Margaret Avison: Power, Knowledge and the Language of Poetry

by J.M. Kertzer

Margaret Avison’s poetry is prompted and sustained by a sense of power to which the poems themselves give access.  They dramatize her efforts to contact the sources of that power and to gain the knowledge it permits, a contact that is discouraged by the cynical frame of mind of modern man and so must be won through poetic effort, a knowledge that is inhibited by his misplaced faith in reason.  This power is the fundamental energy of being, a vitality displayed by the natural world which her poems examine and celebrate; it is the energy of human apprehension and understanding, granted by the combined forces of reason and imagination, or the rational imagination; and it is the transforming energy of Christian faith.  Recognition of, contact with and assent to these powers provide what Avison has called “a truly inner knowing1:  an accurate and profound perception of the world and oneself, of the flesh and the spirit, of the relation between nature, man and God.  Power is knowledge, knowledge is power, and for the poet, both are sustained by language.  The creative word — which, at different points in her career, Avison expresses as the Greek logos, a magical spell or invocation, a prayer, Christ as The Word — generates the power and conveys the wisdom that the poet seeks.  Poetic language is itself a means of power and knowledge.

     In the religious poems of The Dumbfounding (1966), the source of power is Christ and the transfiguring love and knowledge that He offers.   Christ is the power and the glory, and in Avison’s account of her religious conversion, it is the “Jesus of resurrection power . . . sovereign, forgiving, forceful of life” that she emphasizes.2   Christ is the Son of God and “sun of righteousness” (Malachi 4:2), the source of illumination and strength to feeble pilgrims.  He is, in various poems, an “arrowing sunburst” “flooding us with . . . risen radiance,” “Christian brightness” and “sunward love.”  Apart from the recognition that we live in a fallen and muddled world, there is little sense of malevolent sin in The Dumbfounding. Man remains passive, blind, ignorant and hesitant, and he must seek salvation by “forsaking all,” by submitting himself without question to a power infinitely greater than himself:

Dwarf that I am, and spent
touch my wet face with
the little light I can bear now.

The poems are prayers for enlightenment and, paradoxically, all the energy of their language is devoted to self-renunciation in an effort to “touch home” and draw near to the Christian sun:

GATHER my fragments towards
the radium, the
all-swallowing moment
once more.   (“Searching and Sounding”)

Her desire to approach the source of radiance explains the attention given to apostles and evangelists, to those who saw and touched Christ:  John, James, Saul who was blinded by “the Light” and transformed into Paul, and Zacharias, father of John the Baptist, who was “flame-touched, to front / the new sky.”

     In the poems of Winter Sun (1960) and earlier, the source of power is harder to identify.  Again, it is associated with the sun, but a “listless sun” that “lingers still at a Muscovite level,” barely heating a bleak, winter landscape.  The winter of discontent is both physical and mental:

There were two winters
     The laundry
      froze stiff on a stiff rope.
      The sword-dance of the sun
      skirted over the mounds.
      . . .
      And then the electric light
      pitilessly bared even the
      brain’s raftiest refuge.  (“Unseasoned”)3

This psychological and spiritual wasteland owes much to T.S. Eliot’s early work, and Avison’s world waits in hope or despair for the same vivifying power of the Spring, which will reanimate the world, the year and the self.  The title, Winter Sun, suggests the opposing forces of snow and sun whose “legends” the poetry recounts; but their conflict appears in even the earliest poetry, where it is expressed through references to polar and tropical landscapes, to Russia (snow) and Italy (sun), to the confusion of seasons, and to Christmas as the time of birth in mid-winter:

Yet in the winter solstice is discovered
The Sun perennial, pure penetrant of galaxies.
                                        (“Another Christmas”)4

And where the chestnuts shrivel in June blights
The autumn wind in midsummer
             is as it will be
Without all lissome and still fathomless sorrow  (“Omen”)5

     The earlier, like the later Christian poems, seek to locate and contact the source of power, but find it more elusive because they lack the guidance of faith.  The vivifying power is identified at various times with natural, supernatural and human forces.  Avison presents man as regimented and imprisoned in cities, cut off from the natural world which is frightening because it is utterly alien, but attractive because it is so vital.  Sealed within her house on a winter evening, the poet feels excluded from the reality that, once again, she wishes to touch:  “A pane, brick, lath, & wallpaper / divide me from these that I try to speak of.”  They are even beyond the grasp of human speech.  Then as she watches a chestnut tree, it “begins to have / its night,” a night that belongs to and sustains it alone, because it cannot be shared by man.6   This dilemma recurs in “The Local & the Lakefront”7 where:

Things happen only to trees and the
rivering grasses
A person is an alien.

