canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Coastlines: The Poetry of Atlantic Canada

Goose Lane Editions, 2002

Reviewed by Keith Ebsary

Coastlines is an anthology of poetry from New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland. Organized by province into four sections and spanning the period between 1950 and the present, it features a number of established and emerging poets.

New Brunswick starts the anthology on a distinctly pastoral note. From the outset, the reader is saturated with the poetics of the natural. The bulk of the poems center around trees, oceans, cabins, and childhood recollections, lulling the reader into a state of rustic complacency. "Where I Come From" by Elizabeth Brewster summarizes this idea perfectly:

Where I come from, people
carry woods in their minds, acres of pine woods;
blueberry patches in the burned-out bush;
wooden farmhouses, old, in need of paint,
with yards where hens and chickens circle about,
clucking aimlessly; battered schoolhouses
behind which violets grow. Spring and winter
are the mind’s chief seasons: ice and the breaking of ice.

This sensation of being inundated with the natural is initially pleasant, like a fond recollection of a warm summer beach, then slowly becomes cloying as the poems blur into extended hymns to New Brunswick geography. While the images are consistently filled with an intensity that sometimes approaches reverence, many of the poems seem almost self-consciously archaic, as though the poets were seeking refuge from modernity in short narratives about the countryside, their childhoods, and the metaphysics of blueberries.

The two standouts in the New Brunswick section are Robert Moore and R.M. Vaughan. Moore’s "The Skin You Wore" is an elegantly simple comment on, one presumes, his mother’s mortality. "So when you go,/I promise I will not say/"She died," but that I knew a woman/of skin so fine she stepped out of it/one day before we even realized." Here is the essence of what it means to love and lose a mother, to watch the slow thinning of her skin and spirit until both simply disappear. Moore does not need to rely on stark images from the natural world to get his point across—he trusts the terrible beauty of his subject.

I had trouble reconciling R.M. Vaughan’s poems with most of the others in the New Brunswick section. First, they are written in a fractured, disjointed style unlike the smooth, linear narratives of the other poets. Second, they are marked by a unique kind of sensual simultaneity where images, sensations, and perspectives mash together at once. The effect is powerful. His "Men Together" is especially affecting.

...because a fire sticks to our skin leaves
a blackened corn stink, a burnt steam, that smell plugs make after blue sparks
a fire dries our mouths to salt and oily grit, crisped hairs leaves us
dirty and lonely as puppies
my man, my tired man light the lights

The connection between Vaughan’s men is pure eroticism—you feel their passion and taste their sweaty skin. The images are well chosen to fill your mouth with their boiling salt and singed hairs, symbols of their deeper fusion. Reading his poem, I felt that I was witnessing the elemental combustion of two lovers. Passion appears elsewhere in the anthology, but it is never as raw and direct as in Vaughan’s poem.

The Nova Scotia section is similar to the New Brunswick section in terms of imagery. The poems are mainly pastoral and descriptive, full of adjectives and compound nouns that often obscure the poet’s message. Governor General’s Award winner George Elliott Clarke takes this trend to an almost comic extreme in "Blue Elegies: I. v":

...networks and wires of downed branches and briars
and twigs, prickling and muddling and needling, obscure
a scrappy bit of light, famished, gorging on a slice
of brown-black, brackish, leaf-plastered
subsidiary pond, wafting orange-green-brown lily pads
and a certain tangy tart stink—
maybe of algae and oak leaves, decaying,
and the bizz of wispy, final, waifish insects.

Clarke has transformed a poem about life and its rhythms during autumn into a top-heavy, teetering structure that threatens to collapse under its own self-conscious erudition. While Clarke’s powers of description and tone setting are formidable, I wondered if he was merely chinking holes in a shabby poetic structure, throwing blotches of paint on a white wall and hoping they stick. With the exception of "Haligonian Market Cry", which flows with a unforced ribald humor, the poems included in the anthology do very little to give the reader a sense that Clarke is one of Canada’s most lauded poets.

