Forty-One Pages

10 April 2019

“Forty-One Pages: On Poetry, Language and Wilderness”
by John Steffler
Published by University of Regina Press
Reviewed by Toby A. Welch
$21.95 ISBN 9780889775879

I have a confession to make: this Forty-One Pages intimidated me. After finishing the introduction, I shook my head. I could not have put into words the gist of what I’d read. I took a breath and dove back in. I was rewarded with a glimpse into a completely different way of looking at writing and language. I felt like an alien whose ship touched down on the Saskatchewan prairies – discombobulated yet awestruck. The entire book continued in this vein. It challenged ideals I’d never questioned before, opening my eyes to a multitude of previously unthought-of possibilities.

Even though I am a writer, I’ve never given as much thought to writing and language as I did while devouring this book. Steffler delves deeply into those themes from all directions. The history of language and the history of words are covered in detail. He even compares the parallels between writing and photography, between the camera and language.

Engaging with words on a page is a theme that runs throughout the book. It is an enormous thought, especially when considering that two people won’t view a page of words in the same way. Steffler spells out an aspect of this in the section titled Mirror: “The page questions nature as a physical system by journeying outside the focal present along casual trails.”

I’ve always been in awe of poets and their ability to craft art with words. I’ve never understood the process, but we get a glimpse into that aspect of the creative world in Forty-One Pages. I had a hearty chuckle when Steffler described his poetry quest as ‘a non-theoretical groping.’ My favourite quote in the book: “Poetry is honest physics.”

While this book is mainly about facets of language, it does touch on the wilderness aspect mentioned in the subtitle. Steffler discussed the book Half-Earth and its theory that the only way we can avoid an environmental collapse is by setting aside half of the Earth as unimpaired wilderness. He also discussed the current industrial-technological culture and his dismay on where it is headed. (I wanted to give him a standing ovation when I read that.) As a side tangent, Steffler discusses culture and nature; what we can and cannot control in that regard is a topic worthy of an entire book.

I struggled to comprehend sections of this 110-page book, but that’s on me, not Steffler. Despite that, a sense of sadness enveloped me when I turned the last page, like parting ways with a dear friend that you’ve enjoyed spending time with. I have no doubt I will return to this book in years to come and grasp more of it. There is one thing I am certain of – I am a better person for having read this book.


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