About the Author

Al Purdy

 

Al Purdy’s down-to-earth voice populates thirty-three books, including The Cariboo Horses (1965), North of Summer (1967), Sex & Death (1973), and Piling Blood (1984). The two major collections of his work are The Collected Poems of Al Purdy (1986) and Beyond Remembering: The Collected Poems of Al Purdy (2000). Purdy died in Sidney, BC, on April 21, 2000.

Robert Budde teaches creative writing and critical theory at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George. He has published four books (two poetry—Catch as Catch and traffick, and two novels—Misshapen and, most recently, The Dying Poem). He maintains two online literary journals at and .

Russell Morton Brown is a professor in the department of English at the University of Toronto. An editor for the University of Toronto Quarterly, the editor of The Collected Poems of Al Purdy, and co-editor with Donna Bennett of the New Anthology of Canadian Literature in English, he was also Editorial Director of Poetry at McClelland and Stewart for five years.

 

Books by this Author
Beyond Remembering

Beyond Remembering

The Collected Poems of Al Purdy
by Al Purdy
foreword by Margaret Atwood
edited by Sam Solecki
edition:Hardcover
More Info
Excerpt

PREFACE
This is my last book. Sam Solecki is the editor, and now seems a good time to thank him, for that and many other reasons. And to thank Eurithe for many many reasons. I said to her a moment ago, "What does it feel like to live with someone who writes poems most of his life and yours?"
She said, "To me it feels normal. I can't compare it with anything else. It was a life."

Sure it was a life. But can't I wring even a modest superlative out of her like: "Al, it was wonderful! I loved every minute of it!" Couldn't she lie a little just to make me happy? I tell you, it's maddening to live with a woman who always has to tell the truth, as if it hurts her in the esophagus or eardrum or in her instep to exaggerate just a wee bit. I tell her shut up then, I got this very important document to write, outlining my Philosophy and World View of the Hereafter.

So I'm left alone to talk with a bunch of ghosts, at least people I can't see, potential readers, past readers, people who can't stand my stuff (no, they can't read anyway). But there are a few, I guess. And now I have a subject. I've reached age 80, and I started to write at 13. Now I hafta make an embarrassed confession: I feel the same way Eurithe does: I can't compare our lives with any others. (But I hate women who're always right like that.)

It was a life, she said. And I thought it was a pretty good one. We did what we wanted to do, went where we wanted to go. I wrote the way I liked, and kidded myself some of it was pretty good. We were broke - and I mean nearly penniless - a few times in earlier days. A few times, for god's sake? Nearly always. There were periods when I was so depressed I felt like suicide -: having failed at everything I tried to do. But we pulled out of it, with some difficulty. And those periods I called "The Bad Times" seem to me now something like Triumph. "Don't you think so, dear?"

"They were horrible. You should have committed suicide."
What are ya gonna do with a woman like that?
Anyway, yes, it was a life. I wouldn't have wanted any other.

Al Purdy
Sidney, BC / Ameliasburg, Ontario 1999

Purdy's Last Poem: "Both Her Gates East and West"
Wanderings in Canada in the century
before the Millennium . . .

This is where I came to
when my body left its body
and my spirit stayed
in its spirit home

Beside the seething Fundy waters
my friend sleeps
and wrote this message for me
"I'll wait for you in the west
Till your sun comes down for its setting"
That grand summer in Newfoundland
when we feasted on wild raspberries
bakeapples Screech and salmon
walked four miles in the rain
(you blamed me for) to L'Anse aux Meadows
where Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine
were digging up Leif the Lucky's ruins
talked to them an hour
while I watched the Viking ship
and horned heads leaping ashore
reflected in Ingstad's blue eyes
On Baffin Island
north of summer and summer
comes again with every flower
a river where I slept a moment's hour
to dream and plucked white blossoms
and sent them searching for you
from that island of lost memory
are the flowers still searching?
Quebec was summer in Montreal
Cùte des Neiges and St. Joseph's
with Brother Andre's heart
pickled in alcohol
where I climbed the steps in winter
"the lame and the halt and the blind"
climbed in summer
in search of Brother Andre's miracle
and threw away their crutches
On a green island in Ontario
I learned about being human
built a house and found the woman
and we shall be there forever
building a house that is never finished
Camped by the South Saskatchewan
all day we listened to voices
we heard inside ourselves
the river like a blue bracelet
where the Metis fought their last battle
Dumont Letendre and old Ouellette
their ghosts came to us in sleep
as white mist moved over our bodies
the river flowed into the sky
In the Alberta prairie badlands
camped by the vanished Bearpaw Sea
in Dinosaur Provincial Park
after the campground closed in fall
we wander NO TRESPASSING badlands
- the white light suddenly changes
to brown sepia twilight
we're 75 million years back in time
beasts like bad dreams ramp around us
with bodies we can see through
transparent in the sepia sun
and Canada becomes a very old country
the Rocky Mountains fold themselves upward
giants rising slowly
and we are children again
Through the Crow's Nest mountains
at age 17
the freight train a black caterpillar
climbing climbing climbing
vertebrae chattering up the mountains
red coal cinders blackening my face
riding the high catwalks riding the empties
like bugs like dwarfs like boys pretending
they're men halfway high as the mountains go
below us valleys bathed in sunlight
glowing enchanted valleys
and I came to believe we were beloved there
beloved in a land fortunate of itself
beneath black cinders on our faces
we glowed in turn from the soul's well-being
while I tried to explain myself to myself
the simple earth and sky-searching mountains
were things I never could explain
Flying north and following the Mackenzie
River long after the Scots explorer
endless forest then endless empty land
we seemed to hang between earth and sky
then a monster hand with a hundred fingers
spreading itself over the river delta
and a permafrost town still Canada
the Beaufort Sea beyond
where the world was blue forever

- comes the millennium into our brief lives

I suppose it's like a kid growing up
to see the parts of your own country
like a jigsaw that suddenly comes together
and turns into a complete picture
you've touched nearly all the parts
you've become a certain kind of adult
and the ordinary places become endearments
that slip into your mind and grow there
and you change into what you already are
in a country you can wear like an old overcoat
Joseph's coat of many colours

The millennium really makes little difference
except as a kind of unsubtle reminder of
the puzzle that is yourself and always changing
the country that you wandered like a stranger
but stranger no longer
yourself become undeniable to yourself
wearing the lakes and rivers towns and cities
a country that no man can comprehend
Joseph's coat turned inside out
now indistinguishable from your own innards
- a country that no man may comprehend
asking the same questions as in ages past
time measurable by the tick-tock of millenniums
and if by chance we are not alone
some traveller on another planet
may catch a glimpse of us sometimes
looking outward into the night sky

close this panel
No One Else is Lawrence!

No One Else is Lawrence!

