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Sandy Shreve’s “Found Poems”

Her new book, "Waiting for the Albatross", reconfigures word fragments from her dad, Jack Shreve's 1936 diary, which he kept while toiling as a 21-year-old deckhand.

July 15th, 2015

Jack Shreve (at right) plays the mandolin during his five months aboard the Canadian Scottish.

The poems are a tribute to her father and working life at sea eighty years ago.


by Beverly Cramp

Sandy Shreve had the fortune to be given the old diary shortly after her father died. It covers the time when Jack Shreve was an unmarried, 21 year-old on his first foray into the larger world outside his Maritimes home. The back drop was the Great Depression and the eve of World War II.

Amost 80 years later, Sandy Shreve has spun the diary’s ‘found words’ into a book of poems, Waiting for the Albatross (Oolichan Books $19.95). She re-arranges, twists, and repeats her father’s words to highlight their rhythm and descriptive beauty but always with a view to honouring his stories.

In the book’s Foreword, Sandy Shreve writes: “Although I’ve fiddled and tinkered with Dad’s diary, the poems I’ve written remain true to the experiences he described and retain his voice.”

She makes it clear that what she has composed is different from what her father jotted down. “While Dad wrote a diary, what I have created is more of a collage, using bits and pieces plucked from various days, weeks and months without regard to linear time… The book starts and ends where you’d expect, but in between, it skips around a bit.”

On the book’s jacket cover, author Rob Taylor says: “It’s a book of poetry and also a history. It’s formal and plain-spoken, contemplative and bloody-knuckled. It’s then and it’s now. It’s a father and daughter talking across great distances.”

Shreve will read from her new book Friday, August 14, 7:30pm to 9:00pm, at the Planet Earth Series at Hillside Coffee and Tea, 1633 Hillside Avenue, Victoria. There will be a $3 charge (suggested donation is $5). Open mic starts at 7:30, followed by the featured readers Sandy Shreve and Deanna Young. http://planetearthpoetry.com/

Jack Shreve’s diary contains a wealth of sea-going jargon, historical references, and the thoughts of a young man making his way in the world. Leaving from Halifax, Jack Shreve spent five months sailing down the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal, and across the wide Pacific to New Zealand and Australia before returning home.

It wasn’t easy going. The opening poem, Cold, describes Jack Shreve’s first night onboard ‘Bon Scot’, the nickname the crew gave to the freighter, Canadian Scottish:

 “Cold as Blue Hades – thought I’d be
a frozen corpse before morning. Two
blankets aren’t nearly enough; not three
pairs of mittens, either, for Blue Hades.
Even with my heavy shirt, pull-over sweater,
leather jacket and my Mackinaw on – I still
damn near perished in Blue Hades
this morning. Thought I’d be a corpse.”
Shreve,Sandy_dad shovelling coal

Shovelling coal (Jack on rt).

It was a wake-up call to young Jack Shreve if his head was full of schoolboy notions of pure adventure on the high seas. He describes getting his face and neck covered in black dust from shovelling coal all morning – “About ten tons all told. Looked like a coal miner”. And, after working all day on his hands and knees painting with cement wash and something called “red lead”, a highly toxic rust inhibitor that contained lead tetroxide, he admits: “This life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be”.

He does his turn at being ‘Peggy’, the crew’s euphemism for work shifts that involved washing dishes and taking coffee to the men. The eponymous poem tells us that Jack was up before 7 a.m. – “Brought down 7 bells breakfast” – and didn’t stop working until more than 12 hours later – “Brought the 8 bells dinner down”. In between Jack sees enough wasted food, “to make you sick”, and with a bruising tumble down a ship’s ladder while carrying refreshments to the other men, “the coffee spilled all over my right hand. I came aft with a ‘blue haze’ all around me”.
There are many joyful remembrances, such as writing letters home in the poem Letters, in which Jack tells of getting treats – apples, oranges, pears and scrambled eggs – for writing missives to the 2nd cook’s girlfriend.

Then, in An Orchestra in the Focsle Jack helps form a band:

“Had a regular sing-song tonight – Jeff by the
focsle door, strumming; the rest of the sailors
and some of the firemen scattered
about the poop – ‘the ship’s orchestra’ is going
full blast now – harmonica, guitar, mandolin
and a tin pan trappist. They’re not bad! Not bad at all!”

Shreve, Sandy_Cat at porthole

Christine, the ship’s cat.

More than one of the poems features a white cat named Christine. In Luck: 1, the cat is chasing cockroaches – “good luck!” writes Jack. But most of the poem’s luck is tough, such as the accident when ‘Robbie’ smashes three teeth on of the funnel stays: “Went ashore to have the dentist yank them. Tough luck”. Or when ‘Len’ lost a little finger in the machinery: “What it didn’t cut off it crushed. Mate cut off the rest and sewed it up. Tough luck”. The poem ends with a near death: “Cameron was tight last night and fell overboard! Jackass. Lucky he didn’t drown.”

Shreve, Sandy pic of dad in 1936

Jack Shreve at journey’s end.

The book finishes with Homesick, describing the last days before Jack Shreve returns home: “Homesick to-day. Rideout says we may reach home ahead of schedule. I hope he’s right. I may get some fishing in yet! Forests and streams are going to look good to me when I get home.”

In the Afterword, Sandy Shreve tells readers some of her dad’s life story back in Canada and how he loved hunting and fishing with his friends, a passion he held for the rest of his life. He had a dream one night, in which he came up with what he was sure would make a perfect motto for his Fish & Game Association.

“Worried that he might forget it, he got up and jotted it down,” writes Sandy Shreve. “The next morning, as soon as he woke, he eagerly reached for the scrap of paper, only to find he’d written: ‘A duck once shot will never fly again’.”

Jack Shreve died in February 1965 at the age of 50 of a pulmonary embolism during treatment for lung cancer.

978-0-88982-304-4

3 Responses to “Sandy Shreve’s “Found Poems””

  1. I have been thinking of writing a diary to give to my kids when they are older. I want them to know me more and to learn from my experiences. But somehow I haven’t started yet although it has been at the back of my mind for some time now. Reading your article, made me think about this plan again. And maybe now I would be motivated to start writing it because of the advantages. But for most parents, we want our children to have a better life and I know they would learn a lot about my life especially the mistakes I made and I just hope that they would not do the same in the future.

  2. Sandy Shreve says:

    Oh, I hope you write that diary. I can’t begin to tell you how important it was/is to me to have discovered, later in life, my Dad’s words and stories. And whenever I read from this book, people come up to me after to tell me about similar family artifacts they’ve found, and how meaningful they – or else to say how much they wished they had something like this of their parents’. – Sandy

  3. max says:

    Amazing post

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