Al Purdy's Contemporary Pastoral

by D. G. Jones

Reading Al Purdy to find a single quotation, I find myself at the end of the poem, at the end of another poem, having forgotten my purpose, as if there were no single line shorter than a poem. Purdy's poems, as Gwen MacEwen says, go round and round and where they stop nobody knows.

     Purdy does not know, he says. The speaker frequently ends up, as in "My '48 Pontiac," puzzled by things. Yet this is often the half-truth, the sleight-of-hand, of the eiron. If the American is popularly and typically the alazon, the loud-mouth, big shot, know-it-all, the Canadian is popularly and typically the eiron, the Platonic innocent, the invisible man, Robertson Davies' fifth business.

     Purdy once identified himself with the national type in a poem entitled "On Canadian Identity: A Sentimental Monograph for The Daughters of the Empire," which ends:

For we have bounced no rockets off the moon,
swung west to loop the land with gold and steel,
or made a bloody pageant of our greatness,
or bought men's loyalty by giving or withholding —
we have not done any of these great things:
troubled, listening to other people's opinions,
becoming them, pinned to earth by them,
as if we were a focus and burning glass
for opinions, as if we were coming to birth somehow,
learning to love and to earn and to spend
The worth of life being not necessarily noise
we kept unusual silence, and then cried out
one word which has never yet been said — 1

And one might compare this ironic, paradoxical affirmation with the lines of the historian, W. L. Morton, who writes in his book The Canadian Identity:

Because Canada arrived at freedom through evolution in allegiance and not by revolutionary compact, it had not a mission to perform but a destiny to work out. That destiny has never been manifest, but has always been exceedingly obscure.2

Like some of the definitions of God, it is achieved by a series of negations. In such a country, it is appropriate that one should be puzzled by things.

     Yet Purdy is hardly invisible, small, without a voice. He might break your neck with affection. A month-long visit by Milton Acorn generates something like a parliamentary filibuster. A domestic argument takes on the proportions of an Iliad, complete with epic similes. The persona of Purdy's poems has the slippery character of Proteus that George Woodcock attributes to Irving Layton, except that in Purdy's case the poet does not end as prophet and seldom has the last word. Any tendency towards inflation, an heroic afflatus, is undercut by irony. This giant man measures his size against a fearless mouse. As Frank Davey notes, he is routed by Eskimo dogs when caught literally with his pants down. He employs the mock-heroic and burlesque, not against others, but against himself. He is, for example, the poet who protests he never had the benefit of a B.A., yet is often quite literary in his allusions, drags in "the Kiangs hauling undressed stone in the Nile Valley," canvasses El Greco's Cardinal Nino de Guevara and Velasquez's Innocent IX, refers to Lu Yu and the Chin P'ing Mei, and knows, I suspect, the names of all the townships in Hastings County, Ontario, which includes "the country north of Belleville." He is an anti-academic who coins such inkhorn words as "muliebrity," and who expects his readers to know an Immelmann turn when they see one, whether or not they are amateurs of air combat during the first World War.3

     Purdy works in the basic English-Canadian tradition of impure poetry — as opposed to that of Quebec poetry and much of the International Modern. Perhaps one could say that he has a kind of fesse-gauche relationship to the Anglo-American modern and its interest in the seventeenth century "metaphysical" school — perhaps one could say he is a low church Donne. He can digest anything: changing the oil on his old Pontiac, spring, Nietzsche, the passing farm girl's buttock, and Cold War pessimism. The speaker in that particular "Spring Song" ends with his hands "high under the skirts of the world" — which complicates the business of changing the oil.4

     Unlike much Quebec poetry, though basically lyrical, Purdy's poems expand easily into the narrative and dramatic, the descriptive and wildly discursive. They tend to be occasional, even anecdotal, focussed on quite specific characters and grounded in a quite specific place. As in the work of Earle Birney or E. J. Pratt — but not in that of Anne Hébert or Grandbois — one can generally locate the speaker in Purdy's poems on a map. This concern with spatial orientation is evident immediately in many of the titles: "Love at Roblin Lake," "At the Quinte Hotel," "The Country North of Belleville," "The Road to Newfoundland," "Trees at the Arctic Circle," "Lions in Stanley Park," "Uncle Fred on Côte des Neiges," "Fidel Castro in Revolutionary Square," "On the Avenida Juarez," or "Complaint Lodged with the L.C.B.O. by a Citizen in Upper Rumbelow."

