The Quadra Island-based poet Robert Bringhurst has been described by Margaret Atwood as “heroic” and by Noah Richler as “one of the country’s literary treasures.”
A BOOK CAN BE MANY THINGS. The match that lights a fire. A stone thrown into a still pond. A supportive set of hands. For inanimate objects, books can hold and initiate a lot of action, and sometimes I’m surprised to not find mine vibrating, shaking, or dancing on the shelves.
Some books, more than anything, are doorways, portals and pathways leading out of offices and living rooms, inviting us to step our minds inside not to pursue a linear destination but, specifically, to follow the loops and surprises of what presents. To have a wander.
Such is the case of Robert Bringhurst’s new book of poems, The Ridge (Harbour Publishing). It leads into deep, green places near his home on Quadra Island but also takes us up into the cold space and hot stars beyond our Earth, down past rivers and roots into the flowing bedrock below, and into the dance of the smallest particles of which everything is made. It’s a vital reminder of how profound discoveries can come not from searching but from sensing, listening, and from a willingness to be awed by what you find—and what finds you—when you go quiet.
At turns loving, elegiac, playful, angry, and humble, The Ridge also leads readers through time, back to the beginnings of our collective home, forward to the future of inescapable planetary destruction, and deep within our own quite momentary existence to the heart of the ways we choose to be human. All rooted in the rich teachings about language, being, and meaning offered by what’s standing, walking, singing, flying, flowing, growing, or speaking silence in the forest. As he writes, “Everywhere you turn/ is everything there is”.
BRINGHURST has been reflecting on these ideas for many years and says that even so, he still has much to learn. His first collection of poems appeared in 1972, and since then he’s published over 20 books of poetry and an equal number of prose works, including translations and collaborations. An Officer of the Order of Canada and former Guggenheim Fellow in poetry, he’s received a Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence and two honorary doctorates among other awards over an influential 50-year body of work. I would have said “career,” but it’s a word Bringhurst doesn’t quite relate to. “A long career! That must be true,” he says during our inter-island correspondence, “but it’s actually never occurred to me.”
What does occur to him consistently is how astonishing the world is. “Being, meaning, and language, on the other hand, are things I’ve been thinking about and exploring all my life: three inexhaustible subjects, unimaginably ancient, huge, and brand new every day. So they always have something to teach me.”
Robert Bringhurst (photo by Kay Amert)
In his younger years, Bringhurst notes, some of his greatest education was outside. He grew up the child of parents on the move, between Utah, Montana, Wyoming, southwestern Alberta. Those early landscapes of mountains and rivers, he says, were where he began to develop a sense of the land not just as a refuge but, more actively, a kind of tutor or grandparent. And he began to also notice the contrast between the deep knowledge/ belonging offered by the land and the confusingly unkind behaviours of human civilization and education systems. (As a child who had already learned to write and read—in that order, he emphasizes—when he started school, some of his teachers and fellow students were less than tolerant of his quiet disinterest.)
While he studied in the sciences at MIT, Bringhurst made a shift to the humanities, receiving an MFA in creative writing from UBC. That might seem like a big change, but Bringhurst is, among other things, a perpetually curious path-follower.
“All the great connections in my life have happened by accident,” he explains when I ask how he came to writing poetry. “Or at least they’ve started by accident. When I started to do what I called ‘writing poetry,’ I had no idea what poetry was. So I probably wasn’t writing poetry after all, but I kept trying. And I read a lot of poetry, trying to find out what kinds of it there were. It’s never stopped. I’m still trying and still learning.”
IT’S NOT SURPRISING, then, that poetry itself is one of The Ridge’s recurring subjects.
“A poem is a well,” he writes, but even in the hands of a skilled artist like Bringhurst, it can’t fully catch the fluidity and depth of things. “Truth comes down in a torrent/ and up in a bucket/ that leaks like a sieve.”
For Bringhurst, meanings and the truth of “what-is” are stubbornly and beautifully outside language—“like sunlight and grass”. But the main things humans have to work with to communicate are words. “So together with meaning there has to be/pointing at meaning.” That’s part of what poetry does—points and gestures and tries to answer the need to connect—as he puts it, “this craving to say/ hello to what is: to howl, hoot, and holler,/ and dance in response.”
The inadequacy of words to describe reality can be, Bringhurst acknowledges to me, a source of frustration but also an opportunity for creative play. How can you possibly describe the meaning of a waterfall? Or of the flow of life itself? You can’t. But he (and we) can listen to “the unending sentence/of uncradled water,” can delight in the words that take shape:
The scroll unrolling
without end, the sound
of everything unfolding,
uncomposing and unspelling,
its knowing to unknowing,
and floundering and learning
how to swim again
and going on its way.
“That’s why we keep on talking, I suppose,” he tells me, “but it’s also why, if we stop talking for a while, we sometimes get a sense of how much more there is to hear, how much more than we can say.”
IN AN EARLIER BOOK, Learning to Die (written with his wife, the poet and philosopher Jan Zwicky), Bringhurst asserts that books belong to places. If that’s the case, then The Ridge firmly belongs to Quadra Island, where Bringhurst has lived for about 25 years.
