The Woman on the Shore by Al Purdy
McClelland & Stewart Inc., Toronto, 1990
The Pangs of Sunday by Sharon Thesen
McClelland & Stewart Inc., Toronto, 1990
Review by Stephen Morrissey
The Antigonish Review, Number 85-86, spring-summer 1991
Al Purdy's latest collection of poems, The Woman on the Shore, confirms Purdy's unofficial status as English Canada's poet laureate. More than any other poet in the last twenty-five years, Al Purdy has defin-ed what it means to be Canadian. Purdy easily joins a number of creative people whose work has been crucial in the evolu-tion of a Canadian identity: I refer to Margaret Laurence, Hugh MacLennan, F.R. Scott, the members of the Group of Seven, Emily Carr, E.J. Pratt, and others.
The Woman on the Shore isn't Purdy's greatest book but anyone who likes Pur-dy's work, or poetry in general, will want to read it. One of Purdy's concerns is that Canada is being destroyed by our politi-cians. In "On the Death of F.R. Scott" Purdy not only eulogizes Scott, the poem expresses great concern for Canada. Pur-dy feels that without men like Scott we have few people in this country who ask "what's fair and equitable for everyone/ What's right?" In this dark age of Brian Mulroney, honest men have fallen silent or are simply ignored.
But the country goes on
content with incompetent leaders
the bland sleepwalkers
and glib sellouts of Ottawa
— a man of warm feeling and nobility dies
no flags half-mast on public buildings
citizens remain calm in non-emergencies
for we exist in a special geography
of isolation from each other
and fear of emotion
Few Canadians today would disagree with the sentiments ex-pressed in Purdy's "A God in the Earth"; in this poem Purdy lists our last five prime ministers and then refers to Prime Minister Mulroney as "a man who loves his friends/so much he loves the country/less and less/and gives it away free to Americans."
It would be an error to suggest that Purdy is a political poet as, for instance, Gary Geddes or Tom Wayman are political poets. In the best poems in The Woman on the Shore Purdy shifts the reader's awareness from particulars of everyday existence to a recognition of an almost cosmic dimension of life. Most people only exist, they do not live full and meaningful lives; we spend much of our time waiting for living to begin, in the meantime we are amused by entertainment that is a diversion from facing ourselves. Purdy isn't afraid to look beyond our society's preoccupation with escaping from the self; the cosmic dimension lies specifically in transcending the self.
"Horses" is a poem with a strong rhythm; it has a Lawrentian and Whitmanic quality as it progresses through Purdy's memories of horses, a town's market, and his youthful feelings. Of course, like many great poets, Purdy is burdened with self-consciousness that separates him from ever being totally at one with his environ-ment. In the middle of "Horses" Purdy pauses and comments on the inevitable fate of these animals:
(They are of course dog food
and cat food long since
while the planet cycle
repeats and repeats and vultures over
my head are cancer-stroke-heart disease
but I pay no attention
now is parenthesis
now is going backward)
Another poem, "Barn Burning," begins prosaically:
Stayed up late
working on a prose piece
around 2 a.m.
when a great light bulged in at the windows
and peered at what I was writing
making it trivial
The "great light" is a fire that Purdy drives to observe; then begins a meditation on the ap-parent transience of human life:
I stared higher:
the Big Dipper the North Star the
planets dangling like grapes
in a gigantic vineyard
and even the home galaxy I'm standing on
and words lost their connectives
This is the creative person's healthy-minded resolution of self-consciousness; it is an awareness that something greater, perhaps spiritual or philosophical, lies beyond the isolated self. Most of us are preoccupied with the details of everyday living and we forget that a greater spiritual dimension even exists. It is Purdy's gift to be able to remind us of this; in Purdy's "cosmic dimension" there is escape from the triviality and meaninglessness of life. Purdy writes in another poem, "An Arrogance," of building his home in Ameliasburg; the poem then progresses to a meditation on his own existence:
wandering my rural domain
I notice a hole in the earth
a kind of bump under the horizon
an old house foundation with maybe
rotting timbers old bricks rusty tin cans
that's what awaits us
it happens to pyramids and mud shanties
and all I can do about it
my small passion for permanence
is to stand outside at night
(conceding probability to the "Big Bang")
in the full rush and flow of worlds
dancing the firefly dance of the universe
stand on my local planet and
beside my crumbling little house
inside my treacherous disappearing body
while the dear world vanishes
and say weakly
I don't like it
I don't like it
—to no one who could possibly be listening
I suspect that the greatness of Al Purdy's poetry lies, at least in part, in this type of meditation. Purdy's is ultimately the voice of an individual who is profoundly aware of his isolation and the in-evitability of death. This awareness defines his work and helps push Purdy beyond the limits of so much contemporary Canadian poetry. As long as we have poets like Al Purdy there is still hope for this country, despite the ignorance of our politicians.
There are few poets whose work can match Sharon Thesen's for lyricism and originality. Thesen's The Pangs of Sunday is a selection of the best work from her four previous books as well as new work. Her writing is excellent throughout this book; there isn't a poem that doesn't use the exact word to communicate some insight or im-age that expands the reader's world. Indeed, her language is lyrical and rhythmic; she has a sure grasp of the rhythm of language that is distinctly her own. In "Praxis" she writes:
Unable to imagine a future,
imagine a future better
than now, us creatures
weeping in the abattoir
only make noise and do
not transform a single fact.
So stop crying. Get up. Get out. Leap
the mossy garden wall
the steel fence or whatever
the case may be & crash
through painted arcadias,
fragments of bliss & roses
decorating your fists.
I agree with the reviewer who labelled Thesen a "brilliant lyricist." In one poem she writes of "a small plane/trailing a river of plastic words." Thesen is the equal of two other poets who are also "brilliant lyricists", Jack Spicer and Artie Gold. When reading these poets the reader is liable momentarily to hold his or her breath in awe of their originality and lyricism.
Having said the above, I regret to add that Thesen's poems fail to touch me deeply. Too often I am impressed with Thesen's abili-ty to write a perfect poem, but afterwards I feel disappointed because I am left emotionally and intellectually unmoved.
Thesen is a poet who works best at the verbal level; however, the average reader is willing to tolerate some "bad poems" as long as the poet shows a willingness to take risks and invite the reader to participate in the poetic experience. I don't feel this invitation in Thesen's work.
Her "Poems for Malcolm Lowry" goes deeply into the artist's consciousness, but the intensity of exploration found in the Lowry poems is largely absent in Thesen's other work. Thesen's Lowry states, "Where I sit it is dark"; unfortunately, the very thing that might hold the reader's interest, evidence of C.G. Jung's shadow archetype, is absent in many of Thesen's other poems. This is im-portant because the serious reader has a spiritual hunger that is not satisfied by verbal perfection or lyricism. Unlike Lowry, where Thesen is it is not yet dark enough.
Copyright © 2007 The author