There is a “fierce subhuman peace” in nature, and when winter-bound people appeal to the sun, they are calling to a power which may terrify and overwhelm them, but which may awaken a corresponding human power in themselves:

“I want the loud sun,” said the man,
“. . . Thundering down in hundredweights
Swarmed on the sun that thundered down before it
And beats you down and makes you fight.”
                                          (“A Conversation”)

Natural power is also presented as sexual, a vast fecundity that man, trapped in “Sour unfructifying November,” watches with mixed fear and longing.  The fertility myths that inspired T.S. Eliot also appear in Avison’s wastelands, occasionally explicit (Osiris appears in “Prelude”; “Mars and Aurora couple” in “The Crowd”; France Darte Scott was “the fair May mother”), but more often implicit:

What with the winter solstice
There is no chance of a strawberry festival
For months.  I cannot think . . . (“Chronic”)

Agnes Cleves once hoped to be redeemed by the “simple penetrating force of love,” a force which she now discovers only in the landscape around her:

And pomegranate seed spilled in the
        Cleft where sand and winter sun
               Drift to make small regular shadows.

     Supernatural powers appear in the earlier poems when the forces of nature take on a fabulous character.  These powers may be Christian, suggested usually by references to Christmas or Easter, or their magic may be pagan, as in the fertility myths above.  Hansel and Gretel, Pandora, Puss ’n Boots, the Horse Head nebula, Rip Van Winkle, Pan and Peter Pan all appear in the poems as figures who have mastered a power that permits them to triumph over time and death.  Hansel is the artist, a “bloat phoenix” fattened by the imagination and continually resurrected through his art (“The Artist”).  Every man is a Rip Van Winkle who can awaken from the sleep of reason to an “invisible music” of the spirit (“Mordent for a Melody”).  Several references to Egypt, especially carved Egyptian friezes, suggest mystic insights into the cosmos, man and nature, a secret knowledge that once granted magical power:

At the Museum, the big Egyptian frieze?
What knowledge of the stars or of blood bondage
Or the arithmetic of sacred polity
Delineated morning by the Nile
For the oxdriver or the riverboy?
                                         (“The Agnes Cleves Papers”)

But man has forgotten the wisdom of the ancients.  Through a pun, “frieze” also indicates the frozen state of the modern mind:  today “we model for the / frieze of night and thought.”8   Similarly in “Rigor Viris” (the title is an other pun, sexual and mortuarial), the city resembles “profiles of Egyptian smiles” and a “parade / Of all intolerables, in flowing frieze”; but when Pandora opens the magic box, she releases powers that can decipher the “clamouring mysteries” of the urban scene.  The spell seems to fail, however, in “Stray Dog, near Ecully” where “coin-conducted legions” of tourists — another image of staring but unseeing modern man — fail to follow the dog with the magical name “Sesame.”  They cannot move through a “Rouault hoop,” comparable perhaps to Pandora’s box, and so remain trapped within their “limited landscape.”  The powers which Avison’s poetry invokes do occasionally fail.

     Natural and supernatural powers provide Avison with a means of measuring human power, because man shares some of the fierce peace of nature and some of the magic of the divine.  In the domain of the human, however, the sun represents the flash of genius, the “sunbright gaze” of the visionary.  She proclaims the geniuses, rebels, iconoclasts and artists whose brilliance has transformed perception, a “lighting up of the terrain” of our lives that does not dispel its mysteries by explaining them away, but “signalizes, and compels, an advance in it” by deepening human understanding and wonder (“Voluptuaries and Others”).  She celebrates, in different ways, Archimedes, Anton van Leeuwenhoek, Tycho Brahe, Andrea Mantegna, Archibald Lampman, not for their patient labours or, though many are scientists, not only for their rational powers, but for their spontaneous insights:

Their wild salvation wrapt within that white
Burst of pure art whose only premise was
Ferocity in them. (“The Iconoclasts”)9

The power which these people share is “the inrushing floodlight of imagination.”10  It is the burst of pure art, the light shed by Milton’s candle in “From a Provincial,” the “golden contemplation in “The Road.”11  Avison’s heroes are revolutionaries of consciousness who have modified human sensibility.  Although she occasionally celebrates men of action as well — the Vikings in “The Iconoclasts,” the astronauts in “April 17-18, 1970 (Apollo XIII)”12 — action is secondary, and only possible because of prior mental daring.  Christ is the ultimate hero in her poetry because the spiritual transformation He permits has changed man and history, this world and the next.

