Robert Bringhurst is a poet, essayist and one of the most well-respected writers in Canada today. An accomplished author of over 20 books of poetry, 25 books of prose and multiple stage productions, Bringhurst says his latest book of poems, The Ridge, is the culmination of his entire life’s work – a life’s work that Margaret Atwood has described as “gigantic, as well as heroic.”
Bringhurst says he would “like to be introduced as a human being. That’s a pretty risky way of identifying yourself nowadays, because so many humans have done so much damage – to the planet and to everything that lives here, including other humans. But it’s a risk I can’t avoid. I can’t resign from my species.”
The book centers itself around the long title poem, which is a far-reaching ode to one of the hidden geographies near his home on Quadra Island, BC. The Ridge circles one overarching theme: humanity’s intertwined relationship with Earth’s past, present, and future. Shifting from the lilting music of the lute to the catastrophic ravages of resource extraction, Bringhurst narrates an experiential story of bird-song languages, the quiet majesty of hidden geographies, and the precise conversion of trees to BTUs needed to satisfy global energy demands.
It was here
before the fire and has the ash-black scabs
to prove it. It has added no girth since.
Nine decades now, the larger tree has kept
the smaller one alive. Their roots are fused,
like the knitted fingers of sleeping lovers,
just beneath the ground.
Can a species or a culture or a tribe
or a society be guilty?
Is moral knowledge more than just
a luxury some have and others lack?
Bringhurst says he wrote The Ridge “the way I write almost everything: not by planning it out in advance but by getting lost in the forest and finding my way back out.” When asked if he perceives the world differently as a creative person, he says, “all plants and animals are creative, and in many different ways. Everywhere you look – among the birds or deer or squirrels, for example – some individuals are more creative and more devious than others, but still creativity is normal. It’s not the private preserve of humans or poets or artists. It’s part of being alive.”
What effect did Bringhurst’s childhood have on his writing? He says, “I was raised as an only child in a migrant family, so my childhood was all over the place and much more solitary than many people’s childhoods. That, of course, has had some effects. I didn’t learn many social skills, but I was exposed to a lot of different landscapes – both physical and cultural – and had lots of time to myself. No doubt it shows.”
is what keeps this road from swallowing
the ridge, the hills, the island and the trail.
The trail goes west into the forest, up
and over and along the island’s spine,
braiding and unbraiding like a river,
forking north, south, back on itself,
and west again.
Bringhurst says culture plays a role in his writing. “In my corner, culture permeates poetry, and poetry permeates culture. Not just my culture but all of human culture. Ideally, all of human knowledge and experience could come into any story, any essay, any poem.”
The trail was not here then. It does not
remember having no ideas, and it
does not remember never being
sung to. So the trail cannot take you
back into that world, although that world
is buried very shallowly in this one.
Bringhurst says his perception of his own poetry is not greatly influenced by others’ views. “In the literary world, voices travel long distances in space and time. I can sit here, looking out at the forest, reading books that were written or spoken by people living hundreds or thousands of years ago and hundreds or thousands of miles away. My reaction to their work means something to me, but nothing to them. When I publish a book, I’m in a similar position. Out it goes, and people make of it what they will. It’s guaranteed that almost everyone will see it differently than I do. And why shouldn’t they? A genuine book is bigger than its author. Everyone who reads it will see it from a different point of view.”
The poet works wherever he is, “And I have a nice library, a wooden building that I built about twenty years ago, with big windows on one wall looking straight into a basalt cliff…. Next to the library, in the same building, is my woodshop, so I can move from one working mode to another just by passing through the doorway.” For Bringhurst, language work and carpentry have a lot in common – “The basic material is organic in both cases, and has a grain, texture, and density with endless variations. No two pieces of wood and no two pieces of speech are quite the same.”
On the whole, his poetry is not aimed at certain groups of people, says Bringhurst. “Writing poetry is like planting trees. I’m not in the timber business, so I don’t plant trees with the idea that I’ll cut them down later on and make some money. I just plant them so they’ll grow…. Some of the trees I plant will die but others will thrive. Squirrels and juncos and ravens and barred owls and any humans who happen by may be happy to find them growing there. But they’re not aimed at anyone in particular. They’re aimed at themselves, at the place where they are, at the earth as a whole. Poetry is like that. That’s why it doesn’t make money. It makes us richer, but not in ways we can take to the bank.”
What does Bringhurst hope readers will take away from The Ridge? “Different readers will find different things. The elephant in the book is a single long poem called The Ridge, which takes up almost half the space. For some readers it will be too much. If they read it at all, they may read its twenty sections as twenty separate poems, and they may say, ‘Oh, I like this one and not that one.’ If you read that way, you’re shortchanging yourself.”
“Poems are doorways into meaning,” says Bringhurst. “They allow you to enter a space you’ve never been in before and discover what’s there. So they can enlarge and enrich the world you live in.” He hopes readers “will see the whole arc of the poem and how the pieces fit together. They’ll see that it’s a portrait of a place – a small part of Quadra Island – that is geologically and ecologically and historically and linguistically tied to everywhere else on the planet, as all places are. They’ll see that it serves as a kind of hologram of the planet, refracting and reflecting bits of truth and bits of light from here and now and from other times and places.”
The trail loves to hide, said Herakleitos,
and the trail you can travel like a road
is not a trail, Lǎo Zi said, and cannot
take you where you are and have to go.
Paperback / softback
5.5 in x 8.5 in – 168 pp
Publication Date: 04/03/2023
Natalia Nybida is a writing student at VIU, where she’s come to love the editing process, helping to strengthen writer’s stories. Her fiction has been published by Rebel Mountain Press, and her poetry by Sea & Cedar magazine. She says, “poetry and journalism are similar in that you’re trying to share a strong message in a concise way.”