Anne Marriott: Frontier Poet

By Andrew Stubbs and Jeanette Seim

Anne Marriott is best known for her 1939 long poem, The Wind Our Enemy.  A sequence of narrative vignettes which document the 1930s' drought, The Wind Our Enemy was cited in 1969 by Dorothy Livesay as part of a documentary tradition in Canadian poetry.  Livesay argues as a matter of fact that the Canadian long poem "is not truly a narrative at all" and unlike the American long poem "certainly not a historical epic".

It is, rather, a documentary poem, based on topical data but held together by descriptive, lyrical, and didactic elements.   Our narratives, in other words, are not told for the tale's sake or for the myth's sake: the story is a frame on which to hang a theme.1

That is, the documentary poem is ostensibly narrative but relies on lyrical and other elements.  Narrative in The Wind Our Enemy supplies a basic forward momentum to the poem; a strong temporal framework can certainly be detected: the poem begins with a lyrical evocation of "the last good year"2 and ends with a climactic, or anticlimactic pronouncement that rain "must" come.  Narrative is associated through the poem with a compulsive and even at times obsessive energy; the repetitive, incantatory rhythm is unmistakeable in its opening and closing sections.3

     It is the wind's adventures as ravager, scavenger and jester amongst objects of human habitation which are the basis of the narrative's main thrust, explicitly in the opening and closing sections, indirectly throughout the poem.  The periodic alternation of hope and frustration creates a sense of temporal progression: "They said, 'Sure, it'll rain next year!' / When that was dry, 'Well, next year anyway.' " (IV,11.1-2).  However, in a way narrative is continuously being undermined; "the story" does not really end, only culminates in a "grim prophecy" (I,1.14).  The tendency of narrative is not towards resolution but a vision of utter desolation; the two figures at the end of the poem occupy a landscape empty of human 'significance'.4  Even description tends to 'collapse' on itself insofar as what is described turns out not to be an object at all.  The wind becomes a negative term, only signifying an 'absence': "No rain, no crop, no feed, no faith, only / wind" (X,11.9-10).  An antagonism to every human endeavour attaches to the wind, and what the wind perhaps most especially and expertly resists is the poet's imposition of language.  The poem tries to define what cannot really be known in human terms, at best approached indirectly.  The fact that narrative tends ultimately to be open-ended means that it is not primarily for the sake of the story, as Livesay remarks, that the poem exists.  Rather, narrative is an ironic conception working, as it does, against much else that happens in the poem.  Narrative amounts to a sequence of failures and if anything the story is exhausted by its telling.  It is when "Tired bodies crave to lie / In bed forever" (IX,11.4-5), that desire intrudes: " 'We're not licked yet! / It must rain again — it will! . . .' " (IX,11.19-20); in the end these people can only repeat their failure — they are condemned to continue to be where, and what, they are.

     Marriott's poetry since The Wind Our Enemy and culminating in The Circular Coast (1969-1979), we hope to show, has tended to be essentially Iyrical with narrative elements.   It has been through a unique fusion of lyric and narrative that she has found her best poetic voice.  The brevity of the lyric form has made it possible for her to undertake a close examination of language, the result of which has been that her poems tend to be situated in a metaphorical landscape, one characterized by the west coast as border, as frontier.  This amounts to a major shift in emphasis.  Marriott is less concerned in The Circular Coast than in The Wind Our Enemy with confronting paradoxes which exist between the 'world' the poet observes and the 'world' the poet writes.  There remain ambiguities but these are found to belong to language itself.  The emphasis is not on the poem as a topical document but on the poem as an 'environment' through which the poet's recording / creating eye moves.

