Peter Sanger - Issue 109

Sobieski's Shield: On Geoffrey Hill's The Enemy's Country(1991) and New & Collected Poems (1994)

Hill's poetry and prose have always entailed giving his word, keeping his word and insisting that he be taken at his word. Unfashionably, he is the poet, the author, the authority in his work and prepared to take the consequences. His attitude is anything but linguistically naive. Twenty years ago, he was already responding to the first signs of a hegemony which seeks to deconstruct everything but itself when he gave an interview to John Haffenden after the publication of Tenebrae. At one point, for example, Haffenden asked, Would you feel that your poetry is necessarily an art of equivocation, since your subjects are not available to synthesis? Hill replied, I resent the implication — taking the dictionary definition of equivocation — of my using words in a double sense in order to mislead. Haffenden persisted,But would you resent the criticism that you address yourself to subjects in an ambiguous way? Hill returned:

Yes, I would, though perhaps not so vehemently. I query the idea that I `address myself to subjects,' which seems to imply some kind of settled policy. It may be that the subjects present themselves to me as being full of ambiguous implications, but that is surely a different matter. The ambiguities and scruples seem to reside in the object that is meditated upon. (1)

Such exchanges used to be called "brisk." Hill's part in them is characterized by the same intensity and acuity of definition and ethical distinction as his poetry and prose. Detractors of Hill's work have called such definition and distinction captious or obscurantist. Certainly his tone is frequently uncompromising, but my own experience has been that work of Hill's, either poetry or prose, which initially resists understanding, appreciation, or respect, elicits all three after repeated readings — in some instances, readings which may occur over the span of several years.

Hill's two most recent books, The Enemy's Country (1991) andNew & Collected Poems (1994) are a collocution of prose and poetry similar to the one offered by The Lords of Limit: Essays on Literature and Ideas (1984) and Collected Poems (1986). Probably the pairings and their parallelism are coincidental rather than intentional; but such is the deliberation and coherence of Hill's work that in the case of each pair of books, the prose volume may be useful when reading resistant or seemingly opaque passages in the volume of poetry. In effect, Hill trusts that all his words will be read carefully. Only a very bad poet, or someone who is not a poet, would expect otherwise.

The Enemy's Country: Words, Contexture and Other Circumstances of Language (Stanford University Press, 1991) is the revised text of the Clark Lectures delivered at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1986. It contains five essays. Appearing as the subject of the first, second and fourth essays is the dominant figure in the book, John Dryden. The third essay centres upon the diplomat, late-Renaissance virtuoso and poet, Sir Henry Wotton, who served as Ambassador of James I to the Republic of Venice for nearly twenty years and who is now usually remembered for his punning definition, Englished from the original Latin in Walton's The Life of Sir Henry Wotton as: An Embassadour is a honest man, sent to lie abroad for the good of his Country. Hill's essay on Wotton also considers the moral and politic inferences to be drawn from Donne's "Epistles" addressed to Wotton and the circumspect exactitude with which Walton handled Wotton's life. The fifth and concluding essay in Hill's book discusses Pound's "Envoi (1919)" — its social, literary, historical and biographical contexts, its intent and meaning and its qualified, compromised accomplishment.

Separating out the subjects of each essay, however, offers a deceptive impression. Just as he did in The Lords of Limit, Hill ranges throughout the last four hundred years of poetry in English establishing linkages, propounding analogies and offering readings which involve, among many other writers, Auden, Emerson, Samuel Johnson, Milton, Oldham, Waller, Yeats, Puttenham, Etherege and Eliot. Even that partial list may seem too demanding for many readers, but Hill is one of those uncommon critics (particularly uncommon at present) who conveys the possibility that reading may be an energetic and courageous pursuit, worth a lifetime of work and thought, carried out in the heart of the enemy's country.

The latter phrase bids fair to become as ubiquitous in Hill's work as another of his favourite quotations (which appears, for example, as a third epigraph to the Collected Poems of 1986), Ezra Pound's line from "Canto II," In the gloom, the gold gathers the light against it. As Hill notes, the enemy's country occurs inStrange Newes, one of the pamphlets written by Thomas Nashe attacking the pedant, Gabriel Harvey. It also appears, with more contextual explicitness, in Sir William Davenant's preface to hisGondibert. Hill quotes Davenant's description of the vast field of learning, where the Learned...lye...malitiously in Ambush, and the poet must travail as through the Enemy's country. (Since he discusses Wotton's notorious pun in the book's third essay, it is tempting to suspect that Hill trusts an alert reader to add a loaded gloss on Davenant's lye.)

Even before the Clark Lectures were delivered in 1986, Hill had begun to range the enemy's country. As far as I know, his first (slightly adjusted) use of the phrase is in the first line of the following passage concerning another poet in travail. It comes from the fourth part of Hill's ten-part sequence, The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983). The lines are multiple in their address — to Péguy, to the poet writing about him and to the empathetic reader:

This is your enemies' country which they took
in the small hours an age before you woke,
went to the window, saw the mist-hewn
statues of the lean kine emerge at dawn.
Outflanked again, too bad! You still have pride,
haggard obliquities: those that take remorse
and the contempt of others for a muse
bound to the alexandrine as to the Code
Napoléon. Thus the bereaved soul returns
upon itself, grows resolute at chess,
in war-games hurling dice of immense loss
into the breach; thus punitively mourns.

Significantly, Hill uses the first two of the lines just quoted as the solitary epigraph for The Enemy's Country. He does not indicate the lines are taken from the Péguy sequence, as if to emphasize the absence of division between his prose and poetry.

No-one but a practising poet of extraordinary gifts who has refused the temptation of letting his prose become a thinned and slackened version of his poetry could have composed Hill's essays. They are filled with aphoristic comments, always bedded in specific instances, which invariably suggest other perceptions and applications. Choosing from many, let me quote these few:

Style is a seamless contexture of energy and order which, time after time, the effete and the crass somehow contrive to part between them; either paying tremulous lip-service to the "incomparable" and the "incommunicable" or else toadying to some current notion of the demotic. (2)

...the individual poetic voice can, and must, realize its own power amid, and indeed out of, that worldly business which makes certain desires and ambitions unrealizable. (3)

Dryden's work manifests, albeit with varying degrees of finality, his command of the essential facts: that a poet's words and rhythms are not his utterance so much as his resistance. His "choice of Words, and Harmony of Numbers" as Dryden would say, his "technic" as Yeats and Pound called it, must resist the pressure of circumstances or be inundated by the tide of "compleasance." (4)

Criticism which is, on many occasions, the faculty and instrument of judgement is on other occasions, possibly more numerous, part of the body of circumstance out of which and against which the single voice of creative intelligence must be made articulate. Modern criticism in this guise is one of the shapes of protean Opinion, one of the petty "lords of the temporal world," something quite other than the "sublimity of the critical sense" which Pound associated with Henry James at his strongest. (5)

The world's obtuseness, imperviousness, its active or passive hostility to valour and vision, is not only the object of his [Pound's] denunciation; it is also the necessary circumstance, the context in which and against which valour and vision define themselves: "In the gloom, the gold gathers the light against it." If it were not for the darkness and the enemies' torches the beauty of factive virtù would not shine out so in defiance of that circumstance which the "gathering" has in part transformed. (6)

Common to all these quotes is Hill's insistance that the writer must be engaged in an easeless negotium of language (7) and must exercise the kind of factive energy (8) which Hill perceives in the work of Dryden and Pound who at their best are

...comparable in their awareness of the political and economic realities of circumstance, of the ways in which the writer's judgement of word-values both affects and is affected by his understanding of, or his failure to comprehend the current reckonings of value in the society of his day. (9)

A shallow reading of the last quotation given might well suggest Hill's reckonings of value are fairly pragmatic. The reading would not be altogether inaccurate. One of the major premises of the plots of many of his poems, early and late, has been a resistance to the platonic angelism which is the particular form of otium(otiose, functionless ease) to which his temperament and the tradition of poetry within which he works make him vulnerable. But there is something far more demanding than a pragmatic appeal to which even the petty "lords of the temporal world"might accede. Within the dense pattern of allusions in the quotes given, among the more overt presences of Henry James, of Pound, of Dryden's contempt for the tyranny of prejudicateOpinion and of the late-Renaissance quality of virtù exemplified by Sir Henry Wotton are less overt, even covert matters. They arethe darkness and the enemies' torches, which are an allusion tothe torchlight red on sweaty faces in Part V of The Waste Landand the singular but particular enactment in Gethsemane.

No allusion similar to the Gethsemane one appears elsewhere inThe Enemy's Country. The passage is also a fairly rare instance of rhetorical imagistic release in Hill's critical prose. Unlike many other poets, he seldom uses the devices of his poetry in his critical prose. The allusion is notable further because it is not referenced in an otherwise meticulously complete section of notes on sources Hill has appended to the essays. Is the passage, therefore, a slippage or a deliberated and valourous gesture? As noted at the beginning of this essay, Hill's prose may be useful when one reads his poetry. Its use is offered at every point in The Enemy's Country. But I suggest that in this one passage in particular, Hill's gesture is particularly generous, for it informs the deeper possible senses of Hill's latest poems.

Hill's most recent collecton of poetry, New & Collected Poems,1952-1992 (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994) is the third of Hill's books to bear a "collected" designation. Preceding it were the Collected Poems (Oxford University Press, 1986) and theCollected Poems (Penguin Books, 1985). Although dated a year earlier, the Penguin Collected is actually more complete than the Oxford University Press volume, for it contains what the latter lacks, Hill's three "Hymns to Our Lady of Chartres."

The new Houghton Mifflin book poses several additional enigmas of incompletion similar to that of the Oxford University Press Collected. Missing from it, though present in both the Oxford and Penguin collections, is a set of three epigraphs after the table of contents. A second omission is "Funeral Music: An Essay" which was originally published in King Log (1968). A third omission is the essay "Charles Péguy" which was appended to The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983). None of these absences is explained. One could surmise that production limitations of size, or editorial judgement, or even copyright restrictions led to the excisions. All three possibilities are an ordinary part of a poet's negotium with the very unpoetic world of publishing. But it is legitimate too, since no explanations are given, to surmise that the absences are Hill's decisions, and that latter surmise is not one the publisher or editor should have left open for a reader to make. As a definitive "collected," the Houghton Mifflin volume is, therefore, badly compromised. On the other hand, whatever its flaws, the New & Collected Poemsmust be read by anybody more than negligently interested in twentieth century poetry, because its concluding section, "New Poems (1992)," is not a publisher's canny make-weight. The section is, in effect, Hill's sixth separate collection.

This new section contains thirteen poems, presented over twenty-eight pages. Seven of the poems are in several parts, a form Hill has always particularly favoured. The longest new poems are the five part "Churchill's Funeral" and the seven part "Scenes with Harlequins." Short though it may seem by some standards, the new section is comparable in length, according to Hill's standards of compression and economy, with King Log (seventeen poems) and Tenebrae (ten poems). But length, of course, is a crude standard. Far more important are those standards of continuity, coherence, range and depth which distinguish a true collection from the kind of opportunistically assembled miscellany, clumsily held together by egocentric exhibitionism, which usually obtains privileged passage through the enemy's country of contemporary cultural and critical journalism. Hill obtains continuity and coherence among the new poems just as he has done in each of his other discrete collections by meticulously managing, concentrating and interfusing prosody, imagery and theme.

Four of the thirteen poems, including the two multi-part longest, are written predominantly in a prosodic form which is very familiar to those who have read Hill's other collections — short lined quatrains, with three or four heavy stresses per line, hammered tight by assonance and alliteration. But familiar as the form is, Hill's handling of it among the new poems is far freer than before. Unlike the immediately precedent quatrains of The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy and of the "Hymns to Our Lady of Chartres," the new quatrains are not rhymed or off-rhymed, and they contain far greater incidence of run-on lines.

Hill's more flexible use of a prosodic form he has used so often previously is in keeping with the appearance of another form among the new poems which he has hardly ever used before. Eight of the thirteen poems are written in heavily accented, assonantal, alliterated, stepped free-verse. Hill has used this form hitherto only briefly and partially in "The Death of Shelley," part three of "Of Commerce and Society" which was published in his first book, For the Unfallen (1959). The influence of Ezra Pound upon these new stepped-verse poems and their consequent evocation of Pound's mixture of integrity and vulgar cruelty andessential culpability (10) are obviously cued by Hill's discussions of Pound in The Enemy's Country. It is, incidentally, characteristic of Hill to be concerned with Pound at a time when Pound's stock among many contemporary poets, particularly American ones, is very low. (Three or four years ago, a very successful American literary critic and poet told me: Pound is finished.) Hill has always resisted fashionable complicities of style. During the 1960's, 1970's and early 1980's, Hill paid homage to and sometimes emulated the poetry of Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, at a time when their work in both poetry and prose was regarded as outmoded or was even vilified. In doing so he helped to lay a substantial part of the foundation of contemporary formalism.

But the stepped-verse poems do other things besides evoking Pound and his ethical or sometimes profoundly unethicalnegotium with those authorities in the enemy's country who have conspired alongside him or against him as shifts of otium made advantageous. Formally, the lines of the stepped-verse poems are able to move with a lightness which is both tentative and judicial, which is capable of nuanced repetition and hence able to play off various inflections as the lines develop. Like Paul Celan, a poet whom Hill deeply admires and whose work he most movingly adapted in the "Two Chorale-Preludes" of Tenebrae, Hill is concerned with matters which bring him to the limits of secular language. They are limits which the accuracy and refinement of touch possible in stepped-verse, rightly tempered, may manage to approach honourably.

