Surprise, Surprise

As I begin to write this editorial, worrying at the turn and tune of a phrase, I hear crying in the next room. I get up from my chair, lurk soundlessly in the hall, and wait for our eight-month-old to fall asleep again. When he does, it’s a miracle. Everyday magic. I tiptoe to my desk and stare at the screen, having forgotten whatever I was about to say. What can I do but start over?

We all forget things all the time. A letter goes unanswered. A meeting is missed, or a deadline, an appointment. Sleep-deprived, I find myself forgetting more than usual. Where did I misplace the anthology I’ll need for class in an hour? Did I mark all the essays? In a befuddled state, I ponder the notion that at the heart of teaching and learning, and of reading and writing, is a dance between forgetting and remembering. Literary scholarship is shaped in no small part by the limitations of scholars themselves. We aspire to expertise, and bear a professional obligation to know what is not generally known, yet there is always more to read, and our interpretative claims are governed by how little any one of us can remember, let alone truly comprehend. I’m often surprised by the accidents that occur when I pull books from the shelf. One Canadian poet describes the thrill of bibliographical discovery (or rather, recovery) by drawing a historical parallel: “I felt then an excitement such as I think Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini felt in 1417, when, poking through manuscripts at a monastery in Italy, he uncovered the lost text of Lucretius’ De rerum natura” (Bringhurst, Pieces 104). Few of us make findings of such consequence, but I think we all recognize Poggio Bracciolini’s exhilaration. And maybe we know bafflement as well as excitement: I’m sure I’ve read that poet’s essay a dozen times, but I had utterly forgotten the apt reference to Lucretius until I spotted it while looking for something else.1 I saw it by chance, as if for the first time. As if by magic.

Everyday magic. That phrase appears in “Kikastan Communications,” a poem, set in the Kikastan Islands, from Al Purdy’s North of Summer (1967). The speaker—identifiable as a version of the author—attempts to bridge a linguistic and cultural gulf between him and “two Eskimo women” by emitting “strange vocal doodles” (North 67). It’s an old habit:

a memory summoned from childhood
when for other kids
it was everyday magic
that made things happen
and then unhappen[.] (67)

“Kikastan Communications” arose from Purdy’s Arctic travels in 1965; the terminology (“Eskimo women”) and even the conceit of the intercultural encounter belong to another century, not ours. But despite the poem’s outdated elements, Purdy acknowledges the awkwardness and intrusiveness of his sudden appearance in the world of these women, whose names are Leah and Regally. The speaker’s babbling, as he understands it, represents his “hunting for common ground.” He also observes that his “happy grunting language” is “subversive to commonsense” [sic]. The poem suggests at first that the “everyday magic” of children’s (or childish) language can span a significant divide. The Purdy figure is indeed rewarded with laughter. At the poem’s end, however, he is simply “a grey-haired child” unable to do more than entertain. The barking dogs outside the tent are “wise,” but the speaker is merely a wise guy. In this account of partial communication, poetry makes something happen, but not enough.

Still, I am heartened by “Kikastan Communications.” As a teacher, I hope that I may find with my students common ground in poems and stories, and I trust that such works of imagination will resist and confound our common sense—that they will flummox and delight us, perplex and provoke us, and test our assumptions about our lives and worlds. I hope, in other words, that we may forget, if only for the duration of a short lyric, what we think we know. As Purdy realized, “odd sounds” have tremendous power (North 67). A baby’s crying makes something happen—and fast. Babbles and burbles are related to riddles and puzzles, spells and charms, prayers and songs. These forms of speech, or near-speech, plunge us into new realms of meaning, granting us close calls with nonsense.2 Such strange language, like the writers and readers who create and celebrate it, also stubbornly resists the common sense of the contemporary university, which seeks to make rational and quantifiable even that which we value because it makes no usual sense. Helen Vendler proposes that aesthetic and scholarly pursuits are closely associated:

The restless emotions of aesthetic desire . . . perish without the arranging and creative powers of intellectual endeavor. . . . The mutual support of art and learning, the mutual delight each ideally takes in each, can be taken as a paradigm of how the humanities might be integrally conceived and educationally conveyed as inextricably linked to the arts. (21)

I agree, adding only that we might attend as well to the arranging powers of aesthetic desire and the restless emotions of intellectual endeavour.

