To mark National Poetry Month, In other Words is being guest-edited by rob mclennan. Throughout April, rob will present the work of dozens of poets he thinks deserve readers' attention, as seen through the eyes of their fellow poets.
Today: rob mclennan on Robert Kroetsch
How is it that Nicole Markotić manages to get such magnificent work out of prairie writer Robert Kroetsch before anyone else, little missives that subvert more than just language, but through their own rarity - first, through her hands in publishing Kroetsch's Revisions of Letters Already Sent (1993) when she co-ran Calgary's chapbook press, disOrientation, and now this, a dual Kroetsch chapbook: The Lost Narrative of Mrs. David Thompson (Edited by Robert Kroetsch) (2009) and Ten Simple Questions for David Thompson (Recorded by Robert Kroetsch) (2009) under her new Windsor publishing entity, Wrinkle Press. The first chapbook hasn't yet managed its way into a trade book, instead a "lost book" of its own, outside of his Completed Field Notes (1989; reissued 2001), and I wouldn't have known of either but for Markotić sending them. What is it about this particular subversion that Kroetsch insists? And now, this new poem on the explorer Thompson, his marriage, and his days drawing maps. Not a week ago, Kroetsch and I launched our new University of Alberta Press poetry collections together in Edmonton and Calgary, and not a word of this charming poem, this exquisite duet.
A sheet of paper is as big as the world. A sheet of paper is less than the flight of a swallow.
The author of a number of poetry books going back to the early 1970s, much of which was compiled into his Completed Field Notes, there have been others since, from The Hornbooks of Rita K. (2001), The Snowbird Poems (2004) and the just-released Too Bad: Sketches Toward a Self-Portrait (2010), all issued by the University of Alberta Press. For some time, Kroetsch has deliberately twisted ideas of narrative and storytelling through poetry (and through fiction and essays, but we aren't discussing those here), saying the most in the least, and saying it sideways; saying in such a way that you don't always realize just what he's said, at first (if at all).
Just what exactly is it he's saying? There was his narrator/archivist, Raymond, for example, discovering the disappeared author Rita Kleinhart through fragments of her unpublished poetry in The Hornbooks of Rita K., subverting and layering the author writing the archivist discovering the supposed lost author; who, exactly, was writing whom? Was it any accident that the cover of The Hornbooks was by Michael Snow, one of his "walking woman" pieces? (When is a woman not entirely there, entirely a woman? When she is a silhouette.) Would you put it past Kroetsch to twist the same structures through a poem such as this? David Thompson, the one who named the Fraser River for his mentor, Simon Fraser, both of whom retired to Glengarry County, Ontario, once their North-West Company work was completed; Thompson's house now sits as the county archive, in Williamstown, just near where poet Don McKay sometimes writes in the McKay family cabin. David Thompson, who mapped out parts of the west, and who, in a snow squall, even lost track of the border for four days; who else can say they lost track of a country? David Thompson and his invisible wife; what else would you expect of the period? I can't speak for Thompson, but Simon Fraser, buried in St. Andrew's West, just north of Cornwall, Ont., lies there with his wife, unnamed on the stone. This is a period where women's names only known if they wrote themselves, and even then; through Kroetsch, this unnamed woman watching her husband write out a new country.
David said there was wilderness all around us. Everywhere I looked I saw food and shelter. Sometimes David's eyes were two beaver pelts.
I was quicker with a paddle than any of David's men. Sometimes the water was my only mirror. I combed my hair.
Sometimes I found roots we could boil and eat to shame our hunger. The loneliness of the hunter congeals the blood.
I write down the sun, he said. I write down the stars. David, I said, you should write down the names of your children.
Tuesday evening, mere hours after receiving the publication in the mail, I took it to a workshop I was conducting as part of Ottawa's TREE Reading Series, and got into an argument with one of the workshop participants. How could this not be the words of Mrs. David Thompson herself, he insisted, speaking details that only she would know? How could a publication be called "The Lost Notebooks of Mrs. David Thompson" and ever be authored by someone else? If anyone could write Alberta history knowingly, it would certainly be Robert Kroetsch, author of, among other things, the non-fiction book Alberta (1967). What are The David Thompson Meditations that both chap-lets refer to in the colophon, that these come from? And how is it the best of Kroetsch's poetry, after so many years, still manages to bring out more questions than answers?
rob mclennan lives in Ottawa, but spends more and more time in Toronto. The author of some two dozen trade titles of poetry, fiction and non-fiction in five countries, he most recently published a second novel, missing persons (The Mercury Press), the poetry collection wild horses (University of Alberta Press), a collection of literary essays, subverting the lyric: essays (ECW Press) and a travel book, Ottawa: The Unknown City (Arsenal Pulp) and is working on a creative non-fiction title, "Sleeping in Toronto." He blogs regularly at robmclennan.blogspot.com
photo credit: rob mclennan