Jenna Butler was born in Norwich, England in 1980, but has spent most of her life on the prairies of Western Canada. The varied landscapes of the prairies and mountains — their intense harshness and incredible richness — feature prominently in her poetry, fiction, and essays. Her work has garnered a number of awards, including a Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Emerging Artist Award, the Canadian Authors Association Exporting Alberta Award, and the James Patrick Folinsbee Prize, and has been featured by the CBC. Abroad, Butler’s poetry has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and the International Salt Prizes (UK), among others. Her writing has appeared in literary journals, magazines, and anthologies around the world, and she is the author of ten short collections of poetry and fiction. Her trade titles are Aphelion (NeWest Press, 2010), Wells (University of Alberta Press, 2012), Seldom Seen Road (NeWest Press, 2013), and the upcoming collection of essays, On the Grizzly Trail (Wolsak and Wynn, 2015). Website: www.jennabutler.com
There’s Something About This City
Sousan tells me as she unpacks shopping
in her summer kitchen, her hands quick and brown
as voles, their small dives into one bag or another.
Saffron and dried limes, cinnamon bark. She places
a barberry on my tongue, speaks of Iran:
Tabriz and pomegranates, the taste of rose water.
It’s not a new story. The old man on the train
who caught my gaze last week told me this same thing
in the way the skin creased around his eyes
when he smiled; something of the harmattan
in his bearing, the careful navigation of all those
blown here from away. That’s the thing about prairie.
There’s room for whoever comes, and what they carry,
stories and sorrows. For years in our borrowed house,
my mother used saris for curtains, raw silk folded
fine as memory, the smell of Dodoma and cedar.
She hung them to watch the strange, charged light,
that curious point in a northern winter
when the spine of cold breaks, and we are left
with skeins of geese unraveling through our fingers.
There’s something about this city. It teaches you
that beauty is not always for the taking, emerging
all sand and slate from an eight-month freeze.
But beauty’s where you find it, if you’re willing.
In the city’s green heart, three paper birches
picked out in lipstick kisses. It’s the unexpected,
that thing we can’t quite explain. Blues
in the valley midsummer, the moment
the river breaks its filigree in an April flash
reminiscent of cannon fire. Don’t speak to me
of flyover country. The coyotes on the riverbank
know better, the wolfwillow that
stains the air for weeks with sweetness. The people
who stitch this life to their former with small,
careful strokes, daily permission to alter
the face of loss or memory. This same grace
in the light, midwinter. The way it angles itself
out of the dark, and begins.
Who Shall I Say Is Calling: A Eulogy to Place
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.
-Cormac McCarthy, The Road
And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry merry month of May,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?
-Leonard Cohen, “Who By Fire”
I. Who By Earth
Say Fort Chipewyan. Say Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan Nations. Say Lake Athabasca, Mackenzie River Delta. Say Wabasca, say Peace Country, say Chinchaga-Rainbow. Say Burnaby Mountain.
Go to the heart of it. Say Manning and Spirit River, Swan Hills, High Level, Grande Cache. Confront a tainted blood of pipelines and pumpjacks, proposed nuclear reactor sites, open-pit mines. Say Beaverlodge and Fox Creek, Fairview, Nampa, Donnelly, Hythe.
What we teach when we cannot keep the drill sites off our land.
What we teach when our air is rank with flaring and our water lights from fracking gases.
What we teach is helplessness.
II. Who By Water
Name our lifelines, bloodlines. Blood thicker than water; water slick with effluvium, oil sheen. Name the Petitcodiac. Name the Eastmain and the Rupert, the Okanagan, the Taku, the Iskut. Name the Groundhog, the Milk, the Bow. Name the Peel. Name the Red River. Name the Churchill.
Say watershed. Say transboundary. Say Joint Commission.
Name what moves in our veins. Say biochemical oxygen demand. Say eutrophication. Say phosphorus and nitrogen, say dead zone. Say petroleum and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Say lead. Mercury. Sulfur dioxide. Phthalates.
Name the Yamaska, trolling Montérégie farmland. Name the Bayonne, the Don. Track the livestock runoff bruised-blue algae blooms until they can be seen from space.
Name the Elk and the Fording, selenium skeins through cutthroat trout, frog eggs, red-winged blackbirds.
No Salmon of Knowledge, Fionn mac Cumhaill: in the Cariboo, sing Hazeltine, Quesnel, Fraser. Sing out the breach at Mount Polley and the salmon sloughing their skin in tailings pond runoff.
III. Who By Fire
Say Windsor-Detroit. Say particle pollution. Say smog alert.
Say asthma. Say eight million and rising. Oh, Canada.
Say sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, neuro-toxic contamination.
Say shale gas and Elsipogtog. Say Liard and Cordova Basins. Say compressor stations and seismic cut lines. Say Horn River Basin.
Say exploration wells, say finger-dipping in the Klapan, the Kootenays. Say the mines and the coalfields: Fording River, Greenhills, Line Creek. Bullmoose. Quinsam. Say Tuya River. Say Coal River. Say Bowron River and Hat Creek.
Say horizontal drilling, say abandoned wellbores. Say leaking and flaring, say surface water allocation. Say open-ended.
Say red-eyed vireo. Magnolia warbler. Thrush. Rose-breasted grosbeak. Say 7,500 immolated in a St. John’s gas flare.
Say conservative estimate.