"Landscape Delitescent": Cultural Nationalism in Jon Whyte’s Homage, Henry Kelsey
by Tim Heath
In his examination of Henry Kelsey’s "Now Reader Read…," D.M.R. Bentley remarks that this early poem, probably written in 1693 or 1694, serves as a "pretext" for Jon Whyte’s Homage, Henry Kelsey, published in 1981 ("Set Forth" 29 n.23). Bentley’s observation quite literally applies to the version of Homage in Daniel Lenoski’s anthology, a/long prairie lines (1989), in which Kelsey’s poem appears as a preface instead of a postscript, as it had in the 1981 edition of Homage. Both arrangements link a pair of companion poems, but, even though Kelsey’s "Reader" is the subject of several literary critical studies (one by Bentley and another by Germaine Warkentin), Whyte’s poem has yet to receive an extended examination.1This neglect inspires the present study of Homage in relation to its "pretext."
For a variety of reasons, Homage is an elusive text. One interpretive obstacle involves its physical layout, which includes many double and triple columns of refractory syntactical fragments. The poem is also reasonably lengthy (some seventy pages), and its five parts—"List," "Etomomi," "Nivation," "Flensing," and "Arbor"— leap through various temporal settings, from late pleistocene Canada all the way to the present time of Whyte’s composition, with no warning and with very little aid to the reader’s comprehension.2 Homage also demands that its reader possess detailed information about Henry Kelsey, for much of the poem’s meaning lies in the deviations it makes from the facts, such as they are known, concerning the Hudson’s Bay Company employee. Finally, in addition to placing the whole of Kelsey’s poem at either the beginning or the end of Homage, Whyte also interlards smaller fragments of verse and prose from the commonplace book Kelsey kept throughout his years of service to the HBC. Specifically, Whyte draws from the field notes that Kelsey made during his journey north of Churchill River into the Barren Grounds from 17 June to 8 August, 1689. Although these borrowed words are nearly always identified by italics, Whyte does not consistently distinguish his writing from Kelsey’s. Any analysis of Homage, then, would benefit from an interpretive guide and an organizational plan for discussion. Fortunately, Whyte provides both of these in the preface to a poem he published two years later, The Fells of Brightness: Some Fittes and Starts (1983). In these helpful remarks, he describes Homage as a poem incorporating "history, myth, landscape, [and] a literary past" (8). By discussing each of these terms, the present study will develop an exposition of the ways in which the British mercantilism and imperialism of Kelsey’s poem are restructured by Whyte’s regional pride and his desire to secure a unique cultural origin and identity for western Canada.3This analysis will eventuate in a deliberation on the generical name, "‘anatomical epic,’" that Whyte gives to Homage (Fells 8). It is the purpose of this final section to relate Whyte’s anatomical epic to Kelsey’s topographical journey poem in order to examine the ideological work that Homage effects.
As the honorific title of Whyte’s poem indicates, its historical subject is Henry Kelsey (c. 1667-1724).4Kelsey’s place in history arises chiefly from the inland journey he made between 1690 and 1692, from York Fort on Hudson Bay up the Hayes River into the grassland plains, reaching (perhaps) as far as the Touchwood Hills of Saskatchewan.5 Although frequently acclaimed as an heroic voyage of exploration with many imputed discoveries—the first English accounts of bison and grizzly bear, as well as the land west of the Bay—Kelsey’s mission was primarily mercantile, prompted by "Sallery" advanced to him by his HBC masters (HBC Governor Marleborough, Hudson's Bay 115).6 George Geyer, the Governor of York Fort, identified the fiscal purpose of the expedition in a letter to the HBC Committee at London: "I sent up Henry Kelsey (who chearfully undertook the Journey) up into the Country of the Assinae Poets, with the Captain of that Nation, to call, encourage, and invite, the remoter Indians to a Trade with us (Hudson's Bay 115 n1)."7 Geyer’s phrase, "with the Captain of that Nation," reveals that Kelsey made no discoveries; rather, he travelled with Aboriginals on existing trade routes. Nevertheless, by returning to York Fort with a "good fleet of Indians," Kelsey fulfilled the duty laid on him by the Company (HBC Committee to Geyer, Hudson's Bay 187).8
In the poetic record of his journey, Kelsey’s obligation to the HBC figures prominently:
In sixteen hundred & ninet’th
The motive behind Kelsey’s journey—his "masters interest"—was the late seventeenth-century slump in fur prices that was exacerbated by continuous economic and territorial battles between the British and the French. Concerned about its thin profit margin at forts like Churchill and York, the HBC wanted to expand its interests beyond furs to mines, minerals, and drugs (Davies, ’’Kelsey’’ 309).10 Evidence connecting Kelsey’s journey to HBC economics appears in a letter dated 21 May 1691 in which Governor Marleborough and the Committee at Hudson’s Bay House wrote to Governor Geyer at York Fort:
[Y]ou will doe well to consider the
great Losses we have sustained & the extravigant Rate we pay for our
Commodities, Every thing being dearer then formerly besides the
extraordinary expence wee are at in sending you goods the charge being
neare Treble, from whence you may urge to the natives the great
difficulties wee undergoe to come to them, & Therefore ought to
allow more Beavor in truck for our goods then heretofore, which we hope
you will endeavour to your utmost to effect
In the intervening material, Governor Marleborough remarks that beaver is currently at a very low price. He continues:
we Cannot but againe Recommend to you
the searching out & discovery of all maner of drugs, Dying
Commodities whether in Roote or floure Likewise all mineralls hopeing at
last in that vast tract of ground, You may find by the Indians or your
owne industry, something that may turne to accompt, & are glad, you
prevailed with Henery Kelsey to undertake a Journey with the Indians to
those Remote parts hopeing the Encouragemt. you have given him in the
advance of his Sallery will Instigate other young men in the factory to
follow his example
The Company correspondence that pertains to Kelsey’s journey speaks the discourse of mercantilism: extravagant rates, extraordinary expenses, truck, goods, commodities, charges, quantity, prices, and wages—all are focused on that "vast tract of land" and the hope that "something may turne to accompt." Governor Marleborough’s pleasure over Kelsey’s departure verifies E.E. Rich’s notice that between 1690 and 1692 the HBC was "most purposefully organised" to expand its trade inland and to resist French encroachment on the Bay (300). On one hand, this dual agenda was consistent with what Rich calls a "friendly and progressive Indian policy," and, on the other hand, it explains, at least in part, why this "friendly’’ policy was so intent on claiming land, an imperial action that Kelsey’s poem records (297).