     Like other poets who began writing in the 1930’s, Margaret Avison calls for a revolution, and seeks the power to make it possible.  Although she has a strong social awareness evident also in her translations of Hungarian poetry — the revolution she desires always comes from within.  She wishes to follow W.H. Auden’s example, to “Harrow the house of the dead; look shining at / New styles of architecture, a change of heart.”13  The rebellion must start in the mind and heart.  This bias is evident in a review she wrote in 1944 of Dorothy Livesay’s Day and Night.  In it, Avison distinguishes between “Man as a social animal” and “human beings,” and argues that Livesay often falsifies her work by writing a diagnosis of the former instead of poetry about the latter.  The “homeland” of the poet, she said in another review, “is a human environment,” not a social doctrine14.   The poet must investigate his own homeland in order to make it habitable:

We are aliens only insofar as we have alienated ourselves, although the recognition of such a sin is foreign to Miss Livesay’s thesis of external social responsibility.15

Because the fault is internal, poetry must look to “People, every one with a different world, from / Supernovae to amoeba in his soul” (“Apocalyptics”).  Because the fault lies in “sin,” not in social oppression, the revolution must be a spiritual one.  In this sense, Avison’s outlook has always been religious, and the power she seeks in her poetry has always been spiritual.  Even in her early work, her concern is not with politics as such, but with “political astronomy” (the subtitle of “Intra-Political”) and with “geometaphysics” which require a cosmic, philosophical sense of social relations.  Because she is concerned with the way “historical facts fuse with spiritual reality,” she appeals not to Manx but to “the oeconomy of the clairvoyant.”16  She seeks the insight found in that special “range of vision” that lies between “microscopic and ghostly” at the point of intersection of material and spiritual, of animal and angel:17

The tissue of our metaphysic cells
No magic window yet has dared reveal.
Our bleared world welters on
Far past the one-cell Instant
(“Neverness or The One Ship Beached on One Far Distant Shore”)18

     To call the early poetry religious is not merely to indulge in hindsight.  Norman Endicott was quite right in his review of Winter Sun when he said that the “transfiguring board of the world” at the end of “Intra-Political” is not seen through the eyes of revealed religion.”19  The poem, again like Eliot’s Waste Land, while it makes use of religious allusions, is not the work of an orthodox Christian or even, necessarily, of a believer.  Nevertheless, it dramatizes a religious condition; it laments the difficulty of belief; it calls for a transformation whose basis is spiritual, not social or psychological, and whose power is sacred.   For this reason, the revolutions in Avison’s poetry frequently appear as resurrections:  as “a first annunciation for the spirit”; as “Dayspring in the Magnificat.”  Her poems search for “new heaven and new hell.”  Rip Van Winkle, Atlantis, the phoenix and the butterfly are all figures that permit a purification of vision that will prompt a metamorphosis of the spirit:

gold-work of Vision on the iris, press
a point: a mooring-berth
of Sabbath rest and sun is with
the birds.  (“Factoring”)20

The power for such a metamorphosis comes from within, and changes in the outer social and political worlds, or even in the natural landscape are signs of an inner inspiration that is religious, if not explicitly Christian.  When “vintage elms wither by moral accident” in “Grammarian on a Lakefront Park Bench,” the land goes waste in response to moral conditions.  When “the huge bustling girth of the whole world” turns sunward in “Easter,” the land is renewed in response to a spiritual power.

     The knowledge like the power that poetry grants is spiritual in nature.  It is a truly inner knowing because it is based on the “optic heart,” or in The Dumbfounding on Christian faith, and not on the brain.  It is intuitive or imaginative knowledge.  Much of Avison’s poetry explores the nature of and the relation between different kinds of power and knowledge.  Rational knowledge, for example, is abstract, orderly, geometrical, “crafty,” and the power it grants is tyrannical, destructive, even suicidal.  It is “strait thinking” and “calendared knowing,” concerned only with the “pickaxe fact.”  It is fundamentally materialistic, and confronts the spiritual by reducing it to the material terms of science:

The Russians made a movie of a dog’s head
Kept alive by blood controlled by physics, chemistry,  equipment. . .
The heart lay on a slab midway in the apparatus
and went phluff, phluff.  (“Voluptuaries and Others”)

Avison’s poems form a critique of pure reason, and several (“Geometaphysics,” “Dispersed Titles,” “Voluptuaries and Others”) trace the history by which it has usurped human consciousness and displaced the imaginative wisdom of earlier times:

Of old there were fathers of wisdom
And even the half-alert
Learned how men topped creation
In their power of being hurt.
But see how our intricate wisdom
Has tangled awry
Now all we can hear in common
Is the animal cry.  (“Break of Day”)21

     Avison counters reason with the poetic wisdom of the imagination, but it is important to note that she does not set the two faculties in simple opposition.  Their relation is more complex.  On one hand, she insists that poetry does not rely solely on, or appeal to, reason:  poetic ideas “are very different from the intellect’s abstracts, and neither can perform the other’s functions.”22  Indeed, often poetry must actively subvert the expectations of reason if it is to promote the “jail-break / And re-creation” of the world called for in “Snow.”