A Dozen of D.H Lawrence's Best Poems
edition:Paperback
More Info
Excerpt

The Man of Tyre
by D.H. Lawrence

The man of Tyre went down to the sea
pondering, for he was Greek, that God is one and all alone and ever more shall be so.

And a woman who had been washing clothes in the pool of rock
where a stream came down to the gravel of the sea and sank in
who had spread white washing on the gravel banked above the bay,
who had lain her shift on the shore, on the shingle slope,
who had waded to the pale green sea of evening, out to a shoal,
pouring sea-water over herself
now turned, and came slowly back, with her back to the evening sky.

Oh lovely, lovely with the dark hair piled up, as she went deeper, deeper down the channel, then rose shallower, shallower,
with the full thighs slowly lifting of the water wading shorewards
and the shoulders pallid with light from the silent sky behind
both breasts dim and mysterious, with the glamourous kindness of twilight between them
and the dim blotch of black maidenhair like an indicator,
giving a message to the man --

So in the cane-brake he clasped his hands in delight
that could only be god- given, and murmured:
Lo! God is one god! But here in the twilight
godly and lovely comes Aphrodite out of the sea
towards me!

Commentary The Man of Tyre

B. This seems paired with "Invocation to the Moon". They're both invocations to the feminine but here the invocation works brilliantly.

P. "Invocation" . . . is a little verbose and, as I pointed out, exaggerated. "The Man of Tyre" seems right, the phraseology. That seems to be all that needs to be said.

B. This is a glorious celebration of womanhood.

P. And religion. Because it's a religious poem, it makes the feeling itself religious.

B. That's a beautiful way of putting it. The celebration of the woman becomes religious.

P. He brings in religion, femininity, beauty, and sex. The whole works.

B. It's all one for Lawrence. The language, oh, the language in the third stanza is magnificent; in her, in her elemental femininity, giving a message to the man. It's a glorious painting of Frieda, no?

P. I think "Giving a message to the man" is amusing.

B. Well, Al, Frieda was probably the only woman for Lawrence. The language in that third stanza is not so surprising but it all comes together brilliantly.

P. The words themselves, even in the thoughts, the phraseology is not so startling, as you say, but ...

B. Often, in Lawrence, it's the cumulative effect, the incantatory build-up of line upon line.

P. He does something similar in "Bells," which we talk about next.

B. You see this more and more in the longer poems. Ginsberg attempted this.

P. Yes, but he piled lines upon lines to such a degree that they toppled over.

B. The technique can easily break the poem apart. But the poems we've chosen don't topple over.

P. Maybe the Americans worship Whitman so much that when they saw that Ginsberg was influenced by Whitman they liked him for that. And of course it was also what Ginsberg said. Sometimes Americans like to hear bad things about themselves. They're most interested in other people's opinions about them, so long as they can forgive the bad opinions.

B. Lawrence could have gone on and on in the third stanza but he uncharacteristically contains himself in the formal shape of the poem. "The Man of Tyre" is held beautifully. It's held within the poem, in a way that is spoken about in the last stanza.

P. There is some exaggeration but it's exaggeration that you can live with. I almost recall the first time I read this poem years ago and thought "what a lovely poem," and you read it many more times and in a commonplace voice because somehow Lawrence makes it commonplace and wonderful at the same time.

B. Your reading in that commonplace voice is so good for the poem because that's what the language calls for, you get rid of that jarring and rhyme of the "sea . . . me" so close together at the end. Read your way one is not disturbed by the ending.

P. I didn't even notice it. Also it's a little story. It's a story . . .

B. Meaning ...

P. Well, let's go through it. Incidentally, do all Greeks "ponder"? It makes you wonder. Anyway, it's giving him credit for being a philosopher.

B. In Greek mythology they do.

P. And philosophy too.

B. A minor cavil. I wish to hell we could get rid of Lawrence's extreme overuse of the exclamation point! But they don't bother you, eh?

P. I don't even think of them. Why do they bother you?

B. They suggest a weakness of expression, a weakness in the language which the punctuation is attempting to alleviate. if he had the language that he really wanted, the exclamation marks would be unnecessary. Maybe he doesn't have the language he wants, maybe it's not possible for words to convey what Lawrence often feels.

P. I read the poems for the sense of them, I pay no attention, unless it's a line break.

B. I guess I feel the language is good enough, and therefore it doesn't need them. He used them a lot and I don't think they're necessary.

P. No, I don't either. Sometimes Lawrence's whole language is exclamation.

B. Right. You don't need the marks. However, it's a minor cavil.

P. You like the word "cavil."

B. I seem to have just discovered it. It's just that these poems are so great, it's sometimes necessary to make some minor criticism, just to keep sane. And they could be better. But I don't mean to nitpick. "The Man of Tyre" is a great homage to the feminine.

P. Yes, though strongly religious because it makes female-male relations religious.

B. For Lawrence they were.

close this panel

Poems for All the Annettes

by Al Purdy
introduction by Steven Heighton
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
tagged : canadian
More Info
Reaching for the Beaufort Sea

Reaching for the Beaufort Sea

An Autobiography
edition:Hardcover
tagged : literary, canadian
More Info
Excerpt

Looking back on it, I remember the ending better than the beginning. There's a Japanese historical movie called Gate of Hell, in colour. Its opening scenes had all the confusion of the ending of my first (and last) business venture. Fires were blazing, people rushing in all directions, confusion, chaos - I'm talking about the Kinugasa movie. But in 1948 the Diamond Taxi was real. And I was losing it.

The reasons for losing it were simple (or they seem so now). Bad management, on the part of both myself and my father-in-law, Jim Parkhurst. Bad drivers who kept crashing cars. Debts for both gas and repairs were beginning to overwhelm us. And our reputation was bad, since there was bootlegging on the part of both drivers and management.

And my marriage was falling apart. There was tension under and sometimes on the surface whenever Eurithe and I spoke to each other. I don't know why exactly. It was very painful for me. I see myself standing facing her in the little one-room apartment, which was also the taxi office. Her eyes said that she detested me. And how can a man understand that a woman whom lie has loved and cherished despises him - like a slug, like spittle underfoot? Like nothing.
So we busted up. That was maybe 1947. I don't know for sure. But living was at a high pitch then; there was no doubt about being alive; things hurt too much not to know. Writing about it now, the urgency and uncertainty and tension all seem to return to a degree . . . But details are vague in some areas; bright and clear in others.

The bailiffs were seizing everything on behalf of the garages, service stations and finance companies to whom we owed money. They had already taken nearly everything. I was driving the last unseized taxi, a tan-coloured 1946 Dodge, quite an unremarkable car in every way: but its tail lights winked when it caught sight of me, its seat comfortable to rny behind. It knew me, and would've wagged its tail if it had had one.

