Gun Dogs is Maritimer James Langer's first collection of poems. More seasoned than many millwright authors of seven productions, the volume (not in a malnourished sense) is slim and tight. "Bushcraft" is a dangerous journey with a surprising conclusion; "Home Suite" is a richly observed meditation on mutability and solidity, then and now, and avoids mawkish sentiment, no easy task on this overcrowded thematic path. Pleasant, tumbling sounds proliferate: from "Treble Hook", "A brazen fowl sets the third claw of its call/in the sun's jaws and hoists dawn/up over the gunwale." So far, so good. But after closely reading and rereading half the book, a nagging question formulated itself against the chiming morphemes. Where's the voice? I don't mean an original voice, a distinctive one, but just a recognizable vocal stamp. Without that -- and I couldn't hear it -- all the work, however technically efficient or musically adroit, couldn't make up for an idiosyncratic style, an off-the-rails slant, a vision (voice and vision are intimately connected) which goes beyond tied-off summation of quotidian observation, however truthfully it's rendered. Admittedly, questions of voice in poetry become highly subjective, often matters of taste and historical or emotional association. But no matter the subject or narrative heat, the tone in Gun Dogs is uniformly subdued, even where surface dynamics are altered. It's been stated by many veteran poets that a personal voice -- powerful yet flexible -- is the most difficult hurdle to clear. The late centenarian Stanley Kunitz said that crafts(wo)men were a dime a dozen. That's unfairly extreme, but it reminds me of afficionados, both lyric and post-postmodern, who go to an allied extreme in seeing every praised effect as indicative of a specific ideology or school. There are many very good, lasting poets who lack the je ne sais quoi of individual thrill and felicity. The more poetry I read, the more I see it in a vertical pulse, rather than in an associative nod.
I thoroughly enjoyed Gun Dogs, and highly recommend it. I just don't know if I'll be as happy to pick it up for a fifth reading two years hence.