Thursday, October 13, 2016

The song my paddle sings

Be strong, O paddle! Be brave, canoe!
The restless waves, you must plunge into.
Reel, reel,
On your trembling keel,
But never a fear my craft will feel.

We've raced the rapid; we're far ahead;
The river slips through its silent bed.
Sway, sway,
As the bubbles spray
And fall in tinkling tunes away.

And up on the hills against the sky,
A fir tree rocks its lullaby.
Swings, swings,
its emerald wings,
Swelling the song my paddle sings.

( partial quote)
E. Pauline Johnson ( 1862 – 1913 )

Pauline Johnson was a Canadian poet who lived over one hundred years ago. She was also a Metis, and had the heritage of two peoples from which to draw upon in her life and poetry. Even so, her writing like others of her time, would become lost in the rush that came later. More cerebral and more stylish modern writers have all but obliterated her from present day awareness. She had something though that we miss today, and this poem appeals to me in a direct and visceral way.

It seems very simple, the rhymes obvious, and the thoughts expressed seem suited to an unsophisticated mind. But then she calls it “the song my paddle sings” and taken as a song, where simplicity of expression, repetition, and appeal to emotion are important elements, it works extremely well. In fact it has been set to music.

The poem appeals to me because it concerns itself with a canoe and a rushing river within a Canadian setting. It speaks to my own lifelong experiences. It expresses old fashioned virtues like bravery and love of the land that are still Canadian qualities, buried though they may be by the busy city life most of us endure today.

I attended the burial of an old friend the other day and this poem came unexpectedly to mind. Like all good works of art there are layers of meaning involved which can open for us at times like these. I read it in that context as the turmoil of death, the racing rapids, followed by the calmer passage down the river and the gentle song of the landscape to see her on her way. Perhaps its clarity of expression leaves it open for readers to find their own feelings between its lines.

I imagine Pauline paddling her canoe in Lost Lagoon, which is now overshadowed by the city of Vancouver, and chanting the verses aloud as she created the story-path she was paddling down. The dip of the paddle, the ripple of the water, the great red sunset across the straits to the west. The call of the loon, the call of her ancestors at this magical hour. The song her paddle sings.



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