WOODCOCK, Poetry Column 1990, Issue 2




Purdy and Livesay come west

IN THE END, I SUPPOSE, IT HAS TO BE THE habitat, that unique combination of mountains and penetrative ocean, or rain forest and island near desert, that draws writers and painters to British Columbia, as it draws bald eagles, even when they go away for long periods to gather experience or freshen their perceptions.

There are the painters, like Jack Shadbolt and Gordon Smith and Don Jarvis, who learn the international abstract idiom at its fountainhead, yet whose work when you look at it closely had become irreversibly influenced by the particular West Coast world they could not allow themselves to leave forever.

And there are the writers. Some stayed the greater part of their lives, once they had settled, through the long decades of ageing and maturing, as Ethel Wilson and Roderick Haig-Brown did. Others like Phyllis Webb, Jane Rule, Andreas Schroeder and Bruce Hutchison—he of the longest loyalty—remain to this day. Others have travelled far, lived long periods away, often in foreign lands, but in the end have returned to what they have realized is perhaps the best place on earth if you want to live in an English-speaking and unmetropolitan culture.

We became accustomed in his later decades to Earle Birney's periodical returns to the province, and we recognize the splendid enrichment of local poetry that occurred when P.K. Page came from her long Latin American and Antipodian travels to settle in Oak Bay.

The two poets whose work I have picked from this quarter's otherwise indifferent pile of verse, are both among those who have been long-term migrants to the coast, weaving constantly in and out of its literary life.

I remember meeting Dorothy Livesay forty years ago at a party on a deck overlooking Burnaby Lake, and Purdy I met almost exactly thirty years ago, when he came down from camping at Woodcock on the Skeena to meet a poet of the same name in Vancouver. They are, indeed, old friends, but they are such important figures in our literary life that I have no sense of playing favourites when I pick their books out to write on.

The Woman On The Shore (M&S $9.95) is Al Purdy's first major collection since The Collected Poems of Al Purdy in 1986. Publishing a collected volume always seems—with its air of finality—to slow down a poet for a while, and even Purdy that most prolific of bards, has waited four years in comparison with his earlier one and two-year intervals between volumes.

In The Woman on the Shore that favourite venue of so many of Purdy's poems, Roblin lake at Ameliasburgh, Ontario, is varied by Sidney, B.C., with its comic sea otters, where he has bought a wintering house. Purdy has returned at last to British Columbia where he has lived for several periods in his past, including starving days in the Depression, aircraftsman days at Woodcock, and a stint working in a Vancouver mattress factory, plus numerous shorter visits to a poet's habitat that has obviously set its mark on him. The Woman on the Shore includes a dozen or so earlier poems that were left out of the Collected, but the larger part consists of recent poems. These reflect the moods of ageing. Some of them are elegies—and fine ones—for dead friends like Margaret Laurence and Frank Scott.

The eroticism is in lower decibles than in the past, and there is a lot of comic grousing about getting old. Memories, of the mattress factory, or riding the rods through the mountains, echo through the book, partly nostalgic and partly sour.

There are relatively few poems about the present, for when Purdy isn't chasing his own memories, he's back in the broad stretches of time and space that have fascinated him so much recently. He frequently reflects on the world's place in the universe, and on those remote eons when a man emerged, a comic Purdyian creature, to begin his rise to domination over those other creatures who in Purdy's world are the losers, "chasing each other's tails/ or sniffing each other's ass" while wretched man is taking advantage, originally a beast even more contemptible than the others.

Never mind why
pay no attention to when
only that it did happen
—that little mammal sucking dinosaur eggs at early dawn
trying to figure out a new method for safecracking those eggs
and leaving the burglary undetectable—that miniscule creature
with beady treacherous eyes
stood suddenly upright
and proclaimed his own importance in a series of one-decibel shrieks
no self-respecting carnivore
even noticed

Purdy constantly mingles mockery and erudition, and yet behind it all there is a deep fascination with the destiny of humanity—as well as an ironic perception of his own—and perhaps it is significant that the man nearest to a hero in the book is the first great historian, Herodotus, "a reasonable man/listening to what people say/in the marketplace. ../taking notes and considering." It is to Herodotus among us all that he gives the best ending.

Quietly in a vineyard at Thurii
Herodotus
dreams life never ends
—in the Islands of the Blest
of the Western Sea
all his loves waiting
the fair and not so fair
the dark ones with lips like flames
their voices shining on him
their eyes like springs of light
Let it be so!

Livesay's The Husband (Ragweed $12.95) is not verse, though it is poetic in spirit. It is fiction, and she calls it a novella; though I would use the French word recit, for a spare and sensitive moral tale, as more appropriate, particularly as The Husband, in its form and its particular kind of eroticism, clearly reflects the influence of Livesay's French years in Aix-en-Provence and at the Sorbonne.

One wonders if The Husband would have been the same in shape or in feeling if Livesay had not read Gide. It is one of those original works which show what happens when two cultures fruitfully meet, and it demonstrates that in considering Livesay's work we should never forget the French connections.

The structure, a tale told in letters, has been a constant in the French recit tradition at least since Madame de la Fayette: The tale is of a middle-aged woman, with some talent as an artist, who is married to an older and invalid academic, and how a brief love affair on her part with a younger man strangely helps to reconcile her desire for independence and her marriage.

The Husband has rich elegiac tone which celebrates both the sadness and the richness of living. Readers of Livesay's poetry will find it significant that this book was written in 1967 (though amazingly no publisher picked it up for more than 20 years), the year Livesay published her fine book of poems about love and ageing, The Unquiet Bed.

Achterberg book celebrated in U.S.

PLEUKE BOYCE OF ERRINGTON, B.C. HAS won the $1,000 Dutch Translation Award from Columbia University for her translation to English of But This land Has No End (Oolichan $9.95), a collection of selected poems by Holland's Gerrit Achterberg (19041962), regarded by many as the greatest poet to write in Dutch.

The prestigious award was presented to the Dutch-born Boyce at the French Consulate in New York City on May 23rd. Publisher Ron Smith of Lantzville notes that Secretary of State turned down a request for travel money to help Boyce, a freelance writer, to receive her prize; Oolichan Books didn't receive Canada Council recognition for publishing the book; and Boyce was denied the F.R. Scott Translation Prize because, "they decided not to give it this year because she was the only entry."

"Highly paid academic poets in this country receive large grants to give a couple of lectures in Europe," says Smith, "but an internationally recognized freelance writer like Pleuke doesn't get a cent."'

Pleuke Boyce has translated Alice Munro, Norman levine, Audrey Thomas and Jane Rule for Dutch publishing houses. She has also published poetry and prose of her own.
Nadine Shelly, a 16-year-old Saltspring Island poet, has received a $5,000 Art and Protege award from 84-year-old Morley Callaghan. The esteemed Canadian author presented the award named in his honour to the grade eleven student courtesy of the Toronto Arts Awards Foundation in March.

Born in New Guinea and raised in northern Saskatchewan, Shelly was noticed by B.C. poet Susan Musgrave who passed along her work to Sean Virgo in Ontario. Virgo recommended publication of Shelly's first book, Barebacked with Rain, to Barry Callaghan of Exile Publications.