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Borealis

POEMS BY Jeff Humphries
WOODCUTS BY Betsy Bowen
Copyright Date: 2002
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 104
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctttsgwc
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  • Book Info
    Borealis
    Book Description:

    Woodcuts by Betsy Bowen Borealis is the North Country as spoken through the voice of Jeff Humphries, who discovers unexpected riches in the wilderness looming around his cabin. As interpreted by renowned illustrator Betsy Bowen, the subjects of the poems come to inhabit the pages of this volume; her spare and beautifully composed woodcuts reveal surprising facets of Humphries’ words.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-9493-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[v])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vi]-[vi])
  3. [Illustrations]
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  4. INTRODUCTION ET ALLEGRO
    (pp. 1-2)

    I can still hear you

    pour out Ravel, limpid

    as water on stones

    and in my blood’s secret ear

    how we made one instrument

    just by joining our bodies

    to let the northwoods

    pour out its music from us,

    like light reflecting

    ripples on the boathouse walls,

    that small fish nearby

    shuddered with delight to hear....

  5. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  6. VOYAGEURS
    (pp. 3-8)

    He had a vision

    and was called visionary.

    He saw in his mind

    a road to the East,

    a royal highway to the

    palace of Kubilai Khan,

    to gold and spices

    and all manner of delight.

    For this, he and each

    of them burned, even the priest.

    Pierre Gaultier de

    Varennes de la Verendrye

    with four of his sons,

    his nephew, a priest, and

    fiftyvoyageurs

    to haul, row, and navigate

    departed from Grand Portage

    carrying canoes

    and packs into the border

    country of the Quetico-

    Superior. He

    sought the way that is the shape

    of everything

    he never could...

  7. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  8. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  9. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  10. THE LAKE
    (pp. 9-10)

    Vast unblinking eye

    that stares forever upward:

    earth, reflecting sky

    on a cool, dark retina

    subtended by fish

    and stirred by mammals and birds:

    finned feathered furred naked words

    that seem to swim or dive or fly....

  11. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  12. NORTHERN PIKE
    (pp. 11-12)

    Mouth full of sharp teeth

    to fish, frogs, squirrels, young loons, and

    ducks, the northern is

    the lake’s uncalculated

    appetite for violence

    and its quick embrace of death

    disguised as an angler’s hook....

  13. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  14. FROGS
    (pp. 13-14)

    In the shallows, half-

    submerged among reeds and stones,

    where there is a smooth,

    dark smell of moss and damp earth,

    they speak of water

    in a language of water,

    clear, brownish-red, green.

    The sound of an elastic

    band, plucked violently:

    the tones vary but tend to

    bass, and inflected

    by the phlegm of which frogs seem

    made. They speak to air

    of water, and to the lake

    of itself, only

    eating the occasional

    insect to survive,

    and living only to speak

    to depths of shallows,

    to shallows of glossy depths

    where lake trout loll and listen

    in their liquid...

  15. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  16. THE MERGANSER
    (pp. 15-16)

    The merganser hen

    patrols the shore, followed by

    seventeen babies,

    not all hers. (Other hens laid

    their eggs in her nest:

    she accepts the eggs and young

    of others like her.)

    Alone except for the young,

    her mate left her when

    she began to incubate

    in the hollow of

    a lichened tamarack snag

    leaning from the bank

    like an outstretched arm

    broken by its fierce, fragile

    grip on rock and moss.

    A diving duck, her bill is

    serrated and hooked

    like a gull’s, for catching fish.

    To the Ojibwe,

    the merganser represents

    a hardy genius

    for surviving cold winters,

    while...

  17. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  18. MOOSE
    (pp. 17-18)

    Lumbering satyr

    grazes near the shore; may sink

    entirely out of

    view when swimming, then emerge

    like Bottom, bestial

    fairy-charmed dream of the lake

    enfleshed: flatulent,

    slack lipped, sad-eyed, receding

    chin. His scat tells what

    he eats: loose pies from water

    plants, hard berries from

    upland graze, compressed sawdust

    from bark in winter.

