Death and the Long Poem:
E.F. Dyck's The Mossbank Canon

by Alexandre L. Amprimoz

Ed Dyck, who is what happens to literature after postmodern.

Robert Kroetsch

Among today's young poets, E. F. Dyck is one of the few to be both extremely aware of tradition and also willing to go beyond the most avant-garde aesthetic constructions. The first thing that strikes the reader of The Mossbank Canon is that death is a subtle but central hypogram of the text.1

     In a metacritical article on the state of our experimental poetry today, Robert Kroetsch situates with vigour and precision the nature and dynamics of the contemporary Canadian long poem.2 While echoing a Derridian perspective he makes the central connection between the new long poem and death:

the poet, the lover, compelled towards an ending (conclusion, death, orgasm: coming) that must, out of love be (diffèrance) deferred.3

It seems indispensable to re-examine the definition of "diffèrance" within the Kroetschean context in order to find a possible key to The Mossbank Canon. Ferdinand de Saussure's simpler concept of "diffèrance" implied that language was made up of "diffèrances" only. The word "mare," for instance only means something because I can differentiate it from "horse" and other terms within the same paradigm. A sign, in the end, does not have — within the scope of Saussurean theories — any independent content or meaning. On that basis Jacques Derrida established the key notion of "diffèrance." "diffèrance" became the process through which any code gives itself an historical status as a material made up of "diffèrences." It is therefore "diffèrance" that defers "diffèrences."

     The Mossbank Canon is the story of the parallel lives of Mao Tse Tung and "Jong," a Chinese immigrant in Mossbank, Saskatchewan. An abstract concept has therefore followed a route towards concrete applications within the parameters of contemporary avant-garde aesthetics: what was the deferring applied to a sign (Saussure) became the deferring disseminated through a code (Derrida). Then, such a temporalization of a virtual structure gained specific semantic investment (Kroetsch) to finally end up as a "diffèrance" of two referential systems (Dyck). One simple constant emerges in such an evolution: death, or rather its paradigmatic substitutions (conclusion, orgasm, coming, etc.), must be delayed if artistic creation is going to take place at all. I believe that Kroetsch is preaching just that here and that Dyck is practicing such a religion.

     But death as a hypogram must not be actualized if the poem is to survive. In the words of Robert Kroetsch:

Death as deferral only, as another grammar of delay. The poem itself, surfacing. The poem of the place, the place lost. Things fall into place in the poem.4

It seems clear now that death is more a method than a theme and it becomes necessary to comment on one of Kroetsch's direct statements about Dyck: "Dyck's poem, attempting its own end (or epilogue)."5 The reference here is Odpoems Et where the last section indeed reads "32. Epilogue." Now, section "30. Convergence" reads as follows:

                           he approaches
                    the limit of the sequence
                             of his jumps
                                and dies.6

Between "Convergence" and "Epilogue" comes "31. Testament." There is, first of all, an assumption on the part of Kroetsch who equates Od and E. F. Dyck. The illusion of autobiography certainly plays its role here and part of the reading is to go along and not distinguish between the persona and the author.7

     So in a given text an author anticipates his own death. Without being very original, the idea is far from trivial. A prosaic and rather recent example would be Morley Callaghan's A Fine and Private Place, a novel in which the author describes "the writer's death" and takes the story beyond it in order to prove that his influence on other characters continues even after his departure. But the parallel with Morley Callaghan and others must stop here for E. F. Dyck spares us a pompous funeral. The death of Od is the death of the long poem. It is a satisfying end in as far as "diffèrance" has become sameness. One cannot help noticing that Od finishes with a jump, just like he began:

                    quick jump
                          and a kick8

One also notices that the above two lines very successfully frame the first poem "Lo / How Od Looks." For Od, then, death is the last jump, the one that closes a signifying system: no one jumps beyond "the limit of the sequence and remains within the same space. Death is seen here in sure mathematical terms: when the number of jumps tends towards the infinite, the sequence tends towards its converging point, its limit. When Od becomes what he always was, he can die. But Robert Kroetsch is not impressed by the fact that Dyck writes about his own death. He is not even impressed by the fact that he writes about his own testament. The central notion seems more of an elliptic redefinition of "epilogue":

