The Self-Completing Tree: Livesay's African Poetry

by Fiona Sparrow


Implacable woman
the land reclines: dusty deaf
heart of stillness    mummified stillness

Sun rages month on month
and men light fires     make trees totter
for fertile ash

But suddenly in November
a bird's voice fountains
thunder rants
rains tantrum
demanding   demanding

In a green swing upwards
the soil yields — —
      the land is dancing


The still trees in late afternoon
are nameless elements
like elms they soar
like mushrooms wreathe the sky
At night they burst out suddenly
and fructify
with ripe moon-silvered fruit,
parade in columns
towards blue stars:

until the wild cicada shrills
telling the world their names.


Rooted strong on a hillside
or as a gnarled shadow
on windswept fields
the wild fig tree's
dry leaves
whistle November:
but on the sheltered side
fat leaves, bursting
declare April

And when the fruit forms clusters
and shoots dark red fingers
at the lusty sun
is it summer or winter?

Happy the self-completing tree
that brews, in secret,
its own seasons . . .

      — Dorothy Livesay, "The Land," The Colour of God's Face1

In 1972 Dorothy Livesay described her work, the best of which she had put together in "a psychic autobiography,"2 as the fruit of two seasons. Her Collected Poems represents forty-five years of creative activity, but her choice of a quotation from Blake for an epigraph implies that she feels these years have yielded two very different harvests. Though her work records the progressive passing of many linked phases, she does speak of a dividing line in her life that encourages a before-and-after view of her poetry. The point that marks the divide cannot be precisely located, but it comes in the years around the poet's fiftieth birthday. At this time she was teaching in Africa and by her own account the continent effected a transformation. In her article "Song and Dance" she says that when she "returned to B.C. at the end of my Unesco tour, in July 1963, I was a changed person."3   Robin Skelton reviewing The Two Seasons was one of many to sense the change: "the poetry of Dorothy Livesay . . . since 1956 entirely alters my earlier view of her stature and position."4   Dorothy Livesay wrote very little between 1956 and 1963 and when The Unquiet Bed was published in 1967 it took her readers by surprise. Yet it is not a total transformation. The later poetry stays with the themes and imagery of her earlier work. The change is in the freedom and confidence with which she handles her subject matter.

     Other factors besides the African experience caused the sudden reflowering of her later poetry. 1967 (The Unquiet Bed) and 1969 (Plainsongs) were years of plenty but they followed a barren period in the poet's life and perhaps a dry season had been necessary to produce such a rich harvest. Dorothy Livesay has described the grim fifties, when the dreams of a new society, fought for during and before World War II, faded. "It required," she admits, "a tremendous, traumatic break before I could escape from the defeatism of The Fifties."5   She made the break when she received a Humanities' Grant to study at the Education Institute of the University of London and she left for England in 1959. She went on to work for Unesco, first in Paris and then in Northern Rhodesia (soon to become Zambia) as a teacher. She wrote little during her time in Africa, she was "too damn busy teaching,"6 but the important break had been made. Her return to Canada coincided with a new nationwide interest in poetry, centred in Vancouver. Along with other poets Dorothy Livesay began to take a fresh look at verse techniques. Finally, "a very colourful and rejuvenating sexual relationship, a love affair with a younger man"7 inspired her to burst forth in song again.

     However, before she celebrated that love affair, she needed to write Africa out of her system. The first volume of poetry to appear after her return to Canada was The Colour of God's Face, published by Vancouver's Unitarian Church, which advertised the work as "a personal response to the land, the people, the religion and the politics of an emerging nation."8  These poems do not speak with the personal voice that is heard in The Unquiet Bed but they do give an honest and sympathetic interpretation of a changing society, not surprising from the poet who had previously shown herself sensitive to social issues. Dorothy Livesay herself felt hesitant about these poems:

I decided I had to get out of my system what had happened to me in Africa and so I began writing a number of poems which were separate poems, and then I began to think of them as a whole but I was absolutely terrified to show anybody these poems; I didn't feel that I could write. I simply thought I had lost it completely.9

Her African poems cannot compete with her best work but they have more value than she at first allowed them. They are obvious stepping-stones to her second season and they are of great interest because they illustrate the effect a strange landscape can have on the imagination of a poet.

