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Owen Neill:
Durham’s Poet Laureate and the Voice of Canada’s Wilderness

© By John Arkelian

© Poetry by Owen Neill

© Photography by Sandy Sutherland

“You cannot accept me / because I yearn to be great / in my dream of life… I overwhelm you with my reach / as I go for golden apples…”  (Owen Neill)

Who’d have guessed that Durham’s esteemed poet laureate is also

Lybster Harbour – photo © 2016 by Sandy Sutherland.

Lybster Harbour – photo © 2016 by Sandy Sutherland.

the voice of Canada’s wilderness?  Owen Neill lends words to the primal voices around and within us.  Whether it’s in the gleam of a wolf’s eyes, the roar of a crashing surf, or the sharp silence of a starlit night, Neill’s work encapsulates the elemental.  A retired high school teacher of English and art (he claims that teaching art gave him the chance to grow his hair longer), Neill remains both “an eternal optimist” and an exceptionally talented poet.  Not to mention a storyteller, ad hoc teacher, artist, outdoorsman,  and traveler.  An early fascination for wolves continues to inspire much of his poetry.  Known as “the poet of the wolves,”  Neill created an educational program, dubbed the “Under Moonleaves Wolf Project,” to tour schools across the country with a wolf named Dakota.  His mission?

The Old Man of Hoy – photo © 2016 by Sandy Sutherland.

The Old Man of Hoy – photo © 2016 by Sandy Sutherland.

To dispel the myths and misconceptions which surround wolves.  The visits were a hit with schoolchildren, and there was even serious talk of taking the tour on the road to Europe.

In recent years, Neill has traveled four times to a respected writers’ retreat on Rathlin Island in Northern Ireland – the only foreigner so honored.  Neill loves the place.  He says,  “If I were two people, one of us would live in Ireland.”  Neill, whose ancestors hailed from those parts, was intrigued by the country’s rich oral history and mythology.  When it came time to leave, his Irish friends would tell Neill to “Hurry back home [to Ireland].”  He says “it was one of the nicest experiences of my whole life – the feeling of belonging.  I really envy their feeling of connection.”  Neill’s travels have also

Kilchoan, Knoydart – photo © 2016 by Sandy Sutherland.

Kilchoan, Knoydart – photo © 2016 by Sandy Sutherland.

taken him to Scotland’s rugged and remote Orkney Islands.  Being there, he says, was like leaving the Earth for an alien vista.

Neill is the author of fifteen published volumes of poetry, among them, such titles as “When I Am Raw,” “Eye of the Wolf,” “Gone to Gossamer,” Six Windows of the Giant,” “Under Moonleaves,” and “He Said, She Said.”  Another volume, “Impressions,” was inspired by the 12-day cruise Neill had along the remote coast of Labrador with his friend, the artist Bill Lishman.  Capable of traversing shallow waters, the ship brought them into contact with isolated communities and some “unbelievable scenery.”   In 2010, Neill ventured into prose with “Voices in Sherwood,” his novella for young adults about a twelve-year-old Robin Hood.

Neill grew up in Thunder Bay, and he has lived in British Columbia, Sault Ste. Marie, and Durham’s own Port Perry.  For a time, he ran the “Generation Buddy Program,” which linked grandparent figures with children in need of one.  “The energy of young people keeps me young,” he says.  And young he is still, with a powerful vitality running through his poetry of the wilderness.  Owen Neill calls himself a restless person, and that restlessness infuses and informs his art – just as his poetic art enriches our lives.  Durham is fortunate to call him our own:  “ I have some searching wit / and why not pit it with the gods?”

John Arkelian is an award-winning journalist and author.

Sandy  Sutherland is one of Canada’s most versatile and talented photographers.  He originally hails from County Caithness in the Scottish Highlands.  Photography has been a passion since he was 14, and he went on to study it in Aberdeen and Edinburgh.   See more of Sandy Sutherland’s work at:  http://www.highlandexposure.com/

Copyright © 2016 by John Arkelian.

Poetry © 2016 by Owen Neill.

Photography © 2016 by Sandy Sutherland.

Editor’s note:  An earlier version of this article appeared in Artforum Magazine, Issue #3, Summer 2001, under the title, “The Voice of Our Wilderness: Poet Owen Neill” by John Arkelian.