     Dyck's poem, attempting its own end (or epilogue):

on the morning of the day of cre(m)ation the Poet
at coffee raises his eye
as she lands on the stool
beside him       it sinks

he left you his love & pulley
he says      the latter of which
I happen to have with me here
& he hands her Od's pulley
then        he converged
she asks
he died     says the Poet9

It is beyond the epilogue that the poet continues his research by delaying the generating process to the point of establishing a "diffèrance" of a particular kind, one where the ego has totally restricted its functions to the level of the signifier. The most tangible examples of such processes are discussed in Roland Barthes' L'Empire des signes:

     Jardin Zen:

"Nulle fleur nul pas:
Ou est l'homme?
Dans le transport des rochers,
dans la trace du râteau,
dans le travail de l'écriture."10

Beyond the epilogue and the autobiographical thickness, one finds The Mossbank Canon. E. F. Dyck has, in a brief introduction, states his methodology as well as his objectives in the most concise way.11 But the poems speak for themselves through their signifying absence. This paradoxical nature of Dyck's experiments is already encoded in the first poem:

  1. The December sun shone on banners waving
    in Kwantung province a mother bore Jong
    Banners blown                   :blown by the wind
    Dark was the mountain      :overcast the north
    in Hunan province              :when Mao was born
    A red star gleamed in the dark red north.12

The effect produced on the reader by these few syntagms and blanks is one of desolation and of separation. The emotional impact cannot be denied, only nuanced. Understanding, on the other hand must be acquired.

     Although an author's interpretation of his own work is of particular interest to the reader it bears no absolute authority. To invoke the yang/yin opposition in order to explain E. F. Dyck's formal choices would make us fall first of all into the known trap of intentional fallacy. So, it is precisely the poet's explanation of his own work that must be resisted here. Without critical resistance the aesthetic excitement would disappear for the reader of experimental literature. Roland Barthes' known distinction between "readerly" and "writerly" texts can fruitfully be applied here. The Mossbank Canon cannot be read for simple information or even for "the pleasure of the text." The reader must generate his own text from The Mossbank Canon. The work of E. F. Dyck is most "writerly." An additional reason stops me from following the dualistic aesthetics advanced by the poet. To see his masculine vs. feminine opposition as the text-generator would also lead to what Michael Riffaterre calls the "Referential Fallacy."13 In other words the I Ching is either too much or not enough to serve as a reading map for The Mossbank Canon. But it is exactly the ambiguous application of the I Ching that makes the poetry attractive.

     It might be useful to dwell a little longer on this "diffèrance" that the reader perceives between E. F. Dyck's principles and its poetic applications. To begin with, the distinction between "broken" and "unbroken" cannot be easily transposed from the Chinese hexagrams, basically because Western languages are neither iconic nor ideogrammatic. It is no coincidence that post-modernism has elevated the line-break to the rank of poetic formal apparatus, one replacing rhymes and tropes, in particular traditional rhetorical figures such as similes and metaphors. In the case of the poem under analysis, what blurs the distinction between the yang (masculine line) and the yin (feminine line) is the poet's use of enjambement. Let us remember that such a technique flourishes in periods of reaction such as Romantic revivals. We usually have in such situations the signs of a poetic discourse at odds with restrictive rules governing the composition of verse. But what was a controlled reaction with the Romantics becomes a source of polysemy with the postmodernists. Let us indicate all possible line-breaks in the first hexagram:

  1. The December sun shone on banners waving/
    in Kwantung province/a mother bore Jong
    Banners blown/                    : blown by the wind/
    Dark was the mountain/       : overcast the north/
    in Hunan province/               : when Mao was born/
    A red star gleamed/in the dark red north

