Born on Prince Edward Island, currently based in Halifax, frequent Q&Q contributor Zachariah Wells is a Maritime poet of direct speech and muscular lexicon, both of which can be counted among the legacies of fellow Maritimer Alden Nowlan. However, Wells boasts more cosmopolitan affiliations than Nowlan did: he takes his book’s epigraph from Ivan Klima, and recasts poems by Rilke and the baroque sonneteer Jean-Baptiste Chassignet.
Since Wells works for Via Rail, one might suppose that the track in his title alludes to the transcontinental routes he travels. But this is no railroader’s verse: he is interested in the tracks we follow and the traces we leave. Such abstract concerns are conveyed with admirable, if sometimes too effortful, exactness. In “Slugs,” the titular creatures are “creeping beads / of cool snot”; in “Briar Patch,” ploughing a cane thicket, the poet’s father “John-Deered the patch.” Sometimes he leans a little too heavily on line breaks, creating a stuttering effect, as in “The Pond,” in which a creek is “percolating into a reek- / rich bog.” On rare occasions, he succumbs to jarring metaphors, as in “Fool’s Errand,” in which a valley in a snowstorm is a “bowl of stirred-up curdled milk.”
Yet, taken overall, such poems are among the most powerful in the collection, to which may be added the impressive “Dream Vision of the Flood,” in which the poet, a Noah retreating to a hilltop, dreams of his island home becoming “redrawn / by water.” Since PEI in winter is more or less an iceberg floating in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, it’s not surprising that snow figures in many poems. Then, too, snow relates to his theme, given its ability to erase both tracks and traces.
Unashamed of end-rhymes or reworking the sonnet form, Wells also varies his work with incantation-like poems, in which line openings reiterate words or phrases like “Roads …,” “Out with the …,” and “It was a winter of …” Such litany-like exercises in parallelism are less successful than the poems in which variations on a theme are smoothly melded.
Even in Vancouver, Wells finds traces of his island home. Indeed, his most resonant poems reach back to the cormorants, red earth, and mussel mud of the province nicknamed “the million-acre farm.”