c. 2015 Honey Novick
I say the stanza ends, but it never does… Postscript, Al Purdy
If Milton Acorn is considered the People’s Poet then Al Purdy must be considered the Poet’s Poet because reading Al Purdy’s plainly-spoken, clearly-written, poetry is like going on a journey of suspended time and place. It is like understanding the way an explorer goes into an unknown experience, gazes at the horizon, feels the spirit of adventure, knows this is daring life to reveal its mysteries, secrets, wisdom, gallantry and exploring its curiosity then wants to know more, more about how people live and express love and then goes and discovers all of that; documents it and then reports it for the rest of us. This is what Al Purdy’s writing does for me. I discovered my own relationship with the work of this great writer after he passed. The importance of his gift, his legacy seems greater now as I can appreciate what he gave me. Had I read Al Purdy in my formative years, I wouldn’t have appreciated the depth and insight of his writing. Now, I value his thoughts, opinions and experiences even though I don’t always agree with what he sees. I can also relate to him as one only child to another and hear that special language that only children have. It is a language of silence, of supreme concentration, of recognition, of familiarity. Only Children are often derided for being selfish, spoiled, high achievers. We are all of that, possibly, but more and luckily for us, Purdy is able to delineate and then translate. I think, also, that because he is the son of a certain wave of immigration, at a particular time in history, he witnessed a country, a nation that was slowly defining itself.
At the start of this essay, I quoted Al’s words from a book edited by Sam Solecki called “Starting from Ameliasburgh”. The words startled me - as the two words, “stanza ends” is a two-word poem in itself - they say so much. They succinctly evoke philosophy, poetry and finality, and then without letting go of this thought, offer a “hook” of provocation “but it never does”, and then re-iterates the thought, as a theme, saying, at another time and place, “like building a house that was never finished…” This is a common thread throughout his works. It is an optimistic hope, a way of allowing the reader to join in the poem and finish it for themselves, or not.
In the 1970s, I worked as a coat check girl at George Luscombe’s Toronto Workshop Productions Theatre where Milton Acorn came frequently to see the shows. Milt and Al were friends. I vaguely remember Al attending, but I knew he was there because his name was whispered, fluttering like a carrier pigeon throughout the front of house. It always happened when great artists appeared in the audience. His name I remembered because this was the man who wrote “Poems for All The Annettes”. To me Annette was a mouseketeer, a pop culture creation and aspiration for my undeveloped ambitions. It was easy for me, a teenager, to dismiss any further thoughts of a man I came to consider the Poet’s Poet.
In time I would honour him in a spoken word piece published by Hidden Brook Press titled, “A NERDY PURDY RAP”. (poem at the end of this article).
By the time I took writing seriously, I had met and been mentored by some of Canada’s and the U.S.A.’s top poets and writers (Irving Layton, Allen Ginsburg, Duke Redbird, James Deahl, James Seffinga, bill bissett, Chris Faiers, I.B. Iskov to name a few). Through associating with these scribes, I was invited and attended Purdyfest, an annual celebration of Al’s legacy in Marmora, Ontario. I also attended the unveiling of Purdy’s statue in Toronto’s Queen’s Park. By then, I knew Al had done something genuinely, literarily, precious. One time, while travelling to the Petroglyphs, near Peterborough, Ontario, with writer Joan Sutcliffe, we decided to find Al’s home in Ameliasburgh. Gingerly we approached the little building, definitely not trespassing, expecting nothing and no one and breathlessly felt like we were on a sacred pilgrimage up to the gate, even though I think Al would have hated that thought of a visit to him being compared to a sacred pilgrimage.
