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Poetic debuts need to clear a space in an already crowded field. When a new voice is raised, it needs to be distinctive to gain a hearing. Voice is not merely a metaphor: poets increasingly have to take their work onstage at live readings and develop some kind of vocal persona. The Homeric epics were oral performances long before they were written down. Now, poems often exist in both dimensions of reading: aloud, and on the page.
But even in print, poetry still voices itself: poets invoke the muse, provoke with satire, evoke scenes and experiences. The voice should be individual, though paradoxically it is often heard in relation to the established voices the new poet has tried so hard to leave behind. To hear the new voice, audiences need to place it on their existing map of the poetic territory. Where is it coming from? How does it sound, and how does it resonate with its environment? Even in a globalized culture, nationality still counts, as do region and even city. But often the poet is speaking from (and about) away rather than home, and I dont just mean travel poems. When home is described, it is frequently seen as it was in the past, especially in childhood. The experience of dislocation, spatial or temporal, is often what produces the calling to write poetry in the first place, or rather, the second place.
Though all poetry relates to place, some is more tightly localized. The topographical poems of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are often devoted solely to evoking a specific locale. This could be a country house, as in Ben Jonsons To Penshurst or Andrew Marvells Upon Appleton House, and this tradition continues at least as far as Yeatss celebration of Lissadell. The Wordsworthian nature poem replaces the Big House with a peasant cottage or an uninhabited landscape, while Eliots Four Quartets articulate both a personal and a cultural heritage through description of four named places: Burnt Norton, East Coker, and so on.
Where are we now with poems of place? Some of the most interesting work lies between the travel poem (poet as visitor) and the domestic poem (poet as denizen or citizen). The conditions of modernity often lead to temporary stays, measured in months rather than the days of a visit or the years/decades of permanent residence. These sojourns (the French sejour sounds better) might be occasioned by a love affair, a short-term work assignment, or simply a retreat for writing. The sojourner knows more than the visitor, but is still an outsider to the locals. The debut volume reviewed here, Zachariah Wellss Unsettled, speaks from away, as the title indicates. The dialectic of home and away is highlighted by the poet himself: for example, in one of Wellss section titles, Location, Relocation, Dislocation.
For Wells the away is the Far North. A native of Prince Edward Island, he worked on Baffin Island and Cornwallis Island as an air freight handler. His book is not a travel notebook: he stays behind after the plane takes off. For many writers, either the remote settings or the unusual job would have provided enough novelty, but the combination here makes it doubly fascinating. A section of work poems, one dedicated to Buzz Hargrove, details some grim conditions: 80 below, wet boots, frozen fingers, frozen toes, frozen wages. Another section relates a work accident: Yesterday Joe got his foot smushed good. Others characterize co-workers, like Jake, a bull seal of a man with flipper-huge hands and a slung gut. These poems, written in vigorous demotic language, evoke a tough, hard-drinking, masculine world, where the Arctic environment is present as harsh conditions rather than beautiful scenery.
But later in the volume, the focus shifts from manual labour and colloquial language to Northern landscape and introspection: sky land and sea elide/-horizons conflate/in the seamless white. In several poems the narrator turns back from this encounter with the void and heads back to town, as if the working community still has his allegiance rather than the more poetic snowfields: we burned all our metaphors to stay warm. Still, the poet as sojourner does not belong to this community any more than he does to the snow and ice. He cannot escape introspection and isolation by staying in the bar and the workplace. He has lost his former community without gaining a new one. He laments this in his farewell to the North: O land, you have dispossessed me./ Can I ever again claim the name of home?
Eliots original title for The Waste Land was He do the police in different voices (itself a quotation from Dickens). Wells can do the North in different voices. Yet this volume encompasses soliloquy as well as ventriloquy. A distinct individual voice lingered in my ear after reading this book, despite the poets claim: O land, you have severed me from myself. The voice is rueful, ironic, sharply observant, but always strong, as it moves between the colloquial (Wells is good at catching the syntax and the vocabulary of spontaneous speech) and a more literary diction (he does not shrink from using poetic invocations like O land).
This debut is strong, and bodes well for the new generation of Canadian poets. It shows that the poetry of place continues to be vital-place as seen through a sojourns interval, rather than a visits brevity or half a lifetimes familiarity. This is a poetry of dwelling, of staying in a place long enough to experience relationship, community, and self-change, but not long enough to stop feeling unsettled.
Graham Good (Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada
Zachariah Wells is a native of Prince Edward Island. He has lived in Ottawa and Montreal and worked as an airline freight handler on Baffin and Cornwallis Islands. He currently lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.