Sunday, 4 January 2015

strangers in aisle five

I came upon them:

the girl, trying to hold on to him,
while wildly phoning numbers
he gasped out to her;

and the old man, unfolding
like a leaky accordion,
against a grocery cart –

him and the cart, both,
old and broken.

that moment,
to this day,
frozen – in my mind –
like a monotone newspaper photograph
of two strangers caught in crisis;
snapped in a rather undignified sprawl
of compassion and gratitude.

their eyes pleaded
as he crumbled into fragments –
trembling hands,
beaded forehead,
and labored breath,
in chalk cold white.

I held him while she called for help
and told him:
everything's going to be alright . . .

note:  2014 Judge's Choice Award Winner in The Arborealis Anthology of Contemporary Canadian Poetry (Beret Days Press) where the theme was “The People’s Poetry Tradition”  as defined by the poetry of Milton Acorn – a revered Canadian poet (1923-1986).  Acorn’s poetry is distinguished by images drawn from everyday Maritime life, with subtlety and nuance.  He filled his poems with working class men and women – honoring their unfailing reliability in the face of troubles and hardship.  His work is dedicated to the class struggle.

photo:  Grocery Store Flowers – W. Bourke
© 2014 Wendy Bourke 


  1. Such a terrible tragedy to happen, yet there is gratitude and compassion between strangers helping each other ~

    The imagery of the old man and the leaky accordion is also stellar ~ Happy New Year Wendy ~

  2. The imagery of chalk and the accordion simile are so well done.. I can feel that tragedy.. still at moments like this most people will make that effort and help. I remember once when I held on to a lady who had been hit by a tram until the ambulance came. Somehow helping came natural... and that feels good to know about oneself.

    1. It’s so true in situations like this, it does feel natural to do what you can. People have a sense of pride, and when they are brought down publicly – either by accident or a health crisis, they are very mindful of their dignity. The old fellow (89) in this particular case, refused to get down on the ground. The suggestion that we call 911 was abhorrent to him. He did not want to be seen as a spectacle. But, standing with him, and trying to reach his family, I could see him visibly calming himself. One does feel (responding to a stranger at such times) a connectedness to our human vulnerabilities – and that is good to know about oneself . . . And yes, the girl (I never did get her name) stepped away and called 911.

  3. This snapshot of a crisis is so very powerful, Wendy. When someone is in dire need it is natural to reach out and help, but it is surreal in afterthought to 'see' oneself acting instinctively without a great deal of planning or deep thought.

    Your description of the gentleman in collapse is perfect - yes, like an accordion, dusty and crumpled, wheezing sound and air ... perfect!

  4. Wow, what a story, Wendy? I see this happened to you. I am sure this is something that you will remember forever. I do hope the man was all right in the end.

    1. It will remain, I'm afraid, a story for which I have no ending (as so often is the case with these things, I suppose). Medics arrived and he was quickly whisked away.

  5. First, big congrats on the Judge's Choice Award! Second, what an experience. Third, once again, you're good, with your keen sense of detail, at telling us stories through poetry.

  6. whezing like a leaky accordian...what a great description...i can see him...and def a moment that would seer itself on the mind as well....even just brushing up against those crisis....

  7. Oh, what an experience! It is good that strangers are willing to help in such situations. I'm sure it was so scary for the poor man. Congrats on the award!