Four Poems, a Prose Poem and Two Images by Joanna Lilley

Flowers of Nunavut

On broad, bare river rocks, a tourist bends to tug plush purple saxifrage from its shallow roots. Huge above its tiny leaves, the first flower of tundra holds a soft dry pea, an aftertaste of sweet extinction. Sometimes the leaf tips carry crystals as desert flowers do. Down by the shattered sea, a woman sells necklaces of three dark, gleaming fox claws threaded on a cord. Upstairs at the museum, in a black and white photograph, a girl holds an arctic fox around the waist, her tolerant pet. Inside a cabinet, two soapstone bears play the same accordion. Outside, the tourist stands to listen to the broken ice on Koojesse Inlet. She turns three-sixty: she still can’t believe there aren’t any trees. She steps over pipes to return to the hotel. At home, pipes are underground, cars roll smoothly over sanitary apparatus deeply plumbed. At home, she opens the window to hear the breeze in thick oaks and beeches. She’s framed the saxifrage she uprooted; it’s beside her bed. Her guilt is always the last thing she sees before she sleeps.

Cat Head, Manitoba

Before life landed
and backbones fused,
red algae in a warm,
northern sea engineered oxygen,
consumed carbon dioxide,
until, pressed softly
into a slab of dolomite,
it formed a precious print
of what let us
become human.

Tree Service

They moved far from family, north
to a mammoth land furred with forest,
glazed by lakes, where they didn’t know the snow

would be as dry as dust or that English skin
would shrivel in such a textbook semi-arid region.
At least until rain began to fall in winter

as well as snow. Then summer thunder came,
fire-starter lightning, torrential wind.
All that the land-keepers know is changing.

A glacier melts, a river dries to stone.
Permafrost dissolves, lakes seep into soil.
Beetles, cougars inch north.

They knew when they left their country for another,
they were flying into a flame
they couldn’t put out.

They won’t pay off their carbon debt unless
they never go back home.
The forest fires are blazing, still far

from their wooden house.
They’ve filled the bath with water, just in case.
When they ring their father, they tell him

they can look at the sun now that it’s a sickly
orange moon. Smoked sunsets are so beautiful.
They’ll see their father soon; they’ve booked the flight.

In the garden, the air tastes as if the neighbours
have burnt a barbecue. They wonder
how many flights to their father they have left.

Perhaps not having children covers
at least the interest on their carbon debt.
The dog is ready for her walk; she’s at the gate.

They always used to take her above
the tree line, reach a view and gaze.
But now they stay low among the leaves
and needles to breathe the oxygen the trees
feed them, listening to soft machinery
laundering burdened air.


The places she pinned
and didn’t tell me,
fastening her future.
I hoard them for her on my screen,
architectural feats of
teetering homes
on cliffs,
on rocks,
on shores.
She never got to see them.
She’d hate me if I did
what I’m thinking
of doing,
going to each place
to see which ones were built,
are real,
and which were only dreams.


I saw the geography of my brain today,
slid my eyes across glaciers,
folds of monochromatic floes,
the white of air or bone,
looking for the detonator.
Scrolling through eye sockets,
ear caves, a thick white cornice
of skull. Such flimsy vertebrae.
I reversed my apprehension: a bleed
would be white not black.

Walking back to work across
the ice-edged, straitened river,
a dark, swift flow to die for,
my windward cheekbone aches
in minus thirty chill. I like
the winter shrink of wayward
vessels, the restrictive fit
of the child-sized hat I bought
deliberately. I never saw inside
my mother’s head. I scanned
her eyes instead to see
the aftermath, the endless blue
always above the weather.

Joanna Lilley and Pepper. Photo by Glenn Rudman

Joanna Lilley @circumpolarjo is the author of three poetry collections: Endlings, whichc omes out with Turnstone Press in March 2020 and is all about extinction,If There Were Roads (Turnstone Press), and The Fleece Era (Brick Books), which was nominated for the Fred Cogswell Award for Excellence in Poetry. She’s also the author of a novel, Worry Stones (Ronsdale Press), which was longlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award, and a short story collection, The Birthday Books (Hagios Press). Joanna has given readings all across Canada and in the US and the UK and has also delivered workshops as far afield as Alaska and Iceland. Joanna is from Britain and now lives in Whitehorse, Yukon, where she’s grateful to reside on the Traditional Territories of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation and the Ta’an Kwäch’än Council.

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