Vancouver Lights

About me the night        moonless           wimples the mountains

wraps ocean      land         air           and mounting

sucks at the stars       The city            throbbing below

webs the sable peninsula     The golden

strands overleap the seajet     by bridge and buoy

vault the shears of the inlet        climb the woods

toward me         falter       and halt      Across to the firefly

haze of a ship on the gulf’s erased horizon

roll the lambent spokes of a lighthouse


Through the feckless years we have come to the time

when to look on this quilt of lamps is a troubling delight

Welling from Europe’s bog       through Africa flowing

and Asia      drowning the lonely lumes on the oceans

tiding up over Halifax       now to this winking

outpost comes flooding the primal ink


On this mountain’s brutish forehead with terror of space

I stir         of the changeless night and the stark ranges

of nothing        pulsing down from beyond and between

the fragile planets       We are a spark beleaguered

by darkness        this twinkle we make in a corner of emptiness

how shall we utter our fear that the black Experimentress

will never in the range of her microscope find it?          Our Phoebus

himself is a bubble that dries on Her slide        while the Nubian

wears for an evening’s whim a necklace of nebulae


Yet we must speak        we the unique glowworms

Out of the waters and rocks of our little world

we conjured these flames     hooped these sparks

by our will         From blankness and cold we fashioned stars

to our size          and signalled Aldebaran

This must we say            whoever may be to hear us

if murk devour            and none weave again in gossamer:


                                                               These rays were ours

we made and unmade them           Not the shudder of continents

doused us         the moon’s passion         nor crash of comets

In the fathomless heat of our dwarfdom             our dream’s combustion

we contrived the power        the blast that snuffed us

No one bound Prometheus      Himself he chained

and consumed his own bright liver       O stranger

Plutonian         descendant      or beast in the stretching night—

there was light

Dive in
  1. One of the first things you might notice about this poem is how it often puts lots of space between words. Does this poem contain any punctuation? How do you “read” those spaces in the poem? What are those spaces doing?
  2. This poem casts a very wide net: the speaker looks out at the city’s lights and thinks about the ocean’s currents connecting continents, about the planets and the stars, about being and nothingness, and about how humanity will be remembered. Where does that lead us? What is the poem’s speaker ultimately saying about humanity in this poem?
  3. It’s thought that Earle Birney wrote this poem around 1939, after the Second World War started. Does that affect your reading of the poem, to know when it was written? When you first read the poem, did you have a sense of its eraHow do you read that line “we contrived the power        the blast that snuffed us” as someone who’s living right now?
  4. Note all the proper names in this poem: Phoebus, Halifax, Aldebaran, Prometheus, Asia, etc. How many of these names do you not recognize? How does that affect your reading of this poem?
  5. Is this a quiet poem or a loud poem? What volume or level of emotional force do you hear in your mind when you read it to yourself? Do those spaces in the middle of lines calm things down or ratchet up the intensity for you? Considering how the poem is laid out on the page, how would you recite it?
  6. Try writing your own night poem. Stare out a window or go outside when it’s dark. Start by taking note of what’s around you, then let your mind wander. Follow it wherever it leads. Let the scope of the poem get wide.

Useful Links


Here’s a brief essay by Diné poet Orlando White about using space on the page in poetry to “express a silence.”


Compare the myth of Prometheus with Birney’s telling of what became of him.


Here’s a (daytime) view of the downtown Vancouver skyline in 1939, thought to be the year Birney wrote his poem. Now imagine the sun setting on this view and a poet happening by...

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Bibliographical info

Earle Birney, “Vancouver Lights” from One Muddy Hand: Selected Poems, Harbour Publishing Copyright © 2006 The Estate of Earle Birney.

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