     Eli Mandel has pointed out that "the metaphor of frontier and the actuality of border still exercise a profound hold on the imagination of writers in this country".  He cites as an example the Canada — U.S. border, "of enormous importance in the imaginative life of any Canadian, marking out, as it does, the interface of two major cultural identities".5 For Mandel, the frontier is an imaginative place: a border is a point of separation and interaction: that is, a paradox, a region between regions.  We notice the number of times the poems which make up The Circular Coast take place on borders: coasts, shores, beaches, promontories, "along the unseen join of sea and air / (mysterious edge where all things meet and merge)".6   In fact, there is a sense in which words themselves can be seen as a frontier, in which case Marriott becomes an inhabitant of the vanishing point of language, the extreme limit of articulation.

     If Marriott's poetry is a kind of 'frontier' art, we might expect it to be concerned with varieties of transformations.  In fact, in the poems in The Circular Coast such transformations occur frequently.

The round o eye
misted milk
salted drops drip from the curve.

The round o mouth
whispering through lips of sand
spitting up
pipes of kelp
gushing with storm and foam.

And interchange: the eye
pouring out waves   the mouth
smooth   seeing repeating clouded eyelids' close.
Sea birds leave tracks on sand and air.
                                                                                     (Configuration I)

At the centre of the poem occurs that strange "interchange" between the eye and mouth.  "The round o eye", "The round o mouth" are circumferences which enclose energies continually threatening to push out: "misted milk / salted drops drip from the curve", "pipes of kelp / gushing with storm and foam" — images of a surface world, sights, sounds, disturbed, haunted by forces within.  However, the apparent opposition between exterior and interior is really very tentative, turns out to be the basis of an identity; the eye and mouth do not just reveal outer forms of things but depths also and from these new forms, images arise: "the eye / pouring out waves".

     That exterior and interior are interchangeable is a paradox but one which is related to the idea of frontier.  A frontier can be either a margin or centre depending on whether it is seen as place or non-place: as marking the limits of the known or the no-man's land between locations.7  Such an ambiguity attaches to language throughout The Circular Coast: are words at the centre or margin of reality?  "The round o mouth / whispering through lips of sand / spitting up / pipes of kelp": what does the mouth whisper, or can we really know?  Are we not in some sense seeing words being formed, out of the depths of a body which is at once the earth itself?  If so, and if it is the earth which speaks out of the mouth of the poet then all things become the spoken word; what the earth / body whispers, the message it imparts is: "kelp", "storm", "foam", ''waves''.8

     World, then, as a set of signs, but pointing where? — the poet not content to search out meanings perhaps but certainly a witness to strange contacts: but contacts with or between what?  It is not just the round "o" eye, "o" mouth, discerning, formulating the smooth, hard edge, but the eye and mouth, interchangeably, as zero, null points.   What is pointed to, contacted by, language is something that is not immediately present, or exists in the silences, intervals between words.  Thus, the eye turns back on itself: what we finally see is our sightlessness, the eye in the act of not seeing ("seeing repeating clouded eyelids' close").  This is not blindness but an expansion of the eye towards the limits of sight where the eye on meeting itself disappears.  Signs refer to what has once been but which is no longer; signs become vestiges, remains, make it possible for us to pursue things which may at that instant be receding from us: "Sea birds leave tracks on sand and air" (our italics).

     The image of the eye rushing away from its centre towards a frontier which is withdrawing from it is developed in the next poem in the sequence.

I had a top
striped blue and green
waves sprang from it all across my room.
Here stuck peg in sand
my own axis
I watch the rings rush out
through jellyfish looped arm of weed
scalloped coves and bays
to the infinite horizon
secret in mist
turn and rush
back to the limpet's round beside my heel
the unseen worm's tube in the log and sand
my infinite centre
and the worm in me.
                                                                                    (Configuration II)

At first there is a strong sense of being 'located' ("Here stuck peg in sand / my own axis"), accompanied by a movement away from the centre.  The poet is a fixed point, an observing eye around which everything else revolves ("I watch the rings rush out").  What is created is a sense of finite perspective; the poet stands on, or is her own axis.  There is a movement towards the horizon, the limit of what the eye sees, as determined by perspective.  But the movement dissolves perspective since the horizon is not a fixed point at all but "the infinite horizon / secret in mist".  The return journey brings the poet back not to any fixed point but her "infinite centre".