     On the other hand, poetry does not necessarily exclude reason.  Avison’s own poems call for a subtle play of intellect in their allusiveness, their conciseness, and their effort “to convey the subtle and oblique awareness”23 peculiar to poetry.  This is the awareness that Archimedes gains when his genius lights up the terrain, or that Agnes Cleves seeks through her storytelling:

The shaft of vision falling on obscurity
Illumines nothing, yet discovers
The ways of the obscure . . .

The poetic vision perceives, Wallace Stevens said, by “musing the obscure,”24 by illuminating the thoughtful, Muse-inspired, amusing and dark ways of the imagination.  The very obscurity of poetry calls for an intellectual effort that enhances the knowledge and pleasure that must be won from it.  The effort of understanding enhances understanding.  Avison favoured difficult poets because “to penetrate to the essential worth of many writers is a chore, and . . . the final discovery makes the labor itself a kind of pleasure.”25  Such is the case with a poet like Dylan Thomas, whose work is a challenge to both reason and imagination:

The poetry of Dylan Thomas calls for attack.  You pounce, you fasten your teeth in its gristle, you worry it and drag it around in circles, and perhaps you come out, on top. 26

The same is true of many of Avison’s own poems.  Imagination is powerful, then, not because it supplants reason, but because it uses reason for its own ends.  The poet’s vision is “intense” and “clear-sighted” because “All his faculties” — including reason — “are alert and fused in a single, supreme effort.”27  The power of the imagination is the product of a disciplined mind.  In her review of Dylan Thomas, Avison uses a lovely phrase to explain the mutual dependence of reason and imagination:  she finds a poem “meaningful and beautiful, proof of the miracle that can occur when an involuntary mind is also fastidious.”28   The involuntary mind is the inspired imagination; the fastidiousness is the rational control of craft.  The two must work together in concert and in opposition, to provide the complex awareness of poetry.  When Avison writes “Butterfly Bones; or Sonnet Against Sonnets,” she indicates in her title, with its juxtaposition of fragile and tough, spontaneous and conventional, the interdependence of inspiration and intellect.

     The knowledge that poetry grants surpasses reason but is not irrational.  It is a fabulous power — a Pandora’s box, a magic spell — only because it submits to the discipline of craft.  When the poet’s faculties fuse in a single effort, the hawk-like imagination of “Unbroken Lineage” soars aloft, but fixes its piercing gaze on the ground beneath while thoughtfully “Crafting for rats through the obscurest mews.”  Musing the obscure provides knowledge, not just of transcendent splendours, but of everyday things which it discovers to be just as wonderful.  It surveys the real world through the absorbing vision that Avison, with Biblical and Romantic precedent, associates with childhood (“A Child: Marginalia for an Epigraph,” “The Absorbed”), a vision that teaches us to appreciate the fabulous quality of ordinary reality:  “Mews, meadows, steppes, bear still the fabled kings.”  Christ’s radiance is matched by His humility.  Oak, elm or chestnut, insect or raindrop, a janitor working on a threshold, seeds in the earth, a “portion of low roof swept by the / buttery leaves of a pear tree” — all are meaningful because they testify to the beauty and vitality of creation.  Poetry must never lose contact with fact, though it requires more than the pickaxe of reason.  Avison’s refusal to lose her head in a poetic frenzy (“he — transport! / SNEEZES”) explains why she is not an aesthete, despite her admiration for the transfiguring imagination.  In “The Fallen, Fallen World,” she argues against those who retreat into abstraction “Where meaning mocks itself in many echoes / Till it is meaningless,” because she refuses to ignore reality and the demands of reason.  She does not believe in art for art’s sake because she stands for the responsibility of art:  “Poetry over against the world — if such could exist, I’d stay on the world’s side,” she says in her letter in Origin,29 implying, however, that even in our anti-poetical world, such a choice is not necessary.  The two are not at odds because it is the duty of art to illuminate the world, to make it woonderful, intelligible and habitable:

       Gentle and just pleasure
It is, being human, to have won from space
This unchill, habitable interior
Which mirrors quietly the light
Of the snow, and the new year.  (“New Year’s Poem”)

     Margaret Avison is thoroughly traditional in her belief that poetry provides us with spiritual knowledge, even as in her technique she is thoroughly modern.  Poetry is insight, an “extension of experience to new proportions,”30 and therefore poetic knowledge consists, not in arcane learning, but in the spirit with which ordinary facts are observed, entertained and welcomed, in short in the way the world is endowed with meaning and beauty.  It is in this sense that Wordsworth, in his preface to the Lyrical Ballads, speaks of poetry as “the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge.”   Simply to observe the world from this imaginative perspective is to judge it, to question its relation to man, and so to judge man, whose spiritual state is at the centre of all Avison’s poetry.  As A.J.M. Smith says of scenes in Winter Sun:  “The way things are seen and communicated is criticism (examination, interrogation, evaluation) as well as perception.  The result is to transform perception into vision.”31  Poetry offers the power to transform sight into vision, accident into art, and man’s life into tragedy or divine comedy.

