Jenna Butler. Magnetic North: Sea Voyage to Svalbard. (University of Alberta Press 2018).
Although published in UofAPress’s ‘Wayfarer’ travel narrative series, Magnetic North reads as a sequence of meditational prose poems exploring one extraordinarily sensitive creative mind’s encounter with the Arctic on a Norwegian sailing ship dedicated to taking various artists on just such a voyage. Butler, who farms a small holding in the Boreal forest north of Edmonton with her husband, takes this voyage precisely to engage one of the most basic, & endangered, environments on earth, & she brings to that engagement all her senses plus the sensibility of a vital & environmentally engaged poet who can find just the right words to bring her experiences of this ‘hard place’ of ice, snow, & stone to her readers.
Butler is one of about 30 artists on board the Antigua as it plies its way from small port to small port on the island of Svalbard, but Magnetic North is not about them, & only peripherally about her: what it has to tell is glimpses of ‘this space’ ‘we carry… with us when we go.’ And it is the intensity of her perceptions that carry us, her readers, with her through the various moments she records here.
Moments like the chapter, ‘Bone’: ‘When the snow recedes, slinks itself upslope to glacial till, Svalbard manifests a landscape of bone. Old outposts bleach their siding under constant sun; in sheltered bays , whaling stations lean inland, stunted by poplar wind.’ Moments like ‘The Men at the Edge of the World,’ which begins with ‘It is a hard land of few women.’ Then notes: ‘Svalbard is a land of traces: what dies, lingers.’ And later: ‘Too many of the crosses have come down to time, turned to firewood in the deepest winters. Those left swing their pinwheel arms in the wind off the glaciers.
Butler sees; but she sees into, the depths beneath the surfaces summer shows, the history these rocks & bones, the glaciers & ice still there, carry. I could quote so many other bits from the various chapters, but the point is that throughout perception leads to further perception leads to insight. The ship takes them to mine sites, towns barely surviving yet necessary for what the miners still bring up out of the ground, yet she also notes is that “This is a hard place for women, for families. Most are back in the Ukraine; the few here are freighted by dark: the winter, the cold. The mine and what it does to their men, lurking upslope from the harbour, tainting every fall of snow with coal dust.’ Or later, at another site: ‘The ice on these mountains carry centuries, the guide tells us’; to hear & record the poetry of others’ speaking is also the poet’s job. As she nears the end of her journey & her writing, she comprehends that ‘Somewhere in this ice, Dachau plumes dark against the blue; London burns from a shop on Pudding Lane. I picture the ice sharding and Vesuvius issuing forth in a charred waft, the withering harmattan over the water from Marrakesh. A caftan of brittle wings.’
Before becoming ‘writer in residence onboard an ice-class barquentine sailing vessel in the Norwegian Arctic,’ what Butler knew ‘is the knife-edge of boreal forest, gantry of muskeg spruce hoisting ravens against the clouds.’ And it’s to that forest she returns, utterly changed, as the text has demonstrated, at the end. Magnetic North is a beautiful little book, full of moments of intense vision, but it’s also another ecological warning, couched in a poet’s deep understanding of what she has seen & recorded in our now changing north. Wholly engaging both emotionally & intellectually, it’s one of those books that truly adds to our understanding of the world we live in & continue to wound.