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:

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.


Stephanie McKenzie’s “The Disciples of Winter”


Winter has come and gone for another year, but there are always remembrances, little leftovers both tangible and beyond our reach that remain to let us know there’s more to come down the road.  A couple months back I read just such a remebrance; Grace Must Wander, Stephanie McKenzie’s second collection of poems published by Ireland’s Salmon Poetry in 2009, and was delighted to find “The Disciples of Winter” at the very end of the book:

Grace must wander even with the lonely sight of crows,
the purple and the purple black, each one spotted
like a snowflake, fingerprint. Birds sing of other worlds
that are not grown here but happen somewhere out there
in the land of blow away the dead and make a wish
we give to children. They have learned to stretch their necks
out, offer up their throats on blue platters of the sky, do not seek
pity, feel shame. Their feathers fallen give us leave to ponder.
Consider the city. It mimics the crow, black throat
caught at the chords sings out a promise of day.
Evening, and morning, and at noon, transparent
and bound to truth, the knowing of winter is clean,
like a scar storied and sure of where it’s been.

There’s a sense of longing to be elsewhere, to explore those “other worlds / that are not grown here”; to wait out winter for the eventual revelation of spring. The crows are more than birds; they are messengers, prophets preaching a future full of grace that is open to those who keep the faith, patiently watch the world, the city, the days passing hours at a time. The risk in this kind of faith, whether it be in the Christian god, nature or the general passage of time is something very personal and not to be taken lightly. That said, it must be taken, just as the crows “offer up their throats on blue platters of the sky”; they know what they’re doing. There’s a belief in them synonomous with who they are and reaching that realization is the greater part of the journey.

Reading Tomorrow


Just a quick note to say I’m reading in Whiteway, Trinity Bay tomorrow. There is an afternoon-long arts event happening, with visual and literary artists taking part. Books will be available, should the desire to have one strike anyone attending the festivities. More to come in the next couple of days.

Whiteway March Hare
Memorial Centre, Whiteway, Trinity Bay
Saturday 27 March, 12:00 pm

Five CanPo Titles: Alison Pick’s Question & Answer


Question & Answer by Alison Pick
Year: 2003
Publisher: Polestar/Raincoast Books
Province: British Columbia


by the window, the rain is the story
that belongs to you more than any

-from “Is it raining where you are? Are you watching? Is the rain the story now?”


Question & Answer (Polestar, 2003)

This is one of those first books by a poet that other want-to-be poets take notice of. When this book came out I wasn’t quite at that stage in my own writing yet, but I certainly wanted to see what a first book might look like in case I would later have similar aspirations of my own. Looking at the author bio in the back I was surprised to see that Pick was living in St. John’s. I wasn’t used to seeing new, young poets from this province on bookshelves. What I found as I read through the book was something different from anything I had been reading at the time (Philip Gardener, Al Pittman, E. J. Pratt, Tom Dawe, etc). As someone from Newfoundland with an interest in poetry it seemed right for me to read other Newfoundland poets, but often I found that much (not all) of this poetry available to me was of an older style and time. There was a disconnect between me, the young man reading and attempting to write in the new millenium, and others who had written 10, 20, 30 years in the past. There was so much concern with issues of emigration, the fishery, and what “traditional” Newfoundland was that in the end I became uninterested to a point. The volume of Newfoundland poetry books being produced at the time was also rather dismal (though props have to go out to Breakwater Books for their Newfoundland Poetry Series). I needed something that spoke to a wider experience, something that I could “get” at that stage in my life.

Pick is from Kitchener, Ontario and would have experienced a very different life and culture than I would have growing up in a small town on the south side of Trinity Bay. But man, could she write! Question & Answer is filled with explorations of personal history, cultures, struggles to find a place within a world that experiences flux. And done so with such ability of image and craft. When Pick says the following of her own family ties to Europe, she is touching something universal, but the honesty of her own experience is crushing, powerful:

What They Left Me

A passion for remembrance.

Two names on a monument at the synagogue in Prague.

The date they were deported to the death camp.

Their twenty-year-old daughter who got out.

Her son: my father.

My own small life.

The first light snow of winter, their ashes at my back.

Throughout the book, there is a constant awareness of the natural world and how this knowledge affects us as human beings. The water I grew up next to, the North Atlantic Ocean, became the creeks, rivers, and lakes from across the country that Pick had seen and written about in her own journeys. This more than any other single book I had read to that date imprinted upon my mind the significance of varied experience in a country vast and, at times, harsh as this one. It did not matter that Pick was from Central Canada, or that she was living in St. John’s. It mattered that her poems applied to each of these places and, I would venture to say, many more besides. Her residence in Newfoundland helped to show me that someone living in this place can produce quality work that goes beyond the natural and artificial boundaries of provincial jurisdictions and that these works need to be written and to be read.

There was something immediate and urgent written in the pages of this book which I had to understand and with which I had to come to grips. Something important crafted with skill and competence (as a side note, this book also contains my first reading of a pantoum). This volume, more than any collection I had read in my fledgling state as a writer, altered my opinion of poetry and its purpose, very much for the better.

Remembrance Day


So it’s Remembrance Day again and most people are giving a couple minutes of their day to honour the deeds of brave men and women. I’ve been listening to some appropriate music myself: “The July Drive”, a Newfoundland song about a young man from Kilbride who died in the Battle of the Somme; “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”, a heart-piercing Eric Bogle piece about the horrors of war and the sacrifices made by many. I’ve plans to page through a couple books on war poetry as well, especially First World War Poems, edited by Andrew Motion. Theme day for me.

In other news, here’s the little news. Just a couple items for you.