June 26, 2011

The Iambics of Newfoundland by Robert Finch

This book is a warm and closely observed description of the author's visits to Newfoundland in the late 1980s and early 90s. Newfoundland (accent on the last syllable!) has intrigued me ever since Gayle was there to teach in the early 70s. Her book, The Glitter Storm: Letters from Northwest Brook, provide a lively picture of life in a Newfoundland fishing village. The Iambics of Newfoundland extends the same rich mixture of culture, language, landscape and people to many different parts of the province. It's an outstanding book, well reviewed by Time, the New York Times Book Review, and - the best recommendation of all - Annie Dillard.

Finch just writes beautifully. Here's an excerpt from his two-page chapter on jellyfish: "I saw the first one on Monday morning down off the Oldfords' wharf: a lion's mane with a reddish-brown umbrella perhaps six inches across, trailing a thick ring of long, pale angel-hair tentacles. It pulsed like a dark heart in the water, moving slowly but with seeming purpose among splintered piers, jagged shale ledges, frayed ropes and protruding spikes. How does such exposed fragility remain intact in such a ragged world?...then it moved off with a more than deliberate slowness through the clear waters, an expanding and contracting galaxy, a pulsing loop of plasmatoid fission, the swelling and shrinking foot of a moon snail without a shell, and on and on, into a deepening sea of simile...Yesterday afternoon I saw several more...When they move forward it is like a fist or a face softly pushing against a silken shroud."

It's hard not to copy the whole chapter, and Finch applies this keen eye and sensibility to the people he meets, his many friends around the province, the architecture and work of the outposts, the landscape and most particularly, the amazing cadence and vocabulary of the language. It is almost a language to itself so that when Finch talked to "the oldest man in Newfoundland" he needed a translator to understand what the old man was saying.

It's quite a long book with lots of detail but I read it carefully from beginning to end. Reading the book is probably the next best thing to going there - maybe better because I would tend to rush around. It would be great to have someone like Finch by your side, teaching you to really look.

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