Wednesday, April 03, 2013

A SHIP, A BOOK AND A COLLECTION OF POEMS TO REMEMBER

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            Billeh Nickerson

I will admit to having being fascinated by all things Titanic. One of our family stories is about how my grandmother saw it in Belfast, when it was being built. When Ted and I were in Newfoundland in 2009 we went to the Johnson Geocentre on Signal Hill in St. John’s. We spent quite a bit of time with the Titanic exhibition there.

I’m about a third of the way through Beryl Bainbridge’s Every Man For Himself, her fictional account of the tragedy, so it seems like the perfect time to give a National Poetry Month nod to Billeh Nickerson, whose collection of poems about the infamous ship came out last year, the 100th anniversary of the sinking. Even though it would be hard to find a reader who didn’t know how it was going to turn out, Nickerson sets up the story in lines that make you nod, wince and shake your head in disbelief. 


Several poems anticipate the impending disaster. In one, a stoker decides against working the maiden voyage when he sees a mother cat remove her newborn kittens from the ship, one by one, because:

            he learned long ago to always trust
            a mother’s instincts.

I've enjoyed a couple of Nickerson's previous collections. His writing is clear, spare, and to the point. Take this one, that looks at events from a child’s point of view.

            Goose Bumps

            It took three million rivets
            to piece the ship together

            though only a few seconds
            for a small child to notice

            it was as if the ship
            had a surprise chill

            for it seemed her hull
            was covered in goose bumps.


In any tragedy you’ll find layers of sadness. The Young Widow recounts the story of a newly wed survivor of the sinking whose father had filmed her recent wedding, and how she would grow older but her nineteen-year-old groom would ever remain as he was.

There are poems in here that make furious, make me despair for the human species and its seemingly endless greed at the most inappropriate times.

            The Balance

            Although the band played on,
            their paycheques stopped
            the second the water swept
            over the bow.

            One family received an invoice
            for the balance owing
            on their loved one’s uniform,
            which startled them
            as they believed
            they’d already paid so much.

Anyone who’s interested in stories about the Titanic will want to get their hands on this little book from Arsenal Pulp Press. In the acknowledgements, Nickerson credits a book by Walter Lord, A Night to Remember, as triggering his lifelong interest in the subject. Coincidentally, it also triggered mine. When I was in about Grade 10 I did a report on that very book. When I handed it in to the teacher she looked worried for a minute, then brightened and said, “Oh, it’s about the Titanic! Thank goodness!”

            Even then…

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