Go Down Singing

Reviewed by Katharine Bubel

“Sometimes an especially tuned text, arriving in the mail, will point the way,” writes Edward F. Mooney in “When Philosophy Becomes Lyric,” his tribute to the peripatetic philosopher Henry Bugbee that nods in the notes to Jan Zwicky’s “path-breaking” work (204, 222). Indeed, arriving in the mail, Mark Dickinson’s Canadian Primal is one such “especially tuned text.” In the dark wood of current conditions, it presents Zwicky and her four fellow “thinking and singing” ecopoets—Robert Bringhurst, Dennis Lee, Tim Lilburn, and Don McKay—calmly pointing a way. Reading Canadian Primal while teaching Dante’s Inferno, a work with which Bringhurst too is currently occupied (133), it strikes me that these poets are in accord with the mythos of the Commedia: the way up is the way down.


Dickinson’s title signals one of the shaping influences on their mythos, George Grant’s essay “In Defence of North America,” which enucleates the “primal encounter” with the land and First Nations by English-speaking Protestant settlers. Grant describes the meeting as marred by “uncontemplative,” “unflinching” practicality and conquest (25), and as ultimately engendering the “technical reason [that] has become so universal [. . .] it has closed down on openness and awe, questioning and listening” (24). Dickinson points out, though, that Grant sees a small door to transcendence: “Any intimations of authentic deprival are precious, because they are the ways through which intimations of good, unthinkable in the public terms, may yet appear to us” (Grant 141).


As Canadian Primal reveals, these five poets locate their intimations of deprival on the edge of ruin, collapsing world structures and, most dreadfully, ecological catastrophe. But the way down can also be a coming home. As Lilburn observes elsewhere, “Disaster is often the precursor of great contemplative ages—strain in the Roman Empire and doctrinal stress” (239), for example, gave birth to the gnomic wisdom of the desert fathers, “If a man settles in a certain place and does not bring forth the fruit of that place, the place itself casts him out, as one who has not borne its fruit” (Merton 88).


Telling their stories of fruitful settling, as well as his own, Dickinson gracefully intertwines biography, literary explication, and contemplations of emplaced cultural awakenings and shiftings. The book defies the “non-evaluative” analytical detachment that Grant detested in the scholarship of the modern university (124). Instead, to borrow again from Mooney, Dickinson’s collection of lyrical “tales that open up as song” (218) resonates with the remarkable Canadian ecopoets it regards. The five presences interpenetrate the whole and the parts of Canadian Primal, while individual chapters delineate inscapes to be discovered one at a time in their fascinating particularity: Lee, “Polyphonic Soul”; McKay, “Shapeshifter”; Bringhurst, “Renaissance Man”; Zwicky, “Lyric Philosopher”; Lilburn, “The Conversationalist.” We listen in on “the larger conversation” (as Lilburn names it) that informs the poets’ “shared shape of thought” (Lilburn qtd. in Dickinson 216). While acknowledging our historical descent and what Grant calls the “deprival” attendant to our colonial disorientations, Dickinson observes in the poets a unique “recovery of a mode of musical thinking open to ancestors, non-human beings, natural processes, and the genius of specific places” (xiv). He proposes both Canadian cultural and global relevance for their offering of “the rarest of gifts: a cure for the sense of rootlessness and the inability to perceive meaning in the world around us that drives so much of our predatory behaviour as a modern civilization” (xiv).  But the way up is the way down. First, like Dante, we must face the disaster.

. . .

It is cold at the bottom of Inferno—so cold, the poet-pilgrim Dante reports, “my every sense had left its dwelling in my face, just as a callus has no feeling” (Inferno 33.100-03; trans. Allen Mandelbaum). The numbing air is agitated by the futile flapping wings of Dis, the fallen Lucifer, ancient epitome of corruptio optimi pessima. Frozen in the lake, his movement is restricted in stasis, three maws masticating the arch-traitors who, according to the law of contrapasso, are the ever-consumed, as Dis is the ever-consuming. Likewise, near the end of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, to which Dickinson alludes in his “Personal Coda,” we encounter a cannibalistic, consuming creature: “The Windigo is the legendary monster of our Anishinaabe people, the villain of a tale told on freezing nights in the north woods . . . a being in the shape of an outsized man” with a heart made of ice (304).


Erotic hunger turned into devouring, disordered desire: this is Dante’s Dis, the Anishinaabe Windigo, the technocrat akin to Milton’s Satan with a “mind not to be changed by place or time.” As Kimmerer observes, “Creation stories offer a glimpse into the worldview of a people, of how they understand themselves, their place in the world, and the ideals to which they aspire. Likewise, the collective fears and deepest values of a people are also seen in the visage of the monsters they create” (305). Approving Nick Mount’s remark that Lee’s Civil Elegies is a candidate for a Canadian “founding epic” (qtd. in Dickinson 27), Dickinson swiftly notes that it is “not a creation story, but identifies what will happen to a civilization that does not have one” borne out of “a meaningful dialogue with its surroundings” (27). Such honesty “clears a space for something new to emerge, the intimations of which reverberate,” not only in Lee’s poetry, but in the works of his fellow thinking-singers too.


The pith of Canadian Primal, especially in its coda, is an ordo amoris rooted in the humility of relinquishment and waiting, of openness to reciprocity with the land. We observe at times bitter dissatisfaction in the conditions of our current knowing and dwelling, but in the downward turn, there is ecstasis: the roots go out. Their movement can be heard in the final pages of Dickinson’s book, which are given over to the poets themselves. Lee: “You must go deeper.” McKay: “The question concerning hereness . . . remains a live issue.” Bringhurst: “Am I my planet’s keeper?” Zwicky: “Earth with its arms wide open.” Lilburn: “Being in the thrall of beauty is probably the most efficient means of transformation.” And they, with such singing words, may so dispose a heart to longing for this journey.


Works Cited

Grant, George. Technology and Empire. Anansi, 1969.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Milkweed, 2013.

Lilburn, Tim. The Larger Conversation: Contemplation and Place. U of Alberta P, 2017.

Merton, Thomas, trans. The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century. Shambhala, 2004.

Mooney, Edward F., ed. Wilderness and the Heart: Henry Bugbee’s Philosophy of Place, Presence, and Memory. U of Georgia P, 1999.

This review “Go Down Singing” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 16 Dec. 2021. Web.

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