Theme and its correlate (or, to speak more accurately, its enactment) imagery cannot, unlike prosody, be discussed usefully in general terms when one is dealing with a poet as complex and meticulous as Hill. The theme and imagery of each of his new poems requires separate attention, or an attention which qualifies itself clearly as provisional and elementary. Given the nature of this essay, I must compromise between those two alternatives by considering only the first poem in the "New Poems (1992)" section in some detail and by trying to show how things in it are picked up, re-worked and extended in subsequent poems. First, the poem needs to be quoted in full:

Sobieski's Shield


The blackberry, white
field-rose, all others
of that family:

steadfast is the word

and the star-gazing planet out of which
lamentation is spun.


Overnight as the year
purple garish-brown
aster chrysanthemum
signally restored
to a subsistence of slant light
as one would venture
Justice Equity
or Sobieski's Shield even
the names
and what they have about them dark to dark.

Its intermittent lyricism will probably carry most readers through their first experience of this poem, but not, I suspect, subsequent ones because it is so obviously only part of the poem's activity. The lyricism is compromised, impeded and defined by allusions which may be unfamiliar, by syntactical disjunctures, by suppressed expositions and by abstractions which appear naive or anachronistic if one judges according to the tenets of orthodox imagism. All these obstacles are deliberate. Either one writes off the poem — and in doing so writes off Hill (in favour of whom?) — or one attempts to work out what the names in the penultimate line of the second stanza refer to.

Start with the title "Sobieski's Shield." Once most of Christendom knew who Sobieski was. That what is left of it may, in large part, not know now enacts the very darkness with which the poem concludes. The Sobieski named in the title was John Sobieski (1629-1696), acclaimed King John III of Poland in 1674. In September 1683 (an equinoctial season of slant light) Sobieski broke the Turkish siege of Vienna at the Battle of Kalenberg. He forced the Turkish Grand Vizier, Kara Mustafa, into a humiliating and bloody retreat from which Turkish forces never recovered. Sobieski sent the Vizier's green standard to the Pope, accompanied by the message, Veni, Vidi, Deus Vinxit ("I came. I saw. God conquered.")

Sobieski's message obviously proposes a conflation with Julius Caesar's Veni, Vidi, Vincit ("I came. I saw. I conquered") with a careful, Christian, cosmological adjustment. Less obviously, it also proposes a conflation with the cross of flames in the noon sky and the words (in Greek), By this conquer, perceived by the Emperor Constantine at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. It must have seemed to Sobieski that his victory at Kalenberg was the third of three victories reaching back over eighteen centuries which secured for Europe and for Poland a future which would be imperial, Roman and Catholic. In both the short and the long run, the future was, of course, very different. In the short run, Kalenberg was the prelude not to stability in Poland, but to steadily intensifying dynastic, political, social, economic and diplomatic confusion. As for Sobieski, after Kalenberg his military exploits were ill-judged and accomplished little of permanence. During the final years of his reign, he withdrew from the negotium of public life, evaded national responsibilities and retired to the otium of a squirearchical existence of obesity and complacency. To take a longer view, the victory of Kalenberg led to foreign domination of Poland and ultimately the present where, to quote from "De Jure Belli ac Pacis," another of the new poems, Europa/hetaera displays her parts to the willing customers of secular transnationalism.

But there are even further ironic implications in the title, "Sobieski's Shield." For a time, Sobieski was a "star" not only metaphorically, but also factually. More accurately, he was a constellation. Close to the centre of the Milky Way, west of Antinoüs, between the tail of the Serpent and the top of Sagittarius, the Polish astronomer Hevelius (1611-1687) discovered a new constellation in 1683 which he formed from seven, unfigured 4th-magnitude stars. Hevelius and Sobieski (who was, like Wotton, a late-Renaissance virtuoso) exchanged letters on scientific matters. As a mark of respect and in honour of their friendship, Hevelius entitled his last and posthumously published work, a star map, Firmamentum Sobiescanum (Danzig, 1690). He also named the constellation he had discovered in 1683, Scutum Sobiescanum, that is, to say, Sobieski's Shield. (11)

The constellation, Sobieski's Shield, was one which earth, or at least a part of it shaped by Christianity, could, as the star-gazing planet of the poem's fifth line, observe as as a portion of its own mythological pantheon in an act of cultural projection similar to that carried out by the Greek astronomers when they named Mars, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, the Dioscuri (the Heavenly Twins) and other planets and stars. But just as is the case with that earthly constellation consisting of Sobieski, Kalenberg, Poland and Western Christendom, so also the human history of the starry constellation of Sobieski's Shield is replete with irony and occlusion: on many modern star maps the constellation of Sobieski's Shield does not appear or, if it appears, it is named only the Shield or Scutum. Sobieski's name has been excised.

The last two lines of Sobieski's Shield direct readers to grasp all the historical ironies and occlusions I have discussed in the preceding four paragraphs. Those lines concern the names/and what they have about them dark to dark. Some readers of the poem will, in fact, have started to experience the very ironies and occlusions which are alluded to in those lines and are the subjects of many of the "New Poems (1992)" as early as their first encounter with the unfamiliarity of the poem's title. For such readers, the names have been lost in a process of cultural attrition and deracination which parallels and expresses the loss of meaning of the two words which precede Sobieski's Shield in the poem's final stanza: Justice and Equity.

Brief though it is, perhaps the above discussion of "Sobieski's Shield" and of the most audible echoes of its title is sufficient to show how complex, compressed and extensive the poem's implications are. But my commentary is obviously only a preliminary to doing them justice. To go further would entail dealing with all the poem's allusions and suggestions — a task which is beyond the intent of this essay. Considering them would require the same kind of detailed and sympathetic attention required by the late work of artists such as Velasquez or Braque because "Sobieski's Shield" is similarly packed with calculated hiatuses and disjunctures which summon up cultural, historical and personal memories connotatively rather than explicitly. To give examples, the words dark to dark in the poem's last line are filled with the echoes of many passages in both the Old and New Testaments. One is St. Paul's now we see through a glass, darkly. Another, perhaps even more explicit, is the opening of the Gospel of St. John, verses 1-5:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word
was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him 
was not any thing made that was made.
In him was life; and the life was the light of
And the light shineth in darkness;
and the darkness comprehended it not.

Hence the steadfast is the word of line four in the poem. To give a third example, this time from a different source, by naming earth the star-gazing planet in line five of the poem Hill directs many readers to Dante's l'amor che move il sole e l'altre sole ("Love that moves the sun and other stars.") When that happens, "Sobieski's Shield" may be read as a lament spun clear of an earth spinning outside that empyrean order where Dante ended his journey as a citizen and a poet in the Paradiso.

I choose the last example deliberately because it can guide our reading of other "New Poems (1992)." There is, for example, the second section of the sequence "Churchill's Funeral." The section is introduced by an epigraph taken from Ruskin's Unto This Last:

Suppose the subject of inquiry, instead of being House-law (Oikonomia), had been Star-law (Astronomia), and that, ignoring the distinction between stars fixed and wandering, as here between wealth radiant and wealth reflective, the writer had begun thus:

Like all of Hill's epigraphs, this one does not offer itself as self-sufficient explanation. It helps to define but is also defined by the poem which follows it — one of the most lyrical and moving that Hill has published:

Innocent soul
ghosting for its lost
twin, the afflicted one
born law-giver;.

uncanny wraith
kindled afar off
like the evening star
res publica

seen by itself
with its whole shining
history discerned
through shining air,.

both origin
and consequence, its
hierarchies of sorts
fierce tea-making.

in time of war
courage and kindness
as the marvel is
the common weal.

that will always
simply as of right
keep faith, ignorant
of right or fear:.

who is to judge
who can judge of this?.
Maestros of the world.
not you not them.

At its most accessible level, the poem is addressed to Pollux, one of the pair of stars usually called the Gemini, or The Heavenly Twins, or by the Greeks and Romans, Dioscuri. As the poem proceeds, however, it modulates into an address to the apparently missing or absent star of the pair, Castor. The insertion of a poem on such a subject in a sequence entitled "Churchill's Funeral," which is (to speak in general terms) a Blakean, prophetic vision of the causes and consequences of the collapse of post-Second World War London into moral and physical desolation, may seem, at first, oblique and fanciful. However, there are many reasons why the poem is a crucial one in the sequence and a central one in the whole body of Hill's work.

A prime reason is that the Gemini pair have become one of Hill's recurring, defining symbols — as were the tower for Yeats and the hidden garden for Eliot. Hill has used the Gemini in his work twice before. They are, for example, those Lords of Limit who lend their name to the main title of Hill's first collection of essays (published in 1984). The initial epigraph to that collection offers one of Hill's reasons for choosing them. It is the first line in the following, fully-quoted stanza of Auden's "The Watchers":

O Lords of Limit training dark and light
And setting a tabu `twixt left and right,
The influential quiet twins
From whom all property begins,
Look leniently upon us all to-night.

In an earlier essay (12), I have tried to show that Auden's stanza is based upon a passage in D.H. Lawrence's Apocalypse which identifies the Gemini twins with the two witnesses, also called thetwo prophets, in Chapter 11 of The Revelation of St. John the Divine. They are to be killed by the beast that ascendeth out of the bottomless pit (K.J.V.):

And their dead bodies shall lie in the street of
the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom
and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified.

Sodom and Egypt and London and the Gemini typologically prophetic and, if another indication of Hill's lengthy meditation upon the implications of the Gemini were needed, there is the following stanza from the fourth section of The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (published in 1983):

This world is different, belongs to them —
the lords of limit and of contumely.
It matters little whether you go tamely
or with rage and defiance to your doom.

A certain circle is rounded and closed by the stanza which immediately follows the one just quoted. I have already quoted it at the beginning of this essay:

This is your enemies' country which they took
in the small hours an age before you woke,
went to the window, saw the mist hewn
statues of the lean kine emerge at dawn.

With a subtle interplay of cross-referencing among his own works and by alluding to other sources, therefore, Hill had even before "New Poems (1992)" used the figure of the Gemini to link three of his books of prose and poetry and make them part of thatnegotium about justice and equity; about the sacred and secular; about divine, natural and positive law and their definitions and interrelationships; about prophecy and realpolitik; and about moral authority and its subversion whose outcome is one form or other of civilization.

The epigraph from Ruskin which precedes the poem from" Churchill's Funeral" which we have been discussing asks the reader to consider the results of a breakdown of this negotium. It suggests ignoring certain distinctions (certain limits) and separating cause from effect, the ideal from the real, the source of light from the recipient or reflector of that light, and the heavens (with all they have symbolically implied) from the earth.

Hence, in Hill's poem, the two Gemini are both indistinct (or diffuse) and separate. In the Greek version of the Gemini myth, Castor is mortal; Pollux is immortal. Hill draws upon that version and begins his poem by invoking the immortal Pollux. But Hill also depends upon the Roman version in which Castor and Pollux are turned into Romulus and Remus respectively. As Plutarch tells their story in the second of his Lives, Romulus founded the city of Rome and devised its first system of government. But before he did so, he murdered his twin brother Remus when the latter mocked him for beginning the rituals preparatory to building the city's walls. In Hill's poem Pollux, the immortal twin (the murdered Remus), is ghosting for its lost/twin the afflicted one, born law giver who is both Castor, the mortal twin, and Romulus, the murderer. Pollux (justice, equity, the platonic radiant idea of the res publica) is both separated from and yet haunting Castor (his fallen, mortal twin, who is both lamenting and lamentable).

It is tempting to equate Castor with Sobieski. The imagery of stars in both the poem under discusson and "Sobieski's Shield" is strikingly parallel. But the present poem is too subtle to be explained simply by a parallel commentary (one which, in any case, would be based upon too straightforward a reading of "Sobieski's Shield"), because the poem tends to run counter to the directiveness of the epigraph from Ruskin. In the poem, far from being separated, House-law and Star-law and wealth radiant andwealth reflective yearn to be interdependent and inseparable. The apparent separation imposed upon Castor and Pollux at the beginning of the poem modulates as the poem proceeds into a reduced and occluded bond in which Castor attempts to keep faithwith the ghostly Pollux. For Castor tries to secure the continuance of the common-weal — even if that continuance has degenerated into only fierce tea-making//in time of war, a ritual which is pathetic, comic, yet loyal to some stubborn, residual sense of the need for civic honour and responsibility. In other words Castor, although in one of his forms he is the murderer of his brother, is haunted by memories of the wealth radiant of his wandering and immortal twin, Pollux. The poem, that is, both illustrates its epigraph and contradicts it by uncovering traces of what its own epigraph has called upon it to deny — a negotium between guilt and innocence, fate and individual responsibility, cultural collapse and continuance.

It is a negotium, however, which neither the Maestros of the world, nor those conducted by them, nor those who only listen to them are qualified, as the poem's last stanza states, to judge. But obviously the poem itself is a judgement. One reacts to it as judgement upon a fallen kingdom — and there is no doubt that the Maestros of the world are defined by the poem's contempt. The poem is another instance of a recurrent situation in Hill's poetry (and in his essays) where the reader must accept or deny responsibility for adjudication under conditions where inclusiveness and fairness seem almost impossible. For example, consider the lines of the poem's last stanza, who is to judge/who can judge of this? What is the this which might be judged? As a demonstrative it is so generously inclusive that it designates not only the survival of a deeply compromised and residual common weal which is both communal and debased but it also designates the artifact of the poem. Confirming the latter designation is the last stanza of the first section of "Churchill's Funeral," the one immediately preceding the section we have been discussing:

nobilmente it
rises from silence
the grand tune, and goes
something like this.

