Category Archives: poetry
>I don’t know any good living poets. But there’s this tough son-of-a-bitch up in Canada that walks the line.
Apparently, the hard-bitten admiration was mutual, because the first poem in Al Purdy’s last poetry collection published during his lifetime is “Lament for Bukowski” in which Purdy says, “You wrote like God with a toothache” and leaves even the most casual reader of Bukowski, or anyone who’s ever seen Barfly with this spot-on image:
Pop Bukowski in his coffin
dead as hell
but reaching hard for a last beer
and just about making it
The second poem in the collection, “On Mexican Highways” is a disturbing memory of being able to see the final expressions of a family in a car in the last seconds before they plunged from the trecherous road and down the mountainside. He compared it to a photo. Spooky stuff, the seeds of future nightmares.
To Paris Never Again consists largely of memories of the past that seem to have been covered in his earlier volumes, but this is no shambling about in old age — he’s revisiting these scenes expertly, eloquently. There are also meditations on approaching death and coming to grips with the passage of time:
The Clever Device
Time is a thing you invented
for a point of reference
–after three score years
and ten of your clever device
you point to yourself
in the mirror
and say POUF
you no longer exist
or not be able to laugh
I’m a little sorry (“soar-e”, as the Canadians would pronounce it) that Al Purdy wasn’t more of a fiction writer. (He wrote one novel rather late in his career, A Splinter in the Heart.) He had an endearing gift for detail and setting a scene. In “Case History”, he goes back to the 1950s and early 60s, hardscrabble years when he and his family were just barely getting by. They lived in an “A-frame house, half built” and he did a variety of odd jobs: “collecting scrap iron, picking tomatoes, selling apples door-to-door”. When even the odd jobs became scarce, they subsisted on “Kraft Dinner [macaroni and cheese] and cooked road-killed rabbits.”
One day, Purdy discovered the garbage dump near the Mountainview RCAF base and found discarded food rations. He brought his family back and they scavenged cans as well as “boxes of quarter-inch plywood and cans of red and black paint.” This “manna” meant that not only would they be able to eat better, he would be able to make progress on the A-frame:
With literary confidence
I didn’t really feel
Stashed the worksheets of a poem
inside the house overhang
along with a note
directing future discoverers
to take the sheets to the English Dept.
of any Canadian university
and receive as reward
for this unknown masterpiece
one small case of beer
or more likely
an embarassing question
“Purdy — who he?”
In another meditative poem, “Happiness”, Purdy has a lovely image about writing that echoed exactly how I feel about reading his work and just about reading and books in general:
the writing itself
the words exploring
all my veins and arteries
Then, there’s that exquisite grappling again with life and time and what it all means:
–and by this time
it has become plain to me
that I’m not writing about happiness
at all but the puzzle of being alive
Purdy is also generous in making sure that people who helped him get credit. During the road-killed rabbit and Kraft Dinner days, there was an editor, Bob Weaver, who evidently saw promise in him and other struggling poets. “Do you need any money, Al?/Just send me some poems/I’ll make sure you get the cheque fast.” Purdy remarks, “Bob Weaver was Santa.”
I don’t know if he ever got any thanks
or for that matter wanted any
for making the connection
that these rather scruffy human beings
with all the faults of everyone else
were responsible (though very rarely)
for something that leaped up from the printed page
dazzled your brain
and fireflies whizzed in the cerebellum.
Another Carveresque short story masquerading as a poem, “Aphrodite At Her Bath” takes the reader back to Montreal, 1957 and relates an odd incident. Purdy’s wife’s cousin, a beautiful young woman is newly married and newly pregnant. She doesn’t want the baby and has heard that the combination of beer and a hot bath would induce a miscarriage. Purdy’s wife goes off to work and leaves the two there alone, the cousin sitting in the bath and Purdy fetching more and more of his home brew. They’re both getting sloshed, then abruptly, Purdy flashes-foward. Aphrodite is sixty now, he tells us, with two kids:
And now the venue changes
from Montreal to Sidney BC
Anno Domoni 1995
near forty years later
where I sit writing
these words on paper
trying to avoid the eyes
of quite a large crowd
of pro-life denonstrators
around this poem.
