the poetry that matters

Lynn Crosbie

Lynn Crosbie is a Doctor of Philosophy who teaches at OCAD University. She writes a column for the Globe and Mail, and has published six books of poetry.

The Milky Way

           The Milky Way is a galactic disk, a barred spiral, a vortex of white light. It is a white contusion injuring the sky.

            I have never seen it, but Rose explained it like this: she slammed a tub of baby powder against the sink and when it rested, it exhaled. A little speaking storm.

            She would horde her fancy soaps and creams, perfume. Arrange them in a gauntlet, clean and dust them, while using dollar store garbage she put on the way a squirrel washes.

            It will go bad, I told her.

            It went very badly, up to the night I found myself dragging an orange garbage bag through the alley, and leaving it in a doorway.

            The man who found it thought he had found a dead pig.

            The alley is called The Milky Way: it drags through four streets like a knife cut.

            It bracelets where we lived, where we were, when she and I, early on, would walk Squeak and hold hands as if exchanging information about what we wanted and where we had been.

            Our palms signing unseen masses in space. Her damp hand, crying about her life, her life until we first kissed and she said, It burns.

            Until we first slept together, side by side. Her sock monkey on the floor. Marty.

            I used to hold this thing and pray for someone to love me, she said.

            That’s fucked up, I said.

            The thing was warped and shabby with her crying and clinging.  I pitched it straight off, and told her.

            That was the first time I saw her close up, like a flower in the dark.

            This was when she made me almost sick for her, every damp, silky part and I smacked her hard, wanting her and wanting out.

            This is The Milky Way, shining in places, like the bones and beauty of a woman obscured by her appearance. Like the Xs on a coroner’s account of where she was “well nourished,” and possibly, decent.

            The things she wanted, moving inwards, disappearing in the filth, in the looseness of space.






She was walking loosely between the bar and tables, towards the ten tiles of dance floor.

            I had just pissed AU into the snow.

           She shook her ass into waves, and I grabbed her, spun her like a top. When she hung onto me later I thought about the Parkdale Peace Tree, a caved in pine, scrambled, at the base with garbage.

            I mean I thought of things that were meant to be beautiful, of suffering and fate. I knew that I would take her home and at some point say, Take it all, whore; that later she would spread out and finger her pearl necklace as if she had spent her life shucking oysters.

            That she would have a dog that would lick my balls until I smacked it, that she would wedge into me sighing, the word “love” roiling in her open mouth.

            And I would sigh too, in resignation.

            The sheets bunching into yellow like the sun coming down hard, a crayon drawing of light, the extremes of her skin so rough she cut me.

            What would pass for love, in its planting.



We both liked some of the same things:



Goose necked lamps

Pot pies



Small soap

Cool baths






            She hated the vulgarity of grass bursting through cement, the texture of raisins and how her ass looked in the mirror I slanted by the bed.

             I hated her collection of Chinese fans, Squeak, and how easy she was in darkness.

            We would watch TV all night and let it pass through us like fog, on the very good nights we had Colt 45 and a bowl of popcorn that she ate like a lizard as she lay flat against me, staying still.

            I fucking love you, I would say through my teeth so she would stir, and I would want to bite her sometimes, sometimes I was a warm flat stone.

            Something that could change colours and absorb the pale red of her hair, every impression she left.


Squeak was her dog and she was unreasonable in her affection, feeding him with her fork, or letting him S between us, his half-tail buried between my legs.

            It kissed another male dog in the park and she screamed, “You’re not that way!”

            Get your faggot dog off me and put it on the balcony, I said.

            By this time, she knew better, and when he cried I would kiss the flinch off her face and tell her about wolves, patrolling the wild in chevrons, living on squirrels and dirt.

            I imagined kicking him so much he looked oval, I would press my foot into his kidneys and hear the rustle of pom poms, tawny legs stridulating—

            Passion once distracted me like a crossing-guard.

            I shone my hand with Vaseline and went wild as the dog crept away, as ten girls flipped their skirts, bending over and pleaded that I—

            She caught me once towards the end and went off too. I could hear her say “My baby,” to the dog I would say she gave away, that I would follow.

            A trail of slick paw prints, leaving Autumn everywhere.


I know that you want to believe in a beautiful world.

            I know because I have seen its remains, say, in a scudding tangerine cloud or drawing by the swing-set of two crayoned hearts overlapping. In the word SIGH fingered into dust.

