Guest Poet

Sandy Shreve

Whisper Songs

"...there is a phenomenon called the "whisper song" in which the bird sings almost inaudibly, as though in the back of its throat, so quietly that one must be very close in order to hear it." — John A. Livingston (Rogue Primate)


An ordinary draft disturbs the curtain,
lets morning whisper in, a brief surprise—
sunlight wavers, then goes out again,
a candle snuffed, another shuttered eye
and day descends weighted with regret.
More cloud, more cold; rain turns to flurries
turn to rain—even the weather forgets
what it's supposed to do. Voices scramble
into the room, the news a breakfast of threats
I wish I could ignore. Listen to the babble
and destruction pouring in, the gossip and thunder,
the conviction. I'd rather sweet nothings—fragile
vows, nonsense words, the lust of love-birds,
the hustle of buds bursting the seams of winter.


The hustle of buds bursting the seams of winter,
a dream away—these days reluctant stubs
of their summer selves. Chimney-smoke lingers,
the air sweet-scented with indifference. A mob
flaps at the feeder, another squabble in the chill
drags on. (What whisper songs?) Seeds like crumbs
from the table of unlikely gods are trampled and spill,
attracting mice—and mice find all the flaws
in our foundation. We poison them. A little
life is taken just because it crawled
to us for shelter—and we are not ashamed,
refill the feeder because we want to be awed
by finches and chickadees, their antics, the untamed
feasting outside our window, unafraid.


Feasting outside our window, unafraid
though a merlin lives nearby, sparrows festoon
the bamboo, preen their muted plumage and wait
their turn the way we wait for change. In the woods
sap begins to run, a sure sign. Spring thaw
always starts with a trickle. It dawdles, then pools
in our hearts, hope tiptoeing in to sprawl
on the couch—an old friend who never left.
When the cold snap comes hope fades as fast as the hawk
snatches food. Somehow I never expect
a varied thrush in its talons. From the brambles, a clamour
in the key of grief, a slight shudder when the breath-
less wind settles. Hidden in Douglas firs
a flicker clings to the bark and starts to hammer.


A flicker clings to the bark and starts to hammer
in a language we think we understand. The tempo
insists we listen again, dares us to measure
the space between each beat, imagine echoes
that live there. Out of the shadows, a coyote appears,
a grey hesitation. She holds something in her yellow
stare, poised on the periphery where need meets fear
and contemplates. The flicker changes his tune
to laughter—the song, a haunted mockery piercing
the air, mocking the coyote's indecision
or mocking mine. Then the coyote, in one smooth leap,
leaps over thorns into the afternoon.
Above the garden long since gone to seed,
overcast hours drift on, seamlessly.


Overcast hours drift on, seamlessly
shifting tenses. A wayward breath is intent
on shaking loose the silver gleam we see
in the drop that clings to a leaf—the not yet
and the irrepressible now. The wait for a wish
almost granted; the song in a whispered moment
almost heard. Perhaps I've grown deaf to riffs
floating over my head, euphonious hymns
from a world beyond my eager reach, my stiff
wings. Far off, two bald eagles hem
a ragged cloud, then ride thermals—feather
and wind, adrift and dreaming, carry them
into the infinite. When they return they offer
no answer, only an elegant will to endure.


No answer. Only an elegant will to endure
where anything can happen (and soon). We know
too much and too little to rely on gestures
toward faith we keep making. (A prayer said, sotto
voce, against aggression; then after it happens,
the vigil, a crowd gathered in darkness, holding
hands and candles.) A wing-beat before sundown,
the feral world around me seems to retreat
in the last light, a quiet so intimate even
rooks rephrase their accusations, their bleak
prophecies—though the roost is in the crosshairs
of survey crews and planners. Who will speak
up for troublesome crows, when all across
the city, rush hour idles at the crossroads...


City rush hour idles at the crossroads,
a grey hesitation filled with echoes, imagined
and real, incantations from restless shadows
where a coyote stands in the rain. As night beckons
to fragile, sotto voce vows, a delicate
light wavers around neglected questions
in the irrepressible now. In the not yet,
an eagle and hawk drift toward spring thaw
while unlikely gods pause to contemplate
the reluctant heart—how it can still be awed
watching sparrows feast, undeterred.
Bursting through seams of indifference, today at dawn
a whispered song was sung (and almost heard) when
an ordinary draft disturbed the curtain.