     Dorothy Livesay arranged her African poems in two suites. The poems which first appeared in The Colour of God's Face are found with some alterations in The Unquiet Bed as the Zambian suite. "The Second Language" is a suite of four poems addressed to a student friend. They were published in Collected Poems in the section "To Speak With Tongues (1960-1964)". In these two short suites Dorothy Livesay gives a surpris ingly full picture of Northern Rhodesia. On her arrival she discovered a country moving smoothly and happily towards independence, at least so it seemed when the problems of neighbouring Southern Rhodesia and the Belgian Congo were considered. The 1961 February number of Canadian Forum provided space for a foreign correspondent. Dorothy Livesay sent in "Copperbelt: A Letter from Northern Rhodesia". This letter places her in the continent where the winds of change were blowing. This is how her letter opens:

Elizabethville is only a hundred and fifty miles from where I am settled in Northern Rhodesia. It takes only an hour-and-a-half to reach the border of Katanga. And along this highway, past my thatched roof hidden amongst banana and mango trees, there came this year a steady stream of Belgian refugees.10

The indications were that the emerging nation of Zambia, led by Dr. Kenneth Kaunda, would find an easier route to independence than her neighbours. Dorothy Livesay's sympathies lay with the Africans who wanted the benefits of a free and democratic society, but she saw that even here there were problems ahead. The tightly-knit and traditional village way of life, where "there was much of goodness and beauty," was threatened.11  She sensed the difficulties that would come as this way of life was destroyed by the "destructive forces" of "capitalism and automation" which were already "rearing their heads in the new Zambia."12  The poet's response, however, could only be an impersonal one, "a white outsider's appraisal."13   William New, writing about the reactions of Dorothy Livesay and Margaret Laurence to Africa, says that, in spite of their liberal sympathies, they both quickly became aware of their separateness from the cultures they were watching.14

     Of the two suites, "The Second Language" comes closer to expressing a personal reaction. In it the poet looks to her African companion for answers. The poems are dotted with question marks, with which the poet seeks for answers from her position as a woman, as a Westerner, as a political thinker and as a lover. In the first poem, "Zambian Wedding", she is puzzled by the enigmatic figure of the passive and withdrawn bride, who does not lift her eyes or open her mouth. The white woman cannot find her bearings in this strange world that has adopted much from the colonizers, the church service and the white veil while at the same time guarding its own traditions. The poet wonders about the black woman:

when night falls
will you make bold, then
to lift up your eyes?
Will you be afraid, in that stillness
to behold the bridegroom? (p. 255)

A further unspoken question has been asked by the poem as a whole; is there a sacredness to this wedding that the outsider cannot sense?

     The second poem in the suite, "Before Independence (Zambia)", like the first, is a concise and evocative word picture of an African scene. Again the poet finds it difficult to fathom the thoughts of the central figure, even though the context should make them clear. She is watching an act of worship in a setting that is recognizable. The aisles of this cathedral look familiar:

     the aisles,
lit with lights held in their niches,
the stations of the cross
the virgin blue and gold
the pink-faced infant.   (p. 256)

Yet there are incongruous elements to the scene. Behind the plain altar rises a great painting of two black martyrs, making it necessary to accept the idea that the colour of God's face is not automatically white. The poet finds her companion's faith puzzling but impressive and she is prepared to believe in it without seeking an answer to her questions:

I did not ask you how you accepted
the mediaeval saints, swathed in blue robes
alongside the stark, the naked black.
I did not ask where your faith began
and ended —   (p. 256)

At least sympathy, a togetherness, can now link the two, though they remain physically apart. As they leave the cool cathedral to walk back to the hot and busy African compound the poet wonders whether her companion's faith will survive coming independence. The title of the poem suggests that it may not and it may also be threatened by the feelings that are expressed in the next, and contrasting, poem.

     The third poem, "Politics", returns to the village. Here among the huts and palm trees an African woman is speaking. She is probably Alice Lenchina, who is named as the prophetess in the Zambian suite. Though the scene is obviously African in detail, it has certain aspects that remind the poet of her own world. This is a political meeting with an impassioned speaker and an audience of supporters and hecklers. The language, Bemba, is incomprehensible and the poet relies on her companion to interpret it. It is his reactions that present the problem here. In the fight for freedom the poet would be inclined to commend the courage of a woman who stands up to authority. Her friend, however, deplores violence and this is understandable; less acceptable is his frowning disapproval of the speaker because she is a woman. The changes he sees coming will weaken the old traditions, which drew clear lines between the areas of activity belonging to men and women.

