Archive for the ‘Writing Posts’ Category

An older poem from Nothing Vanishes. To remember my father who died 22 years ago today on July 16, 1995. He died the year before this book came out although most of the poems in it including this one were written before he died.


Last Words To A Father

There can be none, only a short wave or certain smile that comes again when you are asleep or talking to your daughter, her head tossed a particular way. On some Saturday or Sunday you will call home and there will be no answer only a long ringing in your ear, and as you put down the receiver the words will form again at the back of your mind, and you will think of a particular color or taste, and you will open your mouth as if to speak but you will step forward instead and look into your hands as if they held something beautiful, and as you do you will begin to cry, and from across the room a thin pale smoke will drift as if your father has just finished smoking one of his strong cigarettes. You will stare at the empty chair. The house quiet on a quiet street. Off in the distance a dog will bark at someone. The world will become so faint that you will begin to see behind it the face of your father and his eyes. How did they get there?

Here is a new poem from my book Line (coming 2017) to remember my father who died 21 years ago today.

Dad by Rock 1940sMy Dad on Smith Farm 1940sPicture 001


This precarious perch
our one go
the row of lights
blinding at times
but around them only dark
a hedgerow of rhododendrons
spiked intent
behind the facade
a child plays with spark plugs
the timing of my father’s engine
the grin godly
mischief how it all leaps ahead
the timing belt on his truck
could snap sends stars
scattering into the night
no one draws near
all wrongs not righted
but propped up somehow
every creature
complete with some sort of spine
or other mechanism
for explaining
that the perch is gained
but once and not for that long
the moving parts always different
if my father looks now to one side
as a bear or beaver
hurries in the underbrush
down the way a creek swells its banks
the birch and poplars around
greedy for all that water
roots pushed so deep
they hit rock and progress sideways

my father parks
on the other side of the creek
carries a 30/30 rifle on his shoulder
finds a rock to settle
disturbs the moss and sits
waits for a deer
there are few noises
now and then
the huff of wind
leaves flutter
or to his right a bird of some sort
calls once
a squirrel chatters
then bounds between trees
all this movement
how it all keeps
spinning out of control
if not brought here
then how
does it come to be?
all of it a lurch of some sort
explained only in some
unravelling prayer
it is autumn
my father the deer hunter
wears running shoes
red checkered hat
pushed back exposing forehead
glasses scratched
teeth mostly gone
he holds the rife a steady aim
he was once stars
and will be stars again
and is stars now
but that day he
is all of us
ashamed holding fast
telling the truth
in his head
he craves a cigarette
but stays focused
hears the deer
to his right
advancing toward the creek
for water
each animal
needing precisely what
the earth serves up
even my father here
moments from killing the deer
sees how everything he needs
has been provided
all of it working fine
before laws
before the amassing of wealth
before that nimble thing
called history
that prepared argument
even a god would shun
if one were asserted into place
the precarious perch
even my father
then only a decade or so
from being dead too
he has known this bush
since a boy and now
hunts it as an old man
the deer too has a journey
that took it to this
very creek
its head a truthful place too
even if my father has no sense
of what its thoughts might be
later after my father
pulls the trigger
and approaches the still warm body
it is all familiar to him
as he cuts into flesh
hands bloodied
he learned this chore
years ago
the meat inside
only a ghost of something older
the wind at his back
another of those negotiations
he knows
later he washes his hands in the creek
carries the carcass to his stone boat
drags it back to his truck
parked between spruces
lifts one end of the deer
onto the tailgate
then the other
pushes across that metal scrape

on the drive home
he could check on the dead deer
in his rear view mirror
but doesn’t
his thoughts race
past the point of words
when he signals
for his road
there are no oncoming cars
but waits a moment before turning
as though there were
can’t explain that
now or later
when I ask him about it
all he says
is that it was his last deer
that there wasn’t as much meat
on it as there used to be
that’s his argument with god
I know that even if he doesn’t say
it takes a very long time
to gain what a life holds
and then it is all lost again
the final exhale
erasing it all
then he is still my father
even if all that made him
is mostly shut off

that day though with the last deer
he sits on the tailgate for a few moments
after loading the deer
sniffs the air
catches hints of spruce needles mixed
with the sourness of fallen leaves
he doesn’t reflect on the deer’s life
or his own or what brought them both
here today
mostly his mind empties of thought
the moment not really requiring thought
only the necessities of being
breath, balance, movement, pause
attention or at least attending
eventually he gets in the truck
and drives away
his hands perched on the steering wheel
grip firmly and he aims his truck
down the highway
the dead deer in the back
not the only thing he
is transporting with him

