Harry Thurston,
A Ship Portrait
(Gaspereau Press, 2005)

Harry Thurston skillfully uses a contemporary tone for poetry of exquisite historic flavour and detail. By combining poetry, history, art, romanticism from the Age of Sail and practicalities of life in that age through solid research, he provides us with an imaginative look at an artist's life, adding a vantage point from the present.

By being imaginative in format, yet factual in content, Thurston places us under his poet's spell as he conjures the essence of John O'Brien, artist of Irish ancestry, painter of ships' portraits who lived in Nova Scotia in the 1800s. He and the artist speak with each other; in time they both walked the streets of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, they breathed salt-air, and walked in the sea mist. Thurston says it better:

"might have passed through each other,
our bodies offering no resistance,
atoms mixing in the swirling droplets."

It's understandable for the poet to claim a kinship. He has researched a name and found a person. Like genealogists who want to flesh out a family tree, a name means a life, a life a story and a remembrance. To O'Brien, Thurston the searcher says," Art demands that I become you-- / your double, that lost brother-- / charting the sad particulars / of early promise, long decline."

Thurston is remarkable as he describes the life of the artist around the portraits and around his search for the artist. The colour reproductions in the book are like special effects that add layers to the story. In it the artist talks about a ship, we can look at its painted image, and know the ship. Then we read of its final ocean-going, a storm, a wreck, and understand why the artist would say:

"A hangashore, I was the fixed point / the still centre, around which the great ships / revolved as they compassed the circle routes. / If they failed to return, they sailed on in my art."

Harry Thurston's phrases honour O'Brien with respect and understanding and yet the emotional exchange is robust and honest. There is a wholesomeness in this book; a completeness that allows it to cross many boundaries. Teachers, poets, historians, playwrights and dramatists, should enjoy sharing the work. And an interest in sailing ships, sea-stories and Maritime history means you'd likely enjoy the frank discussion between two men who lived by the sea. The descriptions, the images and the historic facts share the life of a remarkable Nova Scotian artist.

review by
Virginia MacIsaac

21 July 2007

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