Five CanPo Titles: James Langer’s Gun Dogs

Gun Dogs by James Langer
Year: 2009
Publisher: Anansi
Province: Ontario

                                                                         What’s that
about setting things free and if they return
they’re yours to keep? That’s an odd thing to say
considering it’s me doubling back
on a road that rides like a kick in the pants.
from “Home Suite”

Gun Dogs (Anansi, 2009)

Coming from a sparsely populated rural area (my own home town having no more than 500 souls), it’s a strange sensation to read a poem that seems intimate, familiar in a way that doesn’t come from time and experience, but from something before the fact of one’s creation, something a priori; as though there is a knowledge that runs through people of a place like a rhythm that beat before the recording of it. “Home Suite” achieved this feeling in me upon my reading. The poem concerns itself with returning to a place of rearing, where the speaker had once lived as a child, and how experiencing its peculiarities once more brings about how it has changed, the things that do not remain constant outside of memory. For me this poem strikes home in a more personal way:

Here. This bluff, we call the Gannets. Not much
to look at, I know, but the last clear view
before we hit the sticks and the proverbial shit
hits, well, you understand.

It’s strange to read a poem about an out-of-the-way place that is mere minutes from where I was raised. I’ve walked the Gannets many times, whether taking in the whip of sea salt or filling buckets when the capelin role. Reading this poem made me feel as though someone else was sharing in something that has become, oddly, a part of my own being. I know people who have done the same things on the same beach, but to see it put in poetry by someone else for a wider world to take in…that’s something else altogether.

This experience I imagine to be rather rare for the majority of the reading public, not because I have any truly special claim to the site—it is nice to muse that this could be the case—but because I imagine the rarity of the expression of it. I would not be surprised if this was the first time this one particular place, this one hollow in Trinity Bay has been mentioned in a published work. Furthermore, I doubt it has appeared published in verse before the printing of Langer’s book. Places of the larger social conscience (Central Park or the Annapolis Valley for example) have a public identity in writing; tales have been spoken of happenings in these places. We all know where Central Park is and have a rough idea of what to expect of it, but can we say the same about the Gannets? The reader unfamiliar with the place no doubt can still identify with the poet’s work, but in a general way. There’s no assessing of the particulars of road sign, of rock or patch of grass. There is almost a sense of pride that arises from reading about such a place, familiar and at once new through the eyes of another.

Gun Dogs is remarkable as a first book, both for the quality of writing and the scope it attempts to achieve. There is something of Anglo-Saxon poetics that creep through this volume (not just in Langer’s translation of “The Seafarer”; the alliterative and strong stress working of the line: “And I’ve unleashed the dogs, out of season, / on days so hot all solids seemed to rise / from a quantum and kindled crux of yeast.” The book’s title poem begins with these arresting lines that instantly take the reader from a common activity into a deeper assessment of just what it is to watch gun dogs in pursuit of a scent and the personal implications of such an experience. In a wider sense, these poems span time as they grasp the Mesozoic, Medieval (Dantean), and present, pull them into the poet’s pocket only to be released in a feather-flush to the reader.

As a more recent work in this list of books I enjoyed immensely from the last decade, I was surprised to read parts of it again and have it strike me as strongly as some of the other poetry titles that have stayed with me the last four or five years. Though Langer’s sophomore collection (I assume there will be more from him) will likely prove his staying power, I must admit to being an instant fan of his writing. There is a freshness here that begs to be seen and tasted.

I’ll end by mentioning that my first exposure to Langer’s poetry was in a practical criticism class at Memorial University. We read “Thug and Gull” and I was mesmerized by the work of that piece, the juxtaposition of the primitive, the natural, the evolution of form and behaviour. I did not realize at the time that it would be five years before the poet’s first collection would be released. It’s been a long wait and one that, in my opinion, has been well worth it.

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