At a spot that he named "deerings point," by estimation some six hundred miles from York Fort, Kelsey erected a cross in the name of his master, Sir Edward Dering, the Deputy Governor of the HBC, and secured the area for Company interests. The site where this event takes place is probably in the immediate area of The Pas, Manitoba:
Gott on ye borders of ye
stone Indian Country
• • •
Bentley calls this cross "a palimpsest of indigenous materials and imported words—a Christian and commercial marker constructed of a local wood and overwritten with imperialistic information" ("Set Forth" 10). This kind of analysis, which might be even more pointed, was evidently not a part of Whyte’s response to Kelsey’s poem. Rather than examining the ideology at work when Kelsey "took possession" of the land, Whyte asks to what extent the land took possession of Kelsey. For this paradigmatic shift to occur, Whyte invokes a mythic understanding of Kelsey, one that has at least some documentary basis.
The so-called ‘Kelsey legend’ forms a significant part of Homage. Two of Kelsey’s near contemporaries, Arthur Dobbs and James Robson, are identified with the myth. Dobbs, an Irish colonial administrator, economist, writer, and Governor of North Carolina from 1754 until 1765, attempted during most of the 1740s to subvert the HBC charter by arguing that the Company had not sufficiently ventured to discover a Northwest Passage. These allegations culminated in 1749, when a Committee of the House of Commons was struck to deliberate on the right of the HBC to hold its charter and monopoly. One of the key pieces of evidence entered in the defence of the charter was the journal in which Henry Kelsey documented his inland journey of 1690-92.11 Although the Committee decided in favour of the HBC, and even though Dobbs appeared to let the matter drop, a book written by Robson in support of Dobbs’s position was published in London in 1752. Robson’s Account of Six Years Residence in Hudson’s Bay contains two parts: a report of life on Hudson Bay and a collection of six appendices. Appendix I—"A Short Account of the Discovery of Hudson’s Bay; and of the Proceedings there Since the Grant of the Hudson’s Bay Charter"—spends its sixty-four pages attacking the HBC and the veracity of Henry Kelsey’s journal.
Although Robson claimed that his Account relied on firsthand experience and on verbal reports given to him by other HBC employees, Glyndwr Williams has demonstrated that, in all likelihood, Dobbs, not Robson, was the author of Appendix I, and that Dobbs also revised significant sections written by Robson ("Arthur Dobbs" 132-36). Williams points out that Dobbs was a "discredited authority" because of several failed attempts to find a Northwest Passage and because of several earlier efforts to undermine the HBC ("Arthur Dobbs" 135). According to Williams, Robson provided Dobbs with a cloak of respectability because the former had been in the Company’s service as a surveyor and "supervisor of buildings" ("Arthur Dobbs" 133). In his Account, Robson (or, more accurately, Dobbs) says that Kelsey took "great delight in the Company of the natives, and in learning their language, for which, and some unlucky tricks that boys of spirit are always guilty of," his superior, Governor Geyer, had disciplined him severely on a number of occasions (72). As a result, Kelsey resented Geyer deeply, and, consequently, "being very intimate with the Indians, took the opportunity of running away along with them" (Robson, Appendix I: 20). After a year or two of absence, Kelsey supposedly returned to York Fort with an Assiniboine wife, with a letter written on birch bark asking for pardon for having run away, and with many tales about his travels. Among these stories was an incident in which Kelsey reportedly killed two grizzly bears, a feat which earned him the name "Miss-top-ashish" or "Little Giant" (72). Moreover, Robson heard that Kelsey had later made a vocabulary or dictionary of "Indian language" (72), but the Company suppressed this document.12 According to the Dobbs-as-Robson account, Governor Geyer did not send Kelsey inland; after the fact, the Company simply "made a merit" of Kelsey’s journey in order to conceal its own failure to explore the vast regions claimed by its charter (Robson, Appendix I:20). Following its appearance at the hearing as documentary proof, Kelsey’s book disappeared, presumably into the keeping of the HBC; how it came into the possession of Arthur Dobbs, and why it sat in his library until its discovery in 1926, 161 years after his death, are questions that remain unanswered.13 Nevertheless, three years after they were uncovered, The Kelsey Papers were published in 1929, and the more glamorous version of Kelsey’s journey lost any credibility.14
Before 1929, accounts of Kelsey’s journey rehearsed his heroism. For example, in 1926, Robert Watson describes Kelsey as a "high-spirited youngster" who ran away from York after he received a "thrashing" from the Governor of the fort. Watson writes that Kelsey returned to York Fort "dressed as an Indian brave, with an Assiniboine woman as his wife" (101). Over the course of his journey, the boy had become "a man, keen-eyed, strong, active and bronzed as any Indian"; Watson also notes that in an encounter with two grizzly bears, Kelsey had "almost lost his life in defence of the Indians who had accompanied him" (101). Bentley’s response to Kelsey’s apocryphal exploits, "shades of Paul Bunyan, Daniel Boone, and others," suggests some of the allure behind this legendary Kelsey ("Set Forth" 27 n.9). Whyte certainly felt this attraction, for he makes sure that his hero, "Miss-Top-Ashish / Little Giant / Henry Kelsey," is untainted by the pecuniary motives of the HBC (Homage 15).
