The Bigness of Small Poems – #31 in a Series – Different Takes on Old Men – Maylor, Cummings, Owen

Micheline Maylor - Calgary's Poet Laureate and author of Little Wildheart

Micheline Maylor – Calgary’s Poet Laureate and author of Little Wildheart

Three dogs and an old man 

Out of orchard they tumble.
Dog over dog, an undulation.
Playful, brown. First two, then another
tail, exclamation, punctuation. 
A man, a silhouette, Zeus-like, 
wielding his walking staff.
Creator of all things joyful and strong, 
all beings four-legged and two, 
he’s here to say, jubilance is a stick,
go fetch it.

Micheline Maylor from Little Wildheart (Robert Kroetsch Series), The University of Alberta Press, 2017

There is more I want to say (and will in another post) about Micheline Maylor’s most recent book which came out earlier this year. I am into my third reading! Maylor, Calgary’s poet laureate, covers, among many themes, the big poetic ones: death and suffering and does so in her signature style, with a music and imagery that confronts both those topics with a defiant aliveness. Recognizes them, acknowledges them, but offers no white flag! For me, this aliveness in her poems defines her voice, makes it memorable, makes hers a voice to be grateful for. Its reverence and irreverence!

But I couldn’t resist, first, featuring this swallow-perfect small poem of hers. Full of her signature music, her playfulness and her seriousness. How she surprises me by going from this playful tumble of dogs to a god-like dog walker, far more than an old man throwing any old stick. But instead an eternal voice saying to the reader, pay attention, be jubilant like these dogs!

…jubilance is a stick,/ go fetch it. Yes. A line I need to remember and recite daily! Too often I stand holding a rock of seriousness and dread. Isn’t it only for my dog the jubilance of a stick! No. Maylor reminds me it’s for me too!

Even better, Maylor’s poem took me on a poetic journey! In her poem I heard cross-talk echoes from two other well-known poems. One by American poet e.e. cummings and the other by Wilfred Owen, famous war poet from WW 1 whose ant-war poems are such an epitaph for him, since he never survived it. Here are these poems and the phrase “old men” given a different, ominous context:

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old
may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it's sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young
and may myself do nothing usefully
and love yourself so more than truly
there's never been quite such a fool who could fail
pulling all the sky over him with one smile

e.e. cummings from 100 Selected Poems, Grove Press, Inc., 1959

I don’t know if cummings was being gender specific with his: if men don’t hear them… but when I make that comment gender specific it chills me to the bone. And when he adds: even if its sunday may I be wrong/ for whenever men are wrong they are not young I experience another frisson of dread.

With many men today and may I add, women, too, young and old, so sure they are right and my disdain of their surety I then have to wonder if I too, harbor a rightness that is making me old. Am I the fool who can’t pull the sky over him with one smile? Am I an old man in spirit not just in body, the old person who forgets jubilance is a stick!?

The next poem sears me every time I read it. Its horrific last two lines. And it is gender specific. The men who call us to war. Often, old men. How Wilfred Owen takes the myth of Abram and Isac and makes it a metaphor of the old men who sacrifice the young men in war. No sticks carrying jubilance, just grenades, carrying death.

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isac the first born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When Lo! An angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not they hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in the thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son, -
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) from

How Owen takes an old story and turns it on its head and makes what he says even more devastating. Suddenly Abram becomes the statesmen of the First War, refusing clemency, refusing life and peace over war and death.

But yes, there are alive and livening old men and women and I want to be one of them, I want to hear the voices of little birds, I want to be the man pulling all the sky over him with one smile, I want to be Maylor’s Zeus-like old man throwing stick after stick, and fetching each one, jubilant!.