            A stunned bird, rising into a herald and rodents stealing tulips bulbs and replanting them.

And the fire inside the glass, and what it destroys.

            And more signs of resistance, that try, like a wall, to stop water.

            My father beat me with a wire hanger every day; my mother held an iron to my hands and they would cleave in such collusions as I looked through my window and saw a pigeon shivering, then shitting milk over the ledge. Milk that turned into green fungus.

            And this is the body of Christ.

            And this vinegar turned wine His blood and the nails in His hands a project I did for Shop, and called a spice rack.

            That my father would tear apart on Good Friday once, What is good about it, we asked, considering his anguish.

            Considering what it might feel like to drive nails through her as she rattled on about wanting to feel clean, to feel safe.

            To find, up against me, a kind of exile as soft as hay and sweet as bleating.

            I’ll take care of you, I said.

            And her eyes closed and reminded me of insects, balling up and shrinking, in the terror of having been discovered.    


She tried to make it all romantic, with Dollarama valentines, her habit of leaving notes in my pockets, squeezing ketchup hearts on burgers, saying how I smelled.

            Like hickory smoke or musk or little marshmallows.

            She smelled like air freshener; sometimes, like something snatched from a pile.

            Once, a peony.

            Just waking she shook her head and her hair fell like a flower, and breathed like one.

            That we might stay inside together until it rained and it snowed.

            Until the floors opened over the weight of trees; that she might make me something warm in a red glass that went down like honey and arrows, that tasted bitter and wrong.

            Something damp and heavy, or petals or scales.


I never hit her, I barely talked. Let her go on about things she saw that amazed her, the woman on the corner who hefted her breasts from her shirt and yelled, I am boiling, hungry; an igloo of syringes by the swings; an argument about salad dressing that turned to tears.

            The way the JESUS I BELIEVE IN YOU sign caught her eye, the chalk scriptures and crackhead who whistled show tunes, furiously, when he was high.

            How she wished she could fit in my pocket, Would you take me everywhere? 

            The time Mars canted in the sky, erasing some of the black and the paintings on posts made by children, of what they liked: rainbows, grass, wild animals.

            A birthday cake in a dirty window, of an Indian girl’s face surfing white icing, the sound of the train at night crossing the overpass, the storefront covered in huge lilac panties.

            I wanted to live somewhere quiet, I wanted to leave but it’s beautiful, she said. How The Lord makes puzzles, learning to figure them out.

            One of the last days, she saw someone beating a rat to death in a garbage can as ten people watched and got sick.

            It’s all I see, I told her, as we divided, feeling like one or the other and certain that anger and beauty only meet like this; with an end in mind, they change each other.


            It was not planned, but on occasion, certain things assemble like a plot.

            A knife, a bag, a set of keys.

            The dog had to go, is all I knew. It cringed at the end of the bed, licking my feet and balls, pissing in my shoes and showing its teeth.

            Why couldn’t she let it go?

            Sometimes I see it, living in the woods, running past a horizon of emerald.

            Then I feel it going limp and pressing against me, as if I might comfort its pain and confusion, or let go.

            I never saw someone cry so much. She was soaking wet, rolling a blanket into a Pita shell, singing what she always did about sweetness and babies and a place we were all better off.


She knew how to make me happy, in the dark.

            In the dark she could be anyone; I could smash her face in a pillow or tell her who she was, tell her to pull me tight until I filled her with stars.


You think you are happy, day to day, but try to remember why.

            Something on TV, plates balanced on our laps; old friends visiting; an arsenal of beer almost too dense to count.

            Waking up having mashed together, sharing an illness, going somewhere new and taking pictures.

            She is pointing in every shot, at a lake or pile of stones. An oyster burger, a cardinal, a donut in a branch.

            A raccoon and its babies, crushed in the direction they picked.

            Don’t take that picture, don’t, she mewed.

            The straps of her bathing suit, dug into a dark burn; how she tried to smile, as she planted herself like a giant pear on a sharp rock, when I told her that her bush was sticking out like seaweed.

            This smile like the moon waning, its tremble part of what I remember, when I said cheese.


What she saw when she looked at me: someone who could be fixed with a bar of soap and a comb, with insistent love.

            When all I am is anger and the particular aversion to movement that pain leaves in passing.





While moving through the system, I was asked about what brought me here, or there.

            The worst stories yield the best results, if their truth or power implodes in the telling. No one ever wonders if feeling joy is also relevant.

