The whales sleep in the bus loop at night. Humpbacks orcas roll on the asphalt, silversides thump oildrum hymnals, swim up from their old sleeping under the hollows to lie where men built the parking lot to hold the busses for this coast city. Paved over the cabled grass shell trampled vertebrae, old berths in saltwater belly, the city’s thousands of busses sleep here under the bridge flare of light pod of eighteenth century engines sunk into river muck, rusted out with pulp. This is where the whales come back to sleep every night. Pacific commuter blood vessels homing to mammalian bed, hubcap eyes blinking here between the legs of the Fraser, mouths push out smoke, dawn shorefogs stuffed with gulls and motorcycles, windshields muzzled with fog. The busses have been coming here for centuries, sleeping off the work of a river unzipping its skin, sloughing birdland, shedding mudflat, dropping its skins on the shale city edges, fat flensed off curbs. The busses moan, lean into one another for warmth, rub barnacles on steel, the old wartime trolly cables telegraph whalesongs. Guttered melody in the pipes. Another dead one was found in English bay this morning, oil spill off sunset, the city’s first whale with a chemical half life, the inlet rinses its morning mouth with bunker fuel and spits streets. A bus breached off Lion’s Gate, a thousand phones captured its slow soar. The tankers are calving, birth matter flowers ochre in the bay. A net hangs over the foot of Burrard for stray life. No one wants to go into the ocean this spring. Out there the busses drink black milk in the deep. The night shift drivers park the whales belly to belly in the lot under the bridge. They roll in the shallows flip steel dorsal bask in the spume from the wheels on marine chew up tickets and river grass and midden, their eyes fade to rings of delta grey. At sunrise head off on their daily transit routes, haul their bodies up Granville past library, vegetables, apartment blocks. The power grid is the new coastline. Their wide open headlights in the morning half lit in the ocean-bottom streets, wide open headlights stare at tumbled logs roiling at the foot of the city’s industrial throat. The busses head off for the day and pick up the people in flocks. All the whales are singing and rolling down there at the bottom of Marpole in the unmarked graveyard where they park the busses.
Nostalgia is a territory. All the chainsmoker seagulls do yoga on the horizon at dawn. Sunset beach has been fenced in with flaming buoys for the swimmers to do their drive-by banking. The bridge has been shut down for the politician to spit into the wind. People fill the inlet below to watch, tread water, swallow our salt vaccine. The famous building with the tree growing out of its roof drinks sea water, spits oil into the teacups of dignitaries. Acid rain rainbows the parade tie-dye, the marchers photograph their chemical shadows and post in Renaissance filter, reflections in oil paints. Pride bellyflops into a harbor of profit. The portrait artist hired by the Mayor works until sunset, then lies down in the surf and dissolves, skin floating off clear as a jellyfish, black formal tails trailing ink. It is so beautiful here. This child will draw your caricature for free by throwing a glass of coins in your face and raising his fingers to catch the bent marks of light arcing off your cheekbones. Blink and you’ll miss the moon examining its own bruises, reading Captain Vancouver's letters home by the lights of a thousand oil rigs. Visit soon.
In the news today: the City is tearing down the art gallery that used to be the land registry. The barge that unloads the hybrid cars leaves full of cedar, fat bushel roots trailing the water, fingering in the oil slick that paints the way north. The ship's hold full of flash-frozen salmon departs full of clouds and tickets. The
with a wall
will have its lip peeled back and a new shore named Water Street installed.
In the courthouse, a killing bazaar is exchanged for the faces of bears and oil
paintings of those possessed trees, seizuring apparitions containing all the shades
of a coastal storm, rising and abating within a glass house. Childhood of Emily Carr fieldtrips. This powder can be traded
for eclipse. People do not come here to buy and sell but to make miraculous
business. Once a week crowds gather on the street and make their offerings: a van
of mixed wire; a Bible with half the words blacked out, extra charge
for the editing. There is a forest of pipes traded
for a river. There is an earlier city bartered for a struck match. An inlet
for a swimming pool
named prosperity, dosing morphine into the veins of a chemical dawn.
And somewhere back there, the past was traded for a different past. The City
its plan for the new art gallery: it will sit near the old viaduct,
a fresh bamboo temple where stone
was once traded for blood.
"If only the rain were gasoline, your tongue
a lit match, & you can change without disappearing"
-- Ocean Vuong, "Anaphora as Coping Mechanism"
you changed into a story
before the last time I saw you at Seymour & Davie
the rain were gasoline tumblers through the opening into the third
decade of life
I saw you at a friend's book launch 2 weeks after your death
I took a photo of gulls on the beach dizzy with
news to teach myself about ephemeral your tongue a lit match the back of the
words give off edges like rainfall on
I have now known people my own age who have
died here now
illuminated in the patchwork under the streetlamps
mostly reasons are not retrieved from the Pacific
your wake ended mid afternoon solar flares in the gutter
I could not recognize Main & Broadway & you
can change without disappearing
what a relief you died by truth serum
the city is full of beaches pockets to slip bodies into
attempts at spaces for thinking
more of this more of this loss moving in
all my narrow places
Riptide. Seachange at dawn. Take
precautions. Jumpers rarely retrieved.
Fast lane; medium lane; tanker lane.
Radioactive ghosts blow
in from Japan. Lifeguard on duty in his
red sleep on the rocks;
do not disturb marine life. Fire ban. No harvesting
by order of medical officer.
Bunker fuel. Algae bloom solar
in the deep. Seals on leashes, dogs
rippled with dental kelp. Enter these waters
and emerge, changed. November beaches
barren as the moon, white laneways
to the bridges. Salt farm. No
diving. Buoys ride the hidden shelf. Washed in:
a cup, a foot, glass fishing floats
with smoky cataracts, blank stare. If in a state of
distress, float. Open your arms, ride on the
water's wide black back, catamaran human. Stay out
of tranker traffic
radio for help, commit to memory
the channel. Data crawl on the ocean floor
brings up nothing. In the corner
of your eye orange construction cranes
pray to the mountains
for new life. Iris scan.
Naked lunch at the point. Man named Truth Lizard
who's lived on this beach since the 70's.
Never swim here.
At night all the swimmers bump
up against the boats. Every day it is
45 minutes later
Swimmers orbit the moon a slow street
circles the settlement.
driftwood thighs, driftwood shoulders, driftwood asses
placed by the fulcrum
hand of tide.
Dune lips. Pursed around
light. Bay hot with bodies. Front-crawl to the shallows.
Barnacles suck your burns.
Limited visibility. Between the crying
of waves, the city has never happened.
Beyond the point,
Out there a woman is floating
in the depths, a coin placed
over each eye.
Alex Leslie's collection of poems Vancouver for Beginners is forthcoming from BookThug. Alex has published a collection of stories People Who Disappear (Freehand 2012), a collection of prose poems The things I heard about you (Nightwood 2014) and a chapbook of microfictions, 20 Objects for the New World (Nomados 2011). Alex's short story 'The Person You Want to See' was in the 2016 Journey Prize Anthology (McClelland & Stewart, 2016) and their writing has been recognized with the Dayne Ogilvie Award from the Writers Trust of Canada. More at alexleslie.wordpress.com
This originally appeared on February 18, 2017