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Poetry to Warm a Cold Winter's Night

ON many a bitter night, during a winter that went on record as one of the coldest in Toronto's history, my friend George braved the rugged sub-zero temperatures to visit me for evenings of dinner and poetry. Often he arrived in a fit of despondency. ''I don't think I can make it through another day,'' he would say, unbundling his heart, as it were, as he unbundled himself of mittens, hat, scarf, parka, and boots.

Today, George is somewhat of a celebrity - one of Canada's up-and-coming new poets, George Elliott Clarke. Although I've lost touch with him, I've kept up with his remarkable career through the media. In a newspaper review that I read about a year ago, I learned that George was teaching African-American literature at Duke University in North Carolina. The review said, ''the 34-year old Nova Scotian poet and critic did so much to call attention to writing by Africans of Canadian heritage that he was sorely missed almost as soon as he accepted.''

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I have also heard George on CBS Radio arts and culture programs. Whenever I hear his expressive voice over the airwaves, I see him in my mind's eye seated across from me at a kitchen table, reading from his poetry journal as the wind rattles the windowpanes.

That ultracold winter in Toronto over a decade ago, George was working for the Toronto Transit Commission. He spent eight hours a day cooped up in a windowless office deep in a subway tunnel. When he emerged from the underground at 5 p.m., it was already dark outside.

In Shakespeare's ''A Midsummer Night's Dream,'' Theseus says, ''The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven'' - which perhaps explains why George, unable to catch a glimpse of sunlight for days on end, was so discouraged that winter. He felt as if he were living in a tunnel of perpetual darkness with not even a flicker of light at the end.

''Don't quit your job, George! It's not a life sentence - you just have to stick it out for four months!'' Both George and I were enrolled in the University of Waterloo's English work-study program and were in Toronto from January until April for our winter work terms. It was imperative that George stick with his job, because if he quit he'd have to drop out of the work-study program altogether.

I encouraged George as I tended pots and pans simmering on an old gas stove. The vintage 1940s gas stove (purchased by my landlord secondhand), besides being the source from which emanated the delicious aroma of our forthcoming dinner, generated heat like a blazing fire. Even on the harshest January and February nights, my attic kitchen was cozy and warm.

For someone so deep in the slough of despond, George ate amazingly well. We sat at a secondhand chrome table next to gable windows. The kitchen windows were level with the uppermost bare branches of a century-old maple tree.

From our cozy third-floor perch, we surveyed the stark mid-winter night. The wide expanse of snow covering the neighbors' unfenced backyards shimmered in the moonlight.

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We could see frozen gardens, ice-capped birdbaths, and white-frosted woodpiles. Across the way, the neighbors' lit-up windows looked like yellow quilt patches. Smoke straggled up from their chimneys.

After our meal, I cleared away the dishes while George rummaged in his knapsack for his poetry journal, which he kept with him at all times. From then on, the timbre of our evening changed entirely.

Our thoughts and conversation turned away from our problems, the cold weather, and the short winter days to poetry and poetry alone. We read our compositions to each other and, in between our readings, we discussed poetic ideals of meter and language, meaning and idea, harmony and truth.

My approach to poetry was mathematically precise while George's was fluid and spontaneous. For every one of my poems, George produced 20. Tactful and gentle critic though he was, when I look back on it, I'm sure George liked my cooking better than he liked my poetry.

In one national newspaper article about George's work the critic said, ''He is one of those rare poets who's meant to be listened to more than read ... he's a wonderful reader....''

Sitting across the kitchen table from me, George read from his journal, but he looked up often. His glasses slid down low on his nose, and his brown eyes, framed in eyelashes as curly as question marks, were intently curious as to how his poems were being received.

When he read, his natural diffidence and reserve completely disappeared, replaced with warmth and exuberance. He read like someone with so much good news to share that if he didn't get it out he'd burst.

Hugged in my kitchen's cozy cocoon of warmth, George and I did not budge from the table all evening. One by one, the neighbors' lit windows across the way faded into black. In a silent moment, the clanging and clanking of hot water pipes reminded us of early-morning alarm clocks. George reluctantly returned his poetry journal to his knapsack and bundled up for his venture into the cold night.

As George departed from my kitchen's circle of warmth, he was no longer the dispirited fellow who had arrived at my door singing the sad refrain, ''Can't make it through another day.''

A few hours spent at the hearth-side of poetics and he was a changed man. Perhaps daylight could not penetrate his subterranean work space, but the sunlight of poetic idealism had penetrated his despondency.

Invigorated, fortified, and heartened - with his knapsack slung over his shoulder and shoulders hunched against the wind - George went cheerfully into the frigid night.

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