Andy, late lamented friend, celebrated author of Wood Mountain Poems, The Ghosts Call You Poor and many other texts: you were too frail and too medicated, the last time I saw you alive, to chew over the past. The Black Dog had you locked in its jaws. So I couldn’t tell you how what you said to me that day down near Assiniboia so long ago still troubles me. I hear again that shotgun blast; I see you glaring up at me wild-eyed from the bottom of that dry creek bed. Your fist grips the dead cock pheasant by its feet, and like some angry gamekeeper, you hold it up to me and give it an angry shaking. A few iridescent crimson plumes are still drifting out of the sky, one of them is caught in your luxurious beard. I stare at it in puzzled fascination, thinking “Looks like a Christmas tree ornament caught in a hedge.” I wince at that painful simile now.
Sometimes a person feels pain
when poems wait & grow
like feathery hands
silently reaching thru the rib cage
to touch the sun
(From “Circles,” Leaving, 1974)
I don’t doubt it, but after all, you did bag the first pheasant that day, so what’s the beef? Some have snidely suggested that I resented Suknaski because he wouldn’t give a pheasant a sporting chance to take flight. If you replace the word “pheasant” with “poem,” there might be a hint of truth in this; otherwise, not. Given his financial situation (non-existent), Suknaski—a hunter and gatherer to the manner born—would not let a perfectly edible pheasant take wing, preferring to put the front bead of his faithful Cooey single-shot on it and blow it skyward himself. But imagine, if you will, having that same 12 gauge shotgun fired two feet from your ear, inside a car that day while you were busily filling your pipe bowl and innocently nattering on about the pioneering imagism of W.W.E. Ross. (The first question that springs to mind for many of you would be—who is W.W.E. Ross?) I think you can imagine the noise of the blast would be astounding. Some might actually piss themselves in terror. But to me, hardened by days spent running a chainsaw without ear protection, this loudly illegal tactic was less traumatic. All I said was, “Nice rain-barrel shot, Andy.”
In the backseat, a shadowy Suknaski, his trusty Peterson bent still fuming away, blinked owlishly at me over the gleam of his wire-rimmed specs. Picture Trotsky riding the Siberian railway in a film noir. He leaned forward and hooked a pipe-ashed thumb out the window at his ring-necked trophy. “Observe carefully, Meester; the muzhik has a pheasant. You and your famous Ithaca 16, you have no pheasant.”
Suknaski, then deeply immersed in Russian and Ukrainian history, constantly referred to himself in the third person in this wise. Muzhik (or mujik) is a term for the Russian peasant. It was a fitting handle, given his ethnic and socio-economic origins and salty rural habits. Ironically enough he was then wintering not in rural but in urban poverty, for a change, in Regina. While in “Redchina” as he styled it—in tribute to the NDP government—he haunted the main library, where the late John Newlove was then writer-in-residence. Arriving with a battery of pipes preloaded and a new MS to hand, he would barrage Newlove with his celebrated ethno-docu poems, then smoke him out of his office into the nearest bar. Newlove summed it up for me in a terse phone call one day: “The halls are alive with the sound of muzhik.”
That annual bird hunt was on a big-sky autumn day with the bite of winter in the breeze. In the afternoon, old pal Brian Coulter and I are busting through buck brush and rosebush on either side of the creekbed, shotguns at high port. Duke, Brian’s black Lab, is buried in willow bush below us. Suknaski is supposed to be between us. Bird hunters keep abreast of each other for safety’s sake, so Brian keeps urging Suknaski to keep up. Suknaski ignores all advice, his position in the thick willows marked only by an occasional smoke signal wafting up from his pipe. I picture him plucking pensively, betimes, at his prophet’s beard, communing with his muse. His battered Cooey, its fractured stock held together with duct tape, rests on the shoulder of his sheepskin coat. That’s right, sheepskin coat. Did I say Trotsky? Actually, it was more like going bird hunting with Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Just then Duke sticks his muzzle out of some rose bush, freezes on point, and a cock pheasant bursts up from my feet like a winged rocket. I swivel around, throw up the shotgun, leading the bird’s head on a steep, going away angle.
Now, Suknaski, I know my 16 gauge was pointed your way when I squeezed that trigger, but goddamn it, there was no danger to you. You were bunkered eight feet in the ground and the pheasant was high overhead. A few pellets of spent shot bouncing off that bird, then pattering down onto that infamous railroader’s cap—remember that blue pom-pom and the eagle feather stuck through its strap? That does not count as attempted murder, Andy. No doubt glancing up to see the dead cock pheasant falling out of the sky, with talons reaching out for you like a pre-Stephen Colbert eagle, freaked the shit out of you but it is not evidence of any murderous motive on my part, though I can’t speak for the pheasant. In fact, it proves I was not shooting at you and yet you assume the opposite. If ever there were a verbal athlete who could pole-vault over a wall of fact to arrive at a bizarre conclusion, albeit one rife with poetic truth, that would be Andrew Suknaski.
