Volume 11 Number 5.
The vigour and cadence of this long poem are exceptional. Henry Beissel meets a fierce Canadian north and west head on, infusing his landscape with vast-ness and power. He stresses ice and storm, etches the image of towering mountains, makes man's vanity seem puny in contrast. Recreating Alexander Mackenzie's journey through the Rockies, he sets the explorer against "thousands of cubic miles of rock/upended shifted split upturned folded fissured overturned/heaved and tossed against the stars/a sea of stone caught at the height of a titanic storm/ and frozen in a gesture of defiance." "It is no country for a master race," Beissel states, and adds that the land "fell upon our vanity/with tomahawks of ice."
The human perspective shifts often through the twelve cantos. Beissel as poet keeps returning, using the metaphor of a large canvas map to capture the vastness of his subject and the complexity of his craft. "North my love north" is his constant motif, though the lover is not the sustained romantic intimate familiar to Canadian readers through Robert Cho-quette's Suite Marine, but a composite including the reader, the northland itself, and the people who attempt to live in it. Beissel himself takes on a mixture of per-sonae: native, voyageur, settler, Edward the Prince, Talbot, Tatanga, Uvavnuk. He can shift his ground within a single viewpoint, with a native, for example, meeting the European invaders with the refrain of "cassee Kouee" (go home) in one canto, but with "ilyuoute" (I have no knife, so let us talk) in another.
Beissel's breadth of imagery ranges from the taut short unit of "A rattlesnake/winds its coils/about the hot loins/ of a summer's day," through a tightly compacted canto on squaring the blocks of an igloo in a circle in the snow, to the canvas metaphor that runs the width of the book.
Cantos North stands out from the contemporary idiom in its lyricism and romantic grandeur. It has a tough epic nationalism reminiscent of Pratt's longer works, though Beissel is so cynical in his contempt of European colonization that his tone seems virtually anti-Pratt. It is hard to believe the poet did not have Pratt's "Brebeuf and His Brethren" in mind when he wrote "The soul is not/ elevated on a torture platform or purified by fire./Go tell the people that!/It's better to search one soul than save a thousand./Go tell the missionaries!"
Beissel spins energetic music in several modes, takes on the native and the colonial experiences, plays with language, captures the physical world, and extends the imagination in a major work worthy of comparison to Hart Crane's masterpiece, The Bridge.
These cantos are well sung.
Tony Cosier, Confederation H. S., Nepean, ON.
1971-1979 | 1980-1985 | 1986-1990 | 1991-1995
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