By Rita Button
A long, long time ago, when I was young—almost too young to remember—I wanted to be a poet. In those days, poets were found only in books, were often male and were usually no longer alive. As I grew older, I got the impression that poets wore black clothes, and lived in garrets with one candle that supplied both light and heat. Being addicted to warmth and bright colours, I abandoned that idea.
In that long ago youth, I wish I would have had the opportunity to hear the poets whose poems I listened to on Saturday, October 28, at the main library on Broughton. Celebrating the publication of Refugium: Poems for the Pacific, edited by Yvonne Blomer, Victoria’s poet laureate, they read the poems they had contributed to the collection. It was an inspiring hour. Also uncomfortable, since their reading illuminated the plight of the Pacific Ocean and the dearth human beings create in the name of progress.
Yvonne read Luther Allen’s poem “Sinking” in which “the dwindling orcas/ who would say/if they could/there are too many boats/ heedless”, and I thought of the suggestion, lately on the news, asking large ships to reduce their speed when they are in whale territory. Also the whales that have been found wounded and dead in Canadian waters entered my mind. Patricia Young’s “whales’ flippers mutated into wings” (“Murals”), causing them to fly into the mural you may have seen on Wharf Street. She wonders if the whales are happy. The idea of happy in spite of bizarre mutations made me wonder if I could blithely ignore the changes—fantastical and subtle—that will transform the earth, as Yvonne commented later, into a “black hole where everything will be dead.”
Yvonne is pleased with this collection as are the poets in the room. During the presentation, the poets’ support for one another was palpable. But Yvonne took her collecting one step further. Bruce Cockburn accepted her invitation to write one for the anthology. “False River” is the result. After he gave the poem to Yvonne, he put it to music and included it in his latest album. His visceral images dramatize the planet’s changing, hotter temperature, making it real: “till we’re panting/like a salmon/ with its gill hooked/ on a gaff”. In “False River,” tankers are carcasses, and he wonders how far “we have to go” before we understand the death embedded in our current habits.
Cynthia Woodman Kerkham argues with Captain Vancouver regarding his naming of Desolation Sound since she sees it as anything but desolate. She realizes she is a part of the petroleum-using world In her “petroleum fleece/warmed by boat cabin’s ticking diesel heat” while we have to “fumble for direction, descriptors,/ some with wounds of history/ bruising just beneath” (“Argument with Captain Vancouver over The Naming of Desolation Sound”), yet she prefers to “glide with the governing tide/ listen to how sea purls sibilant on stone,/ names itself, sounds its own.” The importance of connecting with land and sea becomes obvious. She made me return to Wordsworth’s prophetic anger when, in 1807, he warned “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;/ Little we see in nature that is ours;/ We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” (“The World is Too Much with Us”) There’s one old guy who knew a few things about the ways of people in the world! Too bad we didn’t listen!
Going back in time, but not as far back as Wordsworth, is Terence Young who remembers his childhood on the boat with his family in “Tent Island Anchorage, 1962” which prophesizes his concern for the salt sea, the peace its waves can bring and the music we can hear when we know how to listen.
The following Tuesday, I was lucky enough to have a conversation with Yvonne. We talked about poetry and its ability to change our ways of living by identifying emotions that connect to our actions. It’s a complex problem, she knows. We are a part of the western world where specialization has created niches that do not always support the environment. She believes that governments should be expected to lead us into safe practices, eliminating the confusion between keeping the environment alive and creating jobs in the here and now.
To this end, she has sent a copy of Refugium to the United Nations, hoping to begin an awareness of the consequences of our actions and to instigate a way forward filled with actions that will mitigate the consequences we thoughtlessly create.
Get the book; read it; involve yourself with poetry or nature or both.
If you’d like to hear and learn more about this collection and its poets, you won’t want to miss the event at the Maritime Museum of B.C. on November 30 at 6:30. Get all the details at mmbc.bc.ca/events/. artist/creative response talk & Q&A for Refugium(art in response to poems in Refugium: Poems for the Pacfic) on Nov. 30 as part of the Nautical Nights Speaker series at 6:30. Tickets available at the Maritime Museum of BC.