Mulhallen, K. 2007. Sea Horses. Black Moss Press, Windsor, Ontario. 87 pages.

Review: Island of Iteration: The Sable Island Poems of Karen Mulhallen

In the face of a unique environment (landscape, seascape, creature life, human history), ceaselessly changing yet somehow always the same (at least on the scales the human mind experiences), what is possible but a persistent iteration of image, sound, thought, feeling: “Melodies, waves, rhythms, washing over me”; “darker, larger, loomings, gloaming”; “my eyes, ears, nostrils, skin reeling senses”; “time-tables, arrivals, departures, distances.” Cadences, sensory experiences, temporal conditions are the stuff of art, and response our pathway into knowing. 

Karen Mulhallen has done what many people in Canada would like to do. In 2005 she had the opportunity, the privilege, of visiting Sable Island. Her project was to observe, to experience, to feel, to write—and what a enviable project that was. Out of her two week stay on Sable came Sea Horses (Black Moss Press, 2007) a collection of poetry (I expect more came to her from that visit, but Sea Horses is the tangible, communicable, response to the experience).

I do not know Karen Mulhallen, nor have I been to Sable Island (though like many people in Canada, I have read about it, and, being a Nova Scotian, have always had an awareness of it). I think, however, that I can safely say that Mulhallen would agree that words are the barest approximations of the strangeness of that essentially purely sensory place. That said, Mulhallen’s poems do insightfully, eloquently, hauntingly convey something real about Sable Island:

The “lisp and hurl of water”; “blue whales’ tall blow holes hanging”; sand passing through “the hour-glass of hands”; “misty foolish sorrowing Sable haunters”; “Sand, a mass of glyphs”; seal “pups like minnows”; “strange blowing winds”; “spears of green and flowers”; “A herd of wild horses” that “runs through a pond of burning water.”

She also conveys something of her own deeply personal response to this wondrous place: “Which book do we belong in, after all?”; “The past beats inside me like a second heart.”; “There can be no leaving without leave-taking.”; “I am high, but I can not touch the sky.”; and the “spell of the spelling of it all.”

Besides the gentle lyrics, there are also a series of prose poems, really condensed narratives, some of which emerge from her conversations and time spent with Zoe Lucas, the woman of the island, and delightfully entitled “ZOE tropes.” The structure of these poems do not allow for easy extraction of images because they are “wholes” which must be engaged in their full contexts. This mix of lyric and narrative works quite well for the most part, and it strikes me that in the face of the vastness of that tiny place (its extensive historical, geological, climatological reality), simple narrative is sometimes about all we can do—and serves the mystery well.

Mulhallen very humbly acknowledges our limited role as “measurers,” as “temporary record keepers” and, more mysteriously, as “Archivists of Mourning.” She admits that Sable Island is a dream, even as she arrives, even as she leaves—that it will always remain outside what we can know about it: “a drug, a whirlpool, a maelstrom”; an “airy region where forms and shapes and sounds had been left behind—had changed into something else.” What is outside, we can only glimpse and apply our inadequate names to: “seal, birds, beetles, horse”; “surf, gulls, sparrows, voices”; skulls, dunes, balloons, fog, grass, ponds, “Primrose, yellow. / Beach pea, purplish blue. / Wild rose, pink. / Bay. / Blue-eyed grass. / Blue flag iris. / Cranberry. / Yellow lilies….”

As Elizabeth Bishop once wrote: “Nature repeats herself, or almost does: / repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.” (“North Haven”). Mulhallen’s poems give themselves up to the mesmerizing forces, which are essentially sensory (whatever meanings we apply are contingent and transient). The words on the page are compass points, signs pointing the way to the inexpressible. It is to Mulhallen’s credit that she allows Sable Island to remain more or less lost in these poems, and that she does so with humility and eloquence.

Prepared for the Sable Island Green Horse Society
By Sandra Barry,
Halifax, November 2007 ©