     Where has the poet been and what has she returned to?  Is the poet's eye surrounded by horizon or does it enclose an infinite centre?  Is the poem centre or margin?  Where the poet has been is the voyage itself; the journey encloses the landscape over which she travels.   We become aware as details accumulate in the middle of the poem, "through jellyfish looped arm of weed / scalloped coves and bays", that the eye is crafting the landscape as it travels across it, that the poem even exists to give shape to the eye's movement.  Ultimately, figure and motion are united in a single perception and it is the idea that such a resolution is possible that makes the term "configuration" meaningful.  In effect, "the worm in me" is the voyage itself, as completed, as contained by and in the poet's memory.  What the poet returns to is the feeling of oneness with, but of being nothing other than, the landscape she has travelled over, the voyages she has made.  The centre merges with the circumference since both can be interchanged, each can be a point of departure or arrival; since both are infinite the journey can only end by being renewed.  The poet's body is the earth; thus "the unseen worm's tube" is "in the log and sand" and "the worm" is "in me".  The journey through the earth also takes place in the body.  In the course of this voyage the eye becomes invisible to itself, since it tries to approach a point where vision fails; thus the worm which is the outline of the journey, the running edge along which it unfolds, is "unseen".   However, like the sea birds in the first poem, the eye leaves traces where it has been, coves, bays, edges of concentric, expanding rings, the infinite and receding horizon.

     Repeating patterns are featured frequently in The Circular Coast: "The round o eye" and "The round o mouth" in Confguration I come to mind; "seeing repeating clouded eyelids' close" is another example and it is possible to read the "tracks" which the sea birds "leave . . . on sand and air" as a repeating sequence of images.  Many images in the poem "double up" in this way, just as the journeys the poet records in Configuration II and To Coasts You Must Return tend to be "return voyages".  Repetition implies an element of continuity and journeys which arrive at their starting points are closed circuits.  We ought to feel reassured by this sense of closure, the clear outline drawn around our experiences but we are not; doubleness also suggests duplicity and the maps which Marriott draws of the countries she travels over are ultimately ambiguous: horizons turn out to be infinite, frontiers mutable.

     To Coasts You Must Return suggests a voyage which begins at a shore, moves to the centre of "a green landlocked lake" (1.4), and then, presumably, back: a return journey.  The poet's eyes are "fixed to find" (1.8) what is not there, "the seaward outlet" (1.9) of a landlocked lake.  She is not alone but "the others" (1.5) are identified only as "pale bodies" (1.6).  Of these even the one who is best known is only recognized as a configuration ("The one whose shape I knew the best" (1.7)).  The first stanza ends with a description of what the poet "never saw": "how slowly the legs moved, how long / the head sank below the surface" (11.9-12).

     The poet's eyes are "fixed on finding" (our italics) an opening in the horizon, exceeding the limits of sight.  The "pale bodies" are slipping from view and even "the one" she seems to know is sinking.  The landlocked 'world' of familiar 'objects' is disappearing while her attention is focussed on distant frontiers.  What she seems especially unaware of is the passage of time.  It is the slow motion of the legs, the length of time the head is under water that she does not see, which is ironic because the poem begins by explicitly indicating a time frame ("All that last summer" [1.1]).  Thus, what continuities the poem seems to suggest, what assurances we have about the fixedness of frontiers, are undermined.  The poet searches beyond borders, coastlines, is only aware of shapes, outlines, at the moment they are about to vanish.  The voyage on which she embarks takes place in a world below the surface, adjacent to but different from the familiar one, where all things are in a state of flux.

