Narrated by John Steffler and (in order of appearance) Frank Holden, Janis Spence, Deidre Gillard-Rowlings and Darryl Hopkins.
by John Steffler
Listening Time: roughly 2 1/2 hours
10-digit ISBN: 0-9737586-0-0
13-digit ISBN: 978-0-9737586-0-3
Library Digital Download of this audio book available from Overdrive.com
Soundscape recordings made on islands off the coast of the island of Newfoundland.
Originally published in 1985 by McClelland and Stewart. Now published in print form by Brick Books.
A novel in the form of poems, a physical exploration of Newfoundland’s past, a search for ghosts in an abandoned settlement on an abandoned island, this is the story of a come-from-away determined to immerse himself in the physical reality of Newfoundland in an abrupt and inescapable way.
Indisputably a modern classic of Canadian poetry, The Grey Islands is one man’s mediation on the interplay between nature and human society in the rugged setting of coastal Newfoundland. The boats and houses of those who tried to live on the Grey Islands have disappeared, but their stories survive in the neighboring settlements – stories of treks on the sea ice, of near-starvation, of hunting ducks at night with muskets loaded with everything from nails to the parts of a gold pocket watch
This is a book of such excellence that someone in future is liable to say about the author: "Steffler - Steffler? - oh yes, he wrote The Grey Islands, didn't he?”
Al Purdy, Books in Canada
In taking in all of them - the ghosts, the stories, the family - The Grey Islands becomes a book of praise for a place and a people. Entering this world with John Steffler, hearing the voices through his finely tuned ear, is "like standing inside the head of someone who knows" - a clear-eyed, intense and compassionate place to be.
Lorna Crozier, Journal of Canadian Poetry
Steffler has charted in The Grey Islands a rich, elaborate personal odyssey. Watch for him in the future.
Andrew Brooks, Canadian Literature
Steffler is a distinguished poet - his semi-autobiographical book The Grey Islands is, I suspect, one of the finest long poems written in thelast 10 years.
Mark Abley, Montreal Gazette
I have just re-read The Grey Islands. I knew, and thought I knew well, this story of a man's self-selected (I want, almost, to say self-inflicted, the ensuing weeks are so stripped of any familiar face or comfort) journey to and isolation on a small island off the far-north coast of Newfoundland - and I have for all the years since its first publication in 1985 felt it to be one of the very few really-and-truly original works of that decade in this country. And of all of the next decade too, it's now possible to say. Reading it again this week, front to back, not just the browsing that I've often permitted myself, I find myself moved not merely by the pristine nature of the language - this I hadn't lost touch with at all, I doubt if any reader does - but by, and to say this is to say something different, the integrity of the enterprise. And yes, I do mean both enterprises here: that of the narrator, reporting on his journey, and that of a man standing behind, farther back than, that narrator. This being John Steffler, who somehow, hard to feel sure how, must have kept his very clear eyes on almost every minute and every page of the enterprise, must have known with alot of certainty what he wanted and needed to say and, no less important, known what he wasn't going to allow himself to get even close to saying. If you think about it, you'll know how much that last matters. Accounts of solitary travellers, wanderers, men or women testing themselves against Nature, against desert or floe or mountain, abound. Some of these glow against whatever their background is and outlast their generation. Many more, though, many many more, in my reading experience, sooner or later fail to remember where they are, forget what images their pages and their narrating sensibilities will always, if they are truthful, stay very close to, and begin to find themselves interesting in ways that sure enough are a real part of their wider lives, but that have very little - nothing, to be blunt -- to do with the purity of what they tell us they're engaged in. Easy enough to name names here, but since it's easy why bother. I think I've said what I needed to say. Steffler and his narrator do what each of them separately set out to do. They head off into an almost archaic place with its own completely convincing palette of acts and colours and sounds. They inhabit this place for the entire length of their stay without striking a single faux-noble attitude or uttering the kind of familiarly plangent epitaph for the rest of us that a reader, this one anyway, feels such limitless gratitude for the absence of. And all of this in a text that is so rifted with the "ore", as Keats said, of real poetry that I hours ago gave up the thought of proving this through quotations. It's very, very easy to find.
Audio Book Reviews:
From Library Journal
In these narratives, which mingle poetry and prose, the listener hears the enchanting accents of voices that infuse the language with rhythmic beauty. A ghostly tale of a wife’s death, a mock census read like an obituary, a fisherman teaching his son to fish—these and other stories evoke Newfoundland’s spirit and the history of its people. The individual voices are framed by the tale of a young man, his marriage nearing shipwreck, who comes as an outsider and describes what he sees in modern Newfoundland. The text is accompanied occasionally by the sounds of coastal birds, the sea washing onto the shore, the sounds of life lived close to the land, sea, and wind. The narrative voices (the author and others) vary with the mood and subject matter, a resonant male voice telling of a young wife’s death long ago, another delivering with religious fervor a history of Newfoundland’s people and the sins for which they have been punished by being delivered to this harsh environment. Vivid descriptive details create an unforgettable sense of life in that place, starkly beautiful and hauntingly remote. Highly recommended.
