Art-inspired poems and a body on a beach

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Writing poems about visual art is a rich and trenchant genre. The practice — it is called ekphrasis — dates to Homer and continues through W. H. Auden to (for example) Monica Youn’s wonderful piece on a famous art theft, “Stealing ‘The Scream.’” In line with this, Stephanie McKenzie has produced a volume of works dedicated to two renowned and remarkable painters and the possible tangents running between them. In 1901, Emily Carr travelled to France, where she may, or may not, have seen Vincent van Gogh’s exhibition at the Galerie Bernheim Jeune. Such a tantalizing gap in biographical surety only adds resonances to the references Carr would make to his character and work. “I have been reading the life of Vincent Van Gogh,” she wrote, “poor chap, so strong and so weak!” These poems are about the artists, their process of painting, and specific works: Woman with a Mourning Shawl (after Van Gogh) It is not the shawl but the right eye, panicked pointed. It knows of mourning but more of fear. Your fingers? Gnarled children. If I could kiss you, it would be the brow. Give you sleep. Their structure often includes an introductory quote, something written by or about Carr. The poems are short and spare, the spacing precise. This echoes Carr’s own brisk, bull’s-eye-accurate observations: “Everyone is tremendously alone in this world when it comes right down to the core and there are so few cores that match.” This murder mystery is Mike Martin’s second in what looks to be a series, with Grand Bank’s RCMP officer Sgt. Winston Windflower on the case of another mysterious death. This time, two children playing on a beach have discovered a body in the water (at “the T,” as the stretch of beach is locally known): An hour later, the beach was littered with police and emergency vehicles along with a few dozen gawkers who’d heard the noise from their nearby cabins along the shoreline. Two RCMP officers in fluorescent vests were stringing yellow police tape from two wooden posts about a hundred yards apart. Corporal Eddie Tizzard was shooing the onlookers back from taking a closer look at the tarpaulin-covered lump on the ground behind the tape. There’s no ID. It is a young male, wearing a wedding ring — and with a small fortune in American bills sewn into his jean jacket. And then a second body turns up floating in the ocean. As the case expands, and seems connected to some large-scale drug dealing, Windflower’s own workload picks up pace and influence. Fortunately, the ever-loyal Tizzard is a reliable and helpful assistant. Meanwhile, Windflower’s romance with the alluring, red-haired Sheila Hillier, proprietress of the Mug-Up, is gathering strength and sparks, even as it encounters a challenge or two. And at the same time, Windflower, a Cree from Northern Alberta, finds his roots in Grand Bank are growing deeper than ever: He gazed out at the lighthouse, long a symbol of the port of Grand Bank, a beacon to distressed ships at sea. He couldn’t believe it when he heard the other day that they were thinking of taking it down. It hadn’t been an active lighthouse for many years but to him at least it was the real symbol of Grand Bank. Not the Tidy Town sign on the way in or even the Grand Bank Health Centre. The lighthouse was a symbol of the glory days of the Grand Bank schooners and the Bank Fishery, the most profitable fishery in the province’s history. But he sure wasn’t in charge around here was he. There are some flaws. As with the first book (“The Walker on the Cape”) the editing is very spotty. There is word repetition, even within a single sentence, as well as punctuation errors, misused words (“supply train” for “supply chain”) and too many clichés. But that might not be a big deterrence. People won’t come to this book for perfect grammar. They want the thoughtful mystery, the location and scenery — with the wind and fog and harbours and precious summer days — the meals Windflower creates and enjoys — fried cod and scrunchions, scallops with rosé sauce, peanut butter cheesecake — and they want to spend time with the hardworking, optimistic, curious-minded Windflower. Joan Sullivan is a St. John’s-based journalist and editor of The Newfoundland Quarterly. Her column returns Aug. 31.

Organizations: Grand Bank Health Centre, RCMP, Galerie Bernheim Jeune Bank Fishery The Newfoundland Quarterly

Geographic location: France, Northern Alberta

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