How then does one judge a this, which now must also include that otiose cliché of the grand tune which has been vulgarized yet further into a version which goes/something like this? An easy answer, "As poetry," has obviously been precluded by Hill. TheMaestros of the world practise other arts besides the political. Some of them, doubtless, are poets. And yet Hill's work is marked by a profound respect for poets. The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy, for example, is devoted to a poet Hill calls one of the great souls, one of the great prophetic intelligences, of our century, while King Log contains "Four Poems Regarding the Endurance of Poets" which is a series of homages for Tommaso Campanella, Miguel Hernandez, Robert Desnos and Osip Mandelstam. As for "New Poems (1992)", its longest poem is the seven part "Scenes with Harlequins" which is dedicated to Aleksander Blok. How can a reader, therefore, reconcile the apparent self-contradiction of Hill's suspicion of poetry (sometimes amounting to mockery) with his reverence for it and for certain poets?

No, the reconciliation cannot be found in phrases like "As poetry." Those words mock Hill or misread his poetry and prose. Instead, I suggest, "As negotium." Or if the word negotium is too alien, "As poetic justice." Clichéd though it may be, the latter phrase carries its weight in common speech. Significantly, it still carries implications of both sacred and secular compensation which cognate phrases like "You get what you deserve" or "What goes around comes around" or so and so "... had it coming" do not. Could it be that the weight of "poetic justice" derives from a communal respect for a certain kind of poetics? As for "justice," together with its cognates it pervades Hill's poems and prose.

Admittedly we saw Justice earlier in this essay in the context of occlusion in "Sobieski's Shield." But that context does not mean that Hill rejects its existence. What we did not notice earlier was the otiose abstraction of its capitalization. It is that kind of hubris, I believe that the poem rejects. Towards the beginning of "Poetry as `Menace' and `Atonement,' the first essay in The Lords of Limit, there is this significant passage:

From the depths of the self we rise to a
concurrence with that which is not-self. For so
I read those words of Pound: `The poet's job is
to define and yet again define till the detail of
surface is in accord with the root in justice.' (13)

The passage is key to understanding that justice in Hill's work is not just a matter of ghosting Pollux. It is also, literally, a matter rooted in this earth — an earth whose texture is made up, among other things, of words and, therefore, of poems issuing from a radicated poetics whose justice is verified (but not necessarily created) by the negotium of natural processes. The distinctions must be subtle: I am not suggesting that Hill believes in an Emersonian equivalence of language and nature. At this point, it is best to let him speak. In an essay on C.H. Sisson, he wrote:

The capacity to interfuse ideas with landscape is one
of the great creative secrets: to make a tree or a field 
either draw out, or reciprocate, or feed images into, 
the life of the mind. It is great art we become 
palpably aware of in Wordsworth; scarcely anyone 
does it more beautifully than George Eliot. (14)

I think Hill's belief in this kind of poetic justice is shown by the second main constellation of images whose lights shine more steadfastly throughout the "New Poems (1992)" than the lights of the first constellation, the one of stars, which has already been discussed. This second constellation consists of radicated (and often radiant) images: vines, trees, flowers, herbs and weeds.

Hence, the ragwort/and the willow-herb which are among theedifiers/of ruined things in the last stanza of the fourth section of "Churchill's Funeral." So also the first, beautiful stanza of "Of Coming-into-Being and Passing-Away":

Rosa sericea: its red spurs
blooded with amber
each lit and holy grain
the sun
makes much of
as of all our shadows —

So also the natural strange beatitudes of willow, larch or alder in "Cycle" and even the very title of the last of "New Poems (1992)" which is "Sorrel" (followed by the explanatory epigraph:Very common and widely distributed...It is called some parts of Worcestershire — where Hill was born).

When discussing the "New Poems (1992), "we began with its first poem, "Sobieski's Shield." Let us end with it, for there the two constellations of images, that of the stars and that of the radicated earth, appear together. "Sobieski's Shield" begins:

The blackberry, white
field-rose, all others
of that family
steadfast is the word

The blackberry and the white/field rose both belong to that familyof rosaceae. Significantly, to cite a defining contrast, in "Psalms of Assize," a later poem among the "New Poems (1992)," the vague and vain pretensions of Renaissance Christian Neoplatonism are bitterly assized (or judged) as a monody/of chloroform/or florist's roses. In "Sobieski's Shield," on the other hand, the blackberry and the white/field rose are wild. Yet they also convey living cultural, historical and sacred associations humanity has imparted to them, including that of the Celestial Rose in Dante's Paradiso XXX, whose petals are made up of the heavenly family of the Elect which has managed (like Dante) to traverse The Enemy's Country. A colon at the end of the poem's third line indicates the family is synonymous with the sacred Word at the beginning of the Gospel of St. John (as noted earlier). Here and elsewhere throughout "New Poems (1992)" we are, therefore, being offered the possibility of reading Hill's words in the light of the garden of Gethsemane, as essays in poetic justice and prophecy.

Footnotes and Bibliography

(1)John Haffenden: Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation: Faber and Faber, London, 1981, pg. 90.

(2) Geoffrey Hill: The Enemy's Country: Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1991, pg. 81.

(3) Ibid, pg. 51.

(4) Ibid, pg. 5.

(5) Ibid, pg. 84.

(6) Ibid, pg. 87.

(7) Ibid, pg. 9.

(8) Ibid, pg. 10.

(9) Ibid, pg. 5.

(10)Geoffrey Hill: The Lords of Limit: Oxford University Press, New York, 1984, pg. 154.

(11) Richard Allen: Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning: Dover Publications Inc., New York, 1963, pg. 373.

(12) Peter Sanger: "Some Kind of Relevation": Geoffrey Hill's The Lords of Limit: The Antigonish Review, Autumn, 1989, Issue 79, pp. 137-146.

(13) Geoffrey Hill: The Lords of Limit: pg. 3.

(14) Geoffrey Hill: C.H. Sisson: PN Review, 1984, Volume 11, Number 1, pg. 14.

M.P. Trowbridge - Issue 109

Nightmare in the Country of Dreams

Elisabeth Harvor: Let Me Be The One, Harper Collins; $24.00 (Hard Cover), 176 pp.

In her recent collection, Let Me Be The One, Elisabeth Harvor concludes the second story, "How Will I Know You," with a dream sequence. The protagonist finds herself "driving at a great clip through sunlight mountains on a crowded bus with no driver." Then the setting changes and she is in a car with a driver who seems comatose. This man drives very well until she wakens him, at which time he begins "to weave drunkenly." Finally, she dreams she is in a tower with her three children. She opens her bedroom window to see that there is "a telephone hooked outside in the bright sunlight, on the outside brick wall of her neighbour's fifth-floor corner apartment." It was "a phone that only a fireman could use. A fireman or an angel." Strangely, this is the perfect touch. "But how convenient," the protagonist tells herself, "still lulled as she was by the impenetrable logic of the country of dreams."

This is modern tragedy, dealing not with heroes or other persons of social significance, but with ordinary people. The protagonists have all, in one way or another, lost control of their lives; and they rush headlong into almost certain danger. Unable to reach for assistance, they are isolated and alone. Lulled by the familiarity of the world around them, they reassure themselves that all is well in their convenient "country of dreams."

As the 20th century draws to a close, we speak and write our thoughts into telephone wires linked to almost anywhere in the world. We are fascinated by the ease with which we can communicate. But in the private places, in the places of the heart and in the delicate communication of relationship, we are experiencing breakdown. Living in a world that pretends to communicate, we experience the alienation of discovering we cannot. That is the disconcerting message of this book.

All of these stories are about women, and all are about the difficulty of relating even within the closest relationships — with daughters, sons, lovers, husbands, ex-husbands, sisters, brothers or friends. However, if her protagonists have difficulty communicating, Elisabeth Harvor does not. Stripping away the masks of daily living, she allows us a glimpse into the lives of her characters; and we find ourselves in situations we clearly recognize. They are not in the least comfortable or happy places, but they are places we know — dismaying places, places we have been before.

Harvor finds those almost classic moments of tragedy — times when her characters are most vulnerable, times when we feel for them both pity and fear. We meet each protagonist confronting such a moment: standing before a class of hostile teenagers; careening along in a "toxic ruin" of a car with a questionable driver; anguishing in the throes of a messy divorce; agonizing over a decision to leave nursing; fearing sudden death or loss of a child; peeking voyeuristically into the unhappy lives of others; grieving for "the family that was;" and recalling the painful recollections of an incestuous childhood.

Through the seemingly comfortable distance of fiction, she allows us to examine each woman. And surprise! What we find is someone very like ourselves. I have personally stood at the checkout counter in Kris Gradzik's stead, feeling "scruffy and vague" while some cashier taps her foot, "rolling her eyes while waiting and smirking ... giving my face and hair and old sweater and lipstick-less lips a condescending once-over." And I am sure that I am not alone. Harvor depicts these small but chilling snatches of failure, conveying the dread of inadequacy that must in some way threaten us all.

That feeling of dread is particularly well conveyed in "Invisible Target". The account of Linda Bishop's brief foray into nursing is truly frightening in its accuracy, touching upon the misery inherent in the labyrinth of professional life. I have been there too, I have experienced the constant terror "that I'd make a mistake dispensing the pills and giving injections." In fact, the Registered Nurses Union of Nova Scotia has recently voiced a similar concern, on behalf of overworked nurses during this time of downsizing. Most of us know what it is like to find ourselves in the wrong situation; we know the importance of distinguishing between "courage and endurance." Harvor lets us explore the difference.

In "How Will I Know You," we experience comedy touched with fear, as we accompany Marianne on a trip into the countryside, where she is seeking the assistance of a herbalist for a bout of persistent insomnia. When she bolts and runs, leaving the herbalist to wait in his "toxic ruin" of a car for a woman who will never return, amusement and sympathy can be our only response. On occasion, we have all gotten in over our heads; and despite certain embarrassment, there comes a time to cut and run.

The fantasized lover in "Love Begins With Pity" and Jessie's few scattered and half-hearted attempts to put her fantasy into action are poignantly real. Who among us has not engaged in fantasy of this sort — filling an unhappy space of life with the excitement of improbable love? And who among us cannot attest to the loneliness and isolation derived from such fantasy?

The relationships between parents and children is distressing in its accuracy. In "There Goes The Groom," a teenager's voice, "sullen and wary," coldly permits his mother's entrance to his room; and in the brief exchange that follows, he accuses her of being "a total failure as a human being."

And the list goes on: the failure implicit in that "iceberg lettuce in a forgotten brown paper bag... of such ancient vintage that it was leaking a fetid caramel-coloured sauce." Perhaps the author actually used my refrigerator for her research! Failure is a part of living, and Elisabeth Harvor finds those little universal failures. She strips away the pretense and takes us on a series of stark, often muddled, inward journeys.

We feel pity for the protagonists. Something in the lives of these women is bound to speak personally to each of us. But the emotion Harvor elicits goes well beyond pity. She elicits fear. Fear that the isolation and loneliness of ordinary people (people so much like ourselves) may actually be our reality.

There are brief glimpses of optimism. "A Mad Maze Made By God" is a happy, or at least a comforting, story. Despite her fears, Barbara's second marriage is going relatively well. Her new husband, Bruce, offers a different approach to child rearing; and although Barbara experiences a great deal of private anguish when Bruce packs her son off to a wilderness camp, the outcome is a happy one. This married couple is working things out. Possibly there is room for hope?

Not so. Harvor does not stray from her tragic vision for long. Almost as if she is afraid of dispensing even this small degree of comfort, she gives us a long rambling last paragraph, telling us what Barbara is thinking as she lies in bed after the camping incident has been successfully resolved. And Barbara's thoughts, which of course reflect Harvor's thoughts, turn abruptly, as if in a last-minute attempt to negate any optimism the readers may have been allowed. After all, we are told, this marriage is still very new. Barbara is "sharing a house with two people she didn't even know one year ago." People may marry again, we are told, not because it is "a mark of fine emotional health, but only... because they continued to be in need of karmic correction."

Barbara's jumble of thoughts, as she drifts into dream-land at her new husband's side, says it all: "Of course some people never even needed to marry, have children: they already had hearts and souls, you could see it in their eyes. Knowing that life was a tragedy, they were prepared to be kind." Here lies the very essence of Harvor's message. This is tragedy, modern day North American tragedy, tragedy involving middle-class women living in an admittedly comfortable society, yet living in pain while distanced from the traditional tragic horrors of famine, pestilence or war. In this sense, this uniquely North American sense, their lives are tragic — and any suggestion to the contrary is quickly snatched away.

The last story, "Through The Fields Of Tall Grasses," concludes with a characteristic denial of optimism. The story is told in fragments, many years later, to a psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Dulude. The protagonist's childhood memories about an incestuous relationship between herself and her brother are distressing until we reach the last episode. There, we actually have a funny account of Caitlin getting stuck in a dress that is too small for her. A panic ensues; and just in time, her brother (the same brother haunting her nightmares of incest) cuts her free from the dress. Days later, Caitlin is forgiven by auntie Faith for the ruined dress. She is released from the dress and from her tragic childhood, set free by a pair of scissors and by an amusing childhood memory.

An optimistic ending? It might have been, except the author steps in again, and we are told that auntie Faith's smile was "only an announcement of how much she'd feared worse: pregnancy, rape, a child's body ripped open." And so Harvor concludes her final story, and her book, snatching the last possible chance for comedy away. Tragedy is everywhere. Harvor elicits pity and fear, and nowhere does she allow either to abate. "Knowing that life was a tragedy," could she have written it any other way?