My Dad on Smith Farm 1940sMom and Dad 1957Four of us in River Hills 1957Picture 001

My father, Austin Edwin Hilles (Micky) died 20 year ago today  (July 16, 1995). He was the inspiration for this early poem of mine and the last lines in particular are an homage to him. I have written many poems about him over the years but this poem in particular recognizes what he tried to give me. I wrote this poem 40 years ago now.

The poem, Then, from my very first book, Look the Lovely Animal Speaks, published in 1980 by Turnstone Press. I wrote this poem in late 1975 with a pen and paper. Did not even have a typewriter yet. Seems a long time ago now that I wrote this (I was in Chris Wiseman’s creative writing class at the time – he is a master teacher and poet).


poverty teaches no one
it’s just dark and small
like a revolver.
always ready to be
the final judge.

I remember dirty walls,
macaroni, television, and
dumping the slop pail.
there was no beauty
you just survived
between paydays.

my father
drank every Friday
and Saturday nights
he lived between
the borders of the day shift
and the night shift.
that was the only
structure I knew.

I know now
that he sold
what little of himself
he had so that I could eat.
what kind of change is that?
where one generation sacrifices
itself so that the next one
can walk on its bones
with a new pair of shoes.


A poem to remember my father and mark the 19th year since he died on July 16, 1995. This poem is from Time Lapse, Black Moss Press, 2012. Here are two pictures of him. The first is of my father and mother taken in River Hills Manitoba in the summer of 1957. The second picture was taken on the Smith farm outside Kenora around 1939 when my father was still a teenager:

Mom and Dad 1957




The final two weeks of my father’s life he spent on the west coast in an early heat wave. The last night back in Calgary, I found him sitting out under the stars enjoying a rare cigarette at three in the morning. That’s the North Star, he said pointing at a particularly bright object. He told me how he used it to find his way home after hunting.

He butted his cigarette on the cement steps of my house and insisted on going up the stairs on his own. I stood below watching each shaky step. He didn’t look back even when he got to the top but kept going to the guest bedroom. When I went up later the door was open a crack and I almost went in but I couldn’t think of what I’d say once there.

He died a week later during morning rush hour, the hospital room already stuffy with summer heat, the city going about its daily business. When I saw him lying on a stretcher in the morgue I couldn’t get used to his deadness and how his body was in this room but he wasn’t. I wanted him to get up and say something but I had to do all the talking.

It is the unyielding of that which is most difficult. The day too hot to be alone in and yet I was.

Here’s a poem from my new book Time Lapse to remember my father on Father’s Day 2014. He has been gone now 19 years. He died on the morning of July 16, 1995 at the Victoria Hospital in Winnipeg from complications of pneumonia as my mother would also some 17 years later – in the same hospital on the same floor.  Here is a picture of the four of us taken before my sister was born. My brother and I were dressed alike even though we were 22 months apart.

(for Austen E. Hilles August 27, 1920 – July 16, 1995)

Yesterday a butterfly died on our deck
I watched its final twitches before wings lay flat
only then did it become familiar

I thought of my father fifteen years earlier
going still in his hospital bed
no one there to notice he’d stopped breathing

In the morning a slight wind scattered the butterfly’s
torn parts on the deck and I took comfort
in that rugged chain of command
each flaw shapes a powerful join

The anniversary of my father’s death
each life a trajectory under regulated sky
the moving parts made from something that was once a tree
before that a rock
or bits of soil and before that
a positive charge

Without that butterfly
I wouldn’t have remembered as clearly
that first moment when my father wasn’t in the world anymore

Three poems in memory of my mother Hazel Hilles who died two years ago today: Jan 20, 2012. 

It is hard to believe a full two years have passed. Mom we miss you even more now.

My mother beside Dad's Car Winnipeg 1950 Cropped Four of us in River Hills 1957Hazel at Home Longbow Lake 1976Mom in Winnipeg Sept 21, 2011

These poems are from a manuscript in progress tentatively called Woven.

