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The Guest Book

by Richard Lemm 

When I consider the gifts PEI’s poets have given to the Island, I remember favourite quotations about poetry. Bob Dylan says, “I like to think of myself as the one who carries the light bulb.” Robert Frost asserts, “Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat.” “A poet,” writes W.H. Auden “is a person who is passionately in love with language.” Salman Rushdie states, “A poet’s work is to name the unnameable… shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.”

The following are PEI poets who carry light bulbs for readers, take life by the throat, passionately love language, shape our world, and keep us vividly awake. My focus is mainly on books with prominent PEI content, even though, like poets everywhere, ours cast their poetic gaze everywhere.

Brent MacLaine, world traveller raised on an Island farm, explores his rural and Scottish heritage in Wind and Root and These Fields Were Rivers. He portrays PEI’s transformation through tourism and suburban-commercial development, and wears the modern Islander’s two hats, pastoral and cosmopolitan.

PEI Poet Laureate Deirdre Kessler, in Afternoon Horses, shares her exuberant love of the natural world—with an artist’s and naturalist’s vision—and of childhood’s wondrous realms. Judy Gaudet is also gifted with nuanced awareness of nature: in Conversations with Crows, her painterly and musical language honours the Island’s beauty and biodiversity.

Hugh MacDonald writes with deep devotion to, and knowledge of, the Island and its people in The Digging of Deep Wells. Dianne Morrow reveals the journey of an adult “only child” as her beloved parents grow old and confront death, in What Really Happened Is This. David Helwig’s Keeping Late Hours shares the exquisite New Year’s poems he sent every year to friends from his Island home.

Sledgehammer drives home John MacKenzie’s powerful voice: his grasp of human experience and his language are tender and fierce, earthy and elegant. Laurie Brinklow’s Here for the Music makes your mind twist and shout, weep and rejoice for the heartaches and joys of being a child, parent, lover, worker, friend.

The younger PEI poets include David Hickey, Steve McOrmond, Jane Ledwell, Sean Wiebe, and Beth Janzen. In Hickey’s In the Lights of a Midnight Plow, his grandfather, an aging farmer, kneels on the Charlottetown airport tarmac, baffled by strange lights blossoming in what was once his field. Hickey’s poems tell captivating stories with polished grace and leaping power.

With McOrmond’s Lean Days and Primer on the Hereafter, we hear the satiric, bittersweet voice of a younger Islander immersed in a place with deeply ingrained patterns of hope, determination, and disappointment, and rapidly transforming with technology, tourism, and economic realities.

Last Tomato by Ledwell is suffused with her delicately rich language, sharp perceptions of nature and people, wry wit, and command of imagery. Sean Wiebe’s imagination explores, in Blue Waiting, his experiences as a west coaster who became an east coaster. In The Enchanted House, Beth Janzen looks inward to the “house of the psyche,” and the self’s conversations about what is real and imagined, blessed or cursed.

Our newest published poets are Mathew Henderson and Chris Bailey. Henderson, in The Lease, evokes our region’s tradition of out-migration, in its newer fossil-fuel guise: the tasks, risks, and interactions of oil fields, and the off-work camaraderie, friction, and loneliness in bars and motels. From a fishing family in North Lake, Bailey casts a poetic net around the boats and wharves, struggles and blessings of modern fishing families and communities in What Your Hands Have Done.

These recommendations are incomplete without a reverent bow to poetic luminaries in the spirit world: Milton Acorn, Frank Ledwell, Joseph Sherman, and John Smith.

If Island residents and visitors read one poetry or fiction book by our writers each month, they will have an enhanced awareness of this province and its landscape, teeming with the heart-warming and -breaking richness and complexity of human experience.

—Richard Lemm teaches creative writing and Canadian literature at UPEI. His new poetry book, Jeopardy, was published in June by Acorn Press.

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