the brutal mechanics…

Jonathan Adams listens to the John Steffler’s long poem The Grey Islands.

New this month from Rattling Books comes a lovingly produced, unabridged, two-disc recording of John Steffler’s long poem The Grey Islands.

First published in 1985, The Grey Islands has come to be regarded as a classic of both Newfoundland and Canadian literature. It has earned the praise of as finicky a critic as the late Al Purdy, who trashed the later work of his friends Charles Bukowski and Irving Layton but remarked of The Grey Islands:”This is a book of such excellence that someone in the future is liable to say … Steffler?–oh yes, he wrote The Grey Islands, didn’t he?” Portions of the poem were also set to music by the composer Michael Parker.

Steffler is in some ways the human bookend to E.J. Pratt, in the sense that Pratt was a Newfoundland-born poet who for familiar reasons moved to Ontario and there wrote something like the national epic in Towards the Last Spike—while Steffler was an Ontario-born poet who for perverse reasons moved to Newfoundland and wrote something like the quintessential CFA narrative in The Grey Islands. The book’s value lies in the truthfulness and lack of sentimentality with which that story is told.

Loosely based on Steffler’s own experience, the protagonist and principal narrator of The Grey Islands is a man from Ontario who leaves behind everything and everyone he knows, including a wife and two children, to spend a summer on the northern peninsula’s Grey Islands. He’s never entirely certain what has compelled him to do this beyond a vaguely expressed desire for “a way to corner myself … Some blunt place I can’t go beyond. Where excuses stop.”

Once he arrives and settles, the book becomes a record of the speaker’s encounters with both the geography and the people of Grey Islands. He quickly becomes obsessed with the image of a man named Carm Denny who lives completely alone out on one of the islands and is thought mad by everyone in town. For me, the most vivid and arresting sections of The Grey Islands are those in which Carm himself is the speaker.

Listening to Rattling Books’ edition of The Grey Islands may even be the ideal way to experience the poem. Steffler’s poetry usually takes the form of soliloquies or interior monologues and it is always rooted in the unadorned, everyday language of his individual speakers. Hearing Frank Holden and Darryl Hopkins read the parts of the townsfolk reveals just how well Steffler has managed to capture the natural cadence and poetry of ordinary Newfoundland speech.

There are still a few points, however, when you will want to have a copy of the book close at hand, since the absence of visual punctuation creates unforeseen ambiguities. At a crucial juncture in one poem Steffler intones, “I start to think it’s a person outside squatting to shit I’m nervous with all the leaping and battering going on” and it’s impossible for the listener to intuit exactly who is squatting to shit (turns out it’s actually the speaker).

Nevertheless, the sound design on the recording is quite superb. The noises of birdsong and waves that hum just beneath the actors’ voices were recorded especially for the album and while it would be very easy to overdo it with such things, the production is for the most part beautifully restrained. There is a magnificent point on the second disc, though, when a torrent of gull squawks reaches such a frenzied pitch I thought of one of my all-time favourite pieces of music—Cantus Articus, Einojuhani Rautavaara’s concerto for birds and orchestra, which itself has always reminded me of the ineluctable beauty of this province we belong to.

The central riddle that haunts The Grey Islands is why anyone would choose to live in this place at all. But taken as a whole and in several particular places the poem also supplies its own answer: “[T]hese people don’t measure by what you see. They carry the world around in their heads. All this rock and water is only a backdrop.”

The Grey Islands audiobook is available from Rattling Books.