            What it is to be dirty and weak, tranced into a memory of sheer bliss that breaks you worse than any beating.

            A mouthful of silver hair, riding the bench of a car stalled by an endless black river. A pretty mouth singing assent; walking straight and with purpose; having someone answer when you call.

            Spare change, I would call, towards the end.

            It came, on occasion, as letters in a sentence about how far I had moved away.




I never speak of my youth, because I have looked too long there as a way of beginning a story that makes no sense.

            The idea of being clean, or hopeful disgusts me as lime on a corpse.

            I wish I had been hatched on a piece of meat; that is, more sensibly.

            I am lying in my bedroom, listening to music as my mother makes dinner, and feeling voluptuously depressed. I have no idea what will happen, how the disorder I cultivate will advance and change me.

            I would have been listening to something about how I felt, _sick and dirty, more dead than alive_, oblivious to the idea that if you invite despair, it may never leave.


Then there is love that I assumed would go on forever.

I thought she may be the last, but only because I was tired of its familiarity and phrasing. How it always started wild then turned into the metal or fabric of a cage.

            I love you so much, she would say, hanging onto me like a line staked to a cliff. You too, I always said, wondering at what we risk in case of loneliness.

            At how lonely we are, anyways, turning into an X as the night descends, forcing us into dreams of who we are, however loved, and unknown.


I had a girl once, who knew me and loved me anyway. I had to hold a pillow over her head to fuck her, she made feel like my eyes were movies, or the hard parts where the whole point is made.

            She drifted away when I got careless, and when I get this way, and flinch or shudder I think of her, waiting it out to the ending. Her insistent belief that things happen for a reason I never explained except by lifting the pillow, off and on, and looking into her.

            Like whatever she felt was fugitive, criminal even.

            Her eyes would explode like spores as I wished I would also want to touch myself without cringing.

            She didn’t so much drift away as leave me, when I punched those eyes shut, and said what I say that is, Stop looking at me.


Stop looking at me. My mother would say this when I wasn’t even in the room, then come find me so she could scream about never having a single thing she wanted, including a horse and a walk-in closet.

            Some fucking peace and quiet so she could make pictures from magazines, cardboard and glue.

            In one of them, a little girl is adventuring in the desert by a smiling cactus and a litter of coyotes.

            What kind of a life is this, she would say until she didn’t know she was saying it.

            I knew then what she meant, and feel bad for her. I never minded when she hit me, because it would have been dishonest, otherwise.

            We had to hang our clothes off a rail in the kitchen, and fight over the pork in the beans. It was mean and it was ugly, and so was she.


My father was a lot cooler, and ten times as hard.

            He would wake me up to tell me what kind of a pussy coward I was, or ask me to play cards and give me milk and bourbon and whoop when I won.

            I have only once felt passion and it was for him, shaking off his anguish for me.

            He could have shot me those nights and I would have died all madly in love. I think of him shuffling the deck into a fan and collapse from the mystery of what it is to stop fighting, long enough to believe in your own strength.


And that is all I will ever say about them because it is mostly hard for all of us, and we tend to hate whatever we have because it isn’t good enough.


            She had arthritis so bad she would lope to bed like an ape, and it either made me want to puke or rub her knees and hips so she could sleep.

            It’s always that way, and unfortunate that the hatred tells us more about who we are. Unfortunate because we are better off not knowing that our strongest convictions are honed on disgust and distaste. Secrets that we withhold to be polite, that harden like a table of elements, abbreviating us.





Her name is Rose, a pretty name and one that invites the obvious.

            Someone left a half dozen roses where they found her and then someone else stole them, minutes later.

            Imagine bringing these home as a present, shamelessly and you get some of the idea.

            Of what it is to live a sad lie—looking like a stump and speaking of roses.

A callous lie about belonging; a depraved lie about accidents.

            I waited until they put it all together, and was surprised it took so long. She went off somewhere with the dog, I told her friend.

            I waited in a room that collapsed in silence while the police blue-lined the streets and the papers lit up about The Torso Murder.

            About another part of her, sunk in trash that someone like a pearl diver recovered.






No one pays any attention anymore, and I am surrounded by this sort of thing where I am. Worse crimes, recounted until they acquire a motive.

            She was begging me, I told her not to, it just happened. The motives are true, if deformed by disparity.

            The crimes never as disgusting as the squalor of their recollection.

