“Accept this rock, its odd love”
Crow Gulch, Douglas Walbourne-Gough. Goose Lane Editions, 2019.
Are you the kind of person who collects interesting rocks while walking? I am, but whether you are or are not, imagine slipping your hand into your pocket and finding a small stone, warm to the touch, mostly smooth but with just enough rough, satisfying edges to run your thumb along. That is the texture of Douglas Walbourne-Gough’s debut poetry book, Crow Gulch. It is a book of “hard beauty,” to borrow a phrase from the author, shortlisted for both the 2020 Raymond Souster Award and the inaugural Derek Walcott Prize for Poetry. It is a stone worth keeping and returning to.
Although these poems confront the painful realities of racism, poverty, violence, and marginalization, and although I shared in the author’s grief in the face of these, I could not ignore how strangely soothed I felt in my reading. For me, solace was found in Walbourne-Gough’s confident, adept, and deeply caring voice. In this voice I felt held, along with the community and family and land that the poet writes of (and to) with such empathy and love; in this voice I found tenderness, which, in the turbulent times that we are all currently living, felt all the more poignant — needed.
This is a book of poetic history. Crow Gulch, we learn in the introduction, was an impoverished, marginalized community “less than two kilometers west from downtown Corner Brook” that was built on “an old slate quarry, less than hospitable,” to house migrant workers who came to build Corner Brook’s pulp-and-paper mill. We’re told that “the community lacked such amenities as running water” and that “many of the families who settled here were of Indigenous ancestry.” “Jackatar,” the author writes, was “the common derogatory epithet for Indigenous people of mixed French and Mi’kmaq descent” — a word that appears throughout the book and even has a poem devoted to defining it with text borrowed from the Dictionary of Newfoundland English. Walbourne-Gough shares in his bio that he is mixed/adopted Mi’kmaw and that his father’s family lived in Crow Gulch. Thus this book is personal history, a poetic collage of family stories, character and land sketches, found text from newspapers and books, oral history. . . .
Oral storytelling is deeply upheld and respected in these poems. Reminiscent of John Steffler’s The Grey Islands (from which Crow Gulch borrows its epigraph: “A way to corner myself is what I want. Some blunt / place I can’t go / beyond. Where excuses stop.”), Walbourne-Gough captures the unique dialect of this Newfoundland community, especially in his series of interview poems. Here is the second in the series:
Oral History: Q and A (II)
Q: So, do you recall much about Crow Gulch?
Like, any stories or experiences? Did you know
anyone from there?
A: I knew a scattered one down there
but only to see ’em. I mean, what ya hears
and what ya knows can be a funny thing, right?
Let’s just put it this way — nothin’ I really wants on tape.
Q: So you don’t want to talk about it on record?
A: No, I can’t say I do. Not with that thing on.
You turn it off, and I’ll tell ya a few things, though.
It’s interesting that the poet highlights how oral storytelling invites secrecy and intimacy, offers another way of knowing.
One of the most impressive aspects of Walbourne-Gough’s writing is how well he renders physicality — the physicality of land and body — into poetry. He is a poet highly attuned to the sonic, who chooses language that is “gravelled laughter” (from “I Dream of Moose”), charged with palpability and texture:
Here, hands were rough-hewn, akin
to volcanic coast. Digits of crag crammed
close, clamped on spades and hatchets,
mended nets. Clung to what little food this
shallow soil allowed. Nails worn blunt and
broken, bulged knuckles gnarled from
the brutal fusion of Earth’s work.
(from “Cedar Cove, Revisited”)
In these poems words are bodily, pulsing with blood, buzzing with electricity:
electric glitch-and-dirge turns liquid
. . .
blood and bone and hoof and heart woven into loops
Arcing and filling a small black room like night sky
Looping and building and and . . .
(from “In Response”)
These moments of visceral immersion were much relished. To quote the late Mary Oliver: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.” Many of the poems invite you to do exactly this.
The poet is clearly interested in the wilderness of human and more-than-human life and he often elegantly blurs the two:
Over generations you grow a bit lower, closer
to Earth like cloudberries, like Labrador tea,
like crowberries and lichen. Become stocky
like black bears, cling to rock as stubbornly
as it tries starving you out…
(from “Breaking Ground)
Scrambling scree nigh on fifty degrees
steep, the body switches gears, welcomes
the physics of geology. The mind rewrites
its usual mantras, lungs become fetish
objects as body hair starts following
the sun. . . .
These poems nod to the book’s epilogue, a slightly altered quote from Canadian poet (and editor of Crow Gulch) Robin Richardson: “There is a wilderness that knows me better than I know myself.”
Mixed with the rough and rugged language, landscape, and culture that pervades the poems, is an unfaltering love, light, and tenderness that is most evident in the way the poet writes of his family. Reading the following stanza about his mother was like applying a salve to some weather-beaten part of me:
She’s still mercury to me.
Steeled against life’s battery
of bills, death, family politics,
but her laughter is liquid light,
filling rooms to burst. Her mind
is magma, is scalpel sharp,
is Scrabble smart, is an eternal
(from “Geraldine Winifred Walbourne”)
Wow. Yes. I love the way the mother is hard, sharp, and “liquid light” all at once. Crow Gulch holds these tensions together masterfully all the way throughout.
So, please, do yourself a favour and read this book — suddenly you’ll find yourself near a fire next to a new friend, a storyteller, and both of you will settle in, perhaps take a sip of something dark and spirituous, and you’ll feel relieved that for the next little while all you’ll have to do is sit, listen, and be rapt. That is the kind of consolation Walbourne-Gough provides in Crow Gulch. Trust this book: “take salt-blood as lover, as old god of giveth-and- / taketh-away. Bend like tuckamore, lean against / the wind, love it like a mother, let it shape you (from “Breaking Ground”).
— Emily Skov-Nielsen
is the author of The Knowing Animals (Brick Books, 2020).