In his book, “Rooms For Rent In The Outer Planets” – (Selected Poems l962-1996), the title alone caught my attention as I am familiar with bill bissett’s illuminations on his home planet of Lunaria. With Purdy’s work, the title itself is a poem I have to think about and question: whether life outside of this earth exists. This is where perception comes into play. People can stand still and be in many different worlds at the same time. We can see into the future, remember the past and feel the present moment. Al’s poetry does this time and again. His writings took me to the stark wilderness I call Ontario and made me feel a coldness I don’t often feel. By the end of one journey with Al, however, I felt something missing. He, himself, says that the people don’t dance in the streets. I disagree. We do a dance when we shop or woo, when we attend sporting events; and especially when we remember that once and still, there are people and people’s spirits who danced in a circle, who whooped and cawed and did an eagle dance or a jingle dance or a dance for rain or a dance to help them get through the hard days. Why couldn’t you see this Al? You saw Cuba and Che and Fidel. You wrote “Hombre” to honour Che. You knew the groundswelling hope of the people after the Cuban Revolution. You were there in 1964 when the dream was just sprouting. You questioned the authenticity of Che’s dream because he was executed. We didn’t execute him, fear and ignorance did! Che lived, acted for the people, and died because of the lazy stupidity of others but he lives in you and me and on T-shirts and logos. I wonder if perhaps your mother’s strict Presbyterian beliefs and your upbringing had more of a hold on your starkness than you could fathom.
I reference 6 poems out of the collection “Rooms to Rent…” for this essay. These 6 touched me and confirmed things I believe. What people share in common strengthens bonds of friendship; helps define oneself and constructs a society. People are society. You and I have a lot in common, Al, yet we don’t. Yes, your knowledge of music and love, your respect for time and space, earth, death and life and dying are our source of the familiar, our commonality. I think about those things as well. In the 1960s, weren’t you listening to Bob Dylan, John Lennon or the myriad others who were the pulse of my generation? You loved Irving Layton and his fierce brilliance but hardly ever mention Leonard Cohen, whose writings and music reached global proportions. You panned “Beautiful Losers”!!! Did the need to address women’s empowerment, racism, the three poisons of fear, greed and stupidity not inspire you? Were you exploring worlds I could only encounter many years in the future? I feel a need to address those issues, using poetry and song, in order to feel that being a non-traditional female is so valid that not only my identity but my very survival depends on that awareness. I know socialism and history and family and labour issues play a huge role in how you view the world. Sometimes I wonder if perhaps happiness and the pursuit of value in being alive are the only pursuits of a poet. I believe they are the reasons for living. Someone once said to me, “having a husband won’t necessarily make you happy”. Being sad and suffering is only one conclusion I came to about my life’s philosophy. The other is that people are multi-faceted, like a sparkling diamond and navigating through both suffering and sparkling is the wisdom awarded to those who dare to explore.
In no particular order, I want to bring the reader’s attention to “The Others” (1)…
…..We are not alone in this world
our brothers the animals
our sisters the birds…
Purdy spent a lot of thought on death and dying and how that intersects and interacts with life. It is through observing other species like animals and birds that people begin to get a sense of the interaction of life and death, time and space. Through recognition of the families of all things living (visible and invisible) the poet learns the language of a universal rhythm of life and that humans are a whole species unto ourselves. He also expands on this theme in On The Flood Plain -4th stanza
…..Whatever I have not discovered and enjoyed
is still waiting for me
and there will be time
but now are these floating stars on the freezing lake
and music fills the darkness
holds me there listening
--it’s a matter of separating these instants from others
that have no significance
so that they keep reflecting each other
a way to live and contain eternity
in which the moment is altered and expanded
my consciousness hung like a great silver metronome
suspended between stars
on the dark lake
and time pours itself into my cupped hands shimmering….
I am a musician, a vocalist and immediately connect to someone who understands the metaphor of “a great silver metronome”. Time can be mechanical, ticking away till it ticks no more or expects to be rewound, like the metronome. I found reading this stanza gave clarity to someone pondering these big issues of life, death, are we alone, loneliness, is time elastic or fixed? When he says “time pours itself into my cupped hands shimmering”, it was proof that even destiny can be held in our palmed hands and what we do with our destiny, really, lies with our self-determination. Time, as destiny, is in the palms of our hands. I also like to think that when those cupped hands are placed palm to palm, it is a gesture of supreme respect.
