Burgs Sunday book review
Impact: The Titanic Poems by Billeh Nickerson, Arsenal Pulp Press, 2012.
Reviewed by Pamela Hale, Christiansburg. She is the Library Supervisor of the Christiansburg Library.
In this centennial year of the sinking of the Titanic, countless books, essays, television programs, and commemorative activities are being presented, and dozens of books and DVDs related to the historical event are available in the Montgomery-Floyd Regional Library collection. Two of the more unusual books are “The Watch That Ends The Night: Voices from the Titanic,” a long novel written in various verse forms by Allan Wolf, an Asheville, North Carolina poet, and “Impact: The Titanic Poems,” a slim volume by Canadian poet Billeh Nickerson, who was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the recovered bodies from the Titanic were brought and where 150 of those, unidentified and unclaimed, are buried.
“The Watch That Ends The Night” engages readers in a unique, poetic way that Wolf describes as using “fancy to play within the confines of fact…history is the birdcage; fiction is the bird.” Factual and fictional tales of the journey are told in the voices of passengers and crew, as one might expect, but Wolf goes further, giving voice to the ship rats and the iceberg itself. Twenty-five real and composite characters speak throughout the book beginning with “Prelude-Preparing to Sail” and continuing through the series of Watches from “First Watch-Setting Out” through “Seventh Watch-The Watch That Ends The Night” and “Postlude-Morning.”
From The Iceberg’s opening verses (quotes from the poems are presented here as sentences, without stanza breaks) in the prelude, “Ten thousand years ago, I fell as snow, and as I fell, my bulk begin to grow…Conceived by water, temperature, and time…At last the frozen river made its way and calved me with a splash in Baffin Bay. Since then I’ve traveled southward many weeks, for now that my emergence is complete, there is a certain ship I long to meet” to its last line in the postlude, “I am” the reader knows that even those who survive the icy waters until well into their ninetieth year will not outlive The Iceberg.
One of the most intriguing poems in Impact is “Eight Inches Apart” which tells how micro-organisms “disliked the tannic acid that finished brown leather.” They “had erased every sign of existence – the flesh, hair, bone and clothes – save for a few pieces of jewelry and a pair of shoes resting the natural distance between the feet of a prone human body – eight inches apart, four miles below the surface.”
Keep that poem in mind while reading this excerpt from Wolf’s version of the Marconi-gram sent from Captain Barr on the SS Caronia to the Captain of the Titanic at 9 a.m. on April 14: “Westbound steamers report bergs, growlers, and field ice…” – the deadly elements that would bring the great ship and nearly 1,500 passengers down to the micro-organisms that feed on the bottom of the sea.
It is particularly captivating to read these two books in tandem. John Snow, one of the two embalmers hired by the White Star Line to retrieve whatever bodies could be found, is The Undertaker in Wolf’s novel. He and his assistant “work at a furious pace, cutting corners where we can…I fear that by the time we get these bodies to shore, many will be decayed beyond any possible embalmment.” Nickerson’s poem “The Embalmer’s Daughter,” has these lines, “When word spread that the boat filled with the Titanic dead would soon return to Halifax, she thought of her taunting classmates and her father’s hands working hard to make things beautiful again.”
The Watch That Ends The Night is further enriched by a bibliography and several pages of notes that include a list of passengers that Wolf gave voice to and their fates, including John Jacob Astor, the American millionaire who drowned, and Olaus Abelseth, the Norwegian immigrant who survived to become a farmer in South Dakota and die there at age 94; a key to the Morse code that readers can use to decipher messages scattered throughout the poetry; and a miscellany that provides fascinating numerical information, including this reminder that age and weight prevailed: “Titanic vs. The Iceberg… weight of Titanic: 52,310 tons with contents, weight of The Iceberg: 100,000 tons; Age of Titanic: 3 years, age of The Iceberg: 10,000 years.”
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