RSS Feed

Category Archives: poetry

>Canadian Reading Challenge 4: The Cariboo Horses – Al Purdy

Posted on


The Cariboo Horses (1965) was the book that, after 22 years of writing poetry, put Al Purdy (still styling himself as “Alfred” here) on the map — he most deservedly won a Governor-General’s Award for that collection. I feel so full of love for The Cariboo Horses and Purdy that I’m quite incoherent. I just want to type heart heart heart. Those are big ol’ maple leafs dancing in my eyes.

Rather than read my burble, go here to the CBC archives and listen to an 11-minute 1967 interview. Happily, the questions are kept to a minimum and once he audibly settles into the studio chair with a little sigh, Purdy is let loose to perform three of his poems from The Cariboo Horses,”Thank God I’m Normal”, the title poem and the hilarious “Homo Canadensis”. The latter is a poem about a drunken stranger having some fun with patriotism at a watering-hole and demonstrates once again how Purdy could have been a contender for a short story writing crown as well.

I love Purdy’s voice. He’s Canada Wry and has an almost Jimmy Stewart twang. I can hear everything in his syllables and even the spaces between: Ontario, rough weather, smoke, wide open provinces, Kraft Dinner, homemade beer, hockey games. I must have more.

>Canadian Reading Challenge: To Paris Never Again – Al Purdy

Posted on

>I don’t know any good living poets. But there’s this tough son-of-a-bitch up in Canada that walks the line.
-Charles Bukowski-

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
for yourself
–after three score years
and ten of your clever device
you point to yourself
in the mirror
and say POUF
you no longer exist
and laugh
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
gathered threateningly
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.

>Poetry, My Cell Phone and Mother’s Day

Posted on


I couldn’t let National Poetry Month end without writing about poetry a bit more. I must have a much more sensitive soul than I thought.

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!

After that, I felt better. Now when I send texts, my sparse use of conventional punctuation feels voluntary and hip: In your face! I have an M.A. I’ve learned all the rules and taught them to a multitude of others. If anyone’s entitled to break them, it should be me. What a badass I am.

What would we do without poetry? It truly is balm for our lives.

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!!!
Spawn: Whatever.

>National Poetry Month: Casey At The Bat

Posted on


Love has its sonnets galore. War has its epics in heroic verse. Tragedy its sombre story in measured lines. Baseball has Casey at the Bat.”

– Albert G. Spaulding, sporting goods magnate (who is also famous for saying “When you play baseball, use my balls.”)

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.

>January: Reading & Reviewing Part 2

>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:

7. and 8. Maus I: My Father Bleeds History and Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began (graphic novels) – Art Spiegelman. This complex and subtle Pulitzer prizewinning graphic novel is a must-read. More than once, to tease out all the levels of meaning. I didn’t know what to make of it at first. It seemed strange to see the characters drawn as animals. Then, later on when Art’s old comic from the 1970s is found, it seems even stranger to see Art and his family represented as human. It was almost like they were too vulnerable, so it was a relief and felt normal when they reverted to mice again.

I also had reservations about the juxtaposition of the WWII storyline and the subplot chronicling Art’s frustration, anger and worry over his father’s increasing frailty, his realincomprehensible behaviors (like destroying Art’s mother’s diary) and his stubborn habits. It works though — Young Vladek Spiegelman is brave, cool and resourceful. He’s a survivor. When Art was irritated with Vladek, I understood that, but I felt much more compassion for Vladek, seeing him as a shadow of his former self. I was irritated with Art because it felt as if he couldn’t understand what Vladek went through, even though Art is getting the story from his father and Art is the one who is presenting the fear and horror of the Holocaust to the readers. Quite an interesting feat with this arrangement of layers. Almost sleight-of-hand. Art Spiegelman really digs in and is unafraid to show himself as uncomprehending and angry, and all of that makes Maus that much more powerful.
9. A Boy Of Good Breeding (novel) – Miriam Toews. No one can accuse Miriam Toews’ novels of being plot-driven. Her method is to create lovable, quirky characters, give them odd names (like Knute or Summer Feelin’) then mine those quirks and oddnesses for all they’re worth.

On one hand, I actually felt as if life in Algren, Manitoba (population, 1,500 — give or take a few) might be what life is really like in a small town (the smallest?) in Canada and I was awash in all that folksy charm. On the other hand, Hosea Funk, the mayor of Algren was really quirky and really sweet and I began to get that jangly feeling that occurs when I sit on the couch eating Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes right out of the box and watch too many sitcom marathons in a row on TV Land.

Shockingly, I found myself wanting Anne-Marie MacDonald to darkly descend and overpower Miriam Toews and order her out of the office to the nearest Tim Horton’s just for a couple of chapters so she could shake her bleak, depressing thang and mitigate some of that sweetness and quirk.

Even though this wasn’t my favorite read of the month, I’m grateful to Shanna for passing it along to me, happy that I’m now a Grain Elevator or something like that (4 books) in The Canadian Book Challenge and believe it or not, still game to read another Toews book, preferably the memoir about her father, but The Flying Troutmans would suit me fine, too.

10. Haiku (poetry) – Basho. How can verse so compressed be so fully sensual, playful and at times, belly-laugh humorous? These haiku were composed in the 1680s and 1690s, but they feel so fresh. Since I did a triple play of old, global and poetry with this selection, my Tough & Cool Inner Bookworm is completely docile right now and has vowed only the kindest words in next year’s evaluation post. That’s what I’m talking about, Bookbitch. Here are several of our favorite haiku from Basho: (who was only 50 when he died. eeeek.)

In my new robe
this morning —
someone else.
Winter downpour —
even the monkey
needs a raincoat.

Bright moon: I
stroll around the pond —
hey, dawn has come.
Moon-daubed bush-clover —
ssh, in the next room
snoring prostitutes.
Noon doze,
wall cool
against my feet.
Rainy days —
silkworms droop
on mulberries.
Girl cat, so
thin on love
and barley.
Old pond,
leap-splash —
a frog.
Year’s end, all
corners of this
floating world, swept.

Samurai talk —
of horse-radish.
Now then, let’s go out
to enjoy the snow…until
I slip and fall.