The Strait of Anian was published by The Ryerson Press in March, 1948. This was the new and eagerly awaited collection containing a large selection of Earle Birney’s latest poetry. This edition also contained his famous “David” along with a number of poems from the volumes David and Other Poems, 1942 and Now Is Time, 1945, included as both editions were out of print.
The Strait of Anian was a mythical passage pursued by many early explorers. It was the dream of many to find a shorter route to the vast wealth of the East. An early recounting of one such expedition is contained in a book on Sir Francis Drake: “…Sir Francis himself (as I haue heard) was of very good will to have sailed still more Northward hoping to find passage through the narrow sea Anian…and so from thence to haue taken his course Northeast, and so retourne…into England, but his Mariners finding the coast of Noua Albion to be very cold, had no good will to sayle any further Northward…” Thos. Blundeville…Of Sir Francis Drake His First Voyage into the Indies, 1594.
As we witness the impact of human activity on the global climate and as the poles warm, traffic will inevitably increase across our northern seas. Our governments will need to ensure that the vast reaches of the Arctic remain firmly under Canadian jurisdiction for future generations.
THROUGH or over the deathless feud
Of the cobra sea and the mongoose wind
You must fare to reach us,
Through hiss and throttle
Where the great ships are scattered twigs on a green
and the plane is a fugitive mote
in the stare of the sun.
Come, by a limbo of motion humbled,
Under cliffs of cloud
And over the vaulting whalehalls.
In this lymph’s abyss a billion
Years of spawning and dying have passed and will pass
Without ministration of man.
And for all the red infusions of sailors,
The veins of Vikings drained and of lascars,
Blood of Gilbert’s and Jellicoe’s,
For all haemoglobin seeping from corvette and sealer,
From the sodden hulls of Hood and Titanic –
Still do these waves when the gale snaps them
Fracture white as the narwhal’s tusk.
Come then trailing your pattern of gain or solace
and think no more than you must
of the simple unhuman truth of this ocean,
that down deep below the lowest pulsing of primal cell
tar-dark and still
lie the bleak and forever capacious tombs of the sea.
The 1948 Ryerson Press catalogue entry for The Strait of Anian reads as follows:
Dorothy Livesay, in the Vancouver Sun, said of Earle Birney, “What makes this British Columbia writer important for Canadians is the fact that he is the only poet who sees Canada whole…If Birney rarely answers his own questions, at least he poses them in a forceful, thought-provoking way. No one can ask more of a poet.”
From the Vancouver Province, “Each line or sentence is a lash to the mind, whipping up the memory of experience or learning; each word is thought-loaded like the camel of a caravan, and the reader who lightly skips misses the weighted wealth…Earle Birney holds a degree merited by few. He is master of thought in poetry.”
Ralph Gustafson in The Canadian Forum, wrote The Strait of Anian “Presents a summation of Birney’s work to date which establishes him without doubt as one of the finest poets Canada has produced…To anyone reading this book it will be immediately evident that here is a poet affirmative, precisioned, indignant and adult. I can think of no poet more thoroughly Canadian, and Canadians instead of giving him another Governor-General’s medal should quickly put this book through a dozen editions.”
Canadian Poetry Magazine wrote, “Wider variety, greater maturity and increased competence are the marks of this new book.”
Alfred Earle Birney was born May 13, 1904 in Calgary, Alberta. He was educated at the University of British Columbia, the University of Toronto, Berkeley and the University of London, where he delivered a dissertation on Chaucer. Birney also taught creative writing and literature, and was a successful playwright, novelist and editor. He taught at several universities, including UBC, where he founded and directed the first Canadian creative writing program. His work at University of British Columbia led to the establishment of Canada’s first Department of Creative Writing in 1965. Later, Birney was appointed as the first writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto. Birney is regarded as one of Canada’s finest poets of the 20th century. Earle Birney died in Toronto on September 3, 1995.