Keith Maillard - Issue 109

Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism; Jarman, Mark & David Mason, eds.; Story Line Press; Brownsville, Oregon; 1996; 260 pp.

In their modest and sensible introduction to Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism, editors Mark Jarman and David Mason claim, quite rightly, that "the most significant development in recent American poetry has been a resurgence of meter and rhyme, as well as narrative, among large numbers of younger poets, after a period when these essential elements of verse had been suppressed." The label that has been applied to this development is "New Formalism," and, although some poets have objected to the term, it has, by now, established itself in the critical vocabulary. There is still some debate, however, over who does or does not fit within the category. The broadest, and, I think, most practical usage would be to label as New Formalist those poets who write in meter — whether tight as Pope's or considerably looser than that — and who could be called "younger" (to distinguish them from poets born in the twenties or thirties who never stopped writing in meter) and this, obviously, is the definition employed by Jarman and Mason. Their excellent anthology brings together for the first time a sample of the work of most of the major New Formalists with that of newer poets at early stages of their careers.

There is much to praise in Rebel Angels, so I feel impelled to get my quibbles out of the way first. There are a number of important poets left out. J.D. McClatchy, Alfred Corn, and William Logan all have written memorable poems in meter; as different as they are from each other, one element they share in common is that they appear to be the direct inheritors of the New Critical style of the 1950s; their work — at least some of it — can be as complex and highly filigreed as anything written in the salad days of Allen Tate or John Crowe Ransom, and the inclusion of any of their more difficult formal poems would have provided examples of an approach not found elsewhere in the book.

I also missed the unique styles of Richard Kenney and Melissa Green; no one can match Kenney for adventurousness or Green for full-blown, unashamed lyricism. But the most serious omission is that of Gjertrud Schnackenberg; her The Lamplit Answer (1985) is one of the best collections of recent American formal poetry yet published, and her absence makes the anthology quite simply incomplete.

With the exception of Schnackenberg, however, all of the big name New Formalists are here. There is a bit too much of the bleak and sardonic Tom Disch and not quite enough of the elegant Timothy Steele. Mary Jo Salter has contributed two poems demonstrating her considerable talent for illuminating small moments of domestic life as well as two larger, more public statements: "Welcome to Hiroshima" and a finely crafted tribute to Robert Frost, "Frost at Midnight."

Dana Gioia, the genial, omnipresent gadfly of the New Formalist movement, is well represented; included are his often praised narrative poem "Counting the Children" and his sestina which opens with: "Let me confess. I'm sick of these sestinas/ written by youngsters in poetry workshops/ for the delectation of their fellow students..." (When I read it to my poetry workshop, it reduced the students to gales of laughter.) Gioia's "plain" style has, at times, seemed to me overly bare, but in "The Country Wife" it combines beautifully with the repetitions of the double triolet to create a lovely, magical effect.

In only one instance did I quarrel with Jarman and Mason's choice of specific poems: Brad Leithauser is a better poet than one might guess from the curious sampling of his work the editors have given us. His monosyllabic sonnet, however clever it might be, is hardly more than a poetic joke, and the three other poems selected are neither his best nor his most characteristic.

I was delighted by the inclusion of Marilyn Hacker. In the mid-eighties, when lists of New Formalists first began to appear, she was often left out (possibly because a few misguided critics were making a futile effort to equate writing in form and meter with Neo-conservatism, and to admit that an outspoken feminist like Hacker could also be a New Formalist would have contradicted their thesis), but her first book — Presentation Piece, 1974 — beat the more celebrated New Formalist poets (Steele, Leithauser, Salter, Schnackenberg, Gioia) into print by several years, and she has, by now, established herself as one of the best. Although both wit and humour abound in her work, Hacker is, at heart, a grave and serious poet, and she is at her best in the beautiful and harrowing alternating corona sequence in which she chronicles her struggle with breast cancer.

Cancer, gratuitous as a massacre,

answers to nothing, tempts me to retrieve

the white-eyed panic in the mortal night,

my father's silent death at forty-eight,

each numbered, shaved, emaciated Jew

I might have been. They wore the blunt tattoo,

a scar; if they survived, oceans away.

Should I tattoo my scar? What would it say?

I was also pleased by the inclusion of Molly Peacock. Much of her work is what I would call "semi-metrical" (as opposed to Dana Gioia's pejorative term, "pseudo-formal"); that is, although it hovers close to being fully metered, it isn't quite, and a strict definition of New Formalism would leave her out. Jarman and Mason neatly avoid this problem by the use of the term "irregular meter." Peacock is an enormously appealing poet; her small, quiet voice is sincere, confessional, and utterly convincing. In "Those Paperweights with Snow Inside," she opens with a typically dead-pan statement — "Dad pushed my mother down the cellar stairs." — and concludes her listing of domestic horrors:

...My sister ran away.

My father broke the kitchen table in half.

My mother went to work. Not to carry

all this in the body's frame is not to see

how the heart and arms were formed on its behalf.

I can't put the burden down. It's what formed

the house I became as the glass ball stormed.

Both the defenders and opponents of the New Formalism have attempted to define a narrow New Formalist aesthetic, but it has always seemed to me that the only thing genuinely uniting these poets is their interest in formal verse. As Jarman and Mason claim in their preface, New Formalism has attracted writers from varied social and political backgrounds exploring a wide range of subjects and forms; their anthology amply demonstrates this diversity. There are, among other things, ballads and a ballade, sonnets and sapphics, couplets and quintets and sestets, and blank verse — lots of it. The voices vary from the unabashedly colloquial to Timothy Steele's poised, quietly elevated diction in "Eros":

Gently to brush hair from the sleeping face,

To feel breath on the fingers, and to try

To check joy in that intimate, small place

Where joy's own joyousness can't satisfy —

This is pain....

There are many fine examples of the "new narrative," ranging from Sydney Lea's grim, Frostian "The Feud" to Andrew Hudgins "Saints and Strangers," a Baptist woman's account of her preacher father which had me chortling out loud at such lines as:

You teach a Baptist etiquette, she turns

Episcopalian. I did. It's calm.

Some of the poets included are more accomplished than others, but all of them have something of interest to offer; the range of individual styles and approaches to formal verse is truly impressive, and there are many wonderful moments in the anthology. I was particularly moved by Emily Grosholz' "Life of a Salesman," an account of her travelling salesman father who needs to find AA meetings "to fill the shady/ dangerous intervals of middle evening"; R.S. Gwynn's "Body Bags," a grim and funny poem from the era of the Vietnam War that includes a portrait of "Dennis `Wampus" Peterson" who "said he'd swap his Harley and his dope/ And both balls for a 4-F knee like mine"; Marilyn Hacker's tribute, in sapphics, to the Ohio Valley poet James Wright:

You are the lonely gathering of rivers

below the plane that left you in Ohio;

you are the fog of language on Manhattan

where it's descending.

Rebel Angels is not only an admirable introduction to American New Formalism — the only book, at the moment, attempting to fill that role — but, with its judicious selection of poems, brief biographies of the poets, and careful index of forms, it is also a teacher's dream. It may well prove to be the most influential anthology of American poetry published in over forty years.

Contributors to Issue # 109

Nicole Aimi lives in Vancouver, BC. Her work has been published in The Malahat Review and in the 1995/1996 Anthology of Magazine Verse & Yearbook of american Poetry. She won first prize in the 1996 Face to Face juried poetry competition, and has been published in various literary magazines in South Africa.

Beverley Brahic is a Canadian living in Paris where she teaches at the Institut des Etudes Politiques. She has been published in The Antigonish Review and has work forthcoming in Prism, The Malahat Review, the Foxglove Anthology Writing for the 21st Century, The International Quarterly and Poetry Nottingham.

Pam Bridgeman has had poems published previously in a number of English magazines including Iron, Smiths Knoll, Fatchance, Tandem, and many others. She teaches English at a Sixth Form College in Cumbria and is also an associate lecturer for the Open University.

Ian A. Colford lives in Halifax and works at Dalhousie University. His fiction has appeared in Event, The Gutter Voiceand Grain. A volume entitled Writing in the Electronic Environment was published by the Dalhousie University School of Library and Information Studies in 1996. He is editor ofPottersfield Portfolio.

Mary Ellen Csamer lives in North York, Ontario. Her most recent publications appear in Event, Queen's Quarterly and CV2.

Tracy Damson lives in Paris France. Tracy has been published inAriel (University of Calgary) and the Malahat Review, among others. Tracy is a teacher and translator.

Degan Davis was born in Northern Ontario and has lived in Toronto for the past four years. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Prairie Fire, Poetry Canada, Wascana Reviewand The New Quarterly. He is currently working on a book of short-stories and poetry entitled That Sweet Brutal Language.

Julie Dennison has an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Windsor, and began work on a Ph.D. in English at U.N.B., Fredericton in 1996. She has previously published poetry in Grain, The Pottersfield Portfolio, The Abegweit Review, and numerous anthologies. Home is in Victoria-by-the-Sea, Prince Edward Island.

Penny L. Ferguson's poems, short stories and drawings have been accepted/published by The Antigonish Review, The Pottersfield Portfolio, Canadian Author and The Nashwaak Review, among others. In 1990-1993 she served as Writer-in-Residence at the Nova Scotia Teacher's College. She is also co-founder and editor of The Amethyst Review.

Michael Fessler is an American writer and teacher. His work has appeared in Kyoto Journal, Poetry Northwest, Hawaii Review, Malahat Review, and others publications. He has resided in Japan since 1986.

Andrea Gawthome lives in New South Wales, Australia. She has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies. This is her first story to be published in The Antigonish Review.

Stephen Guppy's publications include a previous collection of poems Ghostcatcher (Oolichan Books in 1979) and a collection of short stories, Another Sad Day at the Edge of the Empire(Oolichan, 1985). He has published poems and stories in a number of periodicals, including Descant, Event, The Fiddlehead, among others.

Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936), poet and dramatist, possessed one of modern Spain's most poignant and lyrical voices. During the Spanish Civil War, he was executed by order of one of Franco's generals.

Dan MacIsaac lives in Victoria BC. He has other translations of Lorca's poetry forthcoming in Willow Spring (US). His poetry has appeared in journals including Poetry Nottingham, The New Quarterly and The Antigonish Review (69-70). He has published short stories in magazines such as Dandelion, Fiddlehead andStaple (UK).

Keith Maillard is currently the Chair of the Creative Writing Program at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of seven novels, one of which, Motet, won the Ethel Wilsoji Fiction Prize. His poetry collection, Dimentia Americana, won the Gerald Lampert Award for the best first book of poetry published by a Canadian. He lives in Vancouver with his wife and two daughters.

Walter McDonald is Directorof Creative Writing at Texas Tech University. His latest book is Counting Survivors (Pittsburgh). Other recent books include After the Noise of Saigon(Massachusetts) and Night Landings (Harper Collins). Three others won Western Heritage Awards from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame (USA): Rafting the Brazos; The Digs in Escondido Canyon; and All That Matters.

Jerry McGrath writes short stories. In the past several years he has published art criticism in Artscanada, Vanguard, C, Parachute and Canadian Art, as well as catalogue essays for exhibitions of contemporary Canadian art.

Kevin McNeilly teaches critical theory and cultural studies in the Department of English at the University of British Columbia. He has published essays and poetry in a number of Canadian, American and Irish journals. He is presently at work on a study of Robert Bringhurst.

Barbara Curry Mulcahy's short stories and poems have been published in anthologies and magazines, including The Antigonish Review. A radio play was broadcast on CBC's Studio 94 and other work has been performed in Edmonton and Calgary.

Opiyo Oloya is a teacher, broadcaster and writer in Toronto. Some works by the author have appeared in a number of Canadian Literary journals.

Helen Fogwill Porter was born and grew up in St. John's where she still lives. Her most recent book is the short story collectionsLong and lonely Ride. She is now working on a sequel to her 1988 novel January, February, June or July. Her work has appeared in magazines and anthologies across Canada and overseas.

Harriet Richards is a writer and artist living in Asquith, Saskatchewan. Her work has appeared in Planet-the Welsh Internationalist, and on the cover of Drawing Down the moon, an anthology of Welsh writing. Her first novel, The Lavender Child, will be published by Thistledown Press (Fall 1997).

Peter Sanger is Poetry Editor of The Antigonish Review. He has recently edited The Collected Poems and Translations of John Thomson. His last book of poetry is After Monteverdi (Harrier Editions, 1997).

Amy Scattergood is a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop and has been published in Grand Street, The Denver Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, New England Review among others.

E. M. Schorb has had prose and poetry appear in The Yale Review, The Southern Review, The Fiddlehead, Queens's Quarterly, The Sewanee Review, and The Texas Review, among others. He lives in Mooresville, NC.

Paul Serralheiro was born in Portugal. He has a M.A. in English Literature from Concordia University. He has been published previously in Loomings, Concordia University Magazine, Arcand Zymergy.

John Sokol lives and writes in Pittsburgh, PA. He has been published in numerous literary magazines including The Antigonish Review, Embers, The Long Islander, The New York Quarterly among others.

J.J. Steinfeld lives in Charlottetown, PEI. His work has appeared in numerous Canadian literary magazines and anthologies, and he has published five short story collections. Currently he is working on a novel, Photogenic. A new collection of his stories,Disturbing Identities, will be published by Ekstasis Editions (Spring 1998).