In spite of the fact that Arthur Doughty and Chester Martin call the Dobbs and Robson tradition "a curious instance of cumulative prejudice and inaccuracy" (xxviii), it supplies Whyte with a hero innocent of imperial designs because its Kelsey is both a self-made man and an innocent boy with only a remote connection to the HBC. All these qualities hold the promise of an autochthonous Kelsey, but his ostensible boyishness figures the most prominently in the myth that surrounds him and in Homage. In Robson’s Account (written by Dobbs), the portrait of Kelsey as "a little boy" (72) marks a fair description, perhaps, of the youth indentured to the HBC 15 March 1684 (Davies, ’’Kelsey’’ 308).15 The HBC uses the same sobriquet, "the Boy Henry Kelsey," in its correspondence concerning Kelsey’s 1689 Churchill River trip (Hudson’s Bay 18). However, the most reliable information available gives Kelsey’s birth date as 1667, making him seventeen when he entered the service of the Company. Thus, Kelsey was twenty-one when he set out into the Barrens, and he was twenty-three when he departed York for the grasslands that he called "The Inland Country of Good report" (KP 35). Nevertheless, Whyte unproblematically writes of a Kelsey "who in boyish manner set out" on the journey of 1690 to 1692 (Homage 70). It is possible that Dobbs, the HBC, and Whyte are all of them shoddy arithmeticians, but it is more likely that for each the term "boy" is a discursive tic, a wished-for presence, an ideological structure representing innocence and futurity which enables imperialism by masking it behind youthful virtues of impetuosity, spontaneity, purity, strength, and even joy. These values certainly invest Whyte’s account of Kelsey:
Rarely it is given to a man to find
Admittedly, Whyte associates Kelsey with "commerce," but his paratactical enumeration of aspects of innocence "—joy and awe and wonder…and carefree"—extols "the Boy Henry Kelsey," a discursive boy, not an historical Kelsey.
Although contemporary reading practices for poems like Homage discourage appeals to history, by 1684, the HBC had formed a regular policy of taking apprentices (so-called "Blue Coat Boys") for, as Rich notes, the HBC Committee had "realised that its success in future years would depend on training its own employees" (390). Kelsey was one of ten such apprentices listed in the Company records for 1684, and Rich’s portrait of the ideal outcome of the apprenticeship system, "men who combined knowledge of the Bay with youthful vigour and some capacity for organization" (300), points toward Bentley’s observation that Kelsey’s dutiful qualities resemble those of the "mountie, the schoolteacher, and the (rail)road builder…the pioneer, the settler, the parson, and the circuit judge" (Gay]Grey 78). Of course, these figures are types, but their work—"taking (British) peace, order, and good government into the hinterland"—recalls the fact that all of Kelsey’s writings and all the records of the HBC depict him as "devoted and obedient to his aristocratic masters" (Bentley, Gay]Grey 78). Nevertheless, by emphasizing the boyishness of Kelsey, Whyte ensures that his Kelsey is not merely a "transplanted Englishman"; rather, because he is a boy, Kelsey is, in John Locke’s terms, a tabula rasa, one that can be overwritten and interpellated not by the imperialism of England or by the HBC, but by what Whyte calls the "spirit of the land" (Letter A). In terms of his identity, the Kelsey of Homage belongs to the land itself; he is Canadian.
To advance the idea that the landscape of Canada transforms Kelsey into what he boldly calls the "archetypal western Canadian" in one of his essays, Whyte relies heavily upon a species of environmental determinism ("Cosmos" 272). His term for Kelsey, "archetypal," also indicates that Homage adds a form of psychologism to its environmental determinism. Thus, even though Kelsey had some knowledge of the Cree language, and even though he travelled inland with the Assiniboine (a situation which Homage also depicts), Whyte’s method of converting Kelsey from an HBC employee into the original Canadian does not involve the Self-Other binary that Terry Goldie uses in his study of "indigenization" (13). Rather, Whyte uses another method to effect change in Kelsey, one which Goldie’s work just touches but does not unfold—the use of Carl Jung’s ideas (142-43). Put as precisely as Whyte’s loose adaptation of Jungian psychology allows, Kelsey does not exchange his identity; he reclaims an identity that is archetypal and timeless because he travels through a primal and timeless land; for this reason, the roles of land, landscape, and Jung in Homage are central and worthy of considerable attention.
