Many Canadian fiction writers started out as poets. Rarer are people like Michael Crummey and Steven Heighton, who write poetry and prose in tandem. A grim warning: only a few of the greatest writers (Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence) have succeeded in both modes.
Crummey has published four novels and a short-story collection; Little Dogs draws on four previous books of poetry. He engagingly calls himself “a nearly full-time writer living something close to a real life in St. John’s, NL.” Though Little Dogs continues the tired publishing practice of piggybacking, or sneaking in, new poems atop previous ones, it is only in these new poems that Crummey risks adventurous similes and metaphors. In “The Scientist,” for example, a hungover poet hears chickadees make a “needling racket / pin-cushion pine black-capped pistons in the shining / fist of some mad scientist’s machine.”
Cleanly, concisely descriptive, most of the selected poems link family life to the elemental land and sea of Newfoundland and Labrador. Some venture far offshore to urban and rural Ontario – and to China and India – as if to declare that hardscrabble survival is universal. Many early poems concern the poet’s dead father. Much of the material involves the congruence or consequences of loneliness and lost memory. In “Artifacts,” a husband and wife are “sitting to their meals alone.” In “What’s Lost,” the poet wants his father to remember but “he cannot even recall / forgetting.” In “Boys,” the characters’ “dreams were vacant rooms we didn’t own.”
Pretty serious stuff, though lightened by the wit of Crummey’s end rhymes, the blessedly funny recipe for dandelion wine in “The Tennessee Waltz,” and the poem “Watermark,” where a sinner gets himself baptized for the third time: “please God this one will take.”
Does prose invade Crummey’s poetry? Not often. However, “Bread” – about marriage and parenthood – amounts to a perfect miniature short story.
The latest collection from Heighton – author of three novels, three story collections, and five volumes of poetry – is a slimmer but much denser book, haunted by the ghost of the great, notoriously opaque poet Paul Celan, and echoing his unique style. This style includes startling juxtapositions and switches in register, multilingual hijinks, clotted syntax and supersaturated phrases (“ditch-dark / lanes,” a “bank-eaten / prairie town,” a “dog with her large-array ears.” There are also Germanic-like compounds: “eyefar / nightrise,” “budwood,” “heatfeel,” “snowlast.” The only missing item is Celan’s delvings into Judaism, though Heighton does frequently lean on biblical references.
Like Mary Dalton’s Hooking – a book consisting entirely of lines from other poets – The Waking Comes Late tests the borders of intertextuality. “Ice, Eden” delivers an “approximation” (Heighton’s useful term for an amended translation) of Celan’s version of an Emily Dickinson poem. What next, one wonders: an adaptation of an imitation of an approximation of a translation?
In a note, Heighton says he’s “opted not to sequester the translations but instead to integrate them with my own poems.” He recognizes the risks in appearing to rank himself with greats like Celan, Georg Trakl, and Anna Akhmatova. Both originals and emended versions emerge “from a single period and process of reading and pondering, writing and revising.” Fair enough.
Heighton has written a sombre book, replete with depictions of real or impending tragedies. Sometimes he’s angry, as in “Baffled in Ashdod, Blind in Gaza,” about a former Israeli soldier posting Facebook photos of herself smiling beside Palestinian prisoners, having the “best time of my life.” In “Humanitarian War Fugue,” he savagely underlines the various contradictions in killing “with the best of intentions” in order that “girls could go to school unharmed.”
The text is not without flaws. In “Clinical Notes of a Bipolar Therapist” (splendid title), the poet resorts to wine-label prose: “Your snifter, brimming with brandy, exhales / the scent of ancient orchards.” There is too much space devoted to the often boring topic of poets and poetry. The libretto “Europa” droops in, making the transfer from stage to page. And Heighton’s take on Constantine Cavafy’s “The City” (“the city will follow you”) doesn’t appreciably improve on earlier, prosier versions.
Still, there are remarkable things here.