Harry Thurston and “the jigsaw of our blue geography”

by Wanda Campbell

The ocean is a central theme of Thurston’s non-fiction including Atlantic Outposts (1990), Tidal Life: A Natural History of the Bay of Fundy (1990), Against Darkness and Storm: Lighthouses of the Northeast (1993), The Nature of Shorebirds (1996), A Place Between the Tides (2004), and The Atlantic Coast, A Natural History (2011), and less obviously but just as consistently in his poetry collections from Gaspereau Press, If Men Lived on Earth (2000), A Ship Portrait (2005) and his most recent collection Keeping Watch at the End of the World (2015). Born in Yarmouth, raised on Saltwater Farm, and still calling Nova Scotia home, Thurston confesses to “an almost congenital attraction to this place washed by the sea, which may explain why like many other Atlantic Canadians I simply could never bring myself to leave” (Atlantic Outposts 5).  Trained in both biology and literature, Thurston is uniquely equipped to piece together “the jigsaw of our blue geography,” as he calls it in his poem “Atlantic Elegy,” and throughout his work he invites us to learn the lessons offered by the ocean in relation to memory, metaphor, and munificence.


Thurston opens section three of “Atlantic Elegy,” the penultimate poem in If Men Lived on Earth, with the line “The sea is memory,” a line influenced by Derek Walcott’s poem “The Sea is History.”  Thurston’s grief is different than that of the Middle Passage explored by Walcott, but his elegiac tone is also defined by the sea. Once, writes Thurston, “every mud creek bed cradled a keel, / every ocean hailed a bluenose captain” but now all that remains is “remembrance, rust, and rot” (135). Thurston begins the final section of “Atlantic Elegy” with the line: “The sea remembers her dead” (136).  As I have argued elsewhere in relation to Thurston’s poetry, memory is a conservationist impulse and “after prodigal centuries, all of us—people and poets, fishermen and environmentalists—now have no choice but to ‘wait for the seas to fill again’” (164). Thurston argues “It is for us to remember the living” (If Men 136),  and there is more to mourn than human loss. According to Lance La Rocque, “In Thurston’s poetry, memory exists in the body and the landscape itself, as the artefacts embedded there by past and present cultures.  Memory exists in the forms mapped out by the sciences and in nature’s own dialects” (116).


Thurston’s A Ship Portrait  presents a dialogue between marine artist John O’Brien (1831-1891) and the poet who responds in blue ink: “it was not ships but lives you painted—/ their rosy departures and dark homecomings” (78).  In the hands of an artist, the delicate vessels upon the ocean become metaphors for our existence. “We look to the blue horizon / for a new beginning, / some old truth about ourselves” (83). Arguably, the purpose of metaphor is to take what we know and use it to better understand what we do not. In poem after poem, Thurston explores how the littoral (from the Latin for “shore”) helps us understand the literal and vice versa, as he celebrates the lure of land’s end where one thing transforms into another.

Thurston’s latest collection, Keeping Watch at the End of the World begins with the poem “Farol” (Portuguese for lighthouse) written at Portugal’s Cape St. Vincent, once considered the end of the known world. The poem concludes with a line from Portuguese poet Luís de Camões, “the land ends and the sea begins” (11), a phrase which serves as a prologue to all the poems that follow. The next poem entitled “Littoral” contains twelve sections, all named for some intersection between land and sea including Harbour, Seaport, Cape, Cove, Reef, Fog, Tides, Isthmus, Islands, Bay and Gulf.  The first section, “Land’s End,” begins:

My unaccountable love of rock

where the land meets the sea

remains a mystery, even to me.

Perhaps this is where metaphor

occurs; two unlike things merge,

become one, that is the poetry here. (12)

In “Bay,” the poet asks what there is to anchor us and concludes there is only love and “This brief time we have to share / while the tide fills and empties the bay” (26).  The sea’s edge, then, is not only a dynamic repository of memory but a place of dialogue where new understanding is created. “We come to worship this force of nature—/ who can blame us, for it is only commerce / that makes it cliché” (17).  In “Tower” Thurston uses the metaphor of refining one’s vision in his description of container ships that “grow from a smudge, to a bridge, to full-blown vessel” as they come over the horizon.   The poet’s duty, he argues, is “not to watch” from a garret as the world slowly approaches but “to see things before they take shape” (Keeping Watch 43), and the dimensions that define us appear to dissolve.


The final lesson the sea can teach us is munificence.  In early poems Thurston mourns the lost, but in later poems he celebrates the found, the gifts the sea repeatedly bestows with lavish generosity. “What do we do with all this beauty? / Our lives are too little to hold it all, / we must give it away, again and again, / like the inrushing sea” (Keeping Watch 47).  His italicized question echoes that of Rebecca Parker who in Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now writes: “Beauty confronts us with the requirement that we place ourselves among the saviors, the redeemers, the leaders in the protection of life [… ] The blessing of life is that it will not let us go until we ourselves have offered the blessing we have to give” (134).

The penultimate poem in Keeping Watch at the End of the World is a tribute to Elizabeth Bishop of whom Thurston says, “you are one of ours come home.”

It seems we leave only to return,

like your obsessed sandpiper, looking

looking, for what the long tides being home. (101)

Bishop’s poem “Sandpiper,” explores the shorebird’s meticulous focus on the littoral and literal world over which it flies.  As Mary Oliver says in her poem “Yes! No!” from which an epigraph for Keeping Watch is taken: “Imagination is better than a sharp instrument. To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” The sea educates us to be attentive to the treasures it bequeaths, reminding us both of our vitality and our vulnerability. We are all “sluiced from salt waters” (If Men 143) and Thurston reminds us that to reclaim and redeem, to preserve and persist are the ongoing tasks “our blue geography” demands of us all.

Wanda Campbell is a professor in the English Department at Acadia University.


Campbell, Wanda. “‘Every Sea-Surrounded Hour’: The Margin in Maritime Poetry” Studies in Canadian Literature.  The Rising Tide of Atlantic Literature. 33:2 (2008) 151-170.

La Rocque, Lance. “Breathing Books, Deranged Bodies: Reading and Writing Landscapes in the Poetry of Harry Thurston.” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 10.1 (2003): 115–35.

Parker, Rebecca.  Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now. Skinner House Books, 2006.




About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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