“Not since Al Purdy’s North of Summerhas a Canadian poet written so compellingly about life in the frozen arctic,” opens the back-cover blurb of Vancouver-via-Baffin Island-via-PEI poet Zachariah Wells’ first collection, Unsettled. The similarities between Purdy’s book and Wells’ — a collection of poems written during Wells’ time working as an airline freight handler on Baffin and Cornwallis Islands — are found both in their subject matter and styles. The poems in the two collections explore the authors’ sense of self as grounded in (and out of) place – writers utilizing a foreign land to unlock once-foreign parts of themselves. Likewise, stylistically, it would not take much to convince me that lines such as “Tirelessness, sleeplessness, endless darkness, endless / light, boxes, boxes, boxes” (“A Cargo Handler Howls on His Fifteen Minute Lunch Break” 19) were pulled directly from North of Summer, not Unsettled.
Be it an homage or plagiarism, the connection between the two texts is at times striking. For example, Wells picks up upon Purdy’s notion of the “ivory thought” in his poem “Sauniq.” In Purdy’s “Lament for the Dorsets” he describes the hunter
bearing down and transmitting
his body’s weight
from brain to arm and right hand
and one of his thoughts
turns to ivory
And after 600 years
the ivory thought
is still warm
(Al Purdy, The More Easily Kept Illusions: The Poetry of Al Purdy, 30-1)
while in “Sauniq” Wells writes:
She pecks the lichen-haired innunguaq’s
Head, as though to pick its stony
Brain for a thought still warm from the hand of the hunter,
Who stacked his stand-in under an indulgent sky,
That being said, it would be an injustice to the original work in Unsettled to summarize it as a simple revisiting of the themes, style and imagery of North of Summer, for the poems in Unsettled stand on their own. They are thick and purposeful – they exist to tell a story, to convey a common narrative. Often they, like the land, are stripped bare, perhaps in part because, as the speaker in “Qausuittuq” notes, they have “burned all [their] metaphors, to keep warm” (98). When the poems fail, as they often do in any debut collection, they fail towards clarity, not convolution. The author’s primary goal, here, seems not to be to display his technical dexterity, but to communicate directly with the reader, and with a minimum of hesitation. For me, after slogging through the majority of contemporary Canadian poetry, this made for a refreshing read.
The story Wells lays out for his readers is one of life on the edge; a world which balances precariously between tranquility and chaos, between boredom and incredible speed. The world of Unsettled is slow moving, but has monstrous gears. It is a world with a “hunger for pleasure and love, / for spicy grub” (“Jake” 36) where “Cruelty is rarely intentional, / It has beer on its breath” (“A Mouthful of Stones” 65). Conversely, it is also a world where the sky is “an inverted robin’s-egg shell” (“Small Song of Wonders” 30).
His is a story of a man driven by economic necessity to a land far from his own – to the tarmacs of Frobisher Bay, the “freight-/Handler to a lipservice nation” (“Frobisher’s Bay” 46). He is anxious for home, as when he catches the familiar PEI smell of mussel mud and comments on how
a familiar smell in a strange place makes everything stop-
(“A Whiff of Mussel Mud” 21)
However, perhaps only as a survival instinct, he also finds himself strangely drawn to the world around him. His poems convey an attraction to that which is at work under the bleak exterior, a theme he touches upon in describing the freight-handlers he knew
who thought strength their province
and muscles what make the man –
when it’s nerves and tendons that do it.
This “deep” appreciation, then, is a hint towards the greatest point of separation between Unsettled and North of Summer: the sheer amount of time the authors spent engaging with the land and its people. Where Purdy spent only weeks in the Arctic, Wells spent years (seven, to be exact), and the length of his “visit” enriches Wells’ writing in a way simply not possible for Purdy’s. Here we see a man who had the time to be lost and found and lost again many times over, to struggle and to accept, to find both incredible beauty and ugliness, and to take it all in slowly, as it came to him. Purdy’s writing always had a sense of the author’s impermanence in his setting, whereas Wells’ compellingly moves back and forth between permanence and impermanence.
Perhaps it is this struggle between place, time and self that makes Well’s final poem in the collection, “Reflections in a Broken Mirror,” ache, both on the page and in the mind of the reader:
O land, I have not wandered,
But squandered my time on your knee
O land, you have severed me
And never more can I know
What it is I was born to