OFF RADAR: ‘Elemental: A mixture of salt cod and islands’
“I’ve come a long way,” begins the first essay in Linda Buckmaster’s “Elemental: A Miscellany of Salt Cod and Islands.” “I wasn’t born in Maine, so I’m someone from afar, a ‘flatlander,’ despite having lived here most of my life.”
She goes on to explain that she has a particular interest in not just the house she has chosen, but the entire North Atlantic coast around Newfoundland and Labrador, overseas to the Orkney Islands. . In all these places she is”een fae off-‘one from afar.’
“What is “appropriate engagement” with a place? ” She wonders. Whether you are a native, resident, visitor, or tourist may or may not matter, depending on your disposition and addictions. “Elemental” is a book of essays, poems and short stories about who belongs where and at what cost.
This first essay, “Bearings”, outlines the themes of the entire book. It places Buckmaster herself in Belfast, Maine, having grown up in Florida; goes to his interest in Newfoundland and Scotland; then unfolds a brief history of the cod fishing industry, whose social and economic interrelationships are what tie it all together for her. Cod had been caught by fishermen in huge quantities since early settler times. Much of the catch was landed in Newfoundland to be salted and dried on the beaches by women and children, grueling work. The better grades of salt cod were shipped to Europe and the lower grades to the Caribbean as cheap food on the sugar cane plantations. “The impoverished white workers worked to make food for black slaves for other whites.” Owners of plantations and fishing boats made their fortunes in this system. By the end of the 20th century, cod on the Grand Banks was nearly depleted.
Buckmaster is one of Maine’s most knowledgeable off-the-radar best-selling writers, and what unfolds after “Bearings” is a diverse selection of writing that explores coastal life from the perspective of a wandering researcher from Belfast; a tourist in Orkney who finds herself with medical issues and no support system; and a literary imaginer, in six poignant short stories, of the life and death of coastal insiders and strangers, past and present. A family of tourists visiting Maine does not escape the irony-seeking missiles of the writer who is herself “from afar” in her own home as well as an occasional tourist.
“Elemental” is much more than a mixture. It’s a weird try to find out where is here. The book’s design – by Lori Harley, of Portland, one of the most inventive book designers for Maine’s small presses – reveals, through artful use of photos and maps, how the disparate rhetorical approaches of the writings are cohesive in a whole that is somehow greater than the sum of its parts.
Linda Buckmaster is a former Poet Laureate from Belfast. Her books include the memoir “Space Heart”, the collection of poems “Heart Songs and Other Legacies”, and “Momentitos: A Mexican Journey”. “Elemental” is available at Midcoast bookstores and select online booksellers.
Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine ties on the first and third Fridays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at [email protected].