M.P. Trowbridge lives on Cape Breton Island. She has published poems in both Canadian and American journals and is the third place winner of the novel category in the Writers Federation of Nova Scotia annual contest.

Terry Watada is a fiction writer, poet, playwright and musician living in Toronto. His recent publications include A Thousand Homes (poetry Mercury Press) and Bukkyo Tozen: A History of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism in Canada (HpF Press). A Thousand Homes was shortlisted for the 1996 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. He is currently working on a manuscript of short stories to be published by Ronsdale Press.

Dana Wilde has appeared in The Antigonish Review, The Wallace Stevens Journal, The Journal of Modem Literature and others. He has taught college English for years in Maine and he has spent the last year teaching in Bulgaria from which he returned this June.

Gustav A. Richar - Issue 107

Shades of Passion

Canoeing among and camping on the islands of the northern Georgian Bay is, as every year, an earned vacation, a living within sight of the distant water-and wave-hemmed horizon, a time when my wife and I follow geological formations from island to island, count nesting pairs of warblers and sparrows on each visited remoteness, cook simple meals, read, write. During these weeks I always work on something I don't seem to find time for at home. This year I translated Kaschmir, a short story by the German author and film director, Doris Dbrrie. Perhaps someone else had previously translated the story, perhaps even published it in a collection orin aliterary magazine, butignorantof these possibilities I believed thetask was worth the effort. It would also give me hours of entertainment.

We hadjust finished lunch at our camp on Gooseberry Island (in the western section of the Bustard Islands) when, enjoying myself in the translation process, I stumbled on a word. "Leidenschaftlich," I said to my wife. "What's its counterpart in English?" She, still well acquainted with her mother tongue, stared at me as if I had asked for a translation into Swahili.

We knew the meaning of the word, but could not express it in English. Leidenschaftlich. Leidenschaftlich! It's on the tip of the tongue.

In a few days we would celebrate a wedding anniversary of several lecades and we, laughing when crying would have been more appropriate, stated with a swell of nostalgia that we had forgotten leidenschaftlich in our second language like the fading colour of a once magnificent ruby that had been exposed to the sun for centuries.

The translation progressed slowly. Not for want, but for personal restraint: 14 days canoeing - 16 pages of short story = 1.14 pages per day (mathematicians may express the numbers following the decimal point in lines or words). For the remainder of the pleasure time on those remote islands we read aloud Karen Blixen's Out of Africaand Bruce Chatwin's What Am I Doing Here?, and, something new that summer, the May and June issues ofSaturday Night. My correspondent in London/ON, B.D. Cehlate, had sent these magazines requesting my opinion about the 1995 short fiction and poetry winners of the Tilden/CBC/Saturday NightLiterary Contest. As if my remarks could influence the jury of future contests.

And we had another first on our voyage: a cellular phone.

B.D. Cehlate is a cultured, unobtrusive, and unpublished poet-a rarity in our time-who is intensely aware that her output is just everyday 1990s poetry. Since she longs to create something more lasting than a publication in a literary quarterly, she writes for friends only. Perhaps someday her patience and artistic seclusion will bring her the elusive, innovative style and wisdom (as it did, she points out often, to Rilke and Valéry) that will satisfy her, propel hertoward truly international recognition, move her above everyday poets.

Before we left the mainland, we parked our car at Stephen Welliver's in Britt. He, a painter, collector of rare books, restorer of wooden boats, and Lebenskiinstler (artist of life) had the luck to win in a raffle the use of a cellular phone for six months. Perhaps because of the country's economic situation, winning something outright has become unfashionable. Now the win is a time-trail; Sam Slick is coming back. Stephen, with his usual generosity, proposed that I should take the phone with me to establish the maximum transmission range between different islands and the mainland. Not to disappoint him, we, who don't even have a phone in our home, stuffed the gadget with packaged egg noodles and rolled oats in our provision bucket.

I had either forgotten both requests or conveniently parked them in an abandoned warehouse of my mind when, on the fourth evening of our island stay, my wife, who hadjustreadthe $10,000-award-winning poems of the contest, wanted to discuss them, and handed me the June issue of Saturday Night Kicheraboo, We Are, Dying by John B. Lee. Had he not been awarded the second prize in last year's CBC/Saturday Night Literary Competition? Obviously that dissatisfied the poet. The curiosity to win must have possessed him like a Catholic sin. At least he showed a remarkably good character trait by dismissing AIDS, sexual orientation, the Red Cross blood scandal, holocaust (too many authors are riding that camel) as a vehicle for his conquest. He selected racism, always a profitable theme for playwrights/poets/politicians. It's so everyday.

The open illustration of Julie Bell on the Saturday Night page with the award-winning poetry brought forth peals of laughter from me (these mixed well with the continuous cries of gulls and tems from their nearby nesting colonies). I had the notion of seeing a black astronaut waiting for his helmet, though the artist wanted to show a black slave with a neck shackle.

My wife was eager to compare my opinion of the poems with hers.

After reading the poems and before ploughing through them a second time, I dug into our provision bucket for the cellular phone, grabbed it and punched in Stephen's phone number on the mainland. My request surprised him. Unilingual Stephen, carefully repeating every letter of Leidenschaftlich, promised to look up the word in his 1873 English/ German dictionary; the one that even has explanatory hand-coloured engravings.

My vacation plan had included the reading of two books and the translating of a short story. Now the main objectives became crowded by a discussion about poetry, competitions, greed. The translation progressed as expected; the readings, however, limped into the evening where we finished the scheduled pages by the campfire, swatting mosquitos.

Asked to give an opinion about these poems, my memory began the process by offering support, selecting comparisons, proffering wisdom of dead writers. When these windows of knowledge open and spill their accumulations into the present where I try to formulate an intelligent reply to my wife's and also B.D.'s requests, I find this knowledge more curse than help. Somewhere (happily, I had forgotten that source) Thomas Mann had written that in literature you know only what you imagine. Oh, stated another memory-fleck, but Balzac stated, wrest words from silence (remember Rilke? Valéry?) and ideas from obscurity. And Yeats added also somewhere-

Suddenly my wife yelled from the shoreline. I dropped my notes to rush to her defence against water-dragons or granite-lions, but before I could jump up, I understood her shouts. Passionately. Passionately! Her mind had spat the missing word of my translation from the tip of her tongue. Finally. Bless her.

Here, for reason unknown to me, I thought of an uncle of mine, now in his nineties, still translating poems from Swedish into German. Just for he intellectual challenge, he once wrote me. For almost sixty years he also has been writing poems of his own, poems reflecting collected experience, personal observations, war reflections, humanity's hope. His writings are without artificiality, pomposity, rhyme, or rhythm, but show clarity that non-poets can follow. He has never published a poem-and never willnor submit his labours to a magazine, or God forbid, to a competition. He is the epiphany of European culture and all his poems reflect his experience. The pre-screening experts of the Tilden/CBC/Saturday Night Literary Competition would never consider his poems.

To hear the sound of a phone in a bucket filled with packages of egg noodles, dried fruits, pancake mixes on an island at an evening when the sun is setting behind a long sulphur cloud from INCO's superstack in Sudbury/ON (80 km distance), is a marvellously shocking experience. Totally unnatural. I did not have the heart to tell Stephen that I knew the problem word already. He added a few advisory remarks about aging, long marriage, and passion for which I thanked him. Being my junior, he lacks almost 10 years of experience in the progressively increasing default of life.

My wife wanted to know if I had come to a conclusion about Kicheraboo, We are Dying.

I, who wanted to continue my reading of Out of Africa, offered an answer that circumvented the main theme, started on detours vaguely related to the forthcoming opinion; probably a tedious process, but she had, to a certain degree, accepted my form of a critique long ago. And not out of compassion.

Perhaps a public commission or the arts' community should advise the administrators of the Tilden/CBC/Saturday Night Literary Competition to set restrictions for entering the contest. Wasn't this country-wide and reputable contest once a vehicle for young, talented, but unknown writers to fetch that all-important national exposure? It's obvious that to become a winner nowadays (at least for poetry) one has to have an international reputation (however overblown that expression is in Canada), and have 12 books plus two other awards to one's name. As an observer who has never entered this competition, I have to summarize Mr. Lee's obsession to win over other, yet undiscovered and perhaps better poets, to be monetary greed-certainly unworthy of a man who proudly considers himself a cultured (or maybe that should read cultivated) shepherd, a knowledgable man from rural Ontario.

In April 1898 the German, then highly-acclaimed poet, Stefan George, met R.M. Rilke in the Boboli Gardens in Florence. George advised young Rilke not to publish hastily because all influences on an artist's life should first dissolve in his memory and experience before being presented in the artist's work. This memorable meeting returns to my mind whenever I think of the Archive in Hermann Kasack's novel The City Beyond the River. Not a common archive, but the final collecting ground for everything written, a place I call the Library of Babylon, an imaginary underground cavern that every essayist, novelist, playwright, and poet has to enter in the last moment of life. Here the Archarchevist evaluates the newly-ar-rived literary works before the writer's eyes. Most fashionable authors of the past saw their works crumble to dust, as will the novels and scripts of present giants of the pen. Other writers were luckier when the eternal process stored a single sentence of their works, perhaps even an entire poem or story. Much of what the present finds original, the past had known, written, and forgotten.

Another fashionable poet, but also dramatist, essayist, librettist, and novelist, of Rilke's days was Hugo von Hofmannsthal. He did not think Rilke was a poet. Yet today, in the Library of Babylon, the works of Rilke stand beside Catullus and Saigyõ Hõshi, whereby only the operas of Richard Strau&azlig;

save Hofmannsthal from total obscurity. And Stefan George? I could neither quote a single line of his poetry nor remember having read anything of his for a long time in any book except in an index as a reference.

My wife, becoming restless, wanted to know the reason for this lengthy detour.

Only in solitude can one follow one's line of thoughts without being disturbed.

Though I wanted to lessen her general view of the (as she called it) blood, shit, and sweat poetry, I did not argue about the poems' message to the population-whatever that meant-since only 0.6 percent of the Canadian reading public shows interest in poetry. They-the noisy, unliterary majority-may understand a line, perhaps even a fragment of a paragraph, or at least enjoy the last stanza (Is such a definition still an acceptable term for a learned accumulation of words?) of Lee's third poem, The Banning of The Drum:

         Dumb poets
         We were banging
         Our tongues like rain.

The general theme of the six poems, old and accepted by humanity until the early days of our century, should apparently induce displeasure in today's readers, provide a thimbleful of shame for past atrocities of nameless American slave merchants, buyers, and keepers; remind us of past misfortunes of our black neighbours. These us are only the few descendants of white families who probably dislike tracing their family trees. For the real Canadianus of 1995, historical and national racism belongs to a past filled with legal cruelties and disadvantages. We cannot and should notjudge from our vantage point in time the centuries, decades, and years that are forever beyond the sphere of our influence.

Why did the poet not write about the discrimination toward Canadian aborigines, the racism they encountered, still have to endure? One answer towers above all others. Racism against blacks is a more international problem and since the byline calls Mr. Lee an internationally-known poet, he hoped that with these poems he might actually become one.

Whenever reading such poetry as offered in the 1995 June issue of Saturday Night, I believe that the poet is a closet-novelist who doesn't have the endurance and power to write a lengthy prose work. It's obvious and it saddens me that the author forgot to add passion to his poetic efforts. There are metaphors-the kind used in any reputable poem since the beginning of modem-day poetry-jumps in thoughts, unfinished expressions, and unexplainable cuts, in short everything expected in a 1995 poem. But why not passion? Why only a researched account of the past that comes forward like a rejuvenated collection of found poems, once so fashionable?

There are poets who write because they see, there are others who write because they hear. How often have I thought about that aphorism when reading the poetic offerings in literary quarterlies or freshlypublished, thin books. Oh, what an ocean of words and no ship above that turbulent sea.

In the story Kaschmir I was translating, a once passionate relationship between a man and a woman became an everyday affair where, at times, the past sent forth ambassadors to remind the couple of previous, hai)Dier days. Unfortunately, the arrival of these delegates was inappropriate and, instead of furthering a better relationship, it damaged and belittled the existing one. Something that has occurred between today's poets and their readers.

The phone rang again. Stephen had remembered our anniversary and congratulated us. We thanked him for that, though he was unaware of our true feelings. I wanted to return to Out of Africa, feel the passion of Kikuyu dancers, the proud aloofness of Masai Morans, the heat and rhythms of the continent from where the human freight with their life-long agonies came to the Americas. How many of these slaves came from Dahomey, through the hands of Dom Francisco Felix de Souza, chacha of Ouidah, the man immortalized by bruce Chatwin's novel The Viceroy of Ouidah and Werner Herzog's film Cobra Verde? But my wife, unaware of the distance my mind had travelled, called me back to the island evening and insisted I finish my review of Lee's award-winning poetry. It's unusual nowadays to receive such a large sum for six poems, particularly poetry where a master craftsman pulled all registers of the poetic organ, wrote in a learned style, used fashionable arrangements of words, aimed strictly for the win. How many nights did the author, a prosperous and well-fed white man, sitin his chamber writing about slaves and ships and the disadvantages of the coloured race? Where are the activists that verbally demolished the African exhibition at the Toronto Royal Ontario Museum, causing the nervous breakdown of its curator? Apparently none of them reads poetry or could not care that a white man enriched himself again on their ancestor's plights.

Recently I read that senior citizens, who lacked the strength to walk without a cane, improved after a few days of weight-lifting to such an extent that they could walk without a cane. There is hope for Mr. Lee to write such award-winning poetry that might survive the inevitable process in, the Library of Babylon.

