October 12, 2007

True north strong and drivel-free

Former cargo handler's poems deliver unflinching portrait of Nunavut's shame and splendour


I am tired of reading about an Arctic that resembles a snowy suburb of Disneyland, where polar bears - enormous teddy bears, really - frolic in the pristine snow beneath the midnight sun.

It's the drivel you read in tourist publications and the travel sections of newspapers, all myth and romance, no grit. There are lots of spectacular, blue-veined icebergs in this place, but apparently not many people - other than the requisite hunter who crashes through thin sea ice, becoming a noble victim of climate change.

How refreshing, then, to discover Unsettled, a chapbook of poetry published by Zachariah Wells in 2004. Wells, who is from PEI, held the distinctly unromantic job of working as a cargo handler for First Air in Resolute Bay and Iqaluit on and off for seven years, and his poems describe a Nunavut that's familiar to those who live here, which is rarely captured on the written page.

Iqaluit's garbage-strewn streets, shabby public-housing units, and the drunken arguments that ring through the streets at night are all here. And it's captured in sharp, alliterative verse at times reminiscent of old Anglo-Saxon epics.

Wells spares us the easy myths of the Arctic and presents a few uncomfortable truths instead. Take a poem called "Scavengers," which should be immediately recognizable to anyone who has visited Iqaluit's Legion during a rowdy weekend evening:

Under midnight sun
A bored raven picks white bones
At the garbage dump.
A white man selects a dark
Mate outside the screaming bar.

It says a lot about race relations, alcoholism and promiscuity in Nunavut today, in two short sentences. It's not flattering, nor kind. But it's unsparingly true, in a way that more writing on the Arctic ought to be.

Children who throw rocks at dogs for fun get their mention. So do some relocatees from eastern Canada, who are chastised as "southern rejects blaming bleakness / for their fondness of the bottle - as if they'd not be drunks in southern comfort."

There's a poem about The Zoo, the rough-and-tumble bar that became the present-day, cleaned-up Storehouse. There's another about run-down White Row, and another on the sealift, where heavy machinery unloading cargo from the beach become "trundling bugs bleepbleeping / in the ship's long shadow."

Some poems require a touch of knowledge of eastern Arctic lore, and Inuktitut, to fully comprehend. Others, like the poem that tells a doctor's story of how Cape Dorset men once would shoot themselves with .22s just to receive a free medical flight south, probably require some time living in Nunavut to believe.

The book also gives a taste of what it must be like to haul luggage for a living in the Arctic, in "A cargo handler howls on his 15 minute break":

"80 below; wet boots, frozen fingers, frozen toes, frozen wages, frostbite, haemerroids, heartburn, hangovers, diesel dust, black snot & boxes / Only to endure the indignity of a mediocre middle-manager telling me in a memo he wrote a thousand miles south that I've damaged too much freight?"

Air travellers routinely curse baggage handlers for rough treatment of luggage that at times seems to be deliberate, if not malicious. The other side of the story is not often heard.

In Nunavut, it's a story of spending your day hauling, among other things, rotting walrus meat, kibble and laundry soap, packed in anything from a Rubbermaid container to a loose garbage bag.

Anything broken, including whiskey bottles packed in soft suitcases, is, naturally, the luggage handler's fault, Wells laments in "Litany of Arctic Samsonite," a rant directed at those able to pay $2,000 airfare, "but can't / spare a red cent for a stitch / o halfway sensible luggage."

It's yet another absurd situation which is part of every day in the North - usually a bigger part, I should add, than blue-veined icebergs and frolicking polar bears, as spectacular sights as they are.

Even bears and icebergs do get their mention from Wells, but he treats them with irreverence and dark humour that's appropriate, if not necessary, to make sense of the Arctic at times.

As winter approaches, Nunavummiut will be familiar with the sentiment expressed in "Her Reply":

The sun won't rise til spring
We can stay in bed like bears
Wake from time to time
Maul each other and curse
This claustrophobic season
That keeps us stinking in our den.

There are far worse ways to pass the coming long winter than with a book like this, if you're interested in the North, the real north, rather than the imaginary place that's so often written about instead.
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