A New Slang or a Modern?

Jan Bartley, Invocations: The Poetry and Prose of Gwendolyn MacEwen. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1983, ix, 113 pp.

Gwendolyn MacEwen has been publishing poetry and prose fiction for more than twenty years and has carved what appears to be a separate niche for herself in our literary history.  Various critics along the way have tried to locate her work in relation to what has been accepted as typical of the mainstream of Canadian writing since 1960, but the attempt has achieved only qualified success.   This is hardly to be wondered at; from the beginning of her career reviewers have charged her with lack of involvement with her material and with employing a diction that is too enchanted to reflect meaningfully the experience of the quotidian.  If MacEwen was intent on exploring the conundrums of the human condition in mythical terms, the argument went, the result would have to be more than the vade mecum of MacPherson's The Boatman to succeed as good contemporary poetry.  Everyone now agrees that MacEwen writes good poetry, although she has not abandoned that fascination with the mysterious which readers and critics alike have found both alluring and disconcerting.  So I welcomed the opportunity to review Jan Bartley's Invocations: The Poetry and Prose of Gwendolyn MacEwen, hoping that this first book-length study would cast into sharp relief some of the more shadowy areas only faintly illuminated by previous commentators.  I should have remembered that maps can be misleading, that "the moment when it seems most plain/ is the moment when you must begin again."  This is not to say that Invocations does not illuminate the subject; on the contrary, Bartley's attempt to expose the basic paradigms in MacEwen's canon goes a long way towards unifying it, or rather, towards aiding the reader to perceive the essential unity of MacEwen's varied explorations of the mythical and the arcane.

     Bartley's express purpose, as noted in her Preface, is "to examine the numerous sources and influences . . . indicated by the epigrams and symbols" in MacEwen's writing.  These symbols, "signposts" she calls them, can only direct the reader to MacEwen's "fifth earth" if they are properly understood in the context of their origins in Jungian psychology, alchemy, and early mystical and Gnostic texts.  But, she warns, these sources are worthy of discussion only in their relationship to MacEwen's writing.   This caveat is necessary because many of the parallels to psychology and myth in MacEwen's work are, according to the artist herself, purely coincidental.   Although I prefer to trust the tale and not the teller in these matters, I think Bartley's strategy is sensible and keeps the reader from being overwhelmed by the variety and complexity of MacEwen's source texts.

     Invocations begins with a review of MacEwen's commentators and reviewers, among whom Margaret Atwood, Frank Davey, and Ellen Warwick loom especially large.  All three have argued that MacEwen's vision is dualistic and reducable to images of opposite polarities.  Bartley takes their conclusions as her starting point and goes on to articulate a binary framework in which tropes identified by one critic are easily transferred into the schemas outlined by other critics.  Thus, for example, the Muse figure first uncovered by Atwood can also be seen as Mercurius, the winged god who presides over the transmutations of the hermetic science in Davey's study of alchemical influences, or as the animus figure in Jungian approaches to MacEwen.  All the dualisms of the Gnostic and hermetic traditions, of mind/body, spirit/matter, creation/destruction, sacred/profane, are the contraries without which there is no progression.  The coniunctio oppositorum, the alchemical marriage of opposites, provides MacEwen with a controlling metaphor for the process by which the self moves from fragmented reality to wholeness and spiritual illumination.   The binary structure which holds these opposites together is inherent in MacEwen's own view of experience:

In my poetry I am concerned with finding the relationship between what we call the 'real' world and that other world which consists of dream, fantasy and myth.  I've never felt that these 'two worlds' are as separate as one might think, and in fact my poetry as well as my life seems to occupy a place — you might call it a no-man's land — between the two.

This connection between life and poetry, and MacEwen's emphasis on translating the mythic into the phenomenal, have led Frank Davey to regard MacEwen as a post-modernist of the order of Bissett, Coleman, Marlatt and Kroetsch.   Although Bartley cites Leon Slonim's "Exoticism in Modern Canadian Poetry," which discusses MacEwen's vision in the context of Avison, Klein, Birney and other modernists, Bartley follows Davey's lead in regarding MacEwen's sensibility as post-modern.  MacEwen's myth, she insists, "is neither a literary device nor the formalistic system of a modernist, but the totally involved searchings of a post-modernist amid a cataclysmic environment." Of this judgment, more later.

