Review: Cutthroats and Other Poems, by Ted Dyck

Ted Dyck, Cutthroats and Other Poems, (Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 2014). Paperback, 92 pages, $17.00.

Cutthroats and Other Poems is a deceptive book. Rereleased by Turnstone in 2014, this slim volume of poetry, titled for the cutthroat trout, and much of it dealing with fly fishing in the wild country west of Rocky Mountain House, is really a book about everything.

As Dyck identifies the metaphor in his introduction, the cutthroat is the thought and the fishing line is the idea. The fisher, like the rest of us, casts about trying to “raise the living thing hidden in its deep pool” (xiii). When caught, the trout is both the supplier of life (the fisher’s) and death.

In the first and, arguably, most powerful section of the book, Dyck employs images and words that not only describe fishing. Phrases such as “born again,” “river of life and death,” “the birth of the fabled prince / of peace,” “bless me from above,” “eat this holy fish,” etc., are used in the language of Christianity. And Cutthroats does deal with Christianity. But that’s not all. The book as a whole alludes to any number of myths including “river gods,” a kind of transcendental state that is almost Zen in the way it erases time and detail (“Cutthroat #12”), aestheticism (“Diogenes at Agora”), and, perhaps most gracefully, it introduces in an uncertain, questioning way the power of nature to impose itself on the skeptical human mind and willing body.

The Mennomonk poems in particular relate the weight of taught faith—in this case Mennonite and Roman Catholic (thus menno-monk)—on the fisher. This section, placed in the centre of the book, unbalances the fisher. Off-centre, even to himself, mennomonk is a comical and pathetic figure with a nature of sin and a body of physical decay: “mennomonk laughs his wicked laugh / he smiles his wicked smile & laughs / through rotten teeth his eyes open wide.” The planet itself and its history of existence is depicted as being no better, summarized as “first the weeds / then the virgin / now the whore.”

Some of Dyck’s poems ironically portray the wicked, rotting human as an unevolved “monkey,” his despair most accurately expressed in popular song lyrics of the ’50s: “hang down yr head mennomonk/ hang down yr head and cry.” Instead of raising one up, Christianity makes the human-fisher an unevolved menno-monk-ey.

Of course, there’s more than one way to look at life. The long poem “Fuga per Canonem” introduces the “rules” of flight/escape through music by mentioning Bach’s fugues, which break fugue rules: the flight of bees, which operates differently than the flight of birds, and “the great grey muddle” of romantic love in popular Western culture. Rephrasing the tragic yet jubilant lines in Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill” (“Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea”), the poem “Freely” instead offers up the paradoxical, somewhat flippant aphorism, “Freedom is a chain” and “your chains make you free.” The exception makes the rule and so rules cannot be counted on to elucidate. When it comes to operating life successfully, Cutthroats suggests that there is no instruction manual, no mythology, no popular ideology that is in any way accurate or useful.

“Moment of Perfection” begins in the Rockies: a beautiful, wild corner of the world, home to clear fishing streams where the impure fisher kills purely for food and where “a nest of sparrow’s-egg orchids” grows like a gift. The poem, in long-lined couplets, weaves through other environments, some almost as pristine, some mythical, others marred by corruption, rejection, fear, violence, and finally, despair over the meaningless of life and its unavoidable consequence (death), portrayed when “the doula grasped the gravedigger’s shovel,” perhaps the only line in the book that is in any way heavy-handed.

While perfection can perhaps be found in nature, humans invariably damage, question, and undermine it with their existentialist angst. The two, it seems, cannot coexist in harmony.

But one can try.

No matter in which order the book is read, the reader cannot escape the strength and beauty of the book’s first two sections, “The Cutthroat Poems” and “The Ram River Poems,” which demonstrate that nature imposes itself on the human mind, the human mind imposes itself on nature, and despite or because of animal instinct, personal history, fear, shame, religion, education, reason, and ideas, something mythical happens.

It is perhaps the strength of the “Cutthroat” and “Ram River” poems that promotes this sense—the prize at the end of the hook, the unencumbered thought—that takes the reader to a place where “you notice the slightest ripple / in the quiet pool,” a state of mind where the fisher is “casting the arc of [my] encircling desire / to be that golden trout I kill to live.”

Cutthroats and Other Poems is a book about experience not answers, and it is on the river Ram the fisher/poet learns what he has observed and been told: “That trout I hook has been caught before. / The pull on my line is as old as a mountain,” and “Every new heart breaks as no heart / before it,” while recognizing it all as cliché.

And truth.

And everything.

Joan Crate’s second novel, Black Apple, was just published by Simon & Schuster. She has also published three books of poetry and been shortlisted for several awards, including the Pat Lowther Memorial Award, the Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry, and the Canadian Authors Association Award for Poetry. She lives in Calgary.