(How Poems Work, October 2004)
This small piece, originally published as a broadsheet by above/ground press, was the last new poem of John Newlove�s to appear in print before his death on December 23, 2003.
At the Ottawa memorial reading for John Newlove in January 2004, I read the poem, causing his wife Susan to later comment on the piece, saying, oh, I remember when that happened.
In a subsequent email about the poem, Susan writes her account: “[W]e were at Deep Springs College, California, for a summer semester and the students and staff had gone off on one of their adventures in the Mojave Desert, or something like that, leaving the Dean, Barney Childs, wives and kids, John and ranch staff to look after things for a few days.
“It was a hot day, and the hired hand who did all the mechanical and such practical work around the ranch and college work was digging a ditch, to lay pipes I think, and he dropped dead of a heart attack–he was an older man, but we were all pretty young then. There were dogs around, and I remember John took charge of it all… It seems to me that he was particularly concerned about the heat, and its effect on the corpse, and the dogs, and whether he could keep them off the corpse; and the length of time it had to stay in situ until the officials had finished their work. Of course, all of this may have nothing to do with the poem.”
Newlove, who grew up in small towns in Saskatchewan, probably knew all too well about hired men, and manual labour, and the foolishness of working in such heat. There are some things a body doesn’t forget….