     In her second chapter, Bartley focuses on the protagonists of Julian the Magician and King of Egypt, King of Dreams as incarnations of the protean Muse/alchemist.  Jung's Psychology and Alchemy functions as a source text through which Bartley ties together MacEwen's often undigested references to The Rosarium of the alchemists, the early Gnostic Pistis Sophia, and the mysticism of Jacob Boehme.  In this analysis Julian, "the spirit of divinity within the flesh," emerges as a Christ-figure, his death "the inevitable consequence of his actions and his genius." Akhenaton, on the other hand, personifies the "crippled mystic" who cannot reconcile his claims to divinity with the circumstances of his humanity.  Both figures, ironically, are seduced and destroyed by their visions, underscoring the dangers of what MacEwen, through her poetry, exhorts her readers to undertake.

     The binary structure outlined in the opening general discussion is extended in Chapter Three to The Rising Fire, A Breakfast for Barbarians, The Shadow-Maker and Armies of the Moon.  These poems, with their recurrent patterns of opposing imagery, represent a working towards synthesis rather than a statement of its attainment.   Modern man is the barbarian whose unsatiable hunger is akin to Boehme's energy of the free will and Christian conceptions of Eucharist; he is also the barbarian whose perverted appetites can be explored through the appropriate images of Moloch, Saturn, and vampires.  Throughout this poetry, the emphasis is on the transformations of the self which reveal the archetype beneath the contemporary costume.  In Chapter Four, Jung's Symbols of Transformation provides a key to entering the inner worlds of dream and fantasy in The Shadow-Maker, while in Chapter Five alchemical associations of the lunar body with the destructive side of man guide our explorations of inner/outer space in The Armies of the Moon.  The study concludes in Chapter Six with a consideration of Noman, the collection of short stories which attempt to locate the mythical in the mundane, specifically Kanadian, environment.

     Readers familiar with MacEwen's critics will realize that this is the point at which we must begin again.   Bartley does well to extend the applicability of tropes first announced in a particular volume to other volumes in MacEwen's repertoire; she also does well to illustrate the compatability of images drawn from various mythic, alchemical and psychological models within the framework of MacEwen's vision.  MacEwen herself has qualified but never disavowed her desire to construct a myth; those readers who believe that MacEwen actually has constructed a myth will find Bartley's articulation of it more than adequate.  On this last point let me simply note that Bartley's identification of signposts rarely goes beyond the maps already provided by Atwood, Davey, Gose, Slonim and Warwick, and her achievement is principally one of synthesis.  Very little of this volume constitutes new directions in MacEwen scholarship and although it is well-written its scope is more that of a Master's thesis than of a work of independent scholarship.  I am particularly disappointed that a study purporting to deal with MacEwen's entire canon should have so little to say about recent directions in MacEwen's work.  About Trojan Women, Bartley notes only that the play is an adaptation from Euripides and that it was performed in Toronto in 1978; about The T.E. Lawrence Poems, she notes only that they were published in 1982.  This, to my mind, is not the examination of sources and influences promised at the outset of the volume.   It would have been interesting and instructive to see, for example, what conclusions about MacEwen's approach to myth could have been drawn from her adaptation of Euripides' powerful original.

