Dividing Island

Mark Callanan reviews Lookout by John Stefler

If you consider that John Steffler’s Newfoundland and Labrador Book Award-winning poetry collection, Helix: New and Selected Poems, published in 2002, devoted a mere twenty-six pages of its one hundred and thirty page total to new work (which, while a nice sized serving of pie chart lemon meringue, is still comparatively small), then it’s been twelve years since Steffler has produced a full-length collection of new poems. Given such a protracted length of time, one might expect Lookout to be honed to a pretty fine edge. The Atlantic Poetry Prize jury seems to think so: Steffler’s latest collection has been shortlisted for this year’s prize.

One of Lookout’s ongoing concerns is the self’s relationship to its surroundings—one’s sense of belonging, or not, to a place. In “Dividing Island,” the newcomers on an unnamed island (presumably Steffler and his wife, presumably Newfoundland—though it’s a mistake to read poetry as biography) are described as being “proud of their isolation, the hard / fisherman’s history they’d borrowed, / but hating their dislocated selves, / their forced selves […]” The end of the poem describes how identity can become subsumed by place, how “people split and / split,” eventually “unable to be / anything but the place, speaking / the place, if not joyously / at least beyond care”—a cultivated stoicism.

In Steffler’s poetry, the relationship between people and the land they settle is usually a frustrated one. Humanity is not much more than a speck on a wide panorama of land and sea. The Blomidons in the prose poem “Lean-To,” for instance, “bend down through mist to study your face,” like some curious folktale giant. In the prose poem “Removals,” the act of observing a clear sky from the “bald Lewis Hills” becomes a reminder of one’s own tenuous place in the world: “it’s easy to lose faith in gravity and see the sky as a depth into which any unsecured body might fall,” Steffler writes, “[…]The whole island a brink.”

In another poem, the man who has “run // a stick fence straight up the hill’s / side, balanced it there like a twig / on the back of a moose who will // twitch its hide in a minute or take / a step” will have to “try again or try something / else.” Humanity’s dominance over the natural world (as symbolized by the fence) is illusory, liable to be dispelled at any moment.

One of the most interesting sections of Lookout, “Colonial Building Archives,” is based on archival photographs of early industrial development in the Corner Brook area. The first of these poems, “VA 13 Humber Mouth,” ends on the crucial image of the photographer himself coming “out of the solid / bush with his sextant and camera and dynamite.” A sextant is a tool for navigation, for locating oneself within the geographical context; a camera is an apparatus for recording the visible world; dynamite is a destructive agent, but one used toward a constructive purpose within the poem (i.e. clearing ground for the laying of railroad track). It’s a nice summary of the settlement archetype: Having found a place and recorded it, we set about bending it to our will.

This conquering impulse is aptlydescribed in “A30-161 Mill Manager’s House, Corner Brook,” in which someone’s brother is returning from Burma “where he built a railroad / through a swamp the size of Holland” and someone’s cousin “spent a year heading up / the Ministry of Language in Ceylon— / completely redesigned their verbs / and prepositions.” The two kinds of imposition (on landscape; on language and culture) are related. When Steffler writes, of the Corner Brook pulp and paper mill’s giant machines, that “You must worship them and be / ashamed of all your heart’s old treasures,” he is suggesting a tension between technological innovation and traditional life.

There is much to admire in this new book, and a few poems worth forgetting. A series of Greek vacation poems just can’t escape the realm of personal anecdote. Reading the opening of the poem “Without Maps” (“We went up Nikis, across Kidathineon, / down Adrianou to Ermou, up along Voulis / across Apollonia into the park and out again, / and this morning by taxi down Ermou to Monastiraki […]) holds as much appeal as hearing an office colleague recite his summer travel itinerary.

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