Belleville, Ontario, just after midnight in the fall of 1948. There's been rain earlier in the evening, still a trace of it remains on the pavement. I am driving the old Dodge down Bridge Street, going nowhere in particular, feeling very depressed about myself, about Eurithe, about the taxi business, and it was maybe just about to rain again ...
Then I spotted that car behind me. Couldn't see who was driving, half a block behind and going faster than my Dodge. Not a cop, not the look of a private citizen either, and not another taxi since there was no roof light. It made me uneasy to be followed, especially since I had nearly two full cases of beer in the car, with a few more stashed under the front seat where I could get at them easily.
I turned right on Pinnacle Street and headed east. The other car was still behind me and closing fast. It kept turning its bright lights up and down, as if I was meant to be terrified from being followed and pull over. Well, fuck him - or her, as the case might be. I zipped down Pinnacle at about seventy, turned left with a shriek of tires at a narrow lane that exited on the main drag. The guy - it was a man - was less than a hundred yards behind when I wheeled her right at Front Street, clipped an ornamental shrub on the curb, then whipped over the Moira Bridge to North Front and floored her on the way north.
The last bailiff, the last car, and me, the last human being on a dying planet. And sure, I felt melodramatic and histrionic, kind of excited too. This is the way to end things, a marriage, a business, maybe even a lifetime. Bullshit didn't occur to me. That damn car behind had gained and then lost ground, its driver a hunched shape, visible only if my rear vision mirror and street light coincided.
There were headlights behind me, but I think it was just someone who couldn't remember where he lived after a few beers. I saw the bailiff again on the way north, at least I think it was him. He'd stopped dimming his lights, hoping I'd stop. By that time my blood was racing too hard to pay attention to anything except what the voice in my brain was whispering, "Don't stop! Don't stop! Don't stop! ...
"Highway 62 in red October." I drove north on the new highway to Bancroft, went whispering through the little villages of Bannockburn and El Dorado with all windows dark at two a.m. This is my grandfather's country, or so I like to think of it. Swigging at the beer. (What kind?. . . I can't remember.) And where was the guy who intended to take my car away from me? Somewhere behind, far behind, I hope. Ex-wife back there too. And Jim Parkhurst as well - Wheeler-Dealer Jim couldn't deal his way out of this one. Dodge purring along at a steady eighty, no sweat, no worry, and have another beer.
Only a mile ahead Highway 62 branches off left: I make the turn onto the old Hastings Road just in time. It used to be the main highway to Bancroft and Maynooth, but now the roadbed is potholed and crumbling. It twists and turns, zigzags up and down hills, reverts to gravel then back to paved surface again, dense bush crowding in on either side. A road that seems to have a mind of its own, and decides every turn by itself. Once there were subsistence farms here, weathered log barns and cabins, a few more pretentious structures. All are crumbling back into earth. Animals and people, where are they?
I catch a glimpse of headlights a mile or so behind, then they dip under the crest of a hill. But I made the turn, off Highway 62 before those lights could reappear. It couldn't be the bailiff - miles and miles north of Madoc and a hundred thousand miles south of the moon.
Slow down to about twenty, then have to stop the car and move a dead tree fallen onto the road. Have a piss, off to one side of the road for modesty's sake, the moon a pale neutral onlooker. Another beer, and sling the empty bottle into the bush to await future archaeologists. Then migawd a beaver dam in front of me, its water crossing the road ahead. How far ahead? I maneouvre the Dodge until its headlights appear to illuminate a hill, which is maybe fifty yards farther on. A hill? That means the water in front can't be very deep? Well, does it mean
that?
Very slowly I aim the old Dodge into shallow water, and slowly, slowly my sweating mind and body accompany the car. With a beer held tight in my crotch, peering intensely ahead where the road appears to go - or once went and now doesn't go at all. And maybe Grey Owl's favourite beaver family is eating willow and poplar soufflé on disposable plates ahead, and me about to interrupt their dinner?
Yep, it's a hill. And the car feels like it's working hard at the top. And there's a lake on my left. I pull off into a cleared place, once perhaps a scenic lookout, and look down on a white eye of water that stares up at the moon. Twenty feet below the lake appears deep; but I can't really tell for sure.
The Dodge is now sobbing in neutral for what is to come, emergency brake on. I find a fifteen-pound rock, adjusting it above the accelerator pedal until the motor is growling hard. Standing by the door, I smack the metal roof goodbye, release the emergency brake and stand back to watch. (Of course I haven't neglected to liberate what remains of the beer.)
The old Dodge hits the water and sinks, but slowly, as if it feels reluctant to go. Bubbles of air come popping up to the surface. Ifeel emotional about it, as if I've betrayed the poor beast. Well, better some nameless lake than nagging creditors. The car sits down there in maybe thirty feet of water, headlights still shining upward. I think they won't last long, and will die with the car.
I gather up the beer into an old windbreaker, sling it over my shoulder and start back toward Highway 62. At the beaver pond, I have to roll up my pantlegs and my shoes squish like wet cardboard wading through the moonlight.
Something ending. I mourn for that mechanical thing as if it were human flesh. And have another beer. Black Label. Walking toward my grandiose destiny, which is not Diamond Taxi, not Eurithe - and just what the hell is it then? South to Highway 40I in early dawn; drinking the last beer a bit north of Madoc, then catching six winks of sleep beside the road.
Hitchhike to Toronto? Sure. Well, how about writing a novel? Yep. And start a new life, leave the old one behind. And this is the way the world begins, not with a whimper but the bang of broken glass from my last Black Label empty. The novel? I shall dedicate it to my dead grandfather, Ridley Neville Purdy (miserable old bastard)? Why not? (He saw through all my pretences so well-) To Ol Rid, then.

* * * * * * * *

When the Diamond Taxi came up for sale after the war (four cars and four licenses), Jim Parkhurst proposed that both of us should drive cab and manage the business together. And I supplied all the money to buy the outfit. Our arrangement was that Jim take no salary, not until we estimated that the amount of work he'd contributed amounted to the same value as my own cash investment. That seemed quite reasonable to me at the time, and I had no other plans for making a living. And my wife seemed to go along with the deal. I did have a few forebodings about it myself, since I had no management experience and quite a few doubts about myself. Anyway, the taxi business in that late summer of 1945, with Jim Parkhurst and I (supposedly) in charge, became my life for the next three years.

A sandy-haired man named Lorne Munro had owned the Diamond Taxi previously. Its cars were old and decrepit, none having been replaced or adequately repaired over six years of war. Of these cars only an old green Hudson, a now defunct species, had any attraction for me. The shock absorbers of all the cars gave passengers a bumpy ride; even the tires were unreliable; and wartime gas was still rationed. However, Jim Parkhurst seemed to have the answers, reassured my nervous queries, gave one and all the strong impression that things were going well and lie had the business under complete control.
Jim was a study in character contrasts. Born on a farm in the Bancroft area eighty miles north of Belleville, he joined the army at age fifteen during the first World War. A lanky six feet three inches in height with a mature manner and appearance: recruiting officers passed him with little more than a quizzical frown regarding his proof of age.

