Proofing the World: The Poems of David McFadden
by George Bowering
One Saturday night, I sat with David McFadden in Maple Leaf Gardens, watching Toronto beat Detroit 6-0. At game's end, when sixteen thousand people began to rise and file out, McFadden opened his book bag and shouted, "Wait, wait, I have some poems to read to you!" He was joking but he was not kidding. All his writing life he has acted as if the poet has a real function in the social life of his country and world, as if poems are composed by a human being intent on taking his part in the building of a place to live in. The poet is perhaps not the unacknowledged legislator of the world, but if the citizens could have their ears unstopped they would at least recognize him as a functionary. McFadden does not want to replace the famous athletes in the workaday dream machine; he just wants to take his turn with them.
David McFadden was born (1940) in Hamilton, Ont. , and lived there until 1978. Canada's biggest steel-producing city, Hamilton, half-way between Buffalo and Toronto, is the country's emblem for postwar working-class life. People who live there, one fancies, participate without choice in the life of hourly wage, producing the element of national "growth," and accept with no question of will the attendant despoliation of the ecosphere, and the avid leisure hour invasion of the American trash culture. Under cast-iron clouds, Hamiltonians in Dacron slacks go bowling, eat brown-coated chicken parts, and watch game shows on Buffalo TV stations.
But David McFadden's bungalow was on "Hamilton Mountain," a petion of the great Niagara Escarpment, a precambrian survivor of God's geography that almost joins Fenimore Cooper country to the Canadian Shield, that huge rock backbone of Canada, a symbol vastly important to our literary mythologists. Hamilton Mountain does not rear itself above the smog, but it insists on its priority; it tells the imagination that this part of the continent was all this high once, that the Niagara Peninsula and the Great Lakes were not always a flat stage for coke furnaces and Pepsi shacks.
The Escarpment is an important symbol for McFadden, but no more important as a base for his poetic than as a foundation for his house. McFadden did not go to university, but neither did he choose the idle life of most Canadian "working-class" poets. He was for a decade a proofreader for the Hamilton Spectator, and for several more years a reporter, chiefly on the police beat. Thus he was a wage-earner with words, and an artist raising a lower-middle-class family. Each night he drove down off the Escarpment into the dark of the mills, and in the daytime he wrote poems that took for their subject the lives of regular human beings, divine in origin but compelled to enact their lives in the midst of the trash era. As Frank Davey put it in From There To Here: "the message of McFadden's poems is that individual man in evitably is forced to participate in both the lumpen culture and global political forces of his time. "1
One does not have to read far in McFadden's verse to find out that he has chosen to be a romantic poet in the line or company of Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Whitman, and Kerouse. That choice implies a vision relentlessly connecting metaphysical belief and detailed concern for the quotidian fate of the least powerful people in his society.
McFadden's poems abound with the crippled and ill-used, but the word that shows up most often when desire or appreciation is signalled is "perfect. "
The ancient poets believed that perfection existed far from their world. Their Romantic successors wrote about the aspiration to find it, feelings its shadow in the hearts of human fools. Later it became a metaphor in the poets' store of figurative speech. The Moderns have mocked the idea, or rued the loss of its allure. But McFadden sees its gleam still, ready to put the lie to the Modernists' despair. He often follows the word "perfect" with the word "little," to be sure, but throughout his work one reads of perfection as a possibility, a hope, at least a wish as the positive force that permits such a person as a working poet to seek a worthwhile alternative to the world of trash and murder.
McFadden quite agreeably adopts the Wordsworthian notion of human children arriving in the world as out of perfection, retaining the dream or memory of the divine state. Thus the maimed and oppressed are apt images for hag major theme, the dialectic between metaphysical beauty and the trash culture. We see the crippled form divine, and the poet's mercy, pity, peace and love as hope for the redemption of this awful life.
That hope is a very important theme for the lives we have to live after the realized despair of the Modernist era. Can divine hope, back-lit as it is by twentieth-century irony, serve to clean up our trashy world? For a time in the late 'seventies McFadden seemed to be trying to abandon his struggle by entering into a series of long metaphysical poems. But recent short works discover him among the interior mountains of British Columbia, attached again, by personal disruption, to the earth, whose letters he eagerly stuffs in to the nearest mailbox.
Children, his own two daughters especially, have always best focussed McFadden's rays of sadness and hope, as others did for Wordsworth and Blake during the smokiest days and nights of the Industrial Revolution. In fact, more than simply associating children with innocence, McFadden has often identified the poem as a child. His first book, The Poem Poem, presumably composed during his wife's first pregnancy, equates the emergence of verse out of oblivion with the uterine flowering of a new human beauty. As every once-expectant parent knows, a developing pregnancy is a time for fantasy, for the struggle to shape a dream, as the fact comes closer to being. In the struggle (see especially McFadden's more fantastic poems) the shaping imagination is either an escape from trash or a saving grace, an action that must be taken in a world where they want to deliver pizzas to your door.
