Friday, July 24, 2009

Reader's Diary #511- Robbie Newton Drummond: Arctic Circle Songs

I've lived in the north for 7 years now. When I first moved up, I'd tell friends in the south that I lived in the Arctic. However, years later I had someone tell me that since I didn't live above the Arctic Circle (66° 33’N) I have not lived in the Arctic. While I agreed that Yellowknife (62° 27’N) does not feel like the Arctic, Rankin Inlet (62° 48’N) and Iqaluit (63° 45’N) did. Perhaps it was the romantic notion of living in the Arctic, but I was disappointed to learn of my non-existing Arctic bragging rights. Fortunately, I've since found another definition that uses the climate and treeline to define it. By those standards, while I'm now in the subarctic, I did at least live in the Arctic while in Rankin and Iqaluit. (My Oxford Canadian Dictionary supports both definitions.)

I offer this information not as a geography lesson but as an illustration of my learning experience. In the afterword of Arctic Circle Songs, Robbie Newton Drummond writes "one of the peculiar aspects I discovered about the Arctic [was] in the first month in the Mackenzie Delta, I thought I knew everything about the North. By the end of two years I realized I understood very little indeed." This has certainly been my experience as well and I appreciate that wisdom and honesty from Drummond.

One of the more substantial things I've learned, not the rather trivial definition of arctic, is that the cultures are quite different. There isn't one Northern culture, nor is there one Aboriginal culture. So, despite Drummond's after-the-fact suggestion that he understood little after his two years in Inuvik and the surrounding area, I looked forward to getting some tiny bit of insight into what life in that area of the north was like in the early 90s. I looked forward to doing the compare and contrast game against my own experiences.

Arctic Circle Songs did not disappoint. While Drummond's physician background comes through in many of the images and scenarios, his poetic side is in charge. Amongst the narrative and descriptive poems are wonderfully acute observations of cultures and cultural change, the relationship between people and nature, and of a man coming to grips and simultaneously losing grips with an Arctic he thought he had all but figured out.

Here's one of my favourites. There's a control to Drummond's poetry that I first mistook as tightness. He knows what he wants to say, but lets the poem breathe.

Snail on a Whale's Back
Out of earshot
in the near distance
a truck gears down,
squirts a foul blast
of diesel into still air,
accelerates into ice fog:
a greasy snail on the broad back
of a beached white whale.

Absurd as a rope thrown to the moon,
the Dempster Highway scratches north
from Dawson to Inuvik:
a scar down the belly of an unwed girl,
a rip through the blank page
of the Yukon
where winter pulls
a sheet over the flat face
of spruce land,
muskeg meadow, rock country,
where the ancient tracks
are Arctic hare in drifting snow,
wind prints on massive drifts,
aurora on the field of night.

--Eagle Plains, Yukon

by Robbie Newton Drummond

(Read another poem by Drummond here.)


Zachariah Wells said...

Would have been a good poem, had it ended on "whale."

John Mutford said...

Zachariah: No, it's a good poem as is. Interesting that you would respond actually, as this book reminded me of your Unsettled book.

Zachariah Wells said...

I think there are some good tropes in the second paragraph, but by piling them on, Drummond steals some of the force from the initial metaphor (which manages to evoke Pound and Melville simultaneously, without showing any strain)--which is the title metaphor, and should be given pride of place, not drifted over in a blizzard of afterthoughts. The second and third lines of the second paragraph are thoroughly disposable exposition. "where the ancient tracks
are Arctic hare in drifting snow," is clunky. The first paragraph is such a chiselled, lapidary little poem on its own, precise, aurally interesting and allusively dense, clicking shut like a box, the way Yeats said a good poem ought to. The second paragraph's a darling that should have died in edits.

John Mutford said...

Zachariah: Well, I'm glad you elaborated, though I disagree with your conclusion. I thought the piling on of tropes, as you referred to it, was reminiscent of Leonard Cohen, especially of "Bird on a Wire." Plus, I like the initial discord between the two stanzas. Going back to see how they connected was a large part of the fun, plus it echoed the whole slash and repair scenario that he's worked so hard to achieve.

Gavin said...

I think it's a wonderful group of images describing the Dempster Highway, a road my husband has always wanted to take north. I'm going to try and find this book.

Mara said...

If you are interested in knowing more about what the north was like in the last century, you might enjoy my novel entitled "Rankin Inlet." I lived there in the early 1970s and returned in 1999 to witness the founding of Nunavut. See the book trailer at or go to for more info about the book and me. Hope you enjoy it! And thanks for sharing that poem.
Mara Feeney

John Mutford said...

Gavin: Surprising for a short book of poetry to still be in print, but I believe it is. Click on the cover photo above and it should take you to ordering info.

Mara: As a former Rankin Inleter myself, I do have a great interest in reading your novel. However, you already plugged it on my blog a short while ago. I'd gladly review it for the local paper if you wish to send me a review copy.

Allison said...

I am not as north as the arctic, but I feel I could still appreciate this book. I am sad about not being able to make it further north while here. With every move away from Ontario, I appreciate our country even more.

John Mutford said...

Allison: Where is it you are again?