Alternative Culture Magazine


Alternative Literature



Poems of Resistance and Celebration

by Jack Ross

These are poems that I wrote in times of crisis, all at or soon after an intense experience: in blockades or in prison. What would my poems be if I could write without a crisis to face? Better poetry perhaps, more reasoned, better use of form. But rather than attempt revising them now I have let them stand, so that I can experience them again and again. I do that often, and each time I feel those same strong emotions. The immature humour that I see now tells me something about how I handle crises, so I have left them as they were.

Argenta, B.C., Canada
April 2001

Like zoo cages: population, foxes
I pass my years in little boxes.
Schoolroom, outhouse, bedroom, shop
office, prison ( lengthy stop)

An acquaintance said to me
"I saw you on TV."
"What kind of TV do you have?"
I asked (discarding the rhyme scheme.)
"A 23" Sony in glorious colour, with a remote control"
"That was not me," I rejoined,
"I live in a larger box than that."
And I refuse remote control

Born of Water

On the first day God said, "I think I shall put two atoms of hydrogen together with one of oxygen and see what happens." Hey, she thought, this is really cool. Then she made humans, and we messed it up.

July 8, 1921, my second day. Blazing heat, bare hillside, Arizona sun. Mother kept me alive through the flu epidemic of 1921 with water-drenched blankets hung in the doorway. Water.

Dad's job: chlorinate the Pasadena water supply. What caused my skin to bleach? Did cancer rates increase? I was proud to help Dad. He wouldn't do anything wrong. Water.

Family hikes to a shady mountain stream. Mom made sandwiches. We got one quarter of a Hershey bar each. Downstream: chlorination. Water. Toxic?


I was baptized but I kept on sinning anyhow. Water is not enough.

Diapers hand-washed in an iron pail. Love cleanses, water its instrument. Swimming my favorite sport. Nearly drowned twice. Water a stern master. Water.


Roll on Columbia roll on,
Where have all the fish gone?
I am powerful.

I can: plan meet write memos press releases accounts console facilitate lick stamps collect money tell jokes do a clown act when the cops close in stand in solidarity with my brothers and sisters risk jail. I am powerful.

I rely on Gandhi, John Woolman, some of the Bible. I can help people learn nonviolence. I can face the violent ones sometimes and help absorb their pain. I gave up masculinity and changed to human. And now I know how to cry. I think of Eloise Charet fasting in jail and I cry. I am powerful.

I go to jail without remorse. I shall try to endure it without fear or hatred, for the sake of water. I am powerful

I do not hate my opponents. I am powerful.

Martin Luther King spoke to me once. I am powerful. I knew A.J. Muste, Bayard Rustin, Brian Willson.The great people of peace have lifted my soul.


I cause pain even to my friends and family that I do not know how to heal. How can I heal the earth? Teach me, oh river.

Singing builds community. I really can't sing, but thanks for asking.

Me heal the earth? Start with Perry Ridge and go on from there.

Mother Earth says: "I am your mother, not your maid. Now clean up your own mess. When you get your homework done then we can talk about using the car."


When in penitentiary I shall consider personal change:

1.Try to find something to be penitent about.

2 Embrace paradox: as a child I stepped on ants. Now I like to kneel and speak to them. Margaret Mead said that only small groups ever change anything. But everyone changes things. Start with self

3.Celebrate successes, In 1988 I got a legal stay for a year on the use of pesticides on some Kootenay highways. I liked to point to the flowers by the road and say: "Me and God did that" And the rain. Try to get a competent coworker when you set out to change things

My Argenta friends stopped the use of pesticides in the Lardeau Valley by persistent nonviolence.

4 Learn prayer. Prayer changes things. Attention is prayer. Silence is the first step to simplicity, simplicity is the first step toward wholeness, wholeness is peace. Celebrate silence, grow in it toward wholeness. Where does the Inner Light lead me?

Born of water, cleansing, powerful, healing, changing, we are


I don't know much about theology.
I don't know what is meant by
"God is the ground of our being."
I sort of grasp what Reinhold Niebuhr meant by
"moral man and immoral society."
I don't find much use for
"essence precedes existence."

But I get a glimpse of heaven
as sheer joy
when Garett runs
to a hug in my arms,
or when Carlota curls up in my lap
to share a story.