A writer who often places his hopes on his own folk will be called "sentimental," and McFadden has been called that by critics who do not like to see grand statements hinted at in little stories of family life, I like what Ted Berrigan once said about Frank O'Hara's "personism":
Somebody with the contemporary sense once did create out of McFadden's vignettes a Hamilton stage production called, I think, "The Collected World of David McFadden. " And McFadden has sometimes presented his printed poems as one-page plays. But they are plays, originally, acted for us every day, and the poet presents himself as audience, sometimes interlocutor. He is the twentieth-century artist who allows a lot of light into the poem. He does not, as the normal American or Canadian academic poet does, seize upon a European statue and build a meditation to fill the space. He goes where the true mind bids him. "The open-ended universe opens in the middle," he wrote once, and the play we are watching is the play of air and light and mind around the figures thus discovered.
Such a mode of writing require subtlety, and McFadden, though sometimes he gives in to a base pun, has from earliest plays shown a subtlety we pick up nicely if we remain tensile of fancy. For one thing, he has always had a deft sonce of notation, as for instance in the poem "God, The," in which he makes the most cunning trace of the mind among the quotidian. His is Whitman's ear (though seldom Whitman's mouth; and let me not suggest that I am citing Whitman as a maker of subtle prosody), listening to the world's parts making exclamations in his head. In his best short poems he likes to present narrations without obvious comment, in the faith that his reader also knows where poetry comes from. In fact he often seems to stop the poem before an expected punch line; Robert Frost with a witty pair of scissors. That is why academic Canadianists do not write about his works characteristic early poem is "November Fly":
which makes use of a subject familiar to an readers of English poetry. But McFadden does not allow himself to make the relativistic conclusions poets traditionally offer on the subject. He stops between "things I know" and "I don't know. " (A decade later he entitles a booklength poem I Don't Know the words of wisdom put out by Bodhidharma to the Emperor Wu. ) Usually the poet musing on the fly is brought to make a remark on the fly-like life of a man, but in the language of an instructed and therefore wiser observer of life. McFadden takes the proposition further, and with the subtlety I spoke of, so that his reader has to begin to draw the conclusion about human life, and then draw back from that temptation.
Sometimes the reader will feel herself invited to make conclusions but unsure that she really knows what the "product" should be. The compositional method that makes for such "confusion" or uncertainty is at the heart of McFadden's poetic. Often he will seem to offer implied comparisons of bits of information or events, giving only the implication of the comparison, not the spark that one wants to see leaping across the space between the details, the impulse, say, to settle the order implied in coincidence. It is as if, being the proofreader of God's pages, the poet should proffer only the clarity of the text, not an exegesis of it, not an interpretation. Borges, who proposes just such an occupation, puts it this way: "All poetry consists in feeling things as being strange, while all rhetoric consists in thinking of them as quite common, as very obvious. "3 You will have noted the aptness of the present participles there.
Thus it is that one comes away from an encounter with McFadden as one does from an encounter with his fellow artist, Greg Curnoe: unable, that is, to feel certain whether the man is determinedly innocent or guilefully parodic. McFadden acts as if fairies on tree-limbs are perfectly ordinary parts of the population, and as if a dog crossing a back yard is magic, as if universal world peace might be reported in tomorrow's paper, while a white hair in a mustache can arrest logic. "There is no difference between Grand Vistas and my everyday body. " The world is filled with domestic numen. Thus it is important (see his poem on Thomas Hardy) to write every day, a little in a hurry or more on a long afternoon, to pay for, to use each day.
So to the mind eager for rhetorical instruction, the details seem to declare of their own significances, as in a painting, though in a syntax that we are trained to read for widening meaning. In one of McFadden's poems the colour red shows up all day, and it is with a little conditioned restlessness that the reader will find that the poet does not then make a generalization on the message carried by the colour, as countless university-journal poets would. In my favourite McFadden poem we find a (I almost said "perfect") sly instruction that reads both to and from the McFadden manner:
There is a relationship between the poet's decision not to draw conclusions (unless they be transparently preposterous ones) and his interest in little perfections. We cannot be familiar with the perfect, and interpretation makes for familiarity. We cannot be familiar with the perfect unless we are perfect ourselves, and being perfect we would be silent, being perfect we would be saints and therefore still wherever people are moving. In his poems McFadden is always seen as a regarder, moving. In his earliest poems he moves around Hamilton, its corner-stores and buses and bowling alleys. In his second phase he is seen travailing about Ontario, observing people at lake resorts or gas pumps. In more recent times he has taken the whole of Canada (and the odd vacation in the U. S. ) as his subject, purposefully making books that collect his little plays set in Nova Scotia or British Columbia:
That means that he is (a) the map of Canada, (b) pinned by a dart, or (c) a dart thrown at the map of Canada. I think that all three are more interesting than one of the more recent professor-critic ideas: Canadian poet as map-maker.
