Tom Hodd - Issue 110

Descending like Salt-Water Tongues

The death of "regionalism" has arrived. With the recent publication of Mitcham and Quigley’s anthology, Poetic Voices of the Maritimes(Lancelot Press, 1996), scholars can no longer deny the presence of a unique and thriving poetic Maritime community; for within this small geographical semblance dwells a muse unencumbered by myths of rustic living, refusing to be led by those Romantic notions of shanties, unions and lobster traps so cherished by tourists and academics.

And the number of "salt-water tongues" who speak of particular Maritime locations is inspiring: from New Brunswick, Kay Smith, Heather Browne Prince, Alden Nowlan, Liliane Welch, Fred Cogswell, Elizabeth Brewster; from Nova Scotia, Eric Trethewey, George Elliott Clarke, Lesley Choyce, Don Domanski, Maxine Tynes; from Prince Edward Island, Lesley-Anne Bourne, Milton Acorn, Richard Lemm, John Smith merely a sample of the wealth and range of poetic styles found in these three provinces.

The present survey looks at five Maritime poets, three of whom are included in Mitcham and Quigley’s anthology: Alfred G. Bailey’s The Sun the Wind the Summer Field (1996) is a blend of coastal imagination and Modernism; Heather Browne Prince’s Knowledge in the Hands (1994) speaks of a presence in Nature more deeply interfused; Fred Cogswell’s The Problem With Light (1996) explores the value of tradition; Lilianne Welch’s Life in Another Language(1992) demonstrates the overpowering influence of her European roots through prose poetry; and Eric Trethewey’s The Long Road Home(1994) captures the intricacies of Maritime culture through simplicity, honesty and insight.

Though the collections vary in their respective explorations of landscape, each poet expresses an undeniable longing for communion with nature, themselves and with others.


As M. Travis Lane suggests in her Introduction to The Sun the Wind the Summer Field (1996), Alfred G. Bailey’s debt to High Modernism is readily apparent. Indeed, Bailey’s attention to what Eliot calls the "historical sense" in literature provides readers with a powerful poetic rendering of the Maritime landscape. But the collection is much more than the adoption of any "mythological method." Often approaching a Romantic sensibility, these poems speak of the "mysterious ways of transcendence," of the landscape as a vehicle for poetic imagination; they are the contemplation of historical and geological significance, the illumination of Nature experienced.

Time is a prominent theme in this collection. Bailey often evokes individuals and moments from history, adding his own poetic interpretation of the events to heighten the importance of such moments. Poems like "Quebec, Citadel, 1914", "In Memory of Beresford Scott..." and "Kingdom of Saguenay" bring such poignancy and detail to the past that names and places transcend the flat heavy facts of the history book. And the images found therein are highly reminiscent of Eliot’s poetic landscapes: "St. Ursule Street, the playing field, / the slopes that bank the Citadel / ring hollow as a passing bell" ("In Memory of Beresford Scott..."). Other poems reflect this intellectual strain of imagery as well, approaching at times the realm of the metaphysical: "crescendos in the still / air seem falling / like crests of waves a beach undoes" ("The Sun the Wind the Summer Field"). Such dense Modernist images ultimately empower Bailey’s poems with an ability to "communicate before they are understood."

But it is still the landscape which prevails over Bailey’s work, a landscape wrought with the scars and influence of time,

			. . .artifacts
  that he could not identify with certainty- 
  but could not escape-things that seemed himself,
  the substance of his heart’s geometry. ("Black Sails")

This unalterable connection between past and present seeks to uncover those "artifacts" of landscape integral to the speaker’s identity.

Although this "historical sense" of place is daunting at times to the speaker, it can also exist as a place of refuge. Bailey’s artistic temperament is that of a real-life David Canaan, able to impose his imagination onto the landscape, transforming the coastal scene into a poetic paradise:

  When we get to Baie St. Paul,
  on any boat that goes that way,
  we will know, and be quite certain
  it’s as though we passed a curtain
  about a certain time of day.
  It’s as though the noon and all
  the dead airs stayed behind.  ("Sea Change")

In "Figures of Time," Bailey writes that "a script is useful to reclaim the sense / of place and earth." Though his poems often speak of specific Maritime locations and coastal scenes, Bailey’s The Sun the Wind the Summer Field captures more than a sense of the Maritime imagination: his poetic presentation of the landscape transcends its own locality to encompass a sensibility that is uniquely Canadian.


Like Bailey’s collection, Heather Browne Prince’s Knowledge in the Hands (1994) is also attentive to the Maritime landscape; but what makes Prince’s perspective especially different from Bailey’s is the feminine sensibility she brings to her experiences with Nature and its creatures, a sensibility which, in some respects, makes the poetry more inviting to the reader.

