Nonfiction Review by Susan Olding

Jennifer Bowering Delisle, The Bosun Chair (Edmonton: Newest Press, 2017). Paperbound, 119 pp., $17.95.

The Bosun ChairA bosun or boatswain’s chair is a contraption for holding sailors aloft so they can work in a ship’s rigging. The earliest versions consisted of a plank of wood or swath of canvas suspended on knotted ropes; these could be risky for seamen, particularly during storms. Today, most bosun chairs incorporate clamps and harnesses and other safety features common to climbing gear, and more of them dangle from city skyscrapers than from the masts of ships. Bosun chairs have been transplanted, adapted, and repurposed to inland environments, where their quaint-sounding name is often their only surviving connection to the sea. In this, they are not unlike the generations of out-migrants from Newfoundland, increasingly driven west and south to work on oil rigs rather than ships’ rigs. The Bosun Chair is therefore a perfect title for Jennifer Bowering Delisle’s inventive project. Part family memoir and part social history, this genre-bending book is a lyrical inquiry into the pull of an ancestral home and a compassionate study of intergenerational resilience in the face of loss.  

Born and raised in Edmonton, the author is the great-granddaughter of not one, but two seafaring poets. No wonder she is convinced that “despite a distance of a hundred years and three thousand miles” she is connected to these ancestors through something “deeper than DNA.” Or, as her transplanted mother would say, Make no wonder. The addition of the word “make” to the common phrase “no wonder” produces a distinctive Newfoundland idiom, one that Delisle does not even recognize as such until she is an adult. Growing up in a cosmopolitan landlocked city, surrounded by the children of immigrants from other places, she feels a sentimental attachment to her family’s far-away coastal home—analogous, perhaps to the attachments her friends feel to India, the Ukraine, or China—and she resents her parents for moving away and robbing her of her rightful heritage. Research and longer immersion in family stories teaches a different lesson and reveals a richer birthright. Those who leave hard places go in search of opportunity and survival, and they rarely go without lingering loss and regret. And if she did not spend her formative years on “The Rock,” she has nevertheless grown to adulthood steeped in the special sound-patterns of Newfoundland. For her parents and other family members have exposed her to the musical speech rhythms and vocabulary of their home, and these have become so profound a part of her that she has failed to recognize them in herself. Language is her special legacy, and it is in and through poetic inquiry that she discovers kinship, connection, and greater compassion for out-migrants like her parents and other relatives.

In addition to poetry and creative nonfiction, Jennifer Bowering Delisle has published an academic monograph called The Newfoundland Diaspora, and her skills as a researcher are visible in The Bosun Chair. Drawing on and incorporating interviews and archival material such as diaries, letters, newspaper articles, maps, and photographs, as well as on both her great-grandparents’ poems, she constructs from them a fragmented and inconclusive narrative. Like ballycater—the jagged pans of ice that mass near the Newfoundland shoreline in spring—her materials are irregular, shifting, and imperfectly reliable. The past often contradicts itself, and even interviews with living subjects can leave a writer confused; listening later to her tapes, she strains to catch the meaning behind the words. These stories, like the ice pans, are “too slippery to steady on.” The only way to write them, then, is with attention to detail and to process, making her research transparent and honouring the inconsistencies and gaps. 

It is equally important to honour the words themselves. The Bosun Chair achieves this aim. The book reverberates with the rhythms of Newfoundland speech, which the author both reproduces and creates. Selections from interviews and letters allow us to listen, as she does, to the give-and-take of conversation, while original turns of phrase generate unexpected yet homely imagery. “The ship was filling with water like a dipping spoon.” “[T]he crust of ice was calm as the kitchen floor.” “Fog like putting on a hat.” Lines like these suggest the complex tangle of feelings evoked in the children and grandchildren of migrants when they return to or imagine their ancestral homes. Simultaneously mysterious and familiar, such places become sites of both alienation and belonging. 

That sense of imperfect connection might be the key theme of our age. Migration has never before occurred on so massive a scale, and we have not even begun to come to terms with its inevitable emotional fallout. A Newfoundlander moving provinces in search of work does not face the insecurity, instability, cultural barriers, or exposure to danger of a Syrian refugee, but her children and grandchildren may feel a similar—if milder—displacement. Only a hybrid form that mirrors and brings attention to the complexity of this experience can begin to illuminate it. The Bosun Chair, with its transparency of process and its artful blend of reportage, poetry, and prose, shines a light on migration’s dark sea.   

—Susan Olding

As in The Malahat Review, 201, Winter 2017, 121-122