Ex-Patria Poem by Philippa Lane

Philippa Lane

Chichester, West Sussex, England


Rating: 5.0

The beginning of the end of our Canadian winter;
The ending of a British winter,
And their gentle spring ahead of ours.
I always think about these overlapping seasons,
In the forty-four years I have lived in Québec.

Yes, Québec and all its solitudes:
I, too, felt solitary within the class system
in the England I had left behind.
I was twenty-two when I turned my back on it;
I simply left it all behind, vowing I'd forget everything
But the friends whom I loved.
I left behind familial ties,
Home-grown attitudes,
And closed minds;
I felt relief, like discarding
A heavy winter overcoat In spring.
I packed my old school trunk -
It carried the label of my new address -
As I had no residence yet.
So I set off to a country
I knew nothing about,
A country that patriots
Alluded to with derision
As my 'Going to the Colonies'.
Said with such contempt.
Nevertheless, on a damp November day
I boarded the 'Empress of Canada'
Steaming from the docks at Liverpool.

The gusty gales tossed its mightiness
Into a mere toy ship bobbing on the crest
Of each tempestuous wave.
Lurching starboard, then aft, then port,
In the turgid, cold Atlantic cod-infested waters.
I left with absolutely no regrets,
Without a single pang of conscience.
I left behind the injustice and humiliation
Of my turbulent teenage years spent
Incarcerated in a convent boarding school
Run by horrible nuns - but not entirely,
For the dreadful feelings lingered
And haunted me like ghosts.

When I left,
I didn't know anything about
'That' and 'This-ness',
Only that I was happy to go.
My friends were excited for me
And we said our goodbyes,
At first giggling like silly schoolgirls,
Then sobbing into our linen handkerchiefs.
The others I cared not about.
I left them slumbering contentedly
In their all-familiar places -
Like cats who curl their lips
And preen their fur, and sleep
In sunbeams on a carpetted floor.
Yes, they were much like that -
Occasionally prowling,
Testing their predatory powers,
Maiming a few nesting birds
And their young,
Just for the fun of it.
I left them all sleeping
Underneath their ancestral
Counterpanes in their cozy
Corner of England,
Oblivious to my absence.

It seemed as if a raging storm
Had shorn through the thickness
Of my girth,
Leaving part of me
Still rooted in the ground -
Dislocated, defenceless;
The stump that remained,
More an amputation
Than a dis-settlement.
Yes, later when they woke,
And found me gone,
No doubt they judged me
Not in absentia, but ex-patria;
A deserter of the realm,
A place where the venerable words
Of the brave Horatio Nelson
(Viscount, no less) rang out:
'England expects every man will do his duty'.
But I ran, ran out on them all
That day in November nineteen sixty-two,
Not as they supposed for want of a moral code,
But because I cherished and wanted to save
The one I had.

