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Scrying for identity and the future in uncertain waters:
Mike Chaulk's Night Lunch

Mike Chaulk's Night Lunch
Mike Chaulk, Night Lunch
Guelph: Gordon Hill Press, 2020.

“I await, still my great white-bear,” Chaulk begins Night Lunch, a somewhat rambling examination of self-identity while working aboard a freight-and-passenger ferry serving isolated Canadian communities. Introspective about the past, present, and future, and his Indigenous roots, Night Lunch is a vicarious trip. In this travel-limited era, it’s a great hook. Chaulk’s strongest stanzas delve past superficial workaday rapport, hinting at the mythopoetic. Chaulk seeks the same certainty of self that Thomas Wolfe described in Look Homeward, Angel about Americans being clearest about who they are while journeying.

While a young Kerouacesque bravado breathes into some sonnets, Chaulk is laden with uncertainty and fairly fixated preoccupied on transience, a preoccupation coursing throughout Night Lunch like unfamiliar currents. In sonnet 42, Chaulk muses about the naming of the island Sweethome: “Someone named it, thinking it was theirs to, / missed so much their own, as I do, near halved / between finding home here and all my other life. / I shake it off. It’s easy to forget.”

Identity, for him, is divided at best, a theme crescendoing in “Crown of Broken Blood,” 16 pages of interconnecting sonnets ending in the same line that starts the next. Chaulk tentatively considers his Indigenous roots. The remaining collection features 47 numbered (but unnamed) sonnets. Number 28, the inscription on George Cartwright’s memorial in one of the graveyards on Cartwright, Newfoundland, is astonishing, reflecting a recurring theme of loss.

Chaulk searches the past, present and unclear future for answers about who he is. Such sonnets hew close to the bone, including the evocative sonnet 8, a discomfiting return to the sleepy suburbs of his youth: “Green suburbs empty every morning and / years later, I trespassed that ghost quiet. / Things lost weight: houses pulled at their basements, / tried hardest not to fall into the sky—.”

In the present, Chaulk captures crew members’ banter. They watch The Young and the Restless, listen to Hockey Night in Canada or prank one another, but his observations often defy further analysis beyond co-worker chit-chat. Sonnet 34 starts digging deeper, though. He discusses his roots with Sonny, a stout Inuit man from Postville: “I stutter out, Some yeah don’t know / how much my dad’s from Goose. Some Cree / from round there too—He leans serious, says / Listen here, it don’t work that way. If you / got blood, you got it. / Plus you looks it too.

The familial, though, keeps him grounded. Chaulk longs to reconnect with his father after remembering a childhood trip to Mulligan where Chaulk sulked his way along the beach, a reflection bringing longing, not comfort. In sonnet 47, Chaulk writes: “I read a shore named Port Disappointment, / abreast now. Maximus lowers a lifeboat; / I move to the window, see nothing there: / the ghosts of family, of language, a bear.” The poet can’t envision how his life will look once he steps ashore after finishing the job.

Traveling to Natuashish, Mokami Mountain or Goose Bay, replete with references to sleep, Chaulk reluctantly attains self-realization in the sprawling “Crown of Broken Blood.” He describes being a constant source of curiosity, as a darker-skinned kid than his peers. While Chaulk buries the lede, he eventually owns his heritage: “I feared what would happen if I spoke. Now / I fear too much could be lost if I don’t.” A mixed-roots identity, then, should inform his verse. With the poet at last on terra firma, in several respects, having found his voice, readers should eagerly anticipate whatever Chaulk does next.

James K. Moran’s fiction, poetry and reviews appear in various Canadian, American and British publications. Town & Train is his debut horror novel. Moran should really be revising his follow-up, Monstrous. jameskmoran.blogspot.ca

 

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