I would like to write about an unknown poet; unknown in the sense that she has won no prizes and, in fact, published no books. She represents, for me, all the people across Canada, who at times of intense anguish or exquisite pleasure have taken to putting pen to paper to try to record what they were experiencing. In this case it was neither of these extremes, she was just asked to do a job and her poem did the job. That is the first requirement of any poem, I think, that is, to do the work it set out to do. As the inaugural poet laureate of Nanaimo, I initiated a monthly poetry competition in the Nanaimo Daily News. Its main requirement was that the poem be about Nanaimo. We get a wide variety of submissions as could be expected. For November, 2014, the jury chose the poem I would like to speak about. It was a description of a view of Nanaimo that thousands of people have seen; the view of the town from the ferry as it leaves the docks. Yet, in its simple description it gave that view many levels of richness, so that no one reading that poem will ever look at Nanaimo again in quite the same way. Here is the poem and what I wrote about it:
From the Quinsam at Dusk by Joood Heather
The Quinsam pulls away,
The harbor lights recede.
Black water churns at the stern,
As the wharf grows small.
The mountain’s greyness bulks
Against darker clouds,
And headlights glide slowly down
To the dwindling docks,
Where wet flags flap in the wind
And sailboats rock.
Now I can see the roads
Climbing old city hills.
Snugly, between the streets,
The houses curl in green nests,
Filled with homework and dishes,
Bicycles, babies and debts,
Secrets and squabbles and wishes
And uninvited guests.
The ferry turns to the sea,
Its diesel engines race.
Nanaimo’s the size of my thumb,
Silent and distant now
Like a planet seen from space,
Like a toy town.
The ferry from Nanaimo to Gabriola Island, made famous in literature with Malcolm Lowry’s book, October Ferry to Gabriola, is the subject of this very beautiful poem. The judges said that in this gentle poem, the poet makes Nanaimo residents feel like the in group, who are all likely to “get” the evocative references. We all particularly liked the images of “wet flags flap in the wind,” and “houses curl in green nests.” The town diminishing in size as the ferry boat, the Quinsam, crosses to Gabriola is so well described here. It is a condensed picture of a town and its residents with the suggestion that it could be a small slice of a larger description, such as Dylan Thomas did of his sea-side town in “Under Milk Wood”. I found this poem totally enchanting, as it portrayed Nanaimo as a toy model town whose houses and trees one could move around.
I, myself, am a poet of the everyday scene, and seem to have an ability to hallow the ordinary. It is that quality in these unknown, unskilled poets that I would also like to celebrate — their joys and pains cutting directly through all posturing and all attempts at poetic “tricks”. They just write poems straight from their hearts with nothing in between them and the page. I call that integrity.
We all love icing on a cake, so I’ll slip in here as a PS, a first-time-ever haiku writer (with deep health concerns) who best exemplifies that integrity:
dusting the globe
family and friends spin by
Bashō couldn’t have done better. So here’s to all the “unknown” poets of Canada and their courage in putting words to paper.
Permission has been granted by Joood Heather and Dorothy Reeve for the use of their poems.
Naomi Beth Wakan is the inaugural Poet Laureate of Nanaimo. She has published over 50 books. Her essays are in Late Bloomer-on writing later in life; Composition: notes on the written word; Bookends – a year between the covers; and A Roller-coaster ride – Thoughts on aging (all from Wolsak and Wynn). Her poetry books include Sex after 70 and other poems and And After 80… (both from Bevalia Press). Her poetry and essays have appeared in many magazines. Her radio essays can be heard at http://ckgi.ca/search/bookmobile . Naomi is a member of The League of Canadian Poets, Haiku Canada and Tanka Canada. She lives on Gabriola Island with her husband, the sculptor, Elias Wakan. Visit her website