Monday, April 21, 2014

7th Challenge - 11th review - Arguments with Gravity

It wasn't until I was fixing up some internal links that I realized I had actually reviewed Galore by Michael Crummey.  I guess he is at least a double threat -- poet and novelist.  My sense is that he is better known in academic circles for his poetry collections, but his novels have sold well and that may be how is known to the average Canadian reader.  This is pure speculation of course.

His poems and, more generally, his other writing tend to focus on how hard life is in the Maritimes, particularly for those who are still trying to make a living from the sea.  Perhaps even harder is the lot of the miners, as many of the mines have closed and those that remain open are more automated (and thus hire fewer miners).

While it isn't until Hard Light that Crummey really delves into his family history (and their hard times), Arguments with Gravity contains a few poems about the randomness of fate.  "Delayed" is probably the best:
His mother had sent him across the road
for milk or bread, or some other necessity.
and the driver of the Coca Cola truck
didn't see him when he fell beneath the wheels.
I had been sent for milk as well --
a tarp thrown over the accident by then,
the corners held by cases of Cola,
In the end I went inside to buy the milk,
feeling ridiculous with my handful of coins
a circle of people surrounded
the yellow rustle of tarp
as if they expected a miracle,
but my mother was waiting at home
and I could not stay.

The randomness of life and death is at play here, and the waiting for a miracle that never arrives.  And yet, accidents are not actually evenly distributed.  Truck drivers tend to be more careful in middle class areas (and usually aren't even allowed to drive in elite enclaves, which so rarely have corner stores to begin with).  Perhaps in Crummey's childhood, young middle class children were occasionally sent on errands, but in today's world, that only happens if you are lower income.  So the accident would be far less likely to happen to a child accompanied by an adult.  Let me be clear, I am not placing fault on the mother in this poem (though I wouldn't send a child out for errands), but showing how class privilege (or really lack thereof) is perpetuated even in something like an accidental death.  I'm not sure that was really Crummey's intention here, though in other poems (particularly "The Way Things Were" in Hard Light) he is acutely class-conscious.  Even without this sociological gloss, I think this is one of the more devastating poems in this collection.

Somewhat along the same lines, Crummey is at first a bit astonished and then comes to understand his mother discovering the blues in "Mom's Blues." 
It's all about longing and loss:
according to the blues, nothing is taken from you
that wouldn't leave of its own accord in the end,
and I think that's what my mother relates to
that life is a study in the blues afterall,
how sometimes it's sweetest when
it hurts the most

While this loss is primarily about the emotional loss of losing a father and brother, there is no question that for struggling families, the economic loss can be devastating.  Nearly all of Barbara Comyns novels start out by a father dying and the children quickly left to fend for themselves, and then making a series of poor decisions, at least according to conventional wisdom. 

My favourite section is titled The River You Remember, and essentially all these poems are about traveling or travelers.  There are two poems loosely inspired by tales of the Silk Road from Europe to China.

"In Canada There is Already Snow" is about a teacher, most likely in China, teaching children English.  She is corresponding back and forth with a man in Canada (where there is already snow).

I'm still internally debating about "Insomniac Trains."  While the topic is fine, the poem is just a bit over-written to be truly successful:
Insomniac trains steam
all the unforgiving night across
the north China wilderness,
their wakefulness a kind of hunger
a kind of desperation
Stare out the window at 4am
hollow with sleeplessness,
the insomniac train rocking through desert
and a wordless moon travelling above you
a relentless eye of light in the desert,
an open mouth that swallows and swallows
three bright metres of track

It's definitely a different type of poem from many of the other works, maybe a different style that he was trying.  I do think "a kind of desperation" is just a bit over the top and redundant.  It's too bad, as I think this could have been an amazing poem with just a bit more restraint.  Anyway, I'll reread it to see if I am more open to it later.

I think "Silk Road (2)" works a bit better as a poem about trains, perhaps because Crummey flashes between the present (travelling by train) and the past (when he was driving his brothers home on another long journey).  It's also a bit more open-ended, which often works well for poetry (being too literal or rather closing down a poem so it only has one meaning can be limiting):
Everything I have ever been
sits motionless
at the open window of the train,
doorways silhouette the bodies of strangers

Darkness, the small light
of other lives

This is a bit more appealing to me than the relentless hunger of "Insomniac Trains."  Of course, it would hardly be a group of poems on travel without one about coming home, and that is, naturally enough, "The Road Home."  It's a bit cliched, but not too bad for this sort of poem:
The ferry shoulders its way into the north Atlantic,
into rain and an easterly wind, making for
Newfoundland which is no longer my home
bit the place I come from still
the place that made me
and being a stranger there now I am
more or less a stranger wherever I find myself

I liked a fair number of the poems, particularly those related to travel.  It's certainly not bad for a first collection.  Most of the poems were presumably written in Crummey's mid-20s when one aspires to  travel and explore one's self.  Hard Light, which I'll try to review by the end of the week, looks outward, first at members of Crummey's extended family and then to a historic Canadian figure, drawing on the journals of Captain John Froude (not completely dissimilar to what Bowering did in "George, Vancouver" but I'll save a fuller description for later).

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