May 21, 2015 in Celebration of Canadian Poetry

Week 21 – Robert Tyhurst presented by Jan Conn

One of the most significant poets I met and befriended in Vancouver in my 20’s was Robert Tyhurst. Only one book of poems, House of Water, Caitlin Press, 1981, was published during his lifetime (1951-2014). But what a jewel of a book! A total of 25 poems, many of which I memorized, read aloud to anyone who would listen. Each poem contains brilliant, novel images, ideas, or metaphors. Most are emotionally deep, often surreal, filled with empathy and newness. Several poems were written during and after trips to Mexico and Guatemala. Though published more than 30 years ago, they seem even richer now than when I first read them. They interweave landscape and emotions, providing a remarkably powerful record of places, situations and events that mattered, were etched into Robert’s psyche. They provided remarkable openings for my own work and poetry in Latin America.

From his poem “Cacique”: “If we eat the stars/they become animals under water/white shells sucking at our bones/that garlic cannot cure.” From “House of Water”: “In a photograph or a graveyard/travelers unfold/their black umbrellas,/read the Popol Vuh and/smile from white lips.” From “Guatemala City”: “At the end of a bright street,/the stiff hides of cattle./The sky at noon/above the iron gates/is yellow as a skull,/as the voice of a snail/curled talking in the inner ear.” The imagistic palette and strongly evoked feelings have kinship with Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. There is also the essence of darkness, some of that pain and despair.

Poems that focus on Robert’s anthropological studies in the interior of British Colombia are dense and rich with layers of meaning, beautiful and bittersweet. The first stanza of “Winter Salmon: “Her hands move without her knowing,/turning the pink meat back./Salt is snow. The candles of fish/pinned over the crazy chickens/hauling weather in their skulls.” From “East of Alexis Creek”: “East of Alexis Creek,/the shadow of a bald faced mountain/moves across white meadows./The highway winds/into a canyon./ I fall headlong, silent,/where the earth presses in/and the sky is swallowed/by the dark summits/of a wall of hunchbacked mountains.”

There are love poems, and poems about the west coast. One extraordinary prose poem in the middle of the book, called “Grace”, is impossible to excerpt, stream-of-consciousness, a narrative series of revelations and observations that are bordering on koans. All the poems in House of Water are evocative, and have echoed in my life and travels for years. They do not age. They are courageous, and have disturbed me and deepened my worldview.

Rob never had a website, but there are used copies of House of Water online.

To learn more about Robert Tyhurst, please visit BC Booklook.


Jan Conn is a poet and biologist. Her most recent books are Botero’s Beautiful Horses (2009) and Edge Effects (2012), both with Brick Books. She is a member of the writing group, Yoko’s Dogs, and also paints collaboratively with Annemarie Buchmann-Gerber of Saskatoon. For more information, please visit her website.

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