged
rain down pavannes
           and invisible olives
a lume spento.

The door swings shut.

Is nobody there?

Sonja Skarstedt is a poet, a playwright, and the author of children’s stories; she is also an accomplished visual artist. From 1987 to 1991 Sonja A. Skarstedt published and edited the literary journal Zymergy. In 1990, she founded Empyreal Press with the publication of her first poetry collection, Mythographies. Since then, she has published two more poetry collections, A Demolition Symphony (1995), and Beautiful Chaos (2000), and a play, Saint Francis of Esplanade (2001). With Aileen Collins and Michael Gnarowski, Skarstedt edited Eternal Conversations (DC Books, Montreal, 2003), a tribute anthology honouring the distinguished poet and man of letters Louis Dudek. She is currently working on two children’s novels, Ogden and the Erc and The Secret of Tarrow Tell, as well as a second play, Calamity Train. Her pen and ink drawings and acrylic paintings have appeared on the covers of such literary publications as The Antigonish Review, The Nashwaak Review, Poetry Canada, West Coast Line, The Poem Factory, Rolling Stone and The White Wall Review. Sonja A. Skarstedt lives in Montreal with her husband, Geof Isherwood.

2012 Copyright Sonja Skarstedt