     The power of poetry resides in its language.  Everyday words are clumsy and imprecise, as Agnes Cleves finds when she seeks “a word cognate with love”; or they are impersonal and obscure when “Tomes sag on the begrimed shelves / locking in light.”  Either jargon serves “to mask feeling or exact sense”; or the “strict forms and pre-established terminology” of science succeed in “disciplining feelings and attitudes” in order to promote, objectivity and practical action, and to allow us to approach “the sore spots of our social life without wincing.”32  But poetic words are splendid.  They illuminate feeling and sense, broaden perspectives, and both expose and soothe the wounds in our lives.  They come from “Adam’s lexicon locked in the mind” because they recapture the original urgency and delight they had when Adam first named God’s creation and invented language.  They are “living words,” animated and playful in their “cresting exuberance,”33 the magical spells through which poets exercise their powers and compose their prayers.  The language of poetry is rich yet precise.  As Avison remarks in a review of A.M. Klein — a poet who may have influenced her enthusiasm for language — “All poetry gives words multiple meaning:   literal, associative, mimetic, musical,” a variety whose effect is not to confuse but to “discipline speech into clarity.”34   Avison again uses the figure of the child, who has an innocent delight in language that has not yet succumbed to grammarian, teacher or scientist, to suggest the powerful clarity of poetic speech.  One child discovers the full significance and resonance of a single word when:

Somebody’s grandpa came
in shirt-sleeves, solid
and asymmetrical, rooting the word
“trunk”, for a child, as right
for man or tree.  (“Prelude”)

The dual force of the word is confirmed playfully by Avison’s pun on the word “rooting.”  Finally, the language of poetry is powerful because it sustains an intimate communication between people, one that involves:

heart-warmed lungs, the reflexes
of uvula, shaping tongue, teeth, lips,
ink, eyes and de-
ciphering heart.  (“Words”)

The contact is between heart and heart, as well as between minds.  Not just ideas, but experience is shared.

     One of the delights of Avison’s poetry is the way it makes language exuberant. Her style ranges from the terse and understated, to the colloquial, to the eloquent, to the precious.  It is distinguished by its puns and word play (freeze-frieze, eyes-ice, service-station crossroads, the poem “Tennis” is a word game); by its neologisms (seamurmurous, Uncommonweal, forwardfold backslidden, Eporphyrial); by its phrases hypenated into mouthfuls (“rain-wrinkled, time-soiled, city-wise”; “Wind-snatched , pebble-rubber / mock-soccer-ball”); by its delight in unusual and colourful words (snow-whinged, whanged, albumen, rhizomes, sun-meld, friable, frangible); by its playful punctuation and typography that mimic, mock and question what the words declare; by its “Diction, imagery and form, nervous with the energy of paradox”;35 by its tongue-twisting sounds and rhythms:

The seeds     sorted in bins
clean     strange     and plain
under sagging tarpaulins
sifted     several     fine  (“The Store Seeds”)

These are all means of animating language.  They illustrate Avison’s conviction that the poet must take ordinary words and charge them with vitality and meaning, because the power that poetry seeks must be generated by the poetry itself.

     She uses another striking phrase to describe words used at full poetic power when she says of Pablo Neruda that his “words are an incident in the mind.”36  Words become incidents when they stimulate the mind to action, when they provoke an imaginative effort that confirms the power of the imagination, when they encourage a vision or a knowledge which they themselves bring into being.  Their power to extend experience to new proportions can be illustrated in “The Apex Animal.”

A Horse, thin-coloured as oranges ripened in freight-cars
which have shaken casements through the miles of night
across three nights of field and waterfront warehouses  —
rather, the narrow Head of the Horse
with the teeth shining and white ear-tufts:
It, I fancy, and from experience
commend the fancy to your inner eye,
It is the One, in a patch of altitude
troubled only by clarity of weather,
Who sees, the ultimate Recipient
of what happens, the One Who is aware
when, in the administrative wing
a clerk returns from noon-day, though
the ointment of mortality
for one strange hour, in all his lustreleas life,
has touched his face.

(For that Head of a Horse there is no question
whether he spent the noon-hour with a friend,
below street-level, or on the parapet —
a matter which may safely rest
in mortal memory.)