So here is my provisional theology:

Heaven is the place
where souls embrace.

Hell is the place
where souls pass
on the golden street
without greeting.

CHAINS, a lamentation for all my relations

from cell 17 unit G, Kamloops Regional Correctional Centre
Chain reaction:
an accelerating sequence of events,
each triggering the one that follows
as in Slocan Valley protests.

Chain store:
(1) a place where consumers go
to be enchained.
(2) Woolco, Walmart, Canadian Tire,
Overwaitea, Home of the Handyman.
everyday Lo prices. Buy Buy Buy.
Death to the natural world.
(3) Tire chains, set; $39.95
plus GST, plus PST,
For those mudslide days.

Chainsaw, Husquvarna. Homelite. Pioneer. Stihl.
Their snarl the Devil's vulgar curse,
Death to all my relations.

Earth, River, and Father Time, chained
in a careening death-trap oven, hurtling
toward a sophisticated concrete tomb.

One of my fellow inmates has a chain
tattooed around his wrist.
they handcuffed him anyway.

Une bonne amie enchainee.
good friends self-chained. Some to a
foul-breathed deisel monster.
risking their lives to buy
one more day of life
for the graceful forest.

Listen to the hushed voice of the trees
incanting a psalm of thanksgiving,
then sounds like sisters keening
as tall trees sway then fall.
Listen; a dirge.
Record profits this year.

Perry Ridge Road is one surveyor's
chain wide. Sixty-six feet.
I was once a surveyor's chain man.
Now I'm trying to give up chains.

Chain mail: Chain-linked body armour,
followed by more piercing arrows,
followed by yet heavier armour,
until all collapses to the ground,
as all armament races eventually do.

Chained males:
Men at long rows of identical desks,
linked by memoranda about saving paper,
making chains of paper clips
to pass the day.

Chain letter: Make a list of six friends.
send each a dollar,
put your name at the bottom.
and soon you will be fabulously rich.
See "Chain store" (above)

Ball and chain.
Chain gangs are returning to Alabama,
and now to Alberta.
Will Ontario be next?

Daisy Chain: Alice was getting rather drowsy.
She wondered whether the pleasure of
making a daisy chain
would be worth the trouble of getting up
to pick the daisies.
Let it wait, Alice.
Daisies grow well in clearcuts.

Robert E. Lee's funeral oration for a friend:
"Thus, link by link is the strong chain broken
that binds us to Earth and our path
eased to another, where..."
... there are not two rows of tall chain-link fences
to keep me from being with you.

Chain smokers. The best thing to do with chains
is to smoke them.

The strongest chain is a circle of friends
holding hands, making decisions that
nourish the soul, free the mind, and
bind heart to heart in a community of care,
liberating torrents of tears.
Choose your chains.
Keep strong.
I love you.

Jack Ross, CS04508859 August 26, 1997

(Kamlops Regional Correctional Center), All My Relations

In courtyard three
there were 50 grasshoppers.
In courtyard two
there were ten.
in courtyard one
there was one.
My friend
squished it
and rotated his foot
to make sure.
I held a brief
silent vigil.
All my relations.


The late meeting is over
Exhausted, tense, anguished,
I am poised between rest,
nourishment and companionship.
I drift to the cookfire in search of food.
Rico is teaching my friends his Yoruba songs
--percussion, leader, chorus.
His deep bass soars. We follow.
I join the rhythms with a lid and spoon.
"Don't worry about a thing.
Everything is going to be all right."
I glance north at the guards' vehicles.
South to the police truck
and sing louder.
"Everything is going to be all right."
I finally say goodnight.
I have acquired a Yoruba accent.
Who am I?

My mind repeats the common sense message go to bed.
On my path the Chipewyan elders
are tuning their drums by the fire.
They begin the heavy syncopation.
They chant: the anguished wail of a people
who are dying charges the air
with a feeling more powerful than I can resist.
We dance. Always clockwise they tell me.
Did the elders always know about clocks?
Will their grandchildren know that
clocks had hands that turned?
I fall in behind Abel,
and try to mimic the stutter step
that seems so easy to his many years.
Dancers come and go, but the drums continue.
Are the guards dancing? Do radiating molecules
dance as they penetrate the vital cells?
Emma Goldman said,
"If I can't dance I don't want to join your revolution."
As the sun rises I finally stagger to my damp cold bed.
My mind echoes the wail of the chant,
and my chattering teeth keep time
to the memory of the beat.
I still dance. I chant Chipewyan.
Who am I?

