Marianne Vespry is one of the editors of Celebrating Poets Over 70, published in 2010. She worked as a librarian, editor, and administrator in Canada and abroad. Her final 13 years before retirement were spent with the United Nations regional office in Bangkok. In addition to poetry she has published abstract bulletins, thesauri, community editorials in the Hamilton Spectator (Ontario), and a fantasy novel.


Celebrating Poets Over 70 began for me as an accidental project. I was feeling that I could and should move on after my husband’s death. At a Tower Poetry meeting Ellen Ryan described her vision of an elder-anthology, and then asked if I would edit it. Of course I don’t step into such commitments blindly: I ask myself “Why not?” and allow at least 10 seconds to pass to see if any compelling negatives present themselves. Nothing. I said “Yes.”

Over the next months we received 1,100 poems, and with the help of 16 reader/evaluators, we winnowed them down to 330. We had decided to group the poems by themes, but we could not slot them into pre-set categories; we had no preexisting list of chapters. Rather I dealt them into piles of poems I hoped would illuminate each other. If a pile was too big, it was divided. If it was too small, it disappeared, and the poems were distributed among other piles. Twelve piles emerged, twelve piles in need of one-word titles. Sometimes it was easy: Childhood, Love, Death. Sometimes it was difficult: Encounters, Reflection.

At the beginning it seemed so tenuous: Every poem records an Encounter, embodies its author’s Reflections; all poetry is about Love and Death. But as each theme was sub-sorted, as each poem fell into place (fell or was pushed), the themes and even the placement on the page acquired inevitability. In the Introduction I apologized in advance to anyone who might feel that their poem was misplaced, but no one complained.

Individual themes offered surprises.  


Childhood poems did not overflow with the innocence and optimism popular culture expects; they were mostly sober, even sad. Poets remembered dead siblings, a grandmother’s funeral, the struggles of the immigrant experience, and the 1930s. The birth of a baby is wonderful:

this is the kind of news
that can set the tilting world
up straight.
—“Bret Andrew, February 5, 2003”
    by Marion Frahm Tincknell

   

But another poet has a bleaker view; he see the newborn as:

a baby critter
that didn’t beg
to be begotten
on a hopeless
starving stage
  — “Basic Needs”
    by Jerry Andringa


Generations weaves together love, memory, recognition, concern, playfulness, the heartache and laughter that dance together through family interactions. A great-grandmother worries about her daughter, squeezed by sandwich generation obligations. The family traditions that chafed a child are now upheld by her much older self, and imparted in turn to her grandchildren. The Depression scarred and terrified a generation; the next generation deals with the fallout.

After her mother moved to a nursing home
Hazel cleared out her house.
In a kitchen cupboard she found a jar labeled
string too short for anything.
  — “Saving” by Sharon MacFarlane


History starts with a tongue-in-cheek capsule biography of Julius Caesar, and a meditation on falconry.

Everything flows,
says the old dark wisdom.
Blood flows, tears flow,
falcons are flown.

  — “Falcons and Their Kings”
    by Francis Sparshot

    It goes on through more recent tragedies. Canada lost perhaps 100,000 marriageable young men in World War I, dead or severely wounded. That left an equal number of young women unmarried or widowed and unlikely to remarry. One or them writes:

I never met the man
I would have loved
For in any war
There is
No rhyme
No reason.
  — “Unknown” by Joan S Nist


Love poems celebrate present love, recall beginnings, dream past loves back to us. A poet marvels at his good fortune:

Your spirit is my flag freshly unfurled.
Old Valentine! How new you make my world!
  — “Old Valentine” by Irving Leos
 

Another speaks of union and separation:

till we peel
limb by limb
he from me
me from him
each to reach
best we may
separate selves
born of the day
  — “One and One Are One”
    by Sandy Wicker

    Another remembers:

. . . long journeys
Through the seas
Of the mind, in
A white ship, steered
By the stars.
Your hair
Blowing in the wind.
  — “Under an Opal Moon”
    by Stephen Threlkeld

 

Encounters spills forth with rich moments and seasons of life.

