Here is Where We Disembark
November 4, 2013
Review By David Stouck
In her first novel, Hetty Dorval, Ethel Wilson identifies genius loci, the spirit of place, as both a guardian deity (“an incalculable godling”) and the home-shaping presence of landscape. For poets Clea Roberts and Kuldip Gill the genius of place arises from a conflation of memory and history with their physical senses and the geography they inhabit.
Clea Roberts’ strong debut collection is divided into two parts. In Part 1 there is a muted human drama of relocation to the far north of British Columbia and the Yukon, a difficult adaptation during “a year that ruined and saved us,” and a chilling vision that “home is irrelevant” if one considers that each day’s light and warmth has taken a million years to reach us. But the real focus is the northern land and its seasons and creatures, not seen as a set of symbols for a human story but as animate and important in themselves. The poems are arranged in a cycle of the seasons, dominated by incalculable Winter, who “carved small caves” in human hearts, “pulled his boots off,” and “called up / for more snow” (27). There is more anthropomorphizing – “ice floes whisper,” a last poplar leaf “conducts the wind” – but these figures empower rather than trivialize or demonize nature. In an ecological reversal the human world is irrelevant and insubstantial: “fences run like erratic statements / supported by unreliable facts” while “the harrier hawk pauses to hover and pluck mice from the field, / … the white-tailed deer peruses / our vegetable gardens at night” (58). In “Fool Hen, Ruffed Wood Grouse,” Roberts makes her identification clear. The speaker escapes to the woods, but there she recognizes that her heart is not broken but perches in a spruce tree, cocks a black eye, “becomes a bird again.”
In Part 2 the speaker’s northern experience is historically grounded in fourteen “two-headed” poems from the Klondike Gold Rush. There is an array of speakers in dialogue, including a river, a salmon, a wolf, and a fire. Accordingly, there is more than human truth in these poems for, as the last speaker observes, “you never know / when you’ll need / a different ending” (100). The great pleasure in what Don McKay calls these “frostbitten brevities” is that of place rendered artfully in a fresh language of essences. The northern lights appear twice: first as “a slow, green whip” and then in the collection’s most flamboyant figure as “a dog doing improbable tricks. / The backwards flip, the tap dance, / the spontaneous operatic, all the more believable / than the myth of night” (55).
Here is Where We Disembark
By Clea Roberts
Calgary: Freehand Books, 2010. 104 pp. $16.95 paper