by Sharon Nelson


In the lemony light of Indian Summer,
we circumnavigate this island,
follow the sun as we leave the city core,
take the old island road,
the way around the shore.

Vistas open as we drive west and north;
we stop, breathe slightly tangy air, watch
the play of light on water,
small boats, the occasional fisher,
pintails and mallards resting near the shallows.

In one of many public parks along the shoreline,
we come upon a bank of hardy roses;
their canes are visible through thinning foliage,
though a few late flowers still open to the sun.

We approach, go close,
and nose to rose,
breathe summer's scent,
in this season of plenty and dying.


We snuffle roses,
gladdened by their scent;
some node in the brain responds
as it has since the beginning of Time.

We impose that notion, Time,
and the organizing principle of grids,
straight roads, maps,
but no matter how linear
our plans and routes,
how firm a geometry
of time and space
we set in place,
islands feel round,
regardless of their shapes.


Today, the air is soft as melted butter,
the sun the yellow of beaten egg yolk, the light
hazy and diffuse above the water, almost dense,
as if you could cut it into pieces with a knife.

But squalls and storms will rock this island
as if it were a cradle lying in the river,
all our careful lines and grids obscured by weather
that blurs the boundaries of land and not-land,
all markers made invisible by storms.

Imagine a whole city circumnavigable,
the shape of insularity
defined by bridges
that connect to that other world,
off-island, land-locked;
each span a connection
across turbulent water,
though today,
in this almost honeyed light,
when the afternoon sun
is lazy and satisfied
and the wind is calm,
the water looks


Sacred spaces
punctuate this journey,
mark the whole circumference
of this island.

Wherever we look,
we see churches, crucifixions,
the Sacred Heart of Jesus bleeding,
statues of the Blessed Virgin,
still only a girl, cradling the Child:

Love thy neighbour
thy self.


The road that winds around the shore
connects diverse communities, each still identifiable,
not only by a name on a sign, but by style;
each separate town witness to historical process,
a particular population, a particular economic status;
each house a statement about a particular time, and aspirations.

Small, low houses squat in clusters, away from water,
as if to shelter from its noise, the brazen winds of winter;
and wide-verandahed homes that faced the bay,
too costly to keep up or renovate, have given way
to new buildings, recognizable as of this time
but not of any particular place; they stand
in carefully measured ranks, as if on parade;
from coast to coast, we see the same design;
the same pink brick face appears
raw, unfinished, wherever it stands.


After a wet summer, a dry autumn.
This year, the leaves stay much longer than we expect,
and it's warmer later, though I remember
the last year I went trick or treating on Halloween,
decked out in my mother's strapless evening gown,
it was warm enough to go with shoulders bared,
before costumes came ready-made from stores,
in days when treats were packed in papers sacks
by neighbours we knew, and who knew us, by name.

That world's long gone.

They say: now
even the weather's changed.


The weather was fine this year for early summer fruit:
elegant strawberries, fat cherries, luscious apricots.

Mid-season, peaches ripened perfectly,
with neither spots nor worms.
I set them out in careful lines on padded sheets
to spare them bruising;
the whole house smells of ripening fruit,
a summer orchard on a hazy afternoon.

Then plums, bursting with juice, and succulent,
scent the kitchen with their heady fragrance.

And though we breathe the fullness of summer, still,
we scent autumn in the air;
the smell of apples, crisp, and tart, and sweet,
the good keepers that we put in store after the first frost
for the season we don't care to think about
and, lately, think about too much.



Early this morning,
the noise of geese woke us.

Half the neighbourhood came out,
craning at the sky to see them pass,
enthralled by the call of the geese
who are flying over early this year.

And though the weather is mild
(Have we known such warmth so late before?),
this early passage of the birds
brings a chill to the heart.

(What primordial connection binds us,
moves us to witness this annual passage,
moves us to witness?)

We do not know yet what we fear,
but we know we fear.


But today it's too hot to think of autumn apples.
We want berries and light white wine,
to pretend it's summer,
though the burnishing leaves deny it,
and the fall-blooming plants are dry
(best give them water or they'll die),
and the sun shines with a warmth
the geese know better than to trust,
and so do we;
but we defy the season, defy reason,
drive round with windows open,
walk, sleeveless, near water,
smile at strangers and invalids taking the air,
anyone who can be out in this glorious light
that we savour, aware
each day may be the last.


"Take a pill
and the pain goes away: a miracle!"

could have imagined?

