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book review

Poet E.J. Pratt’s presence looms over this collection.

Some readers may be surprised, on opening The Breakwater Book of Contemporary Newfoundland Poetry, to find only 11 poets included. Newfoundland may be one of the smaller provinces; still, surely there are more than 11 poets writing there? But making up anthologies is always a tricky business, an attempt to walk a fine line between being underrepresentative and being over-inclusive. The editors, Mark Callanan and James Langer, surely have their reasons for choosing barely enough writers to make up a soccer team.

What those reasons are, though, is left for the reader to discern. Where some editors would have chosen to offer a lengthy introduction explaining their rationale and justifying their exclusions, or arguing that the included poets form a single coherent school or movement, Callanan and Langer offer a one-paragraph editors' note that explains very nearly nothing, and a "Prologue" consisting of a single paragraph from an obituary for E.J. Pratt, the eminent Canadian literary figure whose presence looms over this collection.

Pratt, who died in 1964, was primarily a narrative poet, and much of the work in this book follows his example. The descriptive, narrative vein feels somehow standard, if not obligatory, for writers hailing from this rocky island – as if any literary approach that allowed language to become at all un-anchored from physical objects or human actions would chance being too pretentious or insufficiently robust for the high-stakes confrontation with the elements that constitutes life there. (Maybe this also helps explain the resistance to rhyme or other traditional formal devices, which, with the exception of a few poems by Michael Crummey, are all but absent here.)

Perhaps it is this awareness of matters elemental, and this sense of life as endurance and survival, that accounts for these poems' frequent employment of images of death. From John Steffler's For My Execution to Richard Greene's Beside the Funeral Home, from the funeral rites depicted in Agnes Walsh's I Solemn and The Laying Out, 1956 to Sue Sinclair's Forever ("You will rehearse your own funeral, who will attend,/ who will be sorry, how death will somehow prove you right"), these poems dwell poignantly and at times a bit obsessively on the impermanence of life – even as other poems, like Carmelita McGrath's How Difficult It Is To Remain Buried and My Father's Ghost ("My father's ghost, while my father still lived,/ haunted a corner of Bond and Bannerman …") suggest that death, like everything in this unstable landscape, possesses its own kind of impermanence.

The work of the earlier poets here tends to be somewhat insular, neither venturing nor imagining very far beyond the island. As the book progresses, the poems show an increasing awareness of and interest in the larger world. Ken Babstock name-checks the philosophers William James and Richard Rorty and the poets John Clare and John Ashbery. Patrick Warner writes poems about therapy and anorexia, puns extravagantly on the name of Olivia Newton-John, and not only mentions the mordant American poet Frederick Seidel but steals a couple of his lines. But the most "contemporary" poet here – and the most impressive – is Sue Sinclair, who writes as if her home province were located at the very centre of literary North America.

The question of just how "contemporary" the Breakwater Book is is a difficult one, and not unrelated to the question of how well it represents the writing that is taking place in Newfoundland in the present moment. (Had the book been titled The Breakwater Book of Recent Newfoundland Poetry, this particular issue might have seemed less pressing.) Nearly half of the poets here were born in the first half of the 20th century. None of the writers are under 40. And one of them, Al Pittman, passed away more than a decade ago.

There are, moreover, quite a few younger Newfoundland poets whose work, for various reasons, is not represented here. Two that spring to mind are, in fact, the editors of this volume. One can of course understand why an editor would hesitate to include his own work in an anthology: Doing so frequently reeks both of narcissism and of the most extreme form of nepotism. Still, the exclusion of Callanan and Langer, even if perpetrated on themselves by themselves and motivated by an admirable sense of responsibility, is nonetheless unfortunate. Their inclusion, and that of a few other younger Newfoundland writers – Nick Avis or Stephen Rowe, for instance – might have helped this anthology feel a bit more like a living document and a bit less like a history lesson.

Troy Jollimore is the author of At Lake Scugog and Tom Thomson in Purgatory, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry.