Skip to content

Coming this June: James Morehead’s debut book “canvas”

March 30, 2021
"canvas" cover - artwork copyright Kari Byron, design by Zoe Norvell

I was introduced to writing poetry by a creative writing teacher in high school. I had always enjoyed writing (and was a shy, voracious bookworm) but hadn’t experimented with poetry. I had the typical high school student’s impression of poetry: boring, hard to understand, and worst of all nerdy. But that teacher was the spark, and during the section on poetic forms I discovered the extraordinary power of poetry: the ability to capture emotion, sound, and movement in a few carefully crafted words. Reading E.E. Cummings, more than any other poet, taught me the design language of poetry.

Over the past forty years I’ve had bursts of creativity and long lulls of blank pages, but always lurking was a need to capture my experiences in words. The year 2020 and its pandemic-induced solitude inspired the poems of which I’m most proud; they lead this collection. Most are autobiographical, in particular the title poem “canvas,” and collectively form a fragmented memoir of memories and melancholy. Some are fanciful, like “tethered,” inspired by a fleeting image seen while hiking the Pacific coastline. All strive to paint images in the reader’s mind through the thoughtful selection and careful placement of words.

Coming June 2021 (pre-order available now) my debut collection “canvas”, published by Viewless Wings Press, will feature poems about life, love and loss. The book features cover artwork by Kari Byron and Alla Tsank. Cover and interior brilliantly designed by Zoe Norvell. To get a sense of how Kari Byron created the incredible cover art, here is a sneak peek into the black powder technique she uses.

Canvas

June 24, 2020

I stretch myself over the frame pulled taut to smooth skin’s creases my canvas set awaiting your first stroke
You lay out the brushes with care bristles clean and dry
The first brush its head cut sharp to detail the subtle wrinkles around my eyes
The second wide to fill my laughing smile
The third rough to capture a storm swelling behind me over the sea
And one more a piercing point to drop a tear that belies my melancholy

You step back scanning me before preparing your pallet
What shade of Caucasian to choose for my sun aged skin?
How much grey will you need to sneak silver threads into my thick brown hair?
How should you dress me what textures will you drape?
Am I alone on a trail or seething in a concert crowd?
How will you capture the chaotic cacophony swirling in my mind with only strokes of oil?
And how can you reflect everything I’ve seen into the detail of my eyes and are they wide open alert unable to find sleep or quivering and fighting exhaustion or are they shut tight and twitching in rem-triggered dreams or are they still serene like death?

I think you should start with my memories
So many to choose from you can’t possibly paint them all
Lest the layers grow so deep that the paint slides from me dripping forgotten onto the floor
Perhaps start with the bliss of running through a New England park pulling a kite its fluttering tail flying up into the crisp fall breeze the kritch kritch sound of leaves beneath my feet
Perhaps start with the melancholy of bullies fear that started in 6th grade and lingered relentless until my scrawny frame sprouted 6 feet tall in high school
Perhaps start with the sound of music from my parents’ practicing while I lie beneath the Steinway floating on waves of notes as father’s fingers race the keys while mother’s oboe pierces the chords
Or perhaps start with the near silence of when I escape the frenetic digital pulse and head onto a trail stepping in rhythm until hours later I lie back eyes closed to let my ears explore the forest depths

And when you are done and the paint is drying its pungent odor slowly fading and imperceptible until the last molecule of scent escapes
And when you walk away your brushes cleaned and neatly packed your tubes of paint capped and stored
Will you remember me? Will you remember each brush stroke and shade of oil?
I hope you choose to paint me with my eyes wide open so I can see your expression when you apply the final stroke
Will you be relieved to finish me to escape this dreary task or will you wish to paint until the pallet runs dry so we can share this moment a little longer?

Pieces

December 30, 2020

We’ve taken over the dining room table its white plastic protector perfect for sliding silhouetted pieces into place 1000 image fragments dumped out between us in a jumble of curlicued edges

I balance the box lid on edge to be our guide: a photographed row of colourful townhouses lining a canal that reminds me of San Francisco’s Painted Ladies

You chose this puzzle with infinite blue claiming you see subtle differences in the shades of sky; my aging eyes see only sameness

(You’ve always loved to puzzle – or is it puzzler or puzzlist? – a new box appearing each Christmas under the tree; later, warmed by a cackling fire, we crowd around the table with my mother taking the lead)

We start by finding edges to corral the pieces and prevent them sneaking back into the box or falling lost forever beneath a cupboard burrowed in dust

Next we divide and conquer: I build the row of townhouses while you tackle that infinite blue sky each piece connected triggering a dose of pleasure fueling the search for another hit

For every piece I place, you place ten, and I marvel at your skill mapping the image in your mind while effortlessly untangling the jumbled stacks of colour

At some point you’ll remark “What’s the point of puzzles anyway? Why chop up an image just to put it back together again?” We’ll leave the question hanging like we do every year

We’ll inevitably have visitors stop by, “Oh wow, look how much you’ve done!” Some will offer a helping hand connecting a piece or two before quietly slipping away

Searching for pieces I imagine strolling along the canal, memorizing each detail as I go, pausing by the shuttered windows and for a time transported

(Perhaps couples should complete a puzzle of their partner’s image to re-discover subtle details forgotten years ago)

As we cross midnight our eyes watering I wonder who lives inside these colourful townhouses? Who sails the boats anchored in the canal outside?

