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March 25, 2012

Impact by Billeh Nickerson

I started reading Billeh Nickerson’s latest book Impact: The Titanic Poems last week in preparation for a feature next month on 49thShelf. I’d picked up the book before I went to bed, and certainly hadn’t planned on what happened next: that I wouldn’t be able to turn out my light until I’d read the book entire, and that the book would make me cry.  I had figured that my capacity for crying about the Titanic had been exhausted in 1998 with my teenage melodrama, and also Kate, Leo and Celine. As though by its gigantic cinematic rendering, the tragedy of the Titanic had ceased to be real or have meaning, but it turns out that one hundred years later,  poetry was what was required– the opposite of gigantic– to re-instill the story with solidity.

Though what is solid is surprising. The ship itself is a ghost from the start, with rumours of a worker lost in its construction, and in “The Clothesline” the Titanic is an absence, the great ship launched and a Belfast housewife noting the space where it had been, how she’d grown it accustomed to watching it as she hung out her laundry. In four different poems, however, Nickerson describes the riveting process,the rivets themselves,and the teams of men required and their particular skills that put the ship together.

The book’s sections follow the ship from “Construction” to “Maiden Voyage”, in which we learn that the Titanic had 40,000 eggs in her provisions, 800 bundles of asparagus, that the ship’s iconic fourth smokestack functioned solely as ventilation from the First Class smoking room. Nickerson’s poems originate from photographs, official record, anecdotes. He is as much curator as poet, his items unadorned, which seemingly mask the craft at work behind them, but such subtlety is an art itself, the way he lets his items speak. The asparagus stands for itself, for instance, and Captain Smith’s beard, and the photograph of the boy with the spinning top.

And with the next section, “Impact”, it’s the people who speak, the woman being lowered into the lifeboat, the man who must deliver news to the captain of the damage below, the piano player whose instrument couldn’t be carried on deck and whose fingers imagine ghostly keys as the rest of the band played on. With “Voices”, a series of eyewitness accounts from survivors. And then “Impact” again, but this time emotional. Nickerson’s poem “Carpathia” tells of the ship that happened to receive the Titanic’s distress signals and rushed to the rescue to discover the shock of the same emptiness first glimpsed by the housewife in Belfast. The mother recounting her sons being torn away from her body, the carver who’d handcrafted the First Class staircases, various explanations for a dead man’s watch being stopped ten minutes after all the others, and the piece of wood found floating amidst the wreckage which sanded down to become a rolling pin, solidity’s essence.

And then finally, “Discovery”, the ship found and explored in the 1980s, the legacy of its Halifax cemetery, and poem called “The Last Survivor”. In which Nickerson writes, “how strange that the last survivor/ is the Titanic herself.”

2 thoughts on “Impact by Billeh Nickerson”

  1. Alexis says:

    Just read this for a review in Quill and Quire. Loved it as much as you did.

    1. Kerry says:

      So glad to hear it. I can’t stop talking about this one! Hope it finds the readership it deserves.

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