Martha Royea – #2 in the Patrick’s Poets Series – Poets I Met Through the Poetry Writing Retreats of Canadian Poet Patrick Lane

Canadian Poet Martha Royea (1941 – )

The Return Journey
— After T.S. Eliot, The Return of the Magi

“They’re coming! They’re coming back!” I went shouting,
skirts flying and my hair not combed; I ran to the barns
to tell father, and then to the cookhouse, and then to shoo the gambling men
from the doorway again, and light the lamps, for it was almost dark.
And, there being still time, I pushed my hair up into a pretty cap and
put on a clean apron before going out to the road to greet them,
for they had complained on the way through of cold reception
and mean lodgings everywhere on their travels.

But when they were near I saw that they rode like defeated soldiers instead of kings.
They’d left here wearing fine embroidered robes,
crowns and jeweled bands and – oh, it was splendid
to see the three of them, tall and straight atop the swaying camels,
snow and mud splashing out behind them and all their men
and beasts of burden following in the slush.
“We go as kings to greet a king,” the dark one said to his grumpy camel man,
and I thought King Herod of course, knowing of no other,
but father, who travels often into the towns, spat on the ground, “Pah! Herod is but
Ceasar’s ass. A rumoured true King of Jews is what they’re looking for. Idiocy!”

And so, when they came back this way all draggled and slumped,
I knew my father was right and they had not found their king.
But they had found something; it made their faces grim,
and they were silent over their food and retired early
and the next morning they were away at dawn.
I watched them moving slowly up the long hill eastward
into the sun just rising in a sky as red as blood.

Martha Royea, unpublished, 2009

It was at Hollyhock Retreat Center on Cortes Island, about ninety miles up the coast from Vancouver in 2005, I first met Martha Royea. It was the first of many Patrick Lane generative poetry writing retreats that we both attended. And at each of those retreats our friendship deepened and my appreciation for Martha’s striking poetic voice kept growing. As did my admiration for Martha’s courage both as a poet and a woman telling of difficult things in her poems  like domestic abuse, but not in a victim’s voice, but with a self-aware and fearless clarity. How in poems Martha is able to embody the ghosts of her narrator’s and our collective past, face them and then, let them go.

And as I think of Martha and how it is she first published in her seventies I think of the similiarities between Martha and the celebrated American poet Ruth Stone who didn’t become well known until her seventies and eighties.  And I think of the similiarities in the narrative force of the writing by both women. And how their narrators so fearlessly and without any shlockiness or self pity describe painful losses. Stone , the loss from suicide. Royea, the loss from violent domestic abuse.

The confidence of Martha’s poetic voice is so apparent in Martha’s 2009 poem above. How she captures the voice of that young woman awaiting the return of the three Wise Men. And not only does she capture that voice she takes on the challenge of writing a poem after one of T.S. Eliot’s most celebrated poems and nails it. Makes it new. I have attached Eliot’s poem below so you too might see how Martha’s poem stands so wonderfully on its own terms! How she animates so wonderfully the young girl narrator. Tells an old story made new through those eyes. And a sadness here. A sadness of a realization that adds years to that child. That makes her realize somehow, her father, that discouraging adult voice, had been right but not for the reasons he thought.

Martha demonstrates her poetic chops so many ways in this poem. How she constructs it. How in the first four lines she creates a breathless anticipation. No period for four lines. The language creates the sense of pell mell haste. Then the  thud of the “k” in dark that slams this introduction shut.  And the premonition created by “dark”. The dark of the coming slaughter of young babies by Herod, the so-called innocents and the coming death of baby Jesus years later. Also the coming of the dark into the young narrators innocence. And how this poem of hers is another way of lighting a lamp. Bringing new light into an old story.

A few more craft observations out of many more I could make. The long line that begins the second stanza pulls me up every time. Another Martha trademark. Use use of line and also her use  of a seemingly simple statement and description to say volumes. ….they rode like defeated soldiers instead of kings. A wham of a description. And also how in this stanza she shifts and time travels back to when the girl first saw them in their glory. And in the third stanza the assonance of the “i” in king and grim. The grim undertones of this story. A King (Herod) who will kill babies because of the Wise men and a King (Jesus) who will be killed. The grimness of the death implied in this birth. And this subtle echo in Martha’s poem back to Eliot’s poem: this Birth was/ Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

Martha’s distinctive voice showed itself so clearly during that first retreat. The voice in this heart-slammer of a poem:

Love Shows His Teeth

Love shows his teeth –
so unexpected
a shudder stops the heart
then everything

the way her breath caught
at prayer – the sudden nothing –
a raised fist –

Marth Royea from Crossing Sleepers, Limited Edition Chapbook, Hollyhock, 2005

This theme of domestic violence is one Martha has returned to often in her poems. From her  2012 chapbook because it was the fifties these lines: because you hungered after love, because you killed it when you found it… Ouch. And these: ..but I / loved him/ I guess/ back then and/ he must have said/ black eyes go/ with fuck-headed/ sorry assed mornings/ like you/ go with me babe/ and I must have said/ I guess you’re right. Double ouch. No sense of self pity in this. Bald and clean observation. The ravaging simplicity of: and I must have said/ I guess you’re right.

