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Rishma Dunlop - award winning Canadian poet


Reading Like a Girl:6

The volume of Tolstoy thumbs her open.
She tries to keep the heroine alive.

Outside the library windows
ragged moths beat against the streetlamps.
She feels the heat of locomotive steam
rising from the stacks, weeps when she
sees Anna’s red purse on the tracks.

She closes the book with stunned hands
as if she had touched the hem of a final
morning, a sense of that going into it alone.
She begins to think she will not be carried
unscarred, untorn into any heaven. Wants
someone to hold her while she burns.

©Rishma Dunlop 2004. Reading Like a Girl. Black Moss Press.

Reading Checkov

Reading Chekhov. Stories about love
                                   the sadness of his characters,  always meeting each other too late.
Missed lives, mourning what could have been
                                                       departing forever in railway stations.
Tears, a lorgnette raised to the eye, ice etched on windows, gaslit winter scenes
                                                a loveless marriage in a country house in a town like all the others.
I’ll read the story differently. A Chekhov love letter.
Love me through departures, through the faltering valves of your heart, the ticking of clocks and moving trains.
Kiss me in the cleft of each elbow, behind each knee. ______
Buddhists tell us to live our days unattached to the dust of the world to enter the blackness. To always see ourselves as light.
Not so easy to do when the hum of the world dulls us in its gears. I am trying to wear light as a garment to find it in the paradise of afterlife under a stone in the opened door of a commuter train. ______

Departure lounge at the airport. Goodbye a salt-water word you avoid as if it would open a wound that would never close. Goodbye a word of red waves, fog-horn sobs, sea-wracked, tongue-uttered ache ember of pain in the wrist, a movement toward the corrosive heart. Goodbye a word that makes your bones scream a word you dare not breathe. ______

I am always naked with you. The winds brought me newborn into your arms to the one who would hold me through the night.
I have always known you. My harsh blessing. Every sweetness has the taste of your skin. Each wound has the shape of your mouth.
Forget me. As I would forget you. For the suffering.
Remember me. As I would remember you. Claim the way the heart stops when you come to me naked and scratched. Climb to my bed bleeding on the dark wind of dreams.
I have waited for you all my life. Four decades to find you and still and still a story that turns back on itself.
Dance with me beloved. I am your wild, sweet girl. I would have you as you are, aging and heartsick with the world.
All night, all night you can have this book. Turn the pages on your lap, until they become like well-worn linen last words soft in your hands.
Meet me there in that story afterlife of spine cracked open.

© Rishma Dunlop, 2004. Reading Like a Girl. Black Moss Press.

Dream of a Little Breakfast

Dream of a Little Breakfast

In my dream my father brings me tea on a tray,
chota hazari in the early hours of morning,
like the servant in his boyhood—
tea poured in white china cups
boiled milk under wrinkled skin.

I ask him to stay. I want to hear his voice.
Some canticle or ghazal or lullaby
or even “White Christmas.”
But I know this is not a hill station.
This is not his beloved Simla.
It is winter in Ontario, the only sound

a footfall crunch across frosted fields.


All she did was read. This left a commotion in her wake. Reading as faith. Book as talisman. Startled breath. Childhood sets of golden books. Nursery of stars. Winken, Blinken and Nod. Kipling has a theory about how the alphabet came to be. Cahiers d’exercises. Lined notebook with pink margin. Faint blue lines of sans serif. Vanish through a rabbit hole, a looking glass, a wardrobe. Take a blessing from the lion. Find a page that does not tear the retina. Paul Éluard’s love poems. Poems that enter like slivers of glass. In the burned libraries everything is winged and dreaming. Soirs volés. Nuits blanches. We are not all born with grace. A manifesto of stars is necessary. Words unfurling on prayer flags. Cicero’s memory palaces. Reading Yehuda Amichai. Open Closed Open. The language of love and tea with roasted almonds. After Auschwitz, no theology. The touch of longing is everywhere. Click of ruby heels. The letter that begins in honesty Dearest Beloved. After Rwanda, no language. Poem that temples grief. Stone of witness. Tablet of amen and love. The breath of Rappaccini’s daughter a fatal kiss. In the ruined garden stand in the shadow of the scar. Her hands busied by daylight. Schopenhauer approves of art. The experience of art constitutes cessation of the will: beauty wipes the slate clean. The nape of her neck bent over the page. The heart is the toughest part of the body. Tenderness is in the hands. Repair. After a requiem begin to hear the noise of the world again. Door opening as the palm of the eye. A poetry of shine.

Memory Palace

The air above the city is saturated
with prayers. Like the air in
industrial towns and dreams
it’s hard to breathe.
Below, an aerial view of the apartment
where we used to make love.
Nightmare demolition site, cement rubble,
explosion of mortar and brick,
gargoyle beheaded.