    Urine is cologne to him;

    the females find it

    irresistible. In rut

    he charges other

    males, cars, even trains; may stare

    love-struck at a cow

    in a farmer’s field. When the

    dream wears off, he disappears

    into woods, or the lake, or

    this thin, pale water of...

  19. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  20. OSPREY
    (pp. 19-20)

    On a rock island

    blooming from a pine snag

    like a huge, charred rose

    its nest of sticks defies wind,

    assaults of eagles.

    In the name of lucent sky

    brown and white lightning snatches

    scaled tears from the lake’s cold eye....

  21. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  22. JACK PINE
    (pp. 21-22)

    Dead wood scoured white by

    winter snow and wind crown its

    Japanese countenance

    of green needles and fissured

    bark on limbs frozen

    in shapes of extravagant

    and calm indifference

    to inclement elements....

  23. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  24. BEAVER
    (pp. 23-24)

    Round brown buck-toothed bark-

    eater hides in watery

    tent of sticks but leaves

    signs: a telltale trail of vees

    in the black smooth eye

    of the dreaming lake,

    low pointed stumps of felled trees

    and the sharp, sudden

    slap of flat tail on water

    that startles loons and sleeping men....

  25. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  26. BALD EAGLE
    (pp. 25-26)

    Perfect symmetry

    of sky and water, your eye

    reflects the lake’s vast

    lens, encompassing yourself,

    a tiny blot lost

    on a liquid firmament

    that fish, like stars, inhabit.

    Your shrill cry reverberates through

    northern woods without regard

    for the symbols or boundaries

    of any nation of men....

  27. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  28. ALEXANDER MACKENZIE
    (pp. 27-30)

    One of the partners

    of the North West Company,

    he inherited

    the lust to wander, offspring

    of emigrants who

    left New York for Montreal

    in their loyalty

    to King George and Great Britain.

    In Canada he

    was heir to the dream

    of a Passage by

    water to the Orient.

    It haunted him like a girl

    he could not have, and

    had never seen in the flesh;

    whose body and face

    were the shape of perfection.

    Alex recognized

    the Oriental postures

    of stunted jack pines,

    the Japanese countenance

    of greenstone boulders

    hoary with lichen and moss.

    He went back to school...

  29. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  30. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  31. THE BEAR
    (pp. 31-32)

    No bears in years, the

    island’s owner told his guest

    who feared nocturnal

    visitors. But about the

    base of a rotten

    stump some inquisitor’s snout

    had poked in pursuit

    of squirrel or mouse or grub.

    Mink or marten face

    would sign earth with a daintier

    stroke as it rifled

    rodents’ houses, and grubs are

    not such fine mustelid fare.

    At night beneath a

    bird feeder hung on a birch

    something tore the moss

    in search of sunflower seeds.

    Conjured by the thought of bear,

    fur wet with the lake

    he swam across to get here,

    he may haunt woods and...

  32. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  33. HUMMINGBIRD
    (pp. 33-34)

    Dense fragment of light,

    buzz of whose wings heralds flight

    of night from the northern woods....

  34. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  35. PORCUPINE
    (pp. 35-36)

    He eats wood and fears

    nothing, swaddled in a cloak

    of brittle daggers.

    He has not felt the need to

    hurry in so long

    he cannot any longer,

    waddles over roads

    and the large brown eyes look out

    of his crushed body

    frozen in astonishment

    at heedless, rushing

    impunity. The fisher

    gets a similar

    response, flipping him over

    to expose tender

    underparts. Otherwise, he

    is safe in the woods.

    He likes to eat the handles

    of axes and oars

    to get the brine left there by

    human hands. He means no harm....

  36. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  37. RED SQUIRREL
    (pp. 37-38)

    Smaller and quicker

    than grey kin, he is never

    still. He swims across

    the lake to islands free of

    martens and fishers,

    his enemies, ricochets

    from stump to boulder

    like an inscrutable small

    force or toy wound up

    too tightly. Finding seeds left

    out for birds, he spends

    the day storing them

    one at a time in a stump.

    He tolerates not

    even his own kind, chucking,

    chittering, biting

    if necessary. His bites

    are calculated.

