Atlantic Poetics

The maddening and delightful heterogeneity of contemporary Atlantic Canadian poetry

To Live and Die in Scoudouc
Herménégilde Chiasson
Translated by Mourir à Scoudouc
Goose Lane Editions

Following the River
Lorri Neilsen Glenn
Wolsak and Wynn Publishers

Faunics
Jack Davis
Pedlar Press

 

Penelope
Sue Goyette
Gaspereau Press

Branches Over Ripples
Brian Bartlett
Gaspereau Press

All Manner of Tackle
Brian Bartlett
Palimpsest Press

Ritual Lights
Joelle Barron
Icehouse Poetry

Toward the Country of Light
Allan Cooper
Pottersfield Press

Blue Waiting
Wiebe and Snowber
Acorn Press

Signs of Life
Gerri Frager
Pottersfield Press

The Way We Hold On
Abena Beloved Green
Pottersfield Press

 

Gerri Frager artwork from Signs of Life: “The Language of Clouds.”

At the outset the assignment seemed simple enough: on the basis of ten or so recent or soon-to be released publications, write an essay about contemporary “Atlantic Poetics.” Who and what is Atlantic poetry about these days? What are its themes, preoccupations, characteristics and methods, its key ideas?

Because I was going to sea, and several of the titles were in process or had yet to be released, I was delivered the contents of 11 books electronically by their publishers. As I read, I missed profoundly the scent and tactility of books, their heft in my hands, the care in their production, the look and disposition of the words and now and again images on the page. When it came time to write, shifting between electronic files on the same screen proved to be much more difficult and much less enjoyable than picking up and putting down a series of books arrayed around me.

A first conclusion then, and perhaps one not limited to observations about Atlantic poetics: books of and about poetry are never simply about the words; they also involve spatial, phenomenological, corporeal experiences like page turning, the rhythms of picking up and putting down, dog earing, opening and closing, turning in our hands, looking up and looking back, and so on—all things we are less likely to do with screens. Canadian writers, readers, publishers and booksellers do well to continue to insist upon the importance of books as interesting and evocative objects, perhaps particularly when it comes to poetry, which tends to dedicate itself to listening to and for such phenomenological thickness and sensuous experience.

Interestingly enough, Gaspereau’s beautiful books, so well known for their loveliness as objects, are also, thanks to the thoughtfulness, simplicity and generousness of their design, the easiest of all the texts I was delivered to read onscreen.

Drawing clear conclusions about what qualified the collection of works I had been sent as contemporary, Atlantic and poetic was initially, however, quite a challenge. One file was a translation of a work from 1974 (To Live and Die in Scoudouc by Herménégilde Chiasson); three of the books were, for the most part, prose (one by Lorri Neilsen Glenn and two by Brian Bartlett); at least two of the poets represented were published locally but not from Atlantic Canada, nor had they lived there; one book involved an exchange between west and east coasts; and one book (Glenn’s Following the River) centred on unravelling a history that took place in another region of the country.

Finally, of the poets living in or from Atlantic Canada and sometimes writing what looked or sounded like verse, only a few seemed to write about immediately recognizable traditional Atlantic themes like the sea, the wind, snow, islands, grey rocks, whorled black spruce, family, loss. The majority of poets here worked other subjects and themes including myth, gender, injustice, rape narratives, animals and language, environmental concerns, spirituality, meditation, belonging, immigrant experiences, political action, Indigenous-settler relations, racialized identity, body morphism and other topics.

In time, however, I came to feel that such heterogeneity, and the ways that many of these texts ran against the grain of traditional Atlantic stereotypes, was itself the point and the story of whatever we might call a contemporary Atlantic poetics.

In coming to this conclusion, I have been grateful for the provocation, dialogue and company of Brian Bartlett’s critical musings and writings, collected in All Manner of Tackle: Living with Poetry, but also present in many ways in Branches Over Ripples: A Waterside Journal. Both texts function as rich resources for thinking and writing about contemporary Canadian poetry and poetic practices. They exemplify the breadth and worldliness of Atlantic poetics these days, the way that what counts as “Atlantic” rings changes on old tropes and practices.

Among other things, I would argue, these recent works make visible the importance of moving away from old habits of identifying what is Atlantic and what is not, in favour of developing a variety of alternate, “mothers-of-many-genders” genealogies of Atlantic poetry. I am not plumping for, nor do I believe these books argue for an abandonment of the traditions of English-language lyric poetry so well represented in Atlantic Canada, with their focus on nature, inner experience and well-wrought lines—after all, much of my own work falls into this category.

Rather, as these and other recent publications demonstrate, we might proliferate accounts of what Atlantic poetry could be and is according to other models as well. Our poetic present, as well as our pasts and futures, are stranger, more interesting, more regionally complex, more generically varied and more politically demanding than the adherence to an Anglophone, largely patrilineal and romantic line of poetic inheritance would permit us to see.