The collection is divided loosely into two sections, the second of which is a long poem, A White Gift. The poems which make up the first section do not, however, lessen the power of A White Gift; on the contrary, they provide a poetic prefatory note, establishing a tone and use of imagery that will culminate in the lines of Prince’s long poem. The images in these poems, moreover, are highly emotive, relying chiefly on the senses of touch and sound to create highly charged metaphors:

  Your back is the rock where I mouth
  Ribbed lines, and kiss the keeled leaf,

  Draw and place my tied lips in the small
  Sweet foaling sweep, bury my busied ear.
  ("Back Talk")

Harnessed by an economy of phrase, Prince’s sensual energy is focused sharply through a unique lense of observation, creating lines and images which explode in the imagination of her readers. It is an energy she draws from Nature, often relying on the element of fire to empower her verse:

  Here the smell of burning and scorched skin.
  Ash, the body of our hands.
  The long red line draws down the arm:
  longer than hatred. ("Here is the Smell of Smoke")  

Knowledge in the Hands encompasses the spark of all life; and it is these poetic manifestations of desire, anger and death which make Prince’s poetry so compelling and enlightening to her readers.

Prince also brings a feminine perspective to the landscape, often equating the female with the forces of nature: "Annabelle Hydrangea," for example, personifies a plant to demonstrate the "tough love" attitude the female speaker must take to ensure the plant’s growth; "Loon" or "Grieving his wife" are even more poignant in their depiction of female as landscape: "He spills a shovelful of earth over the bulbs. / And works the brown earth as he had her breasts" ("Grieving his wife").

But the true joy of Prince’s collection is the long poem A White Gift.Winner of the 1990 Alfred G. Bailey Award, this moving piece is a sensual narrative of discovery, rhythmically spaced to deepen the imagery. Even more extraordinary is the repetition of lines and phrases throughout the poem, resonating in the mind and ear of the reader while fusing landscape with body: "The sound is sealed / in the body / of wood; held in the grain". More than good poetry, A White Gift is a poetic mantra, moving readers ever closer to a moment of spiritual ecstasy: "We have no body here; no business to keep. / We thrash our skirts and move our feet; / these are the things we speak."

If Knowledge in the Hands speaks of anything then it speaks of talent, for it invites readers to envision and experience the power of communion through Nature. Heather Browne Prince’s collection is a wondrous blend of emotion and sensuality, molded to perfection through the timeless art of good writing.


Fred Cogswell has long been a force in Canadian Literature, and his latest collection of verse reflects the confidence of a poet at home in his craft: The Trouble With Light (1996) is Cogswell’s poetic "call to arms," stressing the value of traditional moral and literary standards as he expresses the emotions of a man confronted by mortality.

The collection reads like a series of reflections on the finite nature of relationships and the passing of life’s stages. Each poem, while describing the struggles of a man at a cross-roads, is tendered with wisdom, crafted with the strength of traditional verse forms so that the simplicity of the verse belies its power of introspection: "The greatest bliss my heart has ever known / Came not in all those days when I was alone / But in rare moments when I was one of two" ("Locations"). This focus on relationships and communion figures prominently in the collection: some poems lament the loss of union while others express a longing for individuality; still other poems reflect the speaker’s innate fear of losing "self": "Give me a shape that I can call my own / Whose place is not a footstool nor a throne / But a clear window and a windowsill" ("Don’t Take Me Over").

What ultimately strikes the reader is Cogswell’s attention to form: his use of sonnets, villanelles, epigrams, and pavans (among others) demonstrates a devotion and attention to controlled poetic expression. His verse is tight and sometimes quite witty: "Found Poems: Irreverent," for example, is a short burst of religious double entendreswhile the quatrain "On Hearing Heavy Metal" expresses the whimsical, yet conservative mentality of a man who prefers "silences sublime" over the "sonic hell" of modern music. There is also a series of villanelles dedicated to different times of the day, the first of which is presented as a reply to Dylan Thomas’s "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Goodnight": "Love, love the coming of the light / And raise your eyes to greet the sun. / What matter that it sets at night?" ("Morning Hymn"). The consciousness behind these poems is a traditional one, a banner which Cogswell is not afraid to wave:

  The lip that sneers at form for being old
     is out of synch with mine:
  Only a strong and well-wrought glass should hold
     creation’s finest wine. ("Form")

Fred Cogswell’s faith in strict verse form finds fruition in The Trouble With Light. The poetry broken from such molds challenges the post-modern precept that tradition is a dying art and reminds us of the strength of our literary roots, invariably displaying a self-confidence most poets can only dream of achieving.


Lilianne Welch’s latest collection, Life in Another Language (1992), is very learned, summoning forth a plethora of literary allusions and aesthetic knowledge to deepen the poetry. A series of prose poems, this collection strains the poetic and narrative line, capturing on paper the emotional paralysis of individuals torn between responsibility and desire, a tension no doubt heightened by the poet’s own longing for her European homeland.

