This is actually more like a review and a half. Michael Crummey published a limited edition monograph called Emergency Roadside Assistance. All or essentially all of the poems ended up in Salvage, in some cases slightly reworked and tightened up. While one could certainly lead a mini-workshop in showing how these poems changed, I don't think that would be particularly interesting, especially given how few people will be able to get a hold of a copy of ERA. What is perhaps somewhat interesting is that the poems that I liked the most from Salvage were often originally in ERA. It may well be that Crummey is moving in a direction that I don't find that appealing. I was quite surprised to learn that I only enjoyed a single poem out of his most recent collection, Under the Keel, and thus I won't be reviewing it here.
The single best thing about ERA is how it is printed to look like the instructions that are left in the glove box for when the car breaks down. It is even packed in a plastic sleeve. Very cute.
The title poem is quite good, though it is more than a little ironic, given that the motorist is not able to just wait in the car, waiting for assistance to arrive. I'm not sure if there is supposed to be a bit of pride (or a jibe) in that Canadians ultimately have to be more self-reliant than Americans (the self-professed kings of self-reliance) or just annoyance about having to face "That bitter walk in the cold / ahead of me..."
However, this isn't because there is no one to call, but rather there is "No telling how far / I'll have to go to find / a phone tonight and I sit there / frosting the windshield as / the last of the light goes under, / thinking about that."
Given the poem was probably written in the mid 90s, it hard to tell if the poet just doesn't have a cell phone, or if the coverage doesn't reach to "the back roads / to Ottawa." The infrastructure and networks in the U.S. are just more robust and ubiquitous, and the poet probably wouldn't mind being in the U.S., facing similar circumstances. The poem ends with the poet still in the car, slightly dreading the long walk in the cold. I can certainly remember a long, long walk in the cold when the car my mom was driving died on us. I'm not quite sure why it was so hard for her to get help, but it was. That probably wouldn't happen today. It is interesting (to me) how some poems and an awful lot of novels/movies just don't make any sense anymore given the vast changes in technology. You basically have to insert an elaborate set-up for why the hero's cell phone has died or why they don't have On-Star or some similar service.
"Returning" also features winter, though it doesn't seem quite so dreadful, viewed from inside a house (with a working furnace):
First storm of a late winter, heavy
snow, a wind driven by the weight
of human anticipation,
our resignation to the season's
Turning to Salvage, winter reappears in "Simmer," which also has a bit of a meditation on passing time and change. The poem begins by casting back in time to the poet's grandmother and love of dusk, and her favourite saying "A watched pot never boils." It abruptly shifts to the present: "After the funeral we followed the hearse / in through the country to Twillingate, / crossing the causeways that replaced / ferries in the 70s, islands / strung on an asphalt necklace."
"Darkness Turns" apparently returns a year later, so is also December, this time with more snow: "Relentless winter: the driveway muscled clean / each morning is buried again at night..." The ending is a bit mysterious: "No one remembers why darkness turns / the green poinsettia red. It just does." While there is definitely some lingering sorrow over the grandmother's absence, the holidays are around the corner, and the sense that life does go on.
I liked "Dostoevsky" which features a train ride through part of the Gobi desert. He actually has written a number of poems about train rides in China in his previous collections, and they are often quite good. In fact, this may be my favourite poem of the collection that wasn't also in Emergency Roadside Assistance, so I will wrap up with a short discussion of it. The poet has brought a copy of The Brothers Karamazov to help pass the time on the train. A fellow passenger (an old man) "leans in to lift the novel / from his hands, inspecting the cover / ... Returns the book with a shrug, / disappointed somehow..."
He considers the old man to be "inscrutable as a Russian winter." I'm not sure why this is any more or less "readable" than any other winter, but probably it is a bit of a riff on Churchill claiming the Soviet Union was "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." No question that this poem is focused on the limits of communication (and plays up mystery in the landscape as well as amongst the passengers), whereas David O'Meara's "Night Train" approaches the same subject but with more confidence that connections across cultures can be made.
Here is the final stanza of "Dostoevsky":
The train sways on the rails like a voice
holding and holding a single note,
the desert leans in the window
muttering its stark indecipherable language.