The Essential Jay Macpherson: Selected by Melissa Dalgleish. Porcupine's Quill and
Little Wildheart. University of Alberta Press
Edited by Melissa Dalgleish, The Essential Jay Macpherson (2017) is the fifteenth volume of the Essential Poets Series published by The Porcupine’s Quill. It presents an eclectic assemblage of the late Macpherson’s poetry, including selections from well-known works such as The Boatman (1957) and Welcoming Disaster (1974) as well as lesser-known and previously unpublished pieces. As Dalgleish deftly outlines in her introduction, Macpherson cuts a complex poetic figure and is not without her critics. Her poetry, with its dense allusions and often strict technical form (similar to works of other “mythopoets” of her ilk), has been accused of being “disconnected, antiseptic, academic literature about literature instead of literature about life.” Dalgleish embraces the seemingly ambitious task of showcasing Macpherson’s focus on “the fundamental feelings, dreams and desires that make us human”; Macpherson’s poetry, Dalgleish’s selection reveals, resides at the intersection between mythology and “emotional and psychological resonance” where ancient stories “tell us something about ourselves and our place in the world.”
This endeavour is made clear from the first poem of the selection: in “Non-Identification,” a poem from Macpherson’s early periodical and unpublished works, the speaker compares the earth’s elements to feelings of human pain and disconnection:
Unenvying we lack
Water’s ignorance of pain,
The old indifference of stone,
Fire’s easy taut and slack
—And therefore shall be hurt again.
Dalgleish’s selections continue to emphasize the very human inflections of Macpherson’s work, even in the poet’s allusion-heavy pieces. Such poems place the speaker at the junction between personal experiences of loss (as depicted through the death of the speaker’s mother in “The Comforter”) and the epic scale of mythological figures (as Lucifer’s fall runs parallel to her mother’s ascension to heaven). The collection also showcases Macpherson’s developing sense of humour in regards to mythological allusion (perhaps best represented in “Poets & Muses,” from Welcoming Disaster).
While Dalgleish indicates that the collection is organized chronologically, it may have been beneficial to label the divisions in publication between selections; this would have aided in Dalgleish’s intent to place Macpherson’s work “back within its original contexts.” The effect of linking the poems together without interruption, however, seamlessly represents Macpherson’s evolving poetic, philosophical, and psychological sensibilities. As such, this collection is recommended for any admirer of Macpherson’s work as well as students, teachers, and researchers of Canadian modernism and mythopoetry.
Micheline Maylor’s 2017 collection Little Wildheart similarly fuses the personal and visceral to the mythological and metaphysical. In turns surprising and affective, Maylor’s collection presents a bodily, sensory intervention at the intersection between human and animal, intellectual and ephemeral. In “Dissilience,” for example, the speaker portrays a commune between rodents killed at the roadside and a celestial body:
And the gophers, whose life had already faded,
opened their ribs, peony-like, wild, unclenched
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Then they unwound tendrils of intestines up to the sky
and offered organs to heaven above
with all the bravery they could.
The path to heaven is paved with the rodents’ innards and marked by a too-common violence that is refocused through Maylor’s carnal, even gory, imagery. Her adroit use of surrealist technique is also apparent throughout the collection; she examines, even blueprints, the terrain of human fear, desire, apathy, confusion, elation, and release through unexpected and generative associations. Poems such as “For there are still such mysteries, and such advice,” “Free,” and “Benediction” showcase Maylor’s imaginative capacity and draw in the reader with maddening ferocity—we stand at the edge of the abyss that Maylor invokes alongside the speaker.
Following Full Depth: The Raymond Knister Poems (2007), Starfish (2011), and Whirr and Click (2013), Little Wildheart is Maylor’s fourth book of poetry. Her diction is dense yet comprehensible and is well suited to both the casual reader of poetry and those seeking a linguistic challenge. Maylor takes some tactical poetic risks, however; her use of the second-person in poems such as “Ten” perhaps runs the risk of alienating particular groups of readers—but tactics like this establish the way in which the speaker feels divided from former versions of herself. Her form and style appear deceptively straightforward; while her line-formatting is orderly and eye-pleasing, her quick cuts between images, accelerated rhythm, and use of enjambment force the reader to re-evaluate the impact and connotation of Maylor’s words, and to appreciate her nuanced and masterful poetic technique.