Soundscape recordings made on islands off the coast of the island of Newfoundland.
Originally published in 1985 by McClelland and Stewart. Now published in print form by Brick Books.
A novel in the form of poems, a physical exploration of Newfoundland’s past, a search for ghosts in an abandoned settlement on an abandoned island, this is the story of a come-from-away determined to immerse himself in the physical reality of Newfoundland in an abrupt and inescapable way.
Indisputably a modern classic of Canadian poetry, The Grey Islands is one man’s mediation on the interplay between nature and human society in the rugged setting of coastal Newfoundland. The boats and houses of those who tried to live on the Grey Islands have disappeared, but their stories survive in the neighboring settlements – stories of treks on the sea ice, of near-starvation, of hunting ducks at night with muskets loaded with everything from nails to the parts of a gold pocket watch
This is a book of such excellence that someone in future is liable to say about the author: "Steffler - Steffler? - oh yes, he wrote The Grey Islands, didn't he?”
Al Purdy, Books in Canada
In taking in all of them - the ghosts, the stories, the family - The Grey Islands becomes a book of praise for a place and a people. Entering this world with John Steffler, hearing the voices through his finely tuned ear, is "like standing inside the head of someone who knows" - a clear-eyed, intense and compassionate place to be.
Lorna Crozier, Journal of Canadian Poetry
Steffler has charted in The Grey Islands a rich, elaborate personal odyssey. Watch for him in the future.
Andrew Brooks, Canadian Literature
Steffler is a distinguished poet - his semi-autobiographical book The Grey Islands is, I suspect, one of the finest long poems written in thelast 10 years.
Mark Abley, Montreal Gazette
I have just re-read The Grey Islands. I knew, and thought I knew well, this story of a man's self-selected (I want, almost, to say self-inflicted, the ensuing weeks are so stripped of any familiar face or comfort) journey to and isolation on a small island off the far-north coast of Newfoundland - and I have for all the years since its first publication in 1985 felt it to be one of the very few really-and-truly original works of that decade in this country. And of all of the next decade too, it's now possible to say. Reading it again this week, front to back, not just the browsing that I've often permitted myself, I find myself moved not merely by the pristine nature of the language - this I hadn't lost touch with at all, I doubt if any reader does - but by, and to say this is to say something different, the integrity of the enterprise. And yes, I do mean both enterprises here: that of the narrator, reporting on his journey, and that of a man standing behind, farther back than, that narrator. This being John Steffler, who somehow, hard to feel sure how, must have kept his very clear eyes on almost every minute and every page of the enterprise, must have known with alot of certainty what he wanted and needed to say and, no less important, known what he wasn't going to allow himself to get even close to saying. If you think about it, you'll know how much that last matters. Accounts of solitary travellers, wanderers, men or women testing themselves against Nature, against desert or floe or mountain, abound. Some of these glow against whatever their background is and outlast their generation. Many more, though, many many more, in my reading experience, sooner or later fail to remember where they are, forget what images their pages and their narrating sensibilities will always, if they are truthful, stay very close to, and begin to find themselves interesting in ways that sure enough are a real part of their wider lives, but that have very little - nothing, to be blunt -- to do with the purity of what they tell us they're engaged in. Easy enough to name names here, but since it's easy why bother. I think I've said what I needed to say. Steffler and his narrator do what each of them separately set out to do. They head off into an almost archaic place with its own completely convincing palette of acts and colours and sounds. They inhabit this place for the entire length of their stay without striking a single faux-noble attitude or uttering the kind of familiarly plangent epitaph for the rest of us that a reader, this one anyway, feels such limitless gratitude for the absence of. And all of this in a text that is so rifted with the "ore", as Keats said, of real poetry that I hours ago gave up the thought of proving this through quotations. It's very, very easy to find.