I am always careful not to assume that a poem’s narrator is the same as the writer. This way a poem can more easily give voice to others and not just the writer. But it is hard not to see details of Martha’s life in these poems. The courage of a young woman fleeing an abusive marriage with her two young children. And then in this next poem a woman acknowledging her love and attraction for a husky-throat bad-ass lezzzbian. This bold and and astonishing narrative tour de force of Martha’s, its kinetic boom-box energy, the way it brings to life the isness of the narrator’s erotic energy on a hot and sultry Montreal summer day. And the unforgettable knockout second to last line in the poem that I first heard read out on the spot at a retreat in 2010. It’s impact still as real to me now as then!

Leaving Green

Montreal, hot-as-hell August 1968. I lope along
an early morning side street of modest homes
wearing a black boy’s body, swinging
the biggest boom box you ever saw in one hand,
finger-snapping time with the other,
my lips mouthing Motown all around the town, oooh ya!

Oh, sure, I’m watching the boy from the third floor balcony
of the only walk-up on the street, my little earthbound
heart pulling me down, down into nothing but envy
‘til I turn around to where a husky-throat bad-assed lezzzbian
sits I her underpants at the kitchen table looking me up and down,
sweat tricking over her white breasts and a sidelong grin
like Mama knows best and I too wanna be a long-limbed
black boy, boom-boxing the world out of my way
in no-future, no-past hypno-bliss mojo.
What skinny white lesbian wouldn’t?

And me, summer-struck, I think I’m in love with this
pheromone machine who’s made it her business
to keep me at a distance, protect me from “the life”,
by whuich she means there are drugs involved,
and sex, sometimes in groups. I imagine a smoky room
all mattress, no lights, limbs and lips and moans
I’ve never met before and probably wouldn’t
want to on any dark-night side-street, or even
in the light of day – maybe especially in the light of day.
And smells. I imagine Melmac salad bowlas full os
multicolour mix n match-not jellybeans by any means.
You, she says to me, are a green girl from the country,
and furthermore far from home. This life is not for you.

It was worse than that; I was a married woman
with two children under six. I was running away from a fist
on a spring and a hand stuck to a beer glass perpetually full.
Running away to a sweat-steamy kitchen on a street where
black boys swing up an everyday feast for the eyes.,
set the beat of the neighborhood hormones throbbing
and move on, move on, medicine men in the making.

I was what, twenty eight? We shared a sun sign, it had to be fate.
It was lust; you know it! The bird in my belly went haywire
the first time I heard her speak, and that was years before
on the Canadair factory floor. Skinny boy-girl,
swaggering me invoices to copy in the photostat machine
that burned chemical holes in my clothes and made
my eyes burn red. That wicked husky chuckle,
those half-hooded eyes. Jesus, was I scared!

It’s because of you I married the bastard, I tell her.
Go home, she says. Come here, she means. Doesn’t she?
I cross the floor, cunt full of feathers, I cross the floor, kiss her on the lips.
I’m gong, I say. I’m going. Not home.

Martha Royea from because it was the fifities, 26 leaves with little bird media, 2012

And here now the T.S. Eliot poem:

Journey of the Magi (1927)

“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

T.S. Eliot from T.S. Eliot Collected Poems 1909-1962, The Franklin Library, 1976



  1. Heiderose Garnett
    Posted December 30, 2019 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    Martha, I’m a great fan of your writing. Your poems always catch me unaware and then I want to read them again and again.

  2. Sheila Rosen
    Posted December 31, 2019 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Oh, Martha, I love you and your poetry.

  3. Amrita
    Posted January 3, 2020 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Thank you! Spent the morning of Jan : 2020 with this blog
    And Martha’s remarkable skillful poem that you shared with us.

  4. Linda Crosfield
    Posted January 5, 2020 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Another fan of the one and only Martha Royea here. So great to read your words again. You pull off some of the best turns of phrase ever. Miss you!

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