     If all the distinctive features must apply, then we can only conclude that the first line is masculine and the following five are feminine. In such a case all hope for symmetry is lost. So what in Western poetry was at one time a morphological rule becomes here a constantly transgressed semantic one which in its ambiguities must be constantly broken. Furthermore, the richness of the text is founded on syntaxic ambiguities created by the intentionally problematic enjambement. In other words, the surface structures seem at odds here with the deep structures of the language.14 The reader's desire is to understand that Jong was born under the sun, while Mao was born under an overcast sky. The reader's desire stems here from what I will call the symbolic fallacy. Indeed, the following interpretation would facilitate everything: Jong wears the white hat and Mao wears the black hat. The formal ambiguity is therefore present to remind the reader that in The Mossbank Canon nothing is quite black nor quite white. The search for meaning must then take other avenues.

     At the semantic level, in spite of the many allusions, the poem seems "anti-referential" to me. Everything in the text points to cold births under the North Star. There is nothing warm, at least in our sociolect about a "December sun" and there is nothing particularly positive about the banners' overdetermination to blow in the wind. One birth is not that distinct from the other because the "December sun" is not more cheerful than the overcast sky. And amidst the elements of the Northern isotopy (semantic field within the particular text) the referent (not the text) tells us that the Kwantung, as the Hunan province, is in the south of China. The interest of the text, perhaps its irony, lies here: the signifieds point North while the referent points South. This is what I mean by the affirmation that the signifying function is anti-referential. Furthermore, the referent cannot help the fact that the "red star" will be tagged in a pejorative way. The "dark red north" contradicts our Western cultural habits: this is no Christmas. But the most important subtlety of this first section is that the signifier is disconnected and gives us the illusion of independence as it points to formal distinctions. Birth as the inchoative metonymy of life should imply paradigms of joy. In other words the narrative is about life while the discourse, through its coloration, is about death.

     The above statements should again be seen in a particular light. What allows me to move away from standard interpretations is the complexity of the phenomenon of enunciation that could not be reduced to either Barthian or Riffaterrian principles. Perhaps the reader might very well be the space where all textual effects are finally inscribed. But the reader cannot decide where the margins of either the poetic or the critical discourse are located. The enunciator of the poetic text is one who expresses himself in English and therefore submits the Chinese sociolect to a first interpretation, perhaps to a first "Westernization." To this first deviance one must add two others: The enunciator of the critical discourse and the reader. But the textual reality transcends the fact that the form of the poem is spatially symmetrical. The pejorative tagging of the red star is not a political one based on the reader's perspective on communism, it is above all of a textual nature. So if in the reading process the margins of the discourse seemed to have switched to a Western cultural code the impression is with the reader: E.F. Dyck is not a Chinese poet. The interest of The Mossbank Canon also resides in the fact that the text is not quite Western either: it is situated in the mental space of "diffèrance."

     The distinction between life and death as the actualization of the distinction between narrative and discourse can also be justified by the poet's textual strategies, or at least by the perception that the reader has of them: only the two births as events escape the wintry isotopies of the discourse.

     In this first poem, as in many of the subsequent ones, Dyck is basically saying: narrative is life and discourse is death. The work of the poet in the long poem becomes a celebration of his technical failure, his unsatisfied desire to melt facts into absence. One writes because one wants, through the artifice of discourse, to dissolve a narrative not invent one. There is one way to stress the importance of the signifier: that is repetition. The aim of the poet then is to reduce the meaning of words to almost nothing. This process is far more complex than sound poetry as it recoguizes its own failure before it begins. In other words, the sad births of Mao and Jong are symbolic of the very poetic form that explores them. Another section of the poem can illustrate this desire for non-meaning:

3.  Righteous Harmony Fists beat foreign devils
     red was the dark north       :red was the north
     They beat to death a German on the streets
     red was the dark north       : red was the north
     They besieged the running dogs of Peking
     red was the dark north       : red was the north15

One can see that the repetition of "red was the dark north : red was the north" functions as a refrain. About the introduction of such devices in poetry, Michael Riffaterre has made the following comment:

