White Salt Mountain
by Peter Sanger
by Anchorage Press
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|A Bravura Of Sticks
by Jeffery Donaldson
Peter Sanger is quickly establishing himself as the go-to guy for maritime cultural history. Since publishing critical work on the poets John Thompson and Richard Outram, Sanger has focussed on a series of critical and creative projects on the Maritimes that are as Blakean in their visionary reach as they are exacting in their historical and geographical specificity. His on-going collaboration with the New Brunswick photographer Thaddeus Holownia brings us two new works, "Earth's Eye", which Sanger wrote for Holownia's collection of recent photographs of Walden Pond, and Arborealis, a magnificent collection of Sanger poems and Holownia landscape photographs of Gros Morne National Park on Newfoundland's north-western peninsula. Interspersed among these have been two creative/critical works, Spar (2002) and White Salt Mountain, that in themselves make a luxurious potpourri of memoir, travelogue, biography, history, literary theory, cultural archeology, adagia, and jeweller's-eye poetic analysis.
Given Sanger's affiliation with landscape photographers, it would come as no surprise that one of the principal questions in his work is "where is here?"¨a question Northrop Frye argued Canadians are particularly prone to asking. The 26 minutely textured, almost eidetic images of Newfoundland that Holownia has included in Arborealis offers a unique perspective on the question. One of the first black-and-whites is a conventional landscape: predominantly horizontal planes, grassy foreground, trees plush as corduroy, moon-faced mountain rock, wispy clouds that arch over the whole like a rainbow covenant. What catches your attention, though, is the shadow of the photographer himself thrown across the grass in the foreground. I thought immediately of Caspar David Friedrich's "Wanderer Over the Sea of Mists", that romantic landscape where the figure jutting into the middle of the canvas in the foreground, with his back turned to us, dominates the natural view that he himself is looking out towards so that we can't see it. The human gets in the way. But this is the only photograph where such a shadow falls. The majority of subsequent portraits also have something square in the middle of the canvas that "blocks" the view, but in these cases they are the mangled, twiggy, pocked, and otherwise demented trees of a grey Newfoundland landscape.
That seems a suitably Canadian answer to the German romantics, for whom the mind of man is a thousand times more beautiful than the earth on which he dwells. For us, nature is the background and the foreground too, in all its luxuriously etched reality, so that it obfuscates only deeper views of itself. But Holownia makes a more subtle point, for looking at a few of these you come to feel that the trees themselves recall human postures and personalities, the stooped elderly, the reaching destitute. Think of Lauren Harris's arctic mountains, those silken peaks that seem to rise from earth like human figures with all the dignity and swagger of Rodin's Balzac. It isn't so much that we see ourselves in nature, but that there is no nature that isn't also an expression of who we are and what we are made from. And so the trees in this book become compass points that a traveller might use for orientation on a journey more deeply into himself.
That is the point too of Sanger's lyrics in this book. His poems (each one made up of two five-line stanzas) have all the plumb heft of boulders that cobble together with sharp, succinct, almost unechoing stone-knocks:
What shall I name you
my juniper balm,
dewcatcher, anchor, claw?
Uncastable antler whose tines
have locked into stone
armature, arm, leaf, hand,
fruit of live voices fallen
in space to spring up again.
Looking for plum blossom in the snow,
these are magnitude's laws.
There is something almost verifiably Japanese about the evocation here, and not just in how it employs the stock imagery of tree, plum blossom, stone. There is much here that recalls classical oriental ink drawing, and it is nowhere as complementary to other art forms as in this volume where the poems usually lie face-en-face with Holownia's photographs. But I'm thinking especially of how the act of naming goes out and returns to us all in one breath, how it offers the illusion of being the thing itself while also invoking the breadth and scope of its own imaginative laws.
Throughout all these books, Sanger makes good use of the somewhat esoteric, but not unwarranted term "imaginal" to describe the particular debt that the imaginary owes to object and place, to minute observations and descriptive care. In his work "A Platonick Song of Soul" in 1647, Henry More wrote that "that inward life's th'impresse imaginall of Natures Art." That sense of nature having an art of its own and of that art making a palpable, perhaps even measurable, impression on the inward life matches well I think with Sanger's sense of how libraries are a kind of nature and nature a kind of library: "If thought is the marrow of mind, then books are among the mind's living bones."
Sanger's two critical works suggest perspectives of approach. If in Spar Sanger had his eye fixed on ground minutiae¨a piece of rock, the rusted artifacts of a shipyard, the wooden handle of a knife¨his latest contribution to maritime cultural orienteering, White Salt Mountain, rises from excavation to elevation. He moves from the tree-top lofty eagle eyries at the edge of his property to the longer geographical views of various mountain prospects, real and mythical, to the piecemeal navigation of provincial estuaries and waterways. Sanger looks in these various journeyings for the overview that will, among other things, return elements of earlier Canadian maritime culture to their rightful place.
One of the dominant motifs of the book has to do with the 18th-century New-French notion of the carry, i.e. that portion of land between two waterways over which a vessel must be transported by foot. Such stretches of land in Sanger's thinking have everything to do, figuratively and actually, with the gaps in our historical consciousness, the unspoken interstices on which we inevitably run aground in our searches for the refreshing, mythical or aboriginal, source. And that sense of carry has everything to do with the lift or suspension that we get from our poems and stories. The suspension is still grounded, labourious, and shoulder-hefted, but not time- or tide-bound, and not limited to our own narrow passages.
