Agnes Walsh, recently named by the City of St. John’s as their first Poet Laureate, is no stranger to the charms of oral history, since she also works as an actor and playwright, and founded the Tramore Theatre Troupe on the Cape Shore of Placentia Bay. The poems from the CD In the Old Country of My Heart (originally published as a book in 1996 by Killick Press) are thus well-suited to the audio form, as Walsh performs them with the same conviction and precision with which she penned them more than a decade ago.
Like one of the more memorable lines of the Celtic ballad about a herdsman’s daughter “Aililiứ Na Gamhna” (offered in a sweet rendition by Walsh’s daughter Simone Savard-Walsh) “The magic music of the world / Always around me,” Agnes Walsh imbues the everyday with drama and depth, in poems such as “You Drive the Truck,” “Our Boarder Alfred,” “Tea Ceremony,” “Fiddlehead,” and “Percy Janes Boarding the Bus.” In the last poem Walsh recalls waiting for the number 5, on her way to the mall for a kettle, and spotting the famous writer trying to catch another bus:
I jumped to life, beat on the bus door,
said to the driver: “Mr. Janes.
Mr. Percy Janes wants to get on.”
He raised a “So what?” eyebrow.
Mr. Janes straightened his astrakhan hat,
mumbled thank you and stepped up.
As the bus rumbled on
I continued under my breath:
“Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Percy Janes,
Newfoundland writer, poet,
just boarded the number something-or-other.”
If this was Portugal,
a plaque would be placed
over the seat where he sat.
As it is, you have me
mumbling in the street
like a tourist in my own country.
(Track 30; Page 32)
The way Walsh delivers that last line—“tourist” sounds like “taurist”—reminds me of an earlier track on the CD, “The Time that Passes.” Here, the poet bemoans the growing homogeneity of the spoken word, but her mother reminds her that even she can’t escape correct speech:
But you watch it, my mother said,
it’s your tongue too that was dipped
in the blue ink, and do go leaking iambics
all the day long.
(Track 9; Page 1)
“In the Snapshot” is another poem in which Walsh’s mother makes a spunky appearance; this time she’s scolding her daughter for asking about a photograph of herself and a mystery man who looks like Trotsky: “…“Facts,” she said. “Oh my, / why do you always need the facts, / you with all these photographs?” (Track 13; Page 36) “In the Snapshot” is not only worthy of note for that frank last line, but also for the evocative depiction that precedes it, of a woman frozen in time:
In the snapshot she has her sweater
pinned at the neck,
but her arms aren’t in the sleeves.
This strikes me as unlike her
so I look for more.
It is some sort of courtyard
where she stands, drooping veronicas
lined against a black fence.
Her smile is a question of delight,
like when someone says You are beautiful
and you say What?
because you want to hear it again.
This is a trademark of Walsh’s writing, this mingling of the lyrical with the conversational, and she does it again in “Storm,” a poem recounting the death and life of her father. In hospital, as Walsh’s father is coming out of the anaesthetic, she finds him making curious movements, his arms stretched overhead. Someone behind her says, “Don’t worry, love. / He’s mending sails and then he’s tacking home” (Track 42; Page 60). As Walsh reaches the sombre conclusion to the poem, the words themselves seem to get caught in her throat, rendering “Storm” that much more affecting:
My father so tiny in the bed. Time stealing him from me.
I sat and listened to him and the captain
talk of weather, fish, and old schooners—
what he had talked of all his life.
He’d call tonight a bad one.
Hurricane Louis would drive him from his bed
send him down the hall in his stocking vamps
checking the stove, the doors and windows
making us warm and watertight.
I feel like howling into the fury
to bring him back safe to me.
Similarly, three poems in this collection stood out—the emotionally charged “In The Old Country of My Heart,” “Weather Moving,” and “Oderin.” In these three, Walsh digs deep into her past, exploring her identity as both a writer, and as a Newfoundlander. “Oderin,” the final poem on the CD, is a hauntingly picturesque remembrance from Walsh’s childhood, in which she was “Shipped out to old people who were childish / they didn’t know a five cents from a ten” (Track 44; Page 63). You have to hear Walsh read these sorrowful lines, in that voice that moves seamlessly from dead-pan to tender to ironic, to feel the full impact:
Can I walk anywhere without voices?
Although it is the voices I came here for.
Now they cut too near the bone,
too much inside the soundbone
thump thumping into the blood.
And that other balance upset by coming here
kicking at sleeping dogs, turning over tired bones.
These goddamn ghosts rattling under broad daylight.
Knowing summer is short they
shake their fists both day and night.
The hot potato tossed
from one generation to the next,
burned holes in my palms, left smoulders aching.
I watched tranced by the cult of blood.
I ask strangers: Was she cruel?
They turn away. Stare across the meadow.
Fidget with pipes and bandannas.
Well, girl, she had a hard life.
So, she was cruel.
There’s another striking voice on this CD—that of Simone Savard-Walsh. She sings a cappella on two tracks, the aforementioned Celtic ballad “Aililiứ Na Gamhna,” and the tragic folk song “Fair Fannie Moore.” I would have enjoyed hearing more from Savard-Walsh, in exchange for a little less pump organ and chime bell from George Morgan. While tracks such as “Don’t Know What This Is” and “Melancholic” complemented the mood created by Walsh’s poetry, others like “3 Blind Mice” and “Rodent Anthem” were a bit jarring. Taken as a whole, however, the music and ballads do provide ‘listening room’ between readings, for this is a weighty and dramatic body of work from a poet, who, in my opinion, deserves her own plaque on the bus.