One of the more interesting poets in this section is Don Domanski. When I first read his poems "Banns", "Child of the Earth", and "Drowning Water," I was put off by their rigid metaphysics. I found them too tinged with an austere sort of nordic Buddhism in which snow and forests and vast open spaces annihilate all self and identity. But when I reread them, I was impressed by the poems’ fanatical consistency. "Child of the Earth" is remarkable for the verbal restraint hiding just beneath the surface.

you sit as snow drops past the meridian
past the cuffs of trees
down among the inscrutable levels
to atoms forgetting reality
to a bare place where all visible things appear
as shades if they appear at all
ghosting around the emptiness...

The poem could easily have slipped into an awkward Kerouacian rumination on nothingness. However, the poem is perfectly balanced, with each word weighed and measured, and reads like a carefully suggestive white canvass punctuated by symmetrical shapes and forms.

Lesley-Anne Bourne is the standout in the Prince Edward Island section, which moves away from nature towards first-person narratives. Her poems have a dry sparkle and wit. I clipped through them, pleased that she had injected some humor into a fairly somber anthology. In "Out of the Blizzard" she writes "I’m maid of honour, shocking since she/was the bitch who said my friends secretly/hated me in grade eight & before that/fed me cold spaghetti from a garbage can/on our street." Bourne understands that lasting friendship means accepting petty squabbles, sadism, and mystery spaghetti with grace and laughter.

Michael Crummey kicks off the Newfoundland section in fine style. His "Capelin Scull", a poem about the annual capelin (a small, minnow-like fish) harvest, shows a genuine sympathy for the creatures affected by man’s indifference. "They had come such a long way/and given themselves so completely/and in such an awful silence/that we felt obliged to/acquire the taste." Crummey sees beyond an oily fish roasted over fires to remind us that our duty as humans is to feel. For anyone who has seen literally millions of capelin stranded on beaches or scooped by the hundreds into nets, Crummey’s poem captures the very essence of that moment with a few simple, well-chosen phrases.

Dialect is the Newfoundland poets’ greatest contribution to this anthology. Newfoundland abounds with dialects and regional expressions that vary from town to town and sometimes from neighborhood to neighborhood. Some of these show up here, taking the readers on small linguistic journeys. Randall Maggs’ "Night Crossing in Ice" is a good example: "Nothin but ice/my love, said a passing voice in the corridor, pans and a bit of slob,/we sees all we wants of that in the spring." Direct speech is sparse in the rest of the anthology, but it appears frequently in the Newfoundland section combined with a quick verbal wit. Compared to the other poets in the anthology, particularly those in the New Brunswick section, the Newfoundland poets focus less on their natural surroundings and more on their province’s people.

In their introduction, the editors noted that it was not their intention to compile an anthology of nature poems. However, this is essentially what they have done, and it is the anthology’s greatest weakness. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with using the natural world as a starting point, too many of the poems in the anthology refer to night, stars, wood, fish, etc.—many of them in fact read like how-to-guides to the four elements. The poems in the anthology are too similar to really do justice to the breadth of Atlantic Canadian poetry. Paradoxically, this also gives the anthology its unity. Because the poems’ imagery and themes tend to blur together, the reader moves from province to province easily and never feels that one has surged or lagged behind the others.

If the editors had been serious about creating an anthology that accurately represented Atlantic Canadian poetry, they should have included more poets like R.M. Vaughan, Dan Domanski, or even matt robinson, whose poems, though somewhat tedious and plodding, stand out through sheer intellectual overkill.

Coastlines: The Poetry of Atlantic Canada does a good job of presenting a wide selection of poets from the four Atlantic provinces. With a few notable exceptions, it does a lesser job of making these poets seem original or capable of variety.

Keith Ebsary has published fiction or poetry in Bywords, Zygote, Blue Moon, Filling Station, Litwit Review, It's Still Winter (online), others. He works as translator in Québec City. His fiction appears in The Danforth Review.







TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 


We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.