September 6, 2016
In John Steffler’s ‘Dividing Island’, from his collection Lookout, the poem is capable of looking inside a growing family and outside at their borrowed ‘home’ of Newfoundland in 51 cumulatively powerful lines. The feeling, as one reads, is that each line is inevitable, necessary; what is being said must be said. And it must be said in this way.
John Steffler’s ability to write such convincing lines is rooted in his attention to specific details and an empathetic awareness of the human condition. This began with his first book An Explanation of Yellow. But he is also willing to go to “some blunt place I can’t go beyond.” In his book-length journal/poem The Grey Islands, which documents his solitary stay on islands off the north coast of Newfoundland, he wrote “I am not a man anymore. I am an island.” In The Night We Were Ravenous, the title poem is so uniquely characteristic that it lives larger than the one writing it.
In ‘Dividing Island’ a man and his wife come to Newfoundland. He “had bargained to keep her / with his work, left his boy self / back in Toronto.” They have two children there and attempt to identify themselves with the ache of the landscape. Painfully the people from there must go ‘outside’ to get work, dividing themselves from each other and their home. The island itself takes on an identity in the poem from both of these struggles, “growing this / history of loss like its low trees.”
In speaking the place, the poet also unmistakably speaks our own ‘dislocated selves’.