Author Tags: Poetry

Born and raised on Vancouver Island, Emily McGiffin lives in northwest B.C. where she is active with the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition. Her first collection of poetry is Between Dusk and Night (Brick 2012). Born in 1980, she has been a finalist for CBC literary awards.

How to speak
to this wind running past

to join the water gathering
at the foot of the mountain?

Long ago, a boulder--
large as a house--

fell from the cliff high above.
Mossy, it rests now amid the trees.

[BCBW 2012]

Between Dusk and Night by Emily McGiffin (Brick Books $19.95)
Review (2012)

from Hannah Main-van der Kamp

Much of the poetry in Emily McGiffin’s collection Between Dusk and Night takes us far afield. We’re on a Greek beach or thinking of an Italian trattoria. There’s a typhoon in Vietnam; we visit Van Gogh’s asylum in Provence. These global travel poems are dizzying in their quick succession.

The reader settles down when the pace slows; the poet comes home. McGiffin excels at observing her northwest B.C. landscape: …at the edge of the plateau / where the southwest is a sawtooth range, the northeast / a sweep of highland honed smooth as a rib. Deftly she chops wood, shears sheep, builds the fire, milks the cow, drives the lonely bush roads.

The tone of these B.C. poems is often doleful, as if it’s always November on the Skeena and the Nass. Fog and loneliness figure in almost every poem. Climate is culture some say: you live in a hot clime and you smile; you live in damp, you survive.

There’s not a lot of humour or hopefulness in this volume, more the outlook one would expect from an aged poet, not one born in 1980. The title balefully conveys “everything lies ahead: a long shadow / dissolving into a larger dark. The reading of these poems for some will be as easy as trying half-heartedly to set alight a handful of damp twigs for tinder.
McGiffin acknowledges the influence of her mentors, the mournful philosopher Jan Zwicky, (nothing is as buoyant as an elegy) and the ecstatically contemplative Tim Lilburn, (the sine-curved land, the river that gleams). The poem ‘Songs for the Spatzisi’ could have been written by these mentors: the cold black eye of the lake …alpine water an ablution … moonlit scrub willows.

‘Swadeshi,’ the nine-part long poem that closes the book, describes the process of making a wool blanket from scratch; bird’s-eye twill, six hundred ends, dyed with lichens. “I speak to you in yarns,” she writes.

What’s the point when blankets can be bought at the store? Echoing Gandhi, “it’s a way of being careful. The old loom on which the poet works is lovingly described patient as an aging draft horse. …The cast iron cranks and gears … the brake and the beater / clapped and sang like a gospel choir.”
Throughout the making, a conversation goes on between the weaver and the absent lover for whom the blanket is intended as a gift. There are doubts about the project and the relationship. “What is the end / but two strands of aloneness plied double thick?”

The conversation grows less tentative as the blanket approaches completion. The gift is received. “You took your gift. It held you all night.”

Although the words sadness and loneliness also occur in Swadeshi, the doleful tone is lessened. Sometimes the repetitive movement of good simple work, and writing about it, can have that effect. “…the whole civilization and its ugly deceits” ceases to be such a burden when work is absorbing.
From shearing to taking the finished piece off the loom, McGiffin convinces the reader of her resourceful pleasure in the craft, “the labour of my own attentive hands. She works clear through the frog-song night and when dawn came / I cut it free.”

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Hannah Main-van der Kamp travels deeply within a few miles of her home on the rainy Upper Sunshine Coast, making seaweed blankets for her garden.