"What pain?"
It doesn't matter.
You don't want to know the details.

Think of a lifespan that reels out like a long line,
longer than was ever known before,
and what we fish up at the end is mostly pain.

Think of these miracles: longevity; tablets.


The young woman who is supposed to clean my house
stands at the kitchen sink in front of the window,
looks out with a proprietary air,
drinks milky coffee from my favourite cup,
gestures as if this space, my home, belongs to her.

The house is clean, more or less,
though there are mop marks in the corners,
and I clean under the radiators myself, baseboards,
the layer of dust that forms on the tops of cupboards.
Anywhere you have to reach or bend, I clean.
I do the heavy work myself.
I know: she'll have to go.

Another change, another disruption of routine,
is harder every year to contemplate,
until finally, towards the end,
it's quite

That's how things get grimy, and stay that way,
surface polished but not cleaned,
until "the old woman" goes.

Then the house is cleaned and painted,
polished, sold.

The cycle


If you believe what mother says,
you have to keep a sharp eye;
if you're not there to watch,
"the help" will take advantage,
won't clean over or under,
won't clean at all.

If you believe what mother says,
things disappear.  I used to wonder:
was she imagining?

But in my own house, I've seen pilfering;
small things: pens, paper, bus tickets,
things you'd think I'd never miss,
or put down to absentmindedness,
but after a time, you start to watch.

The gold cufflinks I gave my husband have gone,
and lately, too much of his loose change
has disappeared from the basket near the door.
One of us might misplace things,
but not both of us together,
not at this age, not yet.

So when mother complains
that "the girl" doesn't clean the tub well
or wash the woodwork at all,
and is lazy and eats too much,
and is eyeing the jewellery,
think about it
before you dismiss these accusations
as paranoid delusions.


Loss, I think, is cumulative.
Old wounds ache all the more after each fresh injury,
repeated assaults that we survive.

Oh, . . .
but the grief. . . .

Each loss is terrible,
though we know
we will go on living.

(What choice is there?)
(Is there a choice?)

My father followed my mother out of this world
within five months.  He was lost without her.
No one needed him, or needed to lean on him,
however frail he may have been himself (frailer each day
without the weight of someone else leaning).

Go on? What for?
Is there a choice?


things wear out:
fifteen years of hard use in the kitchen . . . .

What do you expect?
It's plastic!

a long year dead,
still alive in my head,
admonishes me.

And my mother,
who often said:



But the birds: loons,
the oldest of all living bird species,
dive without showing intention,
disappear without warning,
swim, invisible, at speed under water,
in the air, move with the grace of angels,
if there were angels.

But there are loons,
the most beautiful birds we know,
eerie-voiced to us,
as they speak among themselves,
returning each year,
each pair to its own particular lake or pond,
neighbourly, according to their ways.

Now sparrows peck at brick work,
try to build another nest although it's autumn.

This lingering warmth
confuses birds,
confuses us.


Whatever our confusions,
living on this island binds us:
the need for bridges,
the roiling storms of winter,
the ways the light plays on the water
form how we perceive reality,
what we perceive reality to be.

Whatever our confusions,
we repeat this journey;
we follow the road
that goes around this island,
renew attachments,
seek connection;
and through our senses,
we incorporate
each sacred space
through which we move
into our lives.

binds us,
moves us
to witness?)

Sharon H. Nelson is a Montreal poet and essayist with a theatre and dance background who writes about food, spiritual hunger, and cultural identity. She has written for stage, newspapers, journals, and technical publications, worked as an editor and managing editor, and occasionally has taught writing and editing. Her essays, especially “Bemused, Branded, and Belittled; Women and Writing in Canada,” and her work as a feminist activist in the arts provoked awareness of sexist practices and stimulated change in arts organizations, policies, and programs in Canada. She is the author of many books and chapbooks of poems, and her writing appears in a diversity of anthologies, including Voices Within the Ark; the Modern Jewish Poets, and At Our Core; Women Writing About Power. Her ninth book of poems, This Flesh These Words, addresses how we use language to form and deform as well as to sustain community. She and Peter Grogono have worked together on many projects and are co-authors of Problem Solving and Computer Programming. More of her work can be viewed at

Please note: the original version of Sharon Nelson’s Circumnagivation, as it appeared on our old Coracle Press website, included photographs by Peter Grogono; with the site’s new design it was, unfortunately, not possible to include these photographs. I am making every effort to include these photographs on the site at a future time.

Circumnavigation © Sharon H. Nelson 2009