Endre Farkas is also fascinated by the North. His Worshipful Company of Skinners, based on journals of Hudson's Bay Company traders, took five years to write. Farkas has worked and reworked the words of the journals into approximations of poems. Only approximations: these texts do not have the inspired quality of the best found poems. The language too often uses stilted expressions, especially inversions of subject and verb. Perhaps this passage is simply drawn verbatim from a log or journal:
Land not unlike my own beloved Isle, Which the sun first blesses, which the heavens Keep watch over, and which the sea embraces Like a shimmering diamond necklace.
To string together the accounts, Farkas creates an anonymous narrator, an Orkneyman whose Hudson's Bay Company experiences are representative. He comes to the North as an apprentice at thirteen, rises in the company hierarchy after many adventures and hardships, and ends up leaving his Native wife (his "winter dictionary" was the term) to become a bourgeois in Montreal, married to a spendthrift shrew too stereotyped to be convincing. It would have helped the narrative if Farkas had been more specific about the time and geographical locations.
Here and there Farkas has found some lively materials in his sources, like the terrifying story of the manager who keeps the Natives subdued by threatening them with a bottle which he claims is full of smallpox. The best poems are not the ones about people in the north (like the Bois Brulé, the coureurs de bois and the voyageurs) but the ones about the beaver and the buffalo. Both poems have keenly observed details, no doubt because his sources were fascinated by such exotic beings. "The Beaver" explains the name of the book. The "Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson's Bay" has four black beavers as part of its heraldry:
The Beaver is on The Company's Coat of Arms Whose motto is Pro Pelle Cutem
This the men translate as By any means we'll skin you.
Sharp practice indeed. The Latin phrase simply means "a skin for a skin," which implies fair play. The book gives some interesting background about this phase of Canadian history, but it would have been more effective if Farkas had reproduced journals in their original forms rather than trying to fashion the materials into naïve poems. The naiveté is in the narrator, not the poet, but the reader still flinches. Farkas might have spent his five years writing a prose history of the Company from the point of view of the traders; he still could.
Bert Almon's newest book, Hesitation Before Birth, was published by Beach Holme Press.