These Fields Were Rivers

by Brent MacLaine
ISBN: 0864924046

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A Review of: These Fields Were Rivers
by Kevin Higgins

>From the cool green of its cover image to "the sea's sabotage of pasture" in the last stanza of "When Red Stone Falls" on page 104, Brent MacLaine's stark, well-mannered poems in These Fields Were Rivers are dominated by the landscape of the poet's native Prince Edward Island in a way that-to the outsider's eye at least-makes them seem quintessentially Canadian in a rather old-fashioned sense. At times, it's as if we are back in 1957, when Ralph Gustafson could happily claim in his introduction to The Penguin Book of Canadian Verse that:

"The specifics of contemporary Canadian poetry...add up into one word, north...We are hitched to the seasons-four sharp ones with no south to melt into. After-ice lockings, we dive into spring. Conditions are good for spare lyricism, metaphysical wit; for an essential stability; for the green from the white."

MacLaine can certainly turn out a mean spare lyric:

Very early on, I saw what wind and waves could do
to soil beneath the cliff-side spruce, its sprawling root
laid bare, its leaning there towards the sea
a little more each year.

The problem with this sort of contemporary pastoral lies less in the poetry itself (which in the above-mentioned case is first-class) than in the reactions it provokes in others, who don't know and aren't imaginatively engaged with the landscape of Prince Edward Island in the way that MacLaine clearly is. There are some who engage with this sort of poetry as if it were a kind of high-brow picture postcard. They have nothing to declare but their awe, before moving easily on without digging any deeper into the lives lived in the landscape described, like tourists who've just visited the Cliffs of Moher or the Mississippi Delta and taken a few photos.
Then there are those (some young, some not so young) Canadian poets who'll reject MacLaine's poetry out of hand, because it is exactly the sort of thing they want Canadian poetry to get away from being. In his introduction to Career Suicide! Contemporary Literary Humour, David McGimpsey declares:

"Given Canadian literature's reputation for high earnestness...for poems that start out with ten-page descriptions of family farms in the London, Ontario region, Canadian literary humour may sound like one of those "wondrous strange" rarities-like Shaquille O'Neill's Greatest Hits or a gourmet Scottish restaurant. I would brand of Canadian literature."

It's location may be Prince Edward Island rather than London, Ontario, but Brent MacLaine's poetry is exactly the sort of high-earnestness-in-a-rural-setting at which McGimpsey takes a well-aimed shot.
In Ireland, I have time and again heard young(ish) poets dismiss with the wave of a hand Seamus Heaney's work in its entirety because, particularly in his earlier work, he seems to them to be part of a ruralist tradition from which they are desperate to escape: when you want your poetry urban and witty, poems about digging potatoes in County Derry simply aren't were it's at. There is, of course, something almost Stalinist about this tendency to dismiss the work of poets who are imaginatively engaged by the rural landscape where they grew up, or in Brent MacLaine's case still live. This knee-jerk urbanist attitude sometimes leads to excellent poems being glibly tossed aside. It is, thankfully, an attitude most of us grow out of in time.
That said, as I read MacLaine's twelve poem Heaneyesque sequence, "The Story of My Land", I remembered that the urbanists do sometimes have a point:

Each time I look upon this stretch
of shore, these fields, I wonder how
it was before my time, my family's
time, before the settler-farmers
and the summer fishermen, before the coming
of the ship, before the Mi'kmaq even,
how the water would have tided in and out
before a human memory. What's beneath
this bungalowed patch of earth -
part farm, part fencing hedge, part wood
and marsh? Were I to dig, would I
unearth a memory? What record would
appear were I to pass the silty
soil through my sifting screen?

Apart from the fact that it's been done so often before, perhaps the biggest problem with this is that, most of the time, it's a little too overwhelmed by its own perceived significance to work hard enough at being poetry. The best poem by far in the sequence, which for MacLaine is clearly pivotal to the whole collection, is the excellent title poem "These Fields Were Rivers". Here, he finally lets go of his big idea and allows the words to do their magical thing: "Sometimes, these fields were rivers to be crossed, / my hands a prow parting waves of green grain / on my way to the kingdom of the raspberry wood..." MacLaine's talents are perhaps better suited to the short, sharp lyric than they are to the potentially grandiose sequence. Three of his shorter lyrics stand out from the rest: the brilliantly imagined "Soliloquy of an Opportunist", the erotically charged "Such Love Was Dangerous", and the exquisite "The Tennis Court's a Clean White Field": "though my boundaries / must still be there (in theory), / the meanness of their hard margins/ has gone completely soft..."

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