To contractor Matti Kopamees and colleague Rick Lynette, it looked at first like any other handful of rubble. Then the men, who are renovating an A-frame cabin in Ontario’s Prince Edward County that belonged to poet Al Purdy, noticed writing on a piece of paper. They had found a poem.
“I got a funny feeling he put it there,” said Kopamees, explaining that the poem must have been hidden in a wall they opened up as they replaced walls and windows in the cabin that Purdy built himself in the late 1950s and early sixties and used as a writing retreat.
Eurithe Purdy, the widow of the poet who died in 2000, had hinted as much, he added. “She would hang around and see what was up. She said, ‘You know, you might find a poem in that wall,’ and I thought, ‘How would she know that?’”
The poem is short, written on a small piece of memo paper preprinted with the words Kitchen Bitchin’ and almost impossible to read. Since its discovery last summer, the association that is renovating the cabin for use as a writer’s retreat has been busy decoding it with help from Sam Solecki, a University of Toronto professor of English and an expert on Purdy’s work.
The poem, which may date to the 1970s when the Purdys made some improvements, seems to concern a return to the cabin in Ameliasburgh, Ont., from the West, where they eventually moved, settling in British Columbia in the mid-1980s, but returning regularly to Prince Edward County. It describes crossing the Prairies and re-entering “this known place/that is become strange to me.” (The place names in it were among the most difficult words to decipher.)
Solecki said it relates to many of Purdy’s poems about travel and Canadian geography, and could have been written anywhere from the 1960s to the 1980s, although the dark tone makes him favour a late date. Solecki likens it to Purdy’s renowned The Country North of Belleville and to the writer’s last poem, Both Her Gates East and West, but said he believes the lines do not belong to any published Purdy poem.
“This is Al’s squashed, Grade 8 handwriting, full of omissions and condensations. He’s scribbling, he’s trying to get stuff down as quick as he can,” Solecki said, explaining that Purdy wrote and rewrote his poems on scraps of paper before typing them for publication. “This fragment is typical of him, he would write on anything … there are hundreds of things like this.”
“It’s not a Tutankhamen find,” he added.
Solecki speculates that Purdy, who did not achieve much public recognition until he was in his late 40s, put the poem in the wall in a playful way, as though he were winking at the future. “I know Al would enjoy this posthumous moment,” he said.
Meanwhile, work on the cabin has stopped for the winter and will not continue until the Al Purdy A-Frame Association, which has exhausted its $65,000 renovation budget, raises more money. New plumbing and wiring has been completed, but work needs to be done to deal with water in the basement, explained Duncan Patterson, a Toronto architectural designer who is project manager for the association. He is hopeful a fundraiser at Toronto’s Monarch Tavern on Monday will help the association complete the work so that by July, the first writer-in-residence can move into a place where there is literally poetry in the walls.
The poem by Al Purdy, found in the kitchen wall of his cabin in Ameliasburgh, Ont., was deciphered by Duncan Patterson, Jean Baird and Lindi Pierce of the Al Purdy A-Frame Association along with contractor Matti Kopamees, who is restoring the building. They were helped by Purdy scholar Sam Solecki at the University of Toronto. (The words in bold are open to discussion.)
‘THIS KNOWN PLACE’
Crossing the prairie from
Taber Medicine Hat
Moose Jaw Regina et cetera
thinking of the first settlers here
in this great loneliness
[nor?] [and?] reaching out
across these sunlit distances
the dark nearness of nothing
entering this known place
that is become strange to me
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