The prose poems brought together in this selection are infused with the landscape along the shore of the Saint Lawrence River in the south-west part of Montreal, adjoining the neighborhoods of Verdun, Lasalle, and Lachine. The section “Lachine Stations” makes a more explicit reference to the area of Montreal in the south-west, upstream from the rapids bearing the name “Sault Saint-Louis” at the time of New France. Until the opening of the canal in 1825, enabling one to bypass the rapids, Lachine was the departure point for the “voyageur” canoes, hired by the great companies engaged in the fur trade in the north-west. Those pages of “Lachine Stations” devoted to the fictional character, Jean Mongeau, sketch the portrait of one of those singular men who became voyageurs. They were inspired by Carolyn Podruchny’s book, Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade (University of Nebraska Press and University of Toronto Press, 2006), translated into French by Anne-Hélène Kerbiriou, as Les voyageurs et leur monde. Voyageurs et traiteurs de fourrure en Amérique du Nord (Presses de l’Universitè Laval, 2009) – as well as the book illustrated by Gilles Bédard, Les voyageurs d’Amérique (Éditions GID, 2012). I extend my thanks to both authors, to whom I am greatly in debt.
Notebooks of Jean Mongeau,
I walked by the edge of the wood,
torn between the grain’s fervour
and the chill exhalation of ferns.
I had either to stay or to leave.
In me, life sickened
each day a bit more
and my soul was heavy with loss
God-divested and imploring
life’s grace be restored to me.
I loved you, Marie, but it was
a music unmastered, a lame plod,
my hands grasping at the void,
while voices on high called to me, fraught,
nameless, faceless voices,
and I gave heed to them in the forest, wanting
to cede them my moorings, my lodgings,
while our dog, who yapped far off
in the hay at high tide
he was no longer my vassal
and that he’d lost me..
Sometimes I see again the road leading to Lachine,
I hear the cart squeal
that carried us out of the city
weighed down with horses and tipsy sailors,
and all along the port we saw
large-skirted women whose beauty
tore at us suddenly like a farewell,
I remember having hailed one of them
with my hand, and having blushed
at the smile she tossed me,
then it was a rough forest trail
along the Sault Saint-Louis
where you felt the presence, both hidden and near,
of the humid river that would bear us,
its water luminous as a deliverance..
The eve of our departure we’d danced and drunk long into the night. Something held us to the land, drunk as we were and near to madness, like those sailors who in the end repudiate the sea, too wide, that renders alien, to the soul’s peril, the nearness of bodies and things. Then we left in the direction of Nipissing, the Big Water, and we were greeted by Algonquin women, all comely, save an old toothless one who smiled like the others but seemed the very embodiment of death.
(Inventory for loading):
– twenty rifles.
– thirty boxes of gunpowder.
– thirty boxes of lead shot and balls.
– twenty wool blankets.
– two big rolls, blue cloth, red cloth.
– knives, scissors, hatchets, awls, sewing needles, lighters.
– flour, sugar, salt, dried meat.
– two boxes of jewels: necklaces, earrings, bracelets.
– a bag of red powder to color the skin.
– mirrors, magnifying glasses, decorative porcelain, glass pearls, brass and steel wire.
– Thirty shirts, thirty ceintures fléchées.
– tobacco, brandy..
I kneeled a moment
in the last church
then I feared the wind
and I shivered..
On leaving: a baptism of peace
and light to bless two lakes.
I thought myself a new man
armoured with hope and prayers
and a providence of rocks and cascades
and fierce rains to freeze the soul,
but I found prairies first,
a great sweetness of grasses
and the night with its shrillness of crickets,
the distant pounding of a drum
rising from a village beyond the fields
I miss Maskinongé already,
but I sense a fire within me
never before felt, a strength that defies
its trials as the days pass and I reach
that breaking point where my body
must sing if it’s not to sleep,
I think of you, Marie, alone under the quilt
naked and warm in the lunar room
entering a long languorous summer
a deep fever of silence and idleness,
while far up I voyage within myself,
seeking valor in exhaustion
and knowing no more the reasons for my flight.
For days La Grande River
was our only home
along with the obsessive lapping of the paddles
counting the seconds and in the process
undoing all hope of reaching shore and sleeping there,
until the sudden squawk of a bluejay
entered my ear and in a trice
I stopped feeling my arms
and my hardened backside and my bent legs
and it was like a clearing inside
as if the landscape
had at last found in me
a place to lodge its light.
After La Grande River and the hard law of rocks
that seemed to assert on earth
God’s dominion over human failings,
we encountered the ghastly La Vase Portage,
all the world’s hardness abruptly undone
all matter molten and the ground stripped away
under our boots and it seemed to me suddenly
that evil was rampant in this place
seeking to cow our courage,
as if we’d broken faith with our own desire
for a combat on equal terms,
and against all expectations tainted the assurance
of a rugged land and pure water
that would christen us one more time.