     This spatial emphasis is typical of English-Canadian poetry. Indeed a central feature of the whole tradition has been an argument between an essentially pastoral and an essentially imperial vision of man's relationship to local space. The one no doubt reflects the real aspirations of many of the ordinary immigrants who came to settle the land and establish small family farms. The other reflects the major political, military, and above all economic interests that helped to ensure the development of Canada as a separate North American entity: the fur trade and the timber trade, the mining industry and the pulp and paper industry, even, perhaps, the international grain trade, and more recently, the oil industry.

     The pioneer-axeman, who was the hero of much nineteenth century poetry from Goldsmith to Crawford, could embody both. When he cleared land, built a cabin, laid out fields and local roads, gradually establishing a small organic community, he was a settler and husbandman. However, as he extended the line of settlement along the waterways, built roads and railways, he could be seen as the technologist and entrepreneur, extending the syntax of Empire westward across a continent. As the century progressed, it became increasingly evident that the two were opposed. In the pastoral vision man's relationship to the surrounding space is intimate, even loving; the community is a domestic centre, informed by a feminine presence. In the imperial vision, the relationship is impersonal, concerned to exploit the surrounding space; the community is a power centre, where the feminine becomes peripheral.

     The relative absence of women, of certain romantic and domestic motifs, is evident in the poetry of E. J. Pratt, who is almost alone in celebrating, though not without irony, the collective struggle to extend and maintain control of imperial space — whether it is a question of building the C.P.R., as in "Towards the Last Spike," or of extending the Jesuit Mission into Huronia, as in "Brébeuf and his Brethren."

     By the turn of the century, the pastoral dream may have seemed as obsolete as the pioneer-axeman. Yet most Canadian poets from Archibald Lampman to the present have resisted the growth of a primarily urban, commercial, and technological society, of what Dennis Lee following George Grant has called modern liberal and technological culture or, more simply, Empire. In one way or another, they have tried to hold onto that pastoral vision and to cultivate that more personal and domestic relationship to local space. The Purdy persona, haunted by a vision of The Peaceable Kingdom, his hands under the skirts of the world, can be read in this context.

     In "Percy Lawson (Contract Negotiator — Vancouver Upholsterers' Union)" it is the specific encounter with a man, not the struggle between labour and management, that interests the poet. He begins:

Sitting with Lawson in 1954
   sitting with Percy Lawson
ill at ease in the boss's panelled office
after work hours talking of nothing
talking of practically almost nothing
a lousy nickel raise that is . . .

He proceeds to fill in the foreground and background with local and personal particulars, the boss in his panelled office, the girls in the cutting room, their anxieties, his anxieties, Lawson's anxieties, his memories of the coal mines, his putting on weight, his fear of death and his wife "and damn near everything but not / not bosses." All the details a Mallarmd would omit, Purdy insists on. The poem ends:

In a tactical pause between the chop
of words Lawson turns
the little fat man probably dead now
   turns then and gives
me a gold-toothed grin5

Whatever inhabits local space becomes personalized, qualifies the mode of one's existence. Things that may have no practical or functional value are nonetheless significant. Thus Purdy visits his old car in the junkyard, polishes its headlights, returns its papers, adjusts the rearview mirror. A worn electric stove becomes a malevolent feature of winter: "out on the lawn that electric gimmick / sits reproachful / if there's a summer ever / the thing must go."6  And the small, wormy apples on an abandonned apple tree become a haunting lyrical presence, simply because they are part of the landscape, simply because:

I passed that way on the road
to Trenton twice a month
all winter long
noticing how the apples clung
in spite of hurricane winds
sometimes with caps of snow
little golden bells7

They constitute what Margaret Avison, in opposition to the dominant value system, calls "the beauty of the unused."

     While every place is a kind of epicentre in the vision of the world as a domestic space, the main centre for Purdy is the A-frame that he and his wife built "with Unemployment Insurance / and pounded thumbnails"8 beside Roblin Lake in Ameliasburgh in Prince Edward County in Ontario. The names crop up in poem after poem, and what emerges from these poems is a contemporary version of pastoral.

     It is an imperfect Eden of rickety snake fences and abandonned orchards, half wild, half tame, of grass and weeds and the occasional flowers: peonies made to burn against the dull lake water by virtue of five years of fermented garbage, garden fertilizer, and local horseshit. Birds fly in and out and get crushed under cars. Rabbits sometimes dance in the winter moonlight and sometimes end up in the stew. Frogs, "batrachian nightingales," drive Purdy crazy on spring nights, until he goes out in the morning and grabs one, experiencing:

for this bit of green costume jewellery
the beginnings of understanding,
the remoteness of alien love —

Picking wild grapes to make wine, he is surrounded by a herd of cows, like a press of Sapphic maidens; he becomes himself some bovine feminine principle and cries, "O my sisters / I give purple milk!"10

     In this "tangential backyard universe,"11 among the transient junk that serves as garden sculpture, Purdy walks with "sidereal aplomb," or wrestles his way to the outhouse, or, grown manic, runs naked into the dew or the snow. Or, at other times, trapped by the cold, with the mice in the walls and the squirrels in the attic, he daydreams of Montreal, the Caribbean, women and sunshine, only to return to the creaking house.

     Here he is a somewhat casual husbandman. He moves somewhat warily around the fixed roles of husband and wife, the woman at the centre, who may nurse him through a fever or attack him with the breadknife. Together they may bring the sun and the moon to their bed, or recreate the climate of the Cold War. When she rages or locks him out of the bedroom, he may contemplate leaving her for other women, only to return, in mind as in fact, with mixed motives:

   afraid of being
any other woman's man who
might be me
the unctuous and uneasy self I glimpse
sometimes might lose my faint and yapping cry for
being anything was never quite what I intended And you you
   bitch no irritating
questions re love and permanence only
   an unrolling lifetime here
between your rocking thighs and
   the semblance of motion12

     The family romance is not always idyllic. Relatives may be a pretty mixed bag. The son may be sullen, aggressive, hopelessly incapable of reading Russell or Toynbee, a reminder of age, of freud, of the Oedipal struggle. Relations in such a household may be mixed, but they are nonetheless personal and particular.

     In a poem once cited by a student and which I have been unable to locate since, Purdy tells how one should proceed to build a house: with boards from some old barn, bricks from some old chimney, a door from a house about to be torn down, whatever one can scrounge in the area that can be reintegrated into a new life and that will integrate one's own life within the local space. According to Levi-Strauss, this bricolage is normal procedure in the development of traditional cultures. It is normal procedure in the development of Purdy's poems.

     Generally a Purdy poem focusses on a particular moment, a particular set of relationships, and then it goes round and round like an eddy, gathering up odds and ends, whatever comes to hand, whatever comes to mind, whatever can be caught up and borne along in the current of feeling.  It imitates the action of daily life in which one spontaneously digests all kinds of unrelated matters as one moves from situation to situation, moment to moment. It is an action which integrates, not always logically, but sensibly and psychologically, inner and outer space, the local and the cosmic, past and present.

     Purdy's preoccupation with time as well as space reflects a relatively new development in English-Canadian writing. Just as Quebec writers have begun to turn away from a traditional preoccupation with the past, to emphasize the present and the future, English-Canadian writers have moved in the opposite direction. Dismayed by the increasing Americanization of Canadian life, by the general spread of an increasingly international urban and technological culture, they have turned to the past to recover a sense of identity and of traditional values. One can also see it as an attempt to recover the pastoral vision in a world of Empire.

     This is particularly true of Purdy, whose pursuit of the past is distinctly less political and nationalistic than that of a Dennis Lee or a George Grant. It is less the reaction of a threatened cultural minority than the spontaneous reaction of the traditional lyric and elegiac poet, his identification with all things, his perennial Ubi sunt? It can go beyond the nation; it can be more private and immediate — as in "Postscript":

After a parting grimly convivial
nostalgia comes like an old shaman,
crossing Cô
te des Neiges in the rush hour 13

The shaman's job is to invoke the absent person, the past moments of intimacy, to make of time simply another and habitable room in one s household space.