The one riddle that does not require solution is that of the refrain, since a refrain need not have any connection with the song it gives a beat to or divides into stanzas, and it can even be made of nonsense words.16

     It might be important here to express a few reservations regarding the above Riffaterrian statement that seems something of a generalization, not one quite applicable to The Mossbank Canon. When facing such a text we reach an area of nuances: the refrain is not quite a refrain, the meaning is not quite a meaning and forms are blurred. Often the repetition, even of nonsense words (and such is not the case with Dyck), carries a meaning in spite of itself. There are many reasons for such an impossibility to dissolve meaning: some are related to the general theory of communication, some stem from the nature of poetic texts. It is, for instance, now universally accepted that redundancy is encoded in any form of communication. What is less known is that over-determination is one of the distinctive features of literariness. Hence, to the dynamics of "diffèrance," exemplified by the dynamics of margins marked by Mao and Jong, one can oppose the still sameness of form and repetition. Refrains, even implicit ones, produce the effect of non-meaning. In other words, repetition becomes paradoxically the best mimesis of non-sense. Repetition then, as in the mouth of a drunkard, becomes the death of meaning. In turn, the paradigmatic substitutions of "red" and "dark," when juxtaposed to such signifieds (and perhaps referents, if we believe Dyck's introduction) as "They beat to death a German on the streets," serves as an overdetermination of death and violence.

     To put it simply, the technique consists of trying to mean less and more at the same time. We are in a situation where a text 't' and a refrain 'r' are preceded by opposite signs:

            t + r = o ® t = -r

Readers would have a tendency to see the refrain according to a symbolic code, one that is perhaps a trap because it is too obvious. Such a symbolic code would be based purely on a referential reading and would ignore the fact that texts can also be read as rigorously self-generated by their signifying functions. So the referential reader would understand about red being a chromatic metonymy of communism: he would also more specifically recall Mao's red star. Then the conclusion would be that Mao has brought death (symbolized by "dark") to the Northern provinces. Dyck would then simply echo cruel clichés such as: there is no revolution without blood baths or, to use one of Mao's litotes: "The Revolution is not a dinner party."

     However it seems to me that the signifying reading undermines the referential one. Simply consider that the chromatic metonymy for North is (through associated signifieds such as "snow and "ice") white. Also the reader will have no problem admitting that dark is a semantic litote for black. The text appears then to be generated by a system of permutations applied to signifiers without consideration for signified impossibilities:

            red was the dark north       ® red = black
            red was the north              
® red = white

The conclusion is then:

                       red       =      white       =      black

So, the presence of all colours is equal to the absence of all colours and is also equal to no colour. The effort here is to approach a non-meaning at the signifying level, but this non-meaning in turn gives the referential meaning a deeper perspective. We can at least conclude that the refrain was symptomatic and that it did pose a problem. The chromatic associations with the objective of generating non-meaning are not peculiar to Dyck. The expression "Neige noire" is found in the poetry of Emile Nelligan and it is also the title of Hubert Aquin's last novel. A more universal example might be Corneille's well-known oxymoron, "obscure clarté."

     Again, some objections might be raised here. Why do I focus on a chromatic analysis? The value and the symbolic significance of colours is culturally coded. The absence of universal signifieds is far from exerting a paralyzing force on the reading here. My Western outlook, my tagging of white with North, winter and snow is first of all a reader response. Furthermore, even leaving E.F. Dyck out of this, let us admit that Jong as an actor and an immigrant has also been at least partly "westernized." Objections to my type of Riffaterrian reader-response criticism only tend to show that my interpretations remain valid even if one would want to return to traditional approaches.

     Chromatic substitutions on the paradigm of death are confirmed by another example from The Mossbank Canon:

5.  After walking at dusk under a red sky
     Mao swam in the red waters of the pond
     A white lily was his pledged child-bride
     Closed, her flower    : closed, her eyes
     Red were the eyes     : of his weeping mother
     as her star swam past the white budded lotus.17

     Note the semantic presence of the same three colours. White is overdetermined by "white lily," "child-bride" and "the white budded lotus." Black is implied in "dusk," "closed, her eyes" and perhaps more complex constructions. Red is the most explicit presence as an epitaph of nature.

