Harry Thurston, A Ship Portrait

God bless the poets, I say, who just don't care that their books fulfill every mocking stereotype of them that even their sympathetic wannabe readers hold about them -- especially the Canadian poets.

Harry Thurston's a terrific writer, both his nonfiction and his poetry, and I don't know that he's ever written something that isn't worth spending serious time on. That's certainly true with his 2005 verse novella A Ship Portrait, which includes lines from 19th-century letters and newspapers in amongst black-text poetry in the voice of 19th-century painter John O'Brien and blue-text poetry in Thurston's own voice. Those who don't fancy themselves poetry fans -- do such people exist? -- will find Thurston's style approachable rather than off-putting, and it really is a novel, with a narrative that I couldn't help wanting to follow.
The Frank off George’s Island, Halifax (source)

So many stereotypical CanLit elements: a partly autobiographical novella-in-verse, about an unsuccessful 19th-century Nova Scotia painter who specialized in ship scenes, sounds like a cartoon version of a Gaspereau Press publication, but it's real. It's also a beautiful, beautiful book, but for those ready to distrust or dislike poetry, or Canadian poetry more particularly, let's just say that not every reader's going to read past the stereotype.

And that's a shame, because A Ship Portrait is a complicated little gem: the tragedy of O'Brien's career as a youthful prodigy and an adult failure; the gulf between the romance of classic 19th-century sailing ships and the aesthetic offensiveness of the contemporary container ship; an artist's intense awareness of what it means to watch another artist's life fade away; nostalgia for a boy's life by the working sea. Thurston's isn't the only poetry that deserves more attention than it gets, but this is pretty terrific. If you're interested in boats at all, then take a chance -- drop the Horatio Hornblower, and read some poetry for a change!


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