In “Moonspell”, Purdy writes
I have forgotten English
in order to talk to pelicans…
Once again my breath caught in my throat as I understand this language. Often I travel through Toronto’s very busy traffic to my destination on the shore of a lake on the Land of the Mississauga of the New Credit First Nations, to speak with the swans. I, too, forget English. We speak “Swan”. Not the honking sounds of what people hear when swans communicate but the language of swans travelling alone, or in families, or quickly or just floating on relaxed waters as the waters lap the shore. The swans talk to me of weather or the threats of humans’ encroachment on swans’ reverie. They talk to me of families and hunger or being overly fed human food causing them to eat more and more, like other species with an eating disorder. I have been warned that the swans are dangerous and will bite. I take heed of this warning but so far, they and me, can sit by the water and not feel threatened by one another. Yes, Al, I understand talking with other species and I speak swan.
In “Preschool”, I am once again reminded of the way Only Children look at the world.
Black was first of all
the place I came from
frightened because I couldn’t remember
where I’d been or was going to
But when I did find yellow
in buttercup and dandelion
in the meadowlands and hill country
discover them in my mind
as if they had always been there….
That’s exactly what the early world of a child looks like. Black. No reference to anything else, just the sensation of black. Void of colour, bereft of feeling, desolate, lonely, not yet independently standing alone, social. And then suddenly yellow or in my case green, the green of grass, of a lawn and that lawn giving me tulips and sunflowers and bees and ants and wondrous approachable worlds. It was heavenly. Discovering the dandelion, the buttercup, and recognizing new friends.
For me, the friendship extended to the immigrant, “Lilacs”. Once I smelled this aphrodisiac, there was nothing like it. I would make an annual early June/late May pilgrimage to the Burlington Royal Botanical Gardens, or stop in a laneway where wild lilacs grew and pray a kindly gardener would let me have a branch, sprig or twig.
In Al’s poem, “May 23, 1980”, he writes
I’d been driving all day
arrived home around 6 p.m.
got something to eat and slept an hour
then I went outside
and you know
----the whole world smells of lilacs
the whole damn world….
And then Al goes on to complain about growing old and making lists, about a girl and finally winds up redeeming his complaint with…
“…there will come one May night
of every year that she’s alive
when the whole world smells of lilacs…”
and I close my eyes in the middle of a winter weary freezing February and remember that in May the whole damn world will smell of lilacs and I am calmly, lilac-y relieved.
As Only Children, Al and I are rebels. Rebellion helps one socialize and surmount the enormity of the loneliness of the non-sibling kid. We can take the time to question, be curious, create, learn, accept, tolerate or none of the above. It takes courage to be a rebel.
I love the relationship Al had with the writing of Charles Bukowski. In Bukowski’s “The Life of Borodin”, Al lets us know how he feels about poetry and says, “It hits hard, and what else can you ask from a poem? It’s one of those pieces impossible to quote from, which are nothing except in entirety.” He then tells us, “…I dislike the strong implication that to employ natural speech idioms is the best or only way to write poetry. There seem to me to be a million ways to write a poem. To exclude any of them is to make academic strictures on what poems are and should be.”
And with those words I sigh, let my shoulders relax and feel confident that I can open the door to a world known as poetry and cross the threshold to discover the palette waiting to colour the canvas.
I wanted to honour my encounter with the writings of Al Purdy by using the rhythm of contemporary “rap” or “hip hop style” meant to be spoken out loud. It is musical and whimsical and respectful.
