Charity, by Mary Turner
Sitting by the church
I don't know why
God is all around me
Guiding my time
Looking for a little love
kindness and friendship
a "thank you" or "you look nice"
and "how is your son?"
People walk by
how are you, I'm fine
Can you spare a quarter or two
for a person from this land
It's hard to live
on what I get
Can you spare a dime
Some people are nice
Some people are kind...
"Wanna buy my poems??"
The hoarse call, shouted by the lady sitting on the park bench in front of the United Church is all too predictable. Most days, warm and sunny, there she sits, stack of pamphlets in hand, soliciting passersby. Although relatively lucid, she exudes the kind of empty-mindedness that long days sitting in the hot sun will do to people without anywhere else to go. Most people ignore her. Some mumble nondescript rejections. But for many people in this small, rural, white-as-sourdough-bread town, she will be their first experience, ever, of meeting a street beggar. That just doesn't happen in a place like this, where family ties are strong, community spirit high and no-one falls through the cracks. Right?
Not for me. Five years of living in Ottawa and Toronto have given me ample experience in the art of ignoring streetpeople. Step 1: steel your gaze forward. Under no circumstances must you acknowledge their presence. Step 2, place a steadying hand in your pocket if it's full of rattling change; otherwise, you might as well be carrying a sandwich board advertising it. Step 3, prepare rebuttal if prompted; a muttered "sorry" will do if you're moving fast enough. Outright ignoring them could cause them to react badly, so the idea here is to offer the bare minimum of acknowledgement whilst simultaneously dashing their hopes for the $1.12 in your pocket. You can't give it to them, after all; the jaded city residents walking behind you will tut-tut their disapproval for "enabling them" or some such nonsense, but it's more likely that their disapproval stems from a fear of seeming somehow uncharitable in the eyes of their MEC-wearing, Prius-driving, NDP-voting compatriots.
You know them, and yet you don't. Every day you walk by, hot, cold or rainy, and there they are, cap in hand. Somehow, they make it through the night, each night. And that's all you really know. Sometimes they disappear for a few weeks, and a well of darkness from deep inside hopes they won't be back. Sometimes a rare jolt of kindness will lead me to hand them a box full of empties, for them to drag eight kilometres south to the bottle exchange where they must keep their yellowed, rheumy eyes on the sorter, who will gladly cheat them out of a quarter if given even the slightest chance. But they will never know me, nor I them - anonymity is your best friend and their worst enemy in the city.
Antigonish, by Mary Turner
The town it never changes
The same old people there
They grow up with the buildings
and are always standing there.
We used to have a Goodmans
and an IGA was near
an Eaton's and a Sobey's
but now they've all been cleared.
The roads are pretty rugged
the sidewalks are a shame
If you stumble when you're walking
There is no one you can blame.
So when you are out walking
be sure to lift your feet
and never turn around
when you pass me on the street.
Anonymity is not a luxury one has in a small town. The guy you ignore, passing on the street, could easily be packing your groceries later that day. The driver you flip the finger to might well be headed to her job at the Department of Motor Vehicles, while you wait to get your license renewed. Loudly denounce some guy for being an asshole to your friend, and sure enough that same person will be sitting behind you in the restaurant. You're practically forced to be civil in places like this, for no other reason than the awkwardness and embarrassment would be too much to bear. But for many people who've lived their entire life in the same quaint burg, Tribalism almost invariably settles in. The effort of being kind becomes too much work. You start to stratify your life and the people around you. Although the greeting smile, well-practiced, still beams, the eyes behind are dead and intentions insincere. Some people become invisible. Some people become unwanted.