Everyday magic. Purdy’s phrase gave Laurie Ricou the title of Everyday Magic: Child Languages in Canadian Literature (1987), a scholarly study that I find suddenly pertinent.3 Writing of “a dumbfounded wonder at the unconscious poetry of child’s speech and its poetic remaking in fiction, drama, and poems for adults,” Ricou offers that “[i]t’s just because it’s so everyday, that child language surprises us with magic” (xi). Purdy’s apparent contradiction has become an intriguing paradox. Despite the title, however, Everyday Magic begins not with Purdy but with another poet, Robert Kroetsch. A line from Advice to My Friends (1985) suggests to Ricou a readerly modus operandi: “Let the surprise surprise you” (Ricou, Everyday ix; Kroetsch, Advice 18). Two decades after Everyday Magic, Ricou turned again to Kroetsch’s sage words, using them to explicate, in these editorial pages, a poem by Don McKay:

A sense of being possessed by every verb seems to be economically expressed in the opening lines of a poem generously addressed to me in Robert Kroetsch’s Advice to My Friends:

Let the surprise surprise you, I said
(or should have)

In that curiously permissive imperative, in that half-swallowed redundancy stirs a manifesto of sorts. It speaks not only about being open to the unexpected, about being willing to be surprised, but of creating surprise, of not wanting to reduce the wonder. The sur in surprise signals something in addition to the prise, something beyond or above the taking, some attitude that allows that everything has the capacity to astonish.4 (“When” 8)

In the moment of astonishment, of “dumbfounded wonder” (Everyday xi), the mind goes blank, and we call it the sublime. It’s a different kind of wonder, of course, when the sleepy teacher draws a blank in class. What is the name of that poem by Don McKay? We call that ridiculous.5

Kroetsch’s advice is good not only for his friends, but for all readers and writers as we embark perpetually on new beginnings. Those of us who study literature may believe that we have a vocational and even ethical responsibility to remember the literary past, even if our primary aim is to expose the limitations of historical perspectives. We try to illustrate how we got here from there. As a consequence, we look backward as often as forward; reading is by definition to encounter what someone has already written. But some things are beyond remembering. We forget what we know, what we thought we knew. We commit errors and blunders. Beyond Remembering—that phrase is the title of Al Purdy’s Collected Poems (2000), and I relish its plural meanings. That which is beyond remembering may be forgotten information that the poet, like an archaeologist or archivist, seeks to recover. Or it may be the nearly inexpressible knowledge expressed in faith and myth, in the beliefs that order human lives. In his poetry, Purdy frequently used myths from various cultural traditions to explain worldly experiences, but the phrase, when I think about it in a scholarly and pedagogical context, also has a resonance that Purdy (a reluctant teacher) probably didn’t intend. Professors of literary studies may be professional rememberers, but what does it mean to go beyond remembering? The other week, trying to make a point about something or other, I asked my class who knew who Margaret Laurence was, and who Jack Hodgins. No one. (Or no one wanted to say.) I can’t fault the students, who after all were there to learn, but I was a little startled. Remembering on their behalf, I said something about regionalism, short stories, the 1970s. OK—but did we find common ground? Did I link their world to mine, and ours to those of the authors? Did I offer the students an opportunity to be surprised by new ideas and new names, by unfolding paths of inquiry?

“A dumbfounded wonder.” By the mystery of association, Ricou’s adjective brings to my mind the title of a volume of poetry, Margaret Avison’s The Dumbfounding (1966). That thought in turn reminds me that Avison (1918-2007) is due to be commemorated in 2018, the centenary of her birth. Purdy, who died eighteen years ago this spring, likewise would have marked his hundredth birthday in 2018. Two poets born in the same year, one in April and the other in December. One the author of intricate and devotional verse; the other, earthy and secular. How will they be remembered? Purdy’s “On First Looking into Avison’s ‘Neverness’” (1986) links the two writers and suggests their shared concerns. This poem of dialogue reminds me that poems can be conversations and quarrels as well as songs or scenes. Kroetsch knew as much, writing to his friends. Purdy adds a folksy touch to the Adam of Avison’s poem, calling him “lonesome Adam and no Eve” (Beyond 432). Which reminds me of an earlier poem, Purdy’s “Adam and No Eve,” which is about “a giant yellow-faced tortoise / the last of his species” (Beyond 372).6 Which reminds me that this is how reading and writing work—that literary criticism is an intensely personal form of scholarship because it depends on the idiosyncrasies of the individual imagination.

Thus we require aide-mémoires. Anthologies are works of remembrance, and sometimes remonstrance. When I bought Peacock Blue: The Collected Poems of Phyllis Webb (2014) so that I could follow the page references in a student’s research paper, I was at once dismayed and delighted to learn how many of Webb’s puzzling poems I had never read. (But often forgotten completely are poems omitted from anthologies, whether by design or by oversight.) Poets themselves employ a range of mnemonic devices. Webb’s Hanging Fire (1990) is dedicated to the “memory of the poets Gwendolyn MacEwen, bpNichol, Bronwen Wallace” (Peacock 359). In Wilson’s Bowl (1980), one dedication is devastatingly succinct: “in memory of Lilo, who walked into the sea” (Peacock 263). With this editorial in mind, I reread
P. K. Page’s Hologram (1994). Her glosas originate in passages of other poets’ works. Literary borrowings or adaptations are forms of tribute, of homage, of acknowledgement of debt, as Page herself notes: “[R]eading again the giants of my youth, I could not help wondering what their effect on me had been. Had I been influenced by any of them? And if so, how?” (12). Allusion remembers what the poet has read—and perhaps prompts her reader to notice what he has failed to read. Translations too are works of recollection. In her recent rendition of The Odyssey, Emily Wilson attempts to make the archaic contemporary. “Tell me about a complicated man,” she begins, her adjective suggesting heroic complexity, the analyst’s couch, and a notorious Facebook status (105). Later in the epic poem, “a humble / slave girl” serves “bread and many canapés, / a lavish spread” (154). Canapés: seemingly a modern word, and yet the dictionary (surprise!) records its usage in English in the eighteenth century. Slave girl: Wilson’s role as translator is also to be faithful—a “gendered metaphor” (86)—to the text and the past: “The possibility that people of any rank might be enslaved—through trafficking or war—is assumed as a fact about the world; The Odyssey is not an abolitionist text” (54). Remembering, we realize, must be distinguished from misremembering, from nostalgia. Precision generates the conditions for surprise to flourish.

