Issue 30: Derek Webster

Study of a Dying Tree


Neon ants, lithe along its bulk,

buzz off chunks in the fatherless light.


From the unsupported canopy, things crawl out.

A shock to see what was always there.


The fence accordioned, its drunken slats

crushed by wooden music.


Post-lightning, on his knees,

elbows dug in the ground.


Halfway across the field, white forearms

puncture the skin of lawn.


A cloud of sawdust, hungry

and writhing, gathers over the lake.






An Old Painting of Charleston Harbor


Did the man and the boy, foreground, in hats,

walk out on the Lord’s Day and down to the shore

after the sun had passed over the indigo?


An unnamed artist has painted them

gazing toward the harbor, the boy’s arm raised,

pointing at a Rorschach spot on the water.


As they talk in the clean salt air, are they

recalling home, chasing off the scent of danger

that comes through the dark at the calling hour?


Are they humming lullabies the man’s mother sang,

singing words about happy and ruinous things

feeling the same? Or should we listen


to words unsaid—how bodies at first smell sweet

when they rot, or how, if one peered through holes in a hull

the waves could seem like rolling hills,


and a vile captain’s voice might caress and trill

before setting an example. Or how pantless sailors

squatting over gunwales might say “We’ll be there soon”


for forty days and nights—and when they reached

these much-contested waters, and the hold was opened,

the man and boy were the only cargo left alive.



         This is canvas layered with colours.

This man, this boy, do not exist, are not


talking. They are framing agents

           placed there

                                               to create depth


to make the bay

           more picturesque—

                                                         shapely stand-ins


for anticipated viewers

                                             who may look (or may not)

         like you and I—and in truth


it is difficult to discern

           whether that is dark coat

                                              or bare arm.


After two hundred years, if

                               these shapes appear—head

thrown back,


arm raised—to cry

                                               out from the shore

of their captured world,


who hears them? Reader, as you

           remake the prospect

of Charleston Harbor,


what do you see

           in that empty spot

on the water?

Derek Webster's Mockingbird (Signal) was a finalist for the national Gerald Lampert Award for best first book of poems in Canada. He received an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied with Carl Phillips, and is the founding editor of Maisonneuve magazine. His poetry and prose have appeared in many publications including The Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, Boston Review, The Walrus. Recent work appears online at Columba Poetry, Font, The Honest Ulsterman (Ireland), and Pulp. He lives in Montreal.

Copyright © 2023 by Derek Webster, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author