In memory,
the unfastened blouse,
your hands stroking my hair.
The world seen through a child’s snowglobe.
in yard we make snow angles
rising from where we’ve lain on our backs,
flying like children, leaving imprints of
wings and gowns.

There is a love which cannot be moved.
It must die in its place and in its time
destroyed together with the building
in which it stands.
It becomes like Cicero’s memory palace,
assigned with beauty or ugliness,
dressed up with cloaks or crowns, disfigured
by stains of blood or mud or paint.
And in this way, we will remember.


©Rishma Dunlop 2005. Metropolis, Mansfield Press

Driving Home With Chet

Chet Baker on the stereo—
I imagine his Caravaggio face, heroin-
ruined in the single spot, as the horn comes
into languor, slow notes suffusing the groin—

applause for the trumpet’s blue arrangements,
eighth notes slurring past slate roofs,
scatter-shots of sounds, familiar and strange—
cry of sirens, construction cranes—

kids playing at dusk, falling into their
own shadows on lawns like scissors—
metronomed scales of piano practice,
staccato of footsteps, coming home—

above the trumpet’s metal and spit,
refrigerator hum, the din of phones,
someone coughs, someone hisses a white rage
for the song gone out of their bones—

ignition keyed quiet, Chet’s last notes—
long vibrato shaping pain into order,
in the last crease of light—
thin as a knife,
a wish.

©Rishma Dunlop 2008. White Album, Innana Publications


The chronicle of the city unravels
                                 like a prayer cloth
calm of storybook nurseries, book codes,
swift calligraphy of desire.
The city dreams us gives us exigencies in eavesdropped stories, undistinguished pleadings requiems for forgetting.

There is a small star pinned where Hiroshima used to be.
It’s late and someone’s almost forgotten how to convince you he’s telling the truth. Even in sleep he cries out for help and you minister to him a woman like history returning for its wounded.
Blackbirds drop from telephone wires rosepetals collect in birdbaths. _________________
Everything stories you. You take Rilke at his word Taste it everywhere. Wonderland signs Eat me. Drink me.
Your hands like hobbled birds read the classics. The hero enters the arched gate of the city. In these books it is clear where the story of the city begins.
In the book of lost entries nothing is pure but the forgotten things crossed out words on a haunted page useless dark of ink. _________________
Today the city is unwriting itself in a coffin of glass. In the blurred doorways, in skyscrapers that rise silver and blue cool as if nothing could ever make them burn.
Sprayed on concrete walls Where is my beautiful daughter Emma was here Escúchame I’ll pray for you Lucas Fuck the politicians Recuérdame Inamorata the billboard with the women tall with long legs against white sand and blue ocean red mouths puckered high above the crowds smooth lipsticked smiles longing for cigarettes and sex. _________________ Across the city, lights are shutting off Good night, good night. On the radio, the sirens are singing Emily Lou Harris, Alison Kraus, Gillian Welch ethereal lullaby Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby Come lay your bones on the alabaster stones and be my ever-lovin’baby. Reading Emily Dickinson Beauty crowds me til I die. You feel the loneliness. That’s what is left of the dream of beauty. Beauty So many kinds to name. You hope for a day soft at the edges for something, someone to know the small hands of rain to be like rain wet with a decent happiness. _________________
Kiss the gleaming armor of the world. Feel its electric purr. Close your hands on wind-stunned leaves. Buff the scars of history with your mouth.

©Rishma Dunlop 2004. Reading Like a Girl. Black Moss Press.
Language for a New Century. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008

Film Noir

At the Gare Centrale
She fingers the blue
Of her Canadian passport.

Wears the shoes she bought
From the marché aux puces.

Crimson, strapped at her ankles,
They once belonged to a dancer
With the Moulin Rouge.

At each city limit
A border to be crossed.
Every language a new currency.

At the hotel in Prague
She befriends the night porter.
Tells him secrets,
Intimate stories of her life.

She is conscious of the weight
Of inheritance
The heft of her mother’s rubies
Sewn into the hem
Of her skirt.

She knows there is always
Someone willing to bargain for the past.


©Rishma Dunlop 2004. Metropolis. Mansfield Press.

Small Things

Small things keep you safe:
prayers like the Japanese tie to trees,
clasp of your child’s hand,
angels at the gates of your city,
schedules of commuter trains.

Until the blasted church,
machete massacres,
rush hour bombs on subways,
carnage that is the failure of love.
Clothed in our convictions,
we feel our brains slip,
in every bone the fossil of murder,
illness we cannot vomit up
a hurt so fierce it takes more than
all human grief to beat it down.

