from Æther: an out-of-body lyric by Catherine Graham

Mom is alive and well and standing by the kitchen sink,

her hands immersed in soapy dishwater, scrubbing

the bowl she’d used to make chocolate icing for cake,

staring out the window at the ice-capped quarry.

She’s given me the electric beaters to lick.

I push my tongue between

the metallic edges into the deeper places.

I can’t get enough sweetness.

I follow her eyes to the flicker of movement in the bush.

“What’s that?” I ask. “A junco?”


    I can never tell the little birds apart.

The chickadees and juncos are both small and bouncy

and mostly grey. Mom says I need to pay closer attention,

to spend more time seeing what’s there.

With her as guide, I learn to pay attention to details,

however small, to help me tell the birds apart.

I begin to notice the markings of feathers, their colour and shape.

    Her favourite is the cardinal.

Not the male with his bright red showy feathers,

but the subdued female, her feathers a warm red-tinged brown.

    Sometimes while playing outside I spot a feather on the ground.

I pick it up and bring it back to her.

She collects them in a vase that sits on the windowsill.

Feathers, forever falling from birds.

Feathers become my talismans

during my months of cancer treatment.

City streets, sidewalks, parking lots-

feathers from sparrows, seagulls, pigeons.     

Pigeons wedged in a flower-ring scrum pecking madly for bread.

The machine-gun stutter of the cardinal.

And I remember these words from my first creative writing teacher:

Your subject matter chooses you.

Death chooses me.


                                                     Ghosts have no substance,
                                                                               require no sustenance,walk
                                                                                          through water, stone.


When we lived in suburban Grimsby, during sleepovers at my best friend’s house, I often heard a siren fire through the night. Don’t let it be our house. Don’t let it be my parents. My small body tenses beneath the sheets as the fire engine’s wailing closes in and then …. relief—it’s somebody else’s terror.

And now birds.

These creatures with wings

that fascinated my mother become a feathered bridge.


                                                     Be as small as a hole
                                                            for birds to fly through.


One night while waiting for a date

for my second surgery…

waiting is harder than knowing—

the surgeon didn’t get clean margins—

he needed to go back in—

I fall asleep.

I’m alone in the house looking out at the quarry

when a flock of mallards fly by. One flaps

through the half-open window.

She beats her wings in the cage of trapped space,

knocks against the family-room walls.

I reach for her panic.

Cupping her breast, I guide her out—

Wide awake, I feel her pillow-soft imprint on my palms,

the ghost-ness of her breast feathers.

A bird in house.

I enter my own cage       

of panic.

Isn’t that an omen?

But I guided her out. I saved her.

I recall the figure-ground illusion: faces/vase.

When you see two faces, you can’t see the vase.

The mind only perceives one image at a time.

    Bird in house. Bird out of house.

Omen? Gift?


                                                Water falls to where the heart aches,
                                                           a ladder slowly lifts,
                                                                                    and the birds the birds
                                                                                                  hurl themselves up—


In my journal I write this sentence: I’m walking down the street when a feather floats into my line of vision. An hour later I’m walking down the street to see my therapist when a feather floats in front of me, wind-lingering before it touches ground.
     My words have come to life. What does it mean?
     My therapist tells me a story about Jung. He was working with a patient who dreamt about a scarab beetle. The patient, having told Jung about it, was resisting deeper meaning when a brittle tapping came from the window.
     A beetle trying to fly through glass.
     A feather floats into my line of vision.

We see the connection

as a sign of affirmation.


You are called into a crowd of feathers.


I often work with students on a one-on-one basis with their poems. They read their draft aloud and I sit with their work, think it through with all the knowledge and experience and intuition from my years of writing and studying the craft, and when ready, I share my thoughts and insights. Try cutting the first line. The last line isn’t needed, see? Can you be more precise with this image? The poetic logic is here except for the last stanza. A student I work with tells me she’s been diagnosed with breast cancer. So many of us on this journey. She gives me a copy of her latest poem. I follow along as she reads aloud:
“A bird flies through an open window.
It flaps from wall to wall,
searching for the way out. I reach
to cup its panic—warm and plump
and thickly feathered—I guide
it to the open window—
it flies away becoming sky.”

She sees the expression on my face.

 “You could feel those breast feathers on your hand.”

She nods. “How did you know?”


We are both buried by bird shadow.


A bird flies through an open window.

A woman with breast cancer dreams

of a bird flying through an open window.

She cups the breast, feels the pump of its panic

through the palms of her hands. She guides the bird out—

She wakes and thinks: Omen? Gift?

Before my coming out of aether, I talked to my mother.

She never answered but I talked anyway.

How can you be gone more years than my being here?

How can that be when there hasn’t been a day

in which you haven’t entered my mind

as insight, revelation or memory,

hovering like a patch of scuttering clouds.

To hear your voice. To smell your scent.

But without the base coat of your skin,

to mix with Chanel no 5, no scent of you.

Mom, we are having a conversation

in our silences.


She came as light—darkness, a backdrop for her glow.

She moved with the slow speed of her walker

(before wheels were added to them) the constant

up-and-down rhythm.

He could hear

the scraping.

He was in bed,

the door wide open—

and saw the approaching light.

They say sightings happen

during the span of three days after death.

The soul, if you believe in the soul

as a form of energy, is released

from the body like the remaining warmth

after a television’s switched off.

The nest inside the heat.

Rest your hand there

and you’ll feel it.

The aftermath of alive

before it goes cold.

 “Russ, is that you?”

The urge to run to her—

    He bolted up—

                                                                                                                   But his legs wouldn’t


locked by invisible chains

he couldn’t battle their grip and weight.


The light hovered. 

I was jealous of his sighting.

Now I don’t have to be.

I shift my legs on the stretcher.

“You’re here but I can’t see you.”

 “This is better than light, honey, you know that.”

“If I’d known that cancer would bring me to you—”

“Then this wouldn’t be a gift, would it? It would be an expectation.

You couldn’t know.”

“Don’t leave me. You won’t, will you?”

“I can never leave you. I am your scars.”


Through air
she slips
into the eye
of a fanning peacock.


Beep and pause of the monitor,

murmur of voices behind the nurses’ station,

and a patient feels no pain

while lying on a stretcher

floating in the fluid of Mother.

Catherine Graham is an award-winning poet, novelist and creative-writing teacher. Her sixth poetry collection, The Celery Forest, was named a CBC Best Book of the Year and was a finalist for the Fred Cogswell Award for Excellence in Poetry. Michael Longley praised it as “a work of great fortitude and invention, full of jewel-like moments and dark gnomic utterance.” Her work has been translated into Greek, Serbo-Croatian, Bangla, Chinese and Spanish and she has appeared on CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter.  She teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto SCS where she won an Excellence in Teaching Award. Publications include Arc Poetry Magazine, Poetry Daily, IceFloe Press, Glasgow Review of Books, Joyland, The Malahat Review and she was recently shortlisted for the Montreal International Poetry Prize. Her debut novel Quarry won an Independent Publisher Book Awards gold medal, “The Very Best!” Book Awards for Best Fiction and was a finalist for the Sarton Women’s Book Award and Fred Kerner Book Award. A previous winner of the Toronto International Festival of Authors’ Poetry NOW, she leads their monthly Book Club and is also an interviewer for By-the-Lake Book Club. Æther: an out-of-body lyric and her second novel, The Most Cunning Heart, are forthcoming. Tweets: @catgrahampoet

Banner Art: Score for Birds and Memory, a digital collage by Robert Frede Kenter Tweets: @frede_kenter

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