“Where is here?” The words are Northrop Frye’s, writing in the “Conclusion to a Literary History of Canada” (1965) (220). It’s a question linked to the critic’s general principle that every poetic temperament is determined by a set of co-ordinates—the landscape a poet looks out onto, lives within. The half-sphere sky of the Prairies, the neck-craning heights of the West Coast: each of these, for Frye, produces a distinctive sensibility that marks itself on the page, revealing where its poet calls “here.”
“Aren’t we lucky / to be here today,” writes Tara Borin early in The Pit (9). The “here” here—as throughout the collection, Borin’s debut—is Dawson City, Yukon. More precisely, the book camps out on Third Avenue, inside the bar of the Westminster Hotel, a local institution nicknamed the Pit. “The Pit is the Yukon’s oldest and longest running bar and hotel,” Borin explains, taking us through “paths / pressed in snow,” across the frozen river, until here we are (4).
At its core, The Pit is a portrait of this interior space. Borin’s lines are suffused with the hot breath of voices, the soft glow of Christmas lights, the sound of people coming and going and coming back again. In “We’ll Never Have Enough of This,” Borin collages together scraps of graffiti scrawled across the women’s washroom. “You are beautiful and / every thought you have / is a real thing, / transient and shifting, / like water,” reads one inscription. “You should dump him / before he dumps you, / dingus,” goes another (28). Though interior, these poems are never insular, keeping an eye on the vast environment outside of the bar’s doors. Water bursts in, sliding tables across the floor. Light shines “hard as sin” through the window (8). Furnaces grasp for heat in weeks of forty below.
What defines the Pit—as both place and collection—are the people who pass through its doors. “The Regulars,” one of the book’s five sections, dispatches a set of character studies: a night janitor, a water-witcher, a retired barmaid. The speaker gestures, in the final poem, to the Pit’s south end, where photos of regulars who have passed away are nailed into the pressed-tin wall. Borin’s collection shows place to be shaped just as much by layered tributaries of community as by the contours of a physical environment. Where is here? “Here,” Borin answers, “is where we find / the shortest distance / to each other” (4).
Cross a farther distance, towards the East Coast, and find the poet and scholar Andreae Callanan, who lives and writes St. John’s, Newfoundland. The poems in her debut collection, The Debt, sketch two overlapping topographies: the landscape of Newfoundland itself, and the imaginative geography of her speaker’s life. Callanan, who writes in lilting, compulsively alliterative lines—take the letter b, and quickly find: “bent-birch” (25), “blasty boughs,” (20) “bobbing berg,” (31) “bright bow” (58), “berries blaze” (20)—renders a place thick with speech and memory, gannets and wild mint. “Come here,” she invites, “I’ll draw you a map” (16).
Yet maps have a habit of flattening as much as they reveal. “I like maps, because they lie,” the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska writes. “Because they give no access to the vicious truth” (432). It is a maxim proven to be true by the limits of The Debt’s quasi-cartographic approach, which tends to enumerate, rather than reveal, through its many listed lines. “Clover, daisies, / vetch, burdock, curled dock, evening / primrose,” goes one poem (52). Helpless commas are burdened with a task that ought to be a more concerted formal effort: drawing intricate, etched linkages between the things that compose a place.
At its most enveloping, The Debt goes beyond visible geography, parsing out histories contained within the “time-carved / cathedrals of cliff” (11). Callanan delivers ravishing descriptions of a childhood spent here: playing dockside socker, loitering around the War Memorial. These personal recollections allow the poems to look out over a broader cultural past—“a hungry history”—that shapes what it means to live on this strip of land (16). “We are all debtors here,” she writes, in the titular poem, “beholden / to this jagged place for every lungful / of spruce-laced salted air, each slap / of ocean blasting rock and boat, dock / and ankle” (63). History and its obligations surge up, like black waves along the shore.
A similar tide arrives on Vancouver Island, where writer Terence Young has crafted his third book of poems, Smithereens. Diffuse and conversational, the poems are thematically bound together by the thin wire of time—what it takes from us, what it leaves behind. To get at these ideas, Young consults a guidebook of the west coast’s natural landscape. One poem, “The Animals Lie Down to Die,” discovers a deer skeleton nestled into the “soft vellum of / years of needles,” a scene that becomes an imagistic analog for the speaker to consider his own mother’s passing (45).
Yet Smithereens resists approaching its environment as a purely symbolic terrain, ripe for easy self-and-nature symmetries. No—these forests are “illegible,” and however much the speaker searches for a clear mirror in the landscape, it is always rearranging itself, evading his pins of explanation (45). In “The Rites of Spring,” Young catalogues a set of ecological injuries that have rapidly transformed the local environment: “sun damage, frost damage,” “climate change, gamma rays.” (78). How does one affix words—like “here,” like “home”—to a location that is increasingly variable, never exactly the same as it was yesterday?
Perhaps it is a start to simply bear witness, to uproot one’s language and pull it alongside a place as it moves. In one poem, Young’s speaker engages in a simple meditation: recording onto the page how the weather shifts, from moment to moment, around him. First, “tides / roll back over mud.” Then, “clouds hang lower and lower.” And here—above the ocean, inside the poem—“it rains” (73).
Frye, Northrop. The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination. Anansi, 2017.
Szymborska, Wisława,. Map: Collected and Last Poems. Edited by Clare Cavanagh, translated by
Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015.
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