Poetry

‘Grade IV Math Homework’ and other poems by Francis Fernandes

By: Francis Fernandes

Grade IV Math Homework

I’m trying to watch the hockey game,
but my daughter the Roman numeral girl,
impetuous, bold, but still in need
of her own fan base, changes X’s, V’s
and C’s and matchstick lines
into the more familiar single-digit jots
right before my eyes.
Our weird squirrely notations, she proudly
informs me (as though she had excavated
a whole treasure trove of plates
and bones), were invented
by sages in both India and Babylon.

It’s between periods, and the Habs
just can’t buy a goal. Management is inept.
Their last cup is a generation gone,
and their last star center… too long even
to remember. But here she is, my daughter,
in front of the Forum, dressed in a blue
tunic, adorned with a pretty bulla,
negotiating with a camel merchant
from the Orient. He does a quick mental
calculation to find out how much
he has to give up to gain an orchard
of pomegranates. The charming
illusionist that she is, my daughter changes
the amount with greater speed
back into those commanding empire
ciphers, insisting the previous stock
did not pan out so she wants that young
sniper with two fifty-goal seasons.
A patrol of centurions moves in
and she gets nervous. But she won’t
leave until she gets what she wants. Finally,
the genie behind the methodology
flies out of the lamp and like a labyrinthine
beast squinting at the light of day,
drives out the bullies and unscrupulous
money-changers, and reinstates
the underdog.

I tell her the period is about to start
and she should go brush her teeth.
But time means nothing to her. What’s
a weekend compared with all of history
(which, true enough, is her other
favourite subject). She looks at the screen
for a minute, then reaches for her
Prismacolors, and still babbling
away, dreams up a picture of a pink-robed
girl sneaking out of a wooden horse,
dropping petals like half-rhyming words
pulled out of her soul – hoping, I suppose,
to slay the venal formulas
that snapping senators and prelates
throw her way.

I tell her it’s time for bed and to go
make peace with her brothers. She delays
the obvious way by turning her attention
back to the game. She asks me why
I watch this massacre if I know they will lose.
I can’t explain it. For a brief instant
I feel silly wearing the tricolour jersey.
But then, as she trots out of the room,
unconcerned, I feel like a child
again and pray for a win.

###

Myths

À propos joke gifts, I wasn’t so
chicken and slow on the uptake
this time when I unwrapped
the Hammer of Thor bottle opener
and had the presence of mind
to admit it didn’t quite live up
to the automatic closing toilet seat
from the year before.
They laughed, of course,
but what I did not say
was how it also reminded me
of that time long ago when I left
a hammer on the roof of my father’s
car just before we drove from
the cottage in the mountains back
to our home in the city. I was always
doing things like that. But I was
rarely favoured by the gods.
Somewhere on the highway,
though, we stopped for gas,
and as I stepped out for some air,
holy pretzel there it still was,
resting with all its weight
on the freshly waxed armour.
I had never been hit on the head
with a hammer before. I reached
for it, amazed, wondering how
this could happen. My father,
for his part, a bearded and burly sort
of man, loomed there with the gas
pump in his hand and this mighty
station wagon filling the space
between us, and his look – at first
curious then scathing (once he saw
what had almost happened) –
was enough to wither me
and send me retreating
into the safety of the backseat,
clutching this baffling object like
some craven novice god
in a Norse saga.

###

Past Landscape

Every now and then,
when the lights are dim
and no one else is around,
I find myself on Google Earth,
looking for the street
where I used to live.
The first time it happened
I was taken aback by the mere
technical feat: how, equipped with
nothing but a computer
and a telephone line,
I could actually, physically,
call forth the realm
where all of my childhood adventures
and dramas had played themselves out.
I was, in some away, like a child again,
sitting there before the screen
and letting my fingers play with the keys,
feeling something akin to the giddiness
of one of those endless games
of street-hockey.

I didn’t even have to enter the name
of the place: because what first
hits the eye when you visit
this remarkable site, is the spatial curve
of our blue and green planet,
and all you have to do is move the mouse
over any geographical location
and the globe will shift accordingly.
Double click and you start the process
of zooming in.

This is where I almost faltered,
that first time. There I was, entranced,
as the city – my city – came into view.
Like a snagged fish, it rose and then grew,
and all at once I was a man tumbling
from space, a time-travelling
angler reeling in a long forgotten species.
Or, better still, a fledgling god
in a business suit, grown numb through
distance and habit,
burdened with the weight
of professional concerns but released
for these seconds of virtual life,
plunging suddenly into the tangled fray
of a very mortal past.

