Alden Nowlan’s “Britain Street”

It seems a little strange that my favorite poet in 100 pages of a good anthology should be quite as depressing as Alden Nowlan, but one can’t always control one’s taste. Perhaps I’m simply caught up in the Christmas season, and these poems remind me of Dickens’ “Christmas Carol.”

For whatever reason, I agree with Geddes that Nowlan “has chronicled movingly and convincingly the harshness and hypocrisy of life in the Maritimes.” I had a hard time picking out a single poem I liked best, but this one certainly made an impression:

Saint John, New Brunswick

This is a street at war.
The smallest children
battle with clubs
till the blood comes,
shout ‘fuck you!’
like a rallying cry ––

while mothers shriek
from doorsteps and windows
as though the very names
of their young were curses:

‘Brian! Marlene!
Damn you! God damn you!’

or waddle into the street
to beat their own with switches:
‘I’ll teach you, Brian!
I’ll teach you, God damn you!’

On this street
even the dogs
would rather fight
than eat.

I have lived here nine months
and in all that time
have never once heard
a gentle word spoken.

I like to tell myself
that is only because
gentle words are whispered
and harsh words shouted.

Perhaps the poem struck a chord with me because I witnessed an event similar to the one in the first stanza in my own neighborhood and was nearly struck dumb by the incident. Apparently parents had left their children home unattended during the summer and they’d gotten in a fight with other children in the neighborhood. A five year old boy was stomping down the street with an even younger toddler in tow yelling “fuck you” to the children in the yard who were enthusiastically returning with epithets of their own.

Outraged, I wanted to confront the parents later that night but decided the only place children that young could learn such language was home. At best, complaining might end up in the children getting beaten; at worst, I might have gotten cursed out by the parents for interfering in their children’s upbringing. There were, after all, nasty rumors of two mothers getting into a knock-down-drag-out fight over an earlier incident. Given such a confrontation, I might have drawn on my own word-hoard, one honed on the battlefields of Vietnam.

I love the subtle way the poet shows the mother’s cursing the kids who are cursing, and beating the kids who are hitting other kids with sticks. “I’ll teach you, God damn you!,” indeed.

We’d be crazy not to hope that gentle words are spoken at home, but there’s precious little evidence in the poem or in real life to support that hope.

4 thoughts on “Alden Nowlan’s “Britain Street””

  1. A friend recently recommended the documentary film “Born into Brothels,” filmed in the red light district of Calcutta. Reading Alden Nowlan’s poem reminded me of a disturbing scene from that film. The hope in that film came from the gradually revealed dreams that the children had for themselves in the midst of their apparently hopelessly shattered lives. What to do upon witnessing violence by and to the young human spirit? No easy answers. In the film, the children of the prostitutes, drawn to the photographer in their midst, were given cameras and taught the art of photography. What also came to mind is a book of poetry collected by Carolyn Forche called AGAINST FORGETTING: TWENTIETH-CENTURY POETRY OF WITNESS. Alden Nowlan’s depiction of war on a neighborhood level is apt. A thought-provoking post.

  2. A very disturbing poem–which is why it is so wonderful. It rattles you, alters you, forces you to ask what kind of a world you want to live in and who you want to be in that world.

  3. He is also one of our greats, here in Canada, and I find it reassuring that you were drawn to him, despite it all. For some reason, with Nowlan, anthologies and other public venues tend to choose his worst poems. I’m not saying this is the case here, just noting it.


  4. The wonderful Canadian author WO Mitchell said “The arts are not a luxury. They’re how we know we’re not alone.”
    That answered a question I’d had for years about what it is about the blues that makes us feel so good. They’re how we know we’re not alone.
    Alden’s work is a prime example. I knew him quite well and his simple, empathetic understanding of life and humanity speaks directly to us and helps us know we’re not alone. I believe he was one of the greatest poets of all time and of a type with Rudyard Kipling.
    “The Unhappy People” is one of the truest, funniest, descriptions of the Miramichi I knew in the 1960’s as there is and it was more probably written from the vantage point of Carelton County.
    I have to stop citing his poems here or I will not be able to stop.
    One more: “He Sits Down on the Floor of a School for the Retarded.” You must read that if you haven’t.

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