For a first book, Gun Dogs is assured and mature, clearly the product of a lengthy and well-spent apprenticeship. James Langer is one of several Canadian poets, including Steven Price, Matt Rader, and Joe Denham, who eschew arrhythmic CBC-ready English cut into prosy free verse, in favour of the rich resources of the Anglo-Saxon verbal tradition.
Langer’s collection includes an impressively fluent translation of the first 64 lines of the Old English poem “The Seafarer.” Robert Frost is alluded to, hilariously, in “North of Boston,” in which the speaker’s Newfoundland accent is mistaken for that of New England, and more soberly in the title poem.
Langer also engages, sometimes satirically, with the work of notable Canadian icons E.J. Pratt (“from The Last Spike”), F.R. Scott (“Trans Canada”), and Michael Ondaatje (“The Potato Peeler”).
What is most striking about this collection is its range of allusion, tone, and form. Langer is equally comfortable in compact lyrics and sonnets – of which there are several inventive variants in the book – and in sprawling narratives; equally capable of being movingly elegiac and incredibly funny; at once colloquially conversational and formally elegant.
Throughout, he demonstrates a magpie’s eye for the patchwork of the vernacular (including choice bits of Newfoundland English, which he urges readers to look up for themselves) and a near-flawless ear.
Almost all of the poems need to be read aloud and a few should really be set to music. If some pieces are more workmanlike than wonderful, and if there’s the odd sign of strained overwriting, that is easily forgiven in a book this accomplished and entertaining.