From May 2022, The La Romita 2020 Online Poetry Community’s Kaminsky Prompt Poems – Part Four

A still picture from the puppet show, Deaf Republic, performed by Maribor Puppet Theatre, Maribor, Solvenia. Next performance, Sept. 11th, 2022






















A City Like a Guillotine Shivers on Its Way to the Neck

— Ilya Kaminsky from A City Like a Guillotine Shivers
on its Way to the Neck
from Deaf Republic, Graywolf Press, 2019

it is a matter of physics,
weight, acceleration, impact
the sharpness of the edge
the softness of tissue
the fragility of bone

it is all science
cold and impassionate
but even the blade
in its steel
knows it deals

the mechanics may be
electronic, lethal
but there will be
bodies broken
someone will grieve
blood will be shed

war is not a matter
at distance
but intimate
no matter how
it is delivered

somebody builds
the bombs
somebody fires
the weapons

when the place of living –
city, town, village, farm
becomes a theatre
for death
trembling and sorrow
like a river in flood
black, cold,
seep in
wash over
wash away
the cloak of civility
lay cruelty bare

Daniel Scott, May, 2022

Preface to the Series: The La Romita 2020 Online Poetry Community’s Kaminsky Prompt Poems

In June 2020 a group of poets gathered on-line for a week’s generative poetry retreat that I facilitated. Most of the poets had been registered for a ten-day poetry retreat at the La Romita School of Art which was cancelled because of the pandemic. Thus, the La Romita 2020 Online Retreat community was formed and subsequently most, but not all, of those poets have gathered three or four times a year to share poems inspired by prompts suggested by the La Romita 2020 Online participants. (There were three on-site-in-Italy retreats that I led before 2020 and the fourth one was held this past May.)

One of the recent La Romita Online poetry prompt challenges came a month or so after the beginning of the war in Ukraine in late February 2022. That challenge was based on lines chosen by Calgary-based poet Joan Shillington from the Ukrainian/American poet Ilya Kaminsky’s 2019 poetry collection, Deaf Republic published by Graywolf Press. To see a link to my review of Deaf Republic in The Literary Review please click here.

Kaminsky’s book, one for the ages, feels like an eerie premonition of the Ukrainian war as it is set in an imagined town/city called Vasenka invaded by a foreign army. When I look up Vasenka online I discover it’s a surname most commonly found in Russia and Ukraine. That’s why using this collection to inspire our own poems in response to the war in Ukraine seemed so appropriate.

After hearing these poems in a Zoom gathering this past May I wanted to feature these poems in a blog series to honour these important poems and the people of Ukraine and to help us who live far away from that war and its atrocities to stay awake to its grim reality. And in this we also honour Ilya and his now much-shared poem from Deaf Republic: We Lived Happily During the War.

This is Part Three of a four-part series. Part One featured poems by Nancy Issenman, Pat Scanlan and Linda Crosfield. Part Two featured Sarah Wilson, kymunro and Amrita Sondhi. Part Three featured Tonya Lailey, Joan Shillington and Donna Friesen. Part Four features Daniel Scott and me, Richard Osler.

Part Four of The La Romita 2020 Online Poetry Community’s Kaminsky Prompt Poems

Victoria-based poet Daniel Scott

How the first lines of Daniel Scott’s poem fall on the page like a blade. a guillotine. How each stanza seems to be the shape of a guillotine blade, one that keeps falling to its chilling conclusion: lay cruelty bare.

Daniel is an accomplished poet based in Victoria B.C. He has published eight poetry collections since 2012 including Travels with Athóma, released this month by Aeolus House out of Toronto. And he was the editor for the anthology, Voicing Suicide, 2020. And until a few years ago Daniel, wearing a signature waistcoat as seen in his photo here, could be found hosting the Planet Earth Poetry Series in Victoria. His introductions were a study in how they should be done!

I am struck in Daniel’s poem by the heart breaking back and forth between abstractions and concrete imagery. Abstractions, how we keep things up and out there. Concrete images, how we are brought down to earth, the grit guts of living. Physics, mechanics, weight and then edge, tissue, bone. This dance, stanza by stanza between distance and intimacy. And then stark images of a river in flood/ black, cold, that intimacy, that detail and then the last word to abstractions – war’s easiest lexicon:


like a river in flood
black, cold,
seep in
wash over
wash away
the cloak of civility
lay cruelty bare

Richard Osler reading in Toronto, 2016

Well, the next and final poet in this series is me, Richard Osler. For me the great dividend of writing a poem is the surprise. And this one ambushed me. First the anger over guns, gun laws or lack of them in the U.S. and then the bigger surprise of the one time I went duck hunting with my father.

And right now, perhaps the biggest surprise, as I re-read my poem and realized I had avoided the most difficult part. It was not just my father who killed a bird that day.That darkness. But me as well. That darkness. My father teaching me shoot. And worse, he invited me to shoot a duck just landed. Something he would never have done himself. I did aim at that sitting duck and killed it. I have never hunted since. And now, I have added that part of the story. A huge sadness I had buried. The poem had already captured that falling, that sadness, but now it is much more personal. Holds the more difficult details.


In Memoriam – a Glosa

I do not hear gunshots,
but watch birds splash over the backyards of the suburbs. How bright is the sky
as the avenue spins on its axis.
How bright is the sky (forgive me), how bright.

—Ilya Kaminsky from In a Time of Peace from Death Republic

Is this the lie no metaphor will heal: a gun
is a friend, will keep you safe? Keep you
alive at all costs? My heart, no gun, keeps
me alive. Think about it: my heart in this
body beating. Keeping up the beat. A gun
has its notes, its wisp of smoke, but no beat. It takes
the beat out of a body and beats it, as long
as another body walks away holding the gun.
If you call that winning. Here, my heart beats and
I do not hear gunshots,

I hear marsh wrens and redwing blackbirds, trumpeter swans and herons
and sometimes, a horse, its neighing in a neighbours field and now I hear
my good heart beating as it has for almost seventy-one years, keeping me
alive and in this house, no guns, not even the shotgun my father left me
in his will, the shotgun he used that day to pull those mallards out of the sky
as if the ground that met them or the cold water of the marsh was worthy
of holding their warmth or their hearts, still, now, in a dire silence his gun
made from that day and worse, the stunned silence my gun made, my only
killing with a gun and what did I understand of a father’s love that spoke
in whispers not the thunder of a gun and how I wish I had done nothing
but watch birds splash over the backyards of the suburbs. How bright is the sky

I might have been able to say,
instead of what I saw: how dark
a gun may make a day, how a heart
can blacken, feel as if it might
drown in its own blood and a miracle,
what a boy might imagine flying to be,
could be proven false, this easily
mocked, and what a boy saw as an avenue
of air holding miracles, could vanish
as the avenue spins on its axis

out of tune with time and gunshots and what
remains falls, now, as helpless as rain, knowing
only how to fall and keep falling where a boy
without knowing, began to fall and in his falling
there was no sweetness of an apple in his mouth, no
promise of freedom, only a gun-barrel angel driving
him out of a paradise of the wild, the unfettered ones,
the ones he hears again, now, decades later, here
over another marsh, the day, after a storm, gone bright.
How bright is the sky (forgive me), how bright.

Richard Osler, May, 2022

And so ends this series. My gratitude for all the poets who allowed their wonderful poems top be published here.

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