The articles in this issue of Canadian Literature are engaged in these very processes of revisitation, reappraisal, and reckoning. For Kirsten Alm, the poetry of Robert Bringhurst and Tim Lilburn demands recognition of colonial injustices in North America, while for Ben Hickman, the poetry of Wayde Compton, Peter Culley, and Meredith Quartermain illustrates the complexity of establishing a sense of place in contemporary Vancouver. In order to understand familiar works differently, Robert David Stacey looks again at P. K. Page’s “After Rain,” Margaret Boyce at Martha Ostenso’s Wild Geese, and Donna Palmateer Pennee at Sara Jeannette Duncan’s The Imperialist. And Carrie Dawson shows how certain stories are misused in service of a comforting national narrative. These studies attest to the surprises that lie in store for attentive readers.

This essay began with interruption, and now as I rush to finish it I hear the happy, ordinary, magical noises of waking. “Let the surprise surprise you.” Yes—in the literary life as in everyday matters, let the surprise surprise us.


1 A version of the essay in question was published in this journal; see Bringhurst, “Breathing.”

2 The appealing phrase is from Stephanie Burt’s Close Calls with Nonsense (2009).

3 Ricou uses lines from “Kikastan Communications” as an epigraph (Everyday xv).

4 Ricou’s editorial appeared in Canadian Literature 193 (2007). A glance at that issue’s table of contents reveals, in the titles of the articles, several evocative terms that echo the sentiment of his essay: listening, curious, reconsidered, wondering. “Addressed to me”: In fact, two poems in Advice to My Friends are addressed to Ricou: “back in the spring of ’76: for Laurie Ricou” and “Laurie Ricou waiting to present a paper entitled ‘The Intersections of Plain/s Space and Poetry,’ March, 1982” (Advice 18, 19). “Let the surprise surprise you” appears in the former (18). The capitalization of the titles is regularized in Completed Field Notes: The Long Poems of Robert Kroetsch (106, 107).

5 The poem is “Pond,” from Strike/Slip (2006). Moments of forgetting allow professors to become slightly more human, letting students see “behind the shutters / normally drawn across the human face,” as Purdy wrote in “On Being Human” (Beyond 508), a poem of shame and stoicism; I take the phrase out of context for a happier purpose.

6 I suspect that Purdy borrowed the title from Alfred Bester (another Al), the author of “Adam and No Eve” (1941), a short story about the last surviving man on earth. Purdy was an aficionado of science fiction, and I presume that he knew Bester’s story.

Works Cited

Bringhurst, Robert. “Breathing Through the Feet: An Autobiographical Meditation.” Canadian Literature, no. 105, Summer 1985, pp. 7-15.

—. Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music. McClelland & Stewart, 1986.

Burt, Stephen. Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry. Graywolf, 2009.

Kroetsch, Robert. Advice to My Friends: A Continuing Poem. Stoddart, 1985.

—. Completed Field Notes: The Long Poems of Robert Kroetsch. U of Alberta P, 2000.

Page, P. K. Hologram: A Book of Glosas. Brick, 1994.

Purdy, Al. Beyond Remembering: The Collected Poems of Al Purdy. Edited by Al Purdy and Sam Solecki, Harbour, 2000.

—. North of Summer: Poems from Baffin Island. McClelland & Stewart, 1967.

Ricou, Laurie. Everyday Magic: Child Languages in Canadian Literature. U of British Columbia P, 1987.

—. “When It Rains It Winks.” Canadian Literature, no. 193, Summer 2007, pp. 6-8.

Vendler, Helen. The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar: Essays on Poets and Poetry. Harvard UP, 2015.

Webb, Phyllis. Peacock Blue: The Collected Poems of Phyllis Webb. Edited by John F. Hulcoop, Talonbooks, 2014.

Wilson, Emily, translator. The Odyssey. By Homer, W. W. Norton, 2018.

This editorial originally appeared in Canadian Literature: 234 Eclectic Mix (Autumn 2017): 6-12.

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