Two Poems by Francis Fernandes

Seneca’s Exile on Corsica
I’ll tell you something. It’s times like these
when you learn to be creative. But you don’t
live by letters and love alone, you know.
So this is what I throw into the mixer
in the mornings: half an avocado, a fair
amount of chard, spinach and rucola leaves,
some Greek yogurt, a half a lime rind
(including the bitter part), a banana and pear,
some ginger, a sprinkling of walnuts,
and a handful of chia seeds. I’m not sure
where chia seeds come from but I’ve heard
they’re an ancient food full of energy.
Anyway, as a late breakfast, this keeps me
going till dinner. It’s fascinating
how the thick greenish mass warms up
when I keep the machine on high speed
for a while. I wonder what chemical
reaction makes that happen. Of course
I could go see my dentist about this abscess,
but I prefer to go easy on the tooth
with smoothies and ice-cream. And beer.
At least for the time being. I mean, who’s
going to see their dentist at a time like this?
What’s the protocol anyway? At what point
do you remove your mask? at the reception?
on the chair? It’s scary enough
with conspiracy-mongers putting
the country at risk, not to mention sowing
violence in the minds of discontents.
I almost got into a fist fight myself,
at the grocery store, when I railed
at a couple behind me in line for failing
to wear a mask and ignoring the six-foot
distance restriction. Nobody else
said anything, so I asked them where
they got off rolling the dice with total strangers,
as if they could decide who was worth it
and who wasn’t. I was all in a fluster.
I had an avocado in my hand and almost
threw it at them. When I came home,
I reopened my Seneca to cool down,
get a grip. Then, mollified enough to think
straight, I grabbed my guitar
and launched into the band’s program,
which, even before this global crisis started,
happened to include an instrumental
version of that song by Sting,
the one that goes:

A hundred billion bottles washed up
on the shore /
Seems I’m not alone at being alone /
A hundred billion castaways looking
for a home.

Sometimes I’ll say the lyrics in my head
when fingering the familiar arpeggios.
But once into the improv, it’s just the music
in my head, no words. My bassist keeps me
on my toes with his fine contrapuntal doodling.
Keeps me from over-soloing like some smug
surfer awash in steep waves. But the point is,
it was just at that moment, after coming home
and playing the first bars of the first piece
of our would-be upcoming gig,
that I started to think of Seneca again,
and what he did in those eight years of exile
on Corsica (before Nero’s mother
had him pardoned and brought back
to the fold to tutor the brat). I mean,
beyond those stoical letters to his wife
and mother and friends in high places,
didn’t he really miss his dentist and favourite
markets? The chariot races and live
carnal contests at the Colosseum? Of course
he did. Anyone of us would gladly soak in
the laid-back, quiet lifestyle of an exotic
outpost, with its breezy port, bitter honey,
and sweet scents of the maquis.
But not Seneca. Some people really need
all the tumultuous action of a capital’s
fires and food processed intrigue
and conspiracy to say something vital
about mastering your passions; need loathsome
corruption at the top to praise
the uncorrupted soul. Grin and bear
the hardships, they say, but deep down:
please take me away from this god-forsaken
place. Weather the storm, but throw me a line,
brother. Give me a go at the little pyromaniac,
at all those messy ingredients, wholesome
or not, for there is always hope:
hope that our civilized ways will win out
in the end, banishing spikes and sticks, daggers,
and those cowardly vials of poison –
banishing it all from the empire’s heart,
sending it all off to an eternity of hellfire –
or at least to an island of rock somewhere
far away in the middle of the ocean.


Grade IV Math Homework

I’m trying to watch the hockey game,
but my daughter the Roman numeral girl,
impetuous, persistent, in dire need
of her own fan base, changes X’s, V’s
and C’s and matchstick lines
into the more familiar single-digit jots
right before my eyes.
These odd squirrely notations, she proudly
informs me (as though she had excavated
a whole treasure trove of plates
and bones), were invented
by sages in both India and Babylon.

It’s between periods, and the Habs
just can’t buy a goal. Management is inept.
Their last cup is a generation gone,
and their last star center… too long even
to remember. But here she is, my daughter,
in front of the Forum, dressed in a blue
tunic, adorned with a pretty bulla,
negotiating with a camel merchant
from the Orient. He does a quick mental
calculation to find out how much
he has to give up to gain an orchard
of pomegranates. The charming
illusionist that she is, my daughter changes
the amount with greater speed
back into those commanding empire
ciphers, insisting the previous stock
did not pan out so she wants that young
sniper with two fifty-goal seasons.
A patrol of centurions moves in
and she gets nervous. But she won’t
leave until she gets what she wants. Finally,
the genie behind the methodology
flies out of the lamp and like a labyrinthine
beast squinting at the light of day,
drives out the bullies and unscrupulous
money-changers, and reinstates
the underdog.

I tell her the period is about to start
and she should go brush her teeth.
But time means nothing to her. What’s
a weekend compared with all of history
(which, true enough, is her other
favourite subject). She looks at the screen
for a minute, then reaches for her
Prismacolors, and still babbling
away, dreams up a picture of a pink-robed
girl sneaking out of a wooden horse,
dropping petals like half-rhyming words
pulled out of her soul – hoping, I suppose,
to overcome the slings of the battle –
hoping, even, to slay the venal formulas
that snapping senators and prelates
throw her way.

I tell her it’s time for bed and to go
make peace with her brothers. She delays
the obvious way by turning her attention
back to the game. She asks me why
I watch this massacre if I know they will lose.
I can’t explain it. For a brief instant
I feel silly wearing the tricolour jersey.
But then, as she trots out of the room,
unconcerned, I feel like a child
again and pray for a win.


About the Poet
Francis Fernandes grew up in the US and Canada. He studied in Montréal and has a degree in Mathematics. He lives in Frankfurt, Germany, where he writes and teaches.