Poems by Owen Neill

In addition to the following examples of Owen Neill’s work, more of his poems can be found throughout our Poetry section (see further down this page), and also in conjunction with three images by Durham’s Martha Weber & Andris Piebalgs from “The Nature of Durham Region” series in our Photography section at:  http://artsforum.ca/photography

Being Orcadian

 © By Owen Neill

When I am non-specific

Rackwick Bay, Orkney – photo © 2016 by Sandy Sutherland.

Rackwick Bay, Orkney – photo © 2016 by Sandy Sutherland.

I am of the Isles, Atlantic flocked.
Orcadian winds wind me northerly
yet softly, Gull touched
time mythed, seal watched
war scarred, saga voiced
earth scented, sea rhythmed
cloud drifted, calm.

Time has another name
only the gods can pronounce.
They mark its beat in stone
then let it wear away
with wind and water
and sometimes blood of warriors
or the plaintive bleat of lambs.

Patience weaves Orcadian invention
and sends it shyly to that other world
beleaguered in its future
and senseless in its numbing rush.

I would be non-specific
and feel the people of these Isles.
I would be wound in their northern flux
and know where I have been
and where I’m bound
close in their arms and minds
their smiles and softly voices
and just a hint of eternity.

Editor’s Note:  An Orcadian is an inhabitant of the Orkney Islands.


The Mountains of Mourne 

 © By Owen Neill

Green tunes the wind here this autumn

Old Man of Storr – photo © 2016 by Sandy Sutherland.

Old Man of Storr – photo © 2016 by Sandy Sutherland.

on top of mindfilling rolling granite
patched anciently with plots for sheep
the peace of ages thronged and endless.
I lean to taste two powers
contending, pretending
happy, willful as one
mixing elements
as if there was a natural understanding.
High in spirit, I am Gulliver
hands on hips
overlooking his Lilliput.

There is aspect, there is attitude.
There is wonder in its magic cycle.
And there is wind, reminding always.
The gorse is sharp and fit.
It bites at careless passing.
But I am safely atop
surveyor extraordinaire
and these are the Mournes
exquisite ramblers, proud,
heavy with voices in every stone.

Ancient sunken tunnels shrink
sullenly in thick rings of reverent stones
enraptured by forever prayers.
And we are wound, around and around
with road ribbon rhythms
teachers of time if we heed them.
We are mere perchers, vying for views

Kilchoan – photo © 2016 by Sandy Sutherland.

Kilchoan – photo © 2016 by Sandy Sutherland.

to love the more we can compass.
Some few are bounded by ocean tides
and feel old rhythms of their own.

I see them all from the peaks of Mourne
with silent munching sheep in company,
a king for one reaching moment
as history washes over thought
and I clasp my dreaming knees
and rock with this worldly wind
and feel the ancient touches
of all my sleepy ancestors.



 © By Owen Neill

Green orbed forest sparks
hunting pairs
haze of leftover day
or moonlight charged
they haunt
the paths to blood
forging links
that bind forever
in the blueprint
some other creatures
have forgotten.


Voice Of Your Wilderness

© By Owen Neill

Highland Stag – photo © 2016 by Sandy Sutherland.

Highland Stag – photo © 2016 by Sandy Sutherland.

I am the voice of your wilderness.
You are alone and reason blind.
Do you hear me as I call?
Shall I give you to the empty wind?

You have killed the last of my brethren.
Trails are empty, cold and sad.
Will you hear me if I call?
Shall I mark and let you go mad?

I can find my own way to my ending.
No conscience calls me to account.
But you, Chosen One, have washed away
the last of God’s golden fount.
Will you hear me if I call again?


Spirit Wolf

© By Owen Neill

There is something mystical
in the twilight
over the winter snow.
A wolf is standing there
sure footed

Wolf – photo © 2016 by Sandy Sutherland.

Wolf – photo © 2016 by Sandy Sutherland.

at home in his reality.

But the man who stalks
in his certainty
cannot see the wolf
at all.

He may search
with his hunter eyes
but he has not the magic
to match the smile
of a wolf
who wishes not
to be seen.

Perhaps it is the wolf
who has created the man
and placed in him
the wonder of the gods.