A Better Vessel

On a day in July 1965
Heavy rain brought relief
From porous heat
I stood with my mother
On the beach at Longbow Lake
Two dogs chased
One another along sand
Tails wagging

Time leaves no wake
Years finely bound by love
And planetary sway
We don’t witness
Nor name
I wish every bent corner
Could be smoothed down

That day in 1965
My mother waded into the lake
And kept going
Until only her head remained out of water
I wanted to shout for her to come back
But didn’t
She was at some personal tipping point
I would learn about later

I stood with my hands at my side
The flattening rain
Fixed me there
I imagined her mind
Empty of colliding thoughts
But rarely was

When she finally stepped on land
Water drained off her
Lovely she said
And tip-toed into
Tall grass

That day comes back to me
When she is 85
And I visit her in the nursing home
Her pulse faint
Skin translucent and nearly spoiled
Eyes moist but alert
She communicates with the tug of a hand
Or quick exhale
She recognizes me
Weakly says my name
One of the few she holds onto
I listen for every
Stray word

Spring peas spooned
Onto white mushrooms
Next to pickerel

I want to pretend
That terrible night didn’t happen
My mother gone
And nothing light aims
Through cracked glass
Will bring her back
I never got to ask her
Nor that
Nor did she say for certain

Summer evenings
We sat against
The side of the house
She told stories
Stars too plentiful
To be a cosmic whim
Love a shivering
Our bodies nursed to
Stubborn light
On those evenings
Her shadow stretched clear to the highway
While mine barely crossed the yard

I usually went in first and
She stayed to listen
To pleading frogs
I’d read in my room
As she finished in the kitchen
I never went to help
Heard only
The splash of hands
In dishwater
That’s the buffer

When she was finished
She went to bed
I’d wander the house later
The night so quiet
All I heard was breathing

On the day she died
I mistook the sound of the ventilator
For her voice
Thought she heard me on the phone
Until my sister said
She’s gone

East Highway – Kenora

Highway 17 east
Lakes campgrounds resorts
Home to those
Who considered Kenora
Angular and crowded

Summer nights brought
A dirge of frogs behind our house
My mother pulled the curtains
Turned up the radio

A canoe skimmed the bay
Practiced strokes of a paddle
Barely echoed on glassy water


We miss you!

Today would have been my mother’s 87th birthday. It is will great sadness that I mark her birthday without her being here to connect to. The poems below and write up help some with the pain.

Hazel Hilles Memorial Short Fiction Prize

Here is more about my mother:

My mother was born Hazel Holmes in Dryden Ontario and grew up with six sisters (Helen, Mary, Lena, Geraldine, Vera and Orchid) and three brothers (Jerry, John and Wendell). Her father Gerry Wendell Holmes wrote poetry as did she. Her mother Lena Holmes (Webster) played piano and taught piano lessons. My mother left Dryden after grade nine when she was about 16 and worked first in Winnipeg as a domestic and then later as a chambermaid at Redden’s Camp on Longbow Lake and Barney’s Ball Lake Lodge on Ball Lake.

She met my father Austen Hilles (Micky) through Mary Redden when she worked at Redden’s Camp cleaning cabins. My parents were married on Nov 3, 1950 and lived first in Kenora and later at Longbow Lake. I was born the following November. My brother Brian was born in September 1953 and my sister Cathi in March 1958. My mother loved all her children deeply and lived for them. When my father retired they moved from Longbow Lake to Winnipeg in 1986. When my father died in 1995 she moved into her first apartment and lived there until she had to go into a more extended care facilities in 2005.

She was a very warm and loving person right to the day she died and always made her children feel special and loved. No matter how frail she became she never forgot her children and lit up any time we visited. When my brother died in 2008 she said, “We must go on.” And in that spirit we will go on Mom. Still my sister and I will miss her most deeply but we have our families to help us through it. I have  Pearl and my children Breanne (her husband Kyle), Austin and Amanda (her husband Steven) and our grandchildren. Pearl has helped me through all of these rough days so far. My sister has Robert and her two sons Camille and Ben. My brother’s son Michael and his family in Calgary and my brother’s widow Pam and granddaughter Keanna will also miss her.

