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Searching for Evidence of Ancestors:
Lauren Carter 's Following Sea

Lauren Carter's Following Sea
Lauren Carter , Following Sea
Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 2019.

The first poem in Following Sea, Lauren Carter’s second collection of poetry, stands alone, untethered from one of the book’s five sections. Titled “Historian,” it’s set in modern day, a contrast from most of the other 49 poems inhabiting Carter’s meticulous look at family history and human migration.

I find
them: pressed
between pages, those sudden
cursive blooms

she writes in this first piece, searching for evidence of her ancestors’ lives on reels of microfiche and on the pages of worn ledgers.

Centred on the Canadian settler experience of her great-great grandparents, John Willson Chisholm (1823-1900) and Margaret Patterson (1824-1891), Carter crafts a narrative. With finely tuned attention to detail and elegant language, she fills the gaps between dates found on census records and land registers, weaving together family lore, Canadian social history, and genealogical research to imagine their joyful celebrations, gruelling physical labour, and daily burdens. Her work is solitary:

the cemetery
tugged at me, but I didn’t go.
Stayed inside and counted names, sifted notations,
ran my finger down death
notices and photocopied script.
My great-great grandparents
gazed out at me, in a blur of black
and white, their strangers’
faces reflecting mine

she writes in the collection’s eponymous poem, “Following Sea.”

Spanning nearly 200 years, Following Sea is multigenerational, moving with ease between the homesteading history of Carter’s great-great grandparents and her own childhood digging shells from the mud of a Northern Ontario lake or “pushing on / into night,” (“Island Clearances”) with her siblings in the back seat of her parents’ car. Though rooted in the settler experience, the poet is keenly aware of the colonialism that brought her family to Canada from the damp lochs and glens of the Scottish Highlands.

In the autumn,
of 1863, a group
of Anishinaabe
tried to stop the white
surveyors arriving
on shore. They were there
to count the trout, tally
stone and trees, to see
if the soil
could be turned

writes Carter in “Island Clearances.”

Employing the use of tactile imagery, the sense of touch is central to Following Sea, where footpaths are “scratched in granite,” there’s “tallow-thick mist” in Michael’s Bay, and “hard / sand collapses in your hands.” Texture features prominently: the “ridge / of stone, boney as a fetal / spine,” ancient wooden furniture, and sticky jam made “from ruby / fruit in blackened / clearings.” (“Walker’s Point, Manitoulin Island (1868)”) With great control, Carter never wastes a word in this rich, but subtle, collection.

The collection comes to a crushing conclusion in “Barren” and “Mother’s Day,” Following Sea’s final two sections. Carter, hoping to add to her family tree, instead finds herself using poetry to chronicle infertility. “You cannot have / my blood” she says to History in her characteristically unsentimental tone, “you planted / a single, faulty seed.” (“For History”) In a book in which bloodlines are central, readers can’t help but share in Carter’s grief. Yet, like the family members before her, Carter is resilient. She’s a masterful storyteller who breathes life into working class ancestors whose names would otherwise live only in archives.

 

Jessica Rose is the book reviews editor at THIS, a senior editor at the Hamilton Review of Books, and the marketing manager of gritLIT: Hamilton’s Readers and Writers Festival. Her book reviews have appeared in Quill and Quire, Room, Herizons, the Humber Literary Review, and on rabble.ca.

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