     The questions asked in these poems are not strongly worded nor do they demand answers. With hesitation, and from the sidelines, the poet comments on a way of life that is changing. The style of these poems is straightforward and descriptive, with an economical use of detail to give local colour; the women are "baby weighted" (p. 257), the men's white teeth show up against their black faces. The poems, separate but linked, are well orchestrated as a suite, and the last poem, moving into a different key, does make a personal comment that includes the whole. It is the title poem. Instead of observing the African scene the poet turns her attention to her own place in that landscape. While the poet remains on the same Zambian ground, the landscape is now layered with myth and dream. The imagery used to describe it is traditional and suggestive. It is a dark forest, fiercely lit by star and moonlight. This poem, "The Second Language", is dedicated to her companion and the poet is compelled to recognize the difference between herself and this man, between her world and his, to the point that their supposedly common language cannot serve them. The meaning of words cannot be relied on as they attempt to make contact:

We walk between words
as if they were trees
touching rough bark
exploring origins.   (p. 258)

     The poem is divided into six small sections that explore the space the two are standing in. It is an African but also a magical space. We are in a black forest" where the moonlight turns the leaves silver and the stars shine with a blue light. It is a place where the man is at home; he can find roots and uncurl each leaf. The woman, however, cannot accept the place as hers. It gives her glimpses of a blazing heaven, which at once tempts and terrifies her. In the end they turn away from each other; their words "torn to shreds/by the shrill cicadas" (p. 259). In the second half of the poem the poet allows herself to consider the alternative and she imagines "the white flowering/into black", communication becoming impossible "between night's sheets" when the "day's disjointed/sentences" are no longer needed (p. 259). Sleep would bring peace beneath a shared "dark cover" of myth and dream. Yet she fears this way might lead to madness and the drummer heard in the dark forest is warning her as she stands waiting. This is the most powerfully imagined poem in "The Second Language suite". The questioning outsider has become personally involved. Her feelings are closely analysed in a situation where ordered and known patterns are threatened. There is fine control, however, of intense passion, and part of the poet's success lies in her ability to relate the particular to the universal. The imagery she uses for this African scene — dark and light, forest, roots and leaves, moon and star — is common to all myths. The need is for a second language that can take black and white back to shared roots. With this poem Dorothy Livesay rounds off this suite with a statement that is both personal and general.

     The Zambian suite is written almost entirely in the documentary voice and it reveals little of the poet's personal responses. Dorothy Livesay tightened this effect in her revision of the work. The poem in The Colour of God's Face which seems most to speak about herself, "The Land", is left out of the suite as it appears in The Unquiet Bed. It is replaced with "Initiation". While the poet refers to the revised version, "Zambia", as a documentary, she does draw a distinction between it and her earlier work Call My People Home. She describes her poem about the plight of the Japanese in wartime Canada as "a presentation true to 'found' facts", whereas in "Zambia" there is "a freer expression" in her "impersonal view of a country wresting itself from a tribal way of life into the modern world."15  There is little political engagement in her African poems but they will be read as a comment on the way Zambia reached Independence. This is especially inevitable with "The Prophetess" and "The Leader", poems which deal with real personalities. The poet may even be quietly making a political point when she changes the order of these two poems in her revision. In The Colour of God's Face the suite is closed on a positive note with Dr. Kenneth Kaunda's call for freedom. In Zambia the final word is given to Alice Lenchina, whose followers clashed with Kaunda's powerful UNIP party while she herself was imprisoned.

     "Zambia" opens with a first person poem, the only one in the suite. The initiation is the poet's, as she is introduced into the secrets of the dark continent. The poem tells of her arrival in Lusaka. The first adjustment she must make is to the dazzling brightness of the so called dark continent. There is "resplendent sunshine" and marvellous, exuberant colour in the city, where the streets are lined with violet jacarandas and flaming flamboyants (p. 306). The poet is particular about the date which is the "twentieth of November", a fact she repeats because this requires a further adjustment. This is not the kind of November a Canadian recognizes; in November you should not be sheltering from the sun with a gold-fisted Nature scattering riches around you. Straightaway her preconceived ideas are shaken, making even her language seem unreliable.

