Love on Looted Lands

Douglas Walbourne-Gough’s 2019 poetry collection Crow Gulch has endorsements on its back cover from John Steffler and Cecily Nicholson, and one way to appreciate this powerful book is in terms of its resonances with documentary-ecopoetic classics like The Grey Islands and From the Poplars. Grounded in the mixed/adopted Mi’kmaw poet’s upbringing on the west coast of Newfoundland, the book was written while Walbourne-Gough was doing his MFA near the other West Coast, at UBC Okanagan—so Crow Gulch has a unique, hybrid West-Coast sensibility. Blending lyric, narrative, experimental, documentary, autobiographical, work, and eco- poetics, Crow Gulch is a book about a “slum” near Corner Brook, Newfoundland that persisted from the 1920s until its residents were relocated to the Dunfield Park social housing project in the 1970s. Walbourne-Gough, a descendant of former Crow Gulch residents, grew up in Dunfield Park. He uses poetry to fight the erasure of a harsh, mercurial, yet beloved place—and of a community for whom the future has both a “blank stare” and a “brilliant, polished edge.” These poems convey the sensibilities of racialized, marginalized, working-class people whose rough lives are peppered with small pleasures like a warm featherbed and trout fishing with family, and with striking expressions of loyalty and affection. Following his ancestors, for whom a name could be “so wrought with work, so heavy, now, with love,” the poet treats Crow Gulch as a place and a name that persist, “preceding and dragging / behind him like a loose bootlace.”

Toronto poet Maureen Hynes’ collection Sotto Voce, also published in 2019, is named after a quiet-yet-urgent mode of speech in opera and theatre. In contrast to the focus of Crow Gulch, this dense volume of recent work is a book about everything and anything—a book that pays attention to the beautiful, the political, and the intolerable in everyday life. Hynes’ poems are mostly lyrics rich in metaphor, allusion, rhythm, and subtle rhyme. Born out of the idea that “Art lives beside fear,” and the speaker’s sense that she must “speak now,” the poems address a familiar dystopian present when “mercy is failing // the GPS is failing”—when modernity, religion, and the settler-colonial nation are coming up empty and, worse, with “looted lands,” unwelcomed migrants, climate change, toxicity and cancer, wildfires, and polluted and buried creeks and rivers. Yet, Hynes calls these poems not only “Song[s] of Disquiet” but also “breathing lessons.” Like the pair of birdwatching women asked “Are you ladies lost?” because they seem to be staring blankly at a leafless tree—or like the double meaning produced through the line break where the speaker says she has “fallen / in love”—Sotto Voce matches failing with love. “[D]espite the dynamite / stick of injustice,” Hynes posits love as “the bridge / to compassion intact”; it is in lesbian love, familial love, love of nature, solidarity, and care and kindness that she finds hope in disquieting times.


This review “Love on Looted Lands” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 31 Aug. 2020. Web.

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