"Whisper Songs" was first published in So Much, Exile Editions, and appears on by permission of the poet, Sandy Shreve, and the publisher.

Brief biography:

Sandy Shreve has published four poetry collections: Suddenly, So Much (Exile Editions, 2005); Belonging (Sono Nis, 1997); Bewildered Rituals (Polestar, 1992); and The Speed of the Wheel Is Up to the Potter (Quarry Press, 1990). She co-edited, with Kate Braid, the groundbreaking anthology In Fine Form - The Canadian Book of Form Poetry (Polestar, 2005), and she edited Working For A Living, a collection of poems and stories by women about their work (Room of One's Own, 1988). Sandy also founded Poetry in Transit, the program that displays poems in SkyTrain cars and buses throughout BC. Her work has won the Earle Birney Prize for Poetry and been short listed for the Milton Acorn People's Poetry Award and the National Magazine Awards for poetry. Born in Quebec and raised in Sackville, New Brunswick, she now lives in Vancouver. She has also lived in Fredericton and, ever so briefly, in Halifax, Victoria and a tiny village called Bardou in France. Her paid jobs have included communications manager, student advisor and conference organiser, secretary, library assistant and reporter.


Statement about poetry

Poetry fascinates me. The math of it - that meticulous balancing of ideas, through image, metaphor and other devices; and the music of it - meticulous, again, that selection of words and their order until they sing. It's the kind of fascination that makes it not just possible, but essential and delightful (even when agonising) to spend hours, days, weeks and more honing a poem until it's as close to right as I can get it. Then, after all the scribbling and tossing away and starting all over again; after all the tinkering and tweaking - the relief (if I'm lucky) of still being moved by the finished work. (As Horace said, "If you want to move me to tears, you must first feel grief yourself.") As a reader, these same things fascinate me—but in reverse order. First, the elation when my initial experience of a poem is its unique melding of sound and sense so that, one way or another, it opens my heart, my mind, my eyes. Then, the fun of sussing out the technical devices the poet used so well they slipped modestly into the background, allowing the poem as a whole to work its magic.

Poetry in Transit

In 1995, I put together a proposal for a Poetry in Transit program in Vancouver. For years, I and many others wondered why we couldn’t have poems in the buses all the time, the way they do, for instance, in London (Poems on the Underground) and New York (Poetry in Motion). At a certain point, I realised we needed two things: a plan – it had to be inexpensive and easy to administer – and sponsors. So, I brainstormed ideas with numerous friends, came up with an approach I thought might work and then pitched it to BC Transit and the Association of Book Publishers of BC, asking if they would sponsor the project if I committed to administering it. Both agreed right away – and that was that. (Later, TransLink also became a sponsor, and after the first three years the association generously took over the administration.) In September 1996, the first poems appeared on Vancouver buses. They were an instant success – so much so, that within a few months the project expanded to Victoria, and in the second year, spread to another 28 BC communities.

BC’s was the first ongoing program of its kind in Canada – followed soon after by one in Toronto, and then more popped up all across the country. By 2002, with the start of a project in Montreal, the Canada Council for the Arts (which helps fund BC’s as well as other similar projects) announced that more than five million Canadians could now enjoy poems on their daily commutes. By then, for example, we had Poetry in Motion in Calgary, Take the Poetry Route in Edmonton, Poetry in Motion in Winnipeg, Metroverse in St. John’s, Poetry on the Way in Toronto, Transpoetry in Ottawa, Moving Write Along in Regina and Moving Words in Whitehorse.

Several years ago, 85% of riders in a transit survey gave positive feedback about the project. This came as no surprise, as year after year, people take the time to say how much the poems mean to them. One of my favourite stories is about how passengers on one bus burst into applause when a proud mother announced: “that’s my daughter’s poem.”   And a favourite comment comes from a woman who said she knows a poem she saw on the bus by heart because she “wrote it down and memorized every word of it.” These, I think, speak to the essence of what George Sand meant when she said that anyone “who draws noble delights from sentiments of poetry is a true poet, though he has never written a line in all his life.”