A collection of poems by Jenni Gehlbach
about the lines that join us to people, places and feelings.

The sections are:

Journeys and places

Clare's decline

Self in the world

Fragile Connections




Journeys and places

From winter to winter

It started sadly
with a death in wintery England,
then visiting old friends in new places,
some serene (the places) and some exotic.

Desert countries greeted me absurdly
with cool rain
but otherwise delivered up their promises
of wonder, as richly varied as their carpets,
though not as easily carried home.

The stretch of time between that winter and this
seemed endless,
my journeys fading from the past,
receding in the future.

Words became my territory and adventure
finding images
to carry home, displaying where I’ve been.


Toward North Vancouver

Brilliant sulfur piles rise from grey waters
among blood-rust ships
nestled under conifers, almost black,
and studded with the bright unfurling spring of alders.


Ferry stories

Reading of tragedy, surrounded by normal pleasures,
The southward drift feels gentle despite the engines’ roar.

Our lives zigzag,
finding common ground as we pass among islands
relinquishing the urge to hold the past.

Like clothing coldly sodden in testing weather
we shed old feelings,
wrapping ourselves in the warmth of newfound joy.
But the slow heart catches
at glimpsed memories from years ago.

Asked how I lived my life, I tell how
sinking, drowning in sorrow,
I’d caught the wild wave of his energy
and surfed to land; though, later,
grounded, scrabbling for foothold,
I’d fought his surge of chaos
and longed for gentler waters.

Now, floating in and out of friendship’s harbours,
walking and talking in high winds
I hear my stories stale,
worn out with repetition,
and these lines are caught stumbling over old shapes.

False Narrows in snowfall

Grey water flows heavily
through snowbanks
soft and bright.


Through Crowsnest Pass to Pinder Creek

We skim the topmost surface of the earth
held lightly in the wind by sky’s transparency.
The landscape of Pangia sits ancient and serene,
gold-green grasses dotted with dark trees,
forgets man’s burrowing onslaughts on the earth
while tall white towers turn slowly, elegantly
to pull more energy from the world.


Storm colours in Alberta

Gold and emerald fields patched with black earth
stretch gently, rolling to an eggshell horizon
that silhouettes dark copses.
The lowering cloud is dark bruise purple edged with apricot cream.
At my feet pink feathered grasses bend to the approaching storm
as lightning strikes the sulphur yellow flowers in the distant green.

The mistimed summer rains have left rough ochre rolls of hay
afloat on seas of brilliant green.
The rancher sees a greater beauty in smooth plastic-coated hayrolls,
Mould averted, safe for livestock fed in winter’s grey-white chill.

This summer landscape reveals itself
not only in its breadth, but in its secrets too.
Dark green runnels through the ripe grass
show how the rains have gathered in the earth,
each hidden fold displayed.


Flying from Nanaimo

Propellers slice the sunlight
so that the modern landscape flickers like an old movie
and later we enter it as we walk across the tarmac.

Extraordinary to skim the slow drift of clouds
a soft white mask for complex ground
and death leaps to buried business.


Elephant ride in Sri Lanka

He transports me to another time
a place of mystery and dreams.
Although our meeting is sordid, sad
—he in chains and prodded—
me, delighted to stroke and pat,
borne aloft patiently, untrampled,
throwing his majesty forward
he endures.

Later when I see the others,
hundreds, grouped in loyalty and affection
free to move through forests
and cross green vastness to the lake
I am ashamed
to be the reason for his chains.
Although I loved him
he did not choose
to be the source of my delight.

And with my driver-guide
it is a little the same.
We travel and talk, touching our lives,
but money is the tendon of our joint
corrupting our exchange.
He plays the guilt I feel
for having more, for being free
to sample the joys of his life
without the pain.


At Vancouver airport after India

Poised between worlds
I sit with cool wine
watching ice hockey
but seeing strange gods
and women with jasmine garlands in their hair
smelling the sweetness and the spices
and the warmth.



The afternoon's been long
and sombre
reading Virgil, and now the library café is bright
as my mouth receives potato
and I think, sending postcards in my mind,
of friends distant as stars,
scintillating like fish
swimming through dark blue caves.


Visiting the past

My past
moves past me on this trip
displaced but clear.

The links formed as a chain through time
reveal themselves as mesh
chain mail to protect my journey.


Clare's decline


As she sinks
fragments of memory float,
connect at random and drift away.
Husband and babies are lost;
faces recognized but not related;
the links are broken.

Grip tightly to the known.

She knows her mind is drifting,
rootless as floating hyacinth
disintegrating over waters too dark to fathom.
She knows by watching faces as they pass, catching
the glances of concern, hearing
puzzled explanations of the obvious.

