Douglas Walbourne-Gough Breathes New Life into Marginalized Community in ‘Crow Gulch’

Debut collection by poet Douglas Walbourne-Gough, Crow Gulch is a loving meditation on a family and the land they called home.

Already entering its second printing since its launch two months ago, debut collection by east coast poet Douglas Walbourne-Gough, Crow Gulch, has seen much of the attention and praise of which its namesake has seen so little. At the end of a line of blacksmiths and woodcutters and would-be tamers of those wildest and most violent forms of Nature, Walbourne-Gough captures the woodsmoke and the indifferent slope of the land with a grace and a lust for language that leaves one wondering if perhaps the woods really do belong to the poets.

Diving into the collection with “Fraught,” Walbourne-Gough sets the tone with a meditation on the quiet beauty, yet deadliness, of a pocket-knife. “Lulled by the intimacy of wood, I almost forget–a knife is fraught with urge, at odds with its edge.” Just like a knife, the rest of the collection paints in exquisite detail the heartbreaking realities of a hostile land that attracts its inhabitants as readily as it tries to destroy them. In the poem “Breaking Ground,” Walbourne-Gough asks, “what if the land you want to break is bedrock?” Calling to mind questions of that old adage about the ‘rock and the hard place.’ What do you do if your homeland can’t be tamed, but there’s nowhere else to go?

Harkening again and again to the idea of the knife, Walbourne-Gough insists that in life, sometimes, you must “make do along the edges.” But how many of us are willing to live such a life? Through several sweeping, obviously-loving poems, Walbourne-Gough paints portrait after portrait of his outdoorsy, plaid-wearing, beer-drinking, dawn-fishing predecessors with all the care and attention of a vigilant grandson straightening a portrait over the hearth. Recalling the men and women of the past, Walbourne-Gough breathes new life into old lives, insisting there is “something about the colour of things then.

Something mono, something VHS, AM radio about things. Something so unbelievable in its seeming impossibility…how we live on the future’s brilliant, polished edge.” Bleeding the past and the present with stories from his own life, of fishing with his father where their “old canoe nudges the pond’s silver skin,” with perfect, quiet grace, there is no rewriting of nature here, no motors to break the perfect stillness of the woods, no noise beyond the gentle lap of the water at the hull of a red canoe.

From its inception as a traditionally poor neighbourhood in a particularly harsh land, Crow Gulch was never about humanity’s triumph over adversity, but rather, about the shy, modest way we persevere. From his grandmother heading off to the casino, “all tobacco smoke and last week’s gossip,” to his grandfather “built from bucksaws, lugging moose meat,” Crow Gulch explores the exceptional poverty and quiet desperation of a family just trying to make a living in a land that was always theirs, yet never really anyone’s to own. 

Whether expressing “a small wish to find [his] teenaged self, shaking, standing over a felled tree, his jaw full of baby teeth clenched tight,” or sitting “in airports, Macbooking in designer shoes,” Walbourne-Gough’s love for the land, for his family, and for his own ever-evolving identity shines through like the morning sun on a frozen gulch in Newfoundland, proving himself to be a rising star too bright and promising not to notice.