Take, for example, the much-belated publication in English by Goose Lane of Herménégilde Chiasson’s first book of poetry, Mourir à Scoudouc, (translated as To Live and Die in Scoudouc), a francophone work of the early 1970s that helped awaken Acadians to a collective, political and distinctively modern cultural consciousness. Taking aim at a moribund and impoverished version of culture that defined Acadie in terms of a collection of past losses and dispersed relics (“the blue display cases, the religious objects, the lace-lined cradles, the axes hanging in the work shed, the ploughs no longer turning the fields…”) Chiasson’s rousing and energetic poems began to articulate a modern, politicized and forward-looking Acadian consciousness, ready to reassemble its forces and take up space.

“You should have awakened, Eugénie Melanson,” Chiasson writes to a mythic ancestor whose photo is in the museum of records of the

Gerri Frager artwork from Signs of Life: “Process.”

expulsion, “but you fell asleep…/ you fell asleep while dreaming of new expulsions.”

These are love poems to new possibilities. (A mock survey that concludes the poem “When I become a patriot” asks, “Is it possible that one day Acadians will begin to love how well they love?”) These are hortatory rants, and rebellious and slightly surreal re-fashionings of the world in the tradition of French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who is invoked in the title of the collection’s first poem “To Rimbaud from the depths of the night.”

Why republish this work now, aside from the fact that it is embarrassingly long overdue in English? What makes it an important contribution to contemporary Atlantic poetics?

First, Chiasson is a poet who at once challenges and broadens the notion of what counts as poetry. Like Rimbaud, he writes a precise and well-shaped prose poetry, which he then also performs “live.”

Secondly, as a visual artist who had not intended to be a poet, he attends not simply to the disposition of words on the page, but to the design of the pages themselves. Mourir à Scoudouc is a beautifully composed book: pages of text alternate with photographs of a living Acadian present and involve a good deal of visual irony. The argument is clear: all of this—the written words, the spoken words, the imagery—is poetry, and not just what looks like verse; a conclusion towards which a number of other books consulted for this article tend.

As Chiasson observes in a note on the origins and reception of Mourir à Scoudouc, “There is, between the act of writing and the act of publishing, a transition that gives writing a social dimension and a presence made larger by the fact that it is starting to circulate and be shared.” In this way, he says, poetry may become “a carrier of a consciousness….”

Thus as Chiasson’s work testifies, poetry may function not only as the harbinger of personal and political change, but, now and then, as its very agent. As the publication of this work in English at last suggests, To Live and Die in Scoudouc is destined to carry on in new contexts, to exhort new audiences to wake from their slumbers among the relics of their losses, their dead and their dying—a worthy message in Anglophone Atlantic Canada to be sure.

In her long documentary poem, Following the River: Traces of Red River Women, Lorri Neilson Glenn also relies on poetry’s social, circulatory power, its role as “a carrier of consciousness,” by convoking a variety of competing and often contradictory voices from the past.

“Behave as if we are all relations,” Glenn is urged as she uncovers fragments of the histories of her forgotten and maligned Red River Métis great-great-great-great grandmothers, their memories distanced and then set aside as her part of the family assimilated fully into settler culture.

The ethics of her actions preoccupy Glenn. As someone born seamlessly into settler privilege, are the stories of these foremothers she uncovers hers to tell? How shall she treat them?

Glenn resolves her dilemma at least in part formally, by carefully composing a complex documentary and poetic text in which her own is only one of many voices, and in which photographs, maps, songs and objects play an important part.

Ultimately, Glenn’s careful attention to detail and to the “grief and responsibility that come with difficult knowledge,” allows her to stitch together a document that serves as an important, category shattering and timely revision of a century and a half of Canadian history. What if we are all kin, Glenn asks. What if we all counted? What if settler histories of Canada were reread for the papered-over remains of Métis pasts; how then would Anglo-Canadian selfhood read? Would all settlers also be Métis?

Of course, Glenn says, and of course not. “I am a fleck of [my ancestors’] dreaming, walking in the ruins alive.”

Tracing some of the many and changing varieties of racial distinction deployed in Canada since the late 18th century—citations of racial taxonomies and regulation weave in and out of the poem—Glenn concludes, “where distinctions of race are concerned, there is still only power.”

Her task then, as an implicated “settler-narrator,” is to attend to the workings of power, to unravel and come to recognize its structures, but never to bow to it. At the end of Following the River, Glenn paraphrases a line of Grace Paley’s as a way of laying claim to the feminist, genealogical stakes of her own work: “when you illuminate what’s hidden, that’s a political act.”

Surely illuminating what is hidden in this way, by bringing together historic shards and allowing each to shed light upon the other, isn’t only a political, feminist or nationalist project. It is also, philosophically speaking, a part of what poetry does best: acknowledging fragmentary understanding and broken bits of knowledge as fragments, not wholes.