    He is said to castrate greys,

    his own only scold

    or wound. But when he

    swims, may vanish, small russet

    note in a green crescendo...

  38. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  39. MAPLE
    (pp. 39-40)

    Flesh blond and tightly

    grained enough to blunt the teeth

    of saws, its skin is

    black and grey on field of white.

    The leaves emerge bright

    against the immutable

    green of conifers,

    exploding carmine in fall.

    Make a shallow wound,

    and its almost clear, thick blood

    shed into pails, boils

    down to concentrated balm

    of the summer woods,

    sweet lees of memory or

    viscous seed of future spring....

  40. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  41. RUFFED GROUSE
    (pp. 41-44)

    Quick brownish-grey birds

    the size of banty chickens

    haunt the shore thickets.

    They appear from nowhere, and

    disappear the same

    way, bending serviceberry

    branches to the ground

    with their crops full of ripe fruit.

    Everyone hunts them,

    wolves, men, martens, hawks, and owls

    so they are nervous,

    watchful, as they eat green buds

    of willow and birch,

    blue- and bunch- and red service-

    berries, fungi, seeds,

    and fuzzy flower catkins

    of the aspen trees.

    In winter they grow bristles

    on their feet so they

    can walk on snow, and

    burrow into it to sleep,

    exploding from drifts

    at first light...

  42. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  43. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  44. MARTEN
    (pp. 45-46)

    Elemental force

    careens through branches clad in

    brown white and ochre

    fur, fanged bolts of ravenous

    elegant death hurled

    helter-skelter on squirrels:

    tree-weasel, dapper

    with fox-cunning, mink-

    stink, and appetite,

    your orange belly means death

    to squirrels, money

    to the furrier and trapper....

  45. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  46. LAKE TROUT
    (pp. 47-48)

    Lake trout lurk in depths

    the casual angler cannot

    plumb, and lay large eggs

    in the bright lap of autumn.

    Young emerge beneath

    the water’s solid winter

    face and feed and grow

    out of sight in cool water.

    Ojibwe women

    seined adults in nettle-stalk

    nets when they came up

    to spawn, then smoked the reddish

    meat. Lamprey clamp on

    to their sides and suck them dry

    as husks, as vacant

    as the inside of a word,

    like time swallowing

    itself, emptying hours from

    inside out till just

    a rind remains

    and the pellucid orange

    promise or menace of roe....

  47. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  48. RAVEN
    (pp. 49-50)

    Wolves’ rude familiar,

    imagined by a poet

    from south who never

    saw you, on silent wings of

    stolen night you ride

    green dream of daylight, streaking

    tamaracks and pines

    against blue sky and water

    with runes of lugubrious

    shape and uncertain import....

  49. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  50. THE DROWNED MAN
    (pp. 51-66)

    The day had been dark,

    the sun risen late, and grey,

    swaddling the naked

    birches and maples, stubbly

    green jack pines and yellow

    tamaracks briefly with light

    soft as owl feathers.

    Ole Hovdal was

    self-employed; since the mine shut

    down for good he had

    worked emptying and stuffing

    skins of animals

    and fish for summer tourists.

    The sky’s color, thought

    Ole as he lay in bed,

    his belly swelling

    the blankets between his chin

    and his feet, fresh fire

    crackling in the iron stove,

    the sky’s color, scudding clouds

    and all, matched the guts

    of a pine marten he had...

  51. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  52. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  53. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  54. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  55. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  56. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  57. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  58. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  59. STONE
    (pp. 67-68)

    Green moss and lichen

    stroke immutability

    with immobile hands

    as it rises from water

    crowned by a twisted jack pine....

  60. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  61. SAW-WHET OWL
    (pp. 69-70)

    Loose orb of feathers

    in a balsam fir: you may

    approach him closely

    as he rests in brilliant white

    midday or gloaming

    afternoon; he does not flee

    the gaze and footfall

    of curious humanity,

    rotating his head

    so that you and the world are

    at once upside-down.

    He is mute save for one brief

    stint of spring wooing

    when the night resounds with him

    like a neighborhood

    in the city invaded

    by trash collectors

    at first light, their trucks beeping.

    His face at the heart

    of the tree, haloed by green

    turns on its neckbone axis

    and the world around...

  62. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  63. THE WOLF
    (pp. 71-72)

    Old friend, after years

    of distance, of knowing you

    in books, one of my

    own kind has drawn me to woods

    that you haunt with her

    like the thought of a perfect

    thing that is perfectly real....

  64. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  65. SONG SPARROW
    (pp. 73-74)

    Three hundred times an

    hour he sings variations

    on seven or eight

    different songs of his own.

    But poor singer, your

    brood is lost; the brown-headed

    cowbird that makes none

    itself has found out your nest

    of moss and twigs, and laid there

    its parasitical egg....

  66. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  67. WALLEYE
    (pp. 75-76)

    In the cold water

    we drank and used for bathing,

    beneath the shiny

    black lens of the lake

    that our canoe clove

    like a slow razor

    forming a pearly scar of

    ripples, you lurked green

    and long among rocks,

    perhaps spawning as books say,

    without any nest,

    devouring minnows, mingling

    your wastes with ours in

    the liquid element we

    shared—so intimate

    and yet all I saw of you

    was cooked white flesh on a plate....

  68. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  69. BIRCHES
    (pp. 77-78)

    Nymphs to the wind’s faun,

    their white bark elegantly

    streaked with shades of black,

    they pose at the water’s edge

    leaning slender trunks

    into a cool, lascivious

    late summer breeze that makes

    their green leaves quiver

    like skin lightly touched by skin....

  70. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  71. THE LYNX AND THE SNOWSHOE HARE
    (pp. 79-80)

    In the night forest,

    with snow falling, in a copse

    of white-festooned trees,

    in the cloud-muffled moonlight,

    they are locked in an

    eternal dance, the hare leads,

    the lynx follows. Both

    have feet made for the dancing:

    broad and furred to stand

    on snow and not sink. The lynx

    eats hares, culling them.

    If the hares decline, the lynx

    dances with slow death.

    The hare can prosper because

    its numbers are held

    back from infinity by

    the lynx, with its pale

    dappled coat and elegant

    tufted ears. The hare

    wears white or brown according

    to season. They stare into

    each...

  72. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  73. RED-BACKED VOLE
    (pp. 81-82)

    They people the floor

    of the boreal wood that

    begins where

    water sucks gently

    at stone, reeds, and pale coarse sand,

    whispering secrets

    in tunnels that subtend moss

    and shallow compost

    of fragrant tamarack, fir,

    spruce, white and jack pine.

    Between the stone, scraped bare by

    glaciers, and the sudden fern

    and fungi and roots

    of trees, are ciphers

    hidden from secular view,

    read only by voles

    and sometimes a weasel who

    invades to devour—

    in whose dark, hollow runes is

    inscribed something calm,

    earthy, and ineffable.

    It is audible,

    however, even to us

    in their rustlings and

    soft night...

  74. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  75. LOONS LAUGHING
    (pp. 83-84)

    Night: trees turn to black

    sticks against the still lens of

    Burntside Lake in which

    we are reflected and loons

    dive at will, riding

    absence of light as though it

    were nothing more than

    water that the other birds

    will drink when the sun comes up.

    The wren sings, the dove

    coos, but in the brilliant night

    of the lake, the loon

    laughs at a round rising moon

    and what we call love....

  76. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  77. THE GEOLOGIST
    (pp. 85-98)

    Listen to the tale

    of a strange man who listened

    to rocks, stones, which spoke

    to him in a language not

    known to his science,

    and which frightened him at first.

    He had gone to school

    for as long as possible

    to learn the placid,

    obdurate science of stone.

    Science means knowledge;

    however, he learned nothing

    of the language they

    spoke (which was not any sort

    of proper language

    at all, in fact), but only

    to look at the rocks

    as hard as possible while

    without listening,

    without hearing, and without

    knowing anything

    but their atomic structures,

    and their putative...

  78. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  79. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  80. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  81. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  82. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  83. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  84. Back Matter
    (pp. 99-99)