Michael Crummey’s fifth collection, Little Dogs, provides an astute mid-career sampling from a poet-storyteller skilled at embracing all aspects of the Labradorean experience through the eyes of adolescents, middle-agers and elders. The book proceeds chronologically with generous helpings from each of the author’s first four collections, ending with twenty-three new poems. Elegies, persona pieces, list poems, bird portraits, male insecurity lyrics, deathbed vigils and excursions into homebrew inebriation keep this 96-poem whopper steaming down the track.
Starting with Arguments with Gravity, published in 1996, Crummey offers us snapshots of his father’s coming of age. In “Morning Labrador Coast,” we find Arthur Crummey as a kid working “a full share on the crew” during the cod run. At dawn he’s outside unstiffening his hands in “the warm salve / of his urine.” This detail sets the tone for poems with titles like “Cod (1),” “Cod (2),” “Cigarettes (1)” and “Forge.” In the first of these pieces, the boats are almost overloaded on each haul, in the second, the fishery has collapsed and the poet’s father knows he will have to accept a mining job.
While the selections from Arguments with Gravity are good, the book’s next section, Hard Light (1998), shows a mature poet writing stronger poems whether he’s speaking to us as a nineteenth-century outport trader, an ornithologist banding birds in the Funk Islands, or a lighthouse keeper. His ventriloquism is complete and seamless. Alongside several old salt monologues are “Stealing Bait,” “Capelin Scull” and “The Women,” three prose poems which demonstrate how, by turns, a person can go mad, be willing to eat anything, or be abused by one’s shipmates on a cod boat. The excellent “Newfoundland Sealing Disaster” uses a run of precise one- and two-syllable words to set the scene of a fatal hunting expedition: “Sent to the ice after white coats,? ? rough outfit slung on coiled rope belts,? ? they stooped to the slaughter: gaffed pups,? ? slit them free of their spotless pelts.”
The next two sections, Salvage, (2001) and Under the Keel, (2013), present a series of portraits steeped in middle-age doubt. These poems question how long an isolated fox, house, abandoned car, or marriage can endure. “Fox on the Funk Islands,” a narrative in couplets, deftly conveys the climactic razor edge that predators and birds must tread on a subarctic island. As a bonus, it has the feeling of a well-rounded story without ever abandoning its lyrical DNA—a trick Crummey pulls off on several occasions. In fact, life-or-death situations that gain in quiet dread as they progress bring out the best in this poet. That’s certainly the case with “Stars on Water,” another seat-grabber written in the voice of a local fisherman enlisted to help rescue a lifeboat full of folks caught in “waves cresting (at) fifty feet.” But Crummey can also craft a stingingly funny meditation on “our little loves, our schemes and grudges,? ? the mountains we compulsively construct? ? of nothing much before we come (…)? ? to nothing” by presenting the spectacle of pint-sized dogs pissing on gravestones while their owners sweet-talk their pets in a cemetery across from an Irish hotel.
I did find a rare run of forgettable poems at the start of section three, beginning with “The New American Poets” and running through to “Ale and Bitter.” There were also moments when I thought Crummey reached too often into his poet’s toolbox for that universal wrench, the simile. But these lapses are negligible. Little Dogs is a high quality selected by a poet who faces down thorny subjects with rewarding results. Whether watching his mother keep vigil at his father’s deathbed, or chiding himself for looking through an old photo album of his wife’s first marriage and feeling like a cheap voyeur, this poet brings an exhilarating self-critical eye to poems worth a determined stroll through a gale to a bookstore.
Peter Richardson’s most recent book is Bit Parts for Fools. He lives in Gatineau, Quebec.
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