A name for McFadden's art, observation rather than interpretation, is collage, arguable (Donald Barthelme so argues) the main mode in our century. One critic4 has noted collage and its effect in the big-little novel, The Great Canadian Sonnet, with its pages by McFadden and right-hand drawings by Curnoe, and in letters From the Earth to the Earth, through which the domestic poems share unnumbered pages with snaps from the McFadden family photo album. But the rest of his books collage too. If one sets his little plays in a twentieth-century Canadian city such as Hamilton, one has chosen a stage that is itself a collage, where in walking down a street one walks by a Greek pizza parlour, then a Chinese cafe, then a Korean martial arts gym.
For that reason, because of his interest in disjunction and mind-scatter, McFadden does not employ much rime in his poems (except, again, the obvious ones made for parodic purposes), because they would seem to suggest orderliness that proclaims authorial control of a world. The collage of the visual out there coming in seems to provide a more true imitation of the world so surprising in its multiplicity. Fragments of a city life, as they appear to eyes and ears at first the poems seem unended or unworthy of beginning, and they do not bring the ease of repeated sounds. They are no more resolved than daily life. They are not a mesh but rather snapshots that form just a collage from what time (tempo) permits. A longer poem, "Meaningless Midnight Musings" (from Intense Pleasure) brazenly records whatever comes to the poet's consciousness, and admits throughout that a poem is being collected:
From the poem emerges a poetic, not the other way round, emerges a belief that God edits your life and your job is typesetting, proofreading.
In the 'seventies we see in the poems more and more construction of scenes, fewer innocent snaps; the collages are synthesized of outside and inside. At the same time, the vision becomes darker, little lamb replaced by the hungry tiger. McFadden was reading Jung, and mining his dreams, presenting the latter as concretely as possible, trying to pass them off as plain-faced reportage. "A Typical Canadian Family Visits Disney World" gives a sense of the new direction in its bipolar title, and throughout illustrates it with a core of the mimetic wrapped in metaphorical exaggeration (elsewhere called a hyperbole) and irony:
"The Spoiled Brat," one of my favourite poems, in which the poet narrator tricks the title character into a surprise decapitation, is presented as just the latest of many anecdotes about life in the McFadden house. It is delightfully and constrainedly an encasing of wicked emotional fantasy. Such comic malice reappears in "Houseplants" (Mrs. McFadden teaches their care), in which the poet tells of the nasty way that he took advantage of the discovery of the plants' sensitivity to human behaviour. In other poems a dream woman turns into a fanged monster, a selfish homeowner dies of shock beside his invaded swimming pool, a stone talks incessantly of its decapitation, enough to make one yearn for ditties of no tone. Yet the sentences are simply declarative, so that we are convinced that their author is yet as he was, staying away from interpretation, quietly and candidly collaging the days. Collage is much more interesting than simile for just that reason, because the latter leads the reader to respond: well, everyone's entitled to his opinion. Opinion? says McFadden, "but I am fearful / of being in error. "
It is right that we should still see the enthusiastic, encomiastic young poet, and the gathering of skill, never at the expense of early poetic, through the enclosure of darkness that makes itself appear more authentic on the out side edges of that early light. McFadden has grown to the stature that he disks because he began so openly; he was not just another youngster who equated poetry with the ability to contemplate violence with smug horror.
But if McFadden's plays of experience show a pain that was only posited in his plays of innocence, it is not because he has changed his ideas on what is true. Blake's "Songs of Experience" do not cancel his "Songs of Innocence" any more than the New Testament cancels Moses. We have to die, and we have to grow up, and growing up includes being able to read through newspaper stories instead of just from top to bottom. In his poems of the 'seventies McFadden does not so much speak of his dream of changing history through poems, but rather announces that he does not mind the trash invasion because poetry's work goes on, "the work / of simple people learning how to sing / with the help of the Fairies," so "if you believe as I believe / & have seen strange things you've feared to speak of / please write me care of my publisher. " Now that request is loaded with mockery, mainly because the publisher is there in between, but if one did not care, why bother?
