Al Purdy and the Ether of the Sky
by Miguel Strother

***

I am learning what a strange lonely place is myself
reflecting the present reiterating the past
Reconnoitering the future
These are my history
the story of myself

-Al Purdy from his poem, "Man Without A Country"

***

Countless summers ago I woke up in a field of rich earth, beside the Fraser River with the sun pressing down through my soiled eyelids like a yellow and red corkscrew. Eyes pulled up, my brain filled with a vision of the east and I went from Vancouver to Charlottetown in search of wine. I'm not sure if I was dead or alive.

I travelled like a ghost above Canada and met Maitreya sitting there fat, spinning pieces of formless sky into images that I could barely comprehend. I think there was a raven, a bridge, and a bright red star. Maitreya looked at me, laughed, dissolved into nothingness and I was in that empty field beside the Fraser again.

The next summer I made the same sojourn but this time instead of the Buddha sitting there in the sky with his rough images, I saw three men. The three men, Maurice Richard, Al Purdy, and Pierre Trudeau sat in the ether of the sky smiling, looking back and forth across Canada from east to west, occasionally sharing a knowing glance with one another.

I barely knew who these men were, but after an incalculable amount of time Purdy lifted his eyes and caught me in his gaze and without his lips moving I heard him say "You've never seen yourselves so well." The words were whispered, knowing as the ocean.

But that was so long ago and I didn't even know who I was then.

***

I've been a closet poet since about 1992. When I first applied to a major west coast university's writing department I crept in and dropped off a hand-written prose poem and left as quickly as I could, not saying much and hoping that my rugby buddies would never find out. I was embarrassed at being a 6-foot, 200 LB man who liked poetry.

In one of my first classes I remember going to hear poet Al Purdy. In the spring of 2000, moved by his death, I began to further explore Purdy's poetry with the intention of writing a small piece on his life and work. I quickly found out that "big" Al is no small story.

***

Al Purdy was born December 30, 1918 in Wooler, Ontario. He died on April1, 2000. Purdy's rough, pure voice still rumbles across Canada like the fracturing of an ancient glacier in the vast Arctic or the hollow caw of a crow slicing through stiff winds above the wheat fields of the prairies. His poems do, and will always, articulate what it means to be Canadian.

During the great depression, when Purdy was only 17, he road the trains from Trenton to Vancouver for the first time. Arriving on the West Coast Purdy promptly turned around and went back east sighting the same restlessness that drew him to travel in the first place. That restlessness lasted a lifetime.

Doug Beardsley, a writer with whom Purdy co-authored several books, says Purdy is one of the most definitive Canadian voices ever.

"He arose out of our own soil," says Beardsley. "He spoke to us, for us, he gave articulation to our lives as Canadians. He consciously set out to map this country with poetry and he did that."

Even when he knew the end of his life was near Purdy would talk to Beardsley with fire in his eyes about some poetic journey or another.

They talked about the Epic of Gilgamesh and about getting a Canada Council grant to go to Mesopotamia so they could fill in the missing sections ofthe classical Greek poem using their own modern language.

"I'd leave the hospital high as hell after talking to him but falling apar inside because I knew we'd never go," says Beardsley. "But it was the voyage of the imagination that mattered most to Al. His body may have betrayed him in the end but his mind never did. Who knows maybe he's there right now. You beat me again you old bugger, you beat me again."

***

In 1944, Purdy self-published a book of poems entitled The Enchanted Echo, a collection of various poems Purdy had printed in magazines like Canadian Forum and in the long gone poetry section of the Vancouver Sun. It wouldbe the first of 41 books.

The Enchanted Echo did not bring Purdy fame or fortune and he was forced to continue working in a mattress factory, and at other jobs he clearly loathed, for the next 20 years to support his poetic habit.

Purdy condemned much of the poetry he wrote in the first 40 yearsof his life including The Enchanted Echo. But in the late fifties and early 60's Purdy went through a personal revolution that he said shaped the rest of his life and work.

In his autobiography Reaching for the Beaufort Sea Purdy says of the year1965, "My own Character changed as well. As if everything that happened before 1965 was an apprenticeship, an uncertain testing of my footing, amysterious waiting period."

A waiting period.

According to governor general award winning poet Patrick Lane, a close friend of Al's whom he is said to have mentored, Purdy began to write really well during this period.

"The first time I ever read Al Purdy was in 1961," says Lane, himself awinner of the Governor General's award for poetry. "Contact Press brought out two small books, one called Jawbreakers by Milton Acorn and one by Alcalled Poems for all the Annettes. And they were wonderful. They blew my mind. I said fuck these guys are great. They were going in a direction that I was already going myself and that just validated it. That was a huge change in Canadian poetry. Those two little books."

"Al's life was coincidental with a whole new cultural nationalism and cultural awareness that happened in Canada in the late fifties, sixties, and seventies right up until Mulroney when cultural nationalism became a real no-no." says Lane. "I don't think that a year went by that he didn't get a grant. There was a lot of money around with Pearson and Trudeau. In the process Al became a great, great poet."