But, as I say, there I was
from my exalted perspective,
watching a grid of streets blossom
and fill the screen. Twinging
with excitement, I zoomed in
on my neighbourhood. Familiar street names
appeared out of nowhere, weirdly,
as though this world had in my absence
become terribly verbatim:
I saw the ghost of my mother
stepping out the front door with a piece
of white chalk in her hand. I saw her
stop the traffic with the other hand
and then carefully inscribe
all those names on the cracked
pot-holed asphalt (that would have
been so much like her, in fact).

Having thought of my mother,
how could I not hear her silvery
flowing voice calling us in for dinner.
And now, with our very street corner
and the shape of our house
in plain view, how could I not
recall that odd tug in the side
as the game was about to be called
in the happy dusk.
And not once more feel
that certain nudge, like a premonition,
that the universe we had fashioned
for ourselves could not go on forever.
The slapshots and head fakes. Those
impossible saves. The doubling over
with laughter and the burning lungs.
The staring off into the dark blue
distance between plays:
as though, even then, as a brash
street-smart kid with outlandish dreams,
something told me that another kind
of move would one day be required
to bridge all these moments of freedom
and remember what it was like
to live with every fibre
of your body in the place
that was, so irrevocably,
and for so long,
here and now.

###

Lottery

One day in December my father comes
up to me and says they’re going to announce
the lottery winner during the hockey game.
So he wants me to pay close attention.
I pay close attention, like any
seven-year-old would if he was told
to stare at a television screen that was
switched on. I am mesmerized.
I try to figure out what is going on
amid these furious motions, the endless
weaving, and this strange palaver
about passing and checking and off-sides.
Checking? What are they checking?
The winning number? I have no idea
what the difference is between a lottery
number and all those numbers circling
about and crashing into each other.
Nor about those other numbers,
something about a score. It’s true,
I always was a bit slow. But this is
different. I know nothing, and yet here
I am in a strange kind of trance.

My father rolled the dice when he brought
the family to Canada. What he knew
was palm trees and white beaches
and mangoes and cashews and water
rose apples. And hot hot summers.
He loves to cook up a pungent chicken
curry. So why should he give a hoot
about ice hockey? It has only taken me
one or two winters of snow and cold
to become initiated to this most pristine
of seasons. For my father, though,
a lifetime would not be enough.
One winter he fell on some ice and
fractured a wrist. He despises the cold.
For him winter is an eternal exile,
like Ovid’s Black Sea, except even
worse because you have to put on layer
after layer just to go out into the fresh air.

Having children is, in a way, like playing
the lottery. You struggle to start a new
life in an economically and socially
better world. And you pay a lot
of money for a top-notch education.
And yet still they might not make it
into that top-notch career.

Some years later we’re invited to a dinner
party, and out of nowhere a professor
of European history asks me a question
about the Thirty Years’ War, as if to test
the fruit of this expensive education.
He asks nothing about the Habs-Bruins
semi-finals that spring, which kept me
awake at night, a brutal battle
if ever there was. History fascinates me,
but only if it includes names like
Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe and Rocket
Richard. I shame our father, of course,
with my muddled answer.
I feel like that character in One Hundred
Years of Solitude who right at the start
of the novel faces a firing squad and
remembers how his father introduced him
to ice. Showed him ice and, in this way,
changed his destiny.
On the drive home, my father blurts out
his disappointment, complaining to
our mother that my head is always
turned the wrong way (a favourite
expression of his) and asking her why
I can’t pay attention in class. Why can’t
I learn something useful for a change.
Life, he shouts to the whole car, as we drive
past the Forum and storefronts with hockey
jerseys and silver cups in the windows,
Life isn’t a lottery, you know!

###

Pondering Ovid’s Exile

The air is grey and nothing
moves, the birch leaves
drooping like a shaggy fist
of seaweed lying stranded
by the Black Sea.
The precise machines
of the empire in the distance
minus their whirring
and droning, shut down
for this vigil, the world
poised for discovery, gone
on retreat. It seems you’ve
done your duty, the fruit
has been rubbed, your hair
combed and oiled, and
yesterday’s news pondered,
used and boiled down
to its essence. You are ready
for what comes next. But
you also see your own
impudence for what it is,
the way you showed off
the barbs of your tongue
when individuals mourned,
instead of minding your
own business. Your father
once told you, write about
what you know best.
He drank to excess
and his liver gave
in the end. And that
was that. That was that,
like they said after the wars
in Asia were over
and his life and pension
were cut. What you knew
was the sound of bottles
troubling your sleep
like a death knell foretold.
Still, a part of you hopes
it’s just a matter of time
before this water flows
on and a tiny flame flickers,
a lyre string shimmers
and a shadow stirs,
your exile now revoked,
your language restored,
your family returned
to the fold of your embrace.

Categories: Poetry

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