Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Jenna Butler's Magnetic North: Sea Voyage to Svalbard

For some reason, the link to my blog that lives with the addresses for Netflix, my email, and Google, just under my "search" dialogue box, links me to an old post called "Trumping Trump."  Usually I ignore this sad commentary, but this morning I decided to actually read it.  I quote quite a number of thoughtful, articulate, and helpful people, including Shawna Lemay and Alison Powell.  But here's what Jenna wrote on FB right after Trump's election, a night she spent in the hospital room of her dying mother-in-law: "At this point, this space in time, be more than ever your best selves. Find the energy that lit you yesterday and stay fired by it, no matter what comes. We need your dreaming and your groundedness, your ability to be firm in where you stand, while all the time looking levelly to what arrives."  A reader finds that discipline and that determination in her book of prose poems, Magnetic North.

She and I have talked, Facebook style, about the way this book challenges the concept of genre.  A little background will help.  In 2014, she was writer-in-residence "onboard an ice-class barquentine sailing vessel in the Norwegian arctic," spending two weeks sailing around the islands of Svalbard during the endless summer days around the solstice. In spite of the sea sickness that Jenna admits to, those fourteen days were intense, full of sunlight and birds and whales and bones and history.  She has structured that experience into sixteen sections that are focused by a theme, and each of these is introduced by relevant quotations from poets and naturalists, followed by three or four prose poems of two or three poetic paragraphs each. 

She has admitted that she loved the intersection of genres:  is this travel writing? (Yes.)  Is it poetry?  (Decidedly so in particular sections that make full use of Jenna's lyrical voice and her original, insightful perspective.)  Is it prose poetry?  (Yes.  The prose half of this genre allows her to give us background, history, daily life in the most efficient way possible, while the constant pressure of language being used at its most intense keeps the reader alert to the poetic moments.)  Is it an elegy to a place and time?  (Yes, though through her references to the prairie landscape she left behind, it's hard to say just what place.  And through her evocation of the sailors' widows or the history of mining on the islands, it's hard to say what time.  But this ambiguity only makes the collection richer.)  Is it another plea for us to pay attention to what is happening on the planet and do something?  (Absolutely and heartbreakingly.)  It is a book that never feels out of control, yet relentlessly overflows.     

In her brief description of her journey that introduces the prose poems, she foregrounds the degradation that she saw:  the human impacts that have been left on the islands by miners and fishermen, the calving glaciers that exposed rock not seen since time out of mind.  Those that know Jenna's book, A Profession of Hope:  Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail, know of her deep commitment to a thoughtful, responsible, challenging--and just plain hard--relationship to the earth.  So it is not surprising that one of the many strands of these prose poems considers the damage being done to the arctic by climate change.  So Magnetic North is another call to attention, a plea first to understand what changes are being wrought, and then feeling that plea in the intense and moving poetry, to act.

Magnetic North is also a song to the uncanny:  what it means to your body clock and your soul to have light twenty-four hours a day:  "Night is non-existent, circadian cranked to overtime.  No twilight, no dusk, no dawn.  Same abbreviated shadows on the road.  We jitter, grateful for anything that dims the light:  snow squalls, cloud banks, duty-free Svalbard Whiskey.  Something in us paces, sleepless, sits on its haunches and observes morning rituals of black coffee and gjetost, uneasy company."  How "darkness is not a right but an indulgence."   

And the uncanniness of docking, expecting a beach and finding a midden, where "hundreds of belugas [are] strewn like a jigsaw, heaped and abandoned."  The history of whaling shifts under your foot:  "Lift the skulls from their nests of campion and more bones gleam beneath.  The middens are built into beachheads, sand and stones packed like ice around a wound.  Hundreds of years of trade crack into the shingle."  And then the uncanniness of the glaciers calving, revealing surfaces not seen for hundreds of years even while they begin to entomb the present:  "What will this face remember? A Bastille Day truck attack in France.  The Pulse Nightclub in Orlando.  Dust and drought in the camps at Kigeme.  Perhaps it will see the future rattling by like a deck of cards, sharp shuffle, dab hand.  Ice thinning over a rictus of rock."   

Magnetic North is also a ballad about human beings pressed to their limits.  The simplest articulation of this is captured in Jenna's descriptions of the challenges of living with 29 other people in the space of 600 square feet.  And then the relentless daylight that erases circadian rhythms and leaves one jittery.  But Jenna's hard-won gift to us is to bring us into the experience of imagining the lives of this landscape:  "Looking out over the beachheads firing white in the sun, pods upon pods of bowheads, belugas driven up on the shore and flensed, it is impossible not to feel a peculiar resonance.  Bone recognizes its own in all places; it calls and calls, firecrackering through the marrow.  What can any of us hope for?  A pair of hands lifting us from the rubble of our end, aligning us in such a way that all of our darknesses break open and gleam."  Carpe diem, Magnetic North says to us.  And having read it, we find it easier to pay attention, to seize the day, keeping our compasses oriented toward magnetic north.