World War I and the Canadian Army were the big adventures of Jim's life. He loved the army, romanticized European places, was promoted to Sergeant, suffered serious shrapnel wounds, and was discharged with a pension in 1918. Disliking farm life, he became a door-to-door salesman for Maclean's magazine. He sold encyclopedias and whatever came to hand. Shortly after the war he married Ethel Ryan of Montreal. A production line of procreation was set up, and produced eleven children. They were still arriving when I met Eurithe in Belleville in 1941. She was the second oldest.

Somewhere along the line Jim Parkhurst had acquired small expertise in nearly everything imaginable. Hating to work for anyone but himself, he hauled cordwood from the north with an old truck when the sales jobs petered out. The wartime shrapnel wounds had never properly heaIed, remained suppurating and had to be treated and bandaged daily.

Our taxi office was an upstairs room with sink and small toilet, which doubled as Eurithe's and my apartment. It was at the south end of Belleville's main drag, right beside the London Lunch. There was also a phone in the downstairs hallway, where drivers took calls and reported in. Two doors away was another taxi office, Grotto's; this one much different in character from our flighty and sometimes irresponsible operation. Grotto's had been in existence for some forty years. It was owned by two brothers, both elderly, one with greyness showing under his skin even when closely shaved; the other you never saw at all.

I mention Grotto's because Diamond was such an opposite number, its drivers seemingly recruited from race tracks; bootlegging by all of them including the co-managers (booze was very scarce and continued to be rationed immediately after the war, a twenty-five-ounce bottle selling for ten bootleg bucks, a mickey for five). Still, I personally must have felt a great sense of freedom, of beginning to think for myself again after six years of close military supervision. In the midst of it, Eurithe and I were perceptibly drawing apart, a situation not of my choosing. And I suppose my mind was chaotic. I was drinking some beer at times - which translates to mean that I drank too much every couple of weeks. Above all, I had no plan or design for my life, as some people appear to possess. I had no confidant, or really close friends. I lived from day to day. One may call this pragmatic or existentialist, which is perhaps a way of dignifying chaos.

It was an era of clichés - I was a disorganized and lost soul. On the other hand, it's difficult to say that I wasn't actually "blossoming" in full possession of this unaccustomed freedom. Freedom despite drinking bouts and driving twelve-hour shifts seven days a week. I was writing some pretty awful poems. None survive now, scribbled frenziedly when the ideas came, sitting in rented rooms or idling taxis outside the taxi office, often just before sleep, at rare times in pubs on napkins and beer-splashed tables. I remember none of them, just the fact that they once existed and vanished quickly.

Lorne Munro didn't vanish, remaining in the offing after he sold his business. I'd run into him sometimes that late summer with girlfriend in tow; and occasionally picked him up at the Queen's Hotel, the Docter's Hotel, carting them to Munro's apartment on Belleville's west hill. He was obviously rootless and lost himself. About forty, a casual man with offhand conversation, waving his hand languidly to emphasize a point that nobody cared about anyway. His girlfriend, Edna, dark haired, spasmodic in speech, close to an alcoholic, as Lome was himself.
One day he hired me for an afternoon trip into Prince Edward County, taking me into his confidence about the project he had in mind. "She's an alcoholic," Lorne whispered in my ear confidentially, "and I gotta break her of the booze habit. I've got it all planned out, and this afternoon you and me, we're gonna make it happen."

I was fascinated and bemused by all this, also extremely curious. The husky alcoholic voice whispered in my ear from six feet away; the rehabilitation scenario unfolding, cause and effect, beneficial result a mere matter of time.
I took Lorne Munro and his Edna into Prince Edward for several miles. We stopped at a sunny farmer's field complete with grazing cows; we unloaded a trunk full of groceries, bottled water, Coleman lamp and sundries; we set up a tent in the middle of the field while cows watched in cow-wonder. . . And left her there. Edna said on our departure, "I have nothing to read," in a whiny voice.
"Ya can't read anyway," Lorne said.

Walking away from the tent in memory, I look back. Her forlorn little face stared after us, her expression saying better than words that she didn't know what was happening to her. And maybe she didn't.

In the car Lorne Munro said, "We'Il pick her up again two days from now." He glanced at me sharply. "You'Il see. She'Il be a new woman."

But I never saw Edna again, whether she was new or old. He must've got someone else to pick her up from where she was marooned in that farmer's field. Or perhaps he changed his mind and went back again the same day. There are some cold nights in Prince Edward County, even in the summer.

******************

At war's end with men pouring out of the armed forces, eager for freedom and the fleshpots of "Civvy Street," the streets of Belleville were blue, brown and white with airmen, sailors and soldiers. All thirsty for booze and women, aching to spend money, wanting excitement and novelty, wanting, wanting, wanting . . .

Bootlegging flourished - I think all the taxis except Grotto's sold booze. Trains kept arriving from Toronto and Montreal jammed with discharged military heroes, some spreading out to northern towns, Madoc, Tweed, small villages and farms along the highway to Bancroft.

Undoubtedly there were scams and confidence operations; certainly a few of these people were cheated of something or other. Nearly everyone you met was good-humoured, eager to see again a face they loved, a place they remembered. I had felt much the same myself on retuming to Trenton to find my mother old (she would have been sixty-seven then, five years younger than I am now), and alone, turning more and more to religion for solace. (l have a twinge of guilt when I think of her.) Anyway, at Trenton I tried to find again all the old places mentally joined to my own youth - Weddell's tugs, B.W. Powers coal sheds on Front Street, ruins of the munitions factory east of the river. . . Not that I loved them as such, but they were part of my past, lost fragments of myself.

Jim Parkhurst's older sons, Gordon (the eldest) from the army, and Alvin from the navy, were also eventually discharged. When Mike's Taxi and LaMorre's Taxi (four cars and licenses each) came up for sale, Jim used his sons' military credits to add them to our growing fleet. Neither son possessed enough money to take over Mike's and LaMorre's on their own, but pyramided onto Diamond Taxi the wobbly financial structure was almost, viable. The two ex-military sons joined us as drivers, Jim and I remaining as managers. There were perhaps two dozen, or slightly more, taxi licenses in Belleville in 1945. Jim Parkhurst and I controlled nearly half of them.

One would think such percentages ought to ensure success; but it was a recipe for disaster. Jim and I got into more and more disagreements, struggles for control, under-the-surface wrestlings, out-and-out fights for simple domination. After Eurithe and I separated, around 1947, say, I don't think she was completely aware of the duel her father and I were waging. It wasn't very often obvious, only once or twice were there any shouting matches between us, just this continual slipping away of any power or influence in my own possession.

