High on the slopes of the Yukon’s Ruby Range, beyond the Arctic Circle, “a kilometre above sea level,” little can grow in the talus and scree, and that which does manage to root itself attains no great height. “[W]e are the tallest objects,” writes Elena Johnson, “bent by wind.” The poems in Johnson’s debut collection were initially composed during a stint in the Kluane Alpine Ecosystem Project field camp in the summer of 2008, a residency she herself—an experienced park naturalist and field ecology researcher—proposed.
The book, seven years in the making, is true to the prevailing conditions and precise coordinates from which it sprang. Its twenty-seven poems, beginning on page thirteen and ending on page forty, range from four to twenty-nine lines, with most being shorter than a sonnet. Such page and word counts are closer to what we expect from a chapbook than a trade collection. Johnson has said that her manuscript was initially “twice this long, with two other sections,” and credits Gaspereau Press editor and publisher Andrew Steeves with insisting that the tundra poems had to have their own space. It is refreshing to see a publisher take such an approach—and not surprising from one who has devoted so much time and thought to the integrity of books.
Five of the poems aren’t conventional verse structures, but a map, a chart, a graph, a set of field observations and illustrations—actual “field notes,” in other words, data sets which, cannily chosen and carefully framed, justify themselves as poetry within the context of the suite. A chart plotting vegetation coverage, for example, is abruptly abandoned halfway through because the researcher’s hands are “too cold to continue.” In “Ptarmigan Observation Sheet,” the observer drops an exclamation mark when s/he finally spots a numbered metal band on the left leg of a rock ptarmigan; that one piece of punctuation does so much to let human emotion seep into and out of objective reportage.
If poems about wilderness can be roughly filed under two rubrics, the rapturous and the restrained, Johnson’s peg their tent firmly in the tundra of the latter camp. Instead of strained lyric epiphanies, she is more likely to end a poem with “Eighteen days. / The same wool socks.” Or: “Today two caribou appear. / If these are the two I saw yesterday, / I haven’t seen four,” which alchemically converts mathematical uncertainty into spiritual awareness. Her found visual poem illustrating different patterns of growth rings in the stems of willow shrubs is a perfect foil to Field Notes’ most significant precursor, Al Purdy’s North of Summer, a book also born of a sojourn in northern latitudes. Purdy’s much-anthologized “Trees at the Arctic Circle,” a poem about an eastern species of willow, rambles over more than fifty lines and becomes as much about the poet’s own stupidity as about Salix Cordifolia. Johnson just shows us the rings, with no interpolative philosophizing. When she does indulge in a romantic “Oh,” it is not for the sublime grandeur of her surroundings, but for lowly sphagnum, which “soaks and soaks again.” This is Johnson’s gift: looking, listening, absorbing and allowing the reader to see, rather than imposing her persona on the landscape and telling us what she thinks and feels.
Zachariah Wells rides the train between Halifax and Montreal.
A MAP, A GRAPH, AN ARC!