Bow River – photo © 2016 by Sandy Sutherland.

Bow River – photo © 2016 by Sandy Sutherland.


© By Owen Neill

Tears of mountains
distilled under moonlight
falling, falling crystalline
in ice-bound veils
caught by moonlight
wound round and round
inside the roar of sky-born waters
crystal and silver womb
mingling he and she
moon fire and seeded goddess blood
yawning desire perfected
in the paradise of a pearl.

Editor’s note:  The word ‘androgyne’ means indeterminate gender.


Voice Of The Wild

© By Owen Neill

I am the voice of the wolf.
I am the river of his myth
I run to all the oceans of the world
and mingle the power of my soul
with the orca and the albatross
We all are one though we share many forms
but the same voice speaks for each searching eye
and calls us to our various destinies.
I am the voice of the wolf.
I am his moonlight dark-half song

Wolf 2 – photo © 2016 by Sandy Sutherland.

Wolf 2 – photo © 2016 by Sandy Sutherland.

tossed to test the constancy of stars
in the eyes of his lifeline walk
while leg-hold jaws anchor fate to future.

We run from the gun of last resort
waiting for that final voice to join
our statement of earth’s sweet red renewal.


Sunrises have taken me over

©  By Owen Neill

If I do not appear for breakfast
do not wait with hot ovens
for my immediate return.

Sunrises have taken me over
with the hope of their spectacles.
They speak of beginnings
and they need my eyes for witness.

Staffin Bay – photo © 2016 by Sandy Sutherland.

Staffin Bay – photo © 2016 by Sandy Sutherland.

I pursue my mornings
as a prospector on the gold trail.
The swing of fresh trails
rising from darkness
into the new dawn light
best suits my philosophy now.

You can have your sunsets.
Youth loves beauty indiscriminately.
I do not like endings anymore
and so I rise with prayers
of thanks to the light of new days.

If I do not then, appear for breakfast
do not wait with hot ovens
for I am fully involved
just now
with the sunrise.


The voice of the Viking

©  By Owen Neill

The voice of the Viking
declines like thin echoes

Lofoten Islands – photo © 2016 by Sandy Sutherland.

Lofoten Islands – photo © 2016 by Sandy Sutherland.

over iceberg seas.
But his signs
the secret whispers
carved in bones and stones
still speak like the shells
of diviners
in another time.

Each rune is touched
by stars and gods
and we, the seekers
of fame, fortune
or future
may ask still
the favour of intercessors
but at our peril
be warned
if we make so bold.

And so, to the magic bag
wherein we thrust
the searching hand
fearfully touching


A secret hid in mists

©  By Owen Neill

Inverie, Knoydart – photo © 2016 by Sandy Sutherland.

Inverie, Knoydart – photo © 2016 by Sandy Sutherland.

There was more in our good night
than just the fever of fires touching.
Tomorrow loomed like a lowering cloud
upon a crystal-windowed land.
Shadows shifted confidence
but what foretold, we could not guess.
Something lay across our lips
that rendered passion less than perfect.
It was a secret hid in mists.
We knew, but could not name it.
Pretence was all that we could muster
in the bravery of full loving
and when we parted longingly
a shiver like the whisper of winter immanent
put collar up and hand in pocket
lightly troubled weary minds.

The warmth of walking dispelled the cold
and thoughts of sleep drew down for comfort.
In the dreaming and drifting under blankets
all shades and questions became as one
in the blending of our separate levels
and there was only memory of another day.


God has a woman’s charms

Knoydart – photo © 2016 by Sandy Sutherland.

Knoydart – photo © 2016 by Sandy Sutherland.

©  By Owen Neill

I believe god has a woman’s charms
because I have just arisen
newborn from your holy arms.

The men who claimed ascendancy
throughout the course of history
have not that power over me.

The love seed of my sacred planting
has burst like avid spring flowering
about the feet of the golden goddess —
displaced by Aryan patriarchs
long ago when the mother of cultures
melted under barbarian blades.

Words cannot kill a fact forever.
The goddess lives in stone
and memory
if we but look and sweet remember.
The love she breathed
on our beginnings
has come again in need.
The long cycle of our evolution
has brought man to new revelation.
And you have been my teacher.


Other Voices

Work by various poets.