     The opening simile teases the imagination by providing terms so remote that it is a challenge to see their connection.  The imaginative and intellectual effort required to link these terms will give the poem its force and its vision.  The word “thin-coloured” yokes unrelated qualities.  The Horse is compared to oranges and to the practise of shipping produce over vast distances.   The oranges ripen in the dark.  The precision of the description (“three nights”) hints at but fails to disclose a precise meaning.  The casements in houses by the railroad provide a further, but blurred (“shaking”), perspective on the scene.  The competing features of this extended simile then give rise to a series of contrasts, oxymorons, and paradoxes in the rest of the poem.  The night contrasts the noon-day scene that follows.  “Street-level” and “parapet” offer low and lofty perspectives.  The phrase “troubled only by clarity of weather” is puzzling, because one would expect a lack of clarity to trouble the vision:  there seem to be conflicting kinds of clarity and of vision at work in this poem.  The phrase “mortal memory” paradoxically combines the time-bound with a power that transcends time though, it seems in this case, ineffectively.  If memory is mortal and forgetful, it is ironic that any matter “may safely rest” in it.

     All such contrasts support the opposition between “fancy” and “experience,” two modes of vision provided by the inner and the outer eye.  Experience rules the world of administration, clerks, accounting, reason, business, the world of produce from the opening lines which serve here, as in “Intra-Political,” as an image of hectic, commercial, omnivorous modern life.   It is a “lustreless,” calculating, mortal world illuminated for one strange hour by the eye of the imagination, which offers a clear vantage untroubled by the petty details that, at the end, bring the poem back to earth.  Imagination is an ointment for the wounds of our lives.  The shining, orange Horse, which offers the imaginative perspective and is obscured occasionally by a dim mental climate, seems to be a constellation, probably the Horse Head nebula, as Ernest Redekop suggests.37  Man seems impossibly distant from the cold gaze of these stars, as he is too in “The Absorbed”:

struggle, our animal fires
pitted against those
several grape-white stars,
their silence.

But the clerk, like Madelaine in “Our Working Day may be Menaced” or the narrator in “Prelude,” has his moment of vision.  The opposition of the two faculties, gradually negotiated by figures of speech, is overcome in a moment of contact (“touched his face”) to which the hesitant tone cautiously makes its way through the long, sinuous sentence of the first stanza.  This contact with the source of power recurs in Avison’s poetry at “the ominous centre,” the “node,” the “all-swallowing moment,” the apex where “we stab that one angle into the curve of space.”  In fact, the moment of contact and illumination, which suddenly sets our lives in a cosmic perspective, exists only within the poem.  “The Apex Animal” never tells us what wonders the clerk sees, but it convinces us — if it succeeds as a poem — that a wonderful vision has been achieved, and is all the more wonderful for being unspoken and at odds with the matter-of-fact conclusion.  The sense of wonder must be earned, made credible, by the power of poetry.

     The conviction that poetry can convince us by endowing words with a special significance accounts for another of Avison’s characteristic techniques.   Several poems culminate in a single word which, through careful preparation of image and allusion, stands out with unexpected force, and brings the whole poem into perspective.  It is suddenly focused through the lens of the final word.  For example, “Old . . . Young . . .” balances and interweaves images of youth and age, natural and human worlds, inside and outside, and then concludes:

even in this springtime, the last
      light is mahogany-rich
             a “furnishing.”

The last word, made striking by quotation marks and indentation, is an ordinary word made powerful.  It emphasizes how the sunset illuminates and enchants the country scene, harmonizing its old and young features at a privileged moment of insight.  It is a word rich in suggestion of decorating, enhancing, completing, fulfilling, and through these connotations it implies, not only that the scene is embellished briefly, but that it is enticed to disclose an inner beauty and harmony that usually are unrecognized.   Further more, the word “mahogany” recalls earlier references to “members of the orchard,” “candles” and “cellars” to give the final word the added sense of furnishings in a house.  But in this case the well-appointed home is the natural world, unified like the generations of a family and captured in one, rich vision.  Lateral, associative and musical meanings combine to give the word its power.

    Avison’s fascination with the power that individual words can wield in a poem is also apparent in a revision she made of “Natural/Unnatural,” whose conclusion (published in Origin, 1962):

I fear that.
I refuse.

she changed to:

I fear that.
I refuse, fearing; in hope.

The poem is an attempt to face despair and the fear of corruption, disaster and death, expressed as an attempt to locate, in a bleak cityscape, the least whisper or glimmer of hope.  The first version ends with an ambiguous refusal of despair or of hope.  The dilemma dramatized through the poem is not clearly resolved, yet the abruptness of the conclusion suggests a continuing desperation, if not full despair.  The second version, written after Avison’s religious conversion and included in The Dumbfounding, alters the emphasis and brings the poem into a different perspective.  The ending is still ambiguous, but because it is an ambiguity set in the context of faith, it is more affirmative than the first version.  The terms of the poem — refusal, fear, hope — are re-assembled and shown to be inter-related:  the refusal to submit to death does not exclude fear, but need not diminish hope.  The conclusion now replies to a question asked earlier in the poem:

“Hope is a dark place
that does not refuse

The final ambiguity reflects the position of the believer who must move through darkness to attain the light, who must face despair in order to confirm faith.