So it is with Mary Turner. I live on the edge of town, past the railroad tracks. My backyard ends in a dilapidated, crumbling barn, beyond which is a lush, hilly forest on the edge of a tidal marsh. Deer routinely amble up my driveway and across the street, white tails surging high at the slightest rustling of leaves, beneath the family of bald eagles that circle high, sharp eyes looking for any carrion that might have washed up on shore. My twenty minute walk to work takes me past her apartment, down the hill from me, and that is where I first met her; she is sometimes out on her porch, smoking, and asked me to come up so she can show me pictures of her son, who she claimed I look just like. I politely declined, citing work, but ever since then she usually recognizes me and waves. I wave back when I can. Sometimes I don't. Sometimes I pretend I don't notice her on the bench, the old city instincts coming back. She pretends not to notice me, either. An uneasy detente, to be sure. Every day, day after day, I turned down her requests to buy her poems, but I started to wonder. What would a person like that write about? Would they be any good? Behind coke-bottle glasses, in a small town, those eyes see. Always.
The people you walk over in the city become part of the pavement, part of the store facade, as real as the cellophane wrapper dancing across the street. Anonymity typically shields you from these greater questions. But it won't work here.
Accident, by Mary Turner
Hit by car
at age 14
went to heaven
what did I see
A long, long path
you go through
to meet the Lord
what did you do.
for I knew
at age 14
was too soon.
Back to earth
He sent me
to live once
more, and be free
To tell the world
of his Love
He's not ready to take
That warm day in early September, I noticed she was walking with a pronounced limp towards her usual perch, with her husband following as far as the local convenience store. I passed her without a word, as was my usual way, and proceeded to run my errands; backpack slung over my shoulder, I hit the post office, liquor store (where I work) and the grocery store. On my way back, bag stuffed with groceries, I spied a gaggle of alpha males, college students, walking past Mary's perch.
Do you wanna buy my poems? she asks, regardless of customer. This small town nearly doubles in size between the months of September and April, being home to one of the most renowned universities in Canada. Undergraduates stream in from away, mostly from Ontario and the United States, because their fathers and grandfathers did the same; this is, if nothing else, an alumni-driven university, and this sense of entitlement leads it to also be renowned for being one of the top party schools in Canada; nurses at the local hospital know to keep rape kits on the ready during Burmac night. Stir in a near-rabid local fanbase for Varsity sports, and you have an explosive, statistically anomalous amount of dunderheaded lunkwits wandering about town in a semi-sober state. Believe me, I serve these idiots daily. And it was a group of these upstanding gentlemen which Mary chose to solicit on this fine, sun-drenched day.
"Do I want to buy your poems?" asked one.
"Why the FUCK would I want some shitty poems? Go fuck yourself!" yelled another.
Suck my DICK!
Asymmetrical vitriol. Figures.
Mary took it all in stride, but fingered her large gold crucifix with particular urgency. She was still rubbing it with intensity when I passed her next, a few minutes later. Her eyes ran up to mine, recognized a familiar face, and undaunted, with a courage I would sorely lack, uttered those familiar words - Do you wanna buy my poems?
I thought about it, hand in pocket, fingering change. I had at least $2.50 in there.
"How much?" I asked.
Bargaining time. "Well, I don't know about five dollars, but-"
"Two bucks. Three bucks. Whatever you have!" Her face lit up at the prospect of a rare sale.
I pulled out the metal contents of my pocket and poured it into her hand. "There should be at least two bucks in there, anyways. Is that okay?"
Nothing but agitated muttering on her part, as she fished out a booklet to hand me. It was surprisingly substantial, thirty pages altogether, with a cover image, title, and bound together with two staples. "Inspiration from the Heart". I wondered how a woman of such limited means could afford to print a volume of poetry like this. I thanked her, placed the booklet in my grocery bag, and continued my walk, up the hill, towards home.
Sleeping, by Mary Turner
I wake in the morning
what do I see!
A handsome man sleeping next to me
He is my Lover, and my Friend
The man I love, He is my Husband.
To many too short, he'll always be
Laying down right next to me
No Matter what happens if
we part. He will always be
here in my heart.
I wash his clothes, and make
the bed, cook his food as he scratches
his head, can't understand why I do
what I do, But I love him, you know that is true.