Were they sleeping when the photo was taken? Or just waking awaiting breakfast? Or perhaps trapped behind the shutters suspended in time?

In the silence of early morning, after hours of “just one more piece”, only one piece remains; without fanfare you complete the puzzle and calmly announce “Dad, let’s start the next one.”

Today?

December 22, 2020

First I think it’s Monday from my quarantined confines
I look outside for any clues to offer me a sign

Then again it could be Tuesday when deliveries come
The FedEx truck will drop surprises boxed and on the run

But sometimes Wednesdays a poodle passes strolling with a prance
Her (or he?) might briefly pause so I can catch a glance

On Thursdays grocery delivery day the welcome mat does fill
But my fridge is packed so neatly stacked it can’t be Thursday still

If Friday’s come then weekend’s here but hard to know for sure
Will they ever vaccinate as a time loop cure?

Wait yesterday was Saturday! I watched my favorite show!
But perhaps I watched on replay recorded many days ago?

I expect a call on Wednesday so if my phone is buzzing
I’ll have a clue, mystery solved, get back to my gardening…

…that thing I do each Thursday morn to fill the passing hours
I tend each planter lovingly awaiting springtime flowers

But then I notice silence as I wander down the hall
The air so still it must be Sunday heading into fall

Perhaps the days have lost all meaning to infinity
An Escher looped back on itself to circle endlessly

Animation of M.C. Escher’s Möbius Strip II (1963)

Ode to Sabby

December 20, 2020

Before a final breath she shivered soft
I stroked her fur and shed a silent tear
This kitten once now rests so still and frail
And in that moment closed her final year

Travel back the day when we first met
A condo hall where you would run and play
We’d set you loose your tiny paws would fly
Up and down as long as we would stay

Back at school you joined me in my room
To scamper while I studied late at night
You’d wait to pounce until I’d least suspect
And on my shoulder land a phantom sprite

Together we drove down the 401
Tercel packed full with clothes and vinyl crates
You purred and stretched Toronto in our sights
While Waterloo behind in distance fades

You waited when we married years ago
Likely asleep as vows and rings exchanged
Our family began with just us three
With everything in place so well arranged

Our honeymoon delayed a mortgage closed
You enter our first house with sniffs explore
And search from room to room to find your place
A patch of rug in sunshine on the floor

Each Christmas you would hide beneath the tree
And wait until all decorating done
With stealth we’d watch you sneak up from below
And with your paw knock loose the closest one

When babies came you sniffed them cautiously
So patient when their small hands tugged your fur
And as they grew you were their faithful friend
To calm their fears with cuddles and a purr

Until one day your frame so slight and frail
We knew the time had come to say goodbye
I carried you one last time in my arms
And held you as a doctor helped you die

Sabby sleeping in her favorite spot

Tethered

December 8, 2020

I’ve long ago learned to ignore the rhythmic tug of the chain that tethers me to the ocean floor

A chill curls around my painted stripes as fog rolls toward a distant shore and wave powered bells warn those sailing near

I hear passing ships cutting towards the golden gate and imagine their carefully stacked containers swaying in the swells

Later fog fades and california’s sun steams dew from my metallic frame unveiling the shore’s outline once more

A seagull pauses perched and chattering singing me stories until trade winds lift her to dance above white caps

Soon the season of storms returns bringing fierce waves and wind to power the peals of my warning bells

Deep in winter mist freezes to my metallic skin crafting turquoise crystals that flicker in the moonlight

But in time calm and warmth return lit by the moon’s waning crescent mirrored on still water’s glass

Do I measure time in seasons? Or dawns and dusks? Or count the cycles of frost freezing then dripping melted down my spine?

Or do I set aside time and count the swells? Or passing ships? Or pods of dolphins, shivers of sharks, colonies of gulls?