Changing now fish now gull now human
counting miles
on real mileposts somersaulting behind
at last I arrived, tried to fit my feet
into the prints marked here in childhood . . .
                                                        (To Coasts You Must Return,13-17)

The record of transformations becomes a kind of journey, but a journey which moves backwards in time.  The point of arrival is a moment of beginning where the signs of childhood remain intact.  Something seems to have been recovered, the ground the poet has trod, all the voyages she has taken, recapitulated in their moment of origin.  The flow of time has been reversed, the end of the voyage altered metaphorically, presumably into a new point of departure, yet the poem's conclusion merely poses a paradox.  The poet's trying to fit her adult feet into the prints of childhood suggests she is trying to make contact with something, but we wonder whether this takes place since the flowers she ceremoniously presents are predatory, symbolize some kind of entrapment ("showed you the familiar flowers carnivorous amber pink / open their fronded traps gulp in their prey" [11.19-20]).   The memory of time, the depletions it mysteriously but inescapably wreaks on the traveller still haunt the poet: "The log you rested on was weathered old man's grey / pitted by time and secret tireless worms" (11.21-22).

     We should notice the element of compulsive, perhaps even tragic, 'necessity' which is present.  The poet does not just choose to embark on her journeys; in one way she is moved against her will.   It is to coasts, we remember, that one must return.  Sojourners ends with the poet's being "proved" an exile.

Tide quenched our mouths
proved us
                                                                                 (Sojourners, 21-24)

     Sojourners begins with "ourselves our children" (1.1) apparently planted firmly on a beach where "We said we shall not be moved" (1.3).  The journey which ensues is not initiated by the sojourners; rather they are carried off by movements around them: "we lay / feeling earth and sky wheel with us" (11.5-6).  Along the journey images of devouring, dissolution are encountered: "night swallowed day / light dissolved darkness" (11.7-8).  We are reminded of similar images of predation or entrapment at the end of the previous poem.  But this is not a voyage backwards in time to a moment of beginning, where time is ultimately devalued as a way of assigning meaning to experience, of situating oneself in the world.  It is a voyage which progresses through time, regular alternations of night and day, light and dark, and ends not at a new beginning, but at the point of furthest possible forward advance, a "west shore" (1.20) on which the sojourners stand fixed "forever / foreign".  In the course of this journey they are changed, bodies united with the landscape through which they move: "Sun faller turned us driftwood" (1.4); "we are wholly one / at last / with this west shore" (11.18-20).   Ironically, their intention of remaining stationary on the beach leads to a permanent exile on the west shore at the end of the poem.

     Thus, their original intention is fulfilled though not as they might have anticipated.  Time itself moves them to the position they sought in the beginning to occupy.  But this journey across secret frontiers characterized by "mist", inhabited by "ghosts" (1.9), "the unseen join of sea and air / (mysterious edge where all things meet and merge);" (11.10-11), wounds, sterilizes.  Finally, the sojourners stand silent, depleted on the edge of a shore, invisible, like the figure we do not really'see' resting on a log which is "weathered old man's grey" at the end of To Coasts You Must Return.

     These journeys take place across landscapes which are ultimately metaphorical, like the landlocked lake in To Coasts You Must Return, which is heard in the seashells covering the poet's ears.  In fact, metaphor is a kind of frontier, "mysterious edge where all things meet and merge": a point of intersection, identification where objects vanish into one another.  Marriott's voyages are not logical sequences with separate departure and arrival points.  Rather, what she discovers in Self-Guided Nature Trail is true of every journey: the point at which the traveller arrives is the point from which she sets out ("At length we found the exit: at / the exact place where the trail began" (11.24-25)).  Every voyage ends at the moment we discover it is not over after all, but must be begun again; at this critical point something is lost and recovered: the finished journey is forgotten, but turns into a new voyage not yet embarked on.  For this reason Mariott's voyages continually dissolve, are interrupted, get detoured; but every step she takes is potentially an ending and new beginning.

     Marriott's voyages are attempts to make contact with a world which always seems to elude her, which is 'realized' at the moment when it is enclosed by the lines of the journey, but which vanishes at the moment the journey is completed.  Her voyages are "configurations", maps the eye draws of its travels over strange terrains, until it comes to borders where such constructs are proven useless, in which case of course they must be drawn again.  For Marriott, then, journeys are made without advance knowledge, as is the one recorded in Self-Guided Nature Trail.