The Artist

Conté crayon
Simple and even —
A player on the stage
Of my thought

Joint desire, dusty stretches
Firmly received upon the surface
Of an anticipating parchment
Needing to be more

Together we ascend
To be forever recognized
As the speakers
And the genius
In a Mona Lisa’s eyes

© Brenda Leigh Tucker


And we’ll talk about our dreams

Let the artists choose
To make everything we need
Let’s put sculpture in the gardens
Let’s make poems all we read

Replace all the noise with music
Turn our walk into a dance
Design your personal wardrobe
Put it on and take a chance

Let’s grow flowers for every window
Have a sculptor make the glass
Let the cabinet makers build
Have a botanist plant your grass

Let’s paint murals on the walls
And ask actors in for tea
And we’ll talk about our dreams
And we’ll make it all for free

© Brenda Leigh Tucker



Sheer enormity
Of conformity
Chintz and lace
Have no place
Frills and bows
Just a pose
Narrow mind
Leads to blind
Chains and locks
Mental blocks
Bleak and cold
Turn to old
Airs and graces
Wear false faces
Nice white teeth
What’s beneath?
Balking, resisting
Barely existing
Think, feel
Get real.

© Sheila Glover



“You’re funny,” yes you are,” he said, “you know I really mean it –
But no-one, even you, can be amusing all the time
It takes a lot of humour, yes it does – of that, I’m certain
But no-one, even you, can be that funny when you rhyme.
We can laugh at all the jokes that we make in conversation
Each others’ – and our own, which is really not a crime.
When it comes to verse, however, I am just not quite so certain
That people, even you, can be amusing all the time.”

© Sheila Glover


The silent man, he sailed across
The ever silent sea
Birds circled there above his boat
But watched him silently.

On he went ‘til light was done
Then sailed on and on still more
Birth and death, wars lost and won
Before he reached the shore.

O Silent Man, we said to him
Please where do you come from?
The answer came upon the wind
Which rose before the dawn.

In truth we did not hear a thing
Of what it was he said
The words were lost amongst the clouds
And fell like rain instead.

© Sheila Glover

Spirit/Child of the Sixties

Child of the Sixties, you thought you had power
The heady aroma contained in a flower
But the petals are scattered
The flower, it died
Along with the hope
Along with the pride
The music, it faded
The dreams, they were lost
The battle was over
None counted the cost.
Child of the Sixties, I’m pleased you could care
From your bell bottom pants to your long flowing hair
But the message you brought with you, around ‘69
Was in the wrong era, was not the right time
Child of the Sixties, you shouldn’t forget
The world, as it is, may have need of you yet.

© Sheila Glover


An Excess

It’s true.  I had three loves.
One for laughter,
One for lust,
And one for love.

The sprite-faced one for laughter
Struggled, strove to stay and
Smilingly, he danced astray.
One day, I turned and he was gone
As sprites are wont to do who
Laugh their lives away.

The one I had for lust
Burned our bodies bright,
Fervor to inferno,
Fever into incandescent light.
The conflagration turned to holocaust,
A sacrifice that neither one would make,
And finally, left only ashes,
Mercifully, hearts burned to ash can’t break.

The one for love,
The one who held my secret heart,
Was full of it,
And so awash with love for humankind,
He shared it here, bestowed it there,
Awarding it, with benefits, to one and all,
Adored, admired,
He’d loved so often, loved so well,
That finally on one insightful day,
My heart, run dry with waiting,
just realized,
He gave it all away.

© Martha McMillen

Tough Love
or The Auto-Mechanic’s Wife

He comes home late and full of sweaty oil,
a dull grey-black and slick as an eel’s coil.
There’s a collusion between him and cars:
he fights with rack and pinion his small wars,
his hands slide smoothly over hardened steel,
his ear translates each murmur, flutter, squeal,
his eyes intent to search transmission’s heart
and find the crack before it breaks apart.
Axles, like athletes’ limbs, are greased to move
as the wheel turns and twists in the gear’s groove.
These cars suck life and energy and leave
my man at fifty worn, with no reprieve.
His body’s workings need an overhaul:
time will not wait, it will not run nor stall.