A Nerdy, Purdy Rap
this is a nerdy, Purdy rap
something to honour Al
an icon, a venerable pal
Al knew about people
and places extraordinaire
because to this man’s poetry
none can compare
he wrote for all the Annettes
spoke beyond beggar’s banquets
rode the rails coast to coast
so to him we give a toast
in an A-frame home he did dwell
and none could quell
that his thoughts, a profound reservoir
was knowledge beyond a sacred saloon room bar
Al lived long and hard and true
paving the poetic way for me and you
my favourite thing about this man, is
his value of humour, that’s why
I’m his fan
Al and my mentor Irving, they were friends
ideas spewing forth, intellect none could pretend
didn’t influence a Canada, we call
our home, with a
history, mystery of empirical
so dear, Al, I salute you
in words and rhythm and grace
you carved an endearing place
in a plethora of books, thoughts we embrace
as we remember what you did for
of pure unadulterated love
1.rooms for rent in the outer planets, al purdy selected poems 1962-1996
harbour publishing 1996
2.starting from ameliasburgh, edited by sam solecki
harbour publishing 1995
3.yours, al starring Gordon Pinsent DVD
reel to reel productions 2006
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
On 2015-10-27, at 5:50 PM, Ron Dart wrote:
You might be interested to know Doug Beardsley & I spent part of the
afternoon with Purdy's wife a few weeks ago---a splendid few hours at their
home and the restaurant where Doug and Al met regularly to do
their books on Donne, Lawrence and, as Purdy was dying, Epic of Gilgamesh.
. . . .
Nice to hear from you. I had a long chat with Terry a few days ago - think it was over 2 1/2 hours - we dissected the election three ways to Sunday ; ) I feel we're starting to again live in the Canada we used to enjoy, not the neo-fascist wasteland Sauron was creating, omnibus bill by bill. When Harper descended to snitch lines and race baiting during the campaign, even the most uninformed Canuck voters finally took note and turfed him and his Frankenstein party out! In hindsight it's quite amazing that Eurithe, Jean Baird and all the A-frame volunteers were able to accomplish the creation of Ontario's first writers-in-residence under such a regime. Next time Terry & I chat I'll tell him I heard from you.
peace & poetry power!
Chris ... & Chase wrfffffffffzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz (still snoozing on this drizzly day - it's the tail end rains of a hurricane)
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
On 2015-10-28, at 1:00 PM, Lindi Pierce wrote:
Thanks for this; I'm printing it out and will get a copy to Eurithe when I see her Sunday.
Michele and I often wonder about you, and hope you are Chase are doing okay.
. . . .
I just got a note from Ron Dart in BC, & he & Doug Beardsley also had lunch with Eurithe recently. I added his email as a footnote to Honey's essay - think I'll add yours too, hope this is OK?
Chase is a verrrry ancient 17 years now, which is close to 120 in human bean terms! So we really can't travel, altho I do sneak off for the occasional afternoon trek without him. He still has a fair quality of life, & we usually manage 2 slow walks a day by the Crowe River.
I sold my ZenRiver Gardens retreat at the end of August. I owned it for exactly a decade, & I'd accomplished all of my vision. The new owner is a good steward, & she has the same intentions for its usage - I believe she lives in the Pickering area, & she drives up on weekends to hang out with her 3 dogs & the various resident spirits ; )-
Hope you & your 'biker' hubby are doing well, & best to Michele. I think of A-burgh often, altho didn't manage a visit this summer. Oh, last year (2014) was the last of the Marmora PurdyFests. They were a lot of fun, but at age 67 I've run out of the energy (& some enthusiasm) for organizing major poetry stuff - did more than my lifetime share so far, with 6 years coordinating a series in TO from 1979 - 1985, & then 8 years of PFesting. Riffs & Ripps is my main poetry project these days, & the only other major thing on my literary horizon is a vague plan to do a collected/selected at age 70 with Hidden Brook Press.
Congrats on the success of the A-frame. In my reply to Ron I mentioned the unlikely success of establishing the first Ontario writer-in-res (which really is a res) during the reign of Sauron, the evil one. I feel sunnier days are here again (thanks for the cliche, Justin), & that the arts will flourish in a more nurturing politikal atmosphere. Damn, the NDP under Mulc sure screwed up, tho.
peace, love & poetry & pumpkin power!
Chris ... & Chase Wrffffffffffffzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz (hasn't moved off the livingroom floor during this drizzly day)
p.s. Honey will be THRILLED that her essay will reach Eurithe!