  Passion, passionate, passionately, impassioned.
  Passion, passionate....


Allan Brown - Issue 107

Some West Coast Words

Burning Stone by Zoe Landale. Vancouver, BC: Ronsdale Press, 1995. 105 pp. $10.95.

The Centre by Barry McKinnon. Prince George, BC: Caitlin Press, 1995. 96 pp. $12.95.

The Edge of Time by Robin Skelton. Vancouver, BC: Ronsdale Press, 1995. 153 pp. $12.95.

Enchantment & Other Demons by Ron Smith. Lantzville, BC: Oolichan Books. 116 pp. $12.95.

Everything Arrives at the Light by Lorna Crozier. Toronto, ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1995. 152 pp. $14.99.

Kingsway by Michael Turner. Vancouver, BC: Arsenal Pulp Press, 1995. 80 pp. $10.95.

Lonesome Monsters by Bud Osborn. Vancouver, BC: Anvil Press, 1995. 112 pp. $10.95.

Too Spare, Too Fierce by Patrick Lane. Madeira Park, BC: HarbourPublishing, 1995. 70 pp. $10.95.

To This Cedar Fountain by Kate Braid. Vancouver, BC: Polestar Book Publishing, 1995. 95 pp. $16.95.

A Way of Walking by Robin Skelton. Victoria, BC: Ekstasis Editions, 1995. 80 pp. $12.95.

In an essay with the intriguing title "Daylight In the Swamp," the poet and literary scholar Charles Lillard observed somewhat sententiously that "Poetry is the predominant feature of B.C.'s literary history." I agree, though I know a couple of novelists who might dispute the claim. It is, at least, sufficiently characteristic of this province's literary activity to serve as part for the whole.

And a part of that literary activity, if it is authentic and is to be sustained for any length of time, must be a certain degree of selfconsciousness, some kind of awareness of what it is and what it has been. The seminal work here is the anthology Contemporary Poetry of British Columbia (Sono Nis, 1973), edited by J. Michael Yates, Andreas Schroeder, and George McWhirter. Other collections like Robert Sward's Vancouver Island Poems (Soft Press, Victoria, 1973) brought many new writers together for the first time. The best known anthology from this period is probably Gary Geddes's Skookum Wawa; Writings of the Canadian Northwest (Oxford, 1976), in part, I suspect, through the marketing power of the publisher; yetthe carefully chosen Westem Windows: A Comparative Anthology of Poetry in British Columbia, edited by Patricia M. Ellis for CommCept, Vancouver (1977) is equally well worth perusal. Literary journals are as important in B.C. as anywhere else in the country, and Fred Candelaria's special issue of West Coast Review (XII/2, 1977) was published simultaneously in book form as the compendious New: West Coast / 72 Contemporary British Columbia Poets. The 1980s began with Robin Skelton's Six Poets of British Columbia (Sono Nis, 1980) and ended with Light Like a Summons, a collection of five women poets edited by J. Michael Yates (Cacanadadada, 1989) and Calvin Wharton and Tom Wayman's thematic volume East of Main: An Anthology of Poems from East Vancouver (Pulp, 1989) which contains work by Kate Braid, Bud Osborn, and Michael Turner.

One of the most varied and still usefully valid of the general collections is the West Coast Renaissance set of three linked issues of The Malahat Review (January, 1978; April, 1979; October, 1981) edited by Skelton and Lillard. In his extensive Comment to the first of these volumes Skelton offers a few critical guidelines, the most important (and typically contentious) being his emphatic statementthat "the poetry is symbolist ... the images attemptratherto express the numinous than to delineate the physical universe." A second, more particular (and somewhat safer) claim is that this urge appears most frequently "in terms of psychic, as distinct from psychological, adventures." He draws out some of the implications of that last term by further commenting that "All stories are legends in these parts, or at least a good story is regarded as good only if it has the potential of becoming legend."

In some ways these writings - Skelton's comments included form their own legends. At least, they can establish a particular shape or story for and about themselves - such as the collections of poetry bound singly that I have partially listed above, or a looser collection of collections such as the ten considered below. Three of them - The Edge of Time, To This Cedar Fountain, and Too Spare, Too Fierce - were shortlisted for the 1995 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. Lane's book won it. These ten do not, of course, represent anything like a full survey of recent West Coast poetry; both Charles Lillard and Doug Beardsley, for instance, have recently published selecteds (with Sono Nis and Signal/Véhicule respectively) which now bring together significant amounts of material. But the samples here do open some independent yet still typical views and also show some interesting continuations and variations upon them.


Skeleton's distinction of psychic and psychological is particularly useful, I think, in responding to the work of Zoe Landale. In other hands, the impulse behind Burning Stone might degenerate into just one more dogged examination and exhumation of family roots. She is concerned, to be sure, with various members of her family, past and present, but in a disciplined and non-indulgent way. This is no mere loose, inchoate Life Writing, but rather a series of exercises in portraiture reminiscent of the heightened realism of artists like Christopher Pratt and Bruce St. Clair.

Landale usually concentrates on specific details to supply objective correlatives for her work of "exorcism," such as "the photograph / of my sixteen-year old Great-great-grandmother" suggestively marked "Circa 1850," or "My Great-grandmother's eyeglasses," or "My grandmother Minnie's diaries from 1917 to 1979" in the summarizing poem "My Beautiful Ghosts." Sometimes she creates an intentional confusion, as with the series of apparently random jottings about "Josie...... Cecil," and "Lorraine" in "The Old Vitriol," or more mysteriously with the anonymous suicide poem "Song of the River." More often, however, she will focus sharply upon one clearly delineated person, as with "Aunt Anne, Artist." An expansive image (a brief allegory, really) from this poem points out Landale's own artistic method:

 You separated beliefs and emotions neatly
 as a trout's backbone peels away from
 cooked flesh.

The nine-part title poem, the last in the section of the book called "Family," contains another example of this simple, yet almost unbearably tense domestic imagery. It begins casually, in a gently rocking, anecdotal style "Lunch was always the same / sliced hothouse tomatoes, the very best ground beef / orange Kraft dressing on both / with vanilla ice cream for dessert." T-ben comes the explanation of it all:

 The structure of meals a ritual which
 held back chaos

and then a final, flippant note to remark how this "ritual" (or perhaps the structure" itself) was the thing which "turned on the lights" and "made it look as though someone was home."

In her ongoing publications, Landale continues to manipulate and evoke this awesome clarity of description. The poem "Oatmeal Cookies," for instance, which appeared in the Autumn 1995 issue of Canadian Literature, casually records "the yellow radiance / the plastic mixing bowl makes against / the white counter."


Barry McKinnon achieves a similar effect of concentrated speech, paradoxically, by rigorously omitting just the sort of naturalistic detail that Landale dwells so carefully upon. His work is solitary in the richest sense, innerly directed without being solipsistic. As he states near the beginning of the longpoem "Arrhythmia":

 lost the natural world, - and
 must remake ourselves

The Centre is concerned with process rather than with product and moves characteristically, as the title poem has it, around "a centre to hold to when the / mind goes out of the heart, heart out of the mind."

The book is involved not so much with meaningful statements, though it never lacks for seriousness, as it is with statements about meaning. Not so much what, as how, for instance, "this part of the mind / is meaning," as he speculates in the poem "Railway," and then goes on to assert, or at least to accept that "the truth is... / a slightly twisted note not quite true."

Sometimes the shorter poems in The Centre manage to hold what he terms "a moment's connection" and maintain a fitful balance between analysis and image:

 not miserable
   but a sense of the end of things
 the baby wakes
         singing -
     ("Cabin": early morning/June)

But such moments pass quickly in McKinnons's fluid world: "your earlier life? images and thots just like now, but fewer words" ("Arrhythmia" Part II). This kind of metaphysical uncertainty can be confusing and Barry McKinnon's attenuated expression of it will not appeal to all readers, but it is at least consistent in its inconsistency and the sheer honesty of the book is unmistakeable.


In a sense, Robin Skelton's magisterial The Edge of Time takes McKinnon's forays around and within verbal abstraction one further step by inhabiting the realm of pure form. More simply, the book "makes poetry out of poetry," as Pat Lane puts it in his back-cover note, by employing and adapting various traditional verse structures from around the world.

Skelton has been experimenting with - or for him a better term would be, enjoying - a variety of verse forms, especially Greek and Welsh, for many years. His 2OO Poemsfrom the Greek Anthology appeared in 1971 and there is an example of englyn milwr, a Welsh triplet form, in the New: West Coast anthology. More recently, hisPopping Fuchias (Ronsdale, 1992) explores a variety of European forms, both familiar and relatively unfamiliar, as well as some of his own modifications of them. The poems in The Edge of Time are set out in six sections, including an "Indian Interlude" with examples of the bipartite doha, and the ovi quatrains which sound, in Skelton's version anyway, rather like rhyming sapphics. (A proper set of these also appears in the book as "The Isles of Greece.") The collection ends with some translations, mostly from the French modernists.

Yet however many countries and cultures he chooses to visit, Skelton's poetry here is as essentially symbolist in impulse, I think, as anywhere else, and in his own words, continuously striving to "express the numinous." He reflects in "Crawlspace" (an example of the Welsh gwawdodyn) on the implications of "scarred wood and stone." The poem combines atentative optimism, "as I gope ahead/clumsy with apprehension" with grimly understated fearfulness:

 What do I seek?  I have forgotten.
 Above my head the old house holds its tongue.
 Light shifts, shudders. Time remains a prison.

He deals more directly with this transformation in "Slow Music," a curtal sonnet dedicated to Murray Adaskin, where he states how "Each heard note [is] a footfall felt and known, / a comprehension of the weight of things." His method of confronting time and change extends also to persons. In "Her," an Italian sestet, he recalls a loved one, imperfectly yet with sufficient clarity and strength to finally understand that:

 it was she who brought me to
 the edge of time where I could see
 creation's moment rolling by.


There are different ways of "pursu[ing] dreams over the edges of time," as Ron Smith points out in his thematic "Naming the Song." Smith is concerned often in Enchantment & Other Demons with social issues and exhibits a broad compassion that I find strongly reminiscent of the late Tom Marshall. In the two-part elegy "Fires of Chernobyl," he demonstrates that the political is finally the personal. He addresses an unknown and unnamed victim in a way that leads us toward a general understanding of victimization and something of a possible victory:

 in going into the inferno, into the dead
 zone invisible as it is, you have healed
 my mind and closed the wound.

          ... may your spirit live here
 and others find it green and growing and

Aseries of prose poems or lyrical parables in the last half of the book establish Smith's insights into the writing process in general and many of the concerns of Enchantment & Other Demons in particular. "Arabesque," a revision of the longer A Buddha Named Baudelaire (Sono Nis, 1988), develops acomplex allegory of life and artby exploring human relationships. There is a distinct French flavour here, with the Baudelaire allusion, Rimbaud-like statements ("Assassins are rarely careless"), and a repeated image of "white sheets, white bodies, white paper" that effectively ties the piece together, repeating and expanding the famous "pages of a book" image which ends Valery's "Le Cimetière Marin." Smith's method here is to move out of himself, as with the Chernobyl poems, in order to more clearly present what he alone, of course, can present. It is a kind of artistic anonymity, akin to what Keats spoke of as the poet's necessary "negative capability." The method appears again in "Naming the Song," dedicated to Robert Kroetsch, a well-turned, friendly parody of Kroetsch's familiar catalogue poems. In describing his "friend's" style, Smith in fact describes his own: "my friend, Empedocles discovered the invisible air; / you, in turn, fill our mouths with words and waggle / our tongues with the world's invisible songs."


There is certainly nothing anonymous about the familiar poetic persona of Lorna Crozier. The symbolic and immediately assertive centre of her new book is the 17-poem ghazal sequence "If I call stones blue," published independently as a chapbook called Eye Witness (Reference West, 1993). The multiple puns of the earlier title - I/eye/witnessing/etc. - emphasize the notions of seeing sharply and newly that all the work in Everything Arrives at the Light touches on in one way or another. The visionary statements in the ghazals are both negative, "Gardens everywhere even when you cannot see them," and positive:

 Two strange hearts
          drift in feather boats
 across your sight.

The titles of other poems also emphasize this concern - "My Sister's Eyes...... Seeing [my emphasis] My Father in the Neighbour's Cockatoo," "Too Much Brightness," or "What the Eye Lets Go" with its deft blend of the elements of water and air as "the eye // releases this minnow-quick breath from its net."

The book ends with several narrative or quasi-narrative poems. Some of these, like "Fire Breather" (dedicated to Patrick Lane) and "The Travelling Poet," are in the confessional mode that characterized much of herearlier writing. Others work more objectively with traditional materials, such as "The Swan Girl," a sensitive re-telling of the Leda story, or "Noah's Wife," a monologue that could have come directly from the Chester pageant. Li its medieval predecessor, Crozier's poem deftly blends (visionary) romance - "the foxes's flaming tails, the eyes / of owls, pools of pure light" - and (equally visible) realism: "After a week at sea the air smelled / of rotting pomegranate and banana."

Crozier is further exploring narrative territory with her recent workin-progress A Staving Grace: The Collected Poems of Mrs. Bentley, a poetic recasting of Sinclar Ross' As For Me and My House, that is beginning to appear in periodical format. It will be interesting to see how she relumes one of our best-known novels.


