Poems » lynn crosbie » the tongue s allotment



"Come unto these yellow sands." At best
a shifty invitation. Simcoe, playing
Prospero in a family Shakespeare fest
in 1800, four years after failing
to keep the Calibanish Dorchester
from breaking up his cloud-capped Georgian palace
(schemes for "Gibraltar" -- his name for the sandbank --
dissolved along with dreams of lofty rank)

could not have dreamt a tempest would sever
the curling tongue of land, its yellow sand
scattered like ashes, sown under the waves
to seed unyielding pastures, lakebed headlands
ploughed by the tide's wrecks and the shore's debris:
Elizabeth's peninsula an island,
John's "Naval Arsenal" of "incomparable" worth
sunk to "the Coney Island of the North,"

even its name suffering a sea-change --
Gibraltar whittled down to Hanlan's Point
in habit's shallow wash. The heritage
slipped with the salmon from their lakeside haunts.
The creeks they named are lost in shunts of sewage
under long-shadowed hulks. Their dream castle
has fallen to the dragon -- Castle Frank
a subway stop on a fouled river's bank.


What was it like to play Adam and Eve
  and hatch the printless woods with names?
To heft George Yonge's name like a knife, and carve
a furrow up to Holland Landing? Trim
through glacial fringe to the Grand River
in sheer tribute to Dundas? Baptism
on such a scale demanded nothing less
than lake-sized fonts and squalls of sprinkled blessings.

They poured out hallowed sounds, but as the sand
  loses the water it admits,
the land made little of their baptisms.
Either a muddled earthiness silted
  the banks of memory ("Francis"
sliding into "Grape" Island) or, skull-like,
the names held ground but lost their tongues: the Don
(old word for "water") bedded with concrete.

So the ships' cannon loosed their iron tongues
  and puffed their Gloria Patri
over the bay, igniting the damp morning
when muddy "York" sputtered to life -- to die
  soon as the grand old blundering
of that same Duke made his paternity
less prized: the newly fathered Indian
"Toronto" (still mudcovered) rose again.

Alas, poor York -- dissolved in '34!
  Didn't its fond godfather see
his castle's keep was sand? Didn't his "dear
Eliza" -- noting in her diary
  how gunsmoke, curled along the shore,
"ran with a singular appearance" --
see those cursives as the serpent's calling card
inviting them to scrub their garden party?


The names that we compose years decompose.
  Wood-lice tunnel Teiaiagon,
Indian trading post, totem as old
as life on this half of the earth, now one
  with the spent breath of those who spoke
it into life, air over a dead tongue.
Teiaiagon, war-whoop of braves wiped out,
  means no more than its own lament.

This was their place of meeting: Indians,
  John, and Elizabeth pitched camp
on this same ground of sand, one audience
swept by the strains of the same requiem.
  Like blood that kept time in their veins,
like death through both the Simcoes' names (Posthuma,
Graves) the black notes ran through the thin fences
  and hammered at the tall, doomed pines.

Natives and strangers staked their settlement
  on names, knowing that names are breath,
and in the play on words we all present,
breath runs and runs, but never outruns death,
  its shadow-rhyme; yet death goes mute
unless breath sings both parts in their duet.
So Shakespeare's namer, mindful of his grave,
  spelled the snake's hiss to tune the waves.

Strangers and natives swapped spells. In exchange
  for labials, the Iroquois
anointed English with their glides: young Frank
took on the name "Tioga," the Colonel
  "Deyonguhokrawen." Prankish
Elizabeth (no Indian name recorded)
stubbing her tongue against his honorific,
  might coolly sip the irony

that "one-whose-door-is-always-open" should
  baffle its callers like a wall.
Her tongue had also tasted the hot need
the Indians felt to keep one brand alive
  from ruins of a lost Eden:
Tioga, once hub of their hunting trails.

She too would turn a burnt end into kindling,
  and name her next girl Katherine.


  The second Katherine was born in 1801. Five years later, John Graves
Simcoe fell ill at sea and died in the port of Exeter soon after being rushed
home. He was buried after a torchlight procession arranged by Elizabeth,
who lived on as a widow until 1850.