Heather Nolan’s Land of the Rock: Talamn an Carraig solidified my love of Newfoundland poetry. I never used to be a fan of landscape poetry but what I love about Newfoundland poetry, in particular, is the tension between a love of land and the harshness of the landscape. Lots of Canadian landscape poetry have similar themes (particularly older Canadian poetry, like confederation poetry), but contemporary Newfoundland poetry is where it’s at. Heather Nolan captures the tension within the attachment to an inhospitable land in “home and native”:
The nickname the rock always called to mind some jagged spire in hostile seas. accurate enough,
with desperate people clinging from cliffs, trying their damndest to thrust down roots in a land with no soil (26).
Yet later on, in “part two: ireland,” the similar barren “rock” landscape of Burren, Ireland is filled with life in “some field notes on the burren from afar”:
every crack and every gryke is filled
with soil where lime itself leached deep.
in every space, mosses running wild
and even orchids climb between rocks.
when sunlight crowns, a golden light winks
on the softness of the limestone’s ragged face (75-76).
The “field note” succeeding this very poem states that “landscape is the visual backdrop of a place. / place is visceral: the land we reckon with” (77). The reckoning is the tension. On a land characterized by bedrock (true for both Ireland and Newfoundland), life is not simply living — it is surviving.
This tension and the “field notes” interspersed throughout Nolan’s collection reminded me of the collection that first sparked my love of Newfoundland poetry: Douglas Walbourne-Gough’s Crow Gulch. Crow Gulch is interspersed with interviews and facts similar to the “field notes.” Gough ends the early poem “Breaking Ground” with:
Over generations you grow a bit lower, closer
to Earth like cloudberries, like Labrador tea,
like crowberries and lichen. Become stocky
like black bears, cling to this rock as stubbornly
as it tries starving you out, tries drowning
your loved ones, tries blowing you off a cliff,
back across the Atlantic like a skipped stone (15).
“tries starving you out” and “tries blowing you off a cliff” in Gough’s poem returned to me while reading Nolan’s Land of the Rock because the entirety of “book 3: sweet bay” follows the ten days when “residents of Newfoundland are permitted to fish for cod” (45 n.4), and they miss the first fishing day because of wind and rough weather: “they speak / of meteorologists like gods, / forecasts like / promises” (45). The only word written on the page for “Day 6” is “wind” (56). Residents rely on, and love, a land which tries to kill them.
What really sets Heather Nolan’s Land of the Rock: Talamh an Carraig apart, though, is its deep engagement with ancestry, history, and language — first indicated by the choice to include Gaelic in the title. To return to “home and native” from earlier, the poem ends by bringing in Irish ancestry as yet another isolating force from the land:
barren: where nothing can grow,
that wretched definition hovering
over people without a past, really,
because you aren’t irish anymore
and don’t you dare sing
“our home and
native land,” you bastards,
reeking with the newness of settlers (26).
The statement “you aren’t irish anymore” remains in the back of your mind when reading the second part of the collection: “ireland.” The poem “is as talamh an éisc mé” features many footnotes, mostly offering translation, and comments on the importance of holding on to one’s own history:
grandfather’s language bulky and heavy on my tongue. my sister says why the hell would you learn
a dead language? but I press on long enough to learn to say is as talamh an éisc mé, (70)
The footnotes inform readers that Irish Gaelic is not a dead language, and that “is as talamh an éisc mé” means “i am from newfoundland.” The entire second half of the poem is written in Irish Gaelic, with the English translation in the footnotes. However, later in the collection, another “field note” is written in Gaelic with no translation offered at all (81). The choice not to include translation creates a barrier between the text and the reader, and in so doing reinforces a connection between the author and her land, her ancestry, her history. Even with translations in other poems, there is a level of connection to one’s own land, language, and history that readers can not — and should not — have access to.
Still, there is a hesitancy throughout the collection to truly call a place one’s own. Nolan calls herself a tourist in other poems (96), the second part of the collection calling itself out as a type of roots tourism, where one travels to learn more about their ancestry when the “homeland” is no longer connected to them. Nolan dedicates the collection to “everyone who has ever ventured into the unending questions of who am I, and where do I come from?” Which is a longing for connection that I’m sure many of us have experienced. I truly devoured this collection, and would highly recommend it to anyone who, like me, cannot get enough of poetry that is deeply connected to place and its history. This review barely touches on what I loved about Land of the Rock: Talamh an Carraig (there are so many well-thought-out line breaks!). It is truly an excellent collection, and a great summer read.
Heather Nolan is a neurodiverse writer from St. John’s, NL. They are the author of This Is Agatha Falling (Pedlar Press, 2019), which was longlisted for the BMO Winterset Award and the ReLit Award. They have published poetry and prose across Canada, the US, and the UK. They were the winner of the Gregory J. Power Poetry Award, and were longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize. This is their first poetry collection.
- Publisher : Breakwater Books (March 7 2022)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 64 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1550819259
- ISBN-13 : 978-1550819250
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