For Me Being Me, and him being him
people all around us can't understand how we
keep together not even a fight. Be kind to each
other don't make a fuss, If there's dirt
on the floor or your hair is a mess
Just brush it aside and Hope
For the Best.
Len Turner was the first of that household I ever met. A slight, wiry man in his 50s from a nearby county known for its backwardness, I became acquainted with him from meeting him on the street on my way to work, and later, at work, serving him as a customer. If you're an alcoholic, you can hide it from your friends, your family, your kids, wife and job. You can hide cans of beer in the toilet tank and bottles of whisky under the couch. But you can't hide it from the liquor store clerk. Being a clerk at the only liquor store in town is a position of tremendous power and discretion. I know what the mayor drinks. I know what the MLA drinks. I know what the president of the University drinks, and how often. And I know what Len Turner drinks - and how.
Five days after purchasing Mary's poems, while driving to work, we spied Len Turner coming up the street. He was stumbling, walking unsteadily, coming back from the legion at 2 pm. Suddenly, he collapsed in a heap on Main street. Into oncoming traffic. We rushed out and helped him up, and supporting him on our shoulders, dragged him the short distance home. The reek of Labatt Blue was unmistakable, as was the spreading dark blue stain on his jeans. Len was absolutely fucking blotto - and this was far from the first time this happened. We brought him back to his apartment, and watched as he uneasily climbed his stairs into the waiting arms of Mary, who ushered him away.
I don't understand why she does what she does, and why they keep together without a fight. I guess she just brushes it aside, and hopes for the best.
Early Days, by Mary Turner
The Leaves are
Fallen on the ground
you don't hear a sound
On the track, a "train"
the "squirrels" run and hide
The birds are crying;
please, don't go, stay.
And play. We love you so
People walk up the Hill
Never see them come
I'm not sure what I was expecting to read. Part of me was wondering if this wouldn't be the uncovering of a heretofore-unrecognized poetic genius. Part of me was wondering how godawful these limited scrawls would be. Maybe I bought them out of pity; but I was damned well still going to read them. I sat down, cracked a beer, and opened up the first staple-bound page. And I was shocked.
Not from the quality, nor from the depth of metaphor, but from the utter, unadulterated purity of these simple rhymes. All at once, the reality of this poor woman came flooding in, reminding me that this begging, flighty spectre of a human is a real person, with real feelings, beliefs and emotions. I immediately thought back to all the homeless I'd crudely refused before, wondered if given a pen and a helping hand to print with, what stories they would write. How they saw the world, and lived in it. Wondered how they ended up there, and why they stayed.
Inspiration from the Heart: The Collected Works of Mary Turner is quite possibly the best example I've ever read of pure poetry; namely, a heartfelt distillation of the essence of one's being without thought given whatsoever to structure, style, or popularity. This is poetry written by a thirteen year old, with the life experience of a fifty year old, and brought tears to my eyes. She expounds on every possible topic, from days at the beach, best friends, and the uneasy relationship with her oldest son with clarity, sincerity, and emotion. Talk about the meaning of life, God, and the universe in her own simple way, a tangible reminder that even though the words might not be there with everyone, the thoughts sure as hell are. The pleasure of a simple friendship, of days spent in a grassy fields. These are things we can all identify with.
And to think I passed her, and still do, with coldness in my heart makes me think twice about the kind of person I am.
Trying, by Mary Turner
Down the road I must go
to that church as you know
to get a lunch and bid farewell
The minister knows when I go
down the road, that is so
to him I call for forgiveness
forget me not for I know.
To him we go to get help
a lunch, a book, or some tape
for he is there to give a hand
in this beautiful Promised Land.
A cup of coffee, a cup of tea
a drink of water if you please
Make a sandwich or a lunch
He's always there to give a hand
To preach the church on Sunday morning
a wedding, a wake or just to talk
he's always there and we can trust
him not to make a fuss
He's there to help, we all know
The God's above we'll love him so.