For several years our friend, the poet Alison Hawthorne Deming, told us about Grand Manan Island off the coast of New Brunswick, Canada. Alison is a long-time summer resident on Grand Manan.
We finally made it up there last summer – and were we glad we did.
To say the island is a special place is a bit of a cliché and certainly doesn’t do the island justice. But then, when is a cliché not mostly true?
Remote and fairly difficult to get to from New York – you drive to the edge of Maine and keep going — Grand Manan sits on the western end of the mouth of the Bay of Fundy and was formed by colliding plates. You can see the fault line where Triassic and Cambrian rock meets.
Here time is marked by arriving and departing ferries, dramatic in-coming and out-going tides, and when the herring is running. The landscape is rugged basalt and a dense forest of birch and conifers, with pockets of wetlands, marshes, and rocky cliffs all formed and deformed by the sea, salt spray, and wind.
One evening before sunset, Alison took us over the top of the island to the other side, to Dark Harbour, a place that seemed somewhat stuck in time. I felt a bit like an intruder, although the place was oddly familiar as well, surrounded by encroaching darkness. There are rumors of pirates or a pirate curse in Dark Harbour.
Dark Harbour is also the dulse capital of the world. Dulse is an edible seaweed harvested by hand at low tide and dried in the sun outside during the summer months. Grand Mananers love their dulse, which seems a healthy substitute for chewing tobacco or potato chips. Dulsers are a special breed, as this video from Great Big Story attests: http://www.greatbigstory.com/stories/dulser-dark-harbor
Several poems in Alison’s new book of poems, STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN, feature the people and landscape of Grand Manan. There are echoes in these poems of another Canadian Maritime setting by another poet from New England with Maritime ties, something about the cold and crystal clear water, a quiet observation and an older way of life, the dark forest and the sea.
We’re going back this summer.
Here is Alison Hawthorne Deming’s poem, “Dark Harbour”:
Dulse camps teeter on cobbled basalt
where storms have heaped a seawall
topped with tumult of silvered
wharf timbers and weir stakes
enough driftwood scrap to salvage for a shack
paint the battered door dusty blue.
A rusty slatted bed kerosene pooled
in a glass-chimney lamp waiting for a match
dirty teapot on the camp stove
it’s home for a night or two
when tides are right for gathering.
Stone slips wait gray and smooth from wear
where yellow dories are winched and
skidded to motor offshore headed
for the dulsing ground. A man
who works the intertidal shore
says I can smell the tide coming in.
I raise my face to the wind to try to catch
what he knows. Cold and crystal clear
the water laps the rocks and rattles them
as it recedes. The man pulls fistful
of purple weed off tide-bare rocks
a gentle rip sounding with each pull
the ribbons gathered in his basket
dark as iodine deep as hay scythed
and piled in ricks harvest picked by hand
gathered from the transmutation of light
that sways at high tide like hair in the wind
and lies still for combing when the tide recedes
cropland where sea and rock do the tillage.
–Alison Hawthorne Deming
c) 2016 Alison Hawthorne Deming. Used by permission of the author.
I love when poetry shows up in unexpected places.
The Poetry Society of America and the MTA recently revived their “Poetry in Motion” program on the New York City subways.
The Clint Eastwood Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler, written by poet Matthew Dickman, is another example.
“The Language of Conservation,” a Poets House project that provides residencies for poets in zoos around the country, is still another.
Alison lives in the Tucson desert and draws inspiration from the natural world there, her native New England, as well as Grand Manan Island, Canada, where she has a family home, the Everglades, Alaska — really, wherever she is.
Her work has long been concerned with the relationship between art and science — her first book was titled Science & Other Poems — and the science of looking at the world. So her appearance in a scientific magazine is not really a surprise, but the fact that the magazine publishes poetry at all is to be celebrated.
Alison’s books include the poetry collection Rope (Penguin, 2009) and the essay collection The Edges of the Civilized World (Picador USA, 1998). She is coeditor of The Colors of Nature: Essays on Culture, Identity, and the Natural World (Milkweed Editions, revised edition 2011).
Formerly director of the University of Arizona Poetry Center, Alison teaches creative writing at the University of Arizona and also serves as chair of the board of directors for Orion magazine. She recently completed a new nonfiction book titled Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit.
Whether writing about individual species (The Monarchs), entire ecosystems, or the human despoilment of nature, Alison trains a scientist’s eye on her subjects. Yet, she’s not afraid to add a little wry humor into the mix.
“Mosquitoes” offers an enlightened victim’s view of this annoying insect, prompting us to appreciate its singleness of purpose and a reciprocity with which most of us would rather not comply.
Here is Alison Hawthorne Deming’s “Mosquitoes”:
First came the scouts who felt our sweat in the air
and understood our need to make a sacrifice.
We were so large and burdened with all we had carried,
our blood too rich for our own good. They understood
that we could give what they needed and never miss it.
Then came the throng encircling our heads like acoustic haloes
droning with the me-me-me of appetite. We understood
their pleasure to find such hairless beasts so easy to open and drink.
We understood their female ardor to breed and how little
they had to go on considering the protein required to make
their million-fold eggs. Vibrant, available, and hot,
we gave our flesh in selfless service to their future.
— Alison Hawthorne Deming