Victoria poet laureate Yvonne Blomer combines literary forces to appreciate and protect our large salty neighbour.
HERE ON THE WEST COAST, we’re on the edge of something big. Quite literally, I mean the ocean, but also more. For now is a time of urgent concern and, hopefully, a shift toward responsive action to help save our big blue neighbour.
Those twin engines of fear and hope have propelled Yvonne Blomer, Victoria’s poet laureate, into curating a new anthology, Refugium: Poems for the Pacific (Caitlin Press). These works invite us into greater conversation with ourselves and others as we contemplate just how we face the sea—with everything that means—here on our shared fragile edge.
Refugium collects the voices of over 80 poets and takes its title from the biological term meaning a place where something can survive a period of unfavourable conditions. While the Pacific is huge and daunting in its power, it is in peril. Rising water temperatures, increasing acidification, accumulation of plastics, over-fishing, increased shipping noise and tanker traffic, toxic residential and industrial waste (everything that runs off or out of the greedy core of a commerce-driven civilization)—all threaten various ocean creatures and ecosystems. But the overarching unfavourable conditions producing those threats are less tangible: our attitudes. Can the ocean survive us?
Blomer, who also recently published Sugar Ride: Cycling from Hanoi to Kuala Lampur (Palimpsest Press, May 2017), a memoir of her travels—as a longtime diabetic—by bike through Southeast Asia, is an idealist at heart. She intends Refugium itself to be a kind of refugium for the Pacific. Which is why, in a nuanced word choice, these are not poems about or to the ocean, but for it. “I hope the book isn’t the only place that the Pacific Ocean thrives in 20, 40 or 100 years from now,” she tells me. “But in creating a book that is for the Pacific, a refugium for it, I hope we’ll inspire creation of real-world or outside-the-book refugia.”
The project was first conceived in 2014, when Blomer was applying for the City of Victoria’s poet laureateship, and initially focused on local poets. Eventually, Blomer decided the theme warranted a broader call-out. For one thing, she explains, “issues like Kinder Morgan are known across North America.” But also, she finds that many poets express a more personal link to the Pacific. “We have a connection to this large salty body. Fewer of the submissions were about creatures than our social or individual connection to the ocean. ‘I go to the ocean to grieve.’ Or ‘I enter the ocean to feel whole again.’ Even if you’ve only done it once, you’ll remember it.”
And so the anthology brings together coastal locals (like Jordan Abel, John Barton, Brian Brett, Lorna Crozier, Gary Geddes, Anita Lahey, Isa Milman, Arleen Paré, Patricia and Terence Young, Jan Zwicky) and farther-flung voices from across North America and as far away as Hawaii, New Zealand, and even 19th-century Japan, in a modern translation of a poem entitled “The Memorial Service for Whales.”
While some of Refugium’s poems have been previously published, many were written specifically for this book, as fresh expressions and explorations covering a range of emotions big enough to suit the subject.
We share in specific, place-based remembrances, observances, and stories—praise for the beauty of a particular beach or cove; how a daughter holds her aging mother’s hand as they walk into the ocean, feeling powerful. We are brought to focus on individual ocean inhabitants going about their business, like urchins, sea turtles, orcas, and tideline birds picking through the plastic-choked seaweed. We can delight in wordplay, like Nancy Pagh’s “Moon Jelly” evoking “a name to spread on evening toast/ and eat/ bite by tiny bite” or Tim Bowling’s collection of Shakespearean-sounding ocean insults: “Yeah, you heard me, you Suborbicular kellyclam Twelve-tentacled parasitic anemone.… You’re nothing but a Flap-tip piddock with an Aggregated nipple sponge.”
And, of course, we can mourn with those who chronicle losses and issue warnings. For example, Fiona Tinwei Lam questions what will be left, grieving for “That beauty/ we remember, but/ cannot resuscitate.” And in the timely-titled “Northern Gateway,” Lorna Crozier imagines “every spirit the salmon feeds,/ every man inside a bear, inside a whale,/ inside the throat of frog and eagle,/ every woman whose chopped hair/ tossed into the sea, grew into eel grass” all singing “a lamentation that will not cease./ You don’t want to hear that song.”
Like the ocean, Refugium pushes and pulls us, comforts and terrifies us, in poems that are playful, grief-stricken, awe-struck, hopeful, condemnatory, speculative, historical, personal. But the undercurrent is all of love. For as newly elected Green Party MLA Adam Olsen writes in his introduction, “No matter how long you have been here, one month, one year or a thousand, the Pacific is part of the family.”
That sense of relationship deepens through contact with so many individual perspectives in this book. For instance, relatively recent Victoria transplant Anita Lahey tells me that the call for Pacific poems gave her the nudge she needed “to try to get a sense of my relationship with this ocean and even perhaps to help build one.” And native West Coaster Barbara Pelman explains: “I can’t imagine living so far from the sea that I’d lose the rhythm of water as part of my cells. There is nothing quite so soothing as the tide coming in, and the rituals around its waters: throwing stones, skipping stones, walking on sand, collecting shiny things. A book that would both celebrate the ocean we live beside, and warn of its degradation, is a book we all need.”
But with relationship, as we all know, comes challenge. How do we engage, and how deep do we go?
Often, what we see looking out from our edge is just surface—the ocean’s impassive enormity. And enormity can create a false sense of security. We’ve said “too big to fail” before. Refugium takes a stand against seeing shallowly, and reorients our perspective—not just about the Pacific, but about our ability to act. As Heidi Greco’s simple poem “Edgy” asserts, “Here at the shoreline, a world/ begins:/ waves lapping,…granting a second/ chance.” And in “Three Peninsulas” Sijo Smith reminds us of our collective power: “I alone am a drop,/ but we are an ocean.”
Refugium will launch, with an accompanying exhibition of artworks inspired by the poems, on October 5 at The Maritime Museum, 634 Humboldt Street. Doors at 6:30; reading at 7:30. Early bird tickets $15 (available through the Maritime Museum), $20 regular. Ticket sale profits will go toward supporting eco-education at the Maritime Museum.
Daughter of a world-renowned glass sponge biologist, some of writer and editor Amy Reiswig’s most cherished childhood memories involve Pacific tidepooling with her dad. So much love starts in the sea.