     The stability of the system is however only evident at the level of surface structures. The first two lines, for instance, are not as red as they seem. Even if the sky is red at dusk, the poem begins with "after." When Mao swims, the waters of the pond can no longer be red for the swimming follows the evening walk. The red waters of the pond are actually black. The same anti-referential creation is applied to the eyes. Those of the bride or those of the mother can very well be red from crying. But when they are closed their colour cannot be seen by the observer. On the side of the observed the colour can only be black. Indeed, when the eyes are closed we only have the absence of colour, that is black. "Her flower," even if we are dealing here with the obvious symbol of virginity (this particular one would tend to prove that universal signifieds do exist), when closed, is also black.

     From what precedes we have triple proof:

              red = black     and     white = black

The equation of white and black; the Western reader at first believes he has perceived it through the value of orientalism in his own sociolect. We all know the stories of funerals in white and we all recall the rites of the dead that prescribe the wrapping of genitals in lotus leaves and petals. But what we have here is the dream-like fluidity of a male in the presence of a nocturnal bride allowing him to search for the maternal origin.

     The poem is quite reminiscent of the German Romantics and their intuition of feminine principles of regeneration. Under the Faustian sign of Marguerite we find Moritz' Anton Reiser, most of Brentano and Rünenberg of Tieck. One example should suffice to establish the parallel here.

     Right from the start of his Heinrich Von Ofterdingen, Novalis dreams that he enters a cave and that there he cannot resist a swim. There, in a dream-like landscape he feels wrapped by "a mist reddened by dusk" and that "every wave presses against him like amorous breast." The poet then falls asleep and dreams of a mysterious flower that becomes a woman who turns out to be his mother and will in turn become his beloved. In his dream such things are possible under dark magic waters.18 Dark islight and black is white. In this poem too, therefore, we have:

            red     =     black     =      white

I will spare the reader further examples. The poems 17 to 24 that make up Section III of The Mossbank Canon and bear the significant title "Moose Jaw (1920's): The Klan" constitute further proof that white is black. But the proof resides, as it has been shown, first of all in every hexagram. The reading at the integral level reveals death as a theme, the reading at the differential level makes of death a structure in process, as I have already said, a discursive method. It leads us to an open ending.

     The semes of death that have generated the poem are still present in the conclusion of The Mossbank Canon:

64.  Riddle of life             : riddle of noodle
       We crawl at morn, stand at noon, crouch at night
       Ready in minutes       : for eating and dying
       In every place           : winds are blowing
       Every summer sun shines on banners waving
       Propellers turn in every White Dove Cafe.19

Clearly death is there but life must go on. In the end death itself must die because the experiment must end, as it began, with the contemplation of another semantic impossibility.

     E.F. Dyck deserves far more attention than he has been getting. A recent review of his Pisseat Songs20 is quite symptomatic of the state of the contemporary reader:

     The poems are brief and quick with puns. Their pleasure lies in combining that clear, brief statement with the sudden turn of meaning on a single word that a pun can accomplish.
     The danger of such a style is that it becomes too ingenious.21

Critics fear the text as adventure and they prefer the readerly ready noodle to the writerly riddle. I welcome E.F. Dyck's sudden turn of meaning away from immediate emotional satisfaction, towards his type of refined lyricism where Descartes meets a new form of Romanticism.