Too long he’s pulled and tugged and thumped and fused
the recalcitrant bodies of abused
and much-used cars.  Such pulls and tugs and thumps
have echoed in his body till it slumps.
His brain staves off a biood-clot that has burst;
so he must learn to speak and spell and, worst,
to think again, as his impatience burns.
And I, now weary, yet with heart that yearns
for no more subterfuge but for his words
however rough, will take his mouth, like birds
do, in my own, and mould his lips to move
in speech, or even make such sounds of love
as I have waited all these years to hear,
and kiss away our paralyzing fear.

© Lucy Brennan

A Wedding Wish

Life is so fragile:
Treasure hers softly,
Treasure his gently:
A touch, a kiss, a word
Given and taken with love.

Love is so fragile:
Treasure hers softly,
Treasure his gently:
A look, a pause, a clouded moment:
Handle with care.

Care is so fragile:
Treasure her softly,
Treasure him gently:
A pressure of lips, of arms, of hands:
Shelter in time of need.

Love, care and need
All your life to fold round you,
Unite you:
Two in one fragile dream.

© Lucy Brennan

Series of Reclining Figures
To Henry Moore

Step closer into the mystery,
and explore the infinite gap
between one piece and another.
Sense their relatedness,
their yearning connection
in space.

Bodies cantilevered in space –
elbows, buttocks and heels
graze the ground.
Sharp-angled arms and legs
only the back rises
like an alpine massif,
like a wall to be conquered.

Recumbent Titans.
Bones gathered
around an inner sanctum,
a gaping void.
Only the head rises,
its vacant gaze
scanning the heavens,
dwarfed by etemity.

Man as a puzzle cast in bronze.
Only his mass keeping him

© Barbara Ponomareff

Life Song

Songs of lonely hearts
waiting in pain
confined to set spaces
regarding the rain.
Songs of remembrance
when life was a rush
and lovers were plenty
and time was a crush.

Songs of slow aging
when youth had no wall.
World promised adventure
for life’s daily call.
Songs of lost friendships
and those darkening goodbyes.
Of children gone their own way
under bright future skies.

Songs of contentment
in spite of time’s call.
Fullness at high tide.
Satisfaction is all.
Songs of new closures
to life’s thorny ring.
We prepare for new voices
songs only angels sing.

© Owen Neill


The harper harps
the fiddler bows
first nations prance
a politician blows
boredom creeps
wine relieves
talk is cheap
to fill the blanks.

But children sing
we rhapsodize
the moment lifted
to paradise.
A poet waits
silence supreme
a culture lost
forgotten dream.

© Owen Neill

Walk With Me

It was by chance that we were walking,
as lonely walkers do,
and perhaps a change in fate,
that I walked right into you.

For it was alone that we were walking,
when neither of us knew
that maybe we were really walking,
walking two by two.

Such a lovely change for someone,
feeling tired and alone
walking down a beaten path,
my heart together-sewn.

But when we walked together,
the sky did change its hue,
and so we walked together,
and both of us, we knew.

© Katie Arbour

Tempest in a Teapot

Around and around the tea party went;
Way out of control poor Alice was spinning.
Mad Hatter was racing the garden about
And the Queen was determinedly winning.
Up the manicured aisles marched the fearless knights,
Down the path flew the King in a tizzy.
And Alice’s hormones were changing her size,
First big and then small, they were making her dizzy.

“Stop,” roared the Queen, “cease this maddening frenzy.”
And planted her girth in a comfortable chair.
“Now,” she commanded, “let the party begin,
And quickly, you Hatter, sit down over there.”
The cards that stood ramrod straight in a row
Glared sternly about on every guest.
Miss Alice, still stretching all over the place
Was afraid to sit down with the rest.

“Begging your pardon,” she said to the Queen,
“I’m in too much turmoil to cease and desist,
My mind’s in a twirl and my heart’s in a whirl,
Keep running I must or I’ll never resist.
So out of the garden she hurried in flight
With tears streaming straight down her face.
They blinded her eyes and she fell down a hole
And the knights declared her unfit for the race.

On another day, in a far distant place,
A woman was weeping, her heart filled with sorrow.
“I must pick up the pieces and go on with the journey
Else I never will last till tomorrow.
Though the journey is long and the struggle is great
For traveling along I must have the heart.”
So she closed the book about Alice’s trip
And said, “Let the true journey start.”