     The three poems that follow "Initiation" centre on village life and the tribal society. The poems are descriptive but they also suggest the values that a primitive society has. These are usually values that will be lost when that society adapts itself to the modern world. The poet, herself part of the modern world, may find that this society is able to help her draw on her own lost past. The poet comments first on the Africans' total identification with their land. In "Village" the people blend into their landscape; "they smell of grass, of leaves / of the pitiless dust" and "Between the land and themselves / they feel no difference" (p. 307). They are so much of the place that they have not felt the need to give their village a name. The poet does not idealize the scene; the bareness is captured in the sparse lines of the poem. Every word has its dry effect — "shorn", "brown", "pale", "pitiless". The figures are seen growing from the earth and returning to it, never losing contact with the soil. It is for the sake of the visitors that the nameless child brings out stools so that they alone may sit separated from the dust. It is not surprising that on her return to Canada Dorothy Livesay called for "a sense of place in Canadian poetry". More than before she felt the need to "dig down into our own place where we're born."16

     The next poem describes a wedding. It is very different from the one on the same subject in "The Second Language". There she described a particular scene with details that indicated the mix of new and tribal customs. In the Zambian suite she describes an African marriage in more poetic terms. By listening to the drumming that is celebrating the union of man and woman the poem can sense the passionate physical power of their love. Drum beat and heart beat are synchronized to a pulse that is powerful enough to meet "the sun halfway" and haul "him over the rim" (p. 307). This poem, as did the title one in "The Second Language", shows the poet moving towards an uninhibited exploration of the act of love and the primitive need in herself for it. When she came back from Africa she found herself able for the first time to express "the feelings of close emotional relationship in words."17

     In "Funeral" the poet turns from union to separation. The village setting is sketched in with more detail here. Grief for a small boy, drowned by accident, spreads through the village on the day of his funeral. It starts at his family's hut where groups of wailing women wait with the silent men. It continues along the paths of black mud to the pit which is being dug in the tall grasses. None of this seems to count, however, compared with the grief of the brother who was there at the drowning. He, too, has died, "killed" by the victim's cry. He tries to join his brother in the grave and has to be pulled away from the unpainted box, "wrapped in black cotton" (p. 309). Though the scene is described with compassion, this poem is less effective than the others. The poet's own involvement is limited and she has lost the economy of the previous poems, allowing herself a looser and more digressive style. It appears Dorothy Livesay found it difficult to catch the voice she needed for this poem, as she also failed to do in "The Prophetess". Both these poems were considerably altered during revision while the rest of the suite remained virtually unchanged.

     Dorothy Livesay "was moved" to write "The Leader" after hearing Kaunda "address his people from an anthill on the Copperbelt." He was a leader who commanded her "deepest respect."18   The poem is structured on a night / day duality, and the imagery concentrates on the ear. The Copperbelt night is a coiling snake, tightening its hold on the restless, unsleeping people, creating a tension which is broken by the shrill cry of a child and the din from the beerhall. Daylight comes with a clap of thunder and the controlling voice of the leader promising freedom. In the first section of the poem Kaunda is seen among his followers as a new African day is born. In the second section the poet speaks with his voice, using the sound of a great bell to convey its effect. The bell is the "sounding sky" which is rung with a rope let down from Heaven. The leader's voice will ring on, through the day's intense heat and the night's darkness, until all his people are free. Dorothy Livesay restricts herself to describing the charisma and power of Kaunda as a leader, but with a sensitive choice of vocabulary and imagery she does convey an underlying tension to the scene. This potentially explosive force is suggested elsewhere in her African poems, but it does not surface. It is sometimes felt in the extremes of the climate — beating sunlight, pelting rain — or in the wild profusion of the vegetation, or in the noise and strong colours that the Africans love. The conclusion of this poem seems to be shadowed with a suggestion of violence. Kaunda's audience has been seen as clustering flowers, their faces turned to the sun, but their freedom will not be won without sacrifice:

I shall ring on
till flowers are black mouths
and the stones bleed my song. (p. 310)

     However, the poem on Kaunda, and the one that follows it on Alice Lenshina, should not be over-weighted with political significance. They are more important as the poet's immediate response to the power of two voices that, in their different ways, were speaking to the awakening nation at the time she was there. The bitter truth had not then become clear; these two voices could not sound together in harmony. Dorothy Livesay left Northern Rhodesia in 1963, some time before Independence Day, October 24th, 1964. She did not witness "Zambia's Holy War", which in the summer of 1964 marred the run-up to independence. Her poem, "The Prophetess", describes Alice Lenchina at the time of her religious experience and the subsequent birth of the Lumpa Church, which quickly spread over a wide area and flourished in the Copperbelt where Dorothy Livesay worked. In his book African Sunset, Robin Short gives a sympathetic account of Alice Lenchina's movement, which Kaunda was forced to destroy since it challenged his authority. Robin Short, writing in 1973, sees Alice Lenchina as a victim of the political chaos that was the final tragic legacy left to the country by the colonial power. From Robin Short's book the background to Dorothy Livesay's poem can be filled in:

