Grosse Île – a poem

Grosse Île

by William Gibson

We are guided through the Reception Hall,
lose the sound of the St. Lawrence River.
Gape at the baggage cages,
the immigrants’ luggage and clothing
packed on these
for disinfection
in the steam and sulphur

Our guide explains why the shower stalls
have wire mesh roofs.
To keep the people from climbing out.
I look inside the galvanized grey casing
and stare at the shower tube and the three
wrap-around shower pipes
and I step back.

Later we walk down the trail
to the Irish cemetery
from 1847,
the famine year,
the big death year.

There is still one building from then.
One old cover shed still there.

Later I read how the government debated
the costs of sheds to cover the immigrants,
to get them out of the tents and the open air.
Not enough money for milk and bread.
For medical supplies.
The doctors and nurses, the nuns and priests
falling sick, dying.

How the St. Lawrence was full of ships
anchored, waiting with their sick, and dying
with their dead lying in the bunks of the crowded
stinking lower decks.
Where family members were too frightened.
To touch their own dead, for burial.

I read the list of those who died.
Unknown Dutch man
Unknown Irish child
There was one William Gibson,
Captain of a ship out of Liverpool,
his ship with sick and dead
in 1847.

NOTE: Grosse Île is an island in the St. Lawrence River downstream from Ville de Quebec. It has had a fascinating history including biological weapons research during World War II (anthrax), but less alarmingly, it was the quarrantine immigration station for Quebec. In other words, it was Canada’s Ellis Island. Actually Ellis Island was America’s Grosse Île. Irish and other immigrants entered Canada at this point at the time of the Potato Famine, 1848. It continued to be used as an immigration depot into the 20th century. Today you can visit the island, Parks Canada manages the island. It is a moving experience to tour the site.