Thinking I had finished with all things Titanic, as well as putting the lid on my Scott of the Antarctic reading with a read of Mrs Chippy's Last Voyage, it felt like time to tuck it all back on the winter shelves and move onto the next nice summery thing, except I had to wake it all up again with the arrival of Impact - The Titanic Poems by Canadian poet Billeh Nickerson.
As Billeh Nickerson reveals, Canada was not writ large in the Titanic story he knew as a child, beyond providing water cold enough to prolong the life of the iceberg, much less well-known ( and to me not really) the fact that many of the victims were buried in Halifax, Nova Scotia, their bodies left unclaimed after the tragedy by families unable to afford to bring their loved one home.
Impact is published by Arsenal Pulp Press who I see are a small, independent Vancouver-based publisher with big and succesful ideas, having won and been nominated for various industry prizes, and the reach of the blogosphere never ceases to amaze me. How in heaven's name would I have heard about this book if not for Kerry mentioning this book in comments and Cynara from Arsenal Pulp reading that blog post and making contact with me.
Billeh Nickerson's book is readable in one sitting, but I have now read it three times at three sittings, and at risk of a terrible pun there really are hidden depths here. Impact is the most perfect title for a series of poems that explore the many unseen facets of the disaster and I can't recommend it highly enough. Just thinking about the multiple meanings of the word 'impact' as noun, verb and adjective had my mind spinning with connotations... collision, effect, impacted meaning to fill up, congest, throng, to be densely packed, impact as the force exerted by a new idea... and these poems filled my head with even more new thinking.
The poems begin in the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, and 'it's true' says Billeh Nickerson in his notes on the text, ' she was alright when she left there.' Perhaps indeed the building of the Titanic should, though I know it all went wrong, be a cause for the celebration of magnificent structural achievement too, and not only be remembered for the tragedy of the sinking. Many men worked many, many hours putting heart and soul into the construction, and who can know the impact of the disaster on them and their damaged sense of pride in their work that must have followed.
Billeh Nickerson focuses on aspects of the ship's building that have come under close scrutiny in recent years, and five poems about the rivets might seem excessive until you actually read them and understand the process and the number of men that must have been involved in making and hammering in three million of them.
But Billeh also gives voice to things that others may not have done...
Jenny the Cat
Jenny delivered her kittens
in the weeks that preceded the maiden voyage.
As if she could sense the impending disaster,
she carried her kittens by the neck,
one by one, down the gangplank
to the quay at Southampton
and in one of those moments convinced
one of the stokers to accept employment
somewhere else, for even though
his impending two-week contract paid well,
he learned long ago to always trust
a mother's instincts.
and if poetry is sometimes about giving voice to the unsayable, and if its purpose may be to teach, to console and to warn, then Impact has done all this and more for me.
I never knew that micro-organisms 'disliked the tannic acid that finished brown leather' and whilst they would work their way through everything else, and had done in the one hundred years since the sinking...
one researcher wondered why all the shoes
appeared in pairs eight inches apart.
That one pulled me up short and I had to sit and think about it for a very long time before I could move on to the next poem.
And who had ever given thought to the piano player whose instrument could not be moved onto the deck, watching as the band played on...
Or the wife who had handed her glasses to her husband for safe-keeping as she got into the lifeboat only to have them returned with his effects when his body was recovered....
Or the rolling pin made from a peice of wood found floating at the scene...
This gathering of poems creates a form of lamentation both heart-breaking and immediate, working as they do to reduce the tragedy down from flabby myth and sensation to its very essence, the lives of the people and their escape, or their sad and harrowing demise, and Billeh Nickerson doesn't flinch from the detail.
Had I ever really given thought to the sounds of that night, of ship and of human?
Well I'm not sure I had...and those shoes.
I think that image will stay with me forever now.
Impact has done its work.