Dogfish & poetry & always a bookworm


The recent CBC report on spiny dogfish is no laughing matter, but reminded me it's not the first time dogfish have caused problems in our Atlantic fishing industry. There was a huge dogfish problem in 1930s in Newfoundland. I recently got to  read and review this delightful VERY topical Children's book in The Salon in the Saint John Telegraph Journal.

The Wonderful Dogfish Racket By Tom Dawe (text) and Anne MacLeod (illustrations), published by Pennywell Books, imprint of Flanker Press Limited.

It’s a dogfish dilemma!  Dogfish, or grayfish, are small sharks that “used to be the bane of poor fishermen’s existence and cause quite a commotion in this stunning, rambunctious poetry picture book by distinguished Atlantic poet, editor, artist, folklorist and teacher, Tom Dawe. 

In Cross-handed Cove
It was half past July
No red sky at morning
No gulls flying high …

A veteran storyteller, Dawe weaves his word magic and dazzles from the very beginning. In those four opening lines—his own brilliant once upon a time—he creates atmosphere and setting. It’s as if he whispers Come in, now, settle down, let me tell you how it was.

The Wonderful Dogfish Racket is a tall tale wrapped in a swirl and twirl of words and syllables but the yarning is based on a true but extremely “fishy” incident.

In the 1930’s the Newfoundland Commission of Government issued a bounty on dogfish. Fishermen were paid a small sum for all dogfish caught. Mountains of stinking fish began to pile up in many places creating a health hazard. But the dogfish kept coming to the trawls...

Dawe lifts these prosaic facts and displays masterful “poem telling” genius as he exaggerates the situation and unfolds a pungent community drama.

One day without warning
the bay seem to spin
and under a strange cloud,
 the dogfish came in.

Along with hints of the supernatural, throughout the tale Dawe sprinkles the salty tang of delicious words from the tongue-tangled vernacular of Newfoundland and Labrador.  Think of a bardic voice mixed with a twinkle in the eye. This is so masterfully done; we understand words we’ve never encountered before.  (The glossary at book’s end helps just in case we may want precision.) From crusty and crump to gommer and gurry, from mauzy and mawky and many more, the cadence of the poem echoes the action and the sheer energy of this language and will marness many a reader from nopper to toe.

The Wellem
was wicked
they whirled in the tickle
the lops
looked all reddish
like leftover pickle.

Ah, such slithy words, such Jabberwockyish poetry!  As the members of this coastal community despair, they blame each other and even wonder if a curse has settled over them.

Folks looked to the heavens
and blamed it on sin;
some saw
on every tole pin.

Finally, they look to the politicians for answers and that’s when the bounty on dogfish is declared. But?  Well, politicians can be mawky if not a bunch of complete nawpolls. The result is downright catastrophic.  What about the leftover heads and tails of those dogfish?

As summer grew
they started to spoil,
they reeked
of the gurry
and leaked
rotten oil.

Whatever gurry is, you know it can’t be good. It gets worse. 

Through weeks
of fly-buzzing,
and outright pollution,
could offer
a proper solution.

Naturally, Dawe doesn’t leave us with a rotting dogfish smelling community. I won’t spoil the ending so buy the book, read it aloud, share it among friends if you want to see how the spoiled dogfish racket ends.

Dawe’s telling straddles demographics as it will appeal to the child in everyone as every children’s picture book of lasting excellence does.

The success of The Wonderful Dogfish Racket as picture book—not just illustrated poem—is also due to the artwork of C. Anne McLeod. Her joyful almost comic-like landscapes are at once warm and funny but also as changeable as the events of the story. Visually, she takes us on the journey creating the same strong sense of place and celebration of community as Dawe’s poetry evokes. Stylistically, she  seems to amplify the musicality in Dawe’s text. Her art is a perfect complement to the rollicking tale. My favourite two page spread in the book is the black silhouettes of the townsfolk against a sea and sky of purple: in the night of the dogs days/ (when) the moon looked unwell/ (and) a hard time was coming/ the people could tell.  Macleod captures the haunted beauty and foreshadows the Racket that follows with her choice in interpreting those lines.

I first encountered Dawe’s work in undergraduate school in 1982 in a small poetry book I purchased entitled A Gommil from Bumble Bight.  I was a beginning rhymester at the time and I knew at once Dawe was the kind of poet who offered his very best to children as well as adults.  All these many years later I’m still a fan and his work inspires me as it will many readers for generations to come. 

In A Wonderful Dogfish Racket, Dawe gives us a poetic masterpiece in the oral tradition as he preserves history, celebrates language, makes us laugh, and reminds us of the magic of community.