- Al Purdy (Author)
Piling Blood. McClelland & Stewart Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by George WoodcockI HAVE NEVER LIKED то CALL writers "great," since for me "great" is a power adjective; I hold with Lord Acton that "all great men are bad," and I don't think that kind of moral badness goes often with the vocation of writing, though it did with D'Annunzio and perhaps with Ezra Pound. Nor am I happy with the word "major," since that poses a cate- gorization between major and minor writers which is out of keeping with the realities of poetic creation, denying as it does that all excellences are individual and incomparable with others. So how do we find an adjective to describe a poet like Al Purdy, whose largeness of vision and talent so distinguish him from most of his contemporaries, and who is argii- ably, in terms of craft alone, among the best three or four poets writing in Can- ada today? Purdy himself, I feel, would reject any adjective imputing a special status to him, for he is one of the most democratic practitioners of an aristocratic art, and he makes his attitude very clear in a poem addressed to Archilochus, the archaic Greek poet and mercenary soldier, that appears in Piling Blood : He wasn't Homer, he wasn't anybody famous ; he sang of the people next door; his language was their language; he died in battle (with a brand new shield). Living was honour enough for him, with death on every hand. Archilochus the soldier, he was us. Three thousand years? I can still hear that commonsense song of the shield : a loser who managed to be victorious, his name is a champagne cry in my blood. There is no reason to wonder at Purdy's inclination to identify with Archilochus, one of the great originative talents of antiquity and, in his free use of the Ionic vernacular, a predecessor of Purdy's own development of a poetry based on the Canadian vernacular. "Commonsense" is the basis for the work of both poets, but only the basis; they both fly far from that launching pad. And the stance of the "loser who man- aged to be victorious"; is not that the same as Purdy takes up with such effect in the triptych, "Machines," about his working in a mattress factory? You could never win the best to hope for was not to lose and $1.50 an hour. So we witness Purdy, despite his vast and curious autodidactic erudition, sing- ing of the lives of ordinary people and doing it in their language; and that of course is one side of him, the ordinary man who resists all suggestions of being extraordinary. But what makes him in fact extraordinary is not his stance, which many a dull ranting "poet of the people" has taken, from Hugh McDiar- mid downward, but his ability to use it, as the real artist can always use myths and modes of any kind, to produce poetry whose technical skills equal his philo- sophic vision. This is perhaps an odd comparison that will annoy many purists in English literary studies; I often see Purdy as a kind of Wordsworth achevé — a Words- worth as he would have liked to have been rather than as he was. For Purdy really does "adopt the very language of men," as Wordsworth merely aspired to do, and he succeeds because he retains the vitality of that language without re- ducing it to the dullness of Wordsworth's metrically arranged prose. Purdy often sings, and sometimes he argues out his philosophies of existence with comic ir- reverence in the hearing of his readers, but he is never prosaic, even metrically, and a good case can be presented for regarding him as our most notable philos- opher poet in a literature whose versifiers, from Sparshott to Layton, are not back- ward in presenting philosophic attitudes that range all the way from St. Ambrose to Friedrich Nietzsche. What makes Purdy the most interesting is that (a) he is the most steadily and consistently de- veloping poetic craftsman (with what felicity he used the Chaucerian tag to title his first mature book, The crafte so long to lerne—-and never ceased learn- ing!), and (b) he is his own philosopher, and in that aspect more like the archaic Greek poet Xenophanes, who defied the ancient gods to fashion his own world view, than he is like most of his own contemporaries. For Purdy goes far beyond the poems about underpaid work in mattress fac- tories, or about literally piling blood (sacks of it dried), or about the experi- ences working in the abbatoir which he cannot leave behind him : there were no poems to exclude the screams which boarded the streetcar and travelled with me till I reached home turned on the record player and faintly in the last century heard Beethoven weeping. Obviously such experiences link with empathy towards suffering beings that shapes other poems in this book, like the semi-comic narratives of Purdy's encoun- ters with archaic species surviving in the Galapagos, and his more elegiac medita- tions on exploring the fossils of the Upper Cretaceous period (Xenophanes also was fascinated by fossils) and moving among the remains of earth's largest animals, the dinosaurs. In a poem like "Lost in the Badlands," there is an almost shamanic sense of shedding human identity and merging into the great common past of all animals, of mingling one's very bones with them : No wind or sound of voices only this non-silence a mirage of screaming sound or an illusion of silence as if every animal that ever lived and died was struggling trying to get your attention and all the calcium carbonate in your bones shuffling its components uneasily. There are fairly constant components in all Purdy volumes: the comic poems of henpecked husband or ageing cautious lecher; the historic resonstructions of the Loyalist past. And they are here again, in new forms. So are the autobiographi- cal pieces, which in Piling Blood touch on every period of Purdy's life from boy- hood to the present, pondering the na- ture of memory, the way self as well as body changes, and treating the lives of losers, who seem to have inhabited Purdy's life in exceptional numbers, with a deeper compassion, more honest be- cause more bewildered, than in the past. There is one especially moving poem, "My Cousin Don," about a companion of the distant orchards and gardens of childhood whom wartime experiences seemed to destroy : I insist there was something, a thing of value. It survived when death came calling for my friend on an Italian battlefield : not noble, not heroic, not beautiful — It escapes my hammering mind, eludes any deliberate seeking, and all I can think of is apples apples apples . . . And another — "How it feels to be old" — is obliquely about old men but overtly about old dogs, a boy's dog shot for steal- ing chickens, another who the day before dying went to the water and tried to swim away : At the hour of departure there seems to me little difference between species and that's a good a way to leave as any (Dylan notwithstanding) : swim straight outward towards a distant shore with the dog star overhead and music on the waters But for me the most memorable of these poems are those in which the philo- sophic ruminations are mingled with a lyrical vision and the elegiac mood is suddenly lightened with a joy in living. Perhaps the best of these poems is the last in Piling Blood, "In the Early Cre- taceous," where Purdy imagines the first appearance of flowers in the age of the dinosaurs and sees in it the splendour of unrecorded history, the great sweep of time so vast that it becomes incompre- hensible in its linking of all the world's processes in vast, inevitable and unre- memberable sequence. But no one will ever know what it was like that first time on primordial earth when bees went mad with pollen fever and seeds flew away from home on little drifting white parachutes without a word to their parents — no one can ever know even when someone is given the gift of a single rose and behind that one rose are the ancestors of all roses and all flowers and all the springtimes for a hundred million years of summer and for a moment in her eyes an echo of the first tenderness And yet, as in all good books of verse, it is the whole, the varied continuum, rather than the individual pieces — even the anthology gems — that is important. In Piling Blood one is aware, with a feel- ing that grows from page to page, not only of a general triumph of poetic workmanship, but also of a depth of vision and wisdom that few of Purdy's contemporaries have equalled. Purdy is like one of those apples of vanished vari- eties from the orchards of our childhoods that ripened late and in their lofts im- proved in flavour long into the winter. As a poet he ages well.
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MLA: Woodcock, George. Vintage. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 10 Oct. 2012. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.
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