Excavating the Oil Sands: Archaeology, Polyvocality, and the Aesthetics of Extraction in David Martin’s Tar Swan

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David Martin’s Tar Swan (Edmonton, AB: NeWest Press, 2018) engages histories of extraction in the Alberta oil sands to fashion a mode of petropoetics at once factual and fabulous, critical and aspirational. Martin’s poetic text alternates and intermingles four voices, in the process fictionalizing historical figures: Robert C. Fitzsimmons (1881-1971), an early oil sands developer; Frank Badura, a worker accused of sabotage by Fitzsimmons; Dr. Brian K. Wolsky, a contemporary archaeologist who digs up early oil sands sites; and the eponymous swan, a seemingly magical non-human figure “ignored” (11) by the rest of the cast, yet influencing their actions. Martin’s “Notes” at the end of the text gesture to his appropriation of archival sources, such as “letters, telegrams, advertising pamphlets, photographs, company or archaeological reports, and personal histories” (91). In its shuttling between scales—the movement between historical and geological time, or human and non-human subjectivity—Tar Swan formalizes the question of ecological relations. By choosing to enact a variety of barely traceable modes of textual reproduction, Martin exceeds a traditional, lyric subjectivity and opts instead for a poetic utterance confected of the strange, the other, and the unoriginal. In the process of estranging the histories of oil sands development, Martin’s multiple petropoetic modes make apparent the entanglements—human/more-than-human, local/global/planetary, past/present/future—that define life in the Anthropocene.

In what follows, I offer three glosses on the oil poetics of Tar Swan, paying particular attention to the contradictions and difficulties that emerge from the text’s admixture of poetic voices and personas. Indeed, the text’s polyvocality, or its shuttling between speakers that each have their own distinguishing formal features, constitutes one opening onto a mode of a politicized petropoetics that exceeds a poetics of witness, objective reportage, or “exposure.”


I’ll begin with the text’s first poem, spoken by the tar swan and narrating the coming into existence of the swan-as-oil:  

I was born a single cygnet, ditched

by Cob and Pen, left fending

in quickening lichen like mud-coaxed

bastard oxen, as shredded elephants

choired from their soup. Do not blotch

brittle leaves with tears, for my sobs,

skip-dripping from sockets, slithered

thence to the ground and pooled deep

pockets of felicity. Doodle-buggers

and orange-worms mine a blistered delight.

My feathers and feces drive your cars:

inquire of coke-drowned patch clowns

who pray for forgiveness, quitting town. (15)

Throughout the text, the swan’s poems appear in the centre of the page; they are a modified sonnet form that one reviewer has linked to Milton Acorn’s Jackpine Sonnets, with varying line lengths that generally eschew end rhymes for other modes of repetition such as internal rhymes, assonance, and consonance. This opening poem is exemplary of the densely textured language that marks each of the swan’s sections: “single cygnet,” “Pen, left fending,” “quickening lichen like,” “mud-coaxed / bastard oxen,” “skip-dripping from sockets, slithered . . . pockets of felicity.” This is a thick language, heavy in the mouth; it is a lyric poetry that, to echo the birth of oil or the very event it describes, compresses and sediments meaning in the tightly bound space of the poem.

The swan’s opening poem also closes on something of an accusatory tone in the framing of oil workers as “coke-drowned patch clowns.” There is a question here about the politics of oil work, or Martin and the collection’s representation of oil workers more generally, including the fictionalization and send-up of Fitzsimmons at the centre of the book. Recently, Melanie Dennis Unrau has addressed precisely the relation of oil work and petropoetics. In her analysis of contemporary Canadian poetry by oil workers, she urges eco- and petrocritics to move beyond the notion of “oil and gas workers” as “hypocrites, dupes, or too implicated in the system to understand it” and to take seriously “oil workers’ desires for the transformation of the relations of petromodern production and the settler-colonial petrostate.” Unrau’s reminder that each of us is differentially implicated in the productions and reproductions of petroculture is important for resisting a flat or face-value reading of this opening poem, in which oil work and oil workers are held apart or singled out as morally bankrupt. Rather, it is worth remembering the swan’s unsettled subjectivity as simultaneously lyric persona, something approximating an actual swan, but also as the oil itself; we might then read this moment of insult as the oil speaking back, a lyric articulation of what Unrau describes as “the land’s resistance” to extraction.