One so deeply implanted within my British heart
It made me feel ashamed that the English
Still perpetuated a system that took away
Dignity and self respect.
That denied equality of man.
Why had I gone?
They later wrote:
But never stopped to think
My young, impulsive pulse
Was racing,
Or that my tenuous frame
Trembled for adventure,
Wanting to taste and sense
Other lands, other peoples;
To venture westward
Through the endless.
Undulating prairie plains of wheat,
To the turquoise lakes,
The mountains, springs and rivers.
To see the grizzly bears,
The buffalo, the caribou
In their natural habitat:
To recapture 'Hiawatha'
Underneath the giant red-woods of the West -
I, Minnehaha, Laughing Water.
Yes, I wanted to see the tepees
The totem poles and the Indians
Coined 'Red' by the British
To separate them
From the Colonial Indians
They ruled on the other side
Of the world.
For 'There's a flag that waves o'er every sea,
No matter when or where;
And to treat that flag as aught but the free
Is more than the strongest dare.
For the lion-spirits that tread the deck
Have carried the palm of the brave;
And that flag may sink with a shot-torn wreck,
But never float over a slave.
Its honour is stainless, deny it who can;
And this is the flag of an Englishman'.
I had dreams of travelling further
To other foreign shores,
To continue on to Billa-Bong Land
Where the swagmen swaggered
Their metal cans.
Where girls were called 'Sheilas'.
Where, in the outback, the only shade
Was under the sparse eucalyptus trees;
The aborigines standing tall
and watchful standing
On one leg day and night
Under darkening, purple skies;
Or went on their walk-abouts,
Where the narrative poems
Of 'Banjo' Patterson and Henry Lawson
Came alive.
Part of me was an easily frightened child,
Running like a deer from the dark shadows
Following me;
and part a very curious child,
Impatient to see wild plants and flowers
Other than the perfumed rambling roses
Of my homeland.
I wanted to embrace the space.
In deserts, where there were cactii and sand,
Mystical in its imagery.
Spears of marram grass,
Broken and bent,
Yet anchored to the dune,
Whipped by the whistling desert winds,
Drawing concentric circles in the sand,
Scribing perfect arcs,
Better than a schoolboy's compass.
Where the malleable landscape
Offered little escape,
Where there were soft,
Distant undulations,
Wriggling plains,
Golden-blue ribbed sand,
Where there were patterns
Of different kinds -
Some like braided trails,
or grains of wheat.
Yes, I admit I had intended to go back,
Unexpectedly, the plan changed.
I married for better or worse,
Then stayed in this courageous land.
But in a short time I became
A prisoner of a nasty marital war
I neither enlisted for nor understood.
One day my spirit simply broke,
My hopes and dreams dissolved,
My soul shrivelled up with all the cruelties
To which I was exposed.
After the break up of my marriage,
I settled in a little village called
Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue in Québec.
Close by the St. Lawrence river.
I raised three very brave children,
Now long grown up:
And now with children of their own,
And I, Nokomis, with sheer joy,
Sit and hear their dreams, their tales -
I, so proud of their loving parents
Who overcame it all.
In my sixtieth year, I took
the Oath of Citizenship,
Swearing allegiance to our Queen,
Now so proud to be Canadian:
To live in this laid back,
Egalitarian land.
My restless spirit finally content,
Free to enjoy the many gifts
God has given me.
Great freedom, space.
It took me time to understand,
To realize there really was a plan.
My heart accepts it to be so,
That I am finally content
Just to be.
Sometimes plain words alone
Without poetic phrases,
Are better able to express
Emotional states of being.
This is one of these.
In fact, simplicity.

rachael richmond 14 February 2007

this isn't a poem, its a whole life! its everything - your travels, your feelings, your visions, hopes and fears. what a wonderful read, philippa. thank you.....i will read this one again and again. rachael

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Michael Shepherd 16 February 2007

A life plainly and finely and skilfully set down. I suggest people read this in conjunction with Philippa's biographical notes - there's a prose writer there as well as a poet. Congratulations - for many reasons - Philippa. An autobiography must surely follow these glimpses?

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Herbert Nehrlich1 17 February 2007

I read this very slowly, wishing it to last and never end. This is so well done it is hard to find words to praise it. A few rhymes that never disturb but rather make or mock a point and the story of a life, a generous glimpse freely given. Thoroughly enjoyed it. H

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Jerry Hughes 28 February 2007

Pip, usually I by-pass long narrative works but you got me in with this one. Great.

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Philippa Lane 25 February 2007

Gemma - I am grateful to you for your suggestions. Thanks!

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Philippa Lane 21 February 2007

You have all been extremely encouraging with your comments, for which I thank you. I am sure you will be glad to hear that this poem marks the end of poems about myself! Enough is enough. I am stepping out of my own system now into uncharted territory. As a fairly new Canadian citizen I intend to concentrate future poems with Canadian content. I am working on my first of these entitled: Journals of a Daughter. It is my daughter's observations when up in the Arctic on a geological expedition with other scientists. She wrote her journals on scraps of tiny white paper, carefully kept until her return, perched on various outcrops. I asked her if I could use her descriptions for a poem. She applied in the affirmative, so this is my work in progress. Wish me luck!

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Max Reif 21 February 2007

Hi, Philippa, I like the others' comments, and I like yours, too, that some things are best set down simply. I like the wholeness of your tale, and its accessibility and, as Peter put it, 'epic' scope. I think, as Michael suggested, there are likely other tales lurking, too.

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Peter A. Crowther 18 February 2007

Wow! Quite an epic! Well done; I hope you will write some more now the log jam has been broken

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Philippa Lane

Chichester, West Sussex, England
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