Of course it disturbed me. I was twenty-six, and had spent nearly six years having nearly every move I made dictated by superior officers. Then very suddenly I had to act on my own, make my own decisions with no help from any quarter. Neither previous experience nor my own psychological make-up was a preparation for this situation. I felt lost. And yet, on the outside I was brash, confident and sometimes overbearing - I think I was, I believe I was like that. Probably my outside character was fairly unattractive. (Think back on your own past selves: do any of us really know what we were like then, that misty and unresolved person long ago, from whom we have somehow evolved to what we are now?)

I was ex-military, and shared all the weaknesses of other ex-military personnel who thronged the streets in 1945. I had developed a taste for beer; I liked women, and found it difficult to meet any after the breakup with Eurithe. I was directionless, suddenly released froin, the confines of marriage. (That word "confines"? - yes, I think there are bonds and shackles attached to all relationships.) I am introspective now, not so much so then. At the time, I think I was - somehow - "panic-stricken" at being alive. Can that be understood? What does it entail to live in the world, alive in the solitary conning tower of the brain, pondering all the why and wherefore questions we must ponder? Of course, no answers at all present themselves.

close this panel
Starting from Ameliasburgh

Starting from Ameliasburgh

The Collected Prose of Al Purdy
edition:Hardcover
More Info
Excerpt

THE CARTOGRAPHY OF MYSELF

IN EARLY SUMMER, 1965, I WAS COASTING ALONG in a Nordair DC8, bound for Frobisher Bay, Baffin Island. It was about 4 a.m. and most of the other passengers were asleep, but I was peering from the window watching the small reflection of our aeroplane skimming over the blue water and floating ice of Frobisher Bay, several thousand feet down. Low hills on either side of us were patched with snow, like Jersey cows. The water was so blue that the colour looked phony; the sun had been up for about an hour.

Far beneath the noisy DC8, ice floes reeled away south. Black-and-white Arctic hills surrounded us. This was the first time I had been to the Arctic, and I was so excited that I could hardly sit still. In Cuba, England, France, and other countries I'd felt like a stranger; but here, I'd never left home. And I thought what an odd feeling it was in a region that most people think is desolate and alien. But I felt that the Arctic was just a northern extension of southern Canada. Baffin Island:

A club-shaped word
a land most unlike Cathay or Paradise
but a place the birds return to
a name I've remembered since childhood
in the first books I read -
('The Turning Point")

I have this same feeling of enjoyment, of being at home, all over Canada. Maybe part of the reason comes from an earlier feeling of being trapped forever in the town of Trenton, Ontario, when I was a child; then the tremendous sense of release when I escaped, riding the freight trains west during the Depression. Also, I take a double view of history, for then and now merge somewhat in my mind. Winnipeg is also Fort Garry and Seven Oaks. Adolphustown, not far from where I live in Prince Edward County, is the spot where the United Empire Loyalists landed nearly 200 years ago. The restored fortress of Louisbourg in Cape Breton makes me feel like a living ghost, especially when looking at the tombstone of Captain Israel Newton who died there, a member of the colonial army from New England. And driving along Toronto's Don Valley Parkway, I think of the old Indian trails that take the same route under black asphalt. In cities everywhere, grass tries to push aside the concrete barriers of sidewalks.

I think especially of people in connection with places. Working on a highway near Penticton, British Columbia, with a fellow wanderer named Jim, shovelling gravel atop boiling tar: a speeding car ignored warning signs and nearly killed us; the big road foreman blistered that driver's hide until his face turned dull red.

And walking through the Okanagan Valley with my friend, picking cherries from orchards for food, sleeping wherever we could: sometimes in vacant sheds, and once buried in the pungent shavings of a sawmill. Then going to work for two weeks on a mountain farm, for a man whose naine sounded like "Skimmerhorn." I got five dollars for those two weeks, cutting down trees with Jim and splitting them with wedges. At night, we listened to John McCormack sing 'The Far Away Bells Are Ringing" on a wind-up phonograph. Jim stayed behind to work for a stake, but I gave up and rode the freights west to Vancouver. I never saw him again.

One of my favourite Canadian places is the area around Hazelton and Woodcock on the big bend of the Skeena River in British Columbia. I was stationed at Woodcock in 1943, helping to build a landing field as part of the defences for an expected japanese invasion. Snow-covered mountains surrounded the barracks sheds, with the Skeena River racing down the green valley on its way to Prince Rupert. Sometimes there were eagles, circling overhead nearly as high as the sun. And on weekend passes, airmen from the base would hop freight trains to Hazelton or Smithers to drink beer and terrorize pleasurably the local female population.

In 1960 I went back to the big bend of the Skeena to do some writing about the Tsimshian Indians around Hazelton and Kispiox. I was driving a '48 Pontiac that coughed its way up and down. the mountain roads, threatening to expire at any minute. But I managed to reach Kispiox on the Indian reservation, with its carved house fronts and rotting totem poles. The place seemed entirely deserted, so I drove past the village and down to the Kispiox River. Standing in the shallows, wearing hip waders and baseball caps, were some twenty American fishermen with station wagons parked nearby.

There are other places stored on my mind's memory tapes. Places where I feel comfortable, at home: the battlefield at Batoche, in Saskatchewan, where I camped in a trailer; the highline tracks of the CPR near Field, BC, where I'd walked after a cop kicked me off a freight at Golden, then became a CPR labourer on a landslide blocking passage east for forty-eight hours, then rode in legal luxury to Calgary on a work train. And once there was a mile-long Arctic island, my home for three weeks of summer: I lay with my ear flat against the monstrous stone silence of the island, listening to the deep core of the world - silence unending and elemental, leaked from a billion-year period before and after the season of man.

I think back to all the places I've been, the people I've met and the things I've done. Having written and edited some twenty books, I hope to write a dozen more - to follow all the unknown roads I have not explored, until they branch off and become other roads in my mind . . .

There is a map in my head that I've carried there ever since I left school, and I connect it, oddly, with Leo Tolstoy. He wrote a short story called "How Much Land Does a Man Need," in which a man was given title, free and clear, to as much land as he could encircle on foot between sunup and sundown. The man was too greedy for land, tried to walk around too much of it, and died of exhaustion just before the sun went down.

But I have as much land as I need right now. There is a tireless runner in my blood that encircles the borderlands of Canada through the night hours, and sleeps when day arrives. Then my mind awakes and the race continues. West
with the long and lamentably undefended American border; north along the jagged British Columbia coast to the whale-coloured Beaufort Sea and the Arctic Islands; south in past Baffin and Newfoundland to the Maritimes and sea
lands of the Grand Banks. This is the map of myself, what I was and what I became. It is a cartography of feeling and sensibility: and I think the man who is not affected at all by this map of himself that is his country of origin, that man is emotionally crippled.