You see the exact perspective of
loss as a fading pencil study,
loved one’s features blur, smudged detail,
clouds of centuries pass over the image,
through cross-hatched strokes
only a wrist in forced memory remains,
a hand caressing.

In the archives of accusations,
vengeance and the unforgiven,
we are nailed together, flying the black
flag of ourselves.

The farmer continues to till his fields.
In the city we awaken, turn off alarm clocks,
drink our coffee, kiss our lovers and children,
begin again at the train stations, at bus stops,
briefcases in hand.

In deafness to political speech
the eye permits change.
You imagine words fit for a newborn.

Touch me. In the burned city,
we have become beautiful.

Love’s no secret now.


©Rishma Dunlop 2004. Metropolis. Mansfield Press.


Oh my city, emerald
buried in ravines, coyotes
prowl your meridians,

I am writing from the road,
I had to see clearly
the single world

I could describe to you
the lemon groves, the beggared streets,
palaces of gold and marble.
All the cities I traveled
to sit in cafés,
to feel the underword of subways,
to see vanquished cities burned,
men and woman cradling the slain,
jilted sweethearts in every theatre,
to know
there is no consolation except in desire,
only the occasional small bird singing,
a temporary clearing of the disorder of things,
that flushes the throats of politicians and warriors,
pours a river of poetry through the larynx

In the city of the future
the world is bandaging its limbs
against wholesale murder,
bombed schoolyards.
From the crazed skulls of highrises,
needle towers on love's black sea,
the wind overturns someone's sail,
The city is a glass book.
Open it with an unflinching hand of
a severed arm.  Read the pages
to the lilt of a nightingale.

The sights and fires of
your streets are cleaved
to me. You stand immutable.
Beauty is in the coming home.

What is ordinary is not possible anymore.

Your towers rise in me.
A different wind turns the vane.
What I am waiting for
is just now being born.

©Rishma Dunlop 2005. Metropolis, Mansfield Press

Aint No Cure

Ain’t No Cure

I slice oranges in the kitchen.
The countertop worn, notched
with the story of the knife.

I’ve been reading Ovid’s “The Cure for Love.”
You circle my waist with your arms—
kiss the back of my neck.
I remember who we were—
the taste of us sweet and dangerous─
the girl and boy on the front porch
cooling our heels on our way
to the grave.

We believed we could make something
in the dark.

Dream Sequence When the Moon is Raining

In the end we don't know what we want
until we are ghosts already

these days
when you have let loose your words into the lethal air
your mouth full of failed prayer
you will remember the adulterous heart
                          anonymous hotel rooms
take the wrapper off the bathroom glass
                          bend your head to drink
                          feel the knuckle of solitude
you will smell the stench of several centuries
screaming testimony
as you build a tiger life
                          hear the noise of your blood
the fevered heart burns
even the grass grieves

the palsied hand will wrench everything back from its pit of darkness
what is ruined, broken off will be restored to you

you will hear the girl in the next apartment
playing Elgar on a rented cello

renunciation so hard to learn
                          becomes ecstasy in the
melancholy music of bone

you will feel affection's gift
the world abundant in harsh light

elsewhere, someone buried up to her armpits
is being stoned to death
elsewhere, the witness tree reaches for us
elsewhere, the same story repeats itself

we are lost in winter’s ache
                          this cankered season
undoing the self a hard road alongside tenderness

What can I offer my heart up to?

small armageddons
in the waters of disremembering
I will lay me down.

mercy made of fire
the century burning in the world’s noise
I dream of my left side opened
                          my heart removed

la luna piove how the moon rains into
our dreams of gold sogni d’oro
starvelings feed from my mouth

in the moments when you ask to be taken
my hand that has passaged you
will open veins of tenderness
my mouth will suck out your demons

on the days when it is all too much to bear
remember the music that leaves you undone
and every lover’s name.

© Rishma Dunlop,2005, Metropolis, Mansfield Press


At times I’ve travelled far from you
brought to my knees by want
in white rooms in distant cities
and always, music phantoms me
fevered, carnal
the rock and roll of my youth,
the blues of Clapton and B.B. King,
the jazz dark and peeling,
Miles and Monk and Billie,
the straight statements of gospel,
Mahaliah Jackson’s every note a prayer
that reaches me for brief instants,
after dinner at Frederick’s and Robert’s
where gulls were circling,
seven settings of the sun sliding into English Bay.
I stood under the catalpa tree that sang white blossoms onto my hair
and through my fingers and I was home.
Blackbirds in the milk-blue light before dawn
scoring the silence.
Stop-time on the wet embouchure of a trumpet.
Music waiting in a white room,
white on white playing on
in the rabid world, and I your winter queen, your one and only.

©Rishma Dunlop 2008. White Album, Innana Publications

Rishma Dunlop - Award Winning Canadian Poet