Whyte’s interest in Jung derives, apparently, from his Master’s thesis (1967) which presents a Jungian reading of the anonymous medieval poem, Pearl. In his thesis, Whyte states that the effectiveness of Jung’s ideas resides in their "universal and atemporal" qualities (1). These two attributes have special relevance to Homage because they reveal one of its central problematics. The first term identifies the logical consequence of making Kelsey the "archetypal western Canadian" ("Cosmos" 272): the archetype must be effectively universal, for it constitutes the pattern of all subsequent types. The second term implies time, and, therefore, history; it displays the impossibility of creating the universal within a particular historical and spatial context. Nevertheless, Whyte builds Homage upon this very contradiction when he says: "Henry Kelsey…interested me…so I…let him become Adam in a peopled Eden" ("Cosmos" 272; emphasis mine). Obviously, an Adamic Kelsey, who is necessarily first, cannot be the prototypical person in a land already populated with First Peoples. Regardless, the reader of Homage is asked to overlook this impossibility and to celebrate a myth because it is presented in terms of pristine nature.
Put another way, the New World makes Kelsey a new man, and his journey has little to do with mercantile exploration and much to do with the gradual reclamation of a lost identity. Whyte’s Kelsey begins this process even before he reaches the shores of Hudson Bay:
Insurgent wave, ocean journey, the hyperboreal strait
lost in time
Chronologically, these lines represent the first phase of Homage because they mark Kelsey’s voyage through Hudson Strait, the "hyperboreal strait," into Hudson Bay where the process of "becoming / something other" commences. This passage also displays Whyte’s Jungian sensibilities because it demonstrates that Kelsey’s "becoming / something other" occurs by means of memory; the memories, of course, are locationally and environmentally specific. Crucially, Kelsey does not exchange an identity, he uncovers what was "forgotten" in "wilderness unending."
Support for this interpretation appears in "Nivation," part three of Homage. While wintering inland, Kelsey falls into a something of a dream state, and he recalls a set of archetypal memories that belong to pleistocene Canada: "The ice plate wanes / and the mammoths and mastodons, tapirs and mylodons, / tigers and horses fall on the bier of time" (39). These lines refer to that epochal moment of glacial retreat when the grasslands of Canada became inhabitable, an event that John E. Storer dates at approximately 10,000 years before the present, when many animals such as tapirs, mammoths, and horses were becoming extinct on the grassland steppes (45-46). In effect, this time frame roots Kelsey within Canadian soil because it substitutes prehistory for history, and, by reaching into the origins of human life on the prairies to imbue his hero with archetypal memories, Whyte incidentally, perhaps conveniently, skirts the issue of Kelsey’s race.16 Kelsey is thus no visitor; rather, he is an avatar of ageless firstness. This reading makes sense of the entire movement of "List," the poem’s first part, where Canada or "here" is contrasted with England:
In this passage, Whyte does not mean Ungava the place because earlier he writes "Ungava /not the land Ungava" (8); rather, as Lenoski notes, the word functions adverbially (60 n.8). Whyte thus enlists ungava to express the spatial, temporal, and imaginal disjunction between England and Canada—"ungava / in the eye’s lee / until a moment grasps man by his imagination / stretching in yearning relaxing his thoughts." As a result, England fades from view and from mind, and Whyte dismisses the Englishness of Kelsey. In these lines, Whyte’s characteristic repetition of one word or phrase (anaphora) is also noteworthy, for in this case the preposition "in" functions locatively to emplace Kelsey in Canada. Thematically, the use of anaphora augments the sense of this passage because the trope’s meaning ("carrying back" in Greek) echoes the atavistic presupposition discussed above; namely, Kelsey is not as much going out on a voyage as he is returning home. Quite simply, "here" is where Kelsey belongs, and Whyte further emphasizes this point by typographically separating "England" from "here."
Thus, it is less surprising that the section’s title word, "List," enjoins Kelsey to hearken to the voice of the land as it greets him speaking, in Cree no less, of spring:
• • •
• • •
In this portion of the poem "List" also echoes the imperative with which Kelsey begins his poem—"Now Reader Read." However, where Kelsey writes "Then up ye the River I with heavy heart / Did take my way & from all English part" (KP 31-32), Whyte sends him "lustwandering" (appropriate for the archaic meaning of "list" in its sense of craving) into another list (the catalogue of locomotive terms), as well as into the arena where a kind of contest (his journey) will take place. Within this imperative, enumerative, and spatial context, "seekwan," Cree for the season of spring, figures the reawakening of Kelsey now that he is beyond England. The homophonic pun that trades English sounds for Cree meaning makes "seekwan" percolate through Whyte’s verse, and it enacts the kind of change or transformation posited in Kelsey as he enters the North American continent. The game that Whyte plays within the order of representation (no word or phrase can ever be reduced to a single signification) recalls Frank Davey’s premise that so-called "documentary" poems like Homage question historical truth, particularly by offering up another version, or several, of the received history (135). Of course, Whyte reads and writes against the grain of history; where Bentley accurately describes Kelsey as the servant of a "residually feudal commercial enterprise" ("Set Forth" 10), Whyte has a chorus invite Kelsey to the land:
• • •
This summons to the land occurs just after Whyte reconstructs one of Kelsey’s most probable canoe routes inland, "by the south branch of the middle road…(by the Knee, Oxford, Walker, Cross, and Moose)" (11). These five lakes lie along the Hayes River route ("the middle road") from York Factory to Lake Winnipeg, and Kelsey’s concise description of this leg of his journey, "From ye house six hundred miles southwest / Through Rivers wch run strong with falls / thirty three Carriages five lakes in all" (KP 44-46), invites this correlation. Whyte’s source for this information is Eric Morse’s Fur Trade Routes of Canada, from which he lifts the phrase "the south branch of the middle road" (47). Surprisingly, Whyte modifies the route to include the Echimamish River which lies east and south of the middle track. Although the Echimamish is a significant component of one possible passage through Manitoba, it cannot be included in a route description comprised of "thirty three Carriages five lakes in all" because its use eliminates three of the lakes (the Walker, Cross, and Moose). Whyte’s reasons for mentioning the Echimamish likely lie with the Cree meaning of the river’s name, "river-that-flows-both-ways" (Morse 40).17
