to lick the skin of the water / with a tongue I don’t speak
Marie-Andrée Gill’s Spawn is a surprising, colorful, virtuosic collection. Its brief, untitled poems span ’90s-kid nostalgia, the life cycle of fresh-water salmon, a coming of age, and the natural landscape of the Mashteuiatsh reserve, centered on Lake Piekuakami—a site of recreation and commerce, a reminder of conquest and ecological decline, a symbol of the ancient world, of sex, of the cycles of life. These poems are tightly interdependent, and Spawn could truly be read as a single, braided, book-length poem. But I want to focus here on a theme that became especially vital to my project of understanding and translating the book: recovery of language.
Marie-Andrée Gill: Poems in Translation from SPAWN
Amos C. Martin Ltd., Wallenstein, Ontario, Canada, circa 1960. Photo by Clarence Martin
I think of him now the way I saw him last: my grandfather, seated on the edge of his hospital bed with the pale shanks of his legs angled to bare feet on rubber floor. He was thumbing through a Maclean’s when I arrived at dawn. Despite the catheter tube and the IV drip at his side, he wasn’t taking this one lying down—not yet, anyway. On that December morning, his eyes sparkled with unspent energy.
A few years ago, I made an impromptu road trip to a Canadian ghost town called Bradian. Tucked into the Chilcotin Mountains about five hours north of Vancouver BC, Bradian lies at the end of a forbidding 45-mile dirt road and was deserted in 1971 after the local gold mine closed. Despite its near-total inaccessibility, Bradian has become a strangely coveted object since its abandonment. The town has passed from one owner to the next, each with their own ludicrous plan for its empty streets: a retirement community, a sketchy immigration scheme, a drug smuggling operation. And as if rebuffing the unwanted advances of a long line of suitors, the town has foiled every attempt to claim it. (It’s currently on the market for $1.2 million.) Writing about Bradian for The Common in 2017, I saw its bizarre holdout as a parable for the tug-of-war between human conquest and the natural world, a reminder that not everywhere should be subject to the drumbeat of development.
Being Portuguese and Canadian, I’m always looking for literature about the Portuguese immigrant experience in North America. So I eagerly anticipated the acclaimed Canadian writer Anthony de Sa’s new novel, Kicking the Sky, which weaves the fictional lives of several families in the Portuguese immigrant community in Toronto with a particularly gruesome true crime story.
De Sa has emerged as one of the important literary voices of the Portuguese Diaspora. His first book, Barnacle Love, a series of related stories about Portuguese immigrant history, was short-listed for Canada’s prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2008.
This is the final installment part of a three-part dispatch. Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 can be found on The Common’s website.
The first order of business was to find the source of the leak. I went downstairs to the parking lot and started the car. Water pooled on the ground in the time it took me to get out and raise the hood. Finally, I nailed it down to a blown intake gasket. A spot about six inches long between the engine head and the intake manifold that bled water and antifreeze.
Over the echoing Skype line my parents mention seeing a northern harrier on the outskirts of Ottawa. Perched on a post as they drove along, it had leaned into the air to sail off across the fields, a pearl-gray ghost slipping away. Still speaking, I pull The Sibley Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America from the bookcase beside me. I leaf backwards through the waders and rails, overshooting the raptors to land amidst ducks and geese before paging my way forward to find the harrier. I then press the illustration up to the webcam, trying my best to keep it steady. “That’s the one,” says my father, smiling back at me on the screen.
Dispatches will be taking a vacation during the month of August. In the meantime, please take a virtual vacation with some of our recent dispatches: Join Julia Lichtblau as she contemplates economics in sun-soaked Lisbon; Maura Candela as she stumbles upon her husband’s roots in Sicily; James Gill as he recalls a paradise lost in Canada’s Saskatchewan prairies, and Todd Pitock as he gazes up at the cold night sky in one of the hottest places on earth.
We left the upper reaches of the Mississippi River, our last connection with what we knew, and ventured onto the plains of Minnesota and into North Dakota, 80 miles an hour through fields of sunflowers. Outside Minot, the two-lane highway was under construction, but there were no rows of orange barrels striped with reflective tape; instead, both lanes of pavement were ripped up, and I drove the dirt roadbed between earthmovers, graders, and dump trucks while my wife slept in the passenger’s seat and my seven-month-old son made faces at me in the rearview mirror from his car seat. Finally the roadwork ended, and we drove on through a valley where each hill held white rocks stacked to form the year of a high school’s graduating class. Almost twenty years were covered in as many miles, and I wondered what would happen when they ran out of hills. We crossed into Canada at a small town called Portal, then made our way across the plains, trying to remember to read our speed in kilometers. The city of Regina appeared on the horizon like a skyline drawn in elementary school art class: the sky and ground meeting on a ruler-straight line, while boxes and rectangles extended upward from it. Past that, the highway skirted the Arm River Valley, the only variation in the tabletop prairie, where each town was marked with a wooden grain elevator rising in the distance.