A review of The Sea Replied: Poems by Damien Firth

Screen-shot-2014-09-23-at-1.20.23-PMReviewed by Ruth Latta

The Sea Replied: Poems by Damien Firth
ISBN 978-1–896895-02-4, 2014, $10

it was as though night had fallen
on a brightly lit room bringing a mask
of silence

beauty is a song remembered
the melody hidden in the corners
of empty rooms
the lyrics the rustle of leaves
through an open window

and the sound of a bird’s voice
the final refrain

The Sea Replied is a collection of poems by the late Damien Firth, who died in 2013 at age 72. Compiled by his friends in an Ottawa creative writers’ group, the book was edited by Jim Desson and Sylvie Nantais and is being published by Desson of Red Oak Media.

From the foreword by Damien Firth’s half-brother, and the tributes from Damien’s friends which are included in the book, we readers learn something about Firth’s life. His father was killed in a reconnaissance mission in World War II a month before Damien’s birth, in Dublin, Ireland, in 1941. Raised by grandparents while his mother worked in England as a nurse, Damien moved to Canada in 1947 with his mother and her new husband, a New Brunswicker in the RCAF. During the next few years he and his mother and younger half-brother lived in Ireland and in Canada. Growing up in a military family involved many moves and changes, and Damien gradually became withdrawn. While in West Germany, he travelled to Spain where he met writers, musicians and artists who sparked his creativity.

Eventually he returned to Canada and studied at Carleton University, earning a B.A. But his alcoholism eventually landed him on the street. Damien “crawled his way out of the darkness surrounding him”, writes his brother, and, in the mid-1990s, finally “vanquished the demons that were hounding him.” With the help of family and friends he found an apartment. He underwent a spiritual transformation, sought counselling, meditated, exercised at the Jack Purcell Centre, and frequented Buddhist, Hindu and Bahai communities in Ottawa. He also did volunteer work and cared for his disabled mother. Also, he continued to write poetry.

Friends remember that he was well read, and could recite from memory a range of poetry. He enjoyed philosophical discussions, and had a sense of humour. Friends in the writers group remember a man in black who sat in a corner and usually read at the end of the session, impressing the others with his imagery and insights.

“The Sea Replied”, the poem for which the book is named, is one of many on the theme of death:

long hair blowing in the breeze
roar of distant seas

arm lifted white
against the dying sunlight

“muerta” she cried

“muerta” the sea replied.

Jim Desson says that Firth’s poetry was “substantially informed” by Zen Buddhism, and that, to a Buddhist, death is a “transition”, a “matter-of-fact part of life as one hopefully develops in enlightenment from life to life.”

Another writer expressed “deepest gratitude” to Firth “for having left the legacy of his poetry as a comfort and a guide.”  Although not wealthy in the world’s terms, Damien Firth had a rich inner life, imagination and vocabulary, and was also rich in friends, who performed this labour of love and made his poetry available to the public.

Ruth Latta’s novel, The Old Love and the New Love (Ottawa, Canada, Baico, 2012) is available at baico@bellnet.ca. For information about reviewer Ruth Latta’s writing, please visit http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com.