The Echimamish, of course, does not flow in two directions simultaneously; rather, its name refers to the fact that this river originates from an interfleuve which spills water east into the Hayes River and west into the Echimamish.18 Because it arises from a divide the Echimamish provides Whyte with a ready metaphor that gives him seemingly unmediated access to Kelsey’s historical context, a leap that these lines indicate:
The last line of this passage transposes the Echimamish River into a quotidian link between the past and the present—between Whyte and Kelsey. Characteristically, however, Whyte’s movement through time does not end when he reaches Kelsey. As the passage continues, Whyte conveys his reader and Kelsey into another primeval scene:
dawnhunter in barrens
This modulation of time (and many others like it) makes Kelsey participate in a free-floating set of archetypal or ancestral memories that belong to the land that is now Canada. Of course, the topographically-minded reader of Homage must demur because Whyte’s Kelsey reaches the past of Canada by means of a river that flows but one way. Moreover, Kelsey’s route description, cryptic though it is, discourages any reconstruction of his itinerary that includes the Echimamish. Perhaps Whyte chose the Echimamish because its name is rich with poetic possibilities. Then again, it is possible that Whyte became disoriented in his attempts to find a path through the maze of lakes and rivers that lie between Hudson Bay and Lake Winnipeg because he lacked the guidance that the Assiniboine provided Kelsey. In any event, within the world of Homage, the Echimamish brings Kelsey to the prairies.
The grasslands, "wide and trackless,"
effect a profound change in Kelsey:
coursed by rivers
shaped by glaciers
asundered by wind
till what is left diminishes
is primacy and rebegins
These lines continue the monistic metaphor—"Mind
is prairie"— with which Whyte begins this passage (26). Both
metaphors equate mindset to landscape, and erosion, by water, ice, and
wind, strips both topographies to their elemental form. Thus, according
to Whyte, Kelsey’s plain style verse originates not from the literary
conventions of the late seventeenth century, but from the land itself:
By its sheer span of blank paper between utterances, Whyte’s double column lay-out, what he calls a "technical innovation," suggests the prairies themselves (81). The gap between columns also underscores the syntagmatic simplicity of Whyte’s diction, and it invites the reader to regard the page as a picture-space or as a landscape; consequently, the reader is encouraged to proceed associatively down the page, through layers of meaning which can only be guessed once the syntactical flow of the columns is suspended. These two columns, by remaining visually and verbally rudimentary, reinforce Whyte’s observation on the correspondence between Kelsey’s plain style and the plains environment by reiterating a comparable plain style, a feature of Homage which Bentley calls "under-appreciated" (Gay]Grey 75). However, Whyte does not simply advance the idea that a stark habitat engenders a plain style; rather, he insists that the prairies strip away Kelsey’s former mindset "till what is left diminishes / is primacy and rebegins" (26). The rebeginning, of course, reinforces an archetypal understanding of Kelsey, one in which his speech and his art originates with—"is primacy"—the land itself. Thus, Whyte adds his own strain of environmental determinism to the enduring belief that the unique topography of Canada produces a unique literature, and, by ensuring that Kelsey gives "utterance" to "poetry" while on the prairies, Whyte displays his own regionalist literary pride.19 However, in so far as Kelsey inaugurates literary production in Canada, Whyte predicates his definition of Canadian difference upon the idea of locale, with no changes to the notions of form or culture.
Whyte’s emphasis on the prairies, and their effect
on Kelsey, is most clearly evident in "Etomomi," part two of Homage.
The Etomami River, which is spelled "Etomomi" in the 1981
edition, becomes a key device that Whyte uses to suspend historical time
and transform the prairies into a mythical place:
Etomomi, its two ways clear
South to Assiniboine, north to Red Deer
The river flows both ways
where it reverses unexplorably shifts
great eddies wheeling
suspend it at the torrents’ edges
an unstill point that stays
borne in current by the current
stilling time in motions’ space
• • •
Time vanishes in the flow of metaphor
Tone slows lean in richness
The Etomami River, which Kelsey almost certainly travelled, recalls Whyte’s previous use of the Echimamish. Located in Saskatchewan, the Etomami runs roughly parallel to Highway 9 between Usherville and Hudson Bay; like the Echimamish, the Etomami’s name— "river-that-flows-both-ways"—comes from the Cree. As with the Echimamish River, there is no warrant for making the river that "flows both ways," into a stream that "reverses." Nevertheless, readers who encounter Homage in Lenoski’s anthology are encouraged to accept Whyte’s description of the Etomami as literal, for the editorial endnotes extend the meaning of this name to include the idea of a "reversing river" (61 n.19). This leap shifts the term’s meaning considerably from the correct treatment that Allen Ronaghan gives it: "‘downstream either way’"—"‘divide’" (90). The Etomami, of course, originates from a divide or watershed that involves two lakes, Etomami Lake and Lillian Lake, which are separated by some 1600 metres of marshy ground. From this swampy area some water drains south to Lillian Lake, which empties into the Lillian River, which eventually joins the Assiniboine River, and water drains from the same divide north into Etomami Lake, which feeds the Etomami River.20 Thus, two rivers originate from a single divide, each one entering different trenches of a valley running roughly north and south; the marshy divide between the Lillian and the Etomami is the only body of water that flows "both ways," but this piece of high wet ground is no river.
