The Fear of Pigs in Early Canadian Poetry: An Erotics of Pork.*

by Robert Krouch


How do you grow pigs in a new country?

As Martin Heidegger has said (or would have, if he had thought of it), there is in being a being in and a being of. So it is with pigs.

The voice of the pig. There is no voice of the pig, only the voice of the pig. That isn’t what I mean.

Already the metaphor of sex, uneasily, intrudes. We conceive of the male space as pig, female space as poke. The male, seeking to retain his autonomy, stubbornly resists becoming a pig in a poke.

Growing up male on a pig farm, I was a boy. My mother would call to me, “get the piglets,” and I would enter that ambiguous, ungendered world of the pig-sty.

Begin again.
When I came across the Mackenzie Pig Catalogue of the Alberta Pork Congress in the Glenbow Archives, I knew that the voices of my ancestors were demanding I write their poem. And so I wrote Pig Catalogue:

No. 176—The York-Landrace Sow: A new addition to this country! Cross-breeding has resulted in an unusually prolific sow. First year weight between 240 and 250 pounds, with an average litter of nearly fourteen. The offspring have minimal backfat, and have the shortest days-to-market of any commercial breed. A welcome addition to any barn with their perky ears and upturned noses!

Dear Sirs: I had to write to tell you of our success with your sow. When we mated her with a Hampshire-Duroc boar we had a first litter of 26! The 16 that lived were all between 3 and 4 pounds, with none of the coloring usually associated with the hampshire breed. We anticipate at least 25-30 weaners per year from her!

My mother said:
Did you wash your ears?
You could raise pigs in those ears.



This is what happened.
We were slopping the hogs.
You’ve got to understand this.
I was catching the pig.
The pig was greased.
I fell off.

How do you make love to a pig in a new country?

The poem of my ancestors—and my publisher—demanded my poem of me, and so then I wrote “How I Joined the Swine-herd”:

                                        I heard
a loud snort a throaty grunt:
It was the rutting season the
wind was low, the smell high the

luminous eyes a young yearling sow
she had soft bristles on her back
a delicate snout. slipping off my shoes

the effect was immediate I learned
to let my body give to wallow in
the mud curling my stockinged toes

How do you make a good—a really good—pork roast in a new country?

Finding the ossified jaw-bone of a pig in the fields of my father’s farm (did I mention that I grew up on a farm?), I realized that the pig demanded its poem, too. And so then I wrote “The Pork Roast Poem”:

This pig
became a side
of pork, this roast

is the color
of stone (no, stone
is the color of this
pork roast—uh, no, this

roast is the color of
. . . well, you get
the picture)

My ancestor’s poem demanded my poem of me, and that poem demanded the poem of the pig. Curiously, no-one and nothing demanded “Sketches of a Porker” of me, yet I wrote it anyway.

I went and looked at Gelett Burgess’s poem
on cows. If cows can be
cows, I reasoned, by a kind of analogy,
pigs can, I suppose, be pigs.

Such was not the case.

I had a very strong desire
to kiss a pig.

No one was watching.
I kissed a pig.

So much for that.

So much for that, indeed.

Begin again.
Mrs. Buchanan. Mrs. Walter Buchanan. Mary Buchanan. Mary. Mrs. Wally Buchanan. Mrs. B. The B-meister. Mary, Mary, quite contrary. Mary, Mary, Bo-bary, Banana-fana Fo-fary, Fe Fi Fo—Mary!
I once thought it was the task of the poet to name. Then I thought the task of the poet was to un-name. Now I know that the task of the poet is to re-name, a naming over and over, a metonymy of monikers.

Begin once again.
Like most of us, I can hardly think of pigs without thinking of sex (did I mention I grew up on a farm?). Of Mary Buchanan’s husband—like F.P. Grove, Tom Thomson, Albert Johnson, Brian Mulroney, and that guy, you know, that guy I can never quite remember his name, Jeez—we can say only that in his invisibility lies his chance for survival. His almost complete absence from Mary’s existence is a typically male-Canadian response to the female, leaving behind only his name and thereby obscuring hers. What might her name have been? The avenues of mystery are endless and labyrinthine. Might she have been a Smith, a Jones? A Crawford, a Lampman, a Scott? An Atwood, a Laurence, a Munro? A Bowering, an Ondaatje, a Krouch? (If the last, then I’d have to write a poem about fucking her.) The point is, of course, that we don’t / can’t know, and that it doesn’t really matter. Mr. Walter Buchanan submerged himself in anonymity and emerged. . . wet? The one surviving picture of Mary Buchanan, opposite the epigraph of Country Breezes from Breezy Brae, her sole volume (one picture, one volume, yet many names—there are no truths, only correspondences), offers no clue to her husband’s dis/appearance. He is not in the picture, yet his absence is in itself a palpable presence. She stands alone; her hair, closely trimmed, is a vibrant gray. The simple clothes she wears cannot conceal her burgeoning body; it is doubtful, indeed, if anything short of a circus tent could. She has, perhaps, failed to push herself away from the trough once or twice too often.