It was all childhood images at first
the fungus face
grinned out of the root
or made an umbrella for the gnome
the talking mouse
or poisoned the wicked witch.
Higher, bush densened, knotted into walls
huckleberries hexed us with their bright red eyes
ferns sharpened into swords.
Over our heads the sea-mist lingered
shaping trees
into heraldic totems
(figures that had slipped and shifted
for years in and out of my half-sleep)
but though we waited all we learned
were mythologies changing ten times in an hour.
                                                             (Self-Guided Nature Trail, 3-18)

This journey through a landscape which the poet half recognizes by the "childhood images" or by figures she remembers from "my half-sleep" is also a growth from childhood innocence to awareness of the world's multiple and mutable forms.  In the course of the journey the nature of the world changes, from an anthropomorphized childhood landscape of grinning roots and talking mice where there are only playful dangers, to a mysterious and potentially more sinister world where huckleberries threaten hexes and ferns brandish swords, as if the travellers' very progress along this trail affects the way it appears to them.  While the poet does not know where the trail leads, there is a suggestion she has followed it before; at least, the "figures" she encounters on the way seem to know her intimately.

     The poet never leaves the mythic world of the trail, though it appears more or less sinister at different times.  Ultimately she learns that there is not one myth but "mythologies changing ten times in an hour".  Then, she searches for signs, names which will enable her to come to terms with the processes going on around her.

Desperate, we searched out notices:
skunk cabbage, largest leaf
of any native plant;
elder, leaves toothed and opposite;
red cedar — but no information that we sought.
                                                           (Self-Guided Nature Trail, 19-23)

"Skunk cabbage", "elder", "red cedar" are signals relaying no message.  They are the poet's attempt to know the world by naming it, by using logical categories ("largest leaf / of any native plant") and by means of surface descriptions ("leaves toothed and opposite").  We are reminded of other emblems of the measuring and counting eye, the "mileposts" which the poet 'remembers' on the reverse journey recorded in To Coasts You Must Return.9

     Thus, in the course of the voyage, even language dissolves around its edges, as words turn into empty signs.  But if words no longer provide "information that we sought", enable us to grasp the meaning of what is there, how are we affected by them; how does the poem affect us?  In fact, this is the kind of question Marriott poses in 'Night Stomp': "(What is man?  Or fish, or creature in the sand?)" (1.21).  Implied in questions such as these is a critique of language's power to provide answers, establish contact with, retrieve, what is outside or beyond us.

Vast constellations bloom
over our windy heads.
                                                                             ('Night Stomp', 18-20)

In one way Marriott's journeys take place through language, the voyage becomes its own record so to speak.  For language, having nowhere else to go, eventually leads back to itself, closes in on itself, just as it is about to affirm something, just as every journey, which seems to advance, to proceed across an unknown but mapable terrain, ultimately ends, as in Self-Guided Nature Trail, at the place where it begins.  If Marriott's poems are, at some primary level, commentaries on themselves, as linguistic acts, voyages through themselves, then the reader is implicated in every move the poet makes, a fellow passenger on every voyage.  It is the reader's eye as much as the poet's, which follows the verbal "trail" which finally is the poem.10

     To regard The Circular Coast as a critique of language, as a revelation of ambiguities dwelling in the depths of words is not to see its use of language as at all impoverished.  It is true that words fail at times as carriers of the "information" the poet wishes to have.  Language's 'function' in the poem is often to remind us of what is not there, to point to what is receding from us at the moment we are looking at it: "The sea is leaving us.  / The lights are out.  / The black slick spreads."   ('Night Stomp',11.  22-24).  But the moment that language is emptied of meaning in this way, used ironically to refer to what is absent, it acquires an indelible emphasis and even precision.  The poet is free to pursue harmonies which are part of the internal structure of language, to generate consonances, assonances, rhythms, not just meanings; we can even detect in some onomatopoeic phrases hints of a certain shadowy jocularity.11

