That Night We Were Ravenous by John Steffler

Winner of the 1999 Atlantic Poetry Prize

That Night We Were Ravenous is the fourth book of poetry and follow-up to the immensely successful debut novel The Afterlife of George Cartwright by Canada’s third Parliamentary Poet Laureate John Steffler. Steffler is known for his incredible ability to capture a beautiful landscape down to its most minute detail and touch all five senses in just a few short lines. This collection is no different. We as readers are taken on a trip through both urban and rural Newfoundland, Southern Ontario, and Greece. John Steffler describes the outdoors with the same type of sharp eye A.Y. Jackson used to paint it.

Reviewing a collection of poems is an inherently difficult thing to do. Unlike looking at a novel or a play you have dozens of individual pieces to look at instead of one longer coherent piece. So in keeping with this thought I think the best thing to do is look at the overall themes of the book and the effect it would have on a reader. The title That Night We Were Ravenous instills a feeling of deep passion and excitement. That basically sums up the feeling you get from his collection whether it is something as simple as the edge of a forest in “Start of a Trail” or something as large as the Greek countryside in “On the Track of the Megalithic Burial Rings”. The first sequence in the book, “In a Makeshift Blind,” is hands down the most powerful and my favorite part of the book. This sequence takes us out on an outdoor tour of Newfoundland in all of its natural splendor much like in Steffler’s most famous work The Grey Islands. “Cedar Cove” and “Long Point” are great examples of the points I have made. Steffler’s verse simply can’t be matched by any other living Canadian poet when describing nature:

I walk that windy spit to its vanishing point

where opposing surfs merge

where Port au Port Bay and its sky and its weather

lose to the open gulf

and the slick whittled rock I stand on plunges

a titanic eel

The final poem of the book is the title poem “That Night We Were Ravenous”; this is one of the most beautiful poems I have ever read by a contemporary Canadian poet. A man is driving late at night from Stephenville on a fall evening; he looks up at the moon and starts to reflect on “her” beauty, her power, her innocence, and her effect on all who live below her. The poems final two lines are a fitting conclusion to the collection: “That night we slept deeper than ever/Our dreams bounded after her like excited hounds.”

Reading an extended collection of poetry is certainly not everyone’s first choice; but it can be extremely rewarding and very pleasurable. As a casual reader while you go through a 100 plus page collection you do not need to focus on deeply interpreting these pieces or in some cases even understanding their meaning. Often times just reading a poem and allowing the beautiful images to overtake your imagination is more than enough. John Steffler’s That Night We Were Ravenous is a great collection for even the most casual of poetry readers. It has the stunning imagery of an Al Purdy and the great narrative qualities of a Michael Ondaatje.

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