The term “page turner” is more likely to be associated with mass-market thrillers than books of poetry. But in the case of Under the Keel, Michael Crummey’s first collection in a decade, the phrase suits just fine. The poems have titles like “Cock Tease,” “Dead Crow #2,” and “Judas Rope,” and their content is as voyeuristic and visceral as might be expected.
The collection’s opening section captures the awkwardness of teenage boys and the boldness of girls who like “to be touched.” Crummey views this material through the lens of youth’s uninformed happiness and impatience for something – anything – to happen. The author employs small-town settings, often locating his poems in his native Newfoundland, and beautifully renders moments of adolescent boredom. These poems are striking not only for Crummey’s skilful use of language and imagery, but for his ability to capture small moments that will be immediately recognizable to most readers.
Love, sexuality, and relationships are major themes in Under the Keel. One of the collection’s outstanding poems, “Women’s Work,” is a gently wrenching flash of devotion. “Hope Chest,” another standout, examines frailty and fear of intimacy, only to find renewal and reassurance at the end.
While notions of transience imbue some of these pieces – poems that speak of corrupted wanderings and aimless drives, or assignations in hotel rooms – the steadfastness of love is a constant tether. “Aphrodisiacs are for amateurs / with more time than common sense / who’ve yet to learn bliss is stolen / from the world in small, piercing slivers,” Crummey writes in “Getting the Marriage into Bed.”
Tender but also at times chilling, Under the Keel contains all the tension and anticipation that may be found in the moment before a first kiss or a fall off a ledge. The faces it conjures are hauntingly engaging, and the sentiments it conveys echo long after the end has been reached.