This summer, a live art event took place in artist Marlene Creates’ Boreal Poetry Garden—six acres of forested property in Portugal Cove, just outside St. John’s, Newfoundland. For each of five evenings, up to 25 participants accompanied the artist on a walk along a network of paths through woods by the Blast Hole Pond River, punctuated by the artist’s recitation of her site-specific poems. These poems, in her words, “commemorate certain fleeting moments of my interaction with the land where I live,” and so mark and inform the landscape with story. On these walks, the space of the forest became a place of particulars, layered with meaning: not trees, but this tree, its yellow leaves brushing the artist’s lips while path-clearing; not a woodland path, but this path, connecting the river to the gardens it used to water a generation ago.
Wood, stone, water and word. These primary elements of the artist’s lexicon will be familiar to readers already aware of Marlene Creates’ compelling and lyrical contribution to our engagement with the land over the past 30 years; they will also be familiar to those aware of her continued preoccupation with displacement, with the elegiac and with memory. But these recent events marked a radical shift in her practice. Here, she made a deliberate move away from photographic representation and the gallery—everything, in fact, but the stones and trees themselves. Having distilled the role of the artist/guide, she took us—actually took us—to the place itself, and in many important ways, including the literal, brought her practice home.
Was it a garden we found ourselves in? The land wasn’t touched or shaped except for its narrow thread of paths. But a careful and potent kind of cultivation took place. We walked through part of the largest land-based biome on earth: the boreal forest. The ritual reading of the poems in place, and the remembered events which the readings described, made the wood a locus of social meaning: they joined us to it, and fixed our journey through it in memory. And there was something else, something reciprocal which the work set in motion, and bowed to. Our own presence; our collective exhalation “ah” as a poem closed; the speaking of the words themselves in place; the instances of local dialect (bawn, crunnick, droke and blasty bough); the light exchange of voices as we rounded our way back to the house and its fire—these dispersed into the air around us at dusk, in the last long inhalation of the trees before nightfall. Trees are made of air, of the carbon they breathe in and fix, and our momentary presence here, our words, our breaths, were caught up and bound in the long slow vowel of their forming rings, a deep O far below the cricket’s hum of our hearing.