Don't Look Down



after reading Robert Hass’s poem “On Squaw Peak”

I want the rain, little Jackson sobbed,

I want rain! It was after brunch

and we were standing outside Joe’s Grill,

taking up the sidewalk in our prelude

to goodbye. Storefront windows gleamed

with the residue of the morning’s downpour,

the sun beating out of the sky

heating every washed surface so bright

it hurt his eyes. His dad explained

these shifts in weather startled the two-year-old

to tears. We went in for our hugs goodbye

and in the chaos of strollers and jackets

and gumboots you stooped and swung

Jackson up onto your shoulders—

the first time in fifteen years you’d held

a child in your arms. A sharp sweetness

flickered in my belly, like a menstrual cramp

coupled with the ache of desire. It was like

glimpsing Hass’s white doe in the woods.

You were wearing a blue cotton shirt,

crisp as linen, and you looked, in that split-

second moment, like a father

in a Ralph Lauren commercial—

hoisted sails, open ocean, compass pointing

the way. Jackson was too startled

by the sudden height, the shift in perspective,

to be shy. Grinned like he was yours,

little monkey. When you set him safely

back down to earth, his parents nudged him

toward me for a hug and he hiccupped

in horror and hid his face

in his dad’s crotch. We laughed,

recalling our own small selves pushed

toward strangers who prodded our cheeks

with stubby stale fingers, whose huge

ruined faces leered into ours. Had I become

that grotesque thing, that monster with age spots

and dilated veins, breath spiked with fried potatoes

and sausages swimming in hot sauce,

lunging in for a kiss? Later you said no,

Jackson was just disoriented

from being swung in the air, all this up

and down in strangers’ arms, pounding rain

one minute and slap of sun the next,

no control over any of it. What strangeness,

to want anything like this—

tiny gripping hand, silk of baby skin.

The wails of his tantrum as we fled

to our Sunday afternoon freedom,

no one to look after but ourselves.


Now you are looking up from the bottom of the lake.

You are walking past the townhouses in April

under the budding trees, and drowning.

The doctor warned you about this time of year—

how you needed to watch the trees,

their pale fur coming in. Blink and that dusk

would be smooth green leaves.

At the Sylvia Bar the harsh sunlight

pressed on your face like a wedge-shaped

iron, and for the first time in years

everyone was older than you.

His hand in his hair, your hand in yours.

Later, the seaweed trees overhead, swaying.

Your bodies bumping together on the seawall.

Sunset a silver bar weighted on the horizon,

blinding. Forget the pink starfish,

the flotilla of harlequin ducks, the geese

honking across the massed sky.

Already the surface is receding, dimming,

and you are sinking into that spiral.

If you’re lucky you’ll brush

the sanded bottom, slice a heel

on a mussel shell, kick for oxygen—

the trail of blood behind you

dispersing into the blue.


Then there is a glaze over everything, as if all

the objects in my vision had been dipped

in lacquer. Is it the meds? The surge

in serotonin? There’s nowhere else to look,

no turning away. It’s the same weekend

you witness the aftermath of a suicide

on the bridge. The man jumped straight

into Granville Island, the craft galleries

and food markets and souvenir stores,

the mill of tourists on a Sunday afternoon.

You leaned over and looked down

just as the officers racing past said,

Don’t look down.

It was like something on CSI,

you said—the splayed and crooked legs,

the spatter of blood and brains. The ocean

just steps away, its sunstruck dazzle

stitched by marine traffic—

sailboats, kayaks, paddleboarders—

the creek lined with magnolias in bloom.

This man had survived the winter dark

to die in the month of the cherry blossoms.

You didn’t tell me about it for days.

All the shine and surge of the sea,

and still he chose the concrete.


Once you lived inside her body, 

heard its thumps and gurgles,

that liquid house sloshing in the dark.

Families of ducks squabble

on the blue-grey water. You’ve started twitching

the way your mother did in her forties—

fingers plucking, plucking.

You’re fighting it every day—

the black roar of anxiety, skin a pincushion

pricked with hives, the fizzes and hiccups

of your brain as you lie in bed, insomniac.

No one in your family speaks your name.

Her drawn face, stretched nerves.

But there’s medications for that now.

In vivid antidepressant dreams

it’s all pastels and ice cream, except

when it’s blood, carcasses, screams.

Your neighbour’s crying in the hall—

I don’t know what’s worse, the days

my mother doesn’t recognize me,

or the days she does, and remembers

how much she hates me.

At least the weather knows what’s what,

knows it’s a day for relentless rain.

No families frolicking under sunny skies, 

in wildflower meadows. No picnics in the park.

Once she ran after you and caught you

in her trembling white arms. You could smell her—

sour milk, yogurt, the space between her thighs.

She hated the way you pressed your stomach

against the sink while washing dishes.

In your teenage bedroom you measured

your doughy thighs and pondered

where to cut. Hid Mars bars in the dresser,

the desk, under the olive shag rug.

Still, you remember plums in the grass.

Snails, slugs in the backyard.

The spider that crawled up your bare leg

while you stood stock-still, calling for her.

See Knowledge Network's series Take Me Home for a short film containing more poetry by Evelyn Lau.


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Evelyn Lau is a lifelong Vancouverite who has published thirteen books, including eight volumes of poetry. Her fiction and non-fiction have been translated into a dozen languages; her poetry has received the Milton Acorn Award, the Pat Lowther Award and a National Magazine Award. From 2011–2014, she served as Vancouver’s Poet Laureate. Her most recent collection is Pineapple Express (Anvil, 2020).




he played injun in gods country where boys proved themselves clean / dumb beasts who could cut fire out of the whitest sand

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