A Riddle Fence Selection
James Langer grew up in Heart's Desire, Trinity Bay. His first collection of poems, Gun Dogs, was published by Anansi (Toronto) in 2009.
Snow eddied, amassed, erased the trails,
and all the instruments failed.
The robot eye of a flashlight bulb
faded to a burnt out retina and blinked out.
In the absence of heat, I struck
the flat of a fire-stick, and sparks
flocked to dry tinder and cloth
like lucent moths.
On the great lake of dark, I was afloat
in a skiff the size of my campfire’s glow.
With no food left, I hung the dog on a spit,
pissed in a pot, and boiled my boots.
And with no dog left, I slept
spooned with the helve and head of an axe.
Then stirred by illumination, not
the back and forth sway of a searchlight,
but the blue cascade from a television set.
Traffic outside. The baseboard heaters ticked,
and all my clocks flashed twelve.
Back to Top.
And I’ve unleashed the dogs, out of season,
on days so hot all solids seemed to rise
from a quantum and kindled crux of yeast.
Slipway boats venting through unseasoned gaps,
paint roughed to a barm and the blisters
of green balsam rupturing on contact,
until my hands, drawn tight with a flexed mesh of sap,
hardened like two heels of bread. The gun dogs,
tongues loose, would break on a hot scent
as though to free their paws from ground frost;
hound voices shattering the heat so completely
a dazed sun struggled a moment to piece
the light back together again and regain
its train of lumbering thought. And somewhere
from the understory, a snowshoe hare
would harness that great mutant heart in its chest
and slingshot into naught. I’d wait for the dogs
to circle, wait for their yawps and gutturals
to set borders as far as their voices would carry,
wait beneath spruce and birch boughs hung
in the curve of a boat’s bow or the arch
of a nave infused with stained light. There’s a point
when a beagle turns a corner and changes
its voice from pursuit to driving forth, when the sound
tugs a drawstring through the burlap of your nape,
when the persistent dogs swing to push home,
when they close the distance and nutshell the time
left to reckon with the headwind of a bark
that assembles its mass and leaps as four paws
from a camouflage of brush. Always willing
to start over, go further than need, the hounds
would drive a hare down the burrow of a muzzle
without fear, without shying off. I’ve felt
the dogs turn without a weapon in my grasp,
in the absence of prey, at times and in places
where no dog ran, or was, or had a right to be:
when I loitered in dark corners and put flame
to a glossed patch of gas at the crossroads station,
when I woke in a sub-zero bus shelter with hair
cold-bitten to the hard floor, when I steadied
my father who leaned too far to one side
three days after the first of his brothers died.
Other times, like standing with a lug wrench
in a fog-clot on the isthmus with the hazards tripped
or when my first Selected Frost split
at that place in the bind where “Birches” starts.
It’s surged in the circuit and called me out
when I’ve missed the point or burned it black,
when I’ve holed up in a corridor of sounds
just to feel the echo swell and contract.
Back to Top.
Potholed and patchworked, the worn-out road
bends into town. It’s better this way.
The black ice can’t find room to glide
or slick to an obsidian gloss, set its ambush
of tailspins, donuts and telephone poles. So
the road’s safer beaten and ugly, confessing
its faults, its submission to frost and the flux
of migrating rock, the balk of groundwork
as it thaws. Perhaps you can turn the radio up.
I’ll keep a weather eye, do my level best
against the nooks, the craters, the crannies, the nasties
that bite, share a taste, a sort of lust,
for the sweet spots in your shocks and struts.
Here. This bluff, we call the Gannets. Not much
to look at, I know, but the last clear view
before we hit the sticks and the proverbial shit
hits, well, you understand. A man
who was like a father to my father once told me
that even in a gauze of fog you can read
the Gannets by the rote – the sound of the sea
on the beach – like nowhere else in the world. Strange,
the way phrases surge and shoal up with a glance
like chinching a gap or finding the frame
of a door in the dark, when most local words
have peeled from my mouth and vanished, cut loose
as ballast, dropped at the lost and found.
Auctioned off, I suppose, over time. What’s that
about setting things free and if they return
they’re yours to keep? That’s an odd thing to say
considering it's me doubling back
on a road that rides like a kick in the pants.
Now train your eyes just beyond my finger:
You can see our old house through a dark like of spruce.
Looks fine from here, perched in its nest,
but for years the clapboard couldn’t cover its debt.
The back wall was left with nothing but bare
chipboard gone sour, washed out in damp greys,
while my bedroom’s second-hand carpet cut corners,
unable to make ends meet, hide debris.
Sure the trusses seem stable, but the drywall’s all rot,
and I’ve no tools or time for its keep, no nerve to fail
trying to coax that yoke back into its shell.
There’s a new town WELCOME sign with a fresh coat
of paint. Turn the radio low and listen. Feel that?
The tires have shifted to smooth asphalt below.
Still, I can’t help but think BRIDGE FREEZES BEFORE ROAD
and there should be a crosswalk hidden under the snow,
which was first spray-painted there many years ago,
after a child was struck cold by a stranger’s car
and a crowd cropped up from beyond the alder grove
to reckon where she ended, if she travelled and how far.
Or it might not have been like that at all. It’s hard
to say where poetic license kicks in,
the transitions so seamless, automatic transmission.
At any rate, now it reads, CHILDREN AT PLAY,
as if in the shadow of a sign the absence is explained.
I’ll admit, I’m glad you wanted to come,
but I was hoping to show you the place as it was.
Not this snow-speckled, picturesque, postcard version,
this polish of ice, this artist’s rendition
but something in need of neglect or repair.
See what I’m saying? In my rear-view mirror
the old town WELCOME sign’s buzz-sawed and nailed
to a decrepit shed door, a dark vault under thumb.
Now that’s more like it. Good to be home.
“Bushcraft,” “Gun Dogs,” and “Home Suite”: poems from Gundogs © 2009 James Langer. Reproduced with permission from House of Anansi Press, Toronto. http://www.houseofanansi.com
Riddle Fence literary magazine
Langer at House of Anansi
Review of Gun Dogs in Quill & Quire