You Never Know/On ne sait jamais

1. Travelling/Le voyage
Travelling has always been
une horreur pour moi
Even when I was a little girl
a tummy ache would gnaw at me
pour la durée de la traversée from Guernsey to Jersey.
Imagine with my fear of water going off to the New World.
I was just 22 when we set out in 1912,
didn’t know a thing we didn’t write things down
or plan in advance like you do these days.
Tout ce qu’on savait c’etait qu’on s’en venait au Canada on n’savait rien.
How things change.
I could never go back.
My friend Blanche writes me
how there are so many tourists on the island now,
noisy nightclubs, people with money.
We didn’t make it on the Titanic y’était tout booker
Trop cher pour des pauvres gens comme nous.
And thank the Lord. A fellow who lived on our street made it on,
Dan Boy his name was. He drowned the poor chap.
You never know when your time is up, do you?
And we heard just before boarding the Laurentic
that even before it left port there had been a fire on the Titanic
that liquor was involved. Too much partying and
too much pride. So many swollen heads. The unsinkable ship.
Negligence that’s how these avaries happen.

2. The Crossing/La traversée
We travelled across third class
Got first class vomit on our heads
That set us off my mom and I and my fiancé.
Got sick as dogs thought we would die.
My Dad laughed at us called us sissies.
He was un marinier was used to walking on decks and rolling with the waves.
We saw no houses just icebergs
for seven days.
Parle d’un Sabbat.
That foghorn blaring all night long
until we reached land enfin Montréal.
My two older brothers had come before us,
had jobs farming for a Mr. Ness,
had found a place for the six of us the top floor of a small flat.
We had nothing to begin with. On n’avait rien.
You never know what will happen do you?
I had to work too was hired by Imperial Tobacco.
When my boss got wind that I spoke both languages
he made me change jobs made me a spy of sorts,
had me working right in the middle of production listening watching.
I didn’t want to squeal on employees or tell who stole cigars.
I don’t like to meddle.
I’ faisaient des cigares à tout casser dans ce temps-là,
and there I was trying to manage sixteen machines.
And one day I started to cry told my boss, “I can’t do this anymore.
I want to go back to my old job in the back this is too much.”
Mister Foster was a gentleman an Englishmen t hey like to play fair.
So he sent me one of his timekeepers to help out.
Then war broke out and there just wasn’t enough work to sustain us.
Again my brothers went to the people from immigration
and they met up with le fameux Père Giroux. Y’en a bluffé plusieurs, le Père.
How he told tales about the wonders of le Grand Ouest
with its quarter sections of land for almost nothing
how we could earn four dollars a day
how tall the wheat grew how big the cabbages how long the carrots.
So we assembled our still meagre belongings
boarded the train even brought our horses along.
They all died of swamp fever one after the other.
We were never lucky with horses
even the Pinto that we bought in the West was strange.
Imagine a horse being spooked by his own shadow,
Et p’is encore pire par la crotte de cheval.

3. Arrival in God’s Country/La terre promise
I will never forget our early spring arrival
in the Peavine it had rained.
How we got dropped in the middle of this nothing
I felt swallowed up by cette immensité tout cet espace inabordable.
The road ahead a wagon wheel track in the mud.
C’en était toute une terre promise! Qu’on ne savait rien.
Imagine our first home. I called it la catacombe de Rome
a hole in the ground heated with a potbellied stove
covered with a thatched roof.
As my brothers dug la cave they made des bancs benches all around the place
for sitting doubling as beds. We’d brought some blankets, made paillasses
eventually perfumed them with bedstraw.
That’s where I got married had my firstborn your Dad
I didn’t know a thing about babies I was the last-born
was called the little scrub my mother was a washerwoman.
I nearly bled to death thank God mon Émile was there after l’accouchement
had the presence of mind to hold my legs up till the bleeding stopped.
One good thing is we had a creek we still had to ration water
it got pretty scarce in June had to boil it
but it provided us with des belles chandelles de glace during winter.
I’d heard that melted snow was pas tellement bon pour les reins
so I avoided it. You just didn’t want to get sick. There were no doctors.
The mosquitoes were plentiful though
so bold you could easily get a mouthful.
We had to make smudges not to get eaten alive.
We smelled like smoke all the time. Misère noire.
You never know where you are going to land, eh?

~ Pierrette Requier

Pierrette Requier learned both French and English before going to school and has used both languages interchangeably in her professional and writing life. Though of French origin, both her sets of grandparents were fully bilingual. They, like many others at the turn of the century, made their way to the Last Best West as pioneers, eventually settling in the Peavine Region of Northern Alberta. Though Pierrette has spent most of her adult life working in the city of Edmonton, the vast land upon which she was raised has greatly influenced her view of the world, thus informs her writing.

“The three poems in ‘You Never Know/on ne sait jamais’ were inspired by hearing the taped voice of my 93 year old paternal grandmother telling my brother Jacques the story of crossing the Atlantic Ocean and immigrating to Canada. I was moved by how little these people knew and by how they just came to this vast New World, even came after the Titanic had sunk. Was it foolhardiness, or the human’s desire for adventure, the need to discover and create and re-build? Or was it out of the openness to explore that was afoot at the time? To be one’s boss, to own land? It all felt to me like a crazy kind of courage, a real leap into the unknown, the untamed.”

Read more of Pierrette Requier’s poetry:
Sketches of a Return, February 2006
Mount Edith Cavell Suite
The Angel of Simon
Autumn Dawn

Editor’s note: This poem is from Home and Away – a sequel to the bestselling Writing the Land (2007). Look for one poet to be featured each day as Alberta poets ponder the question “what is home?” and explore our complex relationship with working on, living with, exploiting and protecting our land and our home. For more information about the project, click here.

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