Beyond Remembering: The Collected Poems of Al Purdy
Selected and edited by Al Purdy and Sam Solecki Harbour, 606 pages, $44.95
W hen a poet completes a poem, he or she becomes just another reader, albeit a privileged one. This is even more so in the case of a Collected Poems, the summing up of a life's work. The insatiable reader Al Purdy selected the poems he wanted to endure several months before his death this past April. In this book's preface, written with the exasperated cheerfulness that was one of his characteristic moods, there is special poignancy in the way he brackets the laconic words of his wife Eurithe, "It was a life," with his equally blunt statement. "This is my last book."
Compared to the 1986 Collected Poems, edited by Russell Brown, this Collected has a friendlier look. Instead of the glowering, moustached, bespectacled face in black-and-white on the dust jacket, we find a sunnily ironic figure in colour, slouching with one hand in his pants pocket, in the other hand a toothpick at the ready. Photographs visually break the decades into which the latter book is divided. Fronting The Eighties, Purdy, an inveterate clowner for the camera, stretches supine on a Mesoamerican sacrificial slab, overseen by a priestlike mate wielding an invisible knife. Other differences, too. The superior window dressing of affectionate forewords by Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje replace To See the Shore, Purdy's apologia pro vita sua, reprinted here at the back of the book in lieu of Dennis Lee's long afterword. Both editions are justly dedicated to Eurithe, his infinitely tolerant and hospitable muse.
Like many other writers, Purdy preferred his later work to his earlier. Nothing appears here from his first two books. Purdy was a late bloomer, if not a slow learner, and the one drawback to his policy is that this edition doesn't dramatize the quantum leap in quality his poems made after the 1950s. In any event, going by the number of poems he selected from them, Purdy considered his three best books to be Piling Blood (1984), The Cariboo Horses (1965) and Wild Grape Wine (1968). As an editor, Sam Solecki has fully honoured the poet's intentions and texts, at moments overscrupulously, as when, in occasionally rejecting the consistency of a house style, he leaves in "both plowed and ploughed because of the possibility that in some cases the poet liked the look of one (there are other 'w's in the line) and in some cases the other."
For the reader, Purdy's titles are like an anti-breviary of fruitfully nagging questions and self-reflexive ruefulness: What Do the Birds Think?, Song of the Impermanent Husband, Necropsy of Love, Notes on a Fictional Character, Idiot's Song, Temporizing in the Eternal City. We can assemble an anthology of magnificent lines like the one Steven Heighton read during the interment of Purdy's ashes in Ameliasburgh, Ont., last summer, or, with minor adjustments for capitalization, use his lines to construct a found poem:
Across Roblin Lake, two shores away
chain saws stencil the silence in my head
in my head still I hear the mammoth shriek
this is the country of our defeat
Things do not stay where they are
they exist somewhere between yes and no
no way of knowing where we went
they are gone the mighty men I grumble peevishly
the sun has gone down in my village
all I have is wine and laughter
-- a bridge without an ending
When the whole world smells of lilacs
and flesh for just a day
inside me the heart's tides lift
into the wilds of intimacy
and know where the words came from
Sometimes mistaken for sadness
my roots have climbed your summit
the man in my head was me
too close to tears for tragedy
too far from the banana peel for laughter
One renewable joy of this book is to wheel and dip through the poet's crotchets and obsessions, to match a mother remembered in 1962 ( Evergreen Cemetery) and in 1994 ( On Being Human), and to trace the numerous ways by which Purdy posits, then punctures, his existential dilemmas. Now and then exquisite surprises arrive, like Questions, a perfect end-rhymed lyric:
What shall we say to Death
with Yes defeated by No
and only the winter of loving left
only the snow?
To put it mildly, Purdy was a skeptic in religious matters, yet he saturates his work with the religious passions of awe, wonder, terror and the numinous. In O Recruiting Sergeants,he says, "Mine is the commonplace acceptance of good/ or evil," and this is a religious sentiment, as is, "I say the stanza ends, but it never does" in Postscript (1962). As is, "Well, I guess he died, they said he did," in Elegy for a Grandfather (1986). In Death of DHL, Purdy quotes D. H. Lawrence, a great influence on him: "For me, the vast marvel is to be alive. For man, or for flowers or beast or bird, the supreme triumph is to be most vividly and perfectly alive." It was a life, and it was Purdy's life to his last breath. He will live on for readers, who will compile their personal Collecteds and Selecteds. He belongs to all of us now. Fraser Sutherland, who knew and read Al Purdy for 30 years, recently edited The Collected Poems and Translations of Edward A. Lacey .