Mixed/adopted Mi’kmaq Newfoundland poet Douglas Walbourne-Gough’s debut collection, Crow Gulch (Goose Lane 2019) unearths an almost forgotten history of a community known as Crow Gulch, a mostly shaded and stigmatized area around Corner Brook built when the newsprint mill was constructed in 1920s.
While the community didn’t have running water, electricity, plumbing or adequate housing, majority of Crow Gulch was made of migrant workers, many Mi’kmaq – some were the poet’s family. Historically, Crow Gulch’s was known as a rough area, and forced into resettlement in the 1970s. – Walbourne-Gough wanted “to counter the narratives of stigma and relative silence surrounding the place and people of Crow Gulch” though the poetic.
“Crow Gulch is my inherited story, too, which amplified the necessity and importance of seeing this work through responsibly. More importantly, though, to offer a counter-narrative. Not as an authority, but as an utterance that can spark more dialogue, whether or not it’s in agreement with my assertion, so long as people start talking about it, breathing life back into this forgotten piece of history, people, and place.”
After nearly a decade of writing, researching, and revising, the book is the poet’s own way of honouring the strength, love and staggering poetics of his Mi’kmaq relations. It’s also a counter-narrative, and reacts to texts like Percy Janes’ 1970 novel House of Hate.
“[House of Hate] is a damn good book, and an essential read to anyone from and/or living in Corner Brook, NL. But, Janes also speaks cruelly, and often, about the place and people of Crow Gulch,” says Walbourne-Gough. “Tom Finn also has a short story from his 2010 collection, West Siders, that speaks with the same effect. Outside of archival documents and old newspaper clippings, these are the only published writings about Crow Gulch. 40 years of misconception. That changes now.”
Adaptation is central to a poet’s understanding of time, place, and meaning. In the poem “Cedar Cove, Revisited,” dedicated to John Steffler, former Parliamentary Poet Laureate of Canada, Walbourne-Gough writes, “Land this old knows better than to beg,/ knows you’ll come back hungry – questions/ circling your skull like a flock of gulls./ Accept this rock, its odd love.”
Walbourne-Gough’s poems are intimate, in moments personal, often tracing family lineage. The poet’s questions are universal to those who seek, and anyone who has had a ruptured sense of belonging. His lyrical style grabs hold of you, and doesn’t let go. Lines like “You could call it hardship./ All this hard living just to stay alive,” stick with you. “Nice escape, though. This feather bed. Dream up whatever life you want.”
In the poem, “Geraldine Winifred Walbourne,” the speaker is living in a tent, bathing in “Grand Lake/ until November, cold water/ became laughable,” saving up for rent. He writes, “She’s still mercury to me./ Steeled against life’s battery/ of bills, deaths, family politics,/ but her laughter is liquid light, filling rooms to burst. Her mind/ is magma, is scalpel sharp,/ is Scrabble smart, is an eternal/ summer solstice.” Yet it is the final line that rings the loudest – “Her heart? Things of this depth/ I’ll simply never know.”
“That piece about my mother was one of the most difficult because how on earth do you write about someone who is, literally, everything at once, who is that integral and important to who you are? It’s obvious to say but she literally gifted me my life,” he says. “I had to attempt to convey humility – I have absolutely what it’s like to be a parent, let alone the triple overtime unpaid labour of being a mother – while also making sure I did indeed honour her justly.
“I toyed with that ending for a couple months and kept coming back to that honesty, that I just don’t have the wisdom or words to speak to such power but I also hold myself to being upfront about it.”
Walbourne-Gough speaks to identity, hybridity, and isn’t afraid to be vulnerable, ask the tough questions and recognizes part of life is living through the answers. He speaks from multiple perspectives, including the front line, in real time, enrolment process of Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation, which has been complex and unsettling. He is cautious, and clear about what poetics he can speak from, what he can or cannot write about, and what isn’t his to convey.
“I can write from the standpoint of a questioned and questionable legitimacy via legal adoption. I can write from the perspective of being the maternal grandson of a Pentecost pastor who was a missionary in Labrador,” says Walbourne-Gough. “I can write from the lens of social housing projects, poverty, food banks, but also a beautiful food security in moosemeat, brook trout, and blueberries, in the richness of a still truly wild Land.”
“From the perspective of being thoroughly colonized (since Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s arrival in 1583 or, arguably, John Cabot’s in 1497) yet unavoidably and simultaneously interdependent with Land even now in 2019. From the perspective of having never met my biological father, from being from the wrong side of town, in a town on the wrong side of Newfoundland, in a province on the wrong end of Canada. I also have a firm footing in the creative, academic, and working-class realities. All of this is within Crow Gulch, in various and subtle ways. All of this, all my poetry, is filtered heart-forward.”
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