Review: The Fiddlehead Republic by Nicholas Catanoy, 1979, Hounslow Press, $3.00
Here is a book—one long poem of 45 pages—that attempts to represent Canada’s least known province, New Brunswick. What does a United States reader—or even a Western Canadian—know of New Brunswick? An image from the elementary geography texts: a picture of lobster boats resting on their side in the mud at the base of piers rising 50 feet above them, waiting to be righted by the incoming tide; facts and figures on fishing and forestry; the Acadians; the reversing falls. This would be more than most now. Nicholas Catanoy has done some needed work in helping to remove some of the ignorance about New Brunswick—this rightly named Fiddlehead Republic. He gives us more than most of us know, though he fails to give us as much as we need. First, the poetry:
A purple falsity of light
The exquisite work of silversmiths
Barth & Lucie Wittewaalt
Words like filigrees
The sea curling
The wave taking the wave holds nothing
A fish should adore the romance of sea‑gulls
The sea is made of millions of pairs of eyes
There are many instances of Catanoy’s admirable combining of fact and lyric. I do not want to seem to disparage what he has accomplished, but there also are many instances of attempting, pushing too hard for the lyrical:
The sun circles the sky
like a shepherd.
Fictive dogs wink as they will.
This recalling of Wallace Stevens is not only unnecessary but patronizing and the music of the following lines is necessary but not true:
The sea whispers conspiratorially
I take the cadence
from the sea
Catanoy seems to have modeled his poem on a travelogue—but more specifically I suspect he modeled it on Michael Butor’s travelogue of the United States: Mobile. Mobile is subtitled “study for a representation of the United States” and is appropriate for the restricted aim of his esthetic. Catanoy has a much smaller subject, but paradoxically perhaps it demands a larger treatment—more complexity than Butor’s model. Catanoy acknowledges he is a tourist both within the text and from the blurb on the back cover: “From 1968 to 1970 he worked as a radiologist in Fredericton....Since 1970 he has traveled widely, making his home in West Germany.” And what we get is a tour —perceptive, sensitive, sometimes lyrical, but still only a tour guide of the land and people —and both demand more.
About a year after I had lived in New Brunswick an old woodsman who had befriended me said to me that I was a new pioneer and that coming in from the outside, being a stranger yet, I could see the land and people still fresh, in a way he and his children—and his great-grandchildren—could not. It was a compliment, but it is also a curse. It shows our strength while exposing our weakness. We can —I believe we must— reach that middle place where we can write with power from the union of alienation and identity. I’m not so sure than that middle place is not called love. But whatever we call it, it seems missing in Catanoy’s, Fiddlehead Republic.
I do enjoy a good travelogue. And I won’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone visiting New Brunswick. I won’t hesitate to recommend that anyone visit New Brunswick. And if you travel with Catanoy, enjoy what he has given you. But look also, look a little closer to what he has passed too quickly over: 80 percent of the land is forest, over 14 million acres, the ravages of the spruce budworm and how it affects the men and women who live with the woodlands; the domination —near total control of newspapers and radio and television, near total control of petroleum and pulp and paper, near total control ...by the K.C. Irving family; the many rivers besides the St. John which pumps its pollution to and from through Lancaster and St. John —the Kennebacasis, Petticodiac, Richibuto, Magaguadaric, Tobique, Restigouche.