I give up on the cold blankets
and fall into a fitful sleep in the car.
My young Black Lake Indian friend Joe soon wakes me
with his impish grin.
Hey you awake yet? Can I sit in your car?
Can I hear Beethoven?
Who am I?

(June 21, 1985)


Young Adam stayed behind to watch TV
and avoid the long meeting
and I stayed behind because I had an infected toe.
Good reasons

"Is that a fish spear?" I ask. "How does it work?"
He thrust the spear at a wooden rail
and steel trap jaws napped over the imaginary pickerel

We stood while we watched TV -
CBC Northern Service from Newfoundland.
Has the CBC no common sense?
Weather forecast: rain, fog, and drizzle.
"Look at the good side," said the announcer.
"Ottawa just put a tax on suntan lotion."
Adam glances at me, "what is suntan lotion?"

Adam is about 14 I think, just my daughter's age.
Adam is dark as shoe leather.
His muscular arms brandish his spear.
Dark hair held by a band. Black leather vest, Levis.
He lights a cigarette. I am grateful he does not offer me one.

"Oh, I've seen this picture! he shouts.
"that guy gets shot in the neck, you'll see."
The enemy circles around the miners.
On TV the miners are on our side, the good guys.
The shooting intensifies.
Yes, he gets shot in the neck.
"Here comes the cavalry!" Adam shouts.
The miners are safe. The enemy is gone,
cowards all against a determined minority.
This time the enemy is the Mexicans.
I breathe another sigh of relief. They could have been Indians.
The power goes off. I am grateful.
Does the CBC have no common sense?

(June 1, 1985)

DREAMS. Kamloops Regional Correctional Centre

In Dreams I am Free

When I was a boy
I often dreamt I could fly,
glide effortlessly.
I stretched cautiously,
just right,
and I could soar, always close to the ground
not far to fall,
effortlessly, slowly over the football field.
No one else could do it
only me.
A proud but cautious dreamer
I took no risks.
Now in my cell I begin to take chances.
If I try harder
I might zoom over the fence.

A few night ago
I dreamed I was
planting a flower,
a fragrant yellow blossom
in the sand next to the curb
at the entrance to
a mall parking lot.
Andre was there to advise me
with utmost concern
that a car might run over it.
But one must take risks
for beauty.

It then became the flower
that Kim and I held
in our joined hands
waiting to be arrested
for love of water.
Behind me Lisa sang
born of water
cleansing, powerful,
healing, changing
we are, a penetrating beauty,
a father's serene dream.
One must take risks
for love and beauty.

In dreams I am free.

In prison
I sleep as much as I can
until harsh fluorescence
wrenches me awake
to a hostile world.
Concrete reality,
no matter how it is painted,
wall's shiny hardness
are rules that keep us apart.
Prison a risk I must take.

Obscenity is a wall that imprisons,
keeps souls in
their separate hells.
I sleep as much as I can.

In dreams I am free.

I breathe in
and smile.
I breathe out
and praise God.
Every heart beat
a psalm of thanksgiving.
I do not need material food
my soul is vibrant with the prayers of others,
God's love sustains me.
This is no dream.

Studies show that
second hand smoke causes cancer.
My cell mate is not afraid
of cancer,
In me.
My dreams are smoke free.

"Ross? 04508859?'
The guard shouts.
He always shouts.
"Report to the office.
Our records show that
your mind has been absent
eight hours each day
without proper forms having been submitted."
"Please file an inmate request form."
"Meanwhile, we are adding one-third to your sentence."

In dreams I am free.

The Tree Hugger

I have not touched a tree
for eight weeks
but I can see some
lodgepole pines
from my window.

I am a tree hugger
in remission
trying to kick the habit
cold turkey
which is strange
for a vegetarian.

Jack Ross, a Quaker and retired professor of sociology, has been a lifelong activist for peace, social justice, and environmental issues. In recent years he has worked as a nonviolence trainer, participated in campaigns for aboriginal rights, run for office as a Green Party candidate, and fasted in prison for the protection of watersheds threatened by logging. Through all of this conscientious activity runs a playful and generous spirit, here given voice.


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