She worries, worries
at her exclusion from life’s tumble and joy.
Where are all the people?
Is the party in another room? Can it be over?
Still she jigs and sings to passing neighbours
—her show must go on—
but music’s rhythm and beauty clash strangely now
with her muffled and diminished life
that wearies and recedes.

The familiar is newly found to be a burden.
Her voice detaches from her thoughts, muddling words
as though the world is masked.
She fumbles, struggles to express her loss,
her grief at life’s retreat.


My range

My shopping list is short:
– watch batteries (me)
– toe bandages (mum)
and yet it summarizes completely
my range of movement.

I note the time and wait,
as I tend her toes,
her fears,
her slow decline.
I wait my turn and make my lists
ranging widely in my mind,
but tethered.


Her silence

What are her silences?
Is it quiet in her head and heart
or only in her ears?
Sometimes in her bed
in night’s still darkness,
she sings again,
deaf to her own song.



I say I am going upstairs to do a bit of work.
But I lie.
I go to breathe
to not explain
to simply be.

I hide there
because it’s easier than saying
why I want to sit
and without words.

I who all my life
have busied about
and talked
now wish for unquestioned stillness
and listening to silence.
I cannot explain.


Our release

Turbulent and sad,
I let go
of duty and compassion
myself to life without, within.
her to filled time, waiting safely
for release.

There is no way to write it yet
I cannot grasp the freedom or the sorrow
flowing to me, through me
lemon in the cut
diverting sweetness.


Final retreat

She has retreated further
behind her clouded eyes
but cannot find her resting place.
I read and wait
listening to breaths that are too hard,
a kind of bubbling pain.

“I have a brother” she told me,
stroking my hands and face.
I have no words to say my sadness.
Her mother should be here to help her through.

Later, her hands lie narrow,
long and strongly knuckled,
translucent and pale as pearls.

Her head, cold now and hard-edged
serene as graceful marble.
She has diminished, gone.


Self in the world

Wood splinters

I make a box to hold my self;
choose purple hearted palisander,
dense and vivid,
and lignum vitae, bright wood of life,
the heaviest of all, but sprung from warmth.

Splinters of ice pierce, then melt away,
but slivers of wood sustain their wounds,
discolouring with decay.



The soft clutter of our buried feelings is a fine compost for rage.
There will be time to find the roots of it
in the deep pile of rot that nourishes complexity.
And sadness.



Free to flail, fail, flee



In dreams I swoop and skim
in the fluid world between air and sea.
Winged salmon dive
with birds that swim,
feathers scaled and sleek,
through mystery.



Wing-wagging cormorant
sooty, iconic in the morning light
on a tide-riding log.

A message of self protection:
to shed the weight of water gathered in life-sustaining plunges,
using our moments of stillness to prepare for flight again.


A pound of nails

This old measure conjures
the oiled iron smell of local hardware stores
and crumpled brown paper bags,
their tops folded down for strength,
holding nails densely packed
bristling and bright
and hazardous to the fingers.

Who will yearn for finicky packets pulled from pegboard,
impossible to pry apart with grace,
revealing a few pitifully rattling nails?
Such nails will be positioned precisely and tapped,
not pounded into place.



The succulent simplicity of berries
picked in early light
eaten later, after wine,
reminds me of life’s grace
and bounty.
Their flesh is cool and smooth
but holds the sweet strength of the sun.


Morning moonset

Opposite the dawn the full moon floats.
A pale, mysterious reminder of the night
slowly sinking
behind the stark branches of winter.
It is as though my past appears;
ghostly, full, fading
and opposite.



Gliding on surge and swell
of a following sea sighing with weight,
my paddle repeats
through glistening surfaces, darker ripples,
and I feel gladness and glory.


Cell phone on the beach

Tanned and muscled and full of self-importance
he strides the foreshore
looking down
holding the world to his ear
oblivious of the mountains.
Pays scant attention to his girlfriend,
also tanned but silent, and busy with her book.

His business call is pitched to reach the city
and those who came to listen to the sea
endure his voice.



On the beach at first light
I cherish silence in a noise-filled world
but the murmur of a distant plane
presses the edges of my mind like a forgotten word
insistent, irritating, not quite there.

In the city at all times
it is the noise I notice now.
I shut my eyes, withdrawing from the glare and blur,
but ears lie lidless, assaulted
by ceaseless blare and murmur
insistent, irritating, always there.



In earlier times they fainted,
delicately feminine in the face of shock;
their gasps constricted by their corsets.

How I envy those willowy creatures
who lose their appetites with stress;
pick daintily at morsels
when rejected and dejected.

My shape varies
but not because my feelings seal my stomach.
My robust body is unconstrained
and its appetites are disconnected
from the stresses of my life.

In love, or in despair,
I eat and drink lustily.