Well, okay, maybe the picture offers a few clues, but I still insist Mr. Buchanan is a provocative mystery. Really.

How do you turn yourself into a cultural icon in a new country?

Begin yet again.
When I wrote The Stud-Boar Man, I responded to the discoveries of absence on the Prairie (did I mention I grew up on a farm?), to that silence, by knowing I had to make up a story. Our story. So it is with pigs.

How do you write about pigs in a new country?

Begin one more time.
Mary Buchanan writes out of/into her own absence, the void which is her name, her/self. Her poem is the crack in the glaze that goes by the name of literature; in it, I look into Homer’s blind eyes and kiss his absent voice. It may be, yes, that motion signifies life: but there is also the vast and complicated stillness of living. Do not carry light into the darkness; stand in the dark and learn. Of course, if you stand in the dark like that for very long, people will start to talk. And our endless talk is the ultimate poem of the prairies. My endless talk, on the other hand, is the ultimate poem of my cultural canonization.

How do you enact a segue in a new country?

Begin just one more time.
To survive the loneliness which is existence in Canada, we must, in the terms of the great Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, remain polyphonic, must enter the carnivalesque, dialogic wor(l)ds, erect a tower of babble. And so it is with pigs.

I have seven random points to make. There are five of them. But I can only remember three. When my book What the Pig Said was published, several very good readers insisted that I had failed to make my meaning clear. I’m a postmodernist, I replied, I’m not supposed to make sense. So it is with Mrs. Buchanan, who—much like Sinclair Ross, Susanna Moodie, Adam Kidd, Isabella Valancy Crawford, Frank Davey, Roch Voisine, Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster, and Thomas Chandler Haliburton—is a postmodernist poet without knowing it herself. In fact, without any-one but me knowing it. Her poem is the unstable subject speaking its exquisite and erotic becoming against the kangaroo courts of the poetic desire machine. Mary, thou art.

How do you stretch out a slight concept for a critical article in a new country?

Begin just once more.
Mr. Buchanan’s invisibility sponsors an erotics of absence in the poem, to which Mrs. Buchanan has clearly responded with an erotics of presence. In particular, the presence appears to have been that of young Sven Grunwald, who had been
hired on to help with the pigs on the Buchanan farm on February 17, 1907. He remained until late April, 1908, when he disappeared from the area entirely. (The appended poem “Duckies” [“soon, alas, comes ‘Thanksgiving,’ / Off goes duckies heads”] appears to have been composed after his exit; still, Mrs. Buchanan’s bitterness cannot conceal her warm feelings: “Succulent and sweet; / Duck is to me the very best / Of fowl there is to eat.”) Sven’s goings and comings are documented in the ledger of the Buchanan farm, which was recently uncovered and which, surprisingly, demanded of me a poem. And so then I wrote The Pig Ledger:

     the pigs survived


because they were neither
human nor useful


     I survived


because Sven was neither
choosy nor fastidious

How do you make love to a pig in a new country, especially with your husband sleeping in the house right next to the barn?

Begin one last time.
Mary rhapsodizes over Sven’s own little pink pig, “be he little or big.” His “snowy lard” is similarly “sometimes soft, sometimes hard.” The sexual intent of these lines is inescapable (did I mention I grew up on a farm?), and there is a long tradition in Canadian literature linking pigs and sex. (Also milking machines and sex, as I show in What the Pig Said). In my own first novel When Sick with Trichinosis (as yet unpublished), there is a lengthy scene yoking a pig-dressing with sexual tension. And, of course, in my later novel The Stud-Boar Man there is a similar scene. And. . . well, those are the only examples I can call to mind at the moment, but they tell the tale, I think. The sensual delight Mrs. Walter (Walled/her?) Buchanan takes in her forbidden passion for Sven is figured in many ways. “there’s meat—juicy meat.” “he’s no beauty [but] he always keeps doing his duty.” “The pig is a gent, on mischief often bent.” He is the “Brute” who will “thrive if we give him attention / If his trough we but fill with plenty of swill / And other good food I might mention.” I might mention. I might mention. Once more, the absence speaks above the presence, the dialogic stress points of the hidden threatening to become the unhidden. Canadian writing is, from its inception, a shadowed writing in its deliberate employment of concealment as a strategy. Mary Buchanan is bravely effing the ineffable, tracking the intractable, violating the inviolable, speaking the unspeakable, thinking the unthinkable, eating the inedible, questioning the unquestionable, employing the unemployable, flexing the inflexible, visiting the invisible, honking the bobo, fatiguing the indefatigable, believing the unbelievable, buttoning the unbuttonable, corking the uncorkable, spanking the monkey, electing the ineligible, spouting the endless and unendurable blather and nonsense and. . . un, sorry—I was thinking of someone else.
No wonder, then, that Canadians long so eagerly to read what they so fervently believe cannot be written, that Mary longs to experience what cannot be lived. The namelessness is the name, but must be written even to be nameless—but cannot remain nameless if written.

