Poetry Reviews by Susan Walker

Robin Durnford, A Lovely Gutting (Montreal: McGill-Queen's, 2012). Paperbound, 88 pp., $16.95.

Monica Kidd, Handfuls of Bone (Kentville: Gaspereau, 2012). Paperbound, 79 pp., $19.95.

There has to be a poet, novelist, singer/songwriter, playwright, actor, fiddler, or storyteller for every postal code in Newfoundland and Labrador. Good ones too. According to prevailing theory, the long bitter winters and the isolation of the outports force creativity. You have to make your own entertainment. Robin Durnford and Monica Kidd, residents respectively of Stephenville and St. John’s, are no exceptions to the literary bounty of their homeland. In both cases, the language seems to arise from the bedrock, the imagery found in the landscape and harsh physical realities (and not infrequent joys) of life on the far-eastern coast of Canada.

Durnford dedicates A Lovely Gutting (a lovely oxymoron) to Sam Durnford, her A Lovely Guttingfather, “for the Newfoundland we shared together.” The sixty-four titles make a kind of poem cycle, turning on memory and mourning for a man who left too soon. At the outset, the poetry incorporates the Christian imagery that is deeply bred in the culture of the place. In “Apocrypha,” “lust-less Eve steals / leaves from Bible’s onion, / useless records, tattered flags.” Newfoundlanders, in this view, confront the treachery of life on a daily basis, whether it’s “a day of gales,” the sudden disappearance of the cod, or ship-wrecking hidden rocks.

An economy of language and rhythms that are blunt and consistent, as if her words were beaten out on a drum, establish Durnford’s credentials as a nature poet of considerable scope. No need to resort to a dictionary or atlas to find “tuckamore,” after reading the poem of the same name. In slanting, indented lines that appear to be waves or shrubbery bent under the force of the onshore blasts, the poet describes wind as “a sculpting boor deforming / nature’s briny whim, whinge-clumped fir.”

Some verses describe memories of family scenes, adolescence, or, in “Jelly Fish,” an early erotic encounter, also bound to the land: “behind an eyelash moon I only kissed the salt / off some boy’s lips, erotic to taste— / another human in this snag of nature.” Other works express deep sadness, as in “Parker’s Cove,” “where rigid coral claws / haul time on the breakers.”

A Lovely Gutting is a first collection for this poet, whose work has previously appeared in literary journals. With a more substantial body of writing behind her, Durnford’s sometimes over-reliance on constructions and devices that work for her, such as alliteration and synecdoche can lead to ennui, and occasionally a sense that the author is simply making lists.

Monica Kidd’s Handfuls of Bone is a reflection of a biography that encompasses Handfuls of Boneradio reporter, novelist, nonfiction author, experimental filmmaker, biologist, and (currently) physician. Kidd’s poetry is wideranging in style, tone, voice, and subject matter. What ties her work together is, once again, place. Still, expect the unexpected. “Most of these poems,” writes Kidd in her acknowledgements, “were written for, or in response to particular people and their work.” Thus, she provides a good handle for this volume. Five poems are inspired by Amelia Earhart, who spent two weeks in Trepassey, Newfoundland in 1928, waiting for the weather to clear so that she could embark on her historic solo flight across the Atlantic. The first, “Feminine to her fingertips,” offers an instance of Kidd’s subtle irony. Under a quote from the New York Times, describing Earhart’s appearance in Trepassey, the poem proceeds at a clip, in short lines that imitate the sound of Morse code. This might be a reporter’s dispatch; it presents the scene with an economy of vivid words, a pause, and then, “This way, Miss,” capturing the tenor of the moment. The tone shifts radically with “A Large Stake,” a poem that foreshadows Earhart’s disappearance over the Pacific. Kidd gets downright Shakespearean with “Violet. Cheerio–A.E.,” a high-toned poem that can accommodate the startling contrast of the words, “our pantyhose, our curling iron, our faith” (among the things left behind).

M.F. K. Fisher, the food writer, prompted one of the most satisfying pieces in the collection, “Our daily bread: a poem in five courses.” Here Kidd’s mastery of formal elements is most apparent. Five parts, each composed in a different metre, describe different scenes, moving across the poetry palate. In the fifth, “Our various hungers,” she has moved from the benign to the malevolent, possibly a vegetarian’s lament: “Tell me I am wrong, / that hunger grows / in spite of tiny deaths.”

The strongest impression the poet leaves is of her humanity, a physician’s precise understanding of the physical and a philosopher’s insight into the soul. “Handful of Bone,” with its epigraph from Ludmilla Jordanova’s History in Practice, is a simple observation, from a doctor’s point of view, of a moment in treatment, “… my fingers unable to let go / the dog bit on her thigh.” It is as poignant an image as any William Carlos Williams—alluded to in another poem—could describe.

The voices—direct, earthy, bleakly humorous—of her adopted province (Kidd was born in Alberta) come through loud and clear, the music tripping off the spoken word. “Slow Motion” manages to be both literary and colloquial: “John, I know you know how this song builds / the leaving, the never leaving. I gotta tell you / I have a bad case of the saggies….” “March thunder” and “March thunder reprise” plumb the emotional depths of Kidd’s connection to Newfoundland. These verses capture the sorrow of a community after the Cougar helicopter crash that killed seventeen people on their way to an oil rig on March 12, 2009: “…The bare facts / of things demanding one step, one step, / one step. Not this time.”

Gaspereau Press has designed a crisp and concise presentation of Handfuls of Bone, illustrated with seventeenth-century engravings of a human skeleton. These are poems that reward re-reading, poems you won’t soon forget.

—Susan Walker

As in The Malahat Review, 180, Autumn 2012, 133-137