It is refreshing in our postmodern, multimedia'd time to read a book of poetry about the struggle of physical labour and the pain of day-to-day survival, in the face of the elements, abandonment, political machinations, and historical misfortunes.
Wild on the Crest, a collection of poetry of the sea, Newfoundland, and Labrador, constantly reminds a reader sifting through its pages that a great physical reality helped to give a region and a country part of its character. The poems here are not minimalist trinkets or deconstructions or self-imploding attempts at metaphor. They are a series of songs and portraits in simple narrative form about people living and at work. In the tradition of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and Pietro Di Donator's Christ in Concrete (a tale of the working-class American-Italian immigrant in 1936 New Jersey), Wild on the Crest, with a specific voice, looks for the hands, the eyes, and the soul that wove nets, built ships, and set them both to sail and sea. Labour requires the human mind and body to meet with and surmount or sustain it; this is not so much an old theme as a recurring one. Witness the dwindling cod fishery, the shut-down of steel factories, the threatened degeneration of the North American union cortex via the exploitation of Mexican and Latin American labour under the guise of a free trade agreement-all realities cast within the last decade.
In the collection's first section, "What the Hands Know", Carl Leggo's poem "I'm Alone" is about the craft of small-boat-building. The main character, Uncle Jim, goes about his work in a matter-of-fact working-man fashion:
you can start from scratch and dream the plans
in the air and on paper or you can begin
with an old boat and replace it each plank and rib
piece by piece, until the old boat is firewood
and the new boat is the old boat's image.
As the narrative progresses, one of Uncle Jim's friends, who comes round to see his work, is stricken with cancer. This naturally distracts Jim from going on with his work. But as the friend dies, Uncle Jim's return to his craft suggests resolution to the death: "Uncle Jim began building the I'm Alone again,/wishing a person could be replaced,/plank by plank, rib by rib, as easily as a boat." This Robert-Frost-like narrative interesting is not only in the metaphoric reinforcement of life's natural cycle, but also because of Jim's doubt. His wish is a vulnerable wish. It is not a given. It has to be worked for. Something is lost, and the work that is to follow the loss of a loved one blooms of its own accord, informed by the memory, but naked and beginning again, needing to survive, not assuming anything.
The ensuing sections, with titles like In Praise of Her and Not As If This Act Were Holy through to Last Voyages, continue in the narrative vein and bring to focus the substantial role of women in the Atlantic fishing culture. But just when the collection has been advancing, it wavers here, with repetitiveness and with longings for things as they used to be. Some poems verge on sentimentality; for example, "Michael My Son" oversimplifies the complex emotions involved when the narrator has to see a son either grow into the fishing life or maintain his schooling. The son's feelings are not given much serious play, and phrases like "The clock alarms", and "His sleepy-ended hair that the sea frees so well," distract the reader from the story line and the drama's true possibilities.
These tendencies to melodrama and slightness of metaphor occur in the middle sections of the book, where the editors might have reduced the unevenness in the quality of work. Clearly, the quantity of the work does not deliver the poetry you feel it could. And certainly, the less engaging pieces take something away from the stronger poems, by challenging the reader to sustain concentration through weaker poetic techniques. Still, in spite of this imbalance, one finds a return to higher form in the last third of the book.
"When they were forced to leave off fishing/they left everything they knew/strode tall and awkwardly young/into the mining town." With "Miners" by Michael Crummey, Wild on the Crest offers us its best poetry. From this powerful, amphibious beginning, an intriguing fusion of folk/oral poetry synthesizes with classicist tonality. Borrowing from the simple imagery of water and earth elements, the poem breathes life into the transformation experience of being a fisherman and becoming a miner. "The fishing they remembered as something/like perfect freedom-/A man can bargain with the sea, they'd say." And the poem concludes, "The earth collects on all its debts.../sooner or later, the earth collects."
Other memorable pieces in the last sections are "Looking Back", by Enos Watts, and "The Surfacing of What is Lost", by Michael Winter. Here you feel the poets have lingered over their images long enough to create a bond between meaning and rhythm. The collection also gives us some wonderful rhymed verse (again a rarity in contemporary compilations) with "Wadhams Song", "Forty-Thousand Strong", and ending the collection, "Let Me Fish Off Cape St. Mary's":
Take me back to my western boat,
Let me fish off Cape St. Mary's.
Where the hagdowns sail and the foghorns wail,
with my friends, the Browns and the Clearys.
One hopes, as the images and music in Wild on the Crest are reflected on, that a copy has found its way to the desk of Newfoundland's premier, Brian Tobin. And let us not forget that fishermen come in all shapes and sizes, Spanish, Irish, and Canadian, and that metaphorically a Cleary is a Hernandez. And that it is not simply nationalist fervour but intelligent, shared vision, incorporating the progressive exchange of people's day-to-day experience that help make countries greater.
Joseph Maviglia is a poet and singer-songwriter. His most recent works are Memory to Steel, a CD of original compositions released by Steelrail Records and a collection of poetry, A God Hangs Upside Down, published by Guernica Editions.