Painting the gate

Painting the gate with my back to the sun,
my mind coasts, released by repetition,
and there are echoes of old fences
similarly painted on hot dry days
in harder times.

Such a simple renewal:
adding a thin bright skin
to cover the flaws and grime of years.

My own new skin takes longer
needing more depth,
seeming to grow outward
as I coast, released
from harder times.


Christmas rush

Busily preparing, dealing
with the details of anticipated pleasure
but not quite
drives out enjoyment of this moment.

My mind is busy with lists
as my hands roll and cut and fill and pinch,
my feet moving automatically from larder to counter to oven.
But I pause,
my nose filling with the sweet spice of mince pies,
and my ears are caught by the brilliance of trumpets
and the familiar joy of old carols
as dusk falls
and the house comes alive with lights.


Her soul's delight

Others drape sartorial splendour
over souls as flat and beige a canvas.
Her soul's delights
lie hidden, unexpected.

She is sober, dressing plainly,
and yet glories in embellishment;
weaves delicate threads in wild fantasies,
loves floral lace, embroidered arabesques,
and crystalline beauty of beads
on gossamer silks.


His gift

On his bike
we roared through country lanes
in February sunlight,
his mittens over my foolishly sandalled toes.

I want to show you something, he’d said,
let’s go now.

When we turned into a country churchyard,
to walk among graves blanketed in snow,
I wondered why
until he showed me snowdrops
clustered in frozen hollows;
his gift.


Riley's delight

This wild week has blurred my thoughts and senses
saving only my deep, quiet pleasure in the child.

All around her whirls the chaos of her world
while she plays,
relishes the unsteady freedom to run, pursuing startled dog or cat,
and learns to speak with sound and gesture,
firmly shaking “no” without rancour
when coaxed.

There is no sound to match her chortles
as she bounces, delighted,
or discovers that both of us have wet, pink tongues.

Later, she sits beside me and reads, book inverted,
her voice inflected in perfect sentences without meaning,
turning pages and jabbing at the pictures
as I did just now, with such confidence that sense was being made.



Fragile Connections

Grief waits

Grief waits,
patient and stealthy.

I sit in quiet joy
under trees that show the subtle bronze
of late September sun
and sip my wine
and read of a young man soothing a panicked horse
with touch and song.

My tears are sudden and mysterious.
Some link with youthful grace
lost and turned to squalor
has touched my memories,
quickening the dead.


Tendrils of feeling

Fingers and minds feel,
probing for contact,
subject to pain.

When I explain my feeling,
it extends and entwines
transferring pain to you.

Instead of opening, meeting,
silence extends between us
and despair invades me



Our youthful talk, daily, deep and light,
sharing joy,
held gravity punched through with gusts of laughter,
friendship rooting in recognition,
connections threading thickly, quickly
through the space between our pasts.

Distance between our lives since then
is threaded thinly with connection
and yet you are more real to me than neighbours.

Meeting, we talk again and laugh with recognition and delight.



Today I gathered
Thoughts and tasks,
facts, feelings,
and friendship.



Fragments of space
have broken the fabric of my life.

That those we love can die
shocks me,
vibrating emptyness.

Palpable in their absence,
they are familiar still,
seem close,
likely to appear with greetings as they did
to fill the spaces of my life with what I loved in them.

It is impossible that they can be
not there;
that I cannot conjure them with a call,
a cry.



Sometimes life is jagged
abruptly moving at odd angles
or smoothly veering at an unexpected time.

Rattled and off-balance
I wait for life to realign,
its flow restored,
but wonder what will happen
if this new direction throws me into chaos,
disconnects me from the past.

I wait.



It doesn’t matter how long they lived,
Five hours or 102 years
I float on deep water, carrying them quietly,
close to drowning.




Trapping words

My thoughts have no edges.
They drift and pulse with feeling
expressing the ineffable.

But words are trickier, edgy,
their precision perilous and boundaries deceptive.
They pin and limit,
only seeming to express the inexpressible.

Voiced with gesture, eye to eye,
my thoughts, truncated, may emerge.
But pinned on paper,
the mind’s expression drifts away
leaving small traces of logic and longing
for you to decipher.



On paper my words lie,
truthfully displayed:
A smorgasbord for feasting
easily revisited
and slowly enjoyed.

Declaimed they are gone like yesterday’s flavours:
Hard to recapture
as the nuance and balance of a fine meal
swallowed, not savoured.


Writing to order

In prose it seems easy—get a topic
think about it
choose a style
then just start writing,
controlling the flow.

But poems are different
Chosen topics baulk
preferring to present themselves.

Thoughts abound but do not gel or flow
My voice refuses speech, in any style.
But when it speaks its style is there
bound with the thoughts emerging.



Here are words
divorced from meaning                       
but joined                                   
adding to each other           
linking ideas
as poetry can.


This page updated June 2012