Joanna Lawson

The Inner Voice



Joanna Lawson at her desk

Biography of Joanna Lawson            

The Poet

The best poem I ever wrote was a short one that came to me as a complete poem. ‘A poem/ is a slide/ under a microscope/ a wafer-thin slice/ of now/ or then/ or what might be/ magnified for meaning.’

That poem, for me, expresses the purpose of any poem — to explore a tiny bit of the world, be it a place, an event, a phrase, a person or tree or animal or bird, and through that exploration discover an abstract meaning.

My uncle, Vincent Francis, had the largest influence in my life as a poet. He was a member of Tower since its earliest days. His definition of poetry was that poems explored abstract ideas with concrete images. Readers will understand things and events told in images more clearly than abstract words. He also taught me that the more senses we engage with images, the clearer our message appears to our readers. So I seek to use the five senses, not all at once but more than one. Uncle Vin’s influence is explored in the poem ‘A Gift of Letting Go.’

One example of using these techniques is the poem ‘Collateral Damage.’ My poem describes possible scenes and situations that explain in more concrete terms, what collateral damage actually is. It follows the well-known edict to writers, ‘Don’t tell, show!’

Reading poetry, lots of it, is an essential exercise. Some of my favourite poets are Keats, Wordsworth, Donne, and George Herbert. More recent poets I return to over and over again are Alice Walker, Mary Oliver, and Adrienne Rich.

I inherited my uncle’s poetry. It is fascinating to read his efforts and like him, gradually improve with practice and continual analysis.

Joanna Lawson


A Gift of Letting Go
A tribute to Vincent Francis

As a child I walked with my Uncle.

Our strides were uneven:
one long, unfaltering;
the other stretched short
with little hops to keep up.

Running behind,
I leapt at abstract ideas
spread like thick peanut butter
across the loaf of knowledge
and craved more than a bite.

Pausing, I wrote and learned
about poetry, always eons behind
the guru who viewed the world
with puckish humour and wrapped
profound truths in simple images.

As chauffeur and student,
I watched him charm
a flock of ugly ducklings
to recognize their origins
and write like swans.

He dictated from his hospital bed
while I scribed his last poems.
No morphine-induced hallucinations.
We said our last good-bye
as friend death hovered near

One set of footprints strides onward,
paces longer for having known my uncle.







A Poem

is a slide
under a microscope:
a wafer-thin slice
of now,
or then,
or what might be,
magnified for meaning.


Words pruned
in the winter
of composition
like branches
from an apple tree
so autumn's poem
can mature
to perfection.


Writer walks the beach, collecting.
Gull conversations harmonize
with murmur of washing waves.
Feet gently sculpt sand while
seaweed tangs ride the breeze
to tickle her nose and tongue.
Families building sand castles
sparkle in sun-warmed fantasies.

Painter stops to frame segments
of lake side in summer. She captures
light, shadow, subtle colours
and stills the motion of gull and tide.
No sounds, no smells or tastes.
Yet holiday pleasures and the lure
of constant waves against the sand
cascade against her canvas of memory.

Child squats on the beach
caresses one small stone
rounded smooth by centuries
of sand and sea — tossed recklessly
and half-buried among other debris.
Immune from myriad stimulations,
she inspects one mottled ellipse —
quietly cradling perfection in her hands.


After Act I

audience assembles before light dims
crowds the beach, faces western stage
slowly sun sinks behind purple mountain

when last blush of orange orb disappears
audience turns and walks away
from longest running show on earth

with an almost empty house Act II begins
from off stage sun flings her brilliant
shimmering crimsons yellows tangerines

she paints clouds sky and beach in changing hues
gives her all to small remaining audience
who stands mesmerized until night’s curtain falls.


Sea Gulls

You play the wind
like keys on a piano
making the music of motion.
A suspended lyric,
you fly arpeggios
around the playground
watching the children
who dart and dance
clumsily earthbound,
grounded from dreams
while you wing
soaring symphonies
in feathered symmetry,
masters of air.


“Collateral Damage”

Bomb’s blast radiates emptiness.
The woman slowly thrusts
her arthritic joints through the rubble.
Stunned she peers into black air,
calling in disbelief for anyone.