My own country seems to me not aggressive, nor in search of war or conquest of any kind. It is exploring the broken calm of its domestic affairs. Slowly it investigates its own somewhat backward technology, and sets up committees on how not to do what for whom. My country is trying to resolve the internal contradictions of the Indian and French-Canadian nations it contains. In rather bewildered and stupid fashion it stares myopically at the United States, unable to, assess the danger to the south - a danger that continually changes in economic character, and finally confronts us from within our own borders.

This is the map of my country, the cartography of myself.
(1977)

IRVING LAYTON:
Balls for a One-Armed Juggler
QUESTION: IS IT POSSIBLE TO SITUATE IRVING LAYTON anywhere in the general "tradition" of Canadian poetry?

ANSWER: I don't think so, in spite of the fact that he's here. There has never been anyone quite like Layton - for good or bad - in Canadian poetry. He's the sport and anomaly of tradition

Q: Layton bas been called an innovator and a meticulous craftsman. Is this true?

A: He is not an innovator - unless you consider that his subject matter and language are innovation. Which in a sense I do. But given the tradition of preaching Christ-like sensualists and moralists such as Nietzsche, Lawrence and Shaw - then Layton is a fine craftsman. And this is relevant in an odd way. It allows Layton to swing expertly and acrobatically around the fixed trapeze of his own and other men's certainties.

Q.: To what poets or group of present day writers has he most affinity?

A: Leaving out the dead men for whom Layton professes admiration, one has to point to the Americans whom Layton affects to despise, such as Ginsberg, Kerouac, etc. - the Beats. But Layton has a singing magnificence in his earlier work which I find absent from theirs.

Q: There is preoccupation with physical violence and cruelty in many Layton poems. What does this indicate?

A: That he is a moralist. The reader may generally draw a conclusion or point a moral with Layton's poems of animal death and human violence.

Q: How good is he?

A: The best in the country.

There is much to be said for the idea that Layton is his own mythology. He stalks through most of the poems in Balls for a One-Armed Juggler much larger than life-size, far more angry than it's possible to sustain in the living flesh and bone of the human mind. So that his poems are frozen anger, solidified passion--set rigidly into forms which do not allow this anger to dissipate away into sleep or lessen into human anti-climax.

Of course there are modulations and degrees of printed emotion. There are also rare flashes of the characteristic early lyricism, which now seems to be fading away in the poet's impassioned middle age. Label this excerpt pity:
for I loved you from the first
who know what they do not know,
seeing in your death a tragic portent
for all of us who crawl and die
under the wheeling disappearing stars;
("Elegy for Marilyn Monroe")

Humour in Layton is liable to be savage as an executioner laughing at his victims. The philosophic moments are hardly ever calm, but generally vital:
Yet vitality proves nothing except that
something is alive
So is a pole-cat; so is a water-rat
("On Rereading the Beats")

I don't think I've ever met a human being with such impressive qualities of being right all the time as Irving Layton. And in this regard man and poems are inseparable. In a sense that's admirable. I admire the passion and bluster and candour it gives to the poems. In another sense I don't like anybody to be so right all the time. For it is not a very human quality; it withdraws its possessor from participation in the storms and passions of the actual world, makes him a mere angry supreme court spectator. It turns a man into a megalomaniac god. I think some readers share this dislike of the absolute, and certainly the tendency of a few is to rebel against it.

However, that is ungrateful. God pities the dead little fox in "Predator." God explains "Why I Can't Sleep Nights" in the poem of that title. God condemns and castigates the sinful individual in "Epigram for Roy Daniells." And God has written parables for his worshippers - "Butterfly on Rock" and "A Tall Man Executes a Jig," (of which Irving said to me once, "AI, in ten years you'Il be able to understand this poem. In twenty you might be able to write one as good." I was moved to a great humbleness by this statement.)

But I'm not one of Layton's detractors. Balls is an excellent book of poems. It deserves to be read by all - especially those to whom Layton addresses the poems specifically. And I notice that even those who dislike Layton always read him - if only to rush indignantly to their typewriters. For perhaps I'm wrong about this god-idea, and the anger of some of Layton's critics is the only indication they are alive.
(1963)

The Collected Poems of Irving Layton
THE COLLECTED POEMS OF IRVING LAYTON is a large blockbuster of a book. It takes in most of Layton's published work for the last twenty years, replaces the earlier Red Carpet for the Sun from the standpoint of quantity, and allows the reader to indulge in some wide generalizations.

For instance, some people believe that Layton has been slipping badly as a poet, perhaps ever since about 1960 when he was receiving greatest recognition. In fact I shared this belief myself and mentioned it to Milton Wilson. But Wilson said he saw no change one way or the other in Layton's work (this is only an approximate quote), and that very likely it was the poetry reader who had changed - not Layton.

Looking at the present Collected Poems I now think Milton Wilson was right. Since reading Layton for the first time I've changed, at least my own attitudes have; and other readers too have retreated somewhat from an earlier enthusiasm.

I find that curious. One might suppose that a work of art endures unchanged in one's own mind forever, or the personal equivalent of forever. Not so. And it does chill me a little to think that perhaps one day I may tire of Peter Breughel, W.B. Yeats, the French Impressionists etc.

The question is: why has my own attitude (as well as that of some other people) changed regarding Layton's poems? For he is in many obvious ways, the great trail-blazer in Canadian poetry. He antedated and outdid the blessedly unborn American Beats as long ago as 1950. He broke the sound barrier of taboo and prudery thru his use of words relating to the sexual act, at a time when many young poets now using his methods and perhaps believing themselves excessively daring were yet unborn. (In Vancouver during the early fifties the poems of this then unknown poet of Montreal affected me like a personal revelation, thru which I thought life had been stripped down to its basics of delight and honesty.)

The trouble is that Layton is still doing the same things today. He has not changed. And on closer inspection what looked daring then seems commonplace now. The sexual words turn out to be those found in textbooks, phallus, penis, and the like. And I have been inoculated to some degree against Layton by repeated and massive doses of Layton. Whereas the younger generation has not been so inoculated. He is fresh and new to them: which is erha it h Id be, for he is a poet of youth and the flesh, the quick and easy judgment, immediate praise or condemnation whatever the grounds for either.

Layton's critics select specific objectives at which to aim their criticism. For instance, Robin Skelton says he rants, brags and boasts tiresomely. This is true, and can be substantiated by quoting particu lar poems. Louis Dudek says, among other things, that Layton's awkward juxtapositions of words in order to make them conform to a metric scheme result in Layton being a species of literary troglodyte. Again, this is true, and could be demonstrated by means of quoting Layton's poems. But the verdict that follows such logic is not necessarily true, for it is as one-sided and unjust as the immediate magisterial verdicts Layton himself hands down in his poems.

For these knowledgeable critics have selected Layton's worst and most awkward poems in order to make their point effectively. Skelton and Dudek have been largely correct with their specific complaints. However, there is a great deal more to be said of Layton than these comparatively minor points, true as the particular criticism may be.