In the year 1953 this simple Bemba village woman, Alice Lenshina, had fallen into a trance, she had "died", gone up to heaven and descended again, charged with certain messages to the world . . . . The secret of the movement's power was that it was specifically African, with an African prophetess who lived in a village, quite simply, and surrounded by her children.19

This is the woman and the experience that Dorothy Livesay is concerned with, but as she worked at the revision of the poem for The Unquiet Bed she must have known that this Zambian village woman was in prison. Perhaps that was why the poet felt the prophetess, not the leader, was entitled to the last word.

     In this final poem Dorothy Livesay echoes African rhythms. She said that when she was writing the Zambian poems back in Canada she related them to African rhythms. This, she maintains, was before she had reacted to the new Canadian harmonies. "All that," she says, "came after the poem was written. The rhythms of the poem really related to African rhythms."20  William New says of "The Prophetess" that its "rhythmic changes and incantatory repetitions draw upon the sounds of the drum culture."21 However, the extensive revisions she made in the poem indicate an uncertainty as African and Canadian voices blend. William New goes on to argue that "The Prophetess" is not really a drum poem; he can hear the influence of the Vancouver poets along with the sounds of Africa:

. . . it relates in its technique not just to drums but also to theories about speech patterns and incantatory effects that had become prevalent in Vancouver poetry circles by the time she returned from Africa. The continuing sensitivity to poetic technique that allowed her then to respond to the work of, for example, George Bowering and bill bissett, urged The Unquiet Bed . . . into the form it took; but Africa seems to have been a key experience in provoking that continuing sensitivity in the first place.22

The oral culture of Africa undoubtedly influenced her writing. It suggested new rhythms and it showed her the way to find a voice to speak the language of freedom. Writing Africa out of her system resulted in her discovery of a new voice to celebrate her own freedom.

     While her African poems reveal cracks in the "impersonal" armour she put on to describe a country throwing off colonial chains, the political comment they make is restricted and muted. The poet was no longer the young, idealistic woman who joined the Communist Party in 1932, and, while her concern for social justice never slackened, she had become wary of terms like "freedom" and "progress". She was aware of the difficulty for the Africans of the "traumatic changeover from a tribal society . . . to an industrial society,"23 but at this stage of her life she was more conscious of her own needs as a woman and as a poet than of those of a society in which she was, afterall, a stranger. Margaret Laurence felt that the strangest thing she caught sight of during her travels was herself, with the result for her that: "my experience of other countries probably taught me more about myself and even my own land than it did about anything else."24  Margaret Laurence was in Africa at the beginning of her career as a writer; when Dorothy Livesay went there she had been writing for over thirty years. The effect of Africa was, however, the same on both of them. Dorothy Livesay describes it as "a great psychic release."25 Dropped into a landscape that upset all previous assumptions she was able to see herself as a thing apart and, shaken loose from old constrictions, she looked for and found a new understanding of language with which this newly-born person could speak.

     It is satisfying to find this personal realization written into one of her African poems, "The Land", and maybe it was in acknowledgement of its personal references that she decided to leave it out of the revised version of the Zambian suite, which was intended to be a documentary poem. "The Land", which opens the first version of her suite, The Colour of God's Face, is, on the surface, a description of the African landscape in November, when the rains change it from dusty dryness to blossoming green:

In a green swing upwards
the soil yields — —
      the land is dancing

Common to this poem and to the poem that replaced it, "Initiation", is the poet's response to an African November. There is a difference, however, in the two reactions. In both the Canadian is startled by a November which puts forth green leaves, but in "The Land" the trees keep some of the qualities she has always associated with them at this time of year. The gnarled, wild fig tree that on its sheltered side responds to the rains with green shoots, keeps on its windswept side its dead, dry leaves, thus combining within itself the qualities of two seasons:

Rooted strong on a hillside
or as a gnarled shadow
on windswept fields
the wild fig tree's
dry leaves
whistle November:
but on the sheltered side
fat leaves, bursting
declare April

     In the second section of the poem the poet returns to the enchanted dream landscape she explored in "The Second Language". Initially she feels at home here because the "nameless" trees which stand around her look like familiar Canadian elms, but they burst suddenly into fruit which turns silvery in the moonlight. In the earlier poem it was the shrill cries of the cicadas that made her aware of her separateness, and here, as well, the cicadas give the trees their African names, reminding her that she is on alien soil.

