When I visited Newfoundland for the first time some two decades ago, I was struck by many things. Yes, the people were great, and I enjoyed multiple nights teetotalling on George Street while listening to the dulcet tones of the late, great Dermot O’Reilly. But even before I made my way ashore I was struck by the island’s unique environment. The hours-long ferry trip from North Sydney, Nova Scotia to Port aux Basques provided a lesson in its coarse isolation.
On the way to St. John’s I followed Route 1, a beautiful drive if there is one, which also served to reveal the sheer size of the island; a trip up the 430 to the town of St. Anthony, meanwhile, revealed spectacular fjords and the Long Range Mountains. With its inlets and lakes, forests and peninsulas, this was the first time in my life that I was captivated by my physical surroundings.
I mention all of this because reading Alison Dyer’s poetry collection, I’d Write the Sea Like a Parlour Game, evoked memories of that visit. An award-winning writer whose work has appeared in notable publications including The Fiddlehead, Grain and the Newfoundland Quarterly, Dyer spent her younger days in Quebec and England before settling in the Avalon Peninsula. Whether it’s her status as an NBC (Newfoundlander by Choice) or her academic background in physical geography–most likely it’s a combination of the two–Dyer brings the attentive eye of an outsider coming to grips with her surroundings.
The collection opens with a quote from the acclaimed writer and biologist, Rachel Carson. While Carson is best known for Silent Spring, the quote, “Only the most hardy and adaptable can survive in a region so mutable,” comes from an earlier, lesser known work, 1955’s The Edge of the Sea. Both the quote and the source are inspired selections, as The Edge of the Sea is an exploration of coastal ecosystems. While Carson did not have Newfoundland in mind when she wrote these words, they nonetheless are befitting of a rugged North Atlantic island.
I’d Write the Sea Like a Parlour Game is divided into four sections. The first, “Bones of Paradise,” features a series of meditations on earth, wind and sky. The language is sparse yet rich in metaphors. My favorite poem in this section, “Snowdrops,” likens the ephemeral nature of the title subject to such things as childhood, “a midnight resolution” and “a cat’s preference.”
The second section, “Apostles of the Boreal,” reads as a loving tribute to the island’s tree species, including “Mountain Ash (the boisterous),” “Balsam Fir (the trustworthy)” and “Red Pine (the memory stick).”
The third section, “Why He Rested on the Seventh Day,” features “Hell’s Hand,” a callback to yesteryear when card playing was seen by many religious folk to be a surefire way to end up in eternal damnation and “Ode to the Potato Growers,” which is a poetic take on farmers’ folk knowledge.
The final section, “Near Church Street,” addresses such topics as the island’s weather (in “Wind: excessive,” which contains the collection’s best use of a pun and “Just Another White-out”) and the benefits of buying groceries from the old corner store (“Lament for the Groc & Conf”).
As a tribute to the environment and people of Newfoundland, this poetry collection makes for an excellent read. If you’re like me, you’ll appreciate it even more with subsequent re-readings.
I’d Write the Sea Like a Parlour Game