As I look at 350 odd pages of Collected Poems, beginning with verse published in Layton's first book (Here and Now, 1945), I find a most curious homogenized texture from first to last. The early themes - sex, Jewishness, love of life, bitter complaints about philistinism, and many others - are there now and still in the saine abundance. Of course the poet became a bit more technically expert in handling his themes, but the themes themselves are the saine. And for that matter, I don't see why they shouldn't be.

And during Layton's mid-period, say around the early 1950s, lie produced his finest poems, things like "The Birth of Tragedy," which he affects to dislike as academic thesis fodder, but which I am sure delight him in reality.

In attempting to explain this "homogeneity" previously mentioned I'm forced to settle for the word "tone." And I don't mean idiom. The best way I can explain what I mean by "tone" is to give a precariously related example. Suppose a man yells aloud every day for 20 years, and each time a scientific device registers his volume as, say, 467 decibels. The exact number doesn't matter, and besides I don't know how many decibels amount to a whisper. Anyhow, transfer this metaphor to Layton's poems, and say he's been giving vent to a stentorian yowl of exactly 467 decibels every day for the last 20 years.

I'd like to be as metaphorically exact as I can. Therefore - the 467 decibels (of course) comprise other things beside volume. Included also are cocksureness, conceit, delicacy, a modicum ofwisdom, and occasional magnificence. (This last being very rare in any poet.) And all thru those 20 years, the "tone," the decibels, yowl of stance and attitude have been largely the saine.

Take the following two lines: "Here private lust is public gain and shame;" 'When evil has become our normal climate." The first is from a poem in Here and Now, Layton's first book; the second is from "On the Assassination of President Kennedy." The "tone," the "decibels," the voltage, call it what you like, seem to me the saine.

Of course I'm doing here exactly the saine thing I say Skelton and Dudek are doing - selecting appropriate passages to prove my particular point. But I don't maintain there are not slight variations in the overall tone. "A Tall Man Executes a Jig" is certainly one of those variations. Here Layton lowers his tone and intensity about 200 decibels with corresponding benefit to the poem. But these poems are exceptions. And while it might seem that a poet ought to have an "unmistakable voice," as Layton does, the actual possession of one makes for monotony over 20 years.

Another thing that has always troubled me about Layton's poems, after the early euphoric sensation wore thin, is that I am seldom able to share his personal feeling and emotion, when attempting to relate my own feelings to the circumstance of the poem. (Of course I wasn't there.) Just once in a while, when Layton is joyously "lord of all the marquees" and "the traffic cop moving his lips/Like a poet composing/Whistles a discovery of sparrows." Such moments are the "happy time," that I think all members of the human race must share, at least once in a whiie. And for tribute to the man who puts it into words all I can say is: Wow!

But generally speaking, I admire the rhetoric from outside, as if watching a very good actor perform, tho not quite good enough. What Layton says is much too frequently a little off to one side of the way I think things actually are, not quite my truth, tho I suppose Layton's' truth.

As an example of this feeling of mine, take the last line in "The Bull Calf" - a much admired Layton poem: "I turned away and wept." Now I'm as sentimental a person as the next, but can't conceive myself in these circumstances of death. Tho some can. I can only conclude there may have been other things, other feelings in Layton, himself, which he has failed to communicate to me. Or perhaps I'm just insensitive. And the reference to the late President Kennedy as 'our noble prince" strikes me as maudlin and a little embarrassing.

Nor do I subscribe to the trivia of "In Memory of Stephen Ward" or the "Earth Goddess" poem for Marilyn Monroe (tho I wrote one myself and regret it). But they and others are by-products of Layton's poetic renderings. Against trivia you can balance and overbalance occasional genuine magnificence.

Another commonly held theory about Layton is that he is a marvellous craftsman (this is true in some degree) and a technical innovator. The last is sheer nonsense. Layton picked up and developed his form and tone from fairly obvious sources, perhaps Horace Gregory's translations of Catullus being most easily apparent. The enjambments and juxtapositions of much modern poetry are, in Layton, conspicuous by their absence. To me lie is a traditionalist, with a good ear for the modern idiom.

As in most of the poets, iambs throng in his work like veteran marching armies who have conquered before and certainly will again. Nor is this reprehensible in any way. A poet would have to be insane to discard entirely the arts and technical craft that have taken a thousand years to develop, but yet continue to change and move forward.

With Layton a soliloquy generally amounts to a harangue. On page 308 begins a short sequence of poems concerning, presumably,' marital infidelity. And I'm amused to note that in these poems Layton condemns the woman as vociferously as he does modern culture in general. The woman is "evil"; the man, it is taken for granted, is virtuous and blameless. Apart from ye olde double standard, such judgments are predictable, and after a while very monotonous.

It makes you wonder if there is no possibility of the man being wrong. Is everything one-sided, simple and transparent to this angry all-wise sage? Yes it is.

But it's unfair to carp and cavil all thru Layton's Collected Poems. I hope I haven't seemed entirely too one-sided in my criticism, as Layton sometimes is in his poems. Despite obvious faults, these poems are the most substantial body of good work published in the, country. You have to accept the bad with the good, and be thankful: for both, for they're interrelated and mutually dependent.
But decide for yourself which is which. Don't let Layton overpower you, either with rhetoric or personality, or the dogmatism that makes him a prize example of his own pet theory about the despised', academics.

Layton is a fine poet, and if I disbelieve his genius-assessment of himself, there's enough justice and/or truth in what he says to make me think about the possibility seriously before I make up my own mind. Which is my 10 (minor) decibels worth.

close this panel
The Al Purdy A Frame Anthology

The Al Purdy A Frame Anthology

edition:Paperback
tagged : essays
More Info
The Man Who Outlived Himself

The Man Who Outlived Himself

An appreciation of John Donne: A dozen of his best poems
edition:Paperback
More Info
The More Easily Kept Illusions

The More Easily Kept Illusions

The Poetry of Al Purdy
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
tagged :
More Info
To Paris Never Again

To Paris Never Again

edition:Paperback
More Info
Yours, Al

Yours, Al

The Collected Letters of Al Purdy
by Al Purdy
edited by Sam Solecki
edition:Hardcover
tagged : letters, canadian
More Info
We Go Far Back in Time

We Go Far Back in Time

The Letters of Earle Birney and Al Purdy, 1947-1984
edition:Hardcover
More Info
Rooms for Rent in the Outer Planets

Rooms for Rent in the Outer Planets

Selected Poems 1962-1996
afterword by Al Purdy
edited by Sam Solecki
edition:Paperback
More Info
Excerpt

TRANSIENT

Riding the boxcars out of Winnipeg in a
morning after rain so close to
the violent sway of fields it's
like running and running
naked with summer in your mouth and
the guy behind you grunts and says
"Got a smoke?"