I dream of one day of being released from my tether, my work complete, transformed into turquoise sea glass smoothed by tides and resting on a shoreline beach waiting to catch the eye of a strolling passerby

routine

September 5, 2020

alarm sounding shuffling of sheets dragging them discarded barefoot to the bathroom sink flossing brushing then with the same spoon rinsed and overnight dried in a yellowed dish tray scoop up cheerios in clumps milk drops dripping one by one until a single o remains bobbing aimlessly

the drive to work by rote over tire streaked freeway overpasses and traffic lanes for carpools and timing the exit lane merge and racing a yellow light until tucking into the same parking lot cubby as yesterday the day before and before

car door clicks trunk swooshes open backpack fetched and footsteps tracing a well worn shortcut across the campus lawn avoiding a cyclist’s spinning and for a moment you look up because you always do this time of year when california sunshine burns through windswept fog

your desk untouched overnight the coffee mug and hydrating flask and computer power cord dangling and books you may someday read and family photos framed rest quietly staring back at you day after day until you box them up for another office and cubicle or left behind forgotten

good morning you say good morning they say day after day with smiles sometimes genuine sometimes forced sometimes masking unbearable sadness resentment boredom or intrigue until formalities finished you disappear into earbuds and shuffled playlists or silent pretend listening to discourage chatty cubemates

there’s a risk at lunch that you walk down the same aisle and select the same plate and linger but settle for the same entrée selection as yesterday and before and before sitting silent in your favorite corner nook peering out across the bay through window washer streaked panes

and leaving work you retrace each off-ramp lane change shortcut and eventually close your eyes and dreamlike in a podcast-fueled autopilot turn into your cul-de-sac garage door squeaking sliver of light peeking and a smile in the doorway welcoming you home

north south east west

August 29, 2020

from the north
a pungent scent of vineyard fields
cabernet blended with cherry plum currant
and wisps from an unkempt campfire ember or power line arc or echoed boom of dry lightning

from the south
tendrils of brown reach into california’s blue sky
mixing with grey soot swallowing the sun
from a forest ablaze flames racing through well worn trails chasing cougars into farmers fields and sending suburbanites scurrying for filtered air

from the east
north and south now swirling into one
blazing vineyard fields and engulfed redwoods
while cal fire airtankers soar into the torrent above a caravan of stubby red trucks their smoke hardened occupants chasing the flames

from the west
brisk pacific breeze nudges smoke into valleys
leaving a clear cool salt scented wake
and whispers from a barefooted beachgoer feet sinking in tide moistened sand and for a moment forgetting

and then it was still
winds settle north south east west
moon’s rays refracted through cirrus clouds or smoke?
while distant fires still raging regroup awaiting tomorrow’s current to creep back over rooftops and sneak through a window left absently ajar

SCU Lightning Complex fires

Silence too

July 21, 2020

You ask me for silence

So I tug on your earbuds and hide them away
Music fades but in its place the city rumbles
A cacophony of impatient honks and speeding sirens and rubber squealing across asphalt

I need more you say!
So I pause the traffic but in its place the sidewalk hums
A click clack click of hurried heels and pair of yapping poodles and neighbors voices rising

More more more you say!
So I send them on their way but in their place tilt up to the sky
A distant roar of jet contrails and pulsing flutter a circling copter and rustle of a squirrel’s leaping between hickory-oak branches

I still need more you plead
So I clear the skies and shoo the squirrel but in its place the ocean awakes
Clambering seagulls on trade wind swells and surf crashing and the delicate crickle of a fire pit carved in sand

More you plead just a little more!
So I nudge the surf into the ocean depths but in its place your house begins to speak
Creaks from aging floorboards and tickling mice behind your walls and the plip plop of your daughter’s feet

Is there still more you whisper?
So I send your daughter to bed and brush your eyelids still but in their place new sounds emerge
Tingling tinnitus that never fades and rustling fingers between the sheets and the poom poom in your chest

Breathe I whisper back so softly you can barely hear me

Just breathe until in sleep your questions cease

Mixed tape

July 19, 2020

It’s late after midnight flipping through vinyl: punk – new wave – ska – industrial – goth
Tilting albums on edge like bookmarks in the stacks my jet black hair a teased homage to robert smith

What songs will make you smile? moisten your eyes? spark a memory? move you to dance? calm your racing mind until you drift into sleep?

Sliding each album from its sleeve, balanced on edge, feeling for the spindle, I drop the needle while cueing the tape

Side one: songs for dance

Depeche mode master and servant the cure love cats new order blue monday
Each song chosen to tingle your nerves until they overload
Will you be mouthing the words headphones in place while twirling on your kitchen dance club floor?

Side two: Songs for escape

Cocteau twins oomingmak bjork isobel eurythmics this city never sleeps
Each song chosen to float in on waves of bliss a soothing melancholy tide
And instead of dancing will you lie back close your eyes and disappear into the steady pulsing bass?

I imagine you holding the tape in your slender fingers reading my liner notes on the cardboard sleeve slipped inside
I imagine you smiling and thinking of me as you slide the tape into your walkman and press play

Or, perhaps, you will tuck the tape away in a drawer or leave it on the floor of your civic forgotten until found years later by a passenger’s rummaging long after I’ve gone and feeling the beat of the first song you’ll discretely wipe a tear

00100trPORTRAIT_00100_BURST20200712104329504_COVER_2