Whyte’s topographical inexactitude seemingly stems from Jungian considerations. That is, when he writes, "time vanishes in the flow of metaphor," Whyte refers to enantiodromia, a word that Lenoski comments on in his endnotes to the 1989 edition of Homage (60 n.15). This Heraclitean term, which belongs especially to Jung’s lexicon, denotes simultaneous and contradictory flow in opposite directions and the process by which something becomes its opposite, as well as the subsequent interaction of the two.21 With respect to Homage, the enantiodromical process involves transforming Kelsey from a wandering HBC employee into a rooted and flourishing native (in the botanical sense) of Canada.
In "Arbor," part five of Homage, Whyte stages this very transformation, and Kelsey reaches his apotheosis. Whyte’s own words best explain this part of the poem:
This formulation of national identity builds itself around geography, which is entirely consistent with Whyte’s focus on landscape throughout Homage. His cultural nationalism, with its emphasis on glacial topography, produces a northern nation predicated on desire that yearns for an organic connection to the land. In Homage this desire literally takes shape under the force of a boreal wind:
The bent tree
When Whyte makes his Kelsey-tree speak of its
identity: "If thou wouldst me define, / seek the blast that has
thee bent, / seek the element in which thought grew, / seek the old
supporting the new" (63), it displays the natural connections that
Whyte wishes to establish between Kelsey and the land of Canada, as well
as between our present and our historic, heroic past. It is also no
accident that "Arbor" implies roots, which are, by definition,
both radical and original; they anchor Kelsey into the land and secure
his identity as the "archetypal western Canadian"
("Cosmos" 272). Yet, the visual quality of the tree passage
also shows that Kelsey as landscape, although figured as a metamorphosed
"primal, sincere, innocent" (but no longer
"wandering") hero, cannot be without a subtending set of
ideologies. Even shaped into a naturalized landscape, Kelsey cannot be
so easily separated from the imperial ideology of the HBC. As W.J.T.
Mitchell argues, "like money, landscape is a social hieroglyph that
conceals the actual basis of its value. It does so by naturalizing its
conventions and conventionalizing its nature" (5). Thus, there can
be no innocent understanding of the linkage Whyte effects between
Kelsey, the landscape, and Canada as nation or western Canada as region:
diminishing he becomes a giant
disappearing he dissolves in us
diverging from horizon
Although the typographic separation of "landscape" from "delitescent," once again suggests the vastness of the prairies into which Kelsey journeyed, the second term’s meaning—to hide, lying hidden, obfuscated, latent, concealed—indicates the hieroglyphic quality of the tree. Moreover, the seemingly natural connection between Kelsey and "us" must be questioned. Indeed, Whyte’s predilection for the Dobbs and Robson version of the Kelsey story makes the separation of "landscape" from "delitescent" less of a mimetic gap and more of an erasure of the great difference between Kelsey’s historical context and that of contemporary western Canada.
Because Kelsey never recorded where or how he spent his winters inland (at least no such record survives), Whyte has ample room to invent a chapter in Canada’s literary past. In particular, the third section of Homage, "Nivation," with its suggestions of sleep and growth, depicts Kelsey wintering and his development into a poet during that time. Whyte creates a meditative Kelsey who looks back, during the winter of 1691, to his Barrens trip of 1689:
Summer and winter, river and wind:
In this passage, the Barren Grounds are "here," and "Oomingmuk" refers to the muskoxen that Kelsey encountered while there. Whyte takes a fragment from Kelsey’s journal of 9 July 1689 and includes it in this portion of "Nivation" to provide a contextual anchor for his ebullient figure, "I am adrift on smoke":
Setting forward good weather & going as it were
on a Bowling green in ye
Evening spyed two Buffillo left our things & pursued ym
we Kill’d one they are ill shapen beast their Body being bigger than
Homageshows this event from the perspective of the muskox; by way of zoomorphism it asks "what wolves are these, / striking and biting from unseen hills?" (40). The predators, of course, turn out to be Kelsey and his companion on the 1689 journey, Thomas Savage. Although he does not yet explain the significance of this hunt, in order to indicate that Kelsey has undergone a fundamental transformation during his Barrens sojourn, Whyte asks, "Who recognized the stranger returned?" (41).
For the moment, the question remains unanswered, and Kelsey, continuing his winter rumination, lights suddenly and unannounced upon his departure to the interior in 1690:
The Kelsey of this passage obviously speaks from the present, but only with limited hindsight. Although Whyte plainly prefers the Kelsey legend, which is alluded to in these lines by the italicized words drawn from Dobbs’s allegations against the HBC, it is clear that his Kelsey belies all the documentary evidence pertinent to the inland journey with his next utterance: "To him to whom the wind has sung orders mean little" (42). In other words, the wind and the hunt transform Kelsey:
By comparing the muskox hunt to another hunt from
"Flensing," part four of the poem, the significance of the
words, "and England…died," can be explained. In the second
hunt, Kelsey kills and eats a deer:
larynx tightens; the word is drawn back;
Whyte, in a letter to Wayne Tefs of Turnstone Press, explains the significance of this passage as
the myth of transference, the spirit of the landscape moving through the beast into the guts of man by his eating the beast seems totemically important for what is transforming in Kelsey, what is making him totemically a citizen of the new world rather than a transplanted Englishman (Letter A).
