Went along to the Lark on Wednesday to listen to Pete Hay in conversation with Laurie Brinklow and Deirdre Kessler, on the notion (what else?) of islandness.
The Lark readings: Pete Hay, Laurie Brinklow and Deirdre Kessler—Wed 27th October
One of the Tasmanian Writers’ Centre’s feature events for 2010 was a reading with local writer and environmentalist Pete Hay speaking with visiting Canadian writers Deirdre Kessler and Laurie Brinklow at the Lark, in Hobart in October. It’s always a pleasure to listen to Pete Hay. ‘Here in Tasmania’ – ‘this is my signature complaint’ he adds with a wry grin – ‘here in Tasmania when you turn on the television news the weather forecaster comes on and says “It’s raining across the state”. Now the state is a constitutional fiction. The state is the police stations, and the public schools and the roads and the government offices and the parliament. So it’s raining on those things, but what about the rest of the island? This to me is the measure of the extent to which we haven’t come to grips with the geographical fact of islandness. When the weather forecasters start to say, “It is raining across the island….”, however …’ ‘On Prince Edward Island,’ Hay continued, ‘there is a very very strong island consciousness. Even when their poets write about oases in the desert, as Deirdre has done for a forthcoming issue of Island magazine, it’s an island trope that’s coming through.’ Is islandness at the forefront of the way Prince Edward Island writers think about themselves, he wondered? ‘Is there an island effect within the literature of Prince Edward Island? To what extent, he asked Deirdre and Laurie, is your own work island informed?’
‘Some of my poetry is island informed: very much so, the particular flora and fauna matter to me,’ insisted Deirdre Kessler. ‘But when I was living in that oasis in the desert in a two acre place called China Ranch, that was my island, and I learned all the flora and fauna, and the coyotes. I knew that place. My island poems are very much informed by the colour, by what’s living, by the historical past – but not other poems. I’ve written a poem set in Mexico, another set in the Red Centre of Australia, and both share a similar close identification with place. So I can’t help you here by making it all fit into a theory of islands.’
‘What does make it fit though is the fact that islanders are very cosmopolitan,’ added Laurie, ‘islanders have always been coming and going. It’s part of who we are as islands and islanders because otherwise we’d just die, we would stagnate if we didn’t have routes across the ocean or the strait, or roots dug deep into our island soil’. Laurie Brinklow says that as she’s become more alive to the realisation of Prince Edward Island as a wonderful place to write from, it’s infused her writing – even to getting the vernacular language down. ‘After twenty-seven years of living there, capturing the voices and the stories of the people there is coming into more and more my poetry.’ ‘This is how presumptuous I am,’ admitted Hay, on another tack. ‘I went to Prince Edward Island and gathered together a pile of locals and took them on a field trip of their own island. And I was confronting. I went into a forest and I said, I want everyone to stay together because there are black bear and elk and big cats, there are all sorts of dangerous critters in these woods, I don’t want to lose anyone. People looked at me and said, there are none of these animals here. And I said, Ah ha! Well there used to be. So now I want you to go into these woods and look for the absences.
‘They don’t, by and large, do that in Prince Edward Island.
‘Deirdre and Laurie know me well enough not to take umbrage here – and they were both on this field trip – but it seems to me in this important respect we are more mature here in Tasmania. We have looked the awfulness of the destruction of indigenous society much more squarely in the eye than they have on Prince Edward Island. We have thought more deeply about what it means to have destroyed the largest endemic form of animal life on this island. They haven’t done that – it seems to me – on Prince Edward Island. They have this dramatic past. We myth our own past, of course ? and we myth it wrongly. They myth their past ? I’m not lisping here ? they myth their past, and they also myth it wrongly. But we’re doing more about rectifying this, it seems to me, than Prince Edward Island is. Is that fair comment?’ ‘Yes I think so,’ Deirde replied. ‘Perhaps this is a good time to read the poem that’s dedicated to you. Pete took us on that field trip, Laurie and I and about nine others all crammed in a van. This poem was written the day after the field trip.’
Come from away: 40° South looks at 46° North
for Pete Hay
This clear-blue-eyed, unfeathered one
from 40 degrees south latitude
takes us into our own woods,
passes along a question from Barry Lopez:
How does birdsong ramify?
And then he dares to ask us
to see not only what is present,
but also what is missing.
In the matchstick forest,
kinglets flit among the spruce,
give us high descending notes
a handful at a time,
the sound as delicate
as their wren-sized bodies.
Chickadees up the ante, and a red squirrel,
whittling a spruce cone,
considers hitting the chatter alarm,
but lets bluejays trump the soundscape.
Distant crow, distant baseline
of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
One of our troupe stoops to pet the furry hide
of spaghnum moss, spring green no matter the season.
On a windfall, a gob of witch’s butter, dayglo yellow.
Here and there, red-capped Russula emetica,
baby-girl pink, and clown-ears of wood fungus
lurk knee-high up trunks.
Grey-green spanish moss, drips from conifers,
feather-touch on shoulder, back of head.
Hair on hair.
Water in a sudden spring
bubbles up from an aquifer
through the fine silt of story,
layers going clear down to Glooscap,
Abenaki and Mi’kmaq, the People.
Beaver have intentions–this is real estate
in their purview, adjoining barachois pond
already too crowded. Earlier this year,
on a winter walk, we heard insistent mewing
of the kits under the dome of lodge;
now the young ones help gnaw two fine white birches,
soon to lie across the bubbling spring,
another layer, another story.
The Taswegian moves us along to an Acadian fishing village,
his radar sharp: something’s happening.
On the wharf, a crowd has gathered; television camera
turning three bluefin tuna into news.
Inside a boat sling-shed, a man, surname Gallant
or Richard or Arsenault, hands and knife
of his great-grandfather, guts one bluefin.
Already in a plastic bin, her opalescent head
kisses her tailfin; entrails a delicate pink
that should never be seen, and, fresh
the blood, the seawater-blood perfume,
then from a fat hose well water gushing
from wrong openings in her body,
blood and sea washed away from the hollowed-out being.
Bloodsmell in my nose and brain,
my own fluids returning the call, kin to kin,
and indelible, now, the curve of fin, structure
of gills, smooth, black perfection of skin.
The forklift operator clenches, and the second
northern bluefin, weighed, ready for gutting,
slips from the sling. She was never meant for air.
“That one goes 650 pound.” A bystander knows–he’s
fished since before metrification. See the weather
in his face, in his sea-water-thickened fingers.
The come-from-away guide moves us on
to an almost hidden graveyard farther along
the north shore of Abegweit, Minagoo, Île St Jean,
St. John’s Island, Prince Edward Island.
A nor’easter, perfect storm, early October 1851,
The Yankee Gale. Sailors’ bodies layered
on the cold bones of first landowners;
shipwreck story nearly lost, almost
as lost as clacking antlers of moose and caribou,
growl of black bear-what is missing
from this island in a gulf in the North Atlantic Sea.
In the scrub spruce and bayberry,
marram and goldenrod, up comes the song of birds,
bank swallow, song sparrow, signifying,
ramifying upwards and horizontally–
song over the shore field, in and around,
twining, weaving, connecting, then gone.
And, oh, how we must claw back, break
tooth and nail, or sink sadly under.
‘That was inspired by Pete Hay, taking us into our own woods,’ Deirdre concluded.
‘That’s right, what gall,’ Hay responded. ‘But I love that island. It has the same dark dramatic history that we have. I love it.’