The first section examines those all-too-familiar trappings of social responsibility. "A Family Man," for example, speaks of the beginnings of a mid-life crisis while other poems, such as "Therapy" or "The Wait" explore the notion of self-esteem and the inability to call up inner strength: "The woman who loved him couldn’t even keep him. / His sense of things fractures. He stays seated and the train to return home leaves without him" ("The Wait"). What is mostly sought for by these people, however, is emotional and spiritual freedom:

                 . . .What freed her was the
  premonition that the made world of daily duties 
  had a strange glow, that if you let it fly like 
  a kite, it swooped outside approval,
  between love and pain. ("Outside Approval")

The second and third sections of this collection move into a European consciousness, turning chiefly to artistic subjects, referring to the Symbolist poets, to Ezra Pound, to Marianne Moore, to Odysseus, to Jason and the Argonauts or to Orpheus. Presented through the offsetting medium of prose poetry, Welch’s aesthetic blending of lore with literature lifts readers to the threshold of myth, simultaneously grounding us in distinctly reflexive verse. The resulting poetry is highly provocative:

  Summer tints, northern fog on the page. 
  Pavese calls poetry a joy where you speak 
  at once alone and to a crowd. He leans so much
  into my thoughts I hunger for fruit-heavy trees.
  Pavese also told Natalia Ginzburg that cherries 
  tasted of sky. I mull over Janus the god who
  opens and closes roads. The sky becomes my story. 
  ("Ripe cherries")

What will strike readers most about this collection is its reflection of a European consciousness: "North, Deep Inside," for example, is perhaps the only poem in the collection which includes the Canadian landscape. Other poems, like "The Best Exile" or "Fifty-third Birthday" begin in Canada, only to have the speaker muse on the country’s place in reference to Europe: "The Halifax airport has a unique location. Westward the woods / stretching to the New Brunswick marshes and eastward, the / Atlantic pouring into the Mediterranean" ("The Best Exile"). Life in Another Language, then, seems to break away from the accepted stereotype that a maritime writer is characterized by her choice of subject matter, presenting readers with a unique poetic voice that pleases our imaginations and baulks at cultural expectations.


Of the five collections reviewed, Eric Trethewey’s The Long Road Home (1994) best exemplifies a "maritime sensibility." His poems are local, familiar and honest; a series of narrative poems which focus on the lower middle-class, offering solace against a world of hardship and financial struggle. But Trethewey’s depiction of Maritime life is more than the cry of the downtrodden. There is a paradoxical sense of community which characterizes these poems: though wishing for a better life, the speaker finds strength in the universality of his troubles, that there are others who share these hardships. And it is through Trethewey’s choice of detail and image that the humble virtues of Maritime life find a voice.

The collection is divided into five sections, the first and last sections titled "Leaving Suva" and "At Home" respectively. This attention to narrative reflects the general theme of The Long Road Home, that life is a journey, a search for understanding: "No standing still, / we are here with Heraclitus, air above / the roadway aquaver like roadworn hearts" ("The Long Road Home"). This is the voice of a man struggling to find direction along the transient road of life.

Most of the poems in The Long Road Home, then, deal with recognition and awakenings on the part of the speaker. The failings, the struggles of daily life and the need to be loved all become subjects for a speaker in search of identity. There is a prevailing sense of lament in this collection; oftentimes the speaker reflects on the past, on his innocence, and on family members no longer present. Poems like "Soup" or "After Holding Out" describe a financial or emotional desperation on the part of its speakers; and in "Wait" and "The Cellar" the poet is haunted by the pain of separation: "The waves begin then, all the sad goodbyes, / and the two of them rise from the floor, drift / slowly out the window beyond the hem of light" ("Wait").

Despite such moments of despair, Trethewey also rejoices in life, inviting readers to partake of nature’s simple treasures:

  This morning, early, I wakened
  to a knocking at the pane-an apple bough,
  fruit-laden, stirred by wind-  
  and rose to the morning’s clear gift.
  ("At Home")

There is an unquestionable sense of hope and comfort attached to these lines. Perhaps even more refreshing is the lack of heavy description: these poems are "clear gifts" of experience, humble in scope but embracing in warmth and affection for life. Such pieces display a naturally charged reality, an imagination sensitive to unlikely poetic moments in the Maritime landscape; each poem is an emotional drop of honesty:

the bus crammed with lives
all leaning away from labour
toward a sense of what some things
are really worth: quiet rooms,
or cold beers on the steps
while children play in dwindling light.
("Evening Shift")

David Adams Richards, in his Introduction to The Long Road Home, compares Trethewey to the likes of Alden Nowlan-a fitting comparison indeed. But like any good poet, Trethewey displays an artistic sensibility that reaches far beyond the bounds of any geographical mentor: "A Student Speaks of Companions," for example, reminds one of Margaret Atwood’s "Footnote to the Amnesty Report on Torture" published some fifteen years previous; and even more remarkable is Trethewey’s poem "Near Dawn," most certainly an echo of James Wright’s "A Blessing." Despite such worldly comparisons, there is a sense that Trethewey is simply "in search of local epiphanies" ("Reading The Signs").


This brief survey attempts to expose readers to a neglected area of Canadian poetry filled with talent. Maritime writing is eclectic, emotive and honest, paradoxically reaching beyond its coastal boundaries while maintaining a sense of tradition and community. No more is it "regional" in scope; Maritime literature is increasingly becoming a literature unto itself, a Pentecost of poetic voices moved by the spirit of salt-water tongues.