    The technique of steering a poem toward one or more evocative words becomes prominent in the Christian poems of The Dumbfounding, which often taper into a single word or phrase whose sacred significance suddenly provides the desired contact with divine power.  In “A Child:  Marginalia on an Epigraph,” the whole world of childhood is gradually funnelled into one word:

He is completely absorbed
and his heart therefore aches
(radiant, bone-barred):
and to long for the
not enough out of the light yet
to be filled,

Fullness of heart, of joy, of the radiance of longing and desire, of the rich spirit of childhood, as well as fullness of the holy spirit — all are suggested by the heavily-laden final word.  It brings into the focus the entire poem, with its intricately co-ordinated references to hunger, sustenance and emptiness, to kinds of appetite and kinds of food, to the Lord’s supper and the child’s entry into the kingdom of heaven.  We find the same technique in many of the religious poems:

looking to
Him who, in his hour,
comes.  (“The Earth that Falls Away”)

sound dark’s uttermost, strangely light-brimming, until
time be full.   (“The Dumbfounding”)

can bid us, now, in turn, o gentle Saviour:
“take, eat —
live.” (“For Dr. and Mrs. Dresser”)

In each case, the tentative quality of the lines conveys a tone of supplication, and the very simplicity of the terms suggests that language is approaching the ineffable, the point where vision is blinded and speech is dumbfounded.

    At this point, a paradox arises:  poetry is asked to use ordinary words in extraordinary ways in order to speak about what is ineffable.  Avison insists that the poet relies on the power of words to direct and inform the mind, to communicate with others, and to deal imaginatively with the world of fact.   Words are all that she has to work with.  But her confidence in language is countered by a diffidence in man’s spiritual strength.  Her religious poems, as we have observed, use exuberant language to express a condition of helplessness; her very title, The Dumbfounding, suggests that poetry must venture into realms where even the eloquent poet falters and falls silent.  The experience of despair and frailty that her poems attempt to overcome is dramatized verbally as an experience of speechlessness:  “How should I find speech  / to you, the self-effacing . . .?”  “Forsaking all” means forsaking words, because the dark path leading to the Light advances through wordlessness:

The elms, black-worked on green,
rich in the rich old day
signal wordlessness
plumed along the Dark’s way.  (“Branches”)

Here, Avison follows the path of Dylan Thomas, who also found that vision and prayer are only possible after the purification of blindness and silence:

Back to black silence melt and mourn
       For I was lost who have come
              To dumbfounding haven
                     And the high noon
                            Of his wound
                                 Blind my

     For Avison, the dumbfounding experience begins with “Adam’s lexicon” and the invention of language when words were first matched to things:

The bird pheasant
is named for a flattish shape,
the bird scarlet tanager
for a crest.
The bird, the naming
occurred — hence a religiosity
I, human, am
apologetic and
dying for.  (“To A Period”)39

Things (“The bird”) come first, and words (“the naming”) follow to mimic reality, to make it comprehensible, and so to establish man’s position in the midst of things.  The relation between man and creation is sustained by language; “hence a religiosity” is implicit in his very use of words.  Avison proceeds to illustrate this condition:

Plastic is named for
the two slats too heavily painted
in a humid season
that criss-cross from cinders against
a side of city.

Here, man’s relation to the artificial modern world — the city always under construction — is expressed by the word “plastic”; but the “criss-cross . . . against / a side of city” is congruent with another scene: the crucifixion.  A religiosity is implied in the words that provides a standard to measure our fallen condition and tell us of our possible salvation.  Thus Avison uses a theory of language — or a theology of language — as a metaphor for man’s spiritual state.  In later poems when she accepts Christ and her relation to creation is thereby disrupted, her sense of language is disrupted as well.  She is dumbfounded:

             the turning of a page . . .
maybe the whole bibliothèque vanished there, a
language lost.

(“The Typographer’s Ornate Symbol at
the End of a Chapter or a Story”)40

Now she must learn to read a new testament, written in “the new sky’s language.”  In Christ:

God is, in flesh.
Now the skies soar
with song.  Heaven utters. (“The Christian’s Year in Miniature”)                                      

God, Christ, and more specifically divine power, are associated with language:   the logos of St. John.  Christ is “The Voice that stilled the sea of Galilee,” and the Bible is “The word read by the living Word.”41  Avison’s later poetry turns often to the word of God.  Several poems are built on Biblical quotations and echoes, while “Ps. 19” is a poetic gloss of Psalm 19:9.  The beginning of the nineteenth Psalm is itself a kind of gloss on Avison’s poetry, showing how “heaven utters” in a paradoxically wordless language that conveys a knowledge of the power of the Lord:

The heavens are telling the story of God;
     and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
     and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
      their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
      and their words to the end of the world.