© L. June Stevenson


I wandered down a country lane
to where the ocean met the land,

and there upon some jagged rocks
I found a place where I could stand.

As whitecaps broke upon the shore
and soft clouds chased across the moon,
a calmness fell upon my Soul
and my voice took flight on a lilting tune.

When I had stood an hour or more
I cast my eyes along the beach,

no childhood castles could be seen
the ocean swept them all away.

It left the sand without a mark
ready for a brand new day.

Nature taught me well that night
all things must fade when their time is done

And so I’ve come again at last
to walk with laughter in the sun.

© Carole Walsh


Doors are pulled open
and pushed
or the opposite.

When it rains
I’m a dry spot
soaking up truth.
The ground wets
your shoes
and in the distance
my paper crles.

The writing table
draws you in
and staples you.
Invent twelve reasons
to start again.
Then work backwards.

© Kathryn Sussman

Dented memory

Rocks collide inside her skull
souvenirs of Lac des Mille Lacs

music pushes through tweeters and woofers
as blunt and metallic as her lover’s passion

a careless hatchback
answers her throaty call of desire

tosses a handful of stones
at the thrum of his anger

coupled in a slow dance with hillside scrub

uproots thistle, ragweed
mounts a boulder

furrows deeper

shattered bits of windshield bleed
her third eye blind

nerves like Inca bracelets
jangle against her skin

he awaits the rising of the moon
rolls up his sleeves hits the road

denying lips kiss clods of earth
she pulls weeds from her teeth

© Valerie Poulin

KT Boundary

I was three minutes from a trilobyte,
and three hundred million years…
The sum of all my earthly desires,
my prayers, my hopes, my fears.

Transcending ancient space and time
turned to solid stone,
a traveller anonymous,
no flesh, no thought, no bones.
Brief my life, but long my death,
though mute, transformed, unknown,
three hundred million ionely years
and three thousand miles from home.

© MT Forest
(excerpt frorn “Chixalub, the early years”)

Note:  The “KT Boundary” is the division between two geological ages – the Cretaceous and the Tertiary – a moment in time 65 million years ago occasioned by the impact upon the Earth of an asteroid.  The ensuing cataclysm is believed to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs .  A layer of iridium marks the KT Boundary in layers of rock sediments.

Young Love

I lay
quietly tracing
my memories of you
so perfectly etched
on blueprints in line
with the way I see you
laying next to me
in my mind.

You are never so far away
that I cannot trace
and retrace
the beauty I see created
with you as top sheet
and I underneath
copying perfect embrace.

I need
only the space that lies
between us
only the touch that I can trace
back to your smile
needing only to erase one question:

Do you miss me?

© Sharon Cordes

Whither Bound?

I take you on green-eyed
full against the current
under the eagle’s beak
splitting the challenge
of another day.

Strength is my age
filling all my channels
tidal fresh
waxing and waning
moon taught
sun bidden
green pennant blowing
laughing anticipation
Bellerophon riding Pegasus
to taste immortality.

Alone across the sky
my finger traces
in its salt wake
where I have been
and may go again.
Shadows of other eyes
glimpse me over horizons
which I may never see
again the same.

Tides race their courses
like moon-call beasts
and who will ride their swiftness
in the choice of each new day?
Who casts a shadow
then flies into the sun?

What silver flashing water dart
foils its roving enemy in time?
What rolling blaring lion careens
its food geared jaws
and lets the world in on its mind?

Life sounds interminable
feed the hectic
of my raging eager cells
fierce mood answer
to each sapphire moment.
I am here! is my song, too.
My peace is in the wind
whither bound.

© Owen Neill


Breathe heavy
The scent of me
Spices from a world afar

Hands caught
Within my hair
In the tangles

Do not long for escape

Languish in the moment

In this sweet sucked kiss.

© Sandra Cooper


She knows the game
And how they play
The words they use
To get their way
The sweet lies
Whispered dreams
None of them
Don’t mean a thing
Pretty eyes and perfume
Part of her allure
Reel ’em in
Count ’em out
One by one for sure
Fishnet stockings
And painted nails
Wine stained lips
They’ll wag their tails
She’ll take a bite
Chew ’em up
Spit ’em out

© Sandra Cooper