By Terry Trowbridge
Who is Keith Inman and What Limestone?
Layers of Limestone is a chapbook of 9 poems written by Keith Inman, published by Grey Borders Books. My own copy is a signed edition, printed for the 2015 Niagara Falls Night of Art (Hutton, 2015). The small press Grey Borders helped to organize the NFNA for years, and this chapbook is one of their numerous literary ephemera related to the annual event. Any library, historian, or literary scholar making a catalogue of Niagara literary culture must include Grey Borders’ various commemorative items.
For archival matter, they must include some biographical nod to the literary organizing work of Keith Inman. He is a well-known member of the literary, artistic community in Canada’s Niagara region (Porteus, 2019). Inman is known as one Canada’s foremost inheritors of legendary poet Milton Acorn’s “people’s poetry” (example: Acorn, 1973). He is also a decades-long leading member of the local Canadian Authors Association, Ontario Poet’s Society, and League of Canadian Poets; which includes his years on editorial panels for local and national poetry contests and anthologies, literary reading series with invited authors, and generally connecting all of Canada to the culturally isolated Niagara cities like St. Catharines, Welland, and Niagara Falls (which historically promoted international pop stars while neglecting local creativity).
However, Inman’s own poems can tend to wander into commemorative themes in a wide sense. His 2014 book of poems The War Poems: Screaming at Heaven, published by Black Moss Press, which examines in verse Canada’s participation in wars with the USA and Indigenous nations (1812-1887), global wars of the English Empire (1889-1953), and critiquing Canada’s United Nations push for the Pearsonian Peacekeeping movement (1954-2014-ish), was published during the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.
Inman’s chapbook Layers of Limestone leverages Niagara’s local geology to describe local culture. There is a sort of unintended callback in Inman’s poetic career to the English Renaissance intellectuals who also treated local history and geology as inseparable. The most famous of those proto-Enlightenment thinkers might be John Aubrey and his studies of Stonehenge and surrounding areas (Mendyk, 1989). Inman’s poetry is a postmodern echo of Early Modern combinations of scientific fieldwork with candlelit anthropological bookworming. In fact, that’s a trend in the Niagara region in ways that are unique compared to the cultural preoccupations of the rest of Canada’s province of Ontario.
The Niagara escarpment looms over the entire southern shore of Lake Ontario, from the Niagara River to Burlington, Ontario; and from there, northward to a tiny town called Tobermory. For everybody who lives on Lake Ontario’s southern shore, their southern horizon is higher than their tallest skyscrapers, with a dense green forest in the Spring and Summer, a brilliant orange and red deciduous forest in the Autumn months, and snowy naked trees with moments of visible roads in Winter. The forest is Canada’s most biodiverse ecosystem, recognized for it as a world heritage location by the United Nations.
The populace routinely uses the footpath known as the Bruce Trail to walk up and down the escarpment, and it’s typical to spend an afternoon hiking east or west through the vertical trees. The escarpment itself is a creation of Ice Age glaciation that all students study with easy field trips throughout grade school and high school. Those who live in the city of Hamilton call it The Mountain, and Hamiltonian poets like John Terpstra (1997, 2003, 2018) and Marc di Saverio (2013, 2020) have written extensively about it and lived extensively on it. Other Canadian poets, like Christopher Dewdney, discuss the limestone strata in the context of poems about Canadian geography (2002) and essays about time (2008).
In the Niagara region it is called The Escarpment. To those who live in St. Catharines and Niagara Falls, who tend to be less page-poets and more of an slam poet’s oral culture, The Escarpment is less a literary place and more of a political place. There are always controversies within the municipal governments about selling large pieces of it to foreign developers, in order to deforest it and build housing or hotels. Those controversies are rarely reported by local media, despite taking up big parts of local activists’ lives to prepare presentations and defend the land. Those fraught, potentially life-changing political controversies fill the conversations of ordinary families over dinner and when friends meet up. Their absence from journalism is an injustice and failure of Niagara and Canadian news reporting, but should in no way be taken to reflect anything approaching actual apathy by the people who live in the area.
The escarpment is where Niagara citizens raise their children and exercise for the health of themselves and their dogs. They know the trees are necessary to deal with pollution and that the limestone is responsible for purifying drinking water, as well as a unique microclimate on the planet Earth that allows the cultivation of fruit trees that grow from a seed nowhere else (and must be exported as saplings or budwood to Europe, Australia, and South America). The Escarpment is Niagara’s childcare, a spur-of-the-moment campground minutes from home, and the world’s fruit supply.
Even though Layers of Limestone is only 9 poems, some very short, it therefore has a strong political meaning within its municipal context at the Niagara Falls Night of Art, and in the provincial context of Ontario’s contested greenbelt development strategies (Benzie, 2023). The social importance of Inman’s poems to understand political power dynamics should not be underestimated, but rather could be the motivation for closely reading the book, especially for their seemingly personal meditative qualities. The Escarpment is the visible setting for everything that happens in Niagara. Each of the poems in Layers is about daily life. As they should be.
Layers of Limestone
The first 8 poems are commonplace, slice-of-life snapshots of people being ordinary. However, they include the subliminal inflections that make Niagara settings escarpment-encompassed. For example, in the poem “The Old Church Lane” Inman asks, “Who are these stones/that fell/in the field/behind our eyes” an obvious reference to the innumerable limestone chunks used for landscaping, but also simply thudded around the place.
