Leaves of Presence
- Al Purdy (Editor) and Sam Solecki (Editor)
Beyond Remembering: The Collected Poems of Al Purdy. Harbour Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Neil Querengesser
Ameliasburg. Frobisher Bay. Vancouver. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. Grosse Isle. Pangnirtung. L’Anse aux Meadows. Batoche. Prince Edward County. Quinte Bay. Winnipeg. Crow’s Nest. Namu. Victoria. Red Deer River. Ottawa. Bay of Fundy. 100 Mile House.
There are few places in this country not connected with this giant of a poet, a man whose death on April 21, 2000 removed from our midst a presence we shall not soon find again. For over half a century, Al Purdy recorded his thoughts and experiences in Canada and abroad, leaving us a rich legacy of poems—poems as delicate as arctic rhododendrons, poems as tough as Salix cordifolia, poems as resonant with mystery and meaning as fossils in the Alberta Badlands. The best three hundred and thirty-one of these have been collected and edited by Al Purdy and Sam Solecki in Beyond Remembering, the last book of Purdy’s verse to be completed in his lifetime.
Beyond Remembering includes poems from over four decades. Although Purdy began writing poetry in the 1930s, the book begins with a few selections from his fourth published work, appropriately entitled The Crafte So Long to Lerne (1959), followed by his best work from each of the following decades and concluding with eight new poems composed at the tail end of the twentieth century. Generous selections are taken from such well-known titles as Poems for All the Annettes, The Cariboo Horses, North of Summer, Wild Grape Wine, Sex and Death, Sundance at Dusk, The Stone Bird, Piling Blood, The Woman on the Shore, Naked with Summer in Your Mouth, and To Paris Never Again, and many poems from his lesser-known works are featured here as well.
Throughout every page of this collection, one can hear Al Purdy’s distinctive voice. Anyone who has never had the pleasure of hearing Purdy read from his own work would do well to listen to a few of his recordings before diving into these poems. For once that voice is in your head, it stays there forever, ready and willing at a moment’s notice to give life to the silent words on the page. Very few of Purdy’s poems are not written from the perspective of the first-person speaker who inhabits his poems with the familiar confidence of a master builder in a dwelling of his own construction.
Al Purdy has penned some excellent short lyrics, among them the famous "Wilderness Gothic," "Trees at the Arctic Circle," and "Lament for the Dorsets." These and many other fine shorter poems are included in the present volume. However, I find myself constantly returning to his longer narratives and meditations. The most powerful poems for me are those lyrics of the middle distance, poems such as On the Bearpaw Sea, In Search of Owen Roblin, and the more recent and highly personal "Pneumonia." In works like these Purdy’s thoughts move with assurance at a leisurely but steady pace, always leading the reader to an insight that awaits us like an old, half-forgotten friend. The following lines from "Pneumonia" speak of a desire for connection through the perilous bridges of memory:
I don’t want to leave earth
at least not until I look once more
into their eyes and reach beyond
into their hearts and minds and
till I have remembered them beyond
Purdy often casts his gaze into the past for illumination of the present, and his poems are often informed by the findings of sciences that reach into our collective past: archaeology, geology, paleontology. Not only in Canada, but in many places around the world, Purdy exhibits this fascination with the past; he is drawn to such locations as the Galapagos Islands, Troy and Machu Picchu. By looking back, he shows us what we have missed, then turns around and gently nudges us toward an awareness of how relevant his findings are to the present.
In that light, the collection’s concluding poem, "Her Gates both East and West," is a moving meditative look backward at his life’s accomplishment and his place in the twentieth century by a poet only months from his death:
The millennium really makes little difference
except as a kind of unsubtle reminder
of the puzzle that is yourself and always changing
the country that you wandered like a stranger
but stranger no longer
yourself become undeniable to yourself
wearing the lakes and rivers towns and cities
a country that no man can comprehend
While he may not completely comprehend that country, his life’s work does illuminate some fairly large areas. To read Beyond Remembering from cover to cover is to become aware of just how much of ourselves and this country Al Purdy has made comprehensible—and lasting.
- Translation Incorporation by Dean J. Irvine
Books reviewed: Esprit de Corps: Québec Poetry of the Late Twentieth Century in Translation by Louise Blouin, D. G. Jones, and Bernard Pozier and Body Inc.: A Theory of Translation Poetics by Pamela Banting
- David Meet David by Douglas Barbour
Books reviewed: Watermelon Kindness by David Donnell and Why Are You So Long and Sweet: Collected Long Poems by David W. McFadden
- Radical Poetics by Kit Dobson
Books reviewed: Writing in Our Time: Canada's Radical Poetries in English (1957-2003) by Pauline Butling and Susan Rudy
- Exit/Enter bpNichol by Kathryn Grafton
Books reviewed: Meanwhile: The Critical Writings of bpNichol by Roy Miki and bpNichol Comics by Carl Peters
- Les éclats de la lumière by Laurent Poliquin
Books reviewed: Mon temps d'éternité by Sylvie Maria Filion and Sous la lampe-tempête by Michèle Blanchet
MLA: Querengesser, Neil. Leaves of Presence. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #174 (Autumn 2002), Travel. (pg. 170 - 171)
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