  1. EF. Dyck, The Mossbank Canon (Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1982). See also: E.F. Dyck, Odpoems Et (Moose Jaw: Coteau Books, 1978). I use the term hypogram in the Riffaterrian sense. One of the most useful definitions that the author of Semiotics of Poetry gives of that key term is the following: "The hypogram is formed out of a word's semes and/or its presuppositions. The poetic sign actualizes some of these; the hypogram's nuclear word itself may or may not be actualized" (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1978), p. 25. What makes death a particularly interesting hypogram to be studied in contemporary poetry is the fact that nine times out often it is not actualized. I would ventme to say that virtual hypograms are the characteristic formal feature of contemporary Canadian literature. This feature remains valid at the metatextual level, the one found in such statements as: "Al Purdy is so Canadian that he would never admit that he knows anything." [back]

  2. By "metacritical" I intend to qualify a scholarly text that has remained the essential speculative nature of the best criticism but has abandoned the traditional academic ornaments. To my knowledge metacriticism is in its infancy. Besides rare examples of less radical attempts in Poétique and Tel Quel or the critical work of Michel Butor, I do not know of any other such enterprises. In the Robert Kroetsch project I see the first signs, naturally, of the death of criticism, perhaps the birth of a movement that might take us beyond the recent repetitious exercises of minor deconstructionists. Hence, the direction of the long poem and that of literary analysis possibly merging towards metacriticism.[back]

  3. Robert Kroetsch, "For Play and Entrance: The Contemporary Canadian Long Poem," Dandelion, Vol. 8, No. 1 (1982), p. 63.[back]

  4. Ibid., p. 69.[back]

  5. Ibid., p. 80.[back]

  6. Odpoems Et, p. 12.[back]

  7. One should however note that a whole rhetoric of desire takes shape here. The abbreviation of the poet's first name "Ed" becomes "Od" and what is narrated is the evolution of an ideal self logically taken to its end.[back]

  8. Odpoems Et, p. 12.[back]

  9. Robert Kroetsch, p. 80.[back]

  10. Roland Barthes, L'Empire des signes (Paris/Genève: Flammarion/Skira, 1970), p. 102. The illustration is a Zen garden and Barthes notices that the traces of man are absent. Only the traces of his work (of his writing) are visible.[back]

  11. Here is the poet's explanation: "These poems constitute, as the common phrase has it, an experiment in form. By that I mean that each of the sixty-four stanzas has its six lines based on the form of the I Ching hexagrams, and each line is either yang (unbroken, virile, active nominative, indicative) or yin (broken, muliebral, passive, imperative or subjunctive, prepositional). The I Ching forms provide, I hope, a resonance (as Joseph Neednam, Science and Civilization in China Volume 2, uses the word) otherwise lacking from my telling of a particular story. The content of the poems derives from the actual case history of a Chinese immigrant to Canada, from the biographies and writings of Mao Tse Tung, and from the histories of Mossbank and Moose Jaw. The narrative proceeds chronologically, following the divergent careers of Mao and 'Jong'" (p. 5). [back]

  12. The Mossbank Canon, p. 11.[back]

  13. Michael Riffaterre, "The Referential Fallacy," Columbia Review 57 (Winter 1978): 21-35. Part of the literary phenomenon — the dialectic between the text and the reader — consists of a "naïve faith in a direct contact or relation between words and referents." This is "the referential fallacy."[back]

  14. I use the structural distinction here according to Noam Chomsky's Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought (New York: University Press of America, 1966), pp. 31-59.[back]

  15. The Mossbank Canon, p. 13.[back]

  16. Michael Riffaterre, p. 77.[back]

  17. The Mossbank Canon, p. 15.[back]

  18. Novalis, Schrifften hem us gegeben von Ludwig Tieck und Fr. Schlegel (Leipzig: Baudry, 1840), Vol. 1, pp. 101-103 and pp. 181-83. For further standard interpretations of onirism in Novalis see: Albert Bégin, Le Rêve chez les romantiques allemands et dans la pensée française moderne (Marseille: cahiers du Sud, 1937).[back]

  19. The Mossbank Canon, p. 87.[back]

  20. E.F. Dyck, Pisscat Songs (Ilderton: Brick Books, 1983).[back]

  21. Robert Quickenden, "Five Chapbooks," Prairie Fire Vol. 7, No. 2 (Summer 1986), p. 74.[back]