Gift Horse by Mark Callanan

Gift Horse, Signal Editions (2011)

Poetry in Newfoundland has been “growing up” in recent years, in that there is less tendency by some poets to write about themes and subjects that are traditionally “Newfoundland” in nature (the fishery and the loss thereof, small town life, etc). There’s a gradual movement away from what Newfoundland culture was towards what it is and will be. In his latest book, Gift Horse (Signal Editions), St. John’s poet Mark Callanan has created poems that occupy a space somewhere between a mythic past and present that embraces that past.

The first part of the collection is influenced greatly by Callanan’s recent near death experience and, as such, contains many references to life and death, the fragility of existence, and uncertainty that accompanies consideration of the future. “The Meaning of Life” stands out as a poem that acknowledges the strange place between reality and the mind that sees the poet struggling to consider what is really important in life. Flying a kite with a child forces the speaker to assess his understanding of an afterlife and some kind of celestial existence when he feels the string’s tug upwards, but ultimately is brought down to earth upon feeling the tug of the child:

I’m the kind of man whose mind
is often flocked with herring gulls
that dive for chicken skins in parking lots.
And yet, at times, I almost grasp
what’s lost down on this lower plane:
the pull of unseen hands, a gentle tug.
Tangled string; me staring up.

This section of the book is written from grave experience and the sincerity comes through in the work, showing that Callanan is fully capable of tackling topics less traditional in nature. But he is not entirely focused on this stream of thought and in section three turns back to Newfoundland’s primary point of history, namely the sea. There are poems of mermaids, lobsters, ships, and codfish; standard island fare, which is mixed in its success. “Sea Legend”, a poem about a group of sailors experiencing a mermaid caught in their nets, and “Moratorium”, primarily concerned with cultural connotation and personal history as elements of poetry, are fine pieces. The latter’s final lines burst with energy and the power of a well placed image:

                                                      What
I wouldn’t give to taste his oracular gills
and know something beyond these shallows,
know why, when I put a codfish in a poem,
it writhes and bucks its body like a fish
out of water, like a fish about to be fried.

At times it feels as though the addition of certain weaker poems take away from the collection as a whole. One such example is “Lobsters”, which concerns itself with a visit to the supermarket where the speaker and his child stop to watch lobsters in a tank. As a poem, it juxtaposes an adult consideration of the scene with that of a child (“My daughter, leaning in, / makes a fish face / at the lot of them.”), but is removed from the mood of the rest of this section in its use of the mundane and everyday, which clashes with the mythic and cultural elements found in the mermaid poems, for example. While this change does look to the future as it relates to the province’s identity, the poem isn’t strong enough to hold up in the context provided.

The book closes with a section that serves as a survey of human/wolf interaction through the centuries. Here, as in the sea inspired poems, there are both strong and weak links in the poetic chain. The section opens with a poem called “Short Treatise on the Use of Sexual Imagery in Medieval Hunting Texts”, and it truly is short (just four lines); unfortunately what the title suggests is far from developed in the poem and merely glossed over. The sparse imagery does little to live up to the promise of the title, almost as if the point of the poem is that it is a short poem. That said, the book finishes strongly as it improves poem by poem towards the end. With the exception of “The Great Wolf Hunt”, the poems that build to the final scene do well to engage the reader, both in content and character. Each poem expresses a different view of the wolf: at first as hunter of man and methodical in his “work” as a predator in nature, but the tables eventually turn as man hunts the wolf even to the brink of extinction, as in the case of the Newfoundland Wolf in “Last Seen”:

It was the youngest, the boy, not even
tall as his father, who squeezed

and dropped the pin that drove the bullet
that cleaved the air and broke
the skull at a point just above the muzzle,
tore apart the brain and split
the thoughts into a million fragments…

Here one can see the poet’s understanding of the line, the use of rhythm and pacing is mature and powerful in it’s effect. The imagery here is crisp and alive, violent, but not to excess. The speaker is taking his time, considering what the act of killing this wolf means, the loss that accompanies the deed. It is in poems such as this, when in a careful meditative mood, that Callanan shines brightest.

Callanan has taken great strides from his first collection, Scare Crow, improving his craft and place in the literary heritage of this province. The poems in Gift Horse are varied in their subject matter and attempt to balance, to a degree, the transition of Newfoundland from the old ways to the new. There is little attempt here to glorify the past, but to use it as a stepping stone to a personal engagement with local culture and the wider world.

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One response to “Gift Horse by Mark Callanan

  1. Pingback: Stephen Rowe on Gift Horse |

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