First Mountain

 prairie fire

First Mountain celebrates a connection to place, specifically the mountain landscape around Jasper, the area where Paulette Dubé has lived for the last 14 years. Her book is a long poem sequence broken into 183 parts called “days.” First Mountain is not a poetic diary in the usual sense; these are not days of a week or month. The titles are written out as “first day,” “second day” and so on, and, along with the content of her poems, point to biblical or sacred time and creation myths. The day poems roughly follow the seasons from spring to spring, though they also describe a progression from the building of a house “cement claw end of a hammer” (8) to the sense of being at home in the mountains “like that stone, there / I am content to be where I am” (91). The book ends with the words “we live here now” (93).

Dubé’s day poems are quite short, with as many as three printed on a single page. They present each day in microcosm and are attentive to omens, signs, dreams, ritual and prayers. Some are proverbs and “recipes” and one is hymn-like. Each condenses something from a particular day, an event or perception, and often appears to arise from an alertness and readiness to receive what the natural world offers. I think this is easier said than done, and some work better than others, but I admire how she most often evokes a strong sense of place and of the moment. Dubé won a prize in the 2005 CBC Literary Awards competition for a selection of poems from this sequence.

From Dubé’s quiet attention to both nature and language come poems of stunning clarity as with these lines “ the day unfurls/ shimmering as snail trail through the forest” (11), or later “the sound of creek spanking places cool and moss dark” (33) or the following section from one of the rare, comparatively longer poems describing trees on fire:
wrapping their shawls of sparkling round themselves, they turn and wave wave great arms wave the smallest finger turn gracefully on skeletal legs and melt to a hard point on the pale horizon. (23)

While the poems evoke the miraculous beauty of the environs of Jasper, they also present an awareness of their harshness. Death is all around in the animal corpses and bones encountered, in the “mean season” of winter alluded to, and in the sense of how easy and how treacherous it is to lose one’s footing in the mountains. Vulnerable human emotions--anxiety, fear, heartbreak, sorrow--poke through from time to time and there is some physical pain in bodily injuries, along with real joy and occasional humour. Dubé’s book at times has a contemplative quality. Her poems most strongly suggest a real humility when faced with the natural world, how it gets on with life, both survives and lets go, and a gratitude for how it can heal human trauma.

Family (son, husband, sisters, parents) and community (a carpenter, a hairdresser, the man next door) appear in the book, but animals, both observed and spoken to, appear more frequently both as part of the landscape and possibly as totemic presences. The capitalization of animal names in the text--Raven, Elk, Hummingbird, etc.-suggest proper nouns (no people are named in the book) and signal the importance of these creatures and their messages, lessons and blessings. The poems closely observe not only animals but water, trees and weather. Bones, scat and stones are read with care. Dubé has admitted elsewhere the pull of “magic, creation and miracles.”* The aboriginal lore of the place she is responding to and her reverence for the ancient wisdom of the First Peoples is evident in First Mountain, especially in “One hundred seventy-seventh day” where the mountains are recognized as “sacred pieces of earth in the presence of the Creator” (90). The shortness of the poems in fact project a proper sense of human scale before the greatness of the mountains and ‘the Creator,’ and suggest the humility required to live “at home” in the world. — Jan Horner

Jan Horner is a poet who lives in Winnipeg.

Canadian Literature, Summer 2009

Paulette Dube's First Mountain lyrically chronicles 183 "days" in the mountains surrounding Jasper, where the poet has made her home for nearly fifteen years. Varying in length and style (from Confucian nuggets like "a thorn of experience is worth a wilderness of warning" and "if you are still / pushing against the wall when / it falls, so will you," to recipes, instruction manuals, and prayers), these poems are the culmination of a sustained engagement with the majesty of place. In "One hundred-seventy-eighth day," for example, Dube writes that the "peppery smell of leaves" is a "small miracle that / doesn't compare with castles, museums or mosques / with cafes, operas or running the bulls in Pamplona // like that stone, there /1 am content to be where I am." The aesthetic of First Mountain is predominantly Romantic, and the book becomes a poetic sequence full of unabashedly personified nature: dancing wind, smiling stones, and laughing creeks. Imbued with a degree of Aboriginal sensibility (Coyote, Raven, and the Creator make repeated appearances), it is also where the physically and spiritually injured retreat in order to heal. The speaker suggests that "the heart must be broken / to accept big love," and this collection finds that love in its mountains.