By way of the muskox and the deer, Whyte frees Kelsey from complicity in the imperial and mercantile motives of the HBC. Indeed, in the same letter to Turnstone, Whyte also says that as the animal is skinned, Kelsey’s "hide-bound past" is peeled from him. In other words, Whyte’s questing hero is not an HBC man; rather than participating in the mercantilistic ideology of seeking and claiming, he can wander the continent freely for "two swift years of joy and awe and wonder" (24). Free of imperial ideology, Whyte’s Kelsey finds his poetic voice, an event which culminates his historical retrospection:
I stand in the haggard wind of winter,
Archetypally, this passage is important because it figures forth a prescient Kelsey who sees his own poem, "Now Reader Read," as the "beginning" of a national poetry based upon the "voice of the land." Whyte’s explanation of Kelsey’s originative role bears out this reading. According to Whyte, Kelsey is
[o]ur prologue, he talks to us all, foresees us. We people his dream; he becomes our dream-to become primal, sincere, innocent, wandering, amiable and-important for me-be first English speaker to confront grizzly bear, musk ox, bison, and penetrate wilderness until it permeates him ("Cosmos" 272).
The seeming illogic of these words diminishes when they are read for their archetypal content. In Jungian theory, myth manifests itself in the collective unconscious, and, by means of Homage, Whyte argues that "our dream" in Canada is the mythic Henry Kelsey. Although Whyte presents this dream as a natural desire, it arises from a specific generical and historical context.
This discussion began by promising to consider the generical connection between Whyte’s anatomical epic and Kelsey’s topographical journey poem. In light of one strain of contemporary theory this emphasis on literary kind, and the type of analysis it signals, seems unavailing because the very concept of genre depends upon identifying traits, and, in the words of Jacques Derrida, the "trait that marks membership inevitably divides" (206). With his comment on division, Derrida indicates the tendency for genre studies to eventuate in little more than endless hairsplitting of a rather arbitrary kind. Yet, he also notes that generical traits are "absolutely necessary for and constitutive of what we call art, poetry, or literature" (211). This categorical ("absolutely necessary") and fundamental ("constitutive") statement indicates that even deconstructive theory cannot completely dispense with the idea of genre. In fact, as Mary Gerhart argues, the concept of genre is particularly useful when it is used diagnostically and heuristically to formulate hypotheses, not merely to classify, but to enable readers to recognize a text "for all that it is" (372). Accordingly, it is the goal of these closing paragraphs to propose a generical understanding of Homage that issues from one of Whyte’s comments about Kelsey’s historical importance: "since I still believe with some devotedness that he ought not be overlooked, my poem is an "‘homage’’’ (Letter A). That Whyte forges a causal link between "devotedness" and the genre of Homage explains why it is unlike many other contemporary Canadian poems of book length.
Notably, Homage differs considerably from Margaret Atwood’s The Journals of Susanna Moodie and from Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, each published in 1970. This date is important because Stephen Scobie, working with Dorothy Livesay’s terminology, claims that these two "definitive" poems "established" the documentary genre in Canadian poetry (120). Consequently, when Scobie includes Homage in a list of texts that follow the documentary "precedent" set by Atwood and Ondaatje (120-21), he implies that Homage is a derivative poem. However, even though there can be little doubt that he read both of the "precedent" poems, Whyte began Homage in 1968, before the two exemplars were published, before Livesay delivered her paper on the "documentary poem" in 1969 at the Learned Societies. In one of his letters, Whyte writes that the "earlier dates should be brought out" to show that Homage was "more or less synchronous" with Atwood’s Susanna Moodie (Letter B). These comments display an understandable proprietary urge that anticipates and attempts to forestall the kind of connection that Scobie advocates between Homage and the documentary poem.
Begun in 1968, Homage belongs very much to the escalation of national pride that marked Canada’s centennial, which explains, at least in part, why it advances Kelsey’s journey as an achievement central to the traditions and beliefs of western Canadian culture, one that defines the regional, if not national, present. That is, the poem aspires for epic status, but, as the historical context of its composition suggests, Whyte’s poem is not epic in the broadest sense of the term. Rather, Homage recalls the English epic of the Renaissance, a genre that Lewis F. Ball characterizes as a combination of patriotic ambition, landscape description, and historical interest that works to provide ethical instruction and a "genealogy of the present race" (87). These characteristics accord with Whyte’s description of Homage as a poem that "incorporates history, myth, landscape, [and] a literary past" (Fells 8). As well, Whyte presents this incorporation in genealogical terms, for his Kelsey is a hero who is "our prologue," who "talks to us all," who embodies our dream "to become primal, sincere, innocent, wandering, amiable," and who stands, finally, as the "archetypal western Canadian" ("Cosmos" 272).
Balanced against these correspondences between Homage and the Elizabethan epic are several observations by Smaro Kamboureli on Whyte’s poem. She argues that Homage is "not epic except insofar as its tone is frequently lofty," and that "epic in this poem does not designate genre but proportion: the expansiveness of the prairie, Kelsey’s awe of the New World, physical endurance" (61). These comments issue from a more traditional understanding of the epic and from Kamboureli’s contention that Homage is a "deconstructed epic" (62). Her point takes Whyte’s definition of his anatomical epic—a "‘panoptic treatment of a single subject, or a singular point of view brought to bear on a multiplicity of subjects’" (Fells 9)—as another way of describing dialogical discourse, and she concludes that Whyte’s poem belongs to "a genre in which monologism is continuously subverted" (62). However, the paradox that Whyte creates between "panoptic" and a "singular point of view" is more perspectival and less discursive.22 Indeed, the elements of Whyte’s definition all belong to the visual register, and the book itself relies heavily on pictorial patterning in its layout. The 1981 edition, of course, also interweaves eight ink drawings by Dennis Burton (executed in chin-chin and Pelikan India ink and Dr. P.H. Martin’s water colours) into the poem (80); these prairie landscapes do not so much comprise a parallel text as they intensify the already highly visual quality of Homage. As illustrations, they help fulfill Whyte’s commitment to a "panoptic" perspective, and, as much as they represent landscape, they underscore the fact that his poem envisions national identity as the outgrowth of Kelsey’s interaction with the prairie environment.
