- Stephanie McKenzie (Editor) and John Ennis (Editor)
The Backyards of Heaven. WIT School of Humanities P and Scop Productions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Lawrence Mathews
This book radiates the distinctive pong of the academic make-work project. Does the world really need an anthology that mixes contemporary Newfoundland and Irish poetry? The editors’ one-page Introduction is short on rationale, long on blarney: “Indeed, the poetry of Ireland and Newfoundland and Labrador is united by matters rich in things of the heart and spirit.” Indeed.
Publication is underwritten in part by “the Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador),” and an effusive back-cover blurb appears, coincidentally enough, over the name of the then-minister of that very department.
Of course the circumstances of the book’s production shouldn’t be held against the poets and their poems. And there’s plenty of both–229 poems by 167 poets, 109 of whom are Irish, the other 67 from Newfoundland and Labrador. (That ubiquitous and tedious phrase “and Labrador” is a sop to local political correctness; the actual Labrador content is minimal, and nearly all of it awful.) Sixty-seven may seem a lot, but there’s one astonishing omission from the Newfoundland side: Sue Sinclair, the best younger poet to have emerged in the last several years.
Those quibbles aside, I come away with three dominant impressions. First, the poems are of generally high quality. Second, the Irish and Newfoundland poets, by and large, write the same kinds of poem, which, apart from idiom (and with certain exceptions), seem to have a borderless North American flavour to them. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, since many of the Irish poets are employed by American universities, and in any case the short anecdotal free-verse lyric using casual diction with the occasional dash of relatively erudite vocabulary for seasoning is pretty much the default option for anyone writing poetry in English these days.
Third, while most of the Newfoundland poets perform on the same level as their Irish counterparts, the contributions of some of the younger Newfoundlanders significantly weaken the anthology. In five or ten years’ time some may look back at what they’ve published here and cringe. The editors have done them no favour by including their work, however much of a thrill it may now be for them to appear in the same book as Seamus Heaney.
But what is probably of most interest to the readers of this journal is that The Backyards of Heaven provides strong evidence that there are many Newfoundland poets whose work deserves national recognition. True, some are already well-known, such as Ken Babstock, Mary Dalton, John Steffler, and Michael Crummey, though in the case of latter two mostly because of their fiction. But others, just as worthy, have only local reputations.
Relatively few mainland readers will be aware of most of the following ten: Tom Dawe, Philip Gardner, Richard Greene, Susan Ingersoll, Alastair Macdonald, Camelita McGrath, Randall Maggs, Agnes Walsh, Patrick Warner, Enos Watts. Half are native Newfoundlanders, half are from “away” but with long-term connections to the place. What they have in common is the authorship of one or more strong books published in Newfoundland. Each is represented here by one to five poems, not nearly enough. One thinks, wistfully, that a better use of the Newfoundland public funds used to co-produce the present volume would have been to publish an anthology devoting about 20 pages to each.
But of course then I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of encountering, however briefly, many fine and hitherto unknown (to me) Irish poets, who are equally deserving of more space than they get here.
No single quotation can accurately represent the work of 67 poets, but the closing lines of “Great Harbour Deep” by Carol Hobbs, describing the permanent evacuation of a community made desolate by the failure of the fishery, effectively evoke something central to the psyche of contemporary Newfoundland:
The ferry doubles its run across the expanse of bay.
Fishermen, ungentle and resigned,
families with fidgeting children, the adamant
formulas of sentimental legends, all shuffle aboard,
become nothing they ever considered
(as if any settlement were permanent).
In far off places, the talk is rife
with accounts of what was left there – nothing,
- Poetics for Politics? by Tracy Wyman-Marchand
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- Who Were Those Masked Men? by Dermot McCarthy
Books reviewed: Milton Acorn: In Love and Anger by Richard Lemm and Irving Layton: God's Recording Angel by Francis Mansbridge
- Exercising Maleness by Brent MacLaine
Books reviewed: Change Room by Mark Cochrane, Autodidactic by Don Kerr, and His Life by George Bowering
- Dépasser le passé by Estelle Dansereau
Books reviewed: La voix que j'ai by Gilbert Langevin and Céleste tristesse by Yolande Villemaire
- Ombres miniatures by Thierry Bissonnette
Books reviewed: Averses et réglisses noires by Carole David, La marathonienne by Denise Desautels, Une écharde sous ton onglee by Louise Dupré, and Des ombres en formes d'oiseaux by Isabelle Gaudet-Labine
MLA: Mathews, Lawrence. Transatlantic Backyard. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #184 (Spring 2005), (Grace, Dolbec, Kirk, Dawson, Appleford). (pg. 158 - 159)
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