What is it about 18th-century explorer Alexander Mackenzie that still holds the imagination of writers? In Melanie Siebert’s first trade poetry collection, Deepwater Vee (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2010), she writes the “vee” of two rivers, where they flow and even intersect, writing traces of where Mackenzie still lingers. Her collection reads like a love song to the two rivers; cities might forget, but the land remembers. The collection even opens with an explanation of the title, writing:
A tongue of dark, glassy water that points downstream, indicating a deep channel, a way through whitewater thrown up by riverbed rocks. When running a rapid, these fast, sometimes narrow chutes can be hard to see and tricky to navigate. Threading from V to V is often part instinct, part gamble, part yielding to the water.
Explorers explored through poems certainly aren’t new in Canadian writing, from George Bowering’s George, Vancouver (1970) to Gregory Betts’ The Cult of David Thompsonmy own sequence “my life as a dead north-west explorer” in wild horses (2005), or even (2010). What is it about reworking, even revisiting the past that compels?
MACKENZIE, HAVING NOT SEENA STAR SINCE LEAVING ATHABASCA
Scanning all night, nor could he bend it,calculations, fully unpardonable, land looms by trick light,fractal islands or shore, boiling, skittishmagnetic variation, boots worn through in a day.Brewed 24-hour sun, cold-cocked,cursed thistle,augurs the 360-degree swing, indiscriminate, owing rotgut,pitch pressed into the split,stone in a sling, never solvent.Wind bronchials the samequarter. Past a hundred cold cook fires.Lat/long skewed, volatile, nerve-knots hissing in the armpits.Needle grinds into the ground’s swell.
The poem begins, working in with what is new, and the explorer, arguably, is always new, even through repetition; not re-covering the same ground, but always reapproached, much like Robert Kroetsch’s perpetually begin, begun, begin again. Through such, and letters back to his wife back home, Siebert’s Mackenzie becomes trapped in his newness, as in amber; a victim (is, as Cohen once suggested, a kite the only victim we’re sure of?). Not just where it begins, but where will this perpetually-begun ever end? As in the poem “The Limit of Travels in this Direction” that begins:
The dream that’s not a dream stings in the teethof Mackenzie’s momentum, fish-oiled hair, double-or-nothingquad burn going shaky. Doused fires limp the shores.Thick fog descends, flesh of boiled trout, a bone ladle.All bullets sunk in the river,every direction, no direction.
Or further on in the collection, the six poems to Mackenzie’s wife all titled, “Letter to Kitty, Never Written,” and the final that reads (in full):
I drowned long ago. I drowned in that country.
And so her collection begins, a narrative lyric wrapped around the depths of the waters, and a remoteness where the most distant can’t help but be felt, from echoes of Mackenzie’s Journals to echoes of what Don McKay’s own exploration of a corner of rural British Columbia, the short-term of immediate that became The Muskwa Assemblage (Kentville NS: Gaspereau Press, 2008) could have been, had McKay spent more time out there, in the British Columbia wilds. Siebert moves through the Athabasca and North Saskatchewan rivers, through Mackenzie, and through living the loss of the narrator’s grandmother; is it only through these deep waters that Siebert’s narrator comes face to face with herself, forced to confront what she can no longer distract? Siebert’s poems write a staggering silence, and of those things left behind, from the four poems titled “Grandmother” to all that the seven poems titled “Busker” suggest, of a lost musician brother (but why be so literal, reviewer?). Is discovering a country simply a way to highlight all else left behind?
We said the dead were flown, lifted to a sure life,the body sloughed off, and we went onmeasuring parts per million, underwatergrease rags still throatsinging river’s crankshafts,ruffed grouse drumming in our lower backs,bent to water, waving a hydrophone wired to pick upthe mythic toothed gears, the signal now fryingstatic, funnel clouds mounting stolen goods and letting loose.We went on far-flung, we went on washed-out bridges.Silence silted on—sand-seep from the walls of a cold house,our religion, the forgetting we have had to profess,ghost forest in the reservoir, poor insulation,red inner lining of my wet eiderdown.A bee will chew a hole in the side of a closed flower.Cribbed well, a hotbed made with storm windows,the human heart can be cradled in a metal devicethat keeps it warm and beating. And we went on100,000 pounds of river bottom dredged, intercoastalmuscles heaving damped sound, slurried underwatersound, pillowed mounds, dredgedand still slumping in.
These are poems that wrap themselves up over each other in layers, adding to and creating a depth to the collection, giving the book a resonance that so few have. This is a collection that understands the importance of how poems interact with each other, and add to the experience of each, side by side by slow sidled-up side.