Common Magic: Paying Attention to Bronwen Wallace

  • Wanda Campbell (Editor)
    Bronwen Wallace: Essays on Her Works. Guernica Writers Series (purchase at
Reviewed by Erin Wunker

Bronwen Wallace was a writer, a poet, and an activist. She was a feminist who engaged in theoretical discussions about language and gender, who dedicated time and energy to advocacy and equity work, whose writing was celebrated in her lifetime and posthumously. In 1994, her literary executor Carolyn Smart created what is now called the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers as a means to honour Wallace’s work as a writer, a teacher, and a mentor whose career and life ended too soon. And yet, as editor Wanda Campbell observes, despite the wide recognition of Wallace’s generative effect on Canadian literary culture, there has been disproportionally little attention paid to her work in academic contexts. Campbell’s edited collection addresses this glaring omission in the academic archive of critical work.


The introduction to this collection, which is published in Guernica’s Essential Writers series, is entitled “Paying Attention: Wallace Now.” The description and imperative work to focus the reader on Campbell’s aims. We need, as an academic readership, to begin paying attention in the present tense. We likewise need to attend to Campbell’s imperative: Wallace Now. Campbell hinges her introduction on Wallace’s own reflection shortly before her death that “[i]f we are going to live with wholeness or integrity in the world, we have to pay attention to the particulars and politics of where we are” (qtd. in Campbell 5). This reflection, itself an imperative to attend to the particular contexts of one’s own place and times, is an organizing key for the collection. Campbell brings together previously published pieces by Brenda Cantar, Susan Rudy, Aritha van Herk, Brenda Vellino, Patrick Lane, Phil Hall, Phyllis Webb, and Jeremy Baxter and places them in conversation with new essays. These new or newly published works include essays by Mary di Michele, Lorraine York, Susan Glickman, and Andrea Beverley. The effect of placing new and previously published work together in this collection is one of enacting the imperative to pay attention to particularities. Here, the particularities are both of where we are now as well as where we have been as a critical, readerly, and scholarly community working in the context of what is often called Canadian literature. The organization of the collection affords both a wide-angle view and one that pulls focus on the “now” and “then” of a given writer’s context. Filtered through the unifying focus on Wallace’s work, the collection does what it calls for: it attends, and it gives attention.


Campbell’s introduction orients readers who are new to Wallace’s oeuvre and ethos as well as those who are deeply familiar with the writer and her work. Campbell begins with a catalogue of Wallace’s output—five collections of poetry in a decade, as well as two documentary films made in collaboration with her partner Chris Whynot, and three posthumously published books: a short story collection, a collection of essays, interviews, and columns, and a correspondence with Erin Mouré entitled Two Women Talking. Campbell then moves between anecdote, close reading, and Wallace’s social activism and literary history to produce a portrait of a writer whose life and work were bound up in concerns about feminism, equity, and praxis. Campbell draws on myriad references from other writers and scholars to shore up this portrait, an example of which can be found in an excerpt from an essay by Donna Bennett published in 1991. Bennett, reflecting on the effect of Wallace’s work, observes that “Bronwen Wallace was for Canadian readers and writers and particularly for women poets of her generation, a Wise Woman. She told us things we were not yet able to see. She opened up her life to let us learn about ourselves” (qtd. in Campbell 21). Wallace, readers learn, or are reminded, is a writer whose work pays attention to the quotidian, the common, and the daily, however gritty, difficult, and sometimes violent, in order to hone readerly focus in service of a more just world.


After Campbell’s introduction, the collection offers a brief biography of Wallace, and then moves between essays, interviews, and poems. The biography and new and republished essays and poems that make up this collection offer a way into Wallace’s work that is both scholarly and affective. Together, the attention paid by each writer toward the work of Wallace orients the reader to the “common magic” that remains central to Wallace’s oeuvre. Bronwen Wallace: Essays on Her Works is an important contribution to the archive of scholarly work on Canadian literature. It provides accessible and useful resources including a bibliography of both primary and secondary sources. Perhaps what is equally useful is the collection’s unwavering reminder that some things, such as careful attention held in respect for equity, are vital across time and space.

This review “Common Magic: Paying Attention to Bronwen Wallace” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 21 Feb. 2024. Web.

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