One of the last poems in To Paris Never Again is about Marius Barbeau (1885-1969), a Canadian ethnologist and folklorist. Barbeau spent years during his career living among the Native American tribes. One evening, when Barbeau was older and largely retired from field work, Purdy asked him about Tsimsyan drumming dances. Instead of telling, Barbeau said he’d show him. Purdy writes that Barbeau really got into it and forgot everything, “focused on only the mountain at the end of the sky.” Purdy admits that at the time “I was embarrassed for him/but now I’m embarrassed/that I was embarrassed/Barbeau was one of the ancient rememberers.”
I first became acquainted with Al Purdy’s work in his 1984 collection Piling Blood. I’m now reading 1965’s The Cariboo Horses and meeting the younger Al(fred) Purdy, with smiles and shocks of recognition, a growing affection and that deepening sense of sadness readers get when they freshly discover someone who is long gone. I want to know all the incarnations of Purdy, all the way back to 1944 and his debut collection, The Enchanted Echo.
Purdy died in 2000, three years after To Paris Never Again was published. His stuff (I don’t mean “stuff” trivially or dismissively. I mean it in the baseball sense, in which a pitcher is lauded for his “stuff” — his talent and skills) makes me wish I could have met him and shared a glass of his home brew.
I’m really grateful to my Canadian friend, Jim Cooper, who is sharing his Al Purdy collection with me. I’m also glad that John Mutford continues to host the Canadian Book Challenge. Wish I could give my thanks in the shape of a poem, guys.
Lately I’ve been thinking of e.e. cummings. Is he still popular? We used to get in Just-Spring all the time in school textbooks. In Freshman English, we read My Father Moved Through Dooms of Love — that poem made me mix up cummings with Theodore Roethke because it reminded me of two of Roethke’s poems, My Papa’s Waltz and Where Knock is Open Wide.
Why e.e. cummings? It’s because of my cell phone. I use my texting feature quite frequently, but I’m kind of a dolt with it. For example, I don’t know how to do capital letters, numerals, commas, question marks, exclamation points, hyphens, colons, semicolons, or quotation marks. What *can* I do? What’s left: Lowercase letters, periods and the “at” (@) sign. I received helpful instructions with my phone, but they were printed on a tiny brochure in 2 or 4 point, so I flung them somewhere one day during a headachy temper fit. I decided that I’d carry on and do my best, but my English major soul was embarrassed — it was killing me to send out messages like this:
when will you arrive at gangnam station. im bringing the austen zombie novel. didnt remember about the drabble book…sorry.
her phone number is oh one oh four six five eight one two six one but shes in thailand now.
thanks so much for the pictures from my fortyeighth birthday party. what a great party. im so glad that we could get together. omg the cake was so delicious.
Don’t your fingers just itch to fix those messages? Those are the type of sentences I assign to my Comp class for editing practice!
So anyway — I was cringing every time I had to send a text, but then I thought: “WWeecD?” It hit me: cummings wouldn’t bother with all that extra punctuation unless he felt like making one of his picture poems. He’d send out texts that looked exactly like mine and people would be damn lucky and happy to get them and maybe even decide to tattoo one of them on his or her forearm!
I’ve also been thinking of Philip Larkin. Earlier this month, I came up with an idea for the ultimate Mother’s Day gift. It was such a great idea — so literary and edgy and twisted that I couldn’t bestow it on anyone. Only I could appreciate such a gift to its utmost. I got my spawn on the phone:
Me: Hello, Sweetheart! How’s Mommy’s Li’l’ Angel?
Spawn: What do you want?
Me: Have you bought me a Mother’s Day gift yet?
Spawn: No…should I?
Me: That’s up to you, but I wanted to give you food for thought.
Spawn: A book? A movie?
Me: You might be embarrassed to…
Spawn: You want PORN?
Me: No! Gross! I want This Be The Verse needlepointed on a wall hanging or a pillow. An afghan would be OK, too.
Spawn: What’s This Be The Verse?
Me: A poem. By Philip Larkin.
Spawn: I don’t…wait — is that the “Your parents fuck you up” poem?
Me: Yes, that’s right… Isn’t it brilliant? Aren’t I brilliant? I scare myself sometimes!
Spawn: I don’t know how to needlepoint.
Me: That’s OK. This is such a great gift idea, I’m willing to wait for years while you learn or you start dating a woman who has needlepoint skills. Meanwhile, you can memorize it and call and recite it to me on Mother’s Day. Isn’t that perfect? You could also recycle and use it for your dad on Father’s Day!!!