Being a boy scarcely a moment and you
hear the rumbling iron roadbed singing
under the wheels at night and a door jerking open
mile after dusty mile riding into Regina with
the dust storm crowding behind you and
a guy you hardly even spoke to
nudges your shoulder chummily and says
"Got a smoke?"

Riding into the Crow's Nest mountains with
your first beard itching and a
hundred hungry guys fanning out thru
the shabby whistlestops for handouts and
not even a sandwich for two hundred miles
only the high mountains and knowing
what it's like to be not quite a child any
more and listening to the tough men
talk of women and talk of the way things are
in 1937

Riding down in the spit-grey sea-level morning
thru dockyard streets and dingy dowager houses
with ocean a jump away and the sky beneath you
in puddles on Water Street and an old Indian woman
pushing her yawning scratching daughter
onto a balcony to yell at the boy-man passing
"Want some fun? - come on up" - and the girl just
come from riding the shrieking bedspring bronco
all the up and down night to a hitchpost morning
full of mother and dirt and lice and
hardly the place for a princess
of the Coast Salish
(My dove my little one
tonight there will be wine and drunken suitors
from the logging camps to pin you down
in the outlying lands of sleep
where all roads lead back to the home-village
and water may be walked on)

Stand in the swaying boxcar doorway
moving east away from the sunset and
after a while the eyes digest a country and
the belly perceives a mapmaker's vision
in dust and dirt on the face and hands here
its smell drawn deep thru the nostrils down
to the lungs and spurts thru blood stream
campaigns in the lower intestine
and chants love songs to the kidneys

After a while there is no arrival and
no departure possible any more
you are where you were always going
and the shape of home is under your fingernails
the borders of yourself grown into certainty
the identity of forests that were always nameless
the selfhood of rivers that are changing always
the nationality of riding freight trains thru the depression
over long green plains and high mountain country
with the best and worst of a love that's not to be spoken
and a guy right behind you says then
"Got a smoke?"

You give him one and stand in the boxcar doorway
or looking out the window of a Montreal apartment
or running the machines in a Vancouver factory
you stand there growing older

NECROPSY OF LOVE

If it came about you died
it might be said I loved you:
love is an absolute as death is,
and neither bears false witness to the other --
But you remain alive.

No, I do not love you
hate the word,
that private tyranny inside a public sound,
your freedom's yours and not my own:
but hold my separate madness like a sword,
and plunge it in your body all night long.

If death shall strip our bones of all but bones,
then here's the flesh and flesh that's drunken-sweet
as wine cups in deceptive lunar light:
reach up your hand and turn the moonlight off,
and maybe it was never there at all,
so never promise anything to me:
but reach across the darkness with your hand,
reach across the distance of tonight,
and touch the moving moment once again
before you fall asleep --

close this panel
Turvey

Turvey

by Earle Birney
afterword by Al Purdy
edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
tagged : literary
More Info
Excerpt

Turvey Is Enlisted

Number Eight was a drawing of an envelope addressed to Mr. John Brown, 114 West 78th., New York, N.Y. It had a New York postmark but no stamp. The squeaky sergeant had told them to draw in the missing part of each picture. Turvey licked his pencil point and tried to recall whether King George had a beard.

He had finished the stamp, except for one edge of perforation, when he remembered the American postmark. It ought to be George Washington.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

close this panel
Breathing Fire

Breathing Fire

Canada's New Poets
edited by Patrick Lane & Lorna Crozier
foreword by Al Purdy
edition:Paperback
More Info
Excerpt

CIGARETTES (I)
by Michael Crummey

The day my grandfather died he ate
a meal of salt beef and cabbage in his
sick bed, his appetite returning for
the first time in weeks, the skin
hanging from the bones of his face like an oversized suit.

My father had gone in to see him
earlier that morning, fifteen years old then
and thinking the old man was recovering;
they spoke for a few minutes about the cold
and about going out in the spring,
and then my grandfather asked his son for a cigarette.

Summers, after the caplin had rolled,
the cod moved into water too deep for traps
and the two of them would spend the days jigging,
standing at the gunnel with a line down
two fathoms, repeating the rhythmic full-arm jig
as if they were unsuccessfully trying to
start an engine;

mid-afternoon they'd stop to eat,
stoking the galley's firebox to stew cod's heads
and boil tea, then my grandfather would sit aft
with a pipe, pulling his yellow oilskin jacket
over his head until he was finished.
He'd known for years that my father was smoking
on the sly though he'd never acknowledged it,
hid beneath a coat to give his son
a chance to sneak a cigarette
before they got back to work.

The air in the sick room was so cold
their breath hung in clouds between them.
My grandfather was about to die of cancer or TB
and his son sat beside the bed,
his pockets for once empty of Bugle or Target tobacco,
telling his father he had no cigarette to give him
which happened to be the truth, and felt like
a lie to them both.

THE LAST SOCKEYE
by Tim Bowling

Always I think of the last sockeye,
the one in late October; blind,
blood-red, half-rotted, so far from the creeks of spawning,
it just lay beside our net
in the silt-grey water -- confused
or resting, we couldn't say --
then with one weak push
gilled itself
so we had to roll it in.

The last of its kind for the season;
most had died, or spawned and died,
at least a month before;
I could not gaff it.
We stood in the chill north wind, bemused,
as though we'd been given an early Christmas gift,
red-wrapped and taken
from below the mountains' undecorated evergreens;
we stared at the rotted eyes
and scales like bloodied coin,
a glove of chain-mail
after a Crusades slaughter
the living hand still inside.

Three separate instincts
and a whole long winter to forget
your drinking and failed marriage
my loneliness and too often
days of great despair
over things I cannot change

and always the gap between us
as wide as the gap
between the sockeye and its goal;
three separate instincts
with nothing to win
three separate species:
I don't remember what we said
or even if we spoke at all
but the salmon, at least,
knew what it wanted,
so I gave it back to the river,
blind, rotted, and doomed,
I gave it back

while we stood in the stern like the last men
and watched the bloody hand of the year wave goodbye

HALF-LIGHT
by Suzanne Buffam

In the green half-light of three a.m.
my brother wakes me, pulls my slumbering body
into the yard to see the rabbits being born.

They emerge all wet and pink as finger
tips nestled into sawdust beneath
their mother -- one, two, then three

naked bodies in the sudden beam
of my brother's flashlight. We hold
our breath as her small eyes take us

in, red in the light, full of fire,
and there is a moment, heavy as
the moon, when we know it is too late

to retreat, unsee, resume our innocent
beds. The mother's eyes angry
as she hunches up and turns away,

leaves us watching, the wind
cold through our nightclothes, as she swallows
up her children -- one, two, then three

wriggling bodies disappear into her tiny
sharp-toothed mouth, the flashlight
dropping to the grass at our feet.

close this panel
Show editions
close this panel

User Activity

more >
X
Contacting facebook
Please wait...