We multiply
stamp stomp pound
sandals sneakers boots
bare feet soft hard corns
calluses blisters thud
thump splatterspat.
                                                                               ('Night Stomp', 9-14)

     We have seen that Marriott's journeys are circular, inevitably leading back to their original starting points, where they turn in on themselves or dissolve.  These voyages often seem part of a larger silence existing beyond the territory any journey could cover.  At the same time these voyages, being circular, enclose silence; Marriott always suggests that the most interesting mysteries inhabit us: thus, the ambiguous figure in To Coasts You Must Return, who rests on the log where the journey ends but who in some sense has been with the traveller all along, waiting to be revealed.  This ambiguity is characteristic of language in The Circular Coast: words conceal silences at the very centre of their being, so that we enter language at great risk; words are always telling us to look away, even while they are compelling us to come closer, because it is when they seem most sharply focussed, definitive that their messages become scrambled.12

     Language, then, contradicts, harbours some secret 'negative' principle; like Eden, it is planted with symbols which induce in us a desire for what we cannot have: we are stimulated from within by mysteries we cannot solve.  This negative 'impulse' accounts for Marriott's frequent use of tnegative' prefixes: the "constellations" which "bloom / untouched" (our italics) in 'Night Stomp'; and the negative 'frame' which surrounds her description of the seascape in Fog.13

No waves break
at the edge of that sea
write no white news
of someone far at sea
no ships sail
no fish or weeds move
even the worms are dead
in death's sea.
                                                                                              (Fog, 9-16)

Again we encounter that ambiguous figure about whom we have no "news"; fog dissolves the edges of the poet's shelter ("shelter's gone / fog all around me" (11.3-4)).  We have encountered such amorphous emblems before: the "sea-mist" which shapes "trees / into heraldic totems" in Self-Guided Nature Trail, the "misted milk" of "The round o eye" in Confguration I.

     The fogs and mists dwell as much in the interior as on the circumference of things.  Shapes dissolve or are formed as much from their centres out as from their margins in.  The journey towards the centre, if it is undertaken as a search for meanings, for a 'sufficient language', can only lead to impasse, a vision of a ruined earth.

On this solitary hillside blight
has overtaken all the trees
leaves warped and blackened hang
on boughs
burned letters
crucial messages irrevocably destroyed.
Wind up the valley these days smells of mould
and every sea road has the sign DETOUR
(each night even in dreams I find
they've put another barrier up).

The garden is not sown this year
unshared crops
are bitter harvest
grudging nourishment
and anyway my storage cupboard's full
shelves heavy with fruit that no one eats

Something has been lost, a restorative, regenerative energy, but lost at the moment of maximum fullness: the cupboard is full of fruit no one will touch.  The garden ceases to be a garden since it "is not sown this year".  The detour signs render the journey problematic, even claustrophobic since they tell the poet where she must not go.

     This labyrinthian journey takes place across a spoiled, burned-out earth which is also an alphabet that can no longer be read: "leaves warped" are "burned letters", their "crucial messages irrevocably destroyed".  The poet is isolated, even trapped inside herself, with no one to share her harvest, no language with which to communicate.  What redeems this predicament is the knowledge that something must be left unsaid, that while silence consumes it is also an essential ingredient of language, so that, like all things which seem to be opposite, silence and speech converge at the point where all things meet: on the horizon.

     It is when the circle is complete and the end of the voyage turns into the moment of its beginning, as in Full Circle, that new journeys outward from the newly arrived at 'centre' can be embarked on.

Time circles round
at last to the right time.
Roads open to the sea.
                                                                                     (Full Circle, 4-7)

Meanwhile, the poet, as voyager, is engaged in composing, hollowing out the inner space in which her newest adventure will take place, a space which is an ending and a beginning.