Casey At The Bat by Ernest Thayer is my all-time favorite poem. I find it a truly moving epic, complete with the flawed hero of the title and the Greek chorus of baseball spectators who are in evidence right from the first stanza (“a sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.”) to the last (“There is no joy in Mudville…)
In spite of the unsatisfying outcome, there’s a lovely sense of balance — Flynn (the “lulu”) and Blake (the “cake”) do more than is expected (“Flynn let drive a single to the wonderment of all/And Blake, the much despis-ed tore the cover off the ball.”) while “Mighty Casey” does less than expected.
What’s the deal with Casey? Is he a tragic flawed hero who comes up against unconquerable dark forces (the pitcher, the umpire) or is he just an insufferable, arrogant tool? Has he been blinded by the fans’ adoration or has his hubris been lurking since way back in Little League?
In one of our first glimpses of Casey, he rubs his hands with dirt then wipes them on his shirt. Is the dirt/shirt stuff mere showboating? Is it a way of getting into “the zone” sort of the way some players tug at their crotches or readjust their wristbands before stepping into the batter’s box? Is it a ritual that he feels compelled to go through to appease the gods of baseball? Does he resemble Antaeus, who got his strength from the earth? Does he just want to get a good grip on the bat since batting gloves won’t be invented until well into the next century?
Thayer doesn’t let his readers/listeners know if Casey is facing a pitcher unfamiliar to him. This would be a key to his behavior. He took that first pitch, which turned out to be a strike. Perhaps he wanted to check out this guy’s style. Perhaps he was trying to psych the guy out by projecting a wealth of confidence. There are those who feel that he should have been looking for the first pitch to be a fastball and swung at it, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Damn nice of him, too, to soothe the crowd and dissuade them from killing the umpire.
Pitch #2 is where things get a little iffy. Casey “ignores” that second pitch, which is right up the pipe, as noted by the eagle-eyed umpire. Does Casey think that the combination of being part of the visiting team, seeing the crowd’s response to Casey, observing Casey’s unafraid bearing and hearing the shouts of the volatile crowd is going to rattle the pitcher and make him lose his stuff? Perhaps Casey was gambling that the second pitch would be called a ball and he would have more time at the plate. If it’s a gamble it doesn’t pay off. One thing we must give Casey props for — even though he’s got his faults and foibles and a hatful of bad decisions, he never argues with the umpire. In fact, when his “maddened thousands” of fans yell again, Casey gives them such a big STFU look that they are properly awed into silence. He may go down swinging, but he’s sure as hell not going to get tossed from the game.
Casey is the one that’s rattled now. He hasn’t had a chance to see all of the tricks in the pitcher’s bag. His unrestrained body language says it all (his teeth are clenched in hate/he pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate). The pitcher might as well get comfortable and have himself a snack since he’s gotten up into Casey’s kitchen and Casey is preparing to whiff something up.
The lines leading up to Casey’s being caught looking have a compressed feel — the reader or listener can feel the tension: (And now the pitcher holds the ball and now he lets it go) Everyone in that long line all the way back to 1888 is holding his or her breath and then: “And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.” Such a delicate little diss, as far as disses go, but so potent. Ernest Thayer really knew how to hurt a guy. But he was a fan, and fans hurt, too.
So what about Casey? I decided to ask 3 people (one for each strike) what they thought:
Person #1: Casey’s a big prick! He went out there all cocky and wasted two strikes then whiffed. Serves him right. He’s no hero — he might be if he had swung at least once, but he didn’t even try.
Person #2: Casey did right to take that first strike because it signalled confidence to the pitcher. Should he have swung at the second one? Maybe he was acting a little Hollywood.
Person #3: I think Casey’s fans are responsible for his behavior. It’s a very co-dependent relationship.
I feel such a mixture of frustration and affection for the guy. Damn, Casey. The table was set. That’s the thing about a classic epic poem — the table is set and the spectators roar and Casey gives Mudville joy then no joy in quick succession for all of eternity.
>I had such a good reading month, but I’ve got so much (too much?) to say about these books and so many to review. Even after I natter on and on about a book, I’m still not sure if I’ve conveyed the essence and struck the spark that will make everyone want to go out and read it immediately.
Oh well, here we go again: