Friday, April 25, 2014

7th Canadian Challenge - 12th review - Hard Light

For readers who enjoyed Michael Crummey's Galore, Hard Light is the closest equivalent in his poetic output.  He has written quite a few poems that focus on the hard life faced by working class Canadians in the Maritimes, both those who worked as fisherman and those who worked in the mines.  

Crummey adapts a number of family stories/legends of his uncle and aunts into poems.  Some of these work better than others.  Many, though not all, of the family poems are actually prose poems. Of this group, I think my favourite was "Bread," which is about a woman marrying a much older widower, mostly because "he was willing to take in my mother and father when the time came." Such practical people.  Here is another slice of "Bread": "The baby came early, a few weeks after my husband arrived home in September.  We had the minister up to the house for the baptism the next day ... and we buried him in the graveyard in the Burnt Woods a week later. ...  I don't know why sharing a grief will make you love someone."

There are a couple of poems written out like menus or recipes.  "Jiggs' Dinner" is the most successful.  Here are a couple of those ingredients: "Potatoes are inevitable, like grace before a meal. ... The taste is neither here nor there, like its colour... Turnip and Parsnip: Predictable vegetables, study and uncomplicated, tasting of the winter root cellar, the warmth of darkness smouldering beneath snow."  It does make me somewhat nostalgic for the (apparent) simplicity of the early part of the 20th Century.  However, I know in my heart that I would have not been happy working on a farm or, worse yet, been a fisherman or coal miner.  My maternal grandfather came from a line of miners, and he was very glad to have escaped their fate. 

For me, the most successful is when Crummey reaches even further back to the late 1880s to the diaries of Captain John Froude  and turns a number of these logs into poems.  It isn't even clear where Crummey is simply transcribing the diaries and adding line breaks and when he is adding his own details.  That isn't an issue of concern for me, since I am not reading these poems for their historic value.  They do, however, really get at what it meant to be at sea in those days.  This captain has had many close calls, perhaps none more ironic than the one described in "A hard toil and worry for nothing" where he (a lowly seaman at this point) is sent off the boat with 5 others to try to return to their home port as best they can manage.  They "arrived in Twillingate on June 17th, our boots / sliced through with the rough walking / and blood still in our mouths from the snow."  The next day, the boat comes to port "all hands rested and well fed."

An even closer call comes 13 years later when Froude is nearly swept overboard in a gale, but manages to grab a rope and climb back aboard.  "But I don't remember being afraid when I fell, / only the certainty of knowing I was about to be drowned / a thousand miles from home, / and then the jib whip in my hands, / the peculiar darkness of discovering / there is nothing that is certain."

The randomness of fate is a strong theme running through these poems.  This is almost too nakedly expressed in "Life and its pleasures" where Froude/Crummey writes: "The only lesson the years have to teach / is that life is a lottery and / my name has been called a few times / when I wish it had not."  Yet he came through as a survivor and lived to tell his tales, when many did not.  I suspect that few readers who devour these nautical tales would have any interest in living them themselves.  (I'm sure there are a few exceptions.)  It's a way of getting that frisson of danger by proxy, which is probably why shows like Ice Truckers and what have you are so popular.  Certainly, I thought these were some of Crummey's most interesting poems, particularly because the stakes were a bit higher than those in the following section where he describes some voyages he actually took on the fairly tame Labrador coastal ferry.  It doesn't surprise me at all that Crummey ultimately returned to the theme of imperiled men at sea in Galore, and it largely paid off (certainly it did in terms of sales).  I'd have to say in terms of an overall collection, Hard Light is the most satisfying of the bunch, although there are some fine poems in Arguments with Gravity and Salvage.

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