Whereas the McFadden over twenty used to speak in Emersonian terms of "error," the McFadden over thirty holds his eyes and mouth open to cruelty:
And he tells of it with his habituating comic syntax and structure. Now even children partake in what seems natural, inborn cruelty:
What McFadden is giving us by his simplicity of view is not a guileful picture of an innocent abroad in a sometimes crummy world in this later period he offers quite a number of poems that show the lyricist as poorly behaved, too. But he wants to stay away from the narrowed observation of the confessional poets, who tell their readers why they feel as if it is an unpleasant life. McFadden's aim, admittedly futile but gallant for all that, is to compose like the world, not its observer:
When he seems to do that his audiences at readings enjoy themselves. McFadden's public readings are more enjoyable than most because they provide relief. Even when he tells stories of murder, evisceration, childhood agonies, listeners smile at one another, laugh till they fall down, nod their sad heads in full agreement. They are hearing a total human person, a cynic who finds life pleasurable, an ascetic who fondly shares his appetites. They are listening to a man who reminds them how two horses stand together in a springtime field, but does not claim that his observation sets him apart. It is as if he is saying: look, the earth gives you all this and it is too easy to forget it. He acknowledges heroes, but no great heroes. He candidly revels in his ability to make poems but he does not ask anyone to interpret his little plays into works of high drama. In one of his earlier poems he said he was happy to recognize his poet-self as "a minor God, but nevertheless God. "
Therefore of use. In the 'sixties he averred: "There's nothing for man but art and earth / and no hope but in seeing. " The first line echoes medieval division of the world, and the second is a terse and handsome reason for making art in the post-existentialist age. Of his poems from that period the young McFadden advised, "Take them in loaves as for lunch. " That is a good line, because it combines the humble with legitimate Christian pretension. It assembles the poet's convictions bread and poetry are sacramental, but bread is bread, after all, modest daytime fuel.
Thus the title of the book introduced by those three lines: Letters From the Earth to the Earth. Loaves, letters. The title refers not just to poems (or to Mark Twain's position), but to human lives as letters that are delivered to their original address. That early, and still today, McFadden is a comic metaphysician, but the working poet reminds us where we live, what our poor bodies are made of and the messages they carry in their transit. Of "poemology," a mystery to his ordinary wife, he wrote, "It grows under her feet / & lines her stomach. "
"Infinity needs you, son," he reminded himself then, but the statement is an echo of a line from a western movie, in which a frontier town is trying to recruit a marshall. If John Clare had had a sense of humour he could have been a wonderful early David McFadden. Note the return in these two lines: "the vacuum at the end of the imagination / the amazing ground of laughter. " But it is essential to a reading of McFadden that one feel sadness and terror downstairs while one is laughing at one's face in the bathroom mirror. His great preoccupation, children, live in a world of beauty and love, and are closer to death than to poetry. Poetry is an activity derived from experience, is experience; it feeds on the innocence of children, keeping itself alive, like a man living on blood transfusions. See "A Jewel Box" or "To Elizabeth Ann Fraser," and try to keep laughing. All the poems are indeed love letters to the world, as natural as eating and peeing, but they carry the message of conscious care and the knowledge of probable destruction: "the flower of the world / bullet-riddled. "
But as the earth continues to make flowers and children, it does so without mawkishness or misgivings; so one continues to make poems, knowing them to be mortal from the beginning, not knowing how the world is going to use them. There is no market research save in the trash business. "Keep going God," wrote McFadden in the fate 'sixties. "You've / got the right idea. " Despite the trashing of Vietnam and the shooting of Martin Luther King, sheer plod makes plow down sillion shine. Maybe.
In the context of this kind of place, the best way to read David McFadden's world is to read through it all. You will find "little perfections" from time to time, and they will accumulate, spots in time that happen so often that you will entertain the notion that we can be saved. You will see that McFadden admits a desire to write the perfect poem, but fills his verses with the unavoidable signs of mortality under this earth's veil. Anticipating eternity, he is haunted by time, past and future, his own and the world's. The statue of a knight fashioned of dried plums is a criticism of marble statues, but it is also not food. Cats, dogs, turtles and budgies are invited into the poems to be with the people there. If the world is space, and living a life is time, then David McFadden is, like so many Canadians, a travel poet. But unlike the others, he does not wind up sitting back in his chair to look and see whether you got the point. In the later and longer poems especially, there is a word that becomes more important than "perfect. " It is "and. "
"And" is not a word that leads one to dance around a figure; it is, in terms of meaning, concerning the relationship of events in the world, a letter that will never get down to "yours truly," quite correct. It does not allow a "therefore. " In the long poem, The Poet's Progress, McFadden, on entering the second half of his life, examines his process as a poet, as the formerly neglected arises, ants of his career, as Yeats might: "we / can never know our warm, leafy / surroundings but can only be them. " Not imitators but constant creators of the world. 5