After Bowen Island and then Vancouver, he became, he says, “desperate to move.” He started exploring the coast for a suitable spot to root that met his slightly contradictory needs for quiet country that wouldn’t attract development but also had access to a post office, grocery store, and an airport. “Maybe I even needed a telephone,” he muses, “though I hoped never to use it.” Reading his message from my converted garden shed on an acre of mostly uncontrolled greenery on Mayne Island, I understand what he means.
His was a process, he explains, not of house hunting, “just place hunting.” Eventually, while snooping around Quadra, he found it: five acres and a small unfinished house with pink paint and pink carpet nestled up to the side of Heriot Ridge. While he thought about it, he discovered, uphill from the house, a series of trails. He had a wander.
“I met deer and ravens and pileated woodpeckers,” he recalls, “flickers and wrens, and a nesting pair of nighthawks. I met old, fire-scarred trees, and big, healthy, younger trees, and a lot of ferns and mosses and lichens. I met outcrops of bedrock—nearly all of it pillow basalt. So the place was a submarine volcanic formation, lifted up into the air. I got rained on, then dried by the sun. By the time I got back to the road, I had fallen in love with the Ridge and would have bought just about anything that allowed me to live on its flank. The pink carpet was no less distasteful, but it had become a trivial obstacle. I’ve been here ever since.”
THAT PLACE and those kinds of meetings play a central role in this collection. In the poem “Stopping By,” we see Bringhurst concerned with belonging rather than possession or control as he riffs on Frost’s classic and reorients our vision:
“Whose woods these are I do not know.
I bought them from a man who said
he owned them, but I only have to be here
long enough to take a breath
and then it’s clear he did not own them,
nor do I.”
Bringhurst believes we should do more than just stop by the world around us, and in walking through this book readers not only wander with Bringhurst into groves whose spires rival those of Nôtre Dame, but we witness the way he approaches the natural world with attention and reverence, like a student meeting with an esteemed teacher. And though he may go by himself, he knows he’s not the first, for “as long as it has been here, humans/ have come up here to submerge themselves/ in what the forest knows.”
Part of what the forest knows, and what it seems we have yet to fully grasp, is how destructive fire-fuelled humans can be. While the outward signs of our changing climate capture media attention—like the literal fires burning from Maui to Northwest Territories and across B.C.—we need to look inward to where it starts, and this book is a good guide. “Something else that is the case: one species—/ the one that uses fire—is remarkably/ like fire: insatiable, thus dangerous/ to everything and lethal to itself.” And pointing to our sometimes brutally destructive industries and tendencies, Bringhurst raises issues of whether we are insatiable by nature or culture or individual choice, implicating the reader directly:
you and I are you and I, but also
we are fire: tiny embers on our own,
and yet, with others of our kind, sometimes
a major conflagration.
Continually, though, the poems extend trails into the opportunity—and the responsibility—to (re)connect with what-is, to encounter knowledge and beauty and be changed: “you can cradle them/ like water in your body and your mind/ and let them hold you also, in the palm/ of all your senses”.
The Ridge’s images of the liquid, flowing nature of life and being counter the burn of jagged disconnection, stoked by “money hunger, power hunger,/ righteousness, self-righteousness,/ delusions of eternal growth…. You/ know the list./ You know the endless/lies we like to tell about not dying.” His words are timely refreshment for the mind, and what he writes about the enormity of reality equally reflects the experience of reading these poems:
Have to laugh
and weep and smile, and let it stop you
in your tracks and keep on walking,
let it take your breath away
and keep on breathing, let it stun you
into silence and keep speaking….
BRINGHURST INVITES US into a world where the deep mystery of what-is means multiple things are true at once. It’s not just books that can be many things. His is a perspective that expands our ideas about language, place, meaning, living, and dying, and The Ridge presents us with a thoughtful, gracious example of one way we can choose to be human:
And for a while there, I gave the trail
everything I had—my eyes and ears and legs—
and it gave me what it had:
Ever-changing and continuing
direction, decided or suggested
by the rocks, the creeks, the trees.
I also went beyond the trail, because
beyond the trail is where the trail
took me. It’s a thing that trails do.
As much as he can, Bringhurst leads us in a similar fashion, with exploring words that point and gesture and send us off into the unexpected. But whether it’s the initial spinning of the Earth’s fragile green blanket (“which is so thin and getting/ thinner now”) or forest roots “fused,/ like the knitted fingers of sleeping lovers” or the building blocks of life “Dancing knee to knee/ and toe to toe” to become shapes and stories, Bringhurst crosses often unimaginable time and space with a simplicity and tenderness that still wraps us in. Though we might have a surprising wander with him, we are never lost.
In October, Bringhurst will be reading from The Ridge as part of the Victoria Festival of Authors outdoor Poet/Tree walk event. If you can’t make it to walk with him there, go along in these pages. Take the book outside. Read it aloud as an offering and then look up and listen to what the land and its life has to say to you in return.
Or, if you can’t easily get outside, get comfortable where you are, open the door and travel down the paths of Bringhurst’s poems onto the land he loves, the planet we all need to love more. For as he writes, “in/ the aftermath of love, we start to learn.”
Amy Reiswig is a writer and editor living on SḴŦAḴ/ Mayne Island. Find her many other author interviews by searching her name on this site. For information on the Victoria Festival of Authors, visit their website here.