(The following is a guest review by Newfoundland author Tom Halford. Tom is the author of Deli Meat, a 2019 shortlisted novel for Best First Book)
One of the most captivating elements of Douglas Walbourne-Gough’s Crow Gulch is the powerful humanism running through the collection. The prose poem “Fuck this town” is a strong example of how Walbourne-Gough challenges readers to pause and consider people’s lives:
I swear, too, the next bastard that calls me jackatar’s gonna get a good shit-knockin’. I just gets so angry with it all. (33)
This poem reminds me of the late, great New Brunswick novelist Raymond Fraser and the conclusion to his underappreciated work The Bannonbridge Musicians. As with Fraser, there is a deep, sympathetic eye in Walbourne-Gough’s work for the people in his community going through a rough patch in their lives.
The attention paid to those who are struggling is tied to uncomfortable elements of Newfoundland’s complex history and culture. For example, “Definition” covers the various meanings for jackatar:
jackatar… A Newfoundlander of mixed French and Micmas [sic] indian [sic] descent. (20)
But Walbourne-Gough quickly moves from descriptive language used to define jackatar to another definition that reveals the painful histories behind this slur:
in the winter the Jack-o-tars chiefly subsist on eels; they are a lazy, indolent people, and I am told, addicted to thieving. (21).
The collection as a whole challenges readers to consider the way settler culture demeans and marginalizes indigenous culture. As Walbourne-Gough writes in his introduction to the work, the title refers to a part of the community that risks being forgotten:
Many of the families who settled here [Crow Gulch] were of Indigenous ancestry, and the common derogatory epithet for Indigenous people of mixed French and Mi’kmaq descent in southwestern Newfoundland was “jackatar.” (11)
As someone who perpetually feels like he has something to learn, I appreciated reading about this history from Walbourne-Gough’s perspective.
I am worried that the Regional Poetry Review Watch as headed by Superintendent Neilson* might accuse me of being woke, so I also want to stress that Crow Gulch is above all else an incredible collection of poems about loss and love and family; I am thinking of stunning lines such as “we live on the future’s brilliant, polished edge” (43) and of the brilliant conclusion to “Influences”:
I think on that feeling,
coming home after months away,
standing on the deck, approaching
Port aux Basques. Never so happy
to feel the bitter wind running you
through to the bone. (29)
To love the cold, to love the barrenness of the island might sound counter-intuitive, but these experiences are a sincere aspect of loving Newfoundland. Walbourne-Gough connects this description of the harsh weather to the speaker’s life growing up in Corner Brook. This bitter metaphor blows through Crow Gulch and the complex histories that Walbourne-Gough explores.
This is a beautiful, angry, compassionate book, and I fully recommend getting a copy.
(* I only write this in fun. I’m a big fan of Shane Neilson’s work.)
Crow Gulch by Douglas Walbourne-Gough
Goose Lane Editions
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