     This middle part of the poem is sandwiched between two descriptive passages which relate as much to the poet as to the land. In them she finds fulfillment in this strange land. In the first passage the dry, barren soil is seen as a woman:

Implacable woman
the land reclines: dusty deaf
heart of stillness    mummified stillness

The land is brought back to life by the rains and made fertile by the sun. In the last section of the poem the metaphor changes because the poet focuses on a tree growing on a hillside. For Dorothy Livesay a tree has always been a powerful symbol: "I would say that of the natural images, the tree is central because it has roots; underground roots to the basic elements of life and death."26  The tree becomes central in this poem. With the characteristics of both spring and autumn, it is seen as the "self-completing tree." The poet is moving towards the realization that she can combine two seasons within herself. Here she uses for the first time the imagery that marks her later poetry — the gnarled tree reflowering, the fierce power of the lusty and male sun, the combination of heat and cold or freezing fire. This imagery repeats itself in The Unquiet Bed and Plainsongs, for example in "Second Coming":

What unwithering
            is this?
      the gnarled tree un-
            knotting itself'?    (p. 291)

or when she speaks of the power of the sun in the last section of "Con-Sequences":

The sun shines
on the bald hill
or the lush valley
equally   fiercely   (p. 321)

As we follow this imagery into Disasters of the Sun and Ice Age, we can see the process continuing; rebirth means beginning the journey again towards death, the stronger the sun's power the quicker the journey will be. Africa gave the poet a new understanding of the seasons, of the year and of life. She realized that to some extent she had, like the "self-completing tree", the power to brew her own seasons.

     The love affair that followed her return to Canada led to the celebration of sex in The Unquiet Bed. In her earlier poetry she had described the act of love, but had done so indirectly, often brilliantly, with startling imagery, as in "Bartok and the Geranium". When a young woman, however, she had been perplexed by the male/female relationship. She had been concerned with the loss of identity required in submitting to male domination and she had been driven to express complex feelings through imagery. "I think," she says, "that through the earlier part of my life I'd never been able to express the feelings of close emotional relationship in words."27   In her later work this changes and we see her approaching intercourse not only unafraid of losing her identity but also prepared to speak about it clearly. She knows that lovers can still hurt, even damage, each other, but making love is something as natural as the coming of the rains and new growth on the trees. It is to be enjoyed for the fierce pleasure it gives. The secret is "to be woman" and not feel inhibited by the role. It may require submission but the conqueror will himself be subdued. In her poem, "The Taming" — a compact miniature masterpiece — she indicates that she learnt this secret from a black man, presumably in Africa. Like many of her best poems this one is a conversation, or rather one side of a dialogue. Its rhythms are based on what she has taken from Africa and the Vancouver group and made peculiarly her own. There is incantatory repetition, of, for example, "be woman", and there are the sounds of speech. She has her own voice and she subtly suggests an African voice: "You did say me" (p. 296). The poem is a miracle of brevity, since in twenty short lines and with the minimum of detail the poet speaks of past and present time, of two specific, localised scenes, one of which takes off into mythic space. In this poem, the journey is made from Africa to Canada. The poem can be read in different ways, but whether it relates to the poet's or the woman's role, it arrives at a sense of fulfillment and completion in spite (indeed, it is because) of the negation implied in the title. "The Taming" acknowledges her debt to the "dark" continent, where paradoxically she was forced in the darkness of night to face the light and so see clearly: "you denied me darkness, / even the right / to turn in my own light" (p. 296).

