Nonfiction Review by Marisa Grizenko

Jenna Butler, Magnetic North: Sea Voyage to Svalbard (Edmonton: University of Alberta, 2018). Paperbound, 102 pp., $19.99.

Magnetic NorthFor two weeks in the summer of 2014, poet Jenna Butler and a group of fellow artists sailed along the coast of Spitsbergen, a sparsely populated region of the Svalbard archipelago in the Norwegian Arctic. Butler’s Magnetic North is a potent engagement with the land she encountered during that trip. In the preface, as Butler explains what she and her colleagues did aboard the Antigua, she uses the language of sight—photographed, observed, looked, saw—because this is fundamentally a work about seeing. The language is sharp and vibrant, keenly attuned to the details of the natural world. As I read, I noted words new to me, rolled them around in my mouth, savoured their sounds. Scree. Guillemots. Bistre.

Each of the sixteen sections, opening with an epigraph framed by two photographs, invites readers to adopt a new perspective and often to enter a different era. In one section, we learn about the explorers and aviators set on conquering the north. In another, we watch as Russian men now mine scrap metal from the ruins of Pyramiden, an abandoned Soviet town. In still another, we read about an unnamed woman from centuries ago, waiting for her husband to return from an expedition led by Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz. Beyond telling familiar stories of resource extraction and colonial dreams of territorial acquisition, these sections also offer an interesting commentary on gender dynamics: “This place of no women is stripped, scraped, flensed, boiled in iron; piece by piece, it is dismantled and sent back over the water” to “make lamp oil and soap,” “parasols and corset stays.” The “mythic and terrible” north, defined by men’s labour and sacrifice, by their hubris and hopes, also reflects women’s role in the tangled networks of capitalism and patriarchy, as “each autumn, a seine of complicity skeins back across the ocean toward home.” Butler chronicles humanity’s centuries-long relationship with the Arctic, our ambitions, struggles, and incursions on the land and sea, with compassion and clear-eyed understanding. Yet it is evident her sympathies lie with nature.

Watching the landscape and its creatures with attention, with love, Butler finds elegant ways to express awe: “To watch a glacier calve is to watch time run in both directions at once. The grey face is the old ice, pitted with history. The blue face is the fresh ice, brilliant and unscarred, razor-edged and untouched.” On the flight of auks, she envies their natural instincts, their clear sense of purpose: “Imagine what it is to be called through the bones, daylight playing itself out in your marrow.... What it must be to understand the pull in your blood this way—an old, old calling.” Throughout, Butler relates Svalbard to her home of Alberta, a place of “Labrador tea plants jittering with early bees, plush moss, the unfurled heads of ferns.” When brought together, the two locations reveal productive points of connection and divergence; above all, they allow further opportunities to celebrate the beauty of each place.

Describing Svalbard’s alien landscape, Butler notes: “Nothing here precisely for us or against, just a great unembodied presence.” The first section opens with an excerpt from William Carlos Williams’s poem “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” where the land asserts its autonomy, its glorious self-concern: “the whole pageantry / of the year was / awake tingling.” In the poem, Icarus is off to the side, almost out of sight, drowning. Nature may be indifferent to humanity, but we have been much less aloof. Threaded through the book are references to human violence, to the earth, and to one another. Here Butler brings personal experience: “[e]veryone in Alberta knows what it means to live downstream.” In “Threads,” she makes it clear that, as remote as Svalbard appears, it is inextricably connected to the rest of the world. Ecological violence, from the “PBCs in Billesfjorden” to the “[h]alf a million litres of sour crude in[] the Red Deer River,” makes itself felt everywhere: “So much of what impacts Svalbard comes from away, waterborne. So much of what breaks my home comes up from beneath.”

This sobering reminder of ecological destruction never feels uncomfortably didactic, though. Butler’s writing witnesses, but also celebrates. There is a pleasing rhythm to the work; recurring images, themes, and phrases gain force and depth each time they appear. Early on Butler writes, “We learn what the explorers knew: that darkness is not a right but an indulgence.” Thirty or so pages later, “The ship teaches us what the explorers knew: that solitude is as rare as darkness, as necessary to sanity.” While this repetition works, in other places Butler deploys a word or phrase a touch too often, dulling its power. For instance, on two consecutive pages, we read “like a party trick,” “child’s birthday trick,” and “like a vaudeville trick,” which flattened the prose for me. However, these are small snags in a work that otherwise stuns with its passion and precision. Magnetic North is a love letter to the specificities of place, whether Svalbard’s “landscape of bone” or Alberta’s “knife-edge of boreal forest.” “How we are, all of us, split open to this place at the top of the world,” Butler writes, “I heft the weight of awe.” Indeed.

—Marisa Grizenko

As in The Malahat Review, 207, Summer 2019