Carolyn Souaid's book is deeply involved with the Canadian North, specifically the Ungava coast, where she spent three years as a teacher. She daringly modernizes an important Inuit story in a set of poems, "Sedna: An Inuit Myth (Appropriated)," and the protagonist of the title sequence transgresses boundaries by falling in love with a 17-year- old boy. Souaid has skill enough to justify her audacity. Her Sedna is brilliantly conceived as a mythical deity and as a contemporary woman impatient with foolish men. In "Evening with the Shaman," Sedna has a man over for a dinner date and puts John Coltrane on the stereo. The poem switches between northern myth and contemporary practices: the predatory man " eyes her layered red cache," but she offers him a heart of lettuce. When he tries to seduce her, she figuratively entangles him in her snake-like hair. The narrator's comment is "Go, girl." In the finest poem in the sequence, "Stars," questions of fate are probed through images of stars, hands, and cards. The poem recalls the famous scene in which Sedna's father tries to save himself from a storm by throwing his daughter overboard and has to sever her clinging fingers by smashing them with a paddle. Souaid's refracts that story into a scene in SoHo with a gypsy fortuneteller dealing cards. The poem confidently brings together images of hands (Sedna's father with the paddle, Sedna's hands, the gypsy's hands revealing or at least controlling fate) and stars, bringing the images together brilliantly in the fortune telling scene: "My sweating palms made stars." The conjunction of images is an unexpected felicity. The Sedna poems are cultural appropriation, yes, but T. S. Eliot said that bad poets borrow, good poets steal.
If Souaid appropriates a myth in the "Sedna" poems, the narrator of the "Snow Formations" sequence longs to appropriate a person, a teenaged Inuit boy. The narrative was inspired by a news story about a school teacher involved with a student. Souaid manages to make this romance believable and moving, without excusing the element of exploitation, which the narrator says was mutual. And in telling the story she evokes the harshness and beauty of the North, and the moods of despair and boredom (cabin fever gets two poems) it can generate. Souaid's North is sometimes squalid, with garbage-filled moraines and damp tents, but she does the people the courtesy of writing honestly, not sentimentally. One of the finest poems is "Inukshuk," spoken by one of those cairns in human form which serve as markers in the almost featureless Arctic landscape. The cairn, which says it has been standing since the time of the Vikings, is a symbol of the edgy woman who narrates the love poems:
Let me tell you about the stone will. How even through the poignant light of softer days I go on, standing. Visibly intact. Touch me, and I fall apart.
Oddly, the poems in the opening and closing sections of the book, set "South of the treeline," are much less effective than the Arctic works, as if the poet's imagination needed to be galvanized by the sharp Northern experience. The Arctic poems teem with metaphors, like the sea creatures that the myth says were generated from Sedna's severed fingers. The other poems sometimes editorialize about modern times and are dotted with rhetorical questions. Souaid's Arctic voice doesn't ask, it tells, with eloquence and colour.
Bert Almon's newest book, Hesitation Before Birth, was published by Beach Holme Press.