     For Purdy, past moments, past lives, are incarnate in local space. As in "Archaeology of Snow," they persist like the cold imprint of a girl's buttocks. Even as that trace of a moment of intimacy begins to melt and disappear, the speaker expresses his conviction that it never really disappears, that in some "unfathomed fashion" we are all immortal. We can encounter "the entire race / of men just by being / alive here." As in the field of snow:

                . . . in the plumed fields of light
                are the shapely deeds of our flesh
                the lovely omniscience of women
We need to exist but once
in the green shadows
                     in the sunlit places
and there's no end of humans14

Time unfolds as a pastoral landscape.

     For Purdy, time becomes space, a process that is suggested even more vividly in the poem "Method for Calling up Ghosts," which also stresses its familiar, hometown character.

Walking sometimes in the streets of the town
I live in and thinking of the people who
lived here once and fill the space I fill —
If they'd painted white trails on the sidewalk
everywhere they went, it would be possible
to see them now.15

Space becomes a dense palimpsest of past / present lives.

     All lives make traces, trails, local roads, which in time, like the farms and snake fences of "The Country North of Belleville," become "soft outlines and shadowy differences," and sink into the landscape. To return one may have to "enquire the way of strangers."16

     The road, the highway, which has been a central motif in Canadian poetry from the nineteenth century right up to Pratt and F. R. Scott, has changed its sign. As Frank Watt has remarked, the characters in recent fiction move out of the urban centres, off the main highways, onto secondary roads and dead end trails. Purdy too, though a great traveller, generally moves toward the back streets, the back yards, the hinterlands. It is a movement backwards into the bush, away from the metropolis, to where the old farms waver like cities under the "green waves of time."17 Purdy's road is like that of his grandfather in the poem "My Grandfather Talking — 30 Years Ago," which ends:

They put a road there
an a girl on the road
in a blue dress
an given a place to go
from I went
into the woods with her
it bein the best way
to go and never get there18

It is a movement away from the power grid, away from an analytical to a biblical knowledge, where distinctions blur, where the living and the dead merge. In the strange poem "The Runners," two young Scots sent out to reconnoitre Newfoundland on foot simply disappear into it.

     A more familiar figure in which time becomes space is that of the archaeologist. So Purdy, in search of Owen Roblin and the ancestral past comes to dig through the garbage dumps of Ameliasburgh, alias Roblin's Mills. But he is not satisfied simply to recover his English, Loyalist, or Upper Canadian past. He digs deeper to recover the North American past of the Indians, the Beothuks of Newfoundland, the Cape Dorset Eskimos, and deeper still, among the bones of extinct animals, in The Badlands of Alberta or in the limestone of the east, the past world of the dinosaurs and the trilobites. There too he would discover an alien love.

     In "Lament for the Dorsets," he writes:

Twentieth century people
apartment dwellers
executives of neon death
warmakers with things that explode
— they have never imagined us in their future
how could we imagine them in the past
squatting among the moving glaciers
six hundred years ago
with glowing lamps?
As remote or nearly
as the trilobites and swamps
when coal became
or the last great reptile hissed
at a mammal the size of a mouse
that squeaked and fled19

Just as in certain cases where Purdy tells us a poem has no meaning, here he suggests such knowledge of the past is not possible. But what the speaker says is impossible to imagine, the poem itself proceeds to imagine.
     Purdy does not dig up the past and haul it into the light of day so much as he sinks into it. Thus he says in "Remains of an Indian Village":

I have seen myself fade
from a woman s eyes
while I was standing there
and the earth was aware of
me no longer —
As I observe the wispy legs of children
running in this green light from a distant star
into the near forest
wood violets and trilliums of
a hundred years ago
blooming and vanishing
the villages of brown people
toppling and returning

It is not an intellectual expropriation but a kind of empathy, a movement into a field with its own particular radiance. Absorbed, the speaker here sees himself literally sinking into the earth.

