48°, 26', 14.4" N 123°, 19', 40.6" W
By Amy Reiswig. Photo by Rob Skelly. July 2010
Melanie Siebert’s new book navigates the idea of place, both wild and urban.
Carrying a book in a Ziploc bag is a sure sign that you are very used to getting wet. It is also a sign of wanting to protect what is important to you. It’s appropriate, then, that writer and former river guide Melanie Siebert has brought her new book of poems, Deepwater Vee, so bagged, since the collection is all about honouring and protecting what she loves.
Published by McClelland & Stewart in March, Deepwater Vee is Siebert’s first book and centres largely on her experience of Canada’s northern rivers. Specific rivers referenced in the book include the Burnside, Alsek, Athabasca, Clearwater, North Saskatchewan, Churchill, South Nahanni, and Thelon. “They become branded on you,” she explains reflectively, as we sit on her yoga mat in the grass next to our own local—if less impressive—waterway of Bowker Creek.
Siebert grew up in Mennonite country near the North Saskatchewan River and worked as a wilderness river guide in Saskatchewan, Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and Alaska—what many of us would consider forbidding territory. “From the time you wake up to the time you go to bed, you’re just in contact with wind, sky, water, the weather. You slowly become more and more permeable to it,” she says, explaining why she loves the remote outdoors. As she puts it in the poem “Bellanca Esker,” “The heart that sprawls/ horizon to horizon is the good roof.”
As a poet and as a person, Siebert is passionate and meditative. While working on Deepwater Vee, Siebert was writer-in-residence at UVic’s Centre for Studies in Religion and Society and she explains her spiritual outlook as “thinking about contemplation as a way of relating to place. The path I’m interested in,” she says after a pensive pause, “is letting go of dogma and just paying attention.” In perfect illustration, she points out a crayfish crawling out onto the waving grass in front of us, as if to listen.
Paying attention and then giving voice to place informs Siebert’s poetic project. What she calls “the GPS poems”—introduced with latitude and longitude coordinates—are, she says, “sort of love letters to those places. You could go to that exact spot and see if the poem is any good,” she laughs.
But as a writing teacher at UVic, Siebert is very aware of certain poetic hazards inherent in writing about the natural world. “The poems could fall off into sentimentality, which negates what is, trivializes the places and their history,” she tells me. “Or they could fall into despair and anger, become didactic rants.” One of the effects of travelling Canada’s northern rivers, including what she calls industrial rivers, “the rivers we don’t care for,” is a sense of loss. Of the North Saskatchewan River she offers the simple, factual lament: “You can’t drink this water./You can’t drink this water.”
These are not easy, breezy nature lyrics. Siebert’s use of language, like the rivers themselves, is surprising, challenging, and the poems cultivate a tension between precise location and what she calls the “crazy, wobbly reading of the places.” From description of “the river’s leggy colt-gleam” and the “water’s big-winged glide” to interpretations of riverine behaviour—“The river sticks a coin behind its ear, pulls two from its wrist”—I felt both oriented and disoriented at the same time, recalling the book’s introductory explanation of a deepwater vee: “dark, glassy water that points downstream, indicating a deep channel…these fast, sometimes narrow chutes can be hard to see and tricky to navigate. Threading from V to V is often part instinct, part gamble, part yielding to the water.” One might say the same of (th)reading from poem to poem.
“Language is very river-like,” Siebert says, gesturing towards the creek. “It can be slow and gather, then pour rapidly over a little ledge, then form a still pool, but it always has forward momentum. There is a sinuous connectedness but that is constantly changing.”
“I see the book as a whole as dealing with woundedness and lostness,” she says, and not just in nature. Surprisingly, almost half of the poems are focused not on rivers, but on people: a busker, grandmother, the 18th century explorer Alexander Mackenzie and, through imagined letters, Mackenzie’s relationship with his wife, Kitty.
In all of these, Siebert explores issues of navigating and inhabiting place, whether urban or wild, past or present. “I was interested in a more complex evocation of what wilderness is,” she explains, “how we experience that in our bodies and in our minds.” For example, what she found most intriguing in Mackenzie’s otherwise dry journals and letters were references to his sense of depression and disorientation. One of Siebert’s six poems entitled “Letter to Kitty, Never Written” consists of the single line “I drowned long ago. I drowned in that country.”
Similarly, there are seven poems each simply entitled “Busker.” These are more urban poems, and they are introduced with location details such as “8th Ave./Centre St.” or “Heading east on 9th”—position markers comparable to the GPS poems. “I was interested in tracking the busker in the same way as I was interested in tracking the river,” Siebert says, and in these poems she continues as guide through unfamiliar territory: “He walks, flares a flame cauldron, 50-gigajoules/hr gas-mind at the top of the Calgary Tower, its sway to the alley jazz club, alley for alice, alice in under-land, under-band playing a bargain-basement remand.”
“I’m as interested in the busker as much as the river,” Siebert explains. “They both have a kind of beauty, fragility, vulnerability and permeability. The book tries to recognize that there is great loss everywhere you look, but there is also great beauty that coexists in a way that can still take your breath away.”
For Siebert, one of the natural consequences of paying attention is taking action. “I write letters to Stephen Harper on a regular basis,” she says with a mischievous smile, and she has also travelled with Keepers of the Athabasca and attended conferences relating to the protection of the Arctic watershed.
Amy Reiswig’s reviews and other non-fiction have appeared in the Danforth Review, Quill & Quire, The Malahat Review and The Walrus.