The compulsion to tell stories is probably as old as humanity itself. Originally, histories were recounted through the simple act of passing information from one generation to another orally. When we first started to record information, it was in the form of long poems, similar to the way the stories had been told when sitting around the fire or hearth. Eventually, as we grew more sophisticated, prose replaced poetry and the stories became more impersonal. Instead of telling the history of a family or a village histories have turned into a listing of events. However, while it is no longer our main means of written communication, poetry is still used on occasion for the recounting of personal and family histories.
In her newest collection of poems, How the Light Is Spent, published by Wintergreen Studios Press, Gail Sidonie Sobat gives us poetry relating to her family’s history in Western Canada, her personal adventures travelling in Turkey and finally meditations on various people and moments in her life. Each of the book’s three sections, “Badlands”, “Sailing To Byzantium” and “How The Light Is Spent”, provides the reader with a collection of poems the cumulative effect of which is to describe events in such vividness we are left with an emotional and intellectual understanding of the histories prose could never match.
In the early part of the 20th century, Canada desperately required people willing to settle its three prairie provinces, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Opening the country’s doors to immigrants willing to settle on the prairies resulted in a large influx of Eastern Europeans, especially Ukrainians, into the region. Lured by the promise of free land they came to Canada and attempted to build new lives for themselves. Not only did they face the challenge of clearing the land, building housing and dealing with a harsh climate, they were treated as second class citizens and given the derisive name of Bohunk. Although originally a degradation of the word Bohemian – an area in what is now the Czech Republic – the word quickly became slang for any person of Eastern European extraction.
In “Badlands” we find ourselves among poor immigrant farmers and coal miners. Like their counterparts in the United States the badlands in Alberta Canada are an unforgiving and fierce environment. While Sobat doesn’t spend much time describing the surroundings the people in her poems live in, she still manages to convey the role it played in their lives. In “Bohunks From The Hills” she describes them thus, “those badlands are lonely lands/despite childhood joys/misplaced memories/these hills hold neither charm nor hope/remind instead that loss/is so sadly permanent.”
The poems in this section follow the maternal line of her family from when they first arrived in Canada down through the generations. Occasionally a poem will be from the perspective of one of her ancestors, describing how she fell in love with the man she married, while other poems fill us in on the attitudes of other people towards the “Bohunks”. As many of the immigrants ended up working in the coal mines, references to coal and the toll it took on those who dug it run through a number of the poems like a vein of the ore they suffered to bring to the surface. “coal seeps into pores, the mind/sullies a man’s outlook/steals the sunlight and substitutes/a black vitriolic madness.” (“Coal Mad”- How The Light Is Spent, Sobat, Gail Sidonie p8)
As we follow the lives of the women the poet describes, we see how they we’re shaped by the way the mines affected husbands. In one poem, “From Rosedale To Cambria Suite,” we learn the details of one woman’s childhood. Her father is working in the mines and coming home embedded with coal. Her mother is growing old before her time in the constant struggle to feed and shelter her family until finally “your mother’s heart burst at last/worn out from trying to live”. Her father remarried a woman with five children of her own and at 10 years of age the narrator isn’t wanted; at 15 she is sent out in the world to earn a living.
Each of the poems in this section describes another piece of the journey along the road this woman travelled. From falling in love at 17, her boyfriend’s refusal to tie himself to the mines and decision to join the army as a way of avoiding digging coal, to her being left widowed with a young daughter in 1943. As well as the poems, Sobat has included photos of the people she talks about, the photos from her family albums which inspired the work. They stand posed and smiling for the camera creating a veneer of happiness to be pasted over the truth of their history. However as the final lines in “P/O M. E. VanDeKinder” say “there are no happy endings/just the brief joys of living/and if lucky, loving/a boy from the hills even once”.
The section of the book titled “Sailing To Byzantium” deals with a description of a voyage to Turkey. While some of the poems deal with the culture shock experienced by a Westerner travelling in a culture almost completely alien to them, others deal with the feelings of wonder at being in a place so completely different from what a person is used to. In “bottle blond on the golden horn” the poet reflects on the former, “I see the bridge and the minaret/against a filthy dawn sky/cough up yesterday’s dirt and grime/wonder if there’s anything/clean and pure to be found/in this Janus-faced city”. However in “Istanbul #2” she is much more appreciative of the city’s differences. “to touch the woven fibres/made by women sold by men/in centuries-old bazaar/sip hospitable teas/with barterers smiling benignly through tooth rot”, is only part of her description of the wonders of the famous street markets of Istanbul.
However, what I found most interesting about this series of poems was her using the ancient Christian name of Byzantium for the region. I wondered why she referred to what was once the heart of the Ottoman Empire by this extremely archaic name? Is it to remind us of the impermanence of all empires? Or by referring to it by the name the region has often been called in Romantic poetry does she hope to heighten the contrast between the gritty reality she finds there and any romantic notions she might have had about the area prior to her arrival. If the latter, than she is remarkably successful. The descriptions we read in her poems about Turkey, Istanbul specifically, are of a big dirty city like any other, with only hints of its former glory.
After travelling in time and across the world with Sobat, the poems in the final section of the book show her turning her eye slightly inward. Here she reflects on various people and incidences which describe the simple acts of living and how her energy, “The Light”, is spent on them. Whether it a celebration of a slightly hedonistic meal in “pilgrimage to Hardware Grill”, and its honouring of the earthy delights of a gourmet meal and good wine; “smiling Russell suavely/sets before us verdant greens/succulence swims in sauce/garrulous garlic wafts willfully/tastes scents textures/exotic exacting/our glasses/our hearts/are full/and we give thanks”; or the more profane “Fecal Incident on the Sunshine Coast”; “the dog took a dump in the Pacific Ocean/as we horrified, mortified watched/even the seagull flapped off in disgust”; each poem in this section is a slice of an everyday life lived,
Here she shows us history is not only made up of momentous occasions from the past, nor do we have to travel half way around the world to have new and varied experiences. In fact each moment we live, each action we take, are part of the creation of history no matter where we are or who we are with. The stories we tell each other everyday are as redolent with significance as those we’ve learned about the struggles of our ancestors to survive or the adventures we’ve experienced among other people and cultures.
History is definitely far more than just the actions of famous people written down in text books for us and others to study in school. While history texts might tell us about the famous battles and the heroes and villains who fought on every side, it’s the poet who looks between the cracks and tells us about the people who ate, worked, loved and died in these wars and the families they left behind. In How The Light Is Spent Sobat has created a personal history that not only tells the story of her family and her self in this world, but helps us see the world is far more complex, beautiful and awe-inspiring place than any textbook could hope to tell us. This is history as it should be, told through the pen of a poet with an eye for the important details of life.