Without her influence I would never have started writing and from an early age she instilled in me a love of poetry and music. She wrote many poems and songs and I wish I had a record of them now, but most disappeared either in the fire of 1964 (when our house burned down) or the many moves after that. The one song of hers I remember her writing and playing on the piano when I was a boy was called “I Gave You My Heart.” She has appeared in many of my poems over the years. Below you will find two of them. One reflects on the recent past, and the other focuses on my memories of her from my childhood.

Mom succumbed to pneumonia on the afternoon of January 20th, 2012 in room 525 of the Victoria Hospital in Winnipeg. My father also succumbed to pneumonia in the morning of July 16, 1995 in room 516 of the Victoria Hospital in Winnipeg. Poetry even in that small final coincidence.

Goodbye Mom. We will always love you!

Bob Chelmick reading On Credit for her:

On Credit

Each season is a form of temper
And living creatures all
Emerge from the same swamp
We are the most bug-like
As we lay out gardens
Line up plants
Along the perimeter of a fence
If we were cold blooded we’d
Swim in icy water until our hearts stopped.

In Winnipeg the Red River nearly spills its banks
I hold my mother’s hand
As we listen to a band playing
Love Me Tender
And remember the Elvis movie she took me to
As a boy of five
And I know the whole truth is out there somewhere
And that she and I are mixed in with it

Later she lies bundled in bed for the night
The broadest smile on her face
Each day is what she wakes to
Nothing more than breath
And moistened eyes
She blows air at me
And I know she is trying to communicate
I hear sirens out her window
Proof the outside world still exists.

There are atoms that pulse so
Regularly they do not lose a second in 37 million years.
The universe is a spring that
Winds up and then down again
And has been doing so forever
When I look
Into her fading eyes
I see back to a cloudy moment
Before I was born.

After I kiss her good night
I stand at the door to her room
Until she closes her eyes
Her mouth a happy grin
I want to hold onto this moment
Want it to go on for a very long time
But as I turn to leave it has already passed.
I walk a few steps up the hall to the elevator
But come back for one more look.
Her eyes remain closed and if she senses me
She makes no sign of it.
I am struck by how peaceful she is
And separate from me
As if I have paused at a stranger’s room
I think of melting snow in April
How spring pushes forward
With force at this latitude.

When I return to the street
The parking lot has filled with large puddles
From the rapid melt
Spring is the season of most flux
Change more sped up
As the earth works quickly
Through rain and sun
As purposeful as anything
God has done on our behalf.

And as I get in my sister’s car
My mother is sound asleep
This day for her already over
Although it is barely 8 PM
That’s just how it is after a certain age
We’re but spread apart fingers
And a light puff of air
That can be quickly stopped.

And a poem remembering my mother many years earlier:

All Dolled Up

Time blurs the truth
And lies become clearer.
My mother used to get all dolled up
Before she went into Kenora
That was how she put it.
I need to get dolled up
Now she never wears make-up.
In a photo of her taken when she
Was twenty-one she wears
Lipstick and mascara
In all the others she wears none.

I liked her best without make-up
And when I’d watch her get ready
I never wondered why she wore some
And my father didn’t.
Most of those memories are badly lit.
I can’t make out much of them
No sounds or smells
Not the colours of furniture or clothes
Just a few words here and there
And some song in the background always there
Unforgettable or Moon River
What remains
Are quick hand movements in poor light

On those days my mother wore makeup
My father would drive her into Kenora
In his 1951 Ford half-ton
And she shopped for groceries or clothes for us kids.
My father waited in the truck
His hair a mess his hands dirty
If someone came by that he knew
He’d get out and talk to them
With one foot resting on the front bumper
My mother would return to the truck
Weighed down with her shopping
And my father would hoist each bag
Into the back where my brother and I waited

At home, my mother never took off
Her make-up until she went to bed
The lipstick usually smeared a bit
And the rouge vanished first
And the eye shadow ran
By the end of the day
She looked as if her face
Were slipping away.

Now she sits in her wheel chair and watches TV
Or waits to be wheeled down for a meal
She says words at random
Although in her head
They make perfect sense
We travel time together
Momentary bliss
All we have.

Our memories
Aren’t our lives
But what we’ve dolled up
In front of a mirror
To us they look beautiful
All made up.