Particulars Remembered

Reviewed by Lorraine York

At the time of writing, over thirty years have passed since the death of Bronwen Wallace, at the age of only forty-four in 1989. And for a poet whose reputation soared rapidly in the final decade of her life, the lag between her death and this publication of her collected poems feels especially protracted. In the space of a mere seven years during the 1980s she published four collections (the fifth, Keep That Candle Burning Bright, was published posthumously). As a feminist academic in my late twenties, I experienced the 1987 publication of Wallace’s third collection, The Stubborn Particulars of Grace, as a major event, not the least because it involved a move from the smaller, independent, Canadian-owned Oberon, the publisher of her previous collections, to the more mainstream McClelland & Stewart that had been bought by Avie Bennett the year before. For a woman poet working in Canada in the 1980s, such a shift bespoke canonization, a wider readership, literary renown. And then, two years later, she was gone.

So to say that this collection is long overdue, as people typically do on these occasions, risks radical understatement, and we might productively ask ourselves why it has taken so long to bring back into print the works of a major Canadian feminist poet. Much is owed to the volume’s editor, poet and close friend Carolyn Smart, for painstaking work and—one can only say—exquisite care. (The unpublished early manuscripts that appear in the volume derived from Smart’s personal collection, and her annotations of the poems are helpful and unfussy.) And much is owed to McGill-Queen’s University Press for realizing how important a project this is. I could play the reviewer’s game of picking teeny editorial nits (why is the early work gathered together at the end of the volume, when one of the rationales of the collection is to allow readers to read through Wallace’s work from early to late?). But this is the time to place nits aside and ask more important questions about Bronwen Wallace’s poetic legacy.

First of all, reading through the collected poems has taught me that Bronwen Wallace’s poetic powers maintained a level that was consistently high; it is amazing to me how she could have published all of those collections in one decade without having included more poems that were less successful. But for the most part, all of these poems hit their mark, most resoundingly. Wallace’s trademark has often been described as digressive narrative, but given the powerful impact of these poems, I would describe it as laconic intensity. A woman sips her coffee at a kitchen table. And the world erupts.

Often, for Wallace, that eruption took the form of violence directed against women: a subject that many were not prepared to take seriously as poetic material. As Smart recalls, Wallace read at the League of Canadian Poets AGM the year that the discussion of a motion to form a Feminist Caucus was interrupted by a member yelling, “If there’s going to be a feminist caucus, then there should be a Nazi caucus.” As new scholarship is showing us, the formation of politically progressive groups within professional literary unions in this country has long been attended by reactionary pushback and continuing exclusions. But within that hostile atmosphere the poems of Bronwen Wallace asserted their place, and plumbed what she called in “the complex possibilities / of common things.” And violence against those who identify as women was, as it is today, common.

Wallace was always clear about her poetic mentors, and among them Al Purdy has always held pride of place. As I read through her poems, early to late, what I see, thanks to this collected edition, is Bronwen Wallace turning the poetic modes and cadences of Purdy to a purpose that was antipathetic to Purdy’s ethos: feminism. And this is truly remarkable; Wallace, while clearly spellbound by Purdy’s language and emphasis on locality, was more than ready to use those master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.

To a degree. As my echo of Audre Lorde might move readers to reflect, Bronwen Wallace’s political poetry operated along the axes of gender and class but did not include race or sexuality to any great extent. As Smart observes, “She was fierce in response to class and gender bias.” But a reading of these poems, early to late, also tells us much about the exclusions practised by white women’s feminisms of the 1980s in Canada (and elsewhere) that could not help but mark Wallace’s poetry. Certainly, she was aware of racism; in Signs of the Former Tenant, she writes about the anti- South Asian racism of WASP suburbia, but the women Wallace most often writes about, drawn from her white, rural, Protestant ancestral community, are elided so easily, in Wallace’s poetry, with a universal “woman.” And the framework for thinking about women’s sexual lives in the poems is persistently heterosexual. Reading front to back in Wallace’s collected poems, I think about how the habits of mind she displayed there, of relentless self-critique, an abiding desire for social justice, and that constant willingness to rethink her assumptions that she learned as a political organizer, would have allowed her, had she lived longer, and had she chosen, to listen to the critiques of 1980s straight white feminism that surely would have come her way.

She would, I am sure, have rejoiced in the emerging writers who have been since 1994 the continuing beneficiaries of her legacy, as recipients of the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for emerging writers: most recently, the non-binary poet John Elizabeth Stinzi. It is important, though, as we reassemble the works of the previous generation of feminist poets, that we pay them the respect of assessing them in a way that does not reinforce the exclusions of the past and reassume those exclusions as normative. Bronwen Wallace herself would have expected no less of us.

This review “Particulars Remembered” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 2 Dec. 2020. Web.

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