The East Coast means different things for those who live there and those who only visit¨for the tourist it's the sea, for the residents, their way of life. It is a region where "industry" implies not only husbanding re-sources on both land and sea, but also an attitude, an approach to the habit of living and the business of surviving the privations of climate and the persistence of memory. Like any region¨rural or urban, east or west, past or present¨it has the ability to shape you or swallow you whole. We think of the Atlantic Provinces as sea-bound and fog-shrouded, and rarely think of the land that supports or breaks its people. Like the beach grasses that help hold Sable Island together, people here put down roots in very hard soil. As Harry Thurston writes in "Marram", one of the poems in this new East Coast anthology, "They wish to make of the dust of the air and the sands of the sea something permanent, which cannot be constantly harried, like motes, nor carried by currents, rootless as the tumbling plankton."
But just how does a landscape affect the writers who dwell in it? "The literary pastoral tradition," writes Brent MacLaine in his introduction to Landmarks, "remains a fertile one for the poetic imagination and continues to find a contemporary voice." Coming to a collection of poems about "the land" when that land has such character in the national conscience, you naturally want to know what is so unique in the voices of its writers. Does a landscape as varied and dramatic as that of the Atlantic Provinces¨salt marsh and mountain bog, gentle river valleys, stony barrens and cracked granite cliffs¨actually shape its own poetic voice?
These are pertinent questions in approaching this collection of 87 new, unpublished poems by 50 contemporary writers from, or with strong ties to, the Atlantic Provinces. With no more than two or three pieces by each poet, this is not an anthology to showcase individual poets so much as to present the poems themselves. The collection is arranged in alphabetical order by poet, rather than in any thematic or chronological order. Given this presentation, there's a wonderful weird progression at work here, with one poem playing against the next in subtle ways. Tammy Armstrong's opening reminiscence of stacking firewood with her sister leads directly into Brian Bartlett's look at the memories caught in highly-polished wood grain. Joe Blades, Lesley Choyce, Sue MacLeod, Annie Hayes and Robin McGrath strew, throughout the book, echoes of the discovery of things left behind in the earth. Crows, herons, foxes, seals, gulls, rabbits, even hummingbirds personify both land and attitudes in poem after poem. You could read this book as one long hymn to the struggle "against the process of forgetting" as Matt Robinson writes in "Winter Felt". This emphasis on memory, on the past, is what gives the book a shape, almost a narrative.
Don't come to this anthology expecting to taste salt spray in the wind, to see fishing boats bobbing at sunset, or to hear quaint characters with odd ways of speech standing around the lighthouse. In Landmarks the poems take the land itself, not the sea and rarely its edges, as its subject. You will find the red earth of Prince Edward Island ("He slices into the sodden earth; mud wells up / as red as blood"); the primeval mountains of Newfoundland ("Earth's mantle upflung, / Sea floor out-facing the sky"); the well-settled St. John River Valley ("The movement of the river is like a parable / told over and over again so that its meaning / is a polished stone"); the marsh dykes of Acadian Nova Scotia ("these lovers rise drowned creatures from the undertow / to embrace their lost inheritance"). Stones and seasons, trees, animals, birds, hard work and ancestors provide the grounding for this collection.
Keep in mind, though, that the book is called Landmarks, not ŠLandscapes'. Whether it is Sue MacLeod's grandmother's well where "They threw in the kerosene lantern. / The long black night. / The silence," or an unmovable boulder in the middle of Robin McGrath's garden, an imago for the land and the work of creation itself, or Thomas O'Grady's "X mark on a land agent's / ledger, the only sign my grandfather's / grandfather left behind," it is these landmarks, these points of orientation, that, as MacLaine says in the Introduction, "organize the wilderness" and try to show us "where and how to find meaning."
With rare exceptions, these poems are written in a common, anecdotal, conversational style, not with brilliant metaphor or haunting imagery, but with the plainness and simplicity suggestive of the land itself, its metaphors largely relating to coming to terms with the past¨there is an abundance of poetry here which tells of digging up the detritus left behind by ancestors, of encounters with the totems of fox and bird, of leaving (or not) one's own marks on the land.
The same effect that gives the book its seemingly single identity is its greatest weakness. By and large, the poems could almost have been written by a single anonymous hand¨ worse, that writing could have come as easily from Calgary as from Corner Brook. There's nothing that sounds unique, nothing to lift you from the murmur of other Canadian poetry written from anywhere else. You come away from this collection with little sense of what it is like to be under the spell of this land. These poems could have been written from the farmlands of Southern Ontario, along the banks of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, or in the orchards of the Okanagan valley in B.C. As Sue MacLeod writes in "Where You Begin": "Swoop like the gulls. / It doesn't matter which roof / you light on."
"Amid the chaos, confusion, and uncertainties of daily life, poems can show us where and how to find meaningÓThey orient us." The ways in which this meaning is discovered through poetry have to do with intensity of speech, bright sharp language, the language of the human spirit as it moves through and tries to come to accommodation with the wild, the landscape. And there is precious little that lifts off the page in this collection. What you tend to hear is really only one mind¨nostalgic, inward, self-reflecting, meditative¨rather than the lively gabble of a kitchen party or the leap of the heart confronted with wildness or unearthing some lost traces of family history. Shauna McCabe, in "Stream Trinity" writes: "where mill stream / meets field / where water / meets land / where silver / meets gold / where blood / meets flesh / and where one ends / and the other begins/ becomes indistinguishable." Too many of the poems here are indeed indistinguishable from the drone of most poetry published elsewhere in Canada.
There are exceptions to the drone¨the bright and rocking villanelle "Crows" by Carole Langille ("What shall we do with a murder of crows / in Kentville?"); the inflected rhythms of the Caribbean in George Elliot Clarke's "Haligonian Market City" ("I got hallelujah watermelons! ű virginal pears! ű virtuous corn"), and in his "Reading Titus Andronicus in Three Mile Plains, N.S.", which uses intense language to show how language itself can galvanize you as you find your voice and stride. Lesley Choyce, in "On Digging My First Well", also uses the land as an approach to faith and a marker of something deeper than personal history.
Some of the stronger poems in Landmarks, like Harry Thurston's "Marram" and Thomas O'Grady's "Some Left a Name Behind Them", approach time and history in an examination of the natural and social forces of setting down roots in a tough environment, one that can shape you to its likeness at the same time as it abrades and begins to wear that likeness down. As Aaron Schneider concludes in "Cape Breton, North Shore": "It's always the same, / black flies reign, spruce conquer. / We hold the edge / but yield the interior."
But even in the examples quoted through this review, you can barely detect an accent. We're taken down the same old path, and as pleasant as it is, it has been well-tended and travelled. There is a different music in the distinct voices of each of these four provinces, and you really wish that would show up in the writing. It doesn't. The language, fully capable in everyday speech of reflecting a character where life has somewhat different bounds, becomes in its distillation into poetry almost an institution. As Wanda Campbell puts it in "Seven Songs for Six Birds" it feels like "standing on holy ground / still wearing shoes."
Landmarks¨buildings, natural features, or the marks you make on the land itself ű guide you toward your goal, tell you who might have come before you, or simply locate you between here and there. The poems in this collection tell of the process of discovering such landmarks, even if they are not distinct enough to serve as such markers themselves. ˛