Reviewed by Lisa Levesque
In The Fetch, Nico Rogers uses prose poems to attempt to reach back into 1930’s Bonavista Bay, Newfoundland. In part, his stories come from old skippers and fish salters, coupled with the archival photographs scattered throughout the volume. Despite the consequent sense of realism, this work owes its beauty to its unreality; this is a heritage that Rogers claims to have “only ever known through stories” (118). It is an imagined past that Rogers represents, one that is impossible and distant, even if homespun.
Rogers sets out to cover not just one or two lives, but, through a collection of stories, to depict all facets of his imagined Newfoundland. The Fetch begins with birth—one of the first stories of the volume, “Olive Oil,” is about the struggle to save a premature baby—and ends with death—in the penultimate story, “On My Knees in the Flowers,” an old man laments the loss of his wife. These are the bookends of a collection that includes tales about children, newlyweds, starving mothers, and fishermen. As the primary figures are mostly rural, characters from the mainland tend to seem strange; they signify the modernity that impinges on the dreamlike, bygone atmosphere of The Fetch.
The most striking aspect of Rogers’s prose poetry is his explicit or implicit appeals to the reader. The poignancy of “Olive Oil” is heightened by the poet’s use of first person: “Softly, a tiny cry echoed inside the warmer. We gathered all around, moving slow, careful not to stir the hope that filled the air” (15). “We” seems to include readers: we feel anxious for the mother, we experience relief when the baby revives. Throughout the collection, Rogers continually enlarges the scope of the reader’s experiences. Numerous “I’s” surface: “I am alone in the icefield” (51), “I was grateful when I got my hand inside her skirt” (79), “In the spring of ’39 I tried everything to get a penny so I could buy an eleven cent can of Old Bugler, cheapest tobacco there was” (36). Such multivocality sustains the dreaminess and breadth of The Fetch as the reader is invited to explore history firsthand.
Nevertheless, the appeal of this imagined escape is degraded by Rogers’s occasional slips into the grotesque or cliché. He has stories about drowned sailors and mermaids, and although these are important tropes of nautical writing, they appear generic in light of The Fetch’s imagined authenticity. There is the sense of real lives having been lived which haunts The Fetch more generally, and is absent in stories like, “The Fetch”, a typical ghost story which ends the collection on a tinny note.
The odd ghost story or bawdy tale, however, does serve to accentuate The Fetch’s more deeply affective stories. Consider “Fatty Me Mommy,” one of the most disturbing and best of the collection. Narrated by a very young child whose sole friend is a cow, “Fatty Me Mommy” evinces desperation and loneliness. Here, a little girl is sprayed with the blood of rabbits by “the boy Lucence” and hit by her Aunty who has “two yellow toofs”; her only consolation comes from milking the “white blood” of Fatty the cow, who is put to death at the story’s end. Abjection makes this story powerful, individual, and real in a way that makes Rogers’s light-hearted sea-faring tales pale in comparison. Although there are few stories in The Fetch which do not explicitly deal with physical hardships such as near-starvation, alcoholism, and unfulfilled hopes, there is overall a sense of numbness, that pervades the work, the result of familiarization with pain. This is not the case in the raw “Fatty Me Mommy,” where the suffering of the past finally finds cathartic release in the solitary voice of a little girl.
Despite its occasional lapses into the expected, The Fetch is an overwhelmingly strong collection of stories with tremendous breadth that, at its best, also has a keen focus on individual voices. By reimagining the past as speaking directly to the reader, The Fetch convincingly explores a range of possible experiences, each of them personal. Rogers’s’ imagined Newfoundland is dreamlike even while it reads as authentic, a powerful combination that is haunting but homely, dreamlike and bitingly real.
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At press time: Lisa Levesque is a Graduate Student in English at the University of Ottawa. Her interests include American Modernism, Postmodernism and identity politics, and she is also a practicing artist.