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Chris Bailey – Two Generations Removed

What draws me back to posting, however, is not knee surgery and its etiology, but two wonderful new books I’ve recently read: a first poetry collection, What Your Hands Have Done, by Chris Bailey, who hails from Prince Edward Island; and a first novel, The Very Marrow of Our Bones, by Christine Higdon, who lives near Toronto, whose origins are in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia and Newfoundland, and with a strong attachment to Nova Scotia.

Chris Bailey comes from a fishing family in North Lake, a prominent fishing community on the far northeast tip of PEI. He has fished lobster, mackerel and other fish with his father, mother, and brothers since he was young, and returns to the boat in the summer. He earned an Honours B.A. in Psychology and took creative writing courses at UPEI, then completed the Master’s program in creative writing at Guelph University, working with Dionne Brand, Michael Winter, Craig Davidson, and others. While still an undergraduate, he was accepted to the Emerging Writers Workshop – poetry workshop – at The Banff Centre to work on his poetry with Lorna Crozier. During his Master’s program, he returned to Banff to work with Elizabeth Phillips on his poetry ms., and returned more recently to work on his fiction. (His M.A. thesis was a novel.) Nightwood editions published his first collection, What Your Hands Have Done.

Chris’ poetry is both highly crafted and nitty gritty, tender and gruff. The language is eloquently colloquial, with vivid, visceral imagery. Think Raymond Carver, one of his models, along with Elmore Leonard, Charles Bukowski, Warren Zevon, Michael Crummey, and Lorna Crozier. He’s a story-telling, narrative poet, with crystal clear stories and language. He is already mastering the use of speech and dialogue in poetry, and the speech of the people in his poems rings absolutely true. There’s humour too, rough and gentle humour – the ironic, terse, earthy wit of a father battling cancer, others battling alcoholism, fishing families coping with the vagaries of the fishery and weather, the middlemen and markets, young people dealing with twenty-first century culture in a rural community permeated by the digital and globalized world.

Chris is the first PEI poet to devote the majority of a book to the lives of fishing families, their communities, their relationships, and the interaction of tradition and modernity. The book is a welcome and compelling PEI counterpart to Michael Crummey’s Hard Light, in which he retells and reinvents stories his father told him, as his father was failing and dying, of the Newfoundland and Labrador outport fishery. It’s also tempting to say that Bailey’s book is a poetry inheritor or descendant of Alistair MacLeod’s “The Boat.” But Chris’ parents are the generation after Alistair, and Chris is two generations removed, writing about life in North Lake and on the water now.

There is no nostalgia for the past, rather, the trials, sufferings, redemptions, and blessings of his era. And the reader never feels claustrophobically trapped in a “fishing” theme, for this is a writer, again, steeped in Elmore Leonard (“the Dickens of Detroit”) and Warren Zevon (“Werewolves of London”). Chris is the son in “The Boat” who goes away to college in Toronto but comes back in the summers to fish – reluctantly, for he doesn’t love it, yet is devoted to family and its well-being – then returns to Hamilton, the city he much prefers to Toronto. (And MacLeod did spend most of his adult life in Windsor, across from Detroit.) And where Chris is working on several fiction projects and more poetry.

Categories: Poets

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Lee Ellen

Writer, editor, educator.

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