In Emily McGiffin’s Between Dusk and Night , Zwicky’s body of work, along with Robert Bringhurt’s, Tim Lilburn’s, and Don McKay’s, informs McGiffin’s westwards facing yet globally-embracing poetics. The poet’s lovers and friends are absent-yet-present in poems reflecting upon life after love, the intellectual life of ancient thinkers such as Dioskorides (a Greek physician and voyaging botanist), and even the lives of cuttlefish bones and wild sage.
McGiffin’s title, Between Dusk and Night, evokes the gloaming of her region, northwestern British Columbia. During the summer, the gloaming is a time of intense yet transitional activity; the day is extended into a golden half-light that feels endless—as John Muir puts it, there is “eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming.” McGiffin’s collection begins with a poem in the valley of Wokkpash, where “in this gloaming, this coyote / light thick with the unnamed…you know nothing the dusk doesn’t.” The poet-speaker suspends in this eternal moment the “folding summer” and the compromised beauty of the Peace River region with “dying…asters, the fireweed / blazing seed, the grey and fossil-scarred scree.” In the poem’s deictic coordinates, “Tomorrow does not exist,” lending a “measure of forgetfulness / more vast than this quiet mountain.” When dusk turns to “wolfish light,” the speaker becomes “awake with everything thoughtless, / everything without cause…without reason,” a “crepuscular…animal, / alive.”
McGiffin’s opening poem, so animal and so alive, is divided from the next section of the book by a compass rose; the second section of poems concerns travel in space and in time—a protestor’s march in the rain, missing a friend on a foggy autumn day, and connections between the stars in Orion the Hunter’s constellation and dandelions: “in this same gesture / of pure desire, dandelions burst through pavement.” If this section of poems concerns a going out, the next section of poems seem to concern a coming home. McGiffin writes of encounters with individual plants, animals, weather, people—nettles, cranes, fog, her grandfather and his diminishing memories: “I’ve learned that the heart / in torment is at its most fecund.”
Perhaps the most compelling poem in the collection, for me, comes at the end of this section: “Seven Songs for Spatsizi” concerns a plateau in northern BC. The Spatsizi Plateau, west and a little south of the Wokkpash Valley where the poetry collection began, is located on the upper Stikine River, a river rich with animal life and under threat from oil and gas development. McGiffin does not address the threat of environmental disaster directly in her poem, but these seven short “songs” speak powerfully of an “alpine water…ablution,” of waking from a “dream of two moose” to moose that pause in their “walking, in the moonlit scrub willows, / and turn their unhurried gaze” towards the poet-speaker, of “sharing, for a small time, the same journey” as moose, black bears, caribou, and goats, and of “always / death” that is “All the way, walking alongside.” The songs end with a warning concerning the river itself: “Take care / lest it take you, for, like the mountains, / it is stronger than it knows and cannot stop flowing.”
Muir, John. John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir . Ed. Linnie Marsh. 1938. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1979. Print. New International Version . Ed. John R. Kohlenberger. Nashville: Holman, 1986. Print.
JASMINE JOHNSTON is a student of literature at the University of British Columbia.