In a well-loved house,

. . . the ghosts
of former tenants . . .
. . . whisper from the rooms and on the lawn
but leases end and then we, too, are gone.
  — “Passing Through” by Patricia Brodie

Emigrants are forever divided from those they left in “the old country”:

we travel through
each others’ lives
only in thought
we left our souls behind
by leaving
  — “Emigrants” by Giselle Braeuel

   

At a summer music festival in Ottawa, a concertgoer muses about post 9/11 security in the U.S., preferring local arrangements:

As for police sharpshooters here, or razor wire
forget it: we have retained
Beethoven, Mozart, Dvorak
to provide our security.
  — “Security” by Christopher Levenson


The flavour of Aging is bittersweet. Losses are acknowledged, but what is left is valued even more. A poet says of her chimney sweep:

He wears the leer of men who peer up more
than sooty shafts. I pay no mind, for like the hearth,
I know: when we no longer burn, we die.
  — “Chimney Sweep, November”
    by Elisavietta Ritchie

Moving out of the family home has been hard; the treasures stored in the attic have gone to family members who will value them.

The attic is bare
but my heart is full
of what has been.
  — “Change” by Naomi C Wingfield

   

New technology can help enrich old lives, substitute for failing senses:

At one hundred
Etta is au courant.
Her watch talks to her.
It is eleven fifteen.
— “Lifetime” by Carrie McLeod Howson

Sometimes only the poet’s skill is left to celebrate:

Yesterday I was indestructible
eighteen, the sea

was deep; today
decaying in the shallows.
  — “Macular Degeneration”
     by Killian McDonnell


Who would have expected the funny poems about Death? They share space with the elegiac:

And the long snows of winter
Softly settle upon them all.
“— Farewell to Friends”
  by Joan Shewchun

. . . and afterwards [we]
talked incessantly, unwilling
to finally confront the silence
of her loss.
  — “Celebrations” by Don Gralen

   

and the refusal to “go gentle”:

I’ll be like that leaf,
hang on to that damn
limb no matter how hard
the gusts whip me around.
  — “Obstinance”
     by Nancy Gotter Gates

and many more.


The section on Nature begins with three poems about deer and goes on to water: water birds, living by the water. Next are the seasons.

winter:

Champagne air, dry, biting,
dances with light.
Wind-scoured snow, trackless,
flashes with diamond fire. –
  — “–50C” by Isobel Spence

spring:

rain-drenched tulips
my inside out
umbrella
  — “Haiku: Tulips” by Sonja Dunn

 
   

summer:

The wasps are in the windfalls,
Take care, my dear, don’t touch!
“Late summer warning”
    — by Muriel Jarvis Ackinclose

fall:

The last leaf to fall
sees on its earthbound spiral
the first buds of spring
  — “Season Haiku” 
     by Julie Adamson

 

Reflections serves up memories, dreams, arguments, meditations, wisdom. Sometimes the reflections are literal:

I can reflect back the sunshine’s bright beams,
recovering sky-tinted shards of my dreams.
  — “Shards of Glass” by Marion Wyllie
    (age 103)

Sometimes being mindful is hard to bear:

The pot simmers, I stir, taste, season.
A roadside bomb kills an American soldier
and two Iraqis . . .
  — “Mindful Soup” by Sylvia Levinson

 
   

Reading obituaries, a poet thinks about her own:

Loved ones, when you write my obituary,
say this: Once, sitting still,
she turned into a tiger.
— “Reading Obituaries” by Mildred Tremblay

Sometimes poetry itself is a path to wisdom:

The Advocate
stopped playing god
The Pacifist fought
to find inner peace
And the old Survivor
healed her wounds with words
  — “Getting There” 
     by Lorna Louise Bell

 

There are funny poems about death, but no one can make light of Dementia.

. . . it takes and takes and takes
until all that’s left is one working heart,
locked inside a warm empty body
that’s forgotten how to die.
  — “Morning Musing” by Diane Buchanan


Poetry arises out of memory. Wordsworth said that it “. . . takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” Memory as a specific theme might appear redundant, until you read the poems. They talk of remembering and forgetting (accidental and deliberate), of voices and silences and ghosts from the past.

I heard the wind in the night
And I remembered.
  — “Memory” by Isobel Spence


Words celebrates language, writing, poetry:

I read poetry
and for a short time
live inside a stranger’s world
  — “I am the Poet of My Courtyard” 
     by Rita Katz

   

It celebrates communication and its failures:

Please
relax
listen
slide into reverie
linger with me
  — “They Say, I Say” 
     by Joyce Harries

And indeed, it celebrates words:

I love friends and flowers and birds
I must add, I do love words!
  — “I Love Words” by Marion Wyllie (age 103)