—Bernard E. Morris
From Audiofile Magazine
Poet John Steffler crafted this novel from a series of narrative poems that related his experiences in Newfoundland. The work is delivered by the author, along with a selection of expert narrators including Frank Holden, Janis Spence, and Darryl Hopkins. The readings are precise and captivating, each offering a slightly different perspective on Steffler's work. The mix of narration mingles nicely with background sounds such as seagulls' caws along the coastline and the endless clattering of cup and saucer in a roadside diner. These help to set the time and place and create a memorable experience for listeners.
From the Ottawa Citizen
And those imaginative folks at Newfoundland’s Rattling Books have released another gem, perfect if you can’t get to the Rock this summer but still need to smell the ocean, feel the fog and hear the startling cries of the gulls. John Steffler’s The Grey Islands is Steffler’s account of the time he spent two decades ago on a deserted island off Newfoundland’s wild northern coast. A newcomer from away, alone in a place no longer inhabited, he explores the island’s ghosts, its unforgiving landscape and the unknown regions of his own soul — and he does it in poetry. Steffler is Canada’s Parliamentary Poet Laureate. But if poetry is not usually your thing, don’t let that put you off. The book is a long poem the way Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces is a novel — rich in narrative, stunningly beautiful and still accessible. Steffler does his own reading, his voice curiously detached but effective, and the whole is enhanced by a haunting coastal soundscape, along with native Newfoundland voices in character roles.
- Janice Kennedy
From the Scope
The Brutal Mechanics of Having a Wish Come True Jonathan Adams listens to John Steffler’s long poem The Grey Islands.
New this month from Rattling Books comes a lovingly produced, unabridged, two-disc recording of John Steffler’s long poem The Grey Islands.
First published in 1985, The Grey Islands has come to be regarded as a classic of both Newfoundland and Canadian literature. It has earned the praise of as finicky a critic as the late Al Purdy, who trashed the later work of his friends Charles Bukowski and Irving Layton but remarked of The Grey Islands:”This is a book of such excellence that someone in the future is liable to say … Steffler?–oh yes, he wrote The Grey Islands, didn’t he?” Portions of the poem were also set to music by the composer Michael Parker.
Steffler is in some ways the human bookend to E.J. Pratt, in the sense that Pratt was a Newfoundland-born poet who for familiar reasons moved to Ontario and there wrote something like the national epic in Towards the Last Spike—while Steffler was an Ontario-born poet who for perverse reasons moved to Newfoundland and wrote something like the quintessential CFA narrative in The Grey Islands. The book’s value lies in the truthfulness and lack of sentimentality with which that story is told.
Loosely based on Steffler’s own experience, the protagonist and principal narrator of The Grey Islands is a man from Ontario who leaves behind everything and everyone he knows, including a wife and two children, to spend a summer on the northern peninsula’s Grey Islands. He’s never entirely certain what has compelled him to do this beyond a vaguely expressed desire for “a way to corner myself … Some blunt place I can’t go beyond. Where excuses stop.”
Once he arrives and settles, the book becomes a record of the speaker’s encounters with both the geography and the people of Grey Islands. He quickly becomes obsessed with the image of a man named Carm Denny who lives completely alone out on one of the islands and is thought mad by everyone in town. For me, the most vivid and arresting sections of The Grey Islands are those in which Carm himself is the speaker.
Listening to Rattling Books’ edition of The Grey Islands may even be the ideal way to experience the poem. Steffler’s poetry usually takes the form of soliloquies or interior monologues and it is always rooted in the unadorned, everyday language of his individual speakers. Hearing Frank Holden and Darryl Hopkins read the parts of the townsfolk reveals just how well Steffler has managed to capture the natural cadence and poetry of ordinary Newfoundland speech.
There are still a few points, however, when you will want to have a copy of the book close at hand, since the absence of visual punctuation creates unforeseen ambiguities. At a crucial juncture in one poem Steffler intones, “I start to think it’s a person outside squatting to shit I’m nervous with all the leaping and battering going on” and it’s impossible for the listener to intuit exactly who is squatting to shit (turns out it’s actually the speaker).
Nevertheless, the sound design on the recording is quite superb. The noises of birdsong and waves that hum just beneath the actors’ voices were recorded especially for the album and while it would be very easy to overdo it with such things, the production is for the most part beautifully restrained. There is a magnificent point on the second disc, though, when a torrent of gull squawks reaches such a frenzied pitch I thought of one of my all-time favourite pieces of music—Cantus Articus, Einojuhani Rautavaara’s concerto for birds and orchestra, which itself has always reminded me of the ineluctable beauty of this province we belong to.
The central riddle that haunts The Grey Islands is why anyone would choose to live in this place at all. But taken as a whole and in several particular places the poem also supplies its own answer: “[T]hese people don’t measure by what you see. They carry the world around in their heads. All this rock and water is only a backdrop.”
- Jonathan Adams
The Grey Islands by John Steffler is another EarLit audio book title from Rattling Books, Newfoundland publisher of Canadian unabridged audiobooks (aka audio books )for the world.
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