Robin Durnford’s debut collection guts the praise-song quality of nature poetry’s more traditional iterations in favour of a voice that is unafraid of tackling torment, loss, and the ebb and flow of nature’s sublimity. The poet presents the earth as simultaneously beautiful and damned: uncanny Newfoundland landscapes, ghosts, and rotting wrecks appear among attempts to salvage beauty from debris. “[F]rom this sea I am fished, / gutted and stripped, / bled and bound, / on your ship I sail, / or go down”, Durnford writes in the title poem. We follow the poet to “the worn beaches of the peninsula / stuffed with fossilized crabs / rotting wrecks”, where “black crows and cats, hungry dogs / forage among rusty kettles”.
In these poems, the sea carries history – or, perhaps more accurately, carries us through our various histories, where memory mixes with desire. Intimating the death of a father and a deep struggle to come to terms with – or come up with terms for – grief, “After the Wreck” encounters the “fragmented spirit settled deep” within the fragile encasing of the flesh. The poem forgoes a vision of the eternal for a more accurate depiction of loss and dishevelled humanity.
By contrast, the poems dealing with food are searingly raw. “Recipe for Poached Cod” reads like a modern Elizabeth Bishop poem: “I looked into the eyes of a cod / once, when I didn’t have to”, Durnford writes of the quiet moment before the storm (i.e., the gutting). Yet, in Durnford’s conception, what is destroyed remains holy. “Old Runway” introduces us to a place where “armed cathedrals lean / over wary brooks / where the last salmon pray / to the steeple reach / of industrial suns”.
Part homage to, part radical disjuncture from the Romantic tradition, A Lovely Gutting unsettles the notion that what no longer remains cannot be revisited, will not emerge from the darkness in “a delicate splash of sea-light.” Durnford is an important and talented new voice in Canadian poetry, and this collection offers powerful renderings of the wastelands we inhabit and make homes out of.