If the swan’s lyric voice embodies in its linguistic textures the thickness or density of oil, the sections that follow Brian K. Wolsky, a contemporary archaeologist, offer another mode of poetics for figuring oil. Wolsky’s poems are couplets that seem to narrate his excavation of Fitzsimmons’s Bitumount site. Each poem is introduced by a line that marks the dig’s depth; over the course of the text, the poems move from “45-30 cm below” in the first of Wolsky’s poems to the “Surface” in the last. Wolsky’s sections offer an alternative critical mode modelled by the figure of the archaeologist, a mode that might tentatively be named a “poetics of sifting.” At “30-25 cm, below,” Wolsky narrates:

interrogated dirt goes through

our screens: Six slate pencils,


two fruit pits, one porcelain saucer,

and the knapper’s signature flute


that guttered a Clovis point –

 my crew left tongue-struck. (39)

Wolsky, in his function as a sifter of the remains of these early oil sands sites, appears as an apt stand-in for Martin, the poet himself, digging through archival sources for snippets of text that recirculate as kernels of poems. In the Dramatis Personae that introduces the text’s speaking voices, we learn that Wolsky “stratifies himself in a pit” (11); alongside the image of the archaeologist becoming implicated in the histories he excavates, there is a whisper here of the poet’s own recognition of complicity in the petrocultures he figures on the page.

Wolsky’s sections of the text, and the figure of the archaeologist more generally, are also where Tar Swan enters most forcefully into a particular lineage of Canadian prairie writing. In his essay “On Being an Alberta Writer,” Robert Kroetsch, named by Linda Hutcheon as Mr. Canadian Postmodern, argues for a “model of archaeology” over “history.” For Kroetsch:

We have not yet grasped the whole story; we have hints and guesses that slowly persuade us towards the recognition of larger patterns. Archaeology allows the fragmentary nature of the story, against the coerced unity of traditional history. Archaeology allows for discontinuity. It allows for layering. It allows for imaginative speculation.

Kroetsch’s sense of the affordances of an archaeological approach to place resonates throughout Martin’s text. Tar Swan literalizes the archaeological figure as one element of a poetic or formal “layering,” and as a central organizing feature of the text’s “discontinuity” as well as its “imaginative speculation,” that is, the fictionalization of the downfall of Fitzsimmons’s Bitumount site. The archaeological model, distinguished by the writer’s exploration of local archives, and perhaps the bringing to the surface of sunken or alternative histories, offers Martin a counter to “coerced unity of traditional history.” Put differently, Kroetsch’s model for writing in Alberta gives Martin a formal vocabulary for examining the violence obfuscated by uncritical retellings of the origins of oil sands extraction.


Kroetsch’s archaeological model of writing, in its capacity as a mode of literary engagement that imaginatively undoes the “coerced unity” of history, might also be understood in relation to the central drama of Tar Swan: the alleged “sabotage” of Bitumount by Frank Badura, one of Fitzsimmons’ employees. The text itself leaves it unclear precisely what “happened” at Bitumount. Fitzsimmons and Badura both seem to descend into madness; it’s possible to read the swan as a kind of mythical being that contaminates and corrupts Badura, literally taking on his body in order to undermine the production of oil at Bitumount. In the middle section of the text, the swan narrates a kind of merging between itself and Frank, in which boundaries blur and it becomes unclear who acts in the destruction of Bitumount property or machinery:

With freetime to drown, Frank sidles

shorewise to skunkeye my scraw-stuffed

flutes. I prop my tar-kissed mantle

on his shoulder hang over ears

and peck up his mealy torso. Frank

frets at my feet, shrieks at bolts eking

over floorboards, hamfists boiler,

and stumps the stippled stubble as I

take on his hair. Swan-man (51)

In closing, I want to offer the saboteur as an inflection of Martin’s archaeological poetics of sifting. In this reading, the saboteur aspect of Martin’s text calls to mind Len Findlay’s famous exhortation to “Always Indigenize!” In this now canonical essay describing the field of Canadian Literature, published in 2000, Findlay seeks to mobilize the term “conspiracy,” divesting it of valences that index “silence, secrecy, violence, and hate” (373), and offering it instead as a term of settler solidarity in the difficult and urgent work of refashioning Canadian cultural, literary, and academic spaces as more equitable and just. For Findlay, “conspiracy” designates an “Indigenously led, strategic interdisciplinarity” (371) that operates as a tactical subversion of the dominant Eurocentrism of the Canadian academy. Drawing a line between the poetic saboteur and the academic conspirator is to consider the cultural, social, and political work of an archival poetics that is written by a settler poet, and grounded in a settler literary history of the prairies, and to articulate more clearly the ethical horizon to which Martin’s figuration of oil gestures. In the context of settler colonialism and petromodernity’s histories of expropriation and enclosure of land and knowledge for private gain, Martin’s archival sabotage might offer one model of cultural “counterdispossession,” a formal and tactical response that intertwines ecological concerns with the difficult and urgent attempts to think towards decolonization.

Feature Image: Sand, asphalt, soil, road surface, shadow, rock, road, tar, beach, by akmal134899 at pxhere.com, public domain.
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