A Little and A Lot

  • Anne Wilkinson and Ingrid Ruthig (Editor)
    The Essential Anne Wilkinson. Porcupine's Quill (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Miriam Waddington and Ruth Panofsky (Editor)
    The Collected Poems of Miriam Waddington Volume 1. University of Ottawa Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Miriam Waddington and Ruth Panofsky (Editor)
    The Collected Poems of Miriam Waddington Volume 2. University of Ottawa Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Owen Percy

As it rumbles ever further into the twenty-first century, the academy continues to cling to its modernist giants in the field of Canadian poetry—its Birneys, Scotts, Purdys, and Laytons. But, thanks in no small part to Dean Irvine’s EMiC project, it continues also to recognize (slowly) that Canada’s finest and most daring modernist poets were equally, sometimes moreso, its women—its Pages, Webbs, Wilkinsons, and Waddingtons. These two new collections—a bright, brief nugget of Wilkinson, and a comprehensive inventory of Waddington—will surely hasten this valuable recognition.

The Essential Anne Wilkinson is for lovers, of both poetry and books. In fact, like almost everything published by Porcupine’s Quill, and especially their Essential series, it’s the kind of book that makes people love books. Beautifully designed and printed, the aesthetic pleasures it offers as an object are aptly matched by the intellectual flourish of the poems selected by Ingrid Ruthig, reminding us of how and why the experience of the book has never been at risk of yielding to the limited dimensionality of the digital. Like the Laurier Poetry Series, the Essential books offer a contextual introduction, a short author bio, and a brief sampling from a poet’s larger oeuvre (here, twenty-five poems) designed to showcase favourites and perhaps whet the appetite for more.

Using Wilkinson’s journals, Ruthig convincingly presents her as a soul divided—as someone loyal to the traditional, colonial “Old Toronto” family into which she was born, while her own emerging sense of mid-century self flourished. The tension is clear in the poems as they range from elegiac to prickly, from formal to free, and from the unique to the universal. Wilkinson’s familial privilege is never far from the surface of her poems. The collection is bookended by pieces about her summer property and opens with “Summer Acres:” “These acres breathe my family, / Holiday with seventy summers’ history. / My blood lives here, / Sunned and veined three generations red / Before my bones were formed.” However it usually manifests as a source of some anxiety, holding her back or binding her from becoming whatever else she might have been. As she writes in “Lens:”

The poet’s daily chore

Is my long duty;

To keep and cherish my good lens

For love and war

And wasps about the lilies

And mutiny within.


My woman’s eye is weak

And veiled with milk;

My working eye is muscled

With a curious tension,

The nature poems included here are among her best; though, except for the Darwinian “Nature Be Damned,” most are pastorally nostalgic and often devoid of self-consciousness. Nature is Wilkinson’s escape from the apocalyptic, often environmental realities she sees in the so-called real world where she laments “We have mislaid ourselves, purposely / As a child mislays a burden . . . In the aisles between the graves we waste / The landed fish, our flesh.” Overall, the variety of poems in this collection paints a just and enticing portrait of Wilkinson’s diverse oeuvre, while highlighting the imagery (moons, witches, blood, the colour green) that defines her work as hers. It is an essential Essential for Canadian poetry.

While Wilkinson and Waddington share some affinity, The Collected Poems of Miriam Waddington is a somewhat different animal; important, incredibly thorough, and meticulously presented, it is unquestionably a triumph of a scholar’s book, the kind you are unlikely to see on the beach or pulled from a backpack on the commute home. Split into two weighty volumes totalling 1,112 pages (with tight type and stretching margins straight from the University Press playbook), it is a testament to the scope of Waddington’s contribution to Canadian letters, and to Panofsky’s doggedness as an editor and researcher. Positioning the tome as a corrective to the comparative dearth of literary criticism on Waddington, Panofsky’s exhaustive introduction covers the poet’s upbringing and personal life, her constant literary persona and evolving poetic voice, and the conflicted body of criticism that continues to colour her position in and around Canadian canons. Panofsky’s touchstone is Waddington’s secular Jewish heritage, Yiddish cultural identity, and gendered mid-century Canadianness, most evident in poems like the punchy “Sad Winter in the Land of Can. Lit.” and “Lately I’ve Been Feeling Very Jewish.” Obviously a product of the apparent golden age of CanPo through the 1960s, Waddington’s unsubtle public poems like “Canadians” (“We look / like a geography / but just scratch us / and we bleed like / history”) are dwarfed by more nuanced and lyrical pieces like “A Landscape of John Sutherland,” Waddington’s one-time lover, which meets most CanLit requirements and still concludes, delicately:

That is

what I like

best to find

the quiet moment,


in the roar

of landscape;

to be the


Tending towards Northrop Frye (who identified Waddington’s chief poetic gifts as her spontaneous lyricism and precise observations), Panofsky accurately characterizes Waddington’s writing as “deceptively accessible . . . personal but never private, emotional but not confessional, thoughtful but never cerebral.” She is a poet of place (city and nature), plain-spokenness, and innovative, often challenging, form and enjambment. As a whole, the collection bears witness to her maturation and evolution of theme and style over six decades, but her chronologically presented published poems (followed by more than 120 pages of previously unpublished and uncollected poems and translations) show that Waddington never lost her fighting, public, social-working spirit in her late poems like “A Few Things:”

There are only a few things

the politicians of war

or the privateers of

free enterprise

haven’t yet found out

how to do.


These are to have dreams

and raise children,

be kind and human,

let birds nest

and trees and rivers


Like Wilkinson, Waddington comes across as a poetic soul divided, excluded, and provoked by her birthrights of gender and culture; also like Wilkinson, she is proven here to be a complex, serious, sometimes excellent, modernist poet worthy of exactly the kind of critical re-examination Panofsky calls for.

This review “A Little and A Lot” originally appeared in Queer Frontiers. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 224 (Spring 2015): 146-48.

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