Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Breakwater Newfoundland Poetry Series: John Steffler Responds to Al Pittman

Al Pittman
Courtesy of Newfoundland Heritage
   Al loved fellowship and improvised social occasions.  He
   had a way of  making ordinary shared experience a kind of
   celebration, something memorable.  Inside him there was a
   bright-lit house party going on in the midst of endless
   night.  Newfoundlanders, especially those from outport
   and small island communities, have (or had) a special
   awareness of the bottomless darkness surrounding us and
   the need to counter it with courage, wit, skill and

   I was fortunate to meet Al shortly
   after moving  to Newfoundland in
   1975.  My whole experience of
   Newfoundland opened through him and his family, through his parents, their stories and the times I spent in their generous company.  I can’t separate these poems of Al’s from my memory of Al himself and the times when I first read them or heard them.  They’re all charged with emotion for me, my own nostalgia, pleasure and sorrow now added to the nostalgia, pleasure and sorrow that Al wove into them.  In “Boxing the Compass” there’s Al’s father, tanned and bare-chested in his captain’s cap at the wheel of the Kyran.  And later, there are the Kyran’s timbers rotting in the grass.

Al looks back on his childhood, on the vestiges of his ancestral home in the same way that he looks at last evening’s party in Crawley’s Cove — both romantically and honestly.  He’s not trying to forge either a heroic cultural myth or a personal myth.  He’s celebrating life, living it as fully and attentively as he can, while it passes.

The music of Al’s language and his eye for the captured moment are as fresh and alive as ever.  Music, fellowship, briefly captured time.  Our fleeting-legendary selves.

John Steffler was the Poet Laureate of Canada (2006-2008) and taught for years in the English Department at Memorial University's Sir Wilfred Grenfell College.  His poetry works include That Night We Were Ravenous and Lookout.