That Homage proceeds by description no doubt
derives from Kelsey’s avowed goal in travelling inland—"But
still I was resolved this same Country for to see" (KP 14).
Working from Kelsey’s commitment to see the land, Whyte structures Homage
according to a poetics of vision. He illustrates these in a passage that
comments on and circumscribes the act of writing and reading Homage.
In this portion of the poem, Whyte employs a geometrical trope that
makes vision into a process that encompasses thought, perception,
interpretation, and interaction:
Sphere: a way of thinking
Sphere: a manner of perception location
Circle: a plane of intersection of two
• • •
Substitute in the above any of the following:
your sphere, my sphere;
This final set of appositions, which interlock thought and perception as vision into a "circle," extrapolate and juxtapose space and time. As the passage continues—"The spheres near each other / a pair of convex surfaces / diminishing the virtual we see a point of contact / the gap breached" (68)—Whyte, in effect, makes Homage the aperture through which he and his reader view Kelsey and the land he journeyed. Neither Kelsey nor the landscape of Canada, however, are presented as objects to be seen; rather, Kelsey and his poem invest Homage as a structure of consciousness with which the reader interacts on the basis of a shared environment.
The shared environment is present because Whyte fills Homage with copious, sincerely descriptive passages of verse:
Goldenrod, silverwood, water calla, dragonhead,
These catalogues of still life anatomize the prairies, and, by shifting attention from Kelsey to the ground beneath his feet, they also broach the other portion of Whyte’s paradoxical definition by offering "a singular point of view…on a multiplicity of subjects." This point of view is still guided by "devotedness," but by extending his poetic devotion to the non-human and the seemingly trivial, Whyte augments the epic tradition with that of loco-descriptive or topographical poetry.23 His precedent for this modulation is not the documentary genre in itself, but, rather, the kind of documentation present in Kelsey’s descriptions of his journey.
Kelsey’s inventories deal with what Bentley calls the "commercially important aspects of his journey and the ‘deerings point’ area: the length and difficulty of the trade route, the availability of various and useful woods, and the presence of possible trading partners" ("Set Forth" 22). In his delineation of the land between York Fort and the grasslands Kelsey takes up the role of the topographer, a role which a near contemporary of Kelsey, Thomas Fuller (1608-61), defines as "mincing the world into particular pieces" (69, my emphasis). Fuller’s participle of incision reflects the literal sense of anatomy (to cut), and it also indicates the ideological work figured in Kelsey’s journey of claiming and naming.
Whyte’s "anatomical epic" reiterates this very work, but, by means of the seemingly innocent, even transcendent, eye that breaches the gap between the imperial past and the patriotic present, it effaces the historical conditions of Kelsey’s journey and renders Canada as Eden. This strangely neutral place is neither a theatre for Anglo-Franco wars, nor a resource to be plundered, nor a Native homeland invaded. Rather, the land that is north and west in Canada becomes a landscape that backdrops the appropriately solitary and heroic quest that Whyte’s Kelsey undertakes.
Conceived of as a poem that uses landscape to achieve its ends, the generical work of Homage arises less from its kind and more from the medium it mobilizes. As Mitchell notes, landscape is a "cultural medium" that "naturalizes a cultural and social construction, representing an artificial world as if it were simply given and inevitable, and it also makes that representation operational by interpellating its beholder in some more or less determinate relation to its givenness as sight and site" (2). Put in terms of Homage, landscape appeals to the poem’s reader by means of sight and the assumption that Canada is a shared site which guarantees a commonality in its subjects. Mitchell is worth citing again on this point when he says that landscape "always greets us as space, as environment, as that within which ‘we’ (figured as ‘the figures’ in the landscape) find—or lose—ourselves" (2). Whyte locates this national act in a paradox that he calls culturally specific—"we" Canadians find ourselves by disappearing into the landscape.
Of course, Whyte’s own generical label works to subvert his mystical version of Canadian desire, for any epic that is "anatomical" invites analysis from an historical perspective. If Whyte’s reader replaces myth with history and landscape with land, the poem’s final line—"The story continues" (73)—becomes an invitation to follow Kelsey not to his fibrous apotheosis, but to his death at East Greenwich, England, in 1724. After a lifetime of service to the HBC, Kelsey had earned some £2,500, little enough to cause his widow, Elizabeth Kelsey, to petition the Company in 1730 for help with the cost of apprenticing her son, John Kelsey, who was then seventeen (Davies, "Kelsey’’ 314). This uncanny continuation of the Kelsey story is perhaps the least heroic, but, ironically, it is perhaps the most "Canadian" in that it displays the economics of indentured service to international capital. Certainly, these bleaker elements lie outside the poem; put another way, they comprise the "landscape delitescent" of the poem. Nevertheless, like Kelsey and his poem, in Whyte’s words, they "ought not be overlooked" (Letter A).
I am grateful to the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies for allowing me to examine Jon Whyte’s literary papers and for permitting me to cite them here. I also wish to thank Bob Henderson and I.S. MacLaren for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper, and to acknowledge research support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.