Who cares for lies when glimmerings of possible truth
flood some dark recess of the mind
(From “Dance in Wood Mountain Community Hall,” The Ghosts Call You Poor, 1978)
Exactly, and dark is the operative adjective for your mood change that day. I’m thinking Hillcrest Mine Disaster dark. Back in the car, confronted by an ominous silence, I finally turned around and demanded, “Andy, what the fuck are you brooding about?”
From the shadows, silence and then you muttered those angry words: “You tried to kill me, Meester. Not enough for you to be the mountain poet, now you want to kill the prairie poet and take over here too.”
There was no reasoning with Suknaski in that mood. We dropped him at his shack, the former telegraph office in Wood Mountain, there to brood about a fire that burned down his mother’s church, to ponder on about Babi Yar and Sitting Bull and attempted poeticide, or maybe to summon the ghost of General Custer by Morse code. Coulter and I decamped for Assiniboia to find strong drink and country-western music.
Dear paranoid Ghost-Who-Calls-Me-Poor: This is what happens to us sometimes in this parochial literary culture of hyphenated poets whose authenticity is pegged to ethnicity or postal codes. More to the point, this is what happens when I write a poem about a dead fox in Wood Mountain that gets anthologized more often than your poem about the same fox. And your reaction? “You should go skin out the hide and have the fucking thing stuffed.” That was deliberately misleading, Andy. You knew very well coyotes had already shredded that hide. Also—damn your eyes—why do I keep addressing you as if you were alive to read this? Get the fuck out of my head, Suknaski! Get back on the page, where you belong.
“Search in vain
in the rosebushes
finding only the cold reproving wind”
(From “The Grave of an Unknown Homesteader,” The Ghosts
Call You Poor, 1978)
Exactly; we all hate wading through rose thorns.
What’s the use. I’m going to be talking to your ghost for the rest of my life. Your death is a hole in my heart no stent of time or laughter can bridge. The last time I spoke to you on the phone and asked “How are you doing?” you said “Big loneliness, Meester; big loneliness.” I could picture nearly every one of the 655 kilometres to that halfway house in Moose Jaw. Do you realize you had no goddamn right to go crazy, get sick and die before your time like that? Do I realize that is a stupid question? Yes, I do. Do I ask myself questions I already know the answer to? Apparently. It has become a form of verbal social disease these days.
Here’s what I think we were all trying to do out there, Andy: We were killing the blues, out where the only black dog was a grinning Labrador retriever. If I could have done it on purpose, I would have dropped another pheasant on your head that day, like some kind of gun-slinging Zen master saying “Yes, the sky really is falling. It’s not just an ethno-cultural memory, it’s right now; duck!”
Once, you were alive in the moment, in both body and mind. I saw your joy every day; I knew your competitive spirit. I remember those days at Lake Louise, where you worked every summer for many years. I can still see you running ahead of me, actually running up the steep mountain trail from Wapta Lodge to Sherbrooke Lake in a plume of pipe smoke, a fishing rod in your hand, a pack on your back and a huge cast iron fry pan depending from the pack frame and banging you on the ass at every step. I recall there was a hatchet head involved sometimes too, so the pan rang you like a bell at every jump, terrifying any grizzly bear within earshot.
Remember how you made the first cast at least a hundred feet from the edge of the lake? Sometimes the lure landed on dry ground. I swear to god you built a fire of driftwood with one hand and reeled in the first trout of the day with the other. You never stopped moving, or allowed yourself a grin, until you had that first fish sizzling in a half pound of butter, mixed with shots of Worcestershire sauce and homemade bingo. Then you would reload your pipe with that mundungus blend of willow bark, kinnikinnick and Sutliff Mixture 79, snickering with glee, while I stood there gasping for breath, still trying to put my rod together for the first cast.
In a phone call back in 1989, your voice trembling, you asked, “Do you think we could make it up to Sherbrooke Lake one more time?”
“Are you kidding? Listen, I’m sending you a bus ticket today. I’ll carry you up there on my back if I have to.” You chuckled sadly at the notion, and then there was a long silence; the most prolific poet and letter writer I ever knew was too weak to even write a note.
Clinical depression is no joke, but then neither is so-called normal life for a 70-year-old human, so I’ve discovered. Your fierce will pulled you through before, so try again anyway, like all of us crazy bastards have to do, I should have said, even to no avail; wake up for those who loved you and needed you. Don’t abandon us to our own darkness, leaving us with nothing but hindsight and maturity. Though the trail to the abyss is blazed with poems, step back, back from the brink and let that sonofabitch swallow its own disappointment. Let’s step from this dead gray room outside, where the prairie sun waits to throw its friendly arms around your shoulders, and come dwell, once again, in the land of the living.
July 30, 1942, Wood Mountain, Sask.–
May 3, 2012, Moose Jaw
Sid Marty is the author of five books of poetry and five of non-fiction. He is currently at work on a new book of poems.
Illustration by Jonathan Dyck