This seems a strong season for Newfoundland and Labrador poetry, with Breakwater’s anthology and Michael Crummey’s recent volume, and now come new collections from two poets who rarely put a foot or word wrong.
And they don’t disappoint here. The writing from Carmelita McGrath and Mary Dalton is, not surprisingly, gorgeous and heady.
With “Hooking,” Dalton is crafting centos (“made of lines which occur at the same point in the linear structure of the poems they are excised from,” with source lists appended). These are structures of calibration and balance; even punctuation and capitalization are given careful note.
Yet they still require an eye and ear for word and line, and a hand to keep the throughlines steady. There is interruption and interjection but there is also continuance and flow, and unexpected resonances that spark and delight.
From the opening “Cloth” — references to fabric and textile work are another constant here —
Carry water, carry water
and it too will be history. Out there
it helps, dead of winter, to have magnitudes.
These are from the seventh lines of Talvikki Ansel’s “Xylem,” Daniel Hall’s “After Reading,” and Kevin Craft’s “Birches.”
The wealth and variety of these roots and associations adds cohesion. At the same time, it keeps the core and momentum of the poem opening up and opening up. From “Netted”:
Here and there, people still crawl,
chattering, adjusting their clothes — then:
the unending row of them set,
encircled by colours. But there’s so much blood:
the geography and the weather
and the use of a knife.
It’s a kind of lyrical montage, and the reader makes their own connections, bridges (or leaps) the gaps. From “Appliqué”:
Where did these enormous children come from,
children picking up our bones?
Tell me the windows aren’t really sweating.
McGrath, who also writes novels and non-fiction, is such a lovely wordsmith, and every piece is intricate and polished.
She is also forthright and even searingly raw, but her talent is such that the pieces are still so invitingly fine. In “How Difficult is it to Remain Buried”:
How easy is was to dig the warm hole
though the clay was hard, and the rocks
in this place so many Sisyphean toils
on an appropriately minor scale.
How welcoming were the creatures
when I lay down, the shy annelids
secretive things more leggy than an awards show,
and beetles in bronze armour
blind to their own beauty. What stories
quiet things tell with their silent, pinching mouths.
This is infused with blues-tinged alertness that takes in both depression and renewal. And I can’t see one word that’s not perfectly used, perfectly placed. The delicate notes of repetition add to the cadence, and build her voice.
These elements and that tone recur in many poems. The poet often wants to rest, tunnel and reject. But the beauty she still sees cannot be denied.
This comes up again and again; even as the title “is defined as the minimum velocity an object must have in order to escape the gravitational field of the Earth; is other words, to escape the Earth forever,” the writing remains deeply connected to children, parents, love letters, late cheques.
McGrath is also often quite funny. For example, she might intersect myth with humour, as in “As Persephone”:
Let go my hair, she shrieked, as he pulled her under,
I can fall on my own two legs. In his deep, ridiculous
valleys and labyrinths, she questioned him on the composition of magma
to show she was merely curious and not impressed.
She taunted him with his one-sided love;
did he expect a girl would make him live?
Pretended to find comfort in the brute subterranean architecture
Even as the dawn and stars called her name.
At this poem’s conclusion, McGrath deftly switches form stanzas to prose. She plays a lot with format, even framing one as a to-do list.
And she frequently fuses together apparently discrete elements, as in “The Weed,” where a felled tree “is still there the way the shadow/of our old loves persistently lie over us,” or “Interstice,” where a family tries to recall an old story, but too many pieces of it have been lost and forgotten: “the sorrow of this archeology/the limits of what we can conjure, recover.”
Both books are a pleasure to read. Between Dalton’s steady, keen discipline and lyrical exploration, and McGrath’s fearlessness and command, we see both poets working like jewelers, with precision, making gems.
Joan Sullivan is a St. John’s-based journalist and editor of The Newfoundland Quarterly. Her column returns July 27.