(the worms
worked on with silent patience)
but the sand below them is cool and soft
where I hollow out with hands
the tomb
the womb.
                                                                                 (Full Circle, 12-17)

That resolution of figure and motion, movement and the thing moved, which we have noticed before, is completed in the last lines of the poem.

A ship can sail all around the earth
back to this same transcended coast
shining in everlasting morning sun.
                                                                                 (Full Circle, 26-28)

The ship voyages across an ocean which is itself turning, two motions in "everlasting" harmony, the ship continually establishing only to transcend its own position: stationary in the light of a continuously revolving sun.


  1. Dorothy Livesay, "The Documentary Poem: A Canadian Genre," Contexts of Canadian Criticism, ed. with an introduction by Eli Mandel (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971), p. 269.[back]

  2. Anne Marriott, The Wind Our Enemy, in The Circular Coast: Poems New and Selected (Oakville, Ontario. Mosaic Press / Valley Editions, 1981), pp. 60-69.  (II, 1.10) (All subsequent references are to this edition.)[back]

  3. The opening and closing sections are a narrative of the wind's movements, a growing record of its destructions.  "Wind" is repeated at the beginning of every stanza, as if the poet by pronouncing its name again and again is trying to gain some control over it.

    flattening its gaunt furious self against
    the naked siding, knifing in the wounds
    of time, pausing to tear aside the last
    old scab of paint

    surging down the cocoa-coloured seams
    of summer-fallow, darting in about
    white hoofs and brown, snatching the sweaty cap
    shielding red eyes

    filling the dry mouth with bitter dust
    whipping the shoulders worry-bowed too soon
    soiling the water pail, and in grim prophecy
    greying the hair

    in a lonely laughterless shrill game
    with broken wash-boiler, bucket without a handle
    Russian thistle, throwing up sections of soil

    God, will it never rain again? What about
    those clouds out west? No, that's just dust, as thick
    and stifling now as winter underwear
    No rain, no crop, no feed, no faith, only

    Detail accumulates, adjectives become more dense as the lines proceed; the portrait becomes increasingly more graphic, more impenetrable, yet behind it there is an absence which the poet must at last acknowledge.  This absence is what "wind" finally stands for, what its presence "prophesizes".[back]

  4. The second last section of the poem ends with two figures isolated, wanting desperately from the prairie what it will not give; they are compelled by their predicament repeatedly to look for what is not there — the possibility of building a human environment which is capable of sustaining their lives.  

    Only against the yellow sky, a part
    Of the jetty silhouette of barn and house
    Two figures stand, heads close, arms locked,
    And suddenly some spirit seems to rouse
    And gleam, like a thin sword, tarnished, bent,
    But still shining in the spared beauty of moon,
    As his strained voice says to her, 'We're not licked yet!
    It must rain again — it will! Maybe — soon — '
                                                                                         (IX, 13-20)

    This "spirit" which rises in them is really an antagonist; it compels them to perpetuate a conflict they cannot win, against an "enemy" which deftly denies everything they try to achieve.[back]

  5. Eli Mandel, "The Border League: American 'West' and Canadian 'Region'," Crossing Frontiers, ed. Dick Harrison (Univ. of Alberta Press, 1979), p. 105.[back]

  6. Anne Marriott, The Circular Coast, in The Circular Coast: Poems New and Selected, pp. 17-25. (IV, 11.10-11) (All subsequent references are to this edition.)[back]

  7. This is close to what Mandel means when he says borders are places "of rich interaction but of transformation too".  ("The Border League: American 'West' and Canadian 'Region'," pp. 106-107.)[back]