            They tell until there is nothing left, how Nature recovers the dead.

            I pretend there was an argument that escalated, which is more or less true. I am afraid to ruin her further, or lose myself entirely by speaking of her arms detaching from her shoulders into Venus.

            Of the veins in marble, of how they provide luster—this kind of abstraction is propulsive, and urgent.

            If you have run a serrated blade under water, and scummed the sink with blood and skin—

            You might consider your thoughts as wild animals, that need to be captured, sedated, and penned.

            Or indulge in metaphors.

            O rose blooming bright against steel.






The bad days were sober and hungry and endless.

            She would choose these days to tell me about her life, to indulge in the cruelties that were the sum total of her shadow.

            Her best friends chasing her into traffic, a dirty old man with pockets full of candy, no one seeing who she really was never mind that she did this and that for them, and on and on.

            Her sisters Iris and Lily, heartless, jealous; her husband’s treachery; a complicated story about a baby gerbil, I would half-listen and try not to despise her tears as a luxury and not wet evidence of her bad luck.

            We could fry up what’s left and cut away the bad parts, I would offer. This kind of pragmatism incensed her.

            It’s just like you to think that, she would scream. Nothing goes away.

            She was right, of course. I still wake up and reach over to grab or pinch her. I still think of her friends or that gerbil and want to hurt someone for her, it still hurts and I hate it.

            Holding on to her admissions, the way a hook secures a fish.




She kept a diary that I found in her bag, that I guess is evidence now.

            Parts of it underlined, He scares me sometimes, or I wonder if I should leave. The rest standing fallow, worries about the scarred tree she called Baby, a trick she taught Squeak, a good time we had with bubble bath and Baby Duck.

            I see this is how history is ledgered, and appreciate its emphasis on crisis. Still, I wish someone could see her standing still as a squirrel that, after deciding to cross the street, has become alert to both danger and desire.


When we blew our checks once on a three day binge she started to panic. What will we do, she asked, as if I knew. As if this was the worst thing that could ever happen.

            We landed up getting some help and borrowing the rest, but her face still bothers me, pale and heavy as if this was the worst thing that could ever happen.

            She wanted us to move north, and live near the forest, the water. Her eyelids twitched like Mustangs when she slept, and there were days she could barely move.

            We lived in a building that overlooked a large, filthy park. We saw old men making garbage fires and whores kneeling in the shrubs, worse.

            She saw a drunk father shooting his kid down the slide, saw the kid land in the dirt and went to bed for a day, until I promised we would get out one way or another.

            What if this is all we deserve, she asked.

            Some crazy Indian yelled PARTY and I held her hard and wondered how it would all look if I started a fire; I wondered about the burning in my head.


I don’t know when I started to blame her for the things I felt.

            There was this. I was sitting on the sidewalk one day, at the end of our street, holding out my hat and watching a pair of black alligator shoes go by. I looked up and she looked down and stopped, her hand on her mouth.

            She had long legs and a heart shaped ass and I realized she would never touch me, that my life had broken like a cracker at some point and I had missed it.

            I took her money and drank alone at Happy Time, flirted like a maniac with the tub of lard waitress until she cut me off and I staggered home and tore apart the closet until I found a pair of heels I had Rose wear and walk across me.

            I once had two girls in one bed, I told her, and she said, yes, I was a man, and I hated her for it.


When I was panhandling, it occurred to me that anyone who stopped thought I cared; that they had no idea how badly I wanted to hurt them.

            I still don’t think well of any of them. Except the occasional furious person who would fight me, for harassing them, or hiss something vile. In the process, giving me something, recognition, that few can afford.

            The day Rose saw me must have been the worst of it, but she pretended she hadn’t and so did I, and when she asked what I did that day, I felt us move to the center of the hellmouth, and start rehearsing the ending of the play.


The dog actually wagged its tail, and rolled over. I rubbed its belly, and thought of how it carried its ratty tennis ball everywhere and slept in the slant of sun.

            I needed to know I could feel everything and nothing. That I was not to be trusted.

            It was worse than hurting myself, which does not matter.


I was ill, which does not matter, I was desperate, and frightened.

            I got my hands on a car and drove fast, making it up as I went. Thinking clearly enough to go far, not thinking to remove the ankle bracelet, giving up in the end and returning to The Milky Way.

            Then puking stars.



“The neighbours overheard a lot of fighting. That building! They have bedbugs now.”


—Peggy Nash

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