Standing knee-deep in the joined earth
of their weightless bones,
in the archaeological sunlight,
the trembling voltage of summer,
in the sunken reservoirs of rain,
standing waist-deep in the criss-cross
rivers of shadows,
in the village of nightfall,
the hunters silent and women
bending over dark fires
I hear their broken consonants20

Purdy's poetry is dominated by the present participle and the continuous present: "I am sitting," "I am driving," a man "keeps hammering at the door." Whatever elements enter the poem tend to exist in the present mode.

     The distinctive impression made by "Wilderness Gothic" is partly the result of the conflation of various kinds of time. The first section focusses on a workman repairing the church steeple on the far side of Roblin Lake. The man has devoted his time and labour to God, a non-paying, non-union job. Perhaps, says the speaker, he wrestles with Jacob as well as with rotten timbers and new pine. The second section introduces the surrounding fields "yellowing into harvest," death "yodeling quiet in green woodlots," three young birds that have disappeared "in the sub-surface of the new county highway." The last section identifies the scene as a Durer landscape, where "gothic ancestors peer from a medieval sky." Yet in the next lines they are transformed into Victorian pioneers, looking for omens in the weather, strange births, a miscarriage. And they then merge in the final lines with the speaker and the workman across the lake. Secular time and divine time, the slow pace of nature and the accelerated violence of the urban world, the historical past and the immediate present, all converge in a single moment. All things, the living and the dead, without distinction, share an unfolding and uncertain present, suspended between vertical and horizontal, faith and doubt, order and chaos.

An age of faith moving into transition,
the dinner cold and new-baked bread a failure,
deep woods shiver and water drops hang pendant,
double yolked eggs and the house creaks a little —
two shores away, a man hammering in the sky.
Perhaps he will fall.21

     Like the distinction between time and space or past and present, the distinction between inner and outer, the objective and subjective, loses much of its force. With its images from the Bible, Durer's art, stories or memories of pioneer life, the poem comprehends an internal as much as an external space. Yet they are identical in important ways, not only in certain thematic details concerning work, religion, a natural and a metaphysical anxiety, but in their broad structure. Both inner and outer worlds are, in a measure, individual, idiosyncratic; both are in a measure conventional. Each is alive and changing; each is a depository, partial and layered, of the past — a kind of cultural, as well as biological and material, garbage dump. This complex, multidimensional field, where the disinteg rating fragments of a past order, only partially known, are being continuously transformed into new order, largely unpredictable — this is the typical locus of Purdy's poems. And, one might argue, of life itself.

     Speaking of the evolution of life, of DNA in particular, Lewis Thomas writes:

. . . if our kind of mind had been confronted with the problem of designing a similar replicating molecule, starting from scratch, we'd never have succeeded. We would have made one fatal mistake: our molecule would have been perfect.22

Thomas refers to the mind of contemporary technological culture with its emphasis on perfect technique, total design, what Paul-Emile Borduas called l'Intention, arme néfaste de la raison. The perfectly constructed world would not have evolved. The living world, as Thomas is at pains to point out, has a built-in capacity for error.

     Biology needs a better word than "error" for the driving force in evolution. Or maybe "error" will do after all, when you remember that it came from an old root meaning to wander about, looking for something.23

How better describe the persona in a Purdy poem?

     Indeed, if Purdy has a method, it is error, rambling, talking: talking to oneself, talking to others, listening to others talk. From a highly conventional, formally patterned verse, Purdy developed a more flexible, cursive manner accommodated to the speaking voice, accommodating, that is, substantial variations in tone and diction and the vagaries of oral syntax: the seemingly interminable run-on sentence, the fragment, mixed tenses and other forms of mixed construction.

     It is a method that serves to put things in perspective, but not by adopting a single, bird's eye point of view. Non-linear, it produces a collision or concatenation of different points of view. Fact and fantasy, knowledge and desire, what one has learned and what one immediately perceives, have equal validity and presence. It works to enlarge one's sense of where and what one is. It serves to liberate, not through a simplification of the point of view, but through its complication.

     If one of the effects of Purdy's method is, almost inevitably, a form of irony, it is not the irony of the satirist, who usually assumes that the world should be logical or conform to some single standard of goodness, beauty, or truth. Purdy's tone is more elegiac than angry, more humorous than satirical, informed by a kind of astonishment that the world should be so crazy, so impossible and so desirable — like one's wife, like oneself. The movement betrays the questing energy, the curiosity and exuberance of a man who is much less concerned to protest and defend himself against the world than to affirm and identify himself more largely with it.