Cries slice the crashing silence.
The child smeared in rubble dust
gropes frantically for his mother
who curls protection around him.
Whimpering, he pulls her lifeless arm.

Footsteps pound the ravenous night.
The ragged lad runs in panic
down rubble-pocked path
inhaling great gulps of frenzy
while clutching the stump of his arm.

The old man hears distant wailing;
when he breathes — it stops.
He surveys the rubble of his rubble-built
house with tear-stained cheeks,
shudders, and chokes “Again.”


The Missed Piano Lesson

My Grade Two music book
is open on the piano.
Little fingers ache and muscles
tense waiting to hear the door bell.
I should have practised more.
Will I remember the B-flat?

Mother answers the door;
the hall fills with crying.
Alarmed I peek through the glass
and hear amid my teacher's sobs —
"Auschwitz —
parents, brothers,
grandparents, cousins
everyone gone."

Voices recede to the kitchen
I hear water rush into the kettle,
jingle of silverware,
rattle of cups and saucers.
"Tell me — We'll have some tea."

As the silence of the piano drowns
mingling murmurs of anguish
and sympathy — I close my book.

No music today.



The old man shuffles precariously,
afraid to lift either foot.
Thin arms spread for balance;
veined hands flail the air
searching for support.

His grey head turns in panic;
his grey eyes scream for help
while searching — searching.
He stops. Relaxed and smiling
he watches his wife approach.

Her sprightly steps hurry.
She murmurs reassurance
as her arm encircles his waist
and his hand finds her shoulder.
Their eyes embrace a familiar tale.

Moulded as one, they walk on.

photo courtesy of Stella Mazur Preda


Unexplored landscapes
unfold outside the bus
and two widows embrace
the fresh experiences
they view together
through the window.

But conversations
are laden with reflections
of other journeys
remembered from a time
when sorrow was a stranger
and loneliness an alien land.

Reactions to new events
are tinted by knowledge
of what might have been
had four faces been mirrored
in the bus window
instead of two.



They stood talking in the rain
four children
two boys two girls
shivering in the downpour
hair glued wet against forehead and neck
shoes afloat in new rivers
and swelling puddles.
Strangers, two from another time
need to talk above rain’s roar
to explore their different worlds
to plan, explain, decide.

Finally, fingers stop
long breath is taken
writer looks up from the screen
withdraws to today
astonished to be dry
in a sun-drenched world.


Inner Voices

be still melt into the grove
tentatively touch bladelets of grass
startle at nodding daffodils
inhale pine tips bursting green
tune to robin song from maple perch
taste breezes brushing specks of snow

sing a silent song to spring
wordless ostinato to nature’s wakening
then become lark and lilac cardinal and crocus
robin and sweet rain pine tree and maple bud
leave behind the raucous crowded world
forget fear and furor — and for a moment
stay wrapped in the fold of eternity

photo courtesy of Eleanore Kosydar


Joanna Lawson with
Tower Poetry Editor, Jeff Seffinga

Joanna Lawson

Joanna Lawson was born and raised in the Hamilton region and obtained most of her education here. When she lost her first job as a bookkeeper because she was getting married, she continued her education at Teachers College, following with a B. A. at McMaster and a M. Ed. at Brock. Later she spent two summers at the University of New Hampshire studying writing, poetry, and how to teach reading and writing.

She spent much of her career in the field of education. She has taught primary grades three through eight, and special ed. at both ends of the mental ability spectrum. She has been employed by school boards as a consultant of literacy, special education, and held numerous other positions and titles. For five years she was a school principal. As well as continuing education classes at Brock University, she taught reading and literacy to their student teachers one year. She is an Honourary Life Member of the Teachers Federation.

Joanna found much relief in literature after her husband died in 1987. Her struggle with grief was the impetus for her first collection of poetry. Since then she has written and published other poetry, and a series of Reading Workbooks for Grades 2 to 8. Her collection of poems, Inner Voices, won the 2005 Poetry Award from Arts Hamilton.

She is an active member of the United Church of Canada. She plays the great bass recorder with Ancaster’s ‘Second Wind Recorders’. Even more than these interests, more than her literary achievements, she takes great joy in her relationship with her daughter Janet and her grandchildren Drake and Drina.

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