     "The experience of three years in Africa," writes Dorothy Livesay, "was so intense and fascinating it cannot be set down in a few words."28  The intensity and fascination of the African experience led to the rich poetic harvest of her second season. It is a miracle of "unwithering", and "unknotting", that leads to a new blossoming. Africa was intense and fascinating in many ways. It was dramatically different from Canada and forced the poet to re-examine her own language, its sounds as well as its vocabulary and imagery. Africa remained sufficiently primitive to make the magical possible; it was surely the dwelling place of "he with moon-wand/who witches water" (p. 359). Africa seemed to be the natural home of myth, where man had his origins in the first place and where, in the villages at any rate, man moved through the process of living and dying in harmony with the land. All this would make its appeal to a poet. Zambia was also moving into the modern world, and moving fast, and Dorothy Livesay responded to the excitement of the time when freedom and change were at hand. Her African poems, taken as a whole, reflect the variety of her reactions. Many of her poems are documentary and describe the land, the politics and the people, but a few of her poems go beneath the surface and suggest the way this land of myth and primitive strength worked on her own life and imagination. A remarkably resilient and responsive woman, Dorothy Livesay stood upright beneath the African sun and rains, and like the wild fig tree she felt herself grow young and fertile again.

     A very different metaphor, but one she herself suggests, which describes how Africa affected her poetic voice could be taken from her poem "Malaria". In Africa she caught malaria, a disease that goes dormant but can strike unexpectedly.

Malaria, long sleeping in the blood
leaps in an adder's fashion, suddenly —
the body unprepared and unattended . . .

"Another sickness", a fever of the spirit, entered her blood at the same time. It is a sickness that is ready to strike and strangle her unawares, but under its influence the truth emerges:

When my breath's seized with such arrest
I shake and tremble
cannot withhold my eyes from your bent look
and, in the words that stumble
out of my mouth
cannot dissemble.29

When thus afflicted the poet speaks with spontaneity and honesty, and this is the remarkable and new characteristic of her later poetry. Malaria was Africa's gift — and gift it was since it refuelled her creative drive — and the poetry written after her return to Canada represents, indeed, a second coming.


  1. "The Land" is as printed with Dorothy Livesay's permission. It is republished in her new book from Press PorcÚpic, The Self-Completing Tree.[back]

  2. Dorothy Livesay, Collected Poems: The Two Seasons (Toronto: McGraw-Hill: 1972), p. v. Unless otherwise noted quotations from Livesay's poetry are taken from this edition.[back]

  3. Dorothy Livesay, "Song and Dance," Canadian Literature, 41 (Summer, 1969), p. 46.[back]

  4. Robin Skelton Rev. of Collected Poems, Canadian Literature, 58 (Autumn, p. 1973) p. 82.[back]

  5. Dorothy Livesay, "Song and Dance," p. 46.[back]

  6. Bernice Lever, "An Interview with Dorothy Livesay," Canadian Forum, September, 1975, p. 51.[back]

  7. Doug Beardsley and Rosemary Sullivan "An Interview with Dorothy Livesay," Canadian Poetry, 3 (Fall/Winter, 1978), p. 97.[back]

  8. The Colour of God's Face (Vancouver: Unitarian Church of Canada, 1964), taken from the back cover of the pamphlet.[back]

  9. Beardsley and Sullivan, "Interview," p. 95.[back]

  10. Letter in Canadian Forum, February, 1961, p. 247.[back]

  11. Dorothy Livesay, "Song and Dance," p. 46.[back]

  12. Ibid.[back]

  13. Ibid, p. 47.[back]

  14. William H. New "Canadian Literature and Commonwealth Responses," Canadian Literature, 66 (Autumn, 1975), p. 18.[back]

  15. Dorothy Livesay, "Song and Dance," pp. 46-47.[back]

  16. Beardsley and Sullivan, "Interview," p. 96.[back]

  17. Ibid, p. 97.[back]

  18. Dorothy Livesay, "Song and Dance," p. 46.[back]

  19. Robin Short African Sunset (London: Johnson, 1973), pp. 223-4. Robin Short spells the name with an "s", whereas Dorothy Livesay writes it as "Lenchina."[back]

  20. Beardsley and Sullivan, "Interview," p. 96.[back]

  21. William H. New, "Canadian Literature and Commonwealth Responses," p. 18.[back]

  22. Ibid.[back]

  23. Dorothy Livesay, "Song and Dance," p. 46.[back]

  24. Margaret Laurence, Heart of a Stranger (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976), p. vii.[back]

  25. Beardsley and Sullivan, "Interview," p. 94.[back]

  26. Bernice Lever, "Interview," p. 49.[back]

  27. Beardsley and Sullivan, "Interview," p. 97.[back]

  28. Dorothy Livesay, "Song and Dance," p. 46[back]

  29. "Malaria" appears in The Phases of Love (Toronto: The Coach House Press, 1983).[back]