     Even when he might wish to defend himself, Purdy finds the world, or his method, plays tricks on him. When in "One Rural Winter" the speaker struggles back to his house to get out of a bitter wind, the door paradoxically opens out and not in — or rather, it leads into and not out of the world.

my heavy body is doped with wind and cold
         and the house door
         drags me into the hall
         and the doorknob
is a handle I hold onto the sky with24

     Winter or summer, the whole earth is a domestic space. "Under the hot sun," he says in "Private Property," "I rummage in the earth / as if it were a closet." And even though the suspicious farmer implies that he has no business there, Purdy leaves thinking of "the family underground / going on and on."25

     Purdy's vision is comic, a vision of the ultimate community of all things. This impulse is to explore and to celebrate the world, not to change it, however it may be difficult or even terrible at times. And that is just as well, since his "methods," unlike those of Empire, do not lead to material progress, cannot change and control environments and technical systems. And that too, may be just as well, since the methods of power and the imperial vision, in the long run, serve to augment rather than diminish poverty and waste. The poor, as Purdy notes in "The Darkness of Cities," are everywhere. They are "a needless luxury and they know it." And poems will not change that fact.

And in the face of their knowledge
all these mere words on paper
ring soundlessly in the vacuum of inattention
I know they mean nothing
as the terrible unaccusing poor know also
while brightly coloured birds
fly in and out from lonely caves of my imagination26

     In terms of power, the poems mean nothing. But they have another meaning, unstated, which they demonstrate again and again: how to live without power. And that is the integrity of this poet, which neither poverty nor power can change.


  1. Poems for All the Annettes (Toronto: Contact, 1962), p. 48.[back]

  2. The Canadian Identity (2nd ed. Toronto, 1972), p. 86.[back]

  3. For references to the Kiangs, El Greco and Valasquez, Lu Yu, the country north of Belleville, and immelmann, see "The Cariboo Horses," "Notes on Painting," "Lu Yu," "The Country North of Belleville," and "Complaint Lodged with the L.C.B.O." in The Cariboo Horses (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1965); for the Chin P'ing Mel, see "From the Chin P'ing Mei," Poems for All the Annettes (Toronto, 1968); and for "muliebrity," see "Uncle Fred on Côte des Neiges," Poems for All the Annettes (Toronto, 1962)[back]

  4. "Spring Song," Poems for All the Annettes (1962), p. 27.[back]

  5. The Cariboo Horses, pp. 17-18.[back]

  6. "Ode to a Wornout Electric Stove in the Snow," Sundance at Dusk (Toronto, 1976), p. 27.[back]

  7. "Detail," Wild Grape Wine (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1968), p. 14.[back]

  8. "One Rural Winter," The Cariboo Horses, p. 68.[back]

  9. "At Roblin Lake," Poems for All the Annettes, (1968), p. 25.[back]

  10. "The Winemaker's Beat-étude," Wild Grape Wine, p. 8.[back]

  11. "At Roblin Lake," Poems for All the Annettes (1968), p. 25.[back]

  12. "Song of the Impermanent Husband," The Cariboo Horses, p. 28.[back]

  13. Poems for All the Annettes (1962), p. 29.[back]

  14. Ibid., p. 18.[back]

  15. The Cariboo Horses, p. 111.[back]

  16. Ibid., pp. 75-76.[back]

  17. Ibid.[back]

  18. Ibid., p. 105.[back]

  19. Wild Grape Wine, pp. 54-55.[back]

  20. Poems for All the Annettes (1962), pp. 57-58.[back]

  21. Wild Grape Wine, p. 51.[back]

  22. The Medusa and the Snail (Bantam, 1980), p. 23.[back]

  23. Ibid. p. 24.[back]

  24. "One Rural Winter," Cariboo Horses, p. 68.[back]

  25. Wild Grape Wine, pp. 98-99.[back]

  26. Sundance at Dusk, pp. 42-43.[back]