Building On River. Jean Van Loon. Cormorant Books. Toronto, Ontario. 2018.
Building On River is a little unlike any other book of poetry Today's book of poetry has seen in quite a while. Jean Van Loon has reinterpreted, rendered if you like, biography, extensive research, heresay and conjecture, all of it into a timeless tapestry. This brocade plays out, almost seamlessly, in the mind's eye, as though the reader were watching a movie.
Van Loon is cinematic.
This is history that you can taste, smell and feel.
Sir Michael Ondaatje (in Today's book of poetry world we knight and honour as we see fit) pave the way for this sort of adventure with his ground breaking The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. If you haven't read Ondaatje's Billy the Kid and you love poetry. The very next thing you should do is to put on your coat and go to the bookstore/library and get a copy of The Collected Billy....
John Rudolphous Booth is the subject of Van Loon's expansive narrative about a self-made man on the edge of the Canadian wilderness. Booth understood what was about to happen and took advantage of it. His astute sense of what was needed and how to supply it made him a very rich man. Jean Van Loon witnessed none of it but somehow brings Booth to flesh and bone you care about.
J.R., Age Nine, Builds a Bridge
Runoff bulges the creek
a muscled river
if I look at it right, churning
alongside the field
icing my feet.
drags again onto its rock
head and legs outstretched
shell scarred. Midday sun
warms my shoulders.
I've cleared the brush
with the hatchet Father
made me. Now I can
spade the bank, anchor
a buttress shaped from
a fireplace log Father
must not notice missing
and the stump I dug out last week.
A dab hand with an axe, Mother said
now two years dead,
who told me Blue Flag
was the flower that looked like an iris
beside the summertime creek
who sweetened my sickbed
with a mug of wild roses.
As it happens Jean Van Loon and I will be doing a reading in a private home here in Ottawa a couple of weeks from now. Ms. Van Loon and I have yet to meet. You're just going to have to take my word for it on the coincidence of timing for Building On River.
Jean Van Loon researched Building On River by reading tracts from the Historical Society of Gatineau, lumber baron biographies, Donald McKay and David Lee too. Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill. And that isn't scratching the surface.
The result is poems that sound and feel true in all respects. These poems do bring J.R. Booth to flesh and blood, we see his diligence and imagination make an empire from wood.
Tale from the Feed Mill
This was before he was rich.
Starting out in Hull with a small plant
for shingles. He'd hitch up and carry a load,
sell it in Ottawa, then make the rounds for supplies.
So he comes to my mill for a quantity of fodder
finds he doesn't have the cash to pay for it all.
I tell him, Go ahead, take what you need
—lord knows, he'd be good for the money.
Well sir. But a few minutes later, didn't he
wheel the horses back and return the part unpaid.
Couldn't unload fast enough. As if it would
burn through his wagon.
Jean Van Loon isn't going to knock you over the head with fireworks, there is a far subtler game afoot, these poems accumulate, gather momentum, details build, until the story of J.R. Booth carries you, becomes important to you, the reader. This is a good trick.
This morning's read was held with one sore crew. Yesterday's deadline was not met because each and every one of us was outside shovelling snow, again, like we have almost every day since the beginning of November. Today's book of poetry loves Ottawa and is happy to live here, but this winter was truly a kick right in the old tender parts. Milo, our head tech, did something to his back lifting wet snow. Kathryn, our Jr. Editor, did something to her back trying to look after Milo. And so on.
Today's book of poetry thought Jean Van Loon found the right tension between tough and tender. Booth was clearly a man of purpose. And we get the sense that he did care about family and community. He was a man dedicated to his work. Van Loon has found the man under all that wealth, behind all that work.
The Weaver's Tale
The saw on his left
sets the pace. If the singing blade
rips 50 rough shingles
off the block every minute
the sawyer must reach over
to its teeth
50 times in 60 seconds;
if the automatic carriage
feeds the odorous wood 60 times
into hungry teeth, 60 times
he must reach over, turn the shingle, trim its edge
on the gleaming saw in front of him
cut the narrow strip containing
the knot hole with two quick movements
and toss the completed
board down the chute
to the packers,
keeping eyes and ears open
for the sound that asks him
to feed a new block into untiring teeth.
Hour after hour the shingle weaver's
hands and arms, plain, unarmored
flesh and blood, staked against
the screeching steel that cares not
what it severs. Hour after hour the steel
sings its crescendo as it bites
into the wood, the sawdust cloud
thickens with fine particles.
Sooner or later he reaches
a little too far, the whirling blade
tosses drops of deep red
into the air, and a finger, a hand
or part of an arm comes sliding
down the slick chute.
Building On River is quiet determination realized. Jean Van Loon has done that rare feat, found the real poetry in history.
Jean Van Loon
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jean Van Loon lives with her husband in a home that is an easy walk to the Ottawa River. Since retiring from a career as a public servant and head of the steel industry's national trade association, she has published poems and stories in literary magazines across Canada. When not at her desk, she often walks through the Experimental Farm, comprised in large part of farmland bought from J.R. Booth, or along the river where he got his start. Building on River is her first book-length publication.
"Building on River is full of lyrical moments and metaphor."
— Patrick Langston, Artsfile
"Van Loon’s musical ear drew me into the narrative fast..."
— Catherine Owen, Marrow Reviews
Jean Van Loon
Video: Arc Poetry
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" is full of lyrical moments and metaphor."