  8. Several times in The Circular Coast Marriott identifies her poetic voice with an 'earth' voice: the scene she describes, the voyage she records, speaks 'through' her.  What results is an identification between words and what we normally think of as the 'objects' they stand for, point to, call up. What Marriott is trying to reveal is a 'configurative' or 'non-representational' power in language which is over and above the set of references, or 'meanings' it accumulates.   We see this in "The round o eye"; "o" does not just repeat "round" — it is a concretization of "round": "o" is the eye.  As a sign on the page "o" acquires a kind of visual texture; as a word it'draws' the eye at the instant we read it.  This 'simultaneity' of signifier and signified is not just a metaphor but an attempt to restore "literalness" to language, to give it the physical immediacy of the hard fact.  This is what Daphne Marlatt means when she says "language is literal . . . Any word is a physical body.  Its body is sound, so that it has that absolute literal quality that sound has, which connects it up with sounds around it".  (to George Bowering, "Given This Body: an Interview with Daphne Marlatt," Open Letter, 4th ser., No. 3 [Spring, 1979], p. 69.)[back]

  9. These "mileposts" are markers which enable the poet to count the miles she has travelled.  But these are "somersaulting behind".  The previous voyage is unravelling.  Thus, the mileposts are, like the journey, vanishing even as she watches them go by.[back]

  10. At times, Marriott seems, indirectly, aware of the reader's proximity: we notice her frequent use of "we", and that feeling which sometimes intrudes of being watched by other eyes (the huckleberries' "bright red eyes" in Self-Guided Nature Trail).[back]

  11. This jocularity originates perhaps in the sheer energy of certain words: "stamp stomp pound", "thud / thump splatterspat".  There is a kind of exhilaration in giving utterance, in the exactness with which the verbal mimesis is carried out.  This energy, though, is also associated with that compulsive element we have already noted in the poem, the sense that the poet must embark on voyages which only lead to new points of departure.   If words are journeys, we might expect to discern that obsessive rhthym im operating at the level of language.  In fact, Donald Stephens remarked on this very quality of Marriott's use of language in a recent review of The Circular Coast.  He says: "From the beginning of her career as a poet, Marriott obviously has been intrigued by the rhythms of the form and the sound of words.  For her, language is almost an obsession, a powerful conviction; she is not, like so many of her contemporaries who have written poetry over the years, merely preoccupied with it".   ("Conviction," Canadian Literature, No. 99 [Winter, 1983], p. 157.)[back]

  12. This idea that language conceals silence at its very centre goes back to the notion of words as bodies: the silence is physical, a silence of bodies.  Norman O. Brown says: "To recover the world of silence, of symbolism, is to recover the human body.  'A subterranean passage between mind and body underlies all analogy.'  The true meanings of words are bodily meanings, carnal knowledge; and the bodily meanings are the unspoken meanings.  What is always speaking silently is the body".  (Love's Body (New York: Random House, 1966), p. 265.) Mandel expands on Brown's remarks: "the silence of language Brown speaks of is neither a retreat from language because of some imputed loss of authority in words, nor the polite restraint of one who would not say what has been tainted.  It is a profound silence within words themselves, a mystery and a mystification, the word as body".  ("The Language of Silence," Another Time (Erin, Ontario: Press Porcepic, 1977), p. 39.[back]

  13. We have noticed that description tends to collapse on itself in The Wind Our Enemy; to describe the wind as an enemy is perhaps to 'negate' it in some way.  But we have also argued that the organizing principles in The Wind Our Enemy and The Circular Coast are different: the former is 'ostensibly narrative', the latter is 'essentially lyrical'.  The two poems approach their subjects differently.  Marriott's poetic voice in The Wind Our Enemy often is the voice of the inhabitants of the prairies, victims of the drought.  It is a voice which is superimposed on the environment and which is eventually repudiated by the nature of things.  Narrative and description can only 'pursue' objects so long, then surrender.  The lyric voice which we hear in The Circular Coast is much more ambiguous, at times divides into many individual voices (we notice the two clearly differentiated voices, one italicized, one not, in Fog, for example), and ultimately is identifiable with the landscape itself, inhabiting the poet's body as she speaks its language.

         The silence in The Wind Our Enemy is ultimately life-denying; it is where all processes end.  The silence in The Circular Coast is also generative; out of it all things, even the most apparently unreachable, originate: "Vast constellations bloom" (our italics).