From its opening lines, Jenna Butler’s Magnetic North, a poetic chronicle of her two-week-long sailing journey through Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, delivers keen, tactile observations of a changing Arctic: “Further north than I have ever been, hills emerge from the sea/ obdurate, popping knuckled seams in the day’s meagre heat. Sun on snow/ tideline clotted with scrims of pack ice.”
Butler is a professor of creative writing and eco-criticism at Red Deer College. In Magnetic North—her fifth book, after three earlier volumes of poetry and a book of ecological essays—she brings a spartan and stunning clarity to her descriptions of the High Arctic landscape. She describes the echoing cacophony of thousands of squawking gannets rising from “cliffs coruscate with birdlime.” Then, upon a beach, she stumbles upon a midden of “gannet bones thinned to needles.” Butler is an astute observer, with a talent for evoking the sweep of history from small details. Walking a whalers’ graveyard she describes how “Too many of the crosses have come down to time, turned to firewood in/ the deepest winters… There is no wood on Spitsbergen, every plank/ brought from away.”
The text works best in its spare, sly descriptions of landscape, and in the playful and sometimes startling insights Butler offers up. Watching a glacier calve, she notes: “Somewhere in this ice, Dachau plumes dark against the blue; London/ burns from a shop on Pudding Lane.”
The suites that offer up imagined histories I found less compelling. More than once Butler refers to the journey teaching her “what explorers know”: Her perspective is informed not only by two weeks in the Arctic, but also by hundreds of years of Arctic mythologizing. Butler’s imagined lives of explorers, whalers, miners and their families follow conventional interpretations. Women are unitary, “the women,” wives and mothers awaiting “their men,” toiling at menial tasks broken only by “small paths to beauty in the colour of a dress, a half-used tin of lavender paint for a child’s bedroom.” I found such sections a little Gothic for my tastes. Perhaps inspired by the bleak Soviet architecture and monuments that litter some of the older industrial settlements, Butler’s imagined winters are dark, seething and sinister. If some residents choose lives in the archipelago for reasons other than pressing financial need and lack of options, it is not apparent in the narrative. Visiting Barentsburg, she notes that “The Arctic Coal Trust/ bleeds a trail of rubles across the sea.”
But these are minor quibbles. Magnetic North is a delight, perfect for amateur botanists, naturalists or simply admirers of Butler’s astonishing gifts as a poet.
—Shirley Roburn is an assistant professor at York University.