How do you grow a poet in a new country—Mary, Mary, what does your garden grow?

Begin one last time. (I really mean it this time.)
In matters of poetic form, Mrs. Buchanan is ever more the postmodernist. With her 32 lines, she comes tantalizingly close to 28 lines, which would, of course, be exactly twice what one would expect of a sonnet. The rhyme scheme, too, suggests a doubled sonnet, lacking only a final, concluding couplet. The permanent deferral of this eternally absent closure represents most clearly Mary’s ludic response to the demands of the patriarchal poetic tradition, just as her visceral response to Sven figures her rejection of her (absent) h(o)us(e)/ band’s patriarchal control over her sexuality. That swine.

How do you end an essay that has no real structure in a new country?

Begin (I swear—this is really true now!) for the last time.
Mary writes, “we will repent and lose many a cent / If we ever go back on the porker.” The delicious ambiguity of “go back on”—to turn one’s back on / to mount again—is epistemologically, hermeneutically, even ontologically, appropriate. She is—as a woman, as a Canadian, as a pig farmer—necessarily beset by ambiguity and ambivalence. For how could it be otherwise? I certainly don’t know.

How do you finish this up so that we can all go home in a new country?

Begin (okay, okay: I was lying last time—but I’m not now!) just this one last time.
Mary writes, “the pig is a friend that will last to the end / Altho’ as I’ve said he’s no beauty.” Canada, too, is no beauty, no prettified Miss America. Rather, it is a pig—one has to come to love it for its inelegance, its uncomeliness (did I mention I grew up on a farm?). Canada, like the pig, refuses to speak, refuses letting itself be known.
The trick is to hear a pub. One day, or maybe for several days in a row, sit in a pub from noon til closing. Listen to the tales of the pig farmers. Buy them beers. Let them buy you beers. Then let them buy you some more beers. Drinking beer is a ritual act, a sharing with each other of values, of aspirations, of suffering. There is a profound truth in the old saying, “You don’t buy beer, you rent it.” It is, nonetheless, a beginning. In the talk of pig farmers, of Mrs. Buchanan, we talk our way towards Voice: the ex-centric conversation of a couple of hard-ass A-1 Northern bullshitters sitting around the cracker-barrel chewing the fat, so to speak. Two would-be lovers. They meet in the tongue. It is the voice of the body, of the poet, of the new country, of Mary Buchanan.

Just don’t tell Walter.

Works Cited

Krouch, Robert. “The Exploding Porcine: Violence Against Pigs in the English-Canadian Novel.” The Tricky Lechery of Words 108-116.

———. “The Fear of Prairie in Women’s Fiction: An Erotics of Dirt.” The Tricky Lechery of Words 73-83.

———. Field Pokes: The Collected Poetry of Robert Krouch. Toronto: Beporkt Books, 1981.

———. “Heidegger, Bakhtin, and Barthes: Where They Went Wrong.” Implausible Stretches. Ed. Smaro Neuman, et al. Vancouver: Boar’s Head Press, 1992. 194-242.

———. The Pig Ledger. Field Pokes 40-46.

———. “On Being an Alberta Hog-Farmer (Did I Mention I Grew Up on a Farm?).” The Tricky Lechery of Words. 117-134.

———. Pig Catalogue. Field Pokes 13-26.

———. “The Pork Roast Poem.” Field Pokes 5-12.

———. “The Sad Pig-malian.” Field Pokes 27-39.

———. “Sketches of a Porker.” Field Pokes 47-52.

———. The Stud-Boar Man. New York: Wayne and Schuster, 1970.

———. The Tricky Lechery of Words: Essays Selected and New. Toronto: Hoggsford UP, 1989.

———. What the Pig Said. Don Swills: General Publishing, 1978.

———. When Sick with Trichinosis. Diss. University of Iowa, 1961.

———. The Words of My Snorting. London: MacSwillan, 1966.