***

Cultural awareness.

In 1965 Purdy's book Caribou Horses won the Governor General's Award for Poetry and the poet was once again able to comfortably feed his restless heart.

Purdy's vast travels seem an incredible accomplishment for any Canadian, let alone a lanky 6'3" ex-cabdriver who often described himself as dumb.That dummy travelled to Baffin Island where he lived among First Nations Canadians. He travelled with an elite group of Canadians to Cuba where heformed a friendship with a young Pierre Trudeau and spoke with Fidel Castro about left wing politics. He travelled all over Europe both b yhimself and with his wife Eurithe, but his heart and his spirit always remained in and with Canada.

In his autobiography Purdy recalls feelings of sorrow and separation on his first trip away from Canada: "And on our slow passage eastward down the St. Lawrence, while light faded at days end, I watched the Quebecshoreline despairingly: homesick before I ever left home. I felt like aghost in transit from life to death. It was the first time I'd ever left Canada, and whoever was wearing my clothes was almost a stranger to myself."

There was no more important thing to Purdy, it seems, than this love of Canada and its people.

Lane remembers the early seventies when Purdy organized readings following the release of Storm Warning I and Storm Warning II, two small press anthologies highlighting the talents of Canada's young poets.

"I was almost a little too old (for Storm Warning, but Al threw me in anyway. And away we all went to some 5000 seat hall to read. The hall was full and there were 3000 people out on the street waiting to get in, so when we finished inside we all went outside and read in the street. Eight thousand people feeding off the poetry. It was never like that again. I don't think you'll ever see that again."

But the influence Purdy had on writers in the 60's, and the way he set about challenging them to find their own identity as distinctly Canadian writers, is a tradition that remains defiantly in tact.

At 21, Brad Cran, publisher of Smoking Lung, a series of seven chap books featuring the west coast's best young writers, remembers sleeping through a fiction final and fearfully realizing he had to take Lorna Crozier's poetry class. When he went to her, announcing failure before he began, she pointed him in the direction of Purdy and it changed his direction as a writer.

"I had never really read poetry. I grew up in (the suburbs), not really thinking of poetry. There was no real role model so I just never thought about it. And then I read Purdy. His writing opened my mind and made me realize that there was room for masculinity in poetry."

Cran had his introduction to poetry through Purdy and today works at publishing personally crafted literary journals, chap books and zines, filling a commonly talked about void in the voice of Canada created by the domination of large American publishing houses. Cran, like most of the best Canadian poets before him including Purdy, realizes this glut and publishes small, staying true to his own Canadian vision of poetry and literature.

***

Self-publishing

Purdy mourned the transformation of Canada into an American outpost, butwas active in pushing his own politics of discontent. The New Romans, ananthology of Canadian writers, ranging from Farley Mowatt and Margaret Laurence to Eric Nicol and Dorothy Livesay, was published shortly after Purdy won the Governor General's award in 1965, right at the precipice of his influence as a poet. It was aimed at getting Canadian views about America in to the open.

In the introduction to the book Purdy challenges, "I happen to think thatit is already too late. Therefore, all this book may do is register a sullen protest, a belated yap from a captive dog. It will scarcely raise more than an eyebrow on the big real estate dealers in Ottawa who have sold this country down the river to the Americans for the last thirty years."

That Purdy came to an understanding of himself when writing about Canada and its geographic and social position, is probably the most important part of his writing. In the process he gives Canadians as a people a truly whole and distinct sense of identity for the first time in our country'shistory.

Lorna Crozier, another close friend of Purdy's and herself a winner of the Governor General's award for poetry, says Purdy's poems offer an unparalleled insight into the Canadian consciousness. "He probably usedevery place name in Canada in one poem or another," says Crozier. "Hemapped us in words and tried to find insight in the places that people live. He was a nationalist and believed Canada was a wonderful place."

Crozier says that Purdy's poems remain humble, identifiable and human, yetleap across time with wisdom and understanding. She says it is hard tobelieve that Purdy could possibly be gone.

"He's in the words that he left us. I can still see him and hear him (Al) is with us. It is important to remember him. We need to respect what a great writer he really was. To be writers we have to read the best and he mightvery well be the best. That's how we learn to be human."

It was a Purdy poem I first had the nerve to read to an unknown audience.One day I will read or publish something of my own. Good or bad, I'll add to the swell of Canadian literature in some redoubled way, looking to Purdy's balance as poet, admiring and further celebrating his mixture of Canada's soils into the eternal reflections of "a woman inside of a woman", "an image inside of an image."

In his transition from the thereal to the ethereal, it is Purdy coming from the shadowy caves of eternity, reverberating across Canada's vast expanse. His is a face in a totem that has been, and will continue to be, a beacon to every young Canadian writer.

 

Miguel Strother gets it, paid and unpaid.




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