Denis Stokes

In Tranquility

After the satellites, 2003 (Armagh Planetarium)

Too much, this world with us;
blowing up each minute’s bridge, hankering for ...
I want that luck in Putney—
reading Keats, Franz Werfer singing London, Drinkwater
at the Railway Bar, my love once
serving there. Now, my pints, her hunt for Oxfam rags.

Winter carries bones. Northern Ontario:
a robin’s early February song and yet I can’t gather
a morning when I’ve felt so sad—
though warm and sheltered, as if the pump I’m about
to discover shot to hell is this heart
my dying father praised—

unknowing. Each day I keep praying
for my brother’s lungs, keep cursing for the kids
in Kabul, Gaza, Ekwendeni, Baghdad, Attawapiskat,
Winneway. My own children rustle like November squirrels
nested, threatening my untrapped gratitude.

A moon and a moon’s turn ago:
London ...wet and cobbled light, boxed flowers, December,
that Carmelite chapel all hay
and flame and always the amazing women,
one homely and focused on her way to the Thames
with crab traps, that water holding still—
Keats’s phlegm, the head of Thomas More.

But for the heroes, this much healing,
could we ever be? Now, five white points flake,
fall then land on frozen ground,
the war god watching us with stars as we scratch
like roosters at his red lens, Spirit importuned,
borealis of crystal vapours, lost light, cock crow.

I will be up late tonight, under
the moon’s seas, satellites of spirit, war, facing a white
page flagged into a surrendering terror,
each mouse silenced, bloated with my basement’s
puddles, or pointing, clicking as I recollect
each moment blown up—pride, anger, envy,
like a letter to myself, laced with ricin.



While reading Osip Mandelstam in that library
where, years ago, I first learned to read, a printout
pops out of the pages. Four books taken—
the branch, Deer Park—a theme I’ve prayed
for almost a year now: Gautama’s fires, the Wasi
wild with antlers and white tails, last week’s
collision, then that place where, visiting, I walk
often, just south of St. Clair, the ravine
dark as any waiting for light while everywhere
culture crashes down, then the dogs come,
the women and the men in love. I wonder
who is this person who would read what I
would read. I imagine a woman, lonely
for the god within that might heal each
of us, the holy and broken witnesses,
their prophetic silences gracing into tale,
song ...Franz Kafka catching the castle’s
trying twilight, some final glimmer falling
like a benevolent judgement from above,
the moment’s pogrom against the laughing face
of the Baal Shem Tov. Now, I must get back there
soon to Lawrence, the homeless friend I’ve met—
each possibility within the darkness of our
pockets. He might know: who is this friend,
silent across this Siberian page of deepening self
so true that the soul inflames and enrages
these agendas of blood and lies, or this woman
perhaps—too beautiful and distant to love,
but who might read this, weeping, and receive.


Pole Dancer, Bujagali Rapids

For Chris Karahunga

Gnarled carving come alive out of tree,
into, with each blooming moment, a tree’s
reaching as he roots himself and sky
turning, leaves, this is Quasimodo beside
these waters rushing within the darkness, sun
above, buzzard hard. This is a twisted Christ
twisting on his stick, his dance heavy
with the gymnastics of silence, this river
becoming the muffled echoes of Amin’s screams
and the old dreams of Soyinka, Kenyatta,
the work carried once by the Shire away
from Livingstone, now mere ghost blood
over the lake, the Arab traders near
Nkhotakhota long gone as the memory of
tribes and old betrayals. He is making
something of himself, the Bujagali Rapids
dancing to his dancing on this wooden leg.
He is dervish and drunken leprechaun,
this pot gathering with coins covering eyes
of the recent dead, now balanced beyond
himself, right arm a leverage against the ...
certainty of a fall. Now he half somersaults,
car wheeling wagon, some ghost horse
following. Now he leaps on some invisible
bungee ancestors’ gods might save
before the impact with a patient ground.
The cheers come as though angels’ thunder.
We grow tiredly amused, look out at water,
almost ashamed here as his dance gathers
wind and a stamina’s grasp, wondering what
could we do, a veil torn here, all cathedral
as we glimpse this impossible man not man?
What would we, will we ever do? Here? Now.


Sheep in Skies

Pure hands of saints
reaching down to heal
this bruised jewel

or Queen Anne’s lace
on a hill green with a god’s
satisfaction? The sheep in the sky
wander alone or flock
like gulls flocking after fishbones
worried by the wind as it chases them.

Into my sleep I have counted them
beyond my window as they leaped
the driftwood fences of night-sounds.
At times, they’ve become
the graceful limbs of some woman
I have wished to remember more
but have only dreamed
until night’s page whitens
into torrents, some fluffy
heaven I’m afraid to name.
There are many birds I’ve killed.

Some mornings, I can hear
the doves muttering that the belfry
across from the L.O.L. has a bell
that is always ringing, like
echoes of their wingtips, poised
on the cable tugging them awake.

The faceless ceiling, the breathing
beside me—these are quiet
before the birds move.
Bell beats winging,
they leave us counting down-strokes
and time. Sheep lost in open fields,
worried by the wind they chase
as it chases them. If God’s lamb has hung there

just as I had been nodding off, bleeding
where the wood might cross,
catching wire, still
and silent in a courage I could never recall, then
my sleep is sweet and long
with the labours of my own weaknesses
and ends early
with the first spear of sunlight
into this room, his body where I
can almost live.


Denis Stokes

Practice: For us, a trying ...incarnate spirit/compassionate imagination

Poetry and prayer are the great integrators. I would pray poetry continually. I’ve been trying to meditate twice a day within the Benedictine tradition ( ...weaving my word between pitches, with canoe strokes) for close to thirty years. I shake up approaches, explore other traditions, practices. Then there’s much spiritual reading, listening /being in woods, beside waters, in coffeeshops, pubs. On streets.

I approach poetry as devotional practice. Apart from those times that lightening might strike, there’s much work in waiting, keeping vigil in watching/listening until out of disciplines of love, I might see, sing.

Denis Stokes was born in Toronto and grew up in Scarborough. A graduate of University of Toronto and Vermont College, he has lived and taught in various northern situations in Canada, often working with First Nations Communities. He now lives in northern Ontario with his wife with whom he has been graced with four almost grown-up children. His work has appeared in journals and anthologies in Canada, the U.S., and Ireland. He is an avid sports and outdoors enthusiast and has been involved in theatre and social justice organizations. He teaches at Nipissing University.

More on Denis Stokes' work can be found on our Links page.