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(Ann Diamond is one of Canada's most innovative and controversial poets and writers of the last 40 years).

John Asfour poet (1945-2014)

I met John Asfour only a few times and never quite believed he was really blind. His default mood was always wry, ironic, gentle and dignified. Expansive in his silences, embracing and generous in his speech. At the cable TV station where we first met in the early 90s, he was seated with his white cane and dark glasses when I rushed in, sweating and flustered. "You look beautiful today, Ann!" -- and he grinned, pleased with his little joke.

I didn't know he had died. I hadn't seen him since a reading in 2011 when he lit the hall with poems of family, loss, emigration. By chance I was in the neighbourhood where we'd had lunch. Remembering that day, I realized I no longer had his number. I had a sudden gnawing sense it could be too late.

Coming home, I logged onto Facebook where, surreally, a notice scrolled down my feed.

Memorial Service for Montreal poet John Asfour.
Thursday, November 6, 2014. St Sauveur Cathedral. 11 am.

I searched in vain for an obituary. Someone had thought to update his Wikipedia page:

"John Asfour (born in 1945 in Aitaneat, Lebanon) (died in 2014 in Montreal, Canada) was a Lebanese-Canadian poet, teacher and translator. At the age of 13, a grenade exploded in his face injuring his eyes during the Lebanese crisis of 1958.

He moved to Canada in 1968..."

In 2009 I had visited him at Joy Kogawa House in Vancouver, where he was writer in residence. We took a walk around the neighbourhood, and went for takeout at a hole in the wall restaurant where he already seemed to be a regular. Later, we went sightseeing at False Creek market. His visiting family cooked Lebanese delicacies and drove him downtown where he was speaking to a class at a college.

Introducing him later, I said a stupid thing. I told the audience that being with John Asfour was like entering a black hole. Lost for words, I struggled to explain. Sharing a space with him was like a journey into one's own heart. One of my favourite poems is his In the Metro: about venturing out in public and feeling surrounded and overwhelmed by human kindness.

The mosque-like Melkite cathedral stood in the distance as the dark-haired woman in a green jacket got off the bus just ahead of me. She wore dark glasses although it was cloudy, and we both crossed the busy street and ran the last hundred meters, thinking we were late. Men in black coats stood on the church steps, talking into cell phones. Inside, mourners had filled half the pews as more were arriving. John came last, in a closed coffin next to a single vase of flowers as Byzantine choral music poured from an amplifier overhead.

Men in robes chanted a liturgy in English, French and Arabic. The priest read from scripture. Then he said: "This is the first day of John's new life." It seemed so obviously true, you wanted to climb in  and share that small dark space with him in blinding light.

John's daughter Mikaela took the mic to read some of his final poems, about approaching death, family, loss, immigration. Novelist Rawi Hage spoke about how it felt to lose this friend, and praised John's commitment to social justice, his great contribution to poetry --

"Everything he did was for others."

He left this world discreetly as he lived in it, vanishing into the vacuum that he once filled with poems. 

Another memorial will be held in Vancouver at Joy Kogawa House where John has many more friends who will also miss him --

Books by John Asfour:

2012: V6A: Writing from Vancouver's Downtown East Side edited by John Mikhail Asfour and Elee Kraljii Gardiner, Arsenal Pulp Press

2011: Blindfold, McGill-Queens Press

2009 Nisan: poesie par John Asfour traduit par Nadine Ltaif editions Le Noroît, 103 pages

1997: Fields of My Blood (poetry), Empyreal Pressà

1992: One Fish From the Rooftop (poetry), Cormorant Books

1988, 1992: When the Words Burn: An Anthology of Modern Arabic Poetry, Cormorant Books
Shortlisted for the League of Poets Award (1990) and John Glassco Award for Translation

1981: Land of Flowers and Guns (poetry), DC Books
Three poems by John Asfour

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