Through Tamarack Swamps

  • Alden Nowlan and Brian Bartlett (Editor)
    Collected Poems of Alden Nowlan. icehouse poetry (purchase at
  • Brian Bartlett
    All Manner of Tackle: Living with Poetry. Palimpsest Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Nicholas Bradley

The massive Collected Poems is a nearly seven-hundred-page-long testament to Alden Nowlan’s genius. He wrote a stupefying number of poems, and he was also a prolific writer of fiction, drama, essays, and local history. Several years passed between two early volumes of verse, The Things Which Are (1962) and Bread, Wine and Salt (1967), but in the late 1960s and after, he published books with a frequency that rivalled even that of Al Purdy. The Mysterious Naked Man (1969) was followed by Playing the Jesus Game (1970), Between Tears and Laughter (1971), I’m a Stranger Here Myself (1974), Smoked Glass (1977), and I Might Not Tell Everybody This (1982). The Collected Poems includes the poetry from Nowlan’s chapbooks—The Rose and the Puritan (1958), A Darkness in the Earth (1959), and Wind in a Rocky Country (1960)—and from his mature volumes, which range from Under the Ice (1961) to the posthumously issued An Exchange of Gifts (1985). Brian Bartlett, the editor of the Collected Poems and a capable poet himself, notes that the “[p]oems that appeared only in periodicals or exist only in manuscript” are left to be gathered elsewhere. Thus Nowlan’s Poems are now Collected but not yet Complete. Bartlett’s volume does not replace the much shorter Selected Poems (1996, 2013) edited by Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier—the books serve different purposes—but it will be the standard edition of Nowlan’s poetry for some time to come, and it should both renew appreciation for his achievement and spark scholarly interest.

Although he enjoyed national prominence, the poet from Stanley, Nova Scotia—and later Hartland and Fredericton, New Brunswick—was bound to a specific culture and geography. His works attend to an isolated, impoverished, conservative world that in certain respects was Victorian even in the middle of the twentieth century. Hugh MacLennan wrote in Seven Rivers of Canada (1961) that “[t]he old Maritime Provinces have changed less than any part of North America. What they have lost in prosperity, they have gained in coherence, and on the whole the life there is the quietest and happiest in the country.” Perhaps so, but Nowlan’s poems typically furnish a less sanguine view. He was born in 1933, and the Depression remained with him until he died of respiratory failure in 1983. His short life was constrained by poverty, poor health, and alcoholism. He was uneducated and debilitatingly shy. As Bartlett writes, Nowlan was “a great poet of fear. Again and again his poetry recalls the fears found in childhood.” The titular phrase Under the Ice conveys a psychological interest, while the phrase Smoked Glass suggests partial obscurity. Somehow Nowlan transformed severe hardship into art. In “Beginning,” from Under the Ice, he imagined his own moment of origin, the birth of the poet: “From that they found most lovely, most abhorred, / my parents made me.” As Bartlett observes, however, Nowlan also “takes us from nightmarish precincts of fear and loneliness to the embraces of friendship and family.” He wrote of love in marriage and fatherly devotion, and expressed enormous sympathy for the salt of the earth.

Although Nowlan was a regionalist of the Maritimes, his poems are rarely maritime in nature. Deeply rooted in New Brunswick’s landscapes, and not besotted with seascapes, they depict farms and farmers, forests and millworkers, and sometimes the Saint John River, along which, in MacLennan’s words again, “a growing boy can still experience the simple things, and learn without thinking the fabric of a coherent society.” In Under the Ice, Nowlan drew largely sympathetic (but at times caustic) portraits of local figures: “Jack Stringer,” “Rosemary Jensen,” “Sheilah Smith,” “Andy Shaw,” “Warren Pryor,” “Patricia Grey.” He was not oblivious to the occasional ironies and humour of rural life. In “Alex Duncan,” he poked fun at the eponymous farmer’s colonial mindset, his desire to return to a prelapsarian world: “Four decades away from home / his Scottish tongue / grows broader every year.” In his last interview, as Bartlett mentions in the introduction to the Collected Poems, Nowlan listed his influences, many of whom were rural poets: “‘I’ve borrowed from everybody, I suppose. D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, William Carlos Williams, Sherwood Anderson, Robert Frost, Wordsworth, Chekhov, Robinson Jeffers, Whitman—and most of all, the King James Version of the Bible.’” A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (1896) is another obvious point of comparison, while such early poems as “About Death They Were Wrong” (from A Darkness in the Earth) are conspicuously Audenesque. Nowlan’s poetry also calls to mind James Wright, whose first books, The Green Wall (1957) and Saint Judas (1959), belong to the same milieu as Nowlan’s works despite their geographical differences. The Canadian poet and the American were comparably preoccupied by guilt, disgrace, and bursts of rustic beauty.

His poems in their assorted modes—portraits, wry anecdotes, mournful reflections, pastoral and counter-pastoral scenes, childhood recollections, and excoriations of the self—are consistently interesting. Despite its length, the Collected Poems is an accessible, highly readable volume. But if Nowlan is an engaging observer, his poetic language is often flat, and its plainness becomes enervating over the long course of the Collected Poems. Individual poems are memorable, but rarely phrases thereof. Despite what Sandra Djwa once called “the conversational ripple . . . of his best lines,” a general monotony besets the poetry, especially the later writing. Verbal dazzle, compression, verve—these were not Nowlan’s virtues. But there are worse fates for a poet than to be compassionate and wise, and Nowlan’s particular talents can be admired and understood on their own terms. With the Collected Poems, Bartlett has made a substantial contribution to Canadian letters. The edition is a tribute to Nowlan himself and a gift to readers and critics.

The essays in Bartlett’s All Manner of Tackle have a strong Atlantic bias. The poets they examine include Nowlan, Fred Cogswell, Don Domanski, Robert Gibbs, M. Travis Lane, Ross Leckie, Dorothy Roberts, Joseph Sherman, and Sue Sinclair, as well as others with less palpable or persistent ties to the East Coast, such as Tim Bowling, Tim Lilburn, Don McKay, P. K. Page, and Jan Zwicky. The book brings together studies, reviews, and occasional essays first published between 1993 and 2016. Her connections to Nova Scotia drag Elizabeth Bishop into Bartlett’s bailiwick, and although he stops short of claiming her as a Canadian author, he emphasizes her fondness for the province of her early years and later travels. His preferred subjects now represent the old guard of Canadian poetry, but Bartlett reliably shows that the poetry warrants attention. He is a generous reader; in his own terms, an “explorer, appreciator, student, broadcaster of good news.” The dog-eared pages in my copy of All Manner of Tackle confirm my appreciation of his criticism, although I must close with a quibble: the book has no index, a frustrating omission for readers keen to return to these astute and passionate essays.

This review “Through Tamarack Swamps” originally appeared in Rescaling CanLit: Global Readings Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 238 (2019): 116-118.

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