I am tempted to say that everything in Michael Turner's Kingsway either arrives at or departs from the stop light. This is Tumer's third collection, following Company Town (1991) and Hard Rock Logo (1993). The three books bear an interesting relationship: the first explored the life and death of an imaginary but accurately representative fish cannery settlement in the Skeena River area of B.C.'s northern coast and the second followed the eccentric path of four rock and roll performers through a series of large and small towns. Kingsway is set in Vancouver or, more accurately, on the city's oldest thoroughfare. The book itself is set out in three sections: the ten-part longpoem "Kingsway," a sequence of "15 Poems About Kingsway," and "Yjngsway: A re: Development Project," consisting of 21 separate pieces, each with a title taken from the work of another B.C. poet, usually someone associated with Vancouver.

Turner frequently renders the street and its activities through a kind of mechanical repetition of phrase. In part iv of the "Kingsway" section, for instance, he imitates the clatter, hiss and whine of automobiles as well as making an unmistakeable statement about the culture they represent:

 the boardwalk
  the bored walk
   the low-rise
    the highway
     the stagecoach
      another stage
       the pit-stop
        the piss-stop
         the piss-up

The calmer, more reflective poems in the sequence identify themselves with and as the mechanical metaphor: "this will always be / driving the reading." The poem "And Sad Sorrow Walks My Salary" (whose title is taken from "Chronicles" by Judy Radul) in the third section of the book generalizes this notion further:

 the logo the product the text
 all suggest poetry as
 an organizational model
 a navigable way of arriving at

The book thus becomes both an assertion and a representation of its ostensible subject, with street becoming city becoming knowable ("logo[s]") world.

For all its vitality, though, this world is endured rather than enjoyed. I suggested in an earlier survey of West Coast poetry ("Of Mountains and Mirages," in Quarry 44/1) that Michael Tumer's first two books project a tragic vision. It now seems to me that Kingsway extends or, rather, modulates this to an essentially satiric point of view akin to the classical metropolitan scourgings of Horace and Juvenal.

Turner seems also to be developing a species of urban-based surrealism, partly paralleling the work of George Bowering (most recently in Urban Snow) or the metaphysical cityscapes of Norm Sibum (Among Other Howls In the Storm, and later collections). It is interesting to contrast the implications of these developments with the position taken earlier by Robin Skelton (in the Comment I cited above) that "the west coast imagination today [1978] is obsessed with the natural world and with the rural community, rather than with the urban scene." There is still truth in this observation, of course (though "obsessed" may be too strong a term), and significant examples of it in the ongoing work of Charles Lillard, say, or Harold Rhenisch; but it is also true that some West Coast poets are usefully pursuing their craft within as well as without the city limits.


Bud Osborn is one of these. Like the turner of Hard Core Logo, he glories in an on-the-road persona, "& a ride of a thousand miles ... with / sawed-off shotgun & reinforced grille" ("drapetomania"). Like Turner also, though with more than a hint of Ginsberg behind him, he employs the iterative effect of the catalogue poem to recreate the cacophony of "downtown eastside sidewalks" with their load of "those who wear the violent evenings / on faces bruised black & purple // & those crawling drunk & sick // & those who fall or get pushed or raving leap" ("down here").

Though the intensity of the violence of Osborn's street sights is unaltered throughout Lonesome Monsters, its forms of expression shift intriguingly from that of the Kerouac-like prose poem and the catalogues of "down here" and "keys of kingdoms" to a scattering of provocative, rather Chaplinesque haiku:

 who do you
 for real change?

This lyrical impulse appears also in the rather improbable but very effective dactylic rhythms of "drifting": "after the morning meal at the mission / I drift through the city / ...riding park benches and reading poe." The companionship of that gentle master of the macabre is certainly apt.


Bud Osborn's grim view of the human condition compares interestingly to that of Patrick Lane. Too Spare, Too Fierce, Lane's 22nd volume, consistently exhibits the formal control that is a product of three decades of sustained versecraft. There are many familiar touches here: the unexpected revelation that "What the body forgets is / what memory is" ("These Ones"); the clear, naturalistic description of the "Cougar" who "before she falls from her high limb / holds for one moment the ponderosa pine"; and even occasionally a touch of parody, as with the Purdyesque "the body full of whiskey ... pissing on the dead roses" ("Musical Phrase"). He is also and more seriously aware of his literary predecessors and honours the novelist Howard O'Hagan whose Tay John(1939) is so close in spirit to much of Lane's own work, with the softly brooding elegy "The Story In His Bones."


There is a great deal of energy in Too Spare, Too Fierce. There is also a peculiar tension, a kind of anger (the "ferocity" of the title?) that seems to be in some way self-directed, or directed at least toward a new (more "spare"?) self image. His second Selected Poems (Oxford, 1987, succeeding the Poems New & Selected of 1978) showed a movement away from the early rages and broadly based satire in such books as Albino Pheasants and Unborn Things to a more contemplative verse. This inclination to abstraction continued and possibly culminated with the booklength sequence Winter (Coteau, 1990). Now, at age 56, Lane seems to be engaged in a new, or at least in another, personalization. His recent series of prose "Memory writings," as he terms them ("Lives of the Poets" and others), withtheiroddyetcompellingblendofnaturalism andphantasmagoria, move in a similar, rather wayward direction, juggling his personae.


There i s a similar dialectic - or perhaps here, a confusion - of identities in Kate Braid's second book of poetry, To This Cedar Fountain, an exploration of the life and work of Emily Carr. Carr's painting has often provoked poetic reactions and replications such as the individual pieces by Charles Lillard ("Scorned As Timber") and Wilfred Watson ("Emily Carr"), both printed in the Skookum Wawa anthology; or more complexly in John Barton's book-length collection, West of Darkness (Penumbra, 1987). More recently, and much closer to Braid's work, is the evocation of Emily's voice by the Alberta short story writer Rebecca Luce-Kapler, in her extended poem "Finding the Space to Paint Among All These Humans" (Event, Spring, 1996).

To This Cedar Fountain is constructed as a loose narrative in five parts, or "a dialogue with Emily," as Braid describes it in her Foreward, partly by means of excerpts from Emily Carr's journals. The technique is similarto thatof Margaret Atwood in The Journals of Susanna Moodie, and indeed Kate Braid has borrowed an effect (the resurrected artist) from the conclusion of Atwood's book.

The individual poems fit well together but their particular effects are sometimes uneven. Braid's subjective stance and use of homely imagery can sometimes produce startling openings like:

 Emily, I could taste you,
 the salad of your palette,
 bitter chocolate of tree trunks
          ("British Columbia Forest")

At other times though, her familiar populist, prosy tone - "Its down-to-the-core-and-bursting, boys / with a lets-get-on-with-it-quick / kind of energy" - does scarce justice to its subject, the complex interweavings of Carr's late "Cedar" of 1942. Often the weaknesses and strengths of Braid's approach come close together, as when the clich6d "Alice through a West Coast looking glass" goes on to discover "the only way out, / a rough road leading perhaps / to treasure, green and powerful" ("i.e. Forest, British Columbia).


This search for a naming of the "road" or the "way" may well be one of the most illuminating, as well as probably one of the most pervasive images or image clusters in the work of these poets. It certainly provides a convenient transition to the last I will look at. A Way of Walking is the second of Robin Skelton's recent collections, followingIslands (Ekstasis, 1993), to consist of "Poems in the traditional forms and metres of Japan."

The most easily recognizable of these forms, which include exotics such as the Katauta, imayo, and mondo, are the five-line tanka and the threeline haiku or senryu. One of these last, for instance, neatly echoes the general concerns of The Edge of Time:

 A thread-bome spider,
 dropping deftly as time,
 stops just short of my hand.

The precisely maintained syllable count of these verses - the 5+7+7 pattern of sedoka, forinstance-emphasizestheequallyprecisedescriptions:

 On the tiled roof ridge
 a casual bright-eyed crow
 extends an eclectic claw.
                      ("In Oak Bay")

However, even with his concern for such details and carefully applied metrical dexterity, it is clear that Skelton is more interested in adapting these forms to his purposes, than his purposes to the forms. Indeed, as he points out in rather school-masterish tones: "I have not followed any prescriptions concerning the subject matter appropriate for each form with any regularity." West and East do meet in A Way of Walking, but only glancingly. If Skelton's work here bears any persistent relationship to the classic Japanese masters, it is to the sophisticated pictorial techniques and rather rarefied aesthetic positions of Buson, rather than, say, Basho's rough mysticism or the simple humanitarianism of Issa. Yet he appears to be quite content now merely to be himself and the dominantly elegiac concerns of this volume often turn inward, though always with a typical quixotic humour:

 My poems are growing smaller:
 it appears appropriate
 as the years ahead dwindle
 and my breath shortens.
               ("Reflective Footnote"

The eight B.C. publishers I have drawn from for this brief survey continue to actively support poetry, even though they may not always make very much money from it. There are also many smaller firms in the province who specialize in chapbook production, like Gorse Press, The Hawthorne Society/Reference West, and Outlaw Editions. As well, there are a number of individual poetry broadsides issued from time to time from such independents as High Ground Press, located somewhat to the south of Powell River and operated by Theresa Kishkan and John Pass.

And of course new work always continues to appear in the literary journals, both in province (such as Canadian Literature, Event, The Malahat Review, and many others) and out of province. Out of country too, for that matter - such as "Cartier's Glossary," a poem by John Pass which came out a while back in Poetry Ireland. John's playfully serious or seriously playful paradox on the name and nature of some (at least) literary matters will provide an apt ending to this study of some West Coast Words:

 but now "Word" is his last word, his horizon.

Contributors To Issue # 107

Gary Atlin teaches genetics and breeds wheat atthe Nova ScotiaAgricultural College.

Kevin Black lives in Moncton with his family and a various assortment of animals. He works as a doctor in Moncton and has had poems published in Ireland, England and Canada.

Diane Bracuk is a freelance writer living in Toronto. Her prose and poetry have been previously published in The Antigonish Review.

Allan Brown lives in Powell River, BC. His poetry has been published in various Canadian magazines since 1962 and in eight books and chapbooks. His critical writings have been published since 1975. His work has appeared frequently in The Antigonish Review.

Gerald Chapple teaches German at McMaster University. He has translated several prose works by contemporary German prose writers. His translation, with James B. Lawson, of Barbara Frischmuth's Chasing after the Wind: Four Stories will appear in 1996 with Ariadne Press. He is on the board of the American Literary Translators Association.

Mary Frances Coady lives in Toronto. She is a freelance writer and a teacher of English in the community college system.

Blane Després is completing his Ph.D. in Education at UBC. He has published poems in The Antigonish Review and The Fiddlehead.

Pamela Donoghue was bom in Saint John, NB. Her work has appeared in. various literary journals including The Fiddlehead and Grain. She lives in Seabright, Nova Scotia.

Deirdre Dwyer is a tutor at the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design. She attended the Banff Writing Studio in the fall of 1995 where she worked on her manuscript Going to the Eyestore.

Robyn Eversole lives in Montreal, West Virginia, and Bolivia. She is the author of the illustrated books Flood Fish and the Flute Player/La Flautista, and is pursuing a doctorate in development anthropology at McGill University.

Roger Field lives in Truro, Nova Scotia where he is Principal of Alice Street Elementary School. He has had poetry and short fiction published in 3c Pulp, Skaz, and Geist. This is his first publication in The Antigonish Review. E-mail address:

Bernice Friesen lives in both Saskatchewan and British Columbia. The title story of her collection The Seasons Are Horses was awarded the Vicky Metcalf Award for Short Story.

Shree Ghatage lives and writes in St. John's Newfoundland. She has been previously published in Canadian Fiction Magazine and has a poem forthcoming in The Fiddlehead.

Greg Gilbert lives in Quebec and works as associate editor for ARC Magazine.

Eric Hill lives in Fredericton. He is a poetry editor at The Fiddlehead and the new ultra-sexy magazine QUERTY. A chapbook of his poetry titled every tool is a weapon if you hold it right was published in May by Ice House Press.

Sarah Klassen is a Winnipeg writer. Her short fiction has appeared in Newest Review and Borderwatch(Nethlandic Press, 1993). She spent the winter of 1995/96 teaching English in Lithuania.

Ursula Krechel (born 1947) has written numerous plays, radio plays, novels and volumes of poetry. Her most recent collection of poems, Landlaeufiges Wunder (Everyday Miracle), was published by Suhrkamp in 1995. The selection here is taken from her second volume of verse. She lives in Frankfurt am Main.

Anne Le Dressay teaches English at Augustana University College in Camrose, Alberta. She is a past contributor to The Antigonish Review and has had poems published in joumals such as Queen's Quarterly, Tickle Ace, Event, Other Voices, and Canadian Literature.

Joy Hewitt Mann chairs The (Ottawa/Seaway) Valley Writers' Guild and edits their bimonthly newsletter and annual anthology The Gristmill. She has received several American awards for poetry and appears there broadly, Her Canadian credits include Whetstone, Carleton Arts Review and The Church-Wellesley Review. Her first book of poetry was published in May, 1995.

Frederick Mundle teaches at New Brunswick Community College. He has had poetry published in The Comorant, and The Antigonish Review. Placed second in Poetry (1996) for poem entitled "The Wall" with WFNB (Writers' Federation of New Brunswick).

Catherine 0wen has poetry published in Chasing Halley's Comet (Laughing Willow Books) and Her (Wet Sickle Press). Her latest MS is Somatic a series based on the life and work of viennese painter Egon Schiele. She is a student in Burnaby, BC.

Shane Rhodes lives in Calgary or Alix Alberta and is an editor with Filling Station magazine. He has published poetry in a numberof Canadian literary journals and has most recently produced a chapbook entitled Claims.