Editions used: Winter Sun and Other Poems (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1960), The Dumbfounding (New York: Norton, 1966).

  1. From a letter to Cid Corman published with a series of poems in Origin, 4 (January 1962), p.10.[back]

  2. Quoted by Lawrence M. Jones, “A Core of Brilliance: Margaret Avison’s Achievement,” Canadian Literature, 38 (Autumn 1968), p. 51.[back]

  3. Eli Mandel and Jean-Guy Pilon, eds., Poetry 62 (Toronto: Ryerson, 1961), pp. 14-15.[back]

  4. Contemporary Verse, 26 (Fall 1948), p. 5.[back]

  5. Here and Now, 1 (January 1949), p. 68.[back]

  6. “Chestnut Tree — Three Storeys Up,” Poetry 62, p. 11.[back]

  7. Milton Wilson, ed., Poetry of Mid-Century 1940/1960 (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1964), p. 109.[back]

  8. “Streetcar,” Origin, p. 6.[back]

  9. Poetry of Mid-Century, p. 89.[back]

  10. A phrase by Aaron Copeland that Avison approves in her Origin letter, p. 11.[back]

  11. Contemporary Verse, p. 4.[back]

  12. Ernest Redekop, Margaret Avison (Toronto: Copp Clark, 1970), pp. 146-47.[back]

  13. W.H. Auden, “Poem XXX,” Poetry of the Thirties, ed., Robin Skelton (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964), p. 201.[back]

  14. Review of A.M. Klein’s The Rocking Chair in Canadian Forum, 28 (November 1948), p. 191.[back]

  15. Review of Dorothy Livesay’s Day and Night in Canadian Forum, 24 (June 1944), p. 67.[back]

  16. Review of Pablo Neruda’s Residence on Earth and Other Poems in Canadian Forum, 27 (April 1947), p. 21; “Our Working Day may be Menaced.”[back]

  17. Review of Edith Sitwell’s The Canticle of the Rose in Canadian Forum, 29 (February 1950), pp. 262-63.[back]

  18. A.J.M. Smith, ed., The Book of Canadian Poetry (Toronto: Gage, 1943), p. 472.[back]

  19. Norman Endicott, “Recent Verse,” Canadian Literature, 6 (Autumn 1960), p. 61.[back]

  20. Canadian Forum, 39 (August l959), p. 110.[back]

  21. Canadian Forum, 22 (November 1942), p. 243.[back]

  22. Review of Conrad Aiken’s The Soldier in Canadian Forum, 24 (January 1945), p. 241.[back]

  23. “Callaghan Revisited,” Canadian Forum, 39 (March 1960), p. 276.[back]

  24. Wallace Stevens, “To the One of Fictive Music,” The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play, ed., Holly Stevens (New York: Vintage, 1972), p. 83.[back]

  25. Review of T.S. EIiot’s Selected Essays in Canadian Forum, 30 (March 1951), p. 283.[back]

  26. Review of Dylan Thomas’s New Poems in Canadian Forum, 23 (September 1943), p. 143.  However, Avison does criticize excessive difficulty in Thomas’s verse:  “Some of the obscurity of Thomas’s statements is simply indefensible.”[back]

  27. Canadian Forum, 24 (June 1944), p. 67.[back]

  28. Canadian Forum, 23 (September 1943), p. 143.[back]

  29. Origin, p. 10.[back]

  30. Canadian Forum, 23 (September 1943), p. 143.[back]

  31. A.J.M. Smith, “Critical Improvisations on Margaret Avison’s ‘Winter Sun,’” Tamarack Review, 18 (Winter 1961), p. 83.[back]

  32. “Impressions of a Lay Reader,” The Research Compendium: Review and Abstracts of Graduate Research 1942-1962 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1964), pp. 4-5.[back]

  33. “Poets in Canada,” Poetry, 94 (June 1959), p. 185.[back]

  34. Canadian Forum, 28 (November 1948), p. 191.[back]

  35. Eli Mandel, Queen’s Quarterly, 67 (1960), p. 704.[back]

  36. Canadian Forum, 27 (April 1947), p. 21. [back]

  37. Ernest Redekop, Margaret Avison, p. 1.[back]

  38. Dylan Thomas, “Vision and Prayer,” Collected Poems (London: Dent, 1966), p. 132.[back]

  39. Origin, p. 12. [back]

  40. Origin, p. 15.[back]

  41. “The Butterfly,” The Book of Canadian Poetry, p. 474; “On Believing the Bible,” Redekop, p. 144.[back]