     The major failing of Invocations, apart from incompleteness, is the author's repeated insistence that MacEwen's sensibility is post-modern.  Early in the volume Bartley concedes that MacEwen "bridges the gap between the poets who rely heavily on myth, such as James Reaney and Jay MacPherson, and the more experimental poets of her own generation such as George Bowering and Michael Ondaatje."  What she has in common with Bowering, Ondaatje, and other post-modern writers is not explored but simply stated, usually in some other critic's words.  The result is that Bartley's claims for MacEwen's post-modernism seem to be based on nothing more substantial than the desire to include her among those whom Davey, in From There to Here, counts among the living.  More importantly, this insistence on MacEwen's contemporaneity provides a justification of sorts for ignoring MacEwen's connection with the Canadian mythopoeic school, MacPherson especially, to whom she has such obvious links.  What, for example, should be made of the resemblance between the structure of MacPherson's The Boatman and MacEwen's The Shadow-Maker, which has one section tellingly entitled "The Sleeper?"   Or the incantatory rhythms of poems like "The Pillars" and "The Red Bird You Wait For," with their echoes of the patter-songs MacPherson appropriated from Gilbert and Sullivan? Bartley notes of "Dark Pines Under Water" that the 'you' of the poem is turned inside out, but the resemblance to the strategy of MacPherson's "The Boatman" is missed, as is the resemblance between the appetites of the new barbarian and MacPherson's Fisherman with that hungry gut of his.   There seems to be a feeling among MacEwen's critics, implicit in Bartley, that any comparison with a modernist like MacPherson would damn MacEwen as hopelessly irrelevant by virtue of old age.  This is not scholarly criticism but kamp appreciation.   MacEwen's trope of the poet as alchemist leads us back to Chem, the first alchemist, just as MacPherson's trope of the poet as sailor-fisherman leads us back to Noah, Chem's father.  Connections such as these do not argue specific indebtedness on MacEwen's part, but they do intimate how closely MacEwen's mythic structures resemble MacPherson's.  The fact that MacEwen's voice is more personal than MacPherson's, that her figures wear contemporary garb in many of the poems and short stories, should not obscure from view the classically organized structure which she imposes on experience, Frank Davey's arguments about mythology innate in the environment notwithstanding.

     In her discussion of Noman, Bartley observes that here, "almost for the first time, MacEwen uses a recognizable Canadian setting, drawing upon those familiar details of landscape and social expectation which lend drama and credibility to her themes." Indeed, in this volume more than anywhere else MacEwen gives evidence of being the kind of mythographer that would justify comparing her to Kroetsch, Mandel, or even Suknaski.  Consider, for example, the following passage from "Kingsmere," with its echo from Newlove's "The Pride:"

Something isn't right.  Into whose future you are moving?. . .  You have spotted one very large arch at the far end of the field, and for a second you have an intense, blinding perception of the real nature of the place.  This stone on stone, this reconstruction of a past that was never yours, this synthetic history.  Only the furtive trees are real, they are the backdrop for an abandoned Greek theatre where the central paradoxes of man were once performed by actors wearing grotesque masks. . . .  Here, there is a tension between past and future, a tension so real it's almost tangible; it lives in the stone, it crackles like electricity among the leaves.  (Nomarl, P.  54)

In this passage, MacEwen does more than resurrect MacKenzie King's garden as a symbol of a past we have inherited from elsewhere; the question "Into whose future are you moving" invites us to consider also the past that most of us are ignorant of, the indigenous past that Newlove in his poem claims as his own.  Stories like "The House of the Whale" and "Fire" bear testimony to a similar inclination on MacEwen's part, but with a difference.  When George, in "The House of the Whale," tries to live the myths of his Haida ancestors, he is reduced to being a pathetic figure acting out the script of an outworn creed.  The young couple's spontaneous re-enactment of the potlache in "Fire" is similarly unprofitable.  For MacEwen, "the central paradoxes of man" were performed upon the Greek stage, thus ensuring in her view the immediacy of the classical pattern; while she does not share the mentality that reduces George's story of Gunarh to a ribald joke, she has not yet accorded native mythology the majesty with which she imbues the Greek or the Egyptian.

     There is also the problem of determinism.  The inevitability with which MacEwen's protagonists — Julian, George, the "motorcycle Icarus" of "Poem Improvised Around a First Line" — re-enact mythic paradigms convinces me that MacEwen has not yet made the leap from the classically organized to the phenomenological/historical world view that fellow travellers Reaney and Mandel have accomplished.  Put another way, MacEwen has not sufficiently deconstructed old mythic models, or paid the radical attention to place and time that typify Reaney's Donnelly trilogy or Mandel's Estevan poems, to be considered a post-modernist poet.  Most of her poetry manifests a consciousness of myth, rather than a mythic consciousness, although there are exceptions.  "One Arab Flute," for example, has been praised, rightly so, for its powerful evocation of the mythical in the midst of an actuality rendered with precision and clarity; "Inside the Great Pyramid" is another such poem.  But these are not representative of her work.  In the immediate future MacEwen's name will continue to be associated more characteristically with the enigmatic and the oracular, with "Dark Pines Under Water" and "The Nine Arcana of the Kings."  These are modernist poems in which process is the subject, but not the strategy.  When it comes to dealing with phenomenological flux, MacEwen is still closer to MacPherson than to Marlatt.

J. M.  Zezulka