The demure grass will eventually sing “O yes”
when it rains.
We can listen better
from under the umbrella.
The ways of nature require caution.
– George Thaniel, The Ways Of Nature
We begin our lives with poetry. The verse of Mother Goose and Dr. Seuss keeps each bitty baby boppin’ and hoppin’ with word games to train the brain.
And then many of us – most of us – leave the rhyme to past time. But we still need that beat, complete – and we get it through runes with tunes. Song lyrics are poems.
And while we have a fabulous collection of songwriters and performers in the Eastern Townships, our home also offers inspiration to many more “traditional” poets. Consider the late North Hatley poet D.G. Jones, who died last month, but has left behind the gift of his ideas and imagery. In The Sod House Crumbles, Jones come across the stubbornly remaining foundations of an old home (or perhaps the rocks he finds are the foundations of the earth itself?): “Tomorrow, next year, let the sun/ fall like a hammer/ among stones”.
Ah, nature. Ah, the Canadian identity. The Canadian “garrison mentality”, in which we live by doing battle with the land itself, has become a bit of a punchline. The CanLit Premise Generator (which can be found online at CanLitGenerator.com) offered me this gem for a future Giller Prize-winning novel: “A man and his dog get lost in the wilds of northern Quebec to learn the darkest secrets of their family.”
Jones gives us a verse that recalls the cliché of man versus nature, but there’s still something more here.
In fact it took D.G. Jones to give us an understanding of our national literature and, as he wrote, its “mirror of our imaginative life.” That’s from his 1970 analysis of Canadian poetry and literature, Butterfly On Rock. For decades upon decades, those who settled in this country were too busy holding on to their British and French identities to be able to forge a truly new Canadian one. Even as late as 1964, Leonard Cohen wrote: “Some say that no one ever leaves Montreal, for that city, like Canada itself, is designed to preserve the past, a past that happened somewhere else.”
Once upon a colony
there was a land that was
almost a real
country called Canada
– Earle Birney
Jones sketched out a tale of human against nature, of a world of colonialist “Canadians” fighting against and exiled from the land in which they lived.
Jones did see change: “[W]e have arrived at a point where we recognize, not only that the land is ours, but that we are the land’s…. our identity and our view of the world are no longer determined by our experience of Europe, but by our experience of life as it is lived between two oceans in a stretch of land that has been referred to as a few acres of snow and, more recently, as America’s attic. It is apparent that we must now move into our own cultural house, for we are no longer at home in the houses of others.”
(Just two years later, a new CanLit darling, Margaret Atwood, would write Survival: A Thematic Guide To Canadian Literature.)
These days there’s all kinds of new CanLit, newfangled writing for a newfangled generation. Consider the short 2015 novel Giving Up (a New Arrival at the Lennoxville Library).
Author Mike Steeves has given us a contemporary couple, lovers for 10 years, yet still unable to speak truth to each other. Giving Up is stream of consciousness, as first James, and then Mary, blurt out their fears and furies in fierce internal monologues.
James has spent his adulthood attempting to complete “his life’s work”, some strange shenanigan that lives in his basement, and in his imagination. It has taken over everything: “I am the greatest time-killer of them all. Every waking moment of my life is murdered, by me. I strangle the life out of time. I poison it. I smother time… instead of cherishing each day of my life and getting the most out of every waking moment, which is what I had intended for myself, I have systematically done away with my time.”
Mary wants a child before all else, and cannot get pregnant. “She worries…. that she doesn’t want the child for the right reasons. ‘What if I’m doing this out of a sense of obligation or duty,’ she thinks, ‘when maybe I don’t even really want to have a family?’ How can she even tell the difference between what she wants and what she thinks she wants?”
Both are broken. They bought in to expectations that have led them to dead ends.
This is a short novel (about 200 pages), and it’s not for everyone (animal lovers will find it particularly upsetting). But its characters are sharply drawn, and it’s very funny, though underscored by tragedy (as all humour must be).
The pair’s “garrison” is an urban apartment, and the nature they battle is a reflection of their big city environment. Steeves has managed to make fun of traditional CanLit themes while updating them for a new generation.
Or you could read Giving Up because of its spot-on portrayal of a sadsack twosome, each of whom wonders if they are able to change.
April is celebrated as Poetry Month, and Literacy In Action holds an Open Mic Poetry Jam tonight at 7 p.m. (Friday the 15th at 7 Conley Street in Lennoxville). Bring your own verse, bring someone else’s to read, or just pop by to lend your ears and have a cuppa.
For those who write their own, the CBC’s 2016 Poetry Prize deadline is May 31 (more details at cbc.ca).
Looking for some poetry to bring to the jam? Check out the website canpoetry.library.utoronto.ca (you’ll find George Thaniel there, for example).
The Lennoxville Library’s children’s section is packed full of rhymes for kids. Check the online database for specific authors, or just have wander. You’ll find all sorts of fun books for you and your kids to read. Four suggestions: Wriggle And Roar! Rhymes To Join In With (by Julia Donaldson, 2015, filed in the Lennoxville Library at C-16); Snuggle Up With Mother Goose (by Iona Archibald Opie, 2015, in C-31); and two by Douglas Florian, Poem Depot: Aisles Of Smiles: Poems And Drawings (2015, at C-64) and Poem Runs: Baseball Poems And Paintings (2012, also in C-64).
Much of the work of Douglas Gordon Jones can be found in the Bishop’s University Library (he taught on campus for a time, eventually moving on to the Université de Sherbrooke). You’ll find Butterfly On Rock at BU, as well as Atwood’s Survival.
The Lennoxville Library has a small collection of poetry for grown-ups; it’s filed in the 800s. A collection and analysis of the works of Quebec’s Emile Nelligan, for example, can be found filed at 841.
— Eleanor Brown, April 15, 2016