Gustav A. Richar, is a graduated Mechanical Engineer, edited Parry Sound 1887-1987, Historical Miniatures, a book of historical essays and stories. His prose has been published in: The Antigonish Review, Dandelion, Northland Journal, Quarry, Windsor Review, Whetstone, Zymergy, and others. Since November 1995 he has been translating short stories of the German author and film producer Doris Dörrie. He lives with his wife at a lake north of Pointe Au Baril, ON.

Gaby Roughneen is Irish and Canadian. She works in Mount St. Vincent library in Halifax, and has published poetry in Ireland and England.

Darlene Searcy lives and writes in Winnipeg Manitoba.

Sandy Shreve was raised in Sackville, NB and lives in Vancouver, BC. Her books of poetry are The Speed of the Wheel Is Up to the Potter (Quarry, 1990) and Bewildered Rituals (Polestar, 1992). Her third collection, Belonging, is forthcoming from Sono Nis Press in 1997.

Anne Simpson is a writer and artist living in Antigonish. She has previously published work in The Fiddlehead, Quarry, The Malahat Review and Event, among others.

Andrew Steeves was born in Moncton, NB and now lives with his wife and son in Wolfville, NS. He is currently editing acollection of letters that Alden Nowlan wrote to NB writer Raymond Fraser. His poetry has appeared in The Amethyst Review and The Pottersfield Portfolio.

Lynn Strongin is an American poet living in British Columbia. Herwork has appeared in numerous American anthologies & magazines. Seven published books. Recent poetry in Descant, Shenandoah, and The American Voice and Confrontation.

George Szanto, a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, was a finalist for the Books in Canada First Novel Award with Not Working. He is also the author of The Underside of Stones. He teaches Communications and Cultural Studies at McGill University.

Derek Webster lives in Montreal. This is his first publication. In the fall, he will start an MFA in poetry at Washington University, in St. Louis.

Terry Whalen is the author of Bliss Carman and his Works (1983), Charles G.D. Roberts and His Works (1989), andPhilip Larkin and English Poetry (1986, rpt. 1990). He is currently writing articles related to Philip Larkin's estate papers, and he teaches at Saint Mary's University, Halifax, NS.

Kevin Irie - Issue 106

Low Water Slack by Tim Bowling (Nightwood Editions, 1995, 79 pages, $9.95).

Tim Bowling's first book, Low Water Slack, is a rare find. Accomplished, assured, and stocked with memorable imagery, it trumpets the presence of a huge new talent. The biographical note on the back cover gives us the personal history: first prize in the 1994 National Poetry Contest, raised in Ladner, British Columbia, worked as a deckhand of a Fraser River gillnetter each summer. But his background also describes the book's subject matter - the salmon, the water, the boats and the people who work them, where "the salmon are a moving crop."

Bowling has the talent to combine the personal, the political, and the philosophical within his poems, gliding from one to the other as gracefully as those salmon that dart through his poems. And salmon are very much the living centre of this collection. Like Ted Hughes, Bowling sees them as regal, heraldic. He describes a dying salmon as:

 ... scales like bloodied coin
 a glove of chain-mail
 after a Crusades slaughter
 the living hand still inside

              (The Last Sockeye)

Part of Bowling's gift is his ability to recognize the inherent majesty of the natural and yet to also celebrate the lives of those who earn their living by the catch. This dichotomy surfaces inthe poem, "Sunset: LadnerHarbour":

 I can see the crabs twitching like
 severed hands as the boat moves past
 me on the dyke. I know the man behind
 the wheel. Yet it seems impossible to
 wave. Who would I be waving at, the
 man I am or the hundred prisoned selves
 I can't become?

It is those "prisoned selves" that Bowling also explores in poems on adolescence, his parents, the past and future. "The Tinsmith," is a tribute to John Sullivan Deas, a free mulatto from the States who eventually owned and ran a B.C. cannery in the 1870's. "West Coast Winter: 1942," is inspired by the inland deportation of Japanese-Canadians during World War Two. On a more personal note, Bowling writes of lonely widows who depend on fishermen bringing them home catch to eat, of neighbours who have died young, of his own love. Yet, no matter what the subject matter, Bowling gives each the same skilful degree of attention and insight, of compassion and perspective. It is that Whitmanesque empathy that allows Bowling to accurately write:

 I have been that profile,
 the slow pace on hardwood floors ...I am
 one step from the black graves flowing
 by, one beat from the broken glass

                       ("Canoe Pass")

After reading this collection, it is apparent that Bowling has claimed coastal British Columbia as his own poetic landscape in much the same way that another impressive British Columbia poet, Harold Rhenisch, has claimed the orchards of the interior.

Low Water Slack is a generous first book of poems, and, at age 3 1, Bowling has the prospect of more fine work to come. Often, first books are regarded as tentative, or promising. With Tim Bowling, there is no need to wait: Low Water Slack is promise fulfilled, talent celebrated.

Donez Xiques - Issue 106

A Very Large Soul: Selected Letters from Margaret Laurence to Canadian Writers. Edited with a preface and introduction by J.A. Wainwright. Dunvegan, Ontario: Cormorant Books, 1995. xxi + 264 pp. $18.95.

"I had to discard 8 months work and years of brooding on the novel I hoped to do, because it turned out I had outgrown it and did not really want to write it. I think another novel is growing under the surface. It is all an odd experience..."(13). These comments by Margaret Laurence prior to beginning work on The Diviners, her last novel, occurin acollection of more than two hundred letters: A Very Large Soul: Selected Letters from Margaret Laurence to Canadian Writers edited by J.A. Wainwright. The book is fittingly dedicated to Malcolm Ross, who taught Margaret during her college days, and who as teacher, critic and editor has made outstanding contributions to Canada's literary life.

In 1980 Margaret Laurence remarked that after reviewing her papers she reali ' zed that she had received letters from 109 Canadian writers; and while she did not enumerate the number of fellow writers to whom she had written, correspondence in various repositories, particularly the very extensive holdings at York University, indicates that that number was equally large. J.A. Wainwright, who edited this important collection of letters from Laurence to more than thirty Canadian authors, 9 women and 23 men, has made a valuable contribution to a growing body of work about one of Canada's foremost writers.


The reader must bear in mind, though, that hundreds of other letters to and from Margaret Laurence remain to be examined in order to achieve anything like a full picture of her life. Material from the decade between the publication in 1953 of "Uncertain Flowering," her first story (in Story) and the November 1962 letter to George Woodcock in A Very Large Soul is not represented here because of the specific focus of this volume and because much of that material is not readily available.

A Very Large Soul is interesting precisely because the letters in this collection, written over a 24 year period, are addressed to various persons, not to a single friend or colleague. This is a collection to be read, not skimmed, though the letters may be approached in several ways. The arrangement is not chronological but alphabetical - in this case a good decision; for the writer's relationship varies with each recipient, resulting in a complex and interesting view of Margaret Laurence between the ages of 36 and 60.

Numerous letters to A dedele Wiseman and to Al Purdy are not included since the extensive Purdy-Laurence correspondence, which requires a volume of its own, has already been published (1993). And the hundreds of letters between Adele Wiseman and Margaret Laurence are now in ' the process of being published (edited by John Lennox and Ruth Panofsky).

Most of the letters in A Very Large Soul were written after Laurence had become a mature writer with an established career, but they reveal over and over again her extraordinary generosity in corresponding with younger writers. Her enthusiasm for and interest in their work are tangible. Laurence is consistently straight forward, never feigning interest or concern. In addition, her letters to well-established colleagues contain quite specific comments on their work, and, as a result, readers will be tempted to jot down titles of novels, short stories and poems to add to their own reading list.

The range of Laurence's responses to situations in life and literature is interesting and varied. At times one senses that she is thinking aloud, trying to resolve conflicts and deal with anxieties about her writing. In a review such as this, general statements tend to fall short of what one is trying to convey; it is difficult to capture the flavor of these letters which span two decades or to arrive at an accurate portrait of Laurence rather than a mere sketch. The following references to her letters may better serve as entry to this important collection than an attempt to sum up the disparate parts.

Laurence's excitement following the winter 1975 meeting of the Writers' Union is palpable in this letter to Andreas Schroeder: "[The sessions] were just terrific...... It was so good to see you all again! Like wow! I know what you mean-it really is like a new infusion of energy" (191).

Her lengthy remarks to Harold Horwood about what she was trying to accomplish in The Diviners shed much light on that ambitious last novel of hers, and on writers' dilemmas and self-doubts (96).

Laurenceis adamantin her instructions to archivist and bibliographer William Ready about the manuscript of The Diviners, reporting to him that she intends to include a note with the manuscript: "Those parts which have been cut but which are still legible because I only drew a line through them, must not ever under any circumstances be printed in a critical article, essay, thesis or anywhere else. I'm sorry to sound so fussy, but I find I cannot bear to contemplate those bits which I have carefully taken out because they didn't belong, being at some time or other printed - it seems to make nonsense of the painstaking job of revision, the object of which is to make a better novel" (164-65).

She writes to Hugh MacLennan about her belief in God and in free will, but she also worries because she feels that "we have, as a race (all of mankind) not used it well. What gives me hope, I suppose, is the possibility of grace" (117).

Laurence's correspondence with Ernest Buckler began at a time when he was experiencing great discouragement over his work. Her esteem for Buckler and her concern for him are reflected clearly in Laurence's letters. In one instance she refers to The Stories of Ernest Buckler which had recently been published, and mentions "the ways in which the stories communicate the sense ofplace so beautifully, so that the reader is enabled for a while to enter, really enter, your country, your place. Another thing - the way in which you can communicate and make comprehensible the sadness and even the tragedy of those hurtful silences between people who love each other, and the subtleties of father-son and brother-brother relationships, in which each must tread very carefully, but never, it seems, can tread quite carefully enough. I found these stories very moving indeed" (29-30?). The correspondence is not one-sided, however, for in other letters to Buckler, Margaret Laurence is quite candid about her own discouragement and it seems as if Buckler's letters to her buoyed Laurence up as well.

To Gabrielle Roy, she writes in 1977: "I wish with all my heart that in Anglophone Canada (and yes, in the prairies which you and I both love so much) that more people could have realized, really realized, long ago, the way in which people in Quebec feel about their history, their language, their heritage, their identity. I only pray (and I use that word advisedly) that it may not be too late" (178).

Margaret Laurence's dedication to writing dominates the correspondence, but there are moments when her letters are full of humor and spontaneous "banter." Readers also learn of her relief at being settled into Elm Cottage, her genuine pleasure in the achievement of fellow writers, her concern with ethical issues related to her manuscripts, and frustration in endeavoring to resolve to her satisfaction problems of form in The Diviners. In editing this correspondence Professor Wainwright wisely kept the focus on Canadian writers and writing; and the book gains enormously because of that.

In A Very Large Soul readers will not find revelations about very personal matters, nor much that could be called startling. The letters are remarkably devoid of "gossip." While some readers may regret that there are not more details about Laurence's daily life and concerns, matters of that sort generally are of interest only to the parties involved or to a dedicated biographer. In fact, when these letters are perused in their entirety rather than in an edited version, one actually finds that very little of significance has been omitted. Reading A Very Large Soul often gives one the sense that Laurence is a bit rushed. She frequently writes to acknowledge letters, to express regret for not replying more promptly or writing more often, and to congratulate another writer for a recently published work. Occasionally, as in her letters to Hubert Evans and Gabrielle Roy, one feels that Laurence is writing out of her own deepest feelings. In 1983, for example, she remarks that the past two years have been "a good time for me, in terms of my own life and friends and children, but not such a good time in terms of my work, which still seems to evade me, much as I try. I do not tell many people about this anguish, because they would not understand because it is my own private concern" (189).

Those who wonder about a writer's life will find much to ponder in these letters. However, it is misleading here to single out particular correspondents, creating the impression that letters to one person are more important than to another because in reality something of Laurence is revealed to each one. For instance, only one letter to Alice Munro is included, but its interesting content is not repeated elsewhere in the collection and the excerpts from Wainwright's interview with Munro are very enlightening.

The tedium of reading through an unedited correspondence is usually the task of a biographer who then has the responsibility to summarize, interpret, and provide a wider context for the subject's life. And in the case of Margaret Laurence these letters actually make clear the need for a current full-scale biography which would take into account recent scholarship as well as material that has been placed in various repositories since Laurence's death in 1987. Nevertheless, inA Very Large Soul the notes which Wainwright provides both to the text of the letters and for the background of each recipient are often very useful. The unfortunate omission of an index and chronology for these letters mars the volume's usefulness, however. In addition, one remains puzzled that Wainwright was unable "to find out whether Sinclair Ross has received the Order of Canada (254) or to locate Leslie Fiedler's essay on Mordecai Richler (published in the Running Man) which aroused laurence's wrath (206); and is readily available in Fiedler's Collected Essays. While the biographical notes about the background and work of each recipient are indeed helpful and Wainwright has managed to track down important data, there is some inconsistency in citing page references to journals and newspapers, as well as some factual errors. Such points, however, do not erase the significance of this important collection.

The varied correspondence in A Very Large Soul has been gathered with the intention of letting these letters to other writers show Laurence communicating "her complex thoughts and feelings about their work, her work, and Canadian cultural matters in general" (iii). This collection certainly accomplishes that. Professor Wainwright's diligence in obtaining some letters which are still in private hands and for adroitly interspersing remarks from his interviews with fifteen of the recipients adds considerable substance to this volume. A Very Large Soul is definitely a rewarding reading experience.