Sunday, December 9, 2012

Winter in the Prairies

Last month, I was walking through Seneca College when I stumbled across the motherload – library clearance sale! I had to sift through piles of deadwood, but my persistence was rewarded. I came away with an anthology titled The Prairie Experience and a very promising Canadian historical atlas. Being an Ontarian, I was surprised and delighted to learn that Canada has provinces west of Manitoba (which the atlas confirmed), and they even have a unique literature of their own. Boldly, I steered the birchbark canoe into uncharted waters.

The anthology was a rewarding read. It includes poetry, short fiction, memoirs, and a one-act play, all written by prairie authors. Central in their writing is the landscape, fruitful at times but more often harsh and uncompromising. I want to share one poem that captures the mood:

By Margot Osborn

The world is a silver penny
Impossibly large
And I am in the middle of it,
A penny reaching from rim to dull grey rim of sky
That curves above my head, a lustreless bowl.
There is nothing but the snow and I.
The snow in shadowed hummocks is its superscription
But I cannot read the language nor make out the design.
I am alone in this white desolation.
Though I move, it travels with me,
And still I remain in the middle. (1)

Saskatchewan in Winter, outside Prince Albert.

I like how the author begins by casting the prairie as a silver penny. A penny is as flat as can be, and it’s not worth a whole lot. In 1971, around the time that this poem was written, the average Saskatchewan farmer made a net profit of $4,616. As the speaker surveys her surroundings, the snow covers any variety in the “Featureless” landscape. Even the “dull grey” sky offers no landmark. I had to look up “hummocks” – it’s a small hill, or a mound. In this case, I gather that it would be a snow drift, casting a shadow on the ground before it. The line “I cannot read the language” is interesting. I think it speaks of the expectation to see traces of design in nature: order, harmony, balance, beauty, &c. But the design in this prairie landscape is either buried under the snow, or it is absent altogether. I think the second interpretation is supported by the following line, as speaker calls the plain a “white desolation.” I love the image of the speaker traveling, yet always in the middle. The lasting impression of this poem is that the prairie landscape is as vast as it is bare, and the speaker finds herself, in the words of another poet, “Alone, alone, all, all alone, Alone on a wide wide sea.”(2)

(1) Terry Angus, Ed. The Prairie Experience. Toronto: The Macmillan Company of Canada Ltd., 1975.
(2) "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by S.T. Coleridge

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