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A Riddle Fence Selection




James Langer in Southword Journal


James Langer grew up in Heart's Desire, Trinity Bay. His first collection of poems, Gun Dogs, was published by Anansi (Toronto) in 2009.










Gun Dogs

Home Suite








Snow eddied, amassed, erased the trails,

and all the instruments failed.


The robot eye of a flashlight bulb

faded to a burnt out retina and blinked out.


In the absence of heat, I struck

the flat of a fire-stick, and sparks


flocked to dry tinder and cloth

like lucent moths.


On the great lake of dark, I was afloat

in a skiff the size of my campfire’s glow.


With no food left, I hung the dog on a spit,

pissed in a pot, and boiled my boots.


And with no dog left, I slept

spooned with the helve and head of an axe.


Then stirred by illumination, not

the back and forth sway of a searchlight,


but the blue cascade from a television set.

Traffic outside. The baseboard heaters ticked,


and all my clocks flashed twelve.


Back to Top.



Gun Dogs



And I’ve unleashed the dogs, out of season,

on days so hot all solids seemed to rise

from a quantum and kindled crux of yeast.

Slipway boats venting through unseasoned gaps,

paint roughed to a barm and the blisters

of green balsam rupturing on contact,

until my hands, drawn tight with a flexed mesh of sap,

hardened like two heels of bread. The gun dogs,

tongues loose, would break on a hot scent

as though to free their paws from ground frost;

hound voices shattering the heat so completely

a dazed sun struggled a moment to piece

the light back together again and regain

its train of lumbering thought. And somewhere

from the understory, a snowshoe hare

would harness that great mutant heart in its chest

and slingshot into naught. I’d wait for the dogs

to circle, wait for their yawps and gutturals

to set borders as far as their voices would carry,

wait beneath spruce and birch boughs hung

in the curve of a boat’s bow or the arch

of a nave infused with stained light. There’s a point

when a beagle turns a corner and changes

its voice from pursuit to driving forth, when the sound

tugs a drawstring through the burlap of your nape,

when the persistent dogs swing to push home,

when they close the distance and nutshell the time

left to reckon with the headwind of a bark

that assembles its mass and leaps as four paws

from a camouflage of brush. Always willing

to start over, go further than need, the hounds

would drive a hare down the burrow of a muzzle

without fear, without shying off. I’ve felt

the dogs turn without a weapon in my grasp,

in the absence of prey, at times and in places

where no dog ran, or was, or had a right to be:

when I loitered in dark corners and put flame

to a glossed patch of gas at the crossroads station,

when I woke in a sub-zero bus shelter with hair

cold-bitten to the hard floor, when I steadied

my father who leaned too far to one side

three days after the first of his brothers died.

Other times, like standing with a lug wrench

in a fog-clot on the isthmus with the hazards tripped

or when my first Selected Frost split

at that place in the bind where “Birches” starts.

It’s surged in the circuit and called me out

when I’ve missed the point or burned it black,

when I’ve holed up in a corridor of sounds

just to feel the echo swell and contract.

Back to Top.



Home Suite



Potholed and patchworked, the worn-out road

bends into town. It’s better this way.

The black ice can’t find room to glide

or slick to an obsidian gloss, set its ambush

of tailspins, donuts and telephone poles. So

the road’s safer beaten and ugly, confessing

its faults, its submission to frost and the flux

of migrating rock, the balk of groundwork

as it thaws. Perhaps you can turn the radio up.

I’ll keep a weather eye, do my level best

against the nooks, the craters, the crannies, the nasties

that bite, share a taste, a sort of lust,

for the sweet spots in your shocks and struts.


Here. This bluff, we call the Gannets. Not much

to look at, I know, but the last clear view

before we hit the sticks and the proverbial shit

hits, well, you understand. A man

who was like a father to my father once told me

that even in a gauze of fog you can read

the Gannets by the rote the sound of the sea

on the beach like nowhere else in the world. Strange,

the way phrases surge and shoal up with a glance

like chinching a gap or finding the frame

of a door in the dark, when most local words

have peeled from my mouth and vanished, cut loose

as ballast, dropped at the lost and found.

Auctioned off, I suppose, over time. What’s that

about setting things free and if they return

they’re yours to keep? That’s an odd thing to say

considering it's me doubling back

on a road that rides like a kick in the pants.


Now train your eyes just beyond my finger:

You can see our old house through a dark like of spruce.

Looks fine from here, perched in its nest,

but for years the clapboard couldn’t cover its debt.

The back wall was left with nothing but bare

chipboard gone sour, washed out in damp greys,

while my bedroom’s second-hand carpet cut corners,

unable to make ends meet, hide debris.

Sure the trusses seem stable, but the drywall’s all rot,

and I’ve no tools or time for its keep, no nerve to fail

trying to coax that yoke back into its shell.


There’s a new town WELCOME sign with a fresh coat

of paint. Turn the radio low and listen. Feel that?

The tires have shifted to smooth asphalt below.

Still, I can’t help but think BRIDGE FREEZES BEFORE ROAD

and there should be a crosswalk hidden under the snow,

which was first spray-painted there many years ago,

after a child was struck cold by a stranger’s car

and a crowd cropped up from beyond the alder grove

to reckon where she ended, if she travelled and how far.

Or it might not have been like that at all. It’s hard

to say where poetic license kicks in,

the transitions so seamless, automatic transmission.

At any rate, now it reads, CHILDREN AT PLAY,

as if in the shadow of a sign the absence is explained.


I’ll admit, I’m glad you wanted to come,

but I was hoping to show you the place as it was.

Not this snow-speckled, picturesque, postcard version,

this polish of ice, this artist’s rendition

but something in need of neglect or repair.

See what I’m saying? In my rear-view mirror

the old town WELCOME sign’s buzz-sawed and nailed

to a decrepit shed door, a dark vault under thumb.

Now that’s more like it. Good to be home.




“Bushcraft,” “Gun Dogs,” and “Home Suite”: poems from Gundogs © 2009 James Langer. Reproduced with permission from House of Anansi Press, Toronto.  http://www.houseofanansi.com




Author Links


Riddle Fence literary magazine

Langer at House of Anansi

Review of Gun Dogs in Quill & Quire






©2009 Southword Editions
Munster Literature Centre

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