Frustratingly perhaps, for those who want to trace the shortest distance between here and there, poetry never turns on all of the lights so that the whole night is illuminated, but rather slowly probes the darkness with fingers, nose, ears, tongue, footsteps, intuition, dreams and narrow flashlight beams, picking out first one element and then another, coming to understand each of them as they sit in their obscured surroundings.

Faunics (a title in which we should also hear “phonics), a collection of philosophically linked short poems by Jack Davis nearly twenty years in the making, takes the processes of such fragmentary illumination as both its method and theme. In particular, Faunics is concerned with the philosophical limits that inquiries driven by language place on human understanding.

What are the ways that the non-human natural world bespeaks itself; how may we, who have so thoroughly unlearned how to listen, begin to hear not simply what we make of the stone, but also how the stone pushes back? In spare, carefully shaped poems, Davis traces the echoes of things, objects and lives that may be learned, told or understood without words. Indeed, often Davis writes what I am tempted to call anti-poems: poems that turn the functions of naming and describing inside out, so that the words on the page are not there to make plain what we or the poet know and see. Instead, the few words on each page point us toward the blank spaces around them, which indicate how impoverished our words are and how much we do not and cannot know with and through them.

There is philosophical and poetic rigour here—along with a great deal of environmental concern and plenty of jokes about one creature donning a costume of another and running about in the woods, which is more or less an admission of the impossibility and ridiculousness of the task Davis has set himself. Nevertheless, is any future at all imaginable if we cannot learn to attend to what and how the non-human environment knows and speaks?

Davis suggests that poetry offers us a method for knowing as not-knowing, flash by flash, a laughably tiny but necessary remedy against the overweening and destructive hubris of that all-too-knowing creature, Homo sapiens.

“Loss is using us as bait,” Sue Goyette writes in Penelope in First Person, a long poem that takes as both subject and form the figure of Penelope at her loom weaving and un-weaving as she waits, year after year, for Ulysses to come home. As with her 2013 collection, Ocean, in Penelope Goyette nods to and then utterly transforms key tropes of Atlantic poetry, in part by suffusing them with a feminist consciousness.

Penelope is a long-suffering wife waiting for her seafaring husband to come home. We know that he has taken other lovers, but has she? We know that he has encounters with goddesses, hears things that he shouldn’t hear, and that he contends with metamorphic forces that transform his men into beasts and confuse his senses, but has she? What do such experiences look like when seen from Penelope’s room and loom?

Built of 70 ten-line stanzas, each of which is, like a tapestry, structured by variation bound to repetition, Goyette’s poem works to alter what counts as Penelope’s story. Every stanza begins with some sort of awakening—“I wake to another version;” “I wake to another day;” “I wake hungover;” “I wake to goddess;” “I wake up mortal.”

Most stanzas also ring a variation on a claim to know, a claim that isn’t really a claim: “If I know the shore, it’s about low tide;” “If I know anything it’s about saltwater and this new tide of tears;” If [Odysseus] knows anything, it’s about/ the passing of time.” Bit by bit the narrative of the poem—an account of Penelope’s impossible wait—is built by such ravelling of the 10 line form: now it is done; she knows what she thinks; she knows what she knows; now it is undone.

Penelope in First Person is not simply a sly feminist version of that great big epic daddy of a poem, The Odyssey. By giving us short poems that we may recognize as weavings, Goyette enables us to see that even the Odyssey is built upon such a loom. Indeed the paradigm for poetry might not be a journey, but the textile arts, which is to say, often, “women’s work:” repetition with a difference that, bit by bit, makes a difference.

Now I am well past my word limit and I have not gotten to Joelle Barron’s re-workings of Persephone and other myths as rape narratives, nor their rites of healing; I’ve neglected Allan Cooper’s Atlanticization of Asian and Sufi traditions; the specifics of Brian Bartlett’s critical writing on poetry and his experiments with writing prose by water; the two-handed bicoastal exchanges of Sean Wiebe and Celeste Snowber; Gerri Frager’s mixing of pottery, landscape and poetry, and Abena Beloved Green’s poems of protest, praise and prayer that blend African immigrant experience with Africadian, African Canadian and African American experience, literature and history.

Nevertheless, I hope that even this brief list helps to underline the point that what characterizes contemporary poetics at the margins of the Atlantic isn’t any particular theme, style or approach, so much as a wakeful attention to thinking and making at the edges of perceptibility and possibility.

Written By

Karin Cope is a poet, sailor, Photographer, videographer, writer, activist, blogger and Associate Professor at NSCAD University. Her publicatins include scholarly works, popular histories and poetry. Her poetry collection, What we're doing to stay afloat, was published in 2015.

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Atlantic Poetics

The maddening and delightful heterogeneity of contemporary Atlantic Canadian poetry
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