Donald McGrath's At First Light is an attractive first volume from a poet of considerable gifts. His poetry, in the main, is derived from an intense recollection of a Catholic childhood in eastern Newfoundland. At its best, his poetry achieves a remarkable particularity in its rendering of time, place, and circumstance. Although the comparison should be made with explicit caveats, the rich inflections of his voice and his concentrated gaze upon the familiar objects of rural life are reminiscent of the early work of Seamus Heaney.
McGrath can imbue plain description with considerable power of evocation, as when he writes of "The Fathers":
How little they knew, those Irish mama's boys
harvesting souls like potatoes,
their pale hands fluttering in the candlelight
of clapboard churches that creaked in the wind.
Their piety was a kind of village politeness,
winking, cheerful, everyday
The physicality of McGrath's language and his observation of outport manners allow the reader to glimpse beyond the surfaces, which he so faithfully renders, to the inner lives of the priests. The men he describes are hardly mystics; their imaginations appear circumscribed; and much of their work is to restrain the carnal urges of their flocks and to advocate the rhythm method of contraception. But the poet sees these priests with a hard-edged sympathy, as lonely men whose "kisses belonged / to the Book, the toes of Jesus, the tips of their stoles." Indeed, the rigidity of their attitudes seems not far removed from a kind of heroism, for, as McGrath records, they would risk their lives to administer the sacraments to the dying. What is interesting and effective about this poem, and McGrath's work in general, is his ability to follow the contours of a familiar reality past stereotypes to a new clarity of insight.
McGrath's poems explore the relation between culture and identity. "The Memory of Happiness in the Midst of Adversity" describes, implicitly, the confrontation between traditional and mass culture in 1960s outports, and within that confrontation portrays very domestic sorrows:
The Sacred Heart above the sink
bared its torso like Superman;
the outstretched palms
bore the stigmata of dishwater hands.
A plywood heart encrusted with sea-shells
and embalmed, like André's, in polyurethane
hid a hole punched in the gyprock
One image confronts another, suggesting the fragmentation of familial and cultural values, and the unconsoled suffering of an individual: "Such symmetry, Mother, was madness."
Much of the book conducts a quiet and impressive dialogue between the poet and his Catholic heritage. The poet's persona approaches the imagery of Irish Catholicism through memory, so there is a distance between the speaker and the forms of belief he examines. One of the most striking passages in the book recalls a child's attempt to understand providence in the aftermath of a friend's drowning:
I was a child, I believed
that not a single hair of my head
could be touched without God's consent.
And if He looked away, even for an instant,
I should exist no more.
When I leaned from the third and furthest bridge,
the poised wings of my guardian angel
explained the broad shade that lay upon the water.
This visionary passage suggests at once a child's desire for certainty, the hidden obstacles to assent, and a stillness before mystery that is nearly belief.
Much of McGrath's poetry explores memory, but his skills of observation are also applied to present experiences. He describes the psychological environment of an office building in "The Ministry of Education":
A strong emotion would, if met with here,
produce merely an odd impression
like, perhaps, the smell of burning
when the heat is upped on winter afternoons,
or like the palpable unease when the intercom
crackles awake, and the tap tap of the mike test
takes too long.
In these lines McGrath carefully evokes the emotional content of sensory impressions, precisely the approach he takes in poems about childhood, but in this case he produces a satire on the world of bureaucracy.
McGrath's talent is very focused. He has an unusual ability to produce single lines or passages of admirable power. But this perhaps is the source of one of my few difficulties with his work. It seems to me that most of the individual poems in the book are longer than they should be, and that some poems, such as "Neckties" and "Nervalesque", should have been dropped from the collection altogether. His method, when writing from memory, is to accumulate many detailed impressions, of which some, it is hoped, will have sufficient force to carry the whole poem. In a good number of cases, he is able to assemble enough powerful images so that any weakness in design or conception is more than compensated for. But sometimes not.
His poems usually have a narrative element, but the stories are sometimes disconnected, or worse, inconsequential, and everything depends on his ability to strike fire from particular phrases, images, or observations. In "The Mug-Up", the poet describes a boy carrying a thermos of tea to his father down the "Gut Path". Parts of the poem are very powerful, indeed visionary, as the boy describes himself carried in a bubble past boats and fishing equipment. But after two further pages, he is unable to explain the power of his experience, and McGrath merely shuts down the poem once the boy arrives at his father's office:
A side room contained a stove and some bunks.
Rumour had it that here
originated the ossifying drunks
Daddy, the Magistrate, and the Mayor.
This anti-climax is particularly disappointing as from its first lines the poem was centred in the heightened perceptions of the child, but it seems that the poet could not bring together the structure of the narrative and the lyrical force of the opening sections, and so retreated into anecdote. This passage is also a demonstration of the occasional difficulty McGrath has with making appropriate line divisions. It seems to me that the lyrical strength of his poetry is undermined somewhat by a weak sense of form, both in overall conception and in the construction of individual verses. It may be that a period of experimentation with traditional forms would give his work some of the solidity and consistency it now lacks.
Donald McGrath's poetry deserves very careful attention. He brings to Canadian poetry a lyricism and richness reminiscent of Heaney. If he can learn something of that poet's sense of form and economy, he will genuinely be a writer to be reckoned with.
Richard Greene, an assistant professor of English at Erindale College in the University of Toronto, is the author of Republic of Solitude: Poems 1984-1994 (Breakwater).