(Letter from Marie Saint-Arnaud to Jean Mongeau, October 1803)
The house is empty of you but I often pass
your shadow in the dark, I feel
your breath rush upon me,
your handsome charmer’s mouth
bite my breast,
but I’d love as much
for your voice to wrap me round and shelter me
from the hardness of the world
for you said things with wisdom
and swore love with that gentle tremble
that makes men’s voices falter
when desire undoes them,
I’d like tomorrow to be filled
with your body and your hands,
and your peaceable step when at the window
I saw you going by the fields
towards the dark edge of the wood
when all the day’s power
as if your heavy gait
enjoined it to yield,
tell me on what river do you paddle,
on what lake and if the time is long
crossing over hills with a heavy burden
and if the black water sometimes brings you fear
and if it bears off comrades
who have not kept their footing.
Early morning, scarred fire, noble bones, woodland song, men’s and women’s voices among the trees. I am the dust of ages, whirlwind of the deeps, escapee from the first caves. I tremble at being what I am, do you hear me, woman of the woods, of wool woven under the lampshade and the trellis of blood that shivers in the window? Do you know the calendar of wounds and joys that appear, at times, when night and day conspire to undo order and reason, when limbs are harnessed to other limbs to shift the weight of dread? Who are you? I founder in another river that becomes another lake that becomes a new river. Sometimes the running water no longer suffices for the needs of man and sometimes supplies must be shouldered, without horses or donkeys, to sidestep death. This business destroys us, yes, but to live is something else again, and the nightly feasts, and the dried bison and the bear fat that smears our fingers. We are beset with hunger before the rock that quakes. We are mad not to bow low before this god.
Despite the splendor of these paddler’s arms,
it’s the soul’s indigence
and human weakness
that have brought me here
to this harsh land and load-bearing water,
the treacherousness of roots
and the astonishment of animals,
me chilled to the bone,
unnerved by rains and frothings,
loving kin to whispering grasses
and thrown full force onto stoical rocks
against which at times I lean my ear
towards the far-off realm when time
laboured sedately and in darkness.
Spare me this rise to climb, these slimy stones beneath my soles, this fatigue of bodies that know only steepness and stumbling. There is anguish too great for just one man, and regrets that smother the soul, when prayer’s succor is all for naught. Give me back the ardour of forests and the burning pine needle carpet, give me back cold springs and the gentle drift in the carefree bends of rivers sheltered by the sky and the brows of rocks. I see far off the great prairie open wide, riddled with mosquitoes, and the banks of the Red River where, they say, the peoples of this land grow grain. And on the lakes at night the Northern Lights cast a spell and set even the stars to dancing. You arrive wearied at the trading posts, you gorge yourself with oily corn and draughts of rum, and unknown languages rip at your heart. You never come home, and you hear in the distance a great rush of dust and sand rise up which, out of the south, foists thirst on man and beast and makes drought a primal verity, underpinning all gifts and the glories of love. Restore to me, Lord, the blessing of this desert, spare me the hard road back.
Rock me, rock me, take
my broken body, my routed heart
for I lost my footing,
slid on a solid stone
while seeking support,
saw the water darker
than the deeps of our souls
and the time of man
shrunk to nothing,
rock me for what remains of beauty
when the foundering sun
shuts the book of wonders,
the sweet legend of a peopled world,
while the rapids far off, their froth abated,
roar on through the night
like beasts that stalk their prey.
Rock me, woman who douses the lamp,
go to sleep now alone so as to feel no pain,
I journey on under a heavy weight
and eternity is for me a deep chill,
my solitude counts for less than your own,
it vexes even the dusk
where I seek forgiveness in vain.
— Pierre Nepveu, Translated from the French by Donald Winkler
Pierre Nepveu is a poet, essayist, novelist and professor emeritus at the University of Montreal. Since 1971 he has published several collections of poetry, primarily with the Éditions du Noroît, including Romans-fleuves, Lignes aèriennes, Les verbes majeurs, and most recently, La dureté des matières et de l’eau, which appeared in 2015. In addition to his essay collections dealing with Quebec literature and the literatures of the Americas, including L’écologie du reel and Intérieurs du Nouveau Monde, his is the co-author with Laurent Mailhot of the anthology La poésie québécoise des origins à nos jours, which has appeared in several editions. He published the biography, Gaston Miron. La vie d’un homme, in 2011. Several times a winner or finalist for the Governor General’s award, he is also a member of the Royal Society and the Order of Canada.
Donald Winkler is a Montreal based documentary filmmaker, and a translator of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. He is a three-time winner of the Governor General’s Award for French to English translation, most recently, in 2013, for his rendering of Pierre Nepveu’s collection of poetry, The Major Verbs (Les verbes majeurs). His translation of Nepveu’s most recent collection, The Hardness of Matter and Water (La dureté des matières et de l’eau), will be published by Signal Editions in 2018.