“This boat grafts you to water’s big-winged glide,” observes Melanie Siebert in Deepwater Vee, her beautifully original debut poetry collection. Shortlisted for the 2010 Governor General’s Award, Deepwater Vee is itself a boat, gliding through Siebert’s 10 years as a professional guide on rivers from Alaska to Baffin Island, including the desecrated North Saskatchewan and Athabasca. Her words carry us to the heart of wilderness landscapes and reveal startling new ways of understanding them. The poems in this collection evoke Siebert’s journeys with a surge of language that runs at times with a deep, measured fluidity, then dives into sudden chutes of unexpected metaphors or dark realities. Take the opening of the title piece, “Deepwater Vee”:
Water slants its root into your gill-surfaced ride and you steal the inside
of the Devil’s Elbow, miss the ledges, narrowly, take the downstream
tongue, deepwater vee funnelled to a wavetrain piling around the bend.
The language thrusts us along in a current of its own; we catch our breath on the ride down to reach:
The sun, an engine two-stroking way off in the distance,
North Sask, now a muddy adagio, cowhide, slack…
before heading into the grim evocation of a landscape being transformed:
Overburden, Athabasca muskeg, stripped back.
400-ton heavy-haulers dump-trucking the boreal forest.
The unravelling health of these waterways that Siebert has known for years is paralleled by a suite of poems that depict the struggles of an impoverished musician brother busking on Calgary’s streets. The brother, who “leans his head against the payphone, / holds the receiver out to the wind,” is an eerie echo of the inhospitable, wildlandscapes that hold Siebert at a distance even as she seeks ways of knowing and loving them. These intertwined sequences, together with others that explore the life and letters of Alexander MacKenzie and the legacy of Alberta tar sands on downstream communities, inspire reflections on the impact of a colonizing culture’s approach to land and people on natural heritage, community and our own fragile minds.
Like all good poetry, Siebert’s work is thick with details born from profound experiences and prolonged observation. She sidles up to the river, the mountains, and the people who inhabit these landscapes. She listens to what they have to say, then translates it in a way that encourages further listening. Deepwater Vee is not so much a call to action as a call to attention, a call to more fully inhabit and attend to the wilderness that is our collective, fleeting inheritance.
Throughout the book, Siebert explores her engagement with the natural world, and her grief at the loss of beautiful places, through the lenses of history, family and personal experience. Her immersion in the wilderness evokes a deeper understanding of, and relation to, the sanctity of natural spaces. Like the boat that grafts you to water’s big-winged glide, Siebert’s poetry offers new ways of fusing heart and landscape, heart and waterway. It urges you to stay there, even when the water is rough.
Deepwater Vee, Melanie Siebert, Toronto: McLelland and Stewart, 2010, 96 pages
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