Considering its geological title, the poem “Shale” seems to be comparing the brittle softness of escarpment shale with the easily dented aluminum siding of lower-middle income houses. Inman tells a vignette about boys lazily bouncing a lacrosse ball off of one such house, denting it. They are shooed away to the local brick-built school, which (like the escarpment) is a solid wall that casts a shadow over sports players. (An example of this juxtaposition in real life is Grimsby Secondary School, which is directly below the escarpment, helping to shade football games in the evenings).
“The Way the Mud Hardens” is a poem with images of rural farm time’s passage, like a door that is left in a hillside grassy clearing over Winter months, now with paint peeled by the elemental weather. Two characters, Wayne and Hakim, carry a small boat to a cow pond and banter about snapping turtles. Turtles, like Wayne and Hakim, also carry their buoyant shells through the same grasses from ditches to ponds. Time is passed on Niagara farms in this way, all the time. Residents from the suburban neighbourhoods canoe in the creeks.
The poems continue with snippets of conversation and juxtaposed critters: possums, dragonflies, children who crowd ice cream trucks. The normalcy of Inman’s poems can be sublime, or can be merely quotidian. However, they are accurate examples of Niagara culture and its diverse eco-sociology. Inman’s low-key presentation of life is a testament written for those who might have wanted to see themselves being seen by artists at the Niagara Falls Night of Art; and also a time capsule for future literary historians.
It is the final poem, “Layers of Limestone” (10-11), that presents the geographical scope of the Niagara escarpment, how mixed the interspecies ecosystem is, how far a person’s awareness is projected over the human-built environment. The images are explicit rather than metaphorical. Brock University’s campus is on the escarpment ridge, and Inman hears its symphony. The helicopter for tourists to circle Niagara Falls and the surrounding vineyards passes above and makes its regular noise. There are 400-series major highways that swoop the curvature of the limestone and creeks, as well as the 19th-century engineering feat of the Welland Canal. Regardless of the developers who try to pitch buildings, nothing on the Falls side of Lake Ontario can compare with the grandeur of the Toronto megapolis lights visible from the escarpment, far across the lake but visibly twinkling. The scarp’s southern slope gently recedes to the shore of Lake Erie, and the USA’s Pennsylvania’s lights and bright Autumn leaves are also visible across that Great Lake. There are seemingly endless orchards and golf courses punctuated by manicured lower-middle class subdivisions and their factory employers.
Fauna includes deer, foxes, red-tail hawks, freshwater salmon, perch, walleye and human bicyclists. The social life of the escarpment described in the previous 8 poems encompasses this diversity of human geography and mingling wildlife. The Niagara awareness of geological time and regional space is projected partly by the view that a natural forest and ridge allows, partly because the public access means all of these views and interactions, person-to-person and animal-to-animal and nation-to-nation, often take place in the span of one day for any given person with a car and a backpack.
Whether Inman’s kind of factually rigorous mythologizing can help to delay or disband the Niagara Falls city council that is always hellbent on destroying The Escarpment is a question that only time can tell. Those few people who want to destroy The Escarpment, always seem to be the few who run for election. Inman’s chapbook is not meant for them the read. They already know exactly what is inside this chapbook because people show up to City Hall and present their personal stories in an attempt to stave off developments that would ruin their real worlds and their interior lives. It is possible that, even as soon as a decade from now, Keith Inman’s poems will be the only textual true-to-life record of a forested urbanity forever lost to bulldozers and politicians’ feelings of jealous smallness. Their feelings will only be exacerbated by their inevitable failures to compete on a concrete level with the size and scale of Toronto, there on their flat opposite shore. Meanwhile, those few city council members will always ignore that they have a unique world heritage site that already drives Canada’s busiest tourist destination. Inman, however, speaks for the locals and the land.
Inman, Keith. (2015). Layers of Limestone. Niagara Falls: Grey Borders Books.
Acorn, Milton. (1973). More Poems for People. Toronto: New Canada Publications.
Benzie, Robert. (11 Oct. 2023). Tory insiders fear the RCMP’s Greenbelt probe could hinder Doug Ford’s next re-election campaign. The Toronto Star. Website: www.thestar.com/politics/article_3cdb4cb3-e14c-588e-8384-ebb14ae31fc1.html
Dewdney, Christopher. (2002). The Natural History. Toronto: ECW Press.
Dewdney, Christopher. (2008). Soul of the World: Unlocking the Secrets of Time. Toronto: HarperCollins.
Di Saverio, Marc. (2013). Sanitorium Songs. Kingsville: Palimpsest Press.
Di Saverio, Marc. (2020). Crito Di Volta: An Epic. Hamilton: Guernica Editions.
Hutton, Richard. (21 Sept. 2015). Groups band together for annual Niagara Falls Night of Art. Niagara This Week. Website: www.niagarathisweek.com/article_d04d61ef-4455-514b-82b6-a45312fc3c01.html
Inman, Keith. (2014). The War Poems: Screaming at Heaven. Windsor: Black Moss Press.
Mendyk, Stan. (1989). Speculum Britanniae: Regional Study, Antiquarianism, and Science in Britain to 1700. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Porteus, Andrew. (2019). The Cormorant by Keith Inman. Niagara Falls Poetry Project. Website: https://niagarapoetry.ca/2019/01/14/inman/
Terpstra, John. (1997). The Church not Made with Hands. Hamilton: Wolsak and Wynn Publishers.
Terpstra, John. (2003). Disarmament. Kentville: Gaspereau Press.
Terpstra, John. (2018). Daylighting Chedoke. Hamilton: Wolsak and Wynn Publishers.
About the Writer:
Terry Trowbridge is a Canadian living on Lake Ontario, a plum farmer, a sociolegal researcher, and a book reviewer. His poetry and essays have appeared in something like 100 different journals, zines, and chapbooks. His Erdős number is 5.