The sheer cliffs of the real White Salt Mountain can be found near the Yangtze River at the Qutang Pass in Central China. For the 8th-century poet Tu Fu, the mountain's sheer rise above the river became an occasion to reflect on other imaginative or spiritual ascents: "Firm, erect, above the mass of peaks; / Coiling roots piled at edge of water. / Other hills resemble heaps of mud, / You alone approach high heaven." Think of Shelley's "Mont Blanc" and of Wallace Stevens's "The Poem that Took the Place of Mountain" and you'll have some idea of how Tu Fu's lyric takes its place very near the front of a tradition that uses mountains as metaphors of spirit and myth, of an intensified imaginative consciousness whose heights are somehow distinct from actual experiences and yet rise strangely from them.
But what does all this have to do with the Maritimes? The poem was translated by Shanghai-born Florence Ayscough when she lived near St. Andrews, New Brunswick, in the 1920s (Sanger's persnickety sleuthing to establish this last fact, if you love good who-dunnits, is worth the book price alone), before she moved on to Guernsey for the remainder of her life. The final and, for this book, very important lines of the poem read, "I, the man writing poems have caught a beautiful phrase, / It carves, adorns the hill; who, however, will proclaim it?" This is of course as much a question of literary inheritance as it is a proclamation of spiritual insight, and clearly Ayscough is part of the answer to the question, being the modern translator of the same lines. But we read on and learn that those lines also happen to be alluded to in Ghazal XI by the poet John Thompson when he lived on his farm in Jolicure, near Sackville New Brunswick in the early 1970s: "On White Salt Mountain I heard a phrase carving the world." And so, with a kind of beguiling Jungian synchronicity, an actual geological formation in China and a poet who mythologised it become part of a carry that finds its way "here", wherever¨as a doubtful Canadian might say¨here is.
I suppose the nay-sayer might be apt to disqualify such a lineage for two reasons: that the geological formation mentioned is not actually "here", and that those who wrote about it, or alluded to it, were either not from "here" or were only passing through. Sanger has been particularly interested in the assumptions we make about what does and does not get to be considered indigenously Canadian. He himself became a resident in Nova Scotia in 1970, after spending many years elsewhere in Canada and in Australia and England; he has spent a good deal of his career championing the works of other immigrant or otherwise transient writers who made their homes in the Maritimes (Elizabeth Bishop and John Thompson in particular), and whose writing achievements may be seen as in some way resourceful or seminal in our understanding of Maritime literary culture.
I keep thinking back to the eagles at the beginning of the book, displaced by Hurricane Juan in 2003: their home "was an involute bravura of sticks, tree limbs, brushwood, driftwood and feathers." They had been in the area for several generations, but their time here was framed by a happenstance and accident beyond their ability to foretell or control. Like the eagles, we make our selves at home here, for a while, and what we make ourselves at home in has everything to do with what we build, though not necessarily out of bricks and straw: "What else are words but eyries?"
Sanger is a marvellous invoker of the genius loci, the spirit of a place and its inviolate ground in an actual archeology, from the eagle's nest on his property to a rock called by the Mi'kmaqs of Nova Scotia "Grandmother's Place", the story of which culminates the volume and offers us an allegory of the book's encompassing vision. Sanger and a friend whom he calls Ancaeus set out on the Shubenacadie to find the fabled rock reputed by the Mi'kmaqs to be an ideal fishing ground. Grandmother's Place is mentioned in Silas T. Rand's Legends of the Micmacs, published in 1847. Rand, a native of the province, had trained himself in Mi'kmaq and had spent several years gathering and transcribing Mi'kmaq legends that they might be preserved, or carried we might want to say. Not all of Rand's transcriptions were included in the book he published and, as synchronicity has it, Sanger himself has come upon one of these legends in an obscure archive at Acadia University in Wolfville and has set out to have it transcribed into phonetic English and then translated (the book will be published by Gaspereau Press in the near future).
The circle is drawn full when Sanger connects the figure of the grandmother in the rock to other Mi'kmaq stories as well as a variety of female Mi'kmaq archetypes like the Bear Mother; he then brings into the mix "The Great Bear" constellation and astronomy-based mythologies, and then grounds it all in a photograph that that none other than Florence Ayscough took of "La Grand MFre", one of three stone megaliths in Guernsey, whose antecedents are pre-Hellenic and related to the Nature Goddess. It's a breathless journey that reminds me of the serendipity of our current cyber age, where a message can bounce up to otherworldly satellites and then find its way back down into other hands. Everything is connected.
It would have been nice to find the rock on which the legend was based¨to retrace Rand's passage to its solid foundation, and find the aboriginal mythical stone on which our stories are based and from which they issue¨ just as it would be nice to find remains of the ark at the top of Mount Ararat, or the stone of Excalibur, so that we might stand and say with a certain confidence "we are here." But Sanger isn't out to prove anything, least of all that our Canadian "wherewithal" can be reduced to, or guaranteed by, a stone in a river. He understands that it was never really a spot on a map that he was trying to find in the first place, but the evasive circle in which where we are and what we say vanish into one another. His book is an allegory of what happens when we learn to look in the right places for the "here" that we need, one that for him moves both deeper into Nova Scotian geography and further backwards in time to the roots and inspirations of a now only precariously grounded aboriginal culture.
In White Salt Mountain, the answer to the question "where is here" lies in the better question of "who was here," and in our remembering what words they left, and in discovering what those words are connected to. "What else are words but eyries?" It is no less our "here", and one that we need to inhabit and preserve so that those who look to find their sense of place and belonging after us will come upon our books, like stones in a river. ˛