sun/Son light/Light:
Avison's elemental Sunblue

by Ernest H. Redekop

When it was published in 1978, Sunblue became the first collection of Margaret Avison's poetry to appear in twelve years.  Although a handful of the poems in the volume has been published elsewhere, the rest are new to her readers.  They continue to express some of the central themes of Winter Sun (1960) and The Dumbfounding (1966):   the power of the creating imagination and the effect of the creating logos on the world.

     A good example of Avison's continuing preoccupation with these themes in Sunblue is "Christmas:  Becoming," in which she describes the logos, the "Word of power," as

creating that invisible City, and
mountain,   forest,  sea,
tundra,   ore-vein,  light.1

This brief catalogue of an elemental world gives emblems of her paradoxical natural and spiritual cosmos, a multi-layered universe visible and invisible, outside and inside, created and becoming.  Its natural elements are rock, earth, seed, water, sun, light, thing; its spiritual elements, bread, wine, water, Son, Light, Word.  The connections between the two universes are metaphorical and mystical, made by an imagination whose paradigm could be the fourteenth-century mystic, Richard Rolle of Hampole:

For Richard Rolle, swift in the strength of stillness,
flowed light,    and the   out there   flooded
his pulses
leaping these six centuries —
love breathes him so alive.   (63)

    "Luf es a byrnand yerning in God, with a wonderful delyte and sykernes," he writes in The Love of God. "God es lyght and byrnyng.   Lyght clarifies oure skyll; byrnyng kyndels oure covayties that we desyre noght bot him."2  Rolle's devotion expresses itself in images central to Avison's.  In this stanza from "The Effortless Point," the images of light and water build on images introduced in the first stanza, in which Avison describes long-distance runners "out for buoyancy," flowing into brightness, bearing "lungs all rinsed with morning," as weightless as fish in the sea or astronauts in space, reaching the "effortless point" which, in the second stanza, is the mystical flood of God's love.

    Thus the "out there," anticipated in the images of the runners' road and ocean of air, becomes the source of love, the sky into which we move or under which we learn wisdom in stillness.  It reappears in "Stone's Secret" (21) as the "out there" of stellar space, beyond words.  In Sunblue, it is the highest, farthest level, the level far above the poet-groundhog of "End of a day," hugging the earth in a storeyed world:  underfoot, streetlight, loftlights, branches, a roof of "cloud-thatch" and then "the disappearing clear," a storey too strange for comfort:

Indoors promises
such creatureliness as disinhabits
a cold layered beauty
flowing out there.   ("SKETCH:  End of a day:  OR, I as a blurry" 19)

It may suddenly fill the poet's mind like the comet Kahoutek, directly, with

nothing my ice-
         from earth-mound (here) to
ocean-deep navy-blue out-there (there).  (90)

On one level of awareness, the comet is that Kahoutek described by the astronomer Fred Whipple as "a celestial fountain spouting from a large dirty snowball floating through space. . . . activated and illuminated by the sun."3   So it shares her consciousness with the ice-lump thrown off by a passing car and spinning "meteor-black" toward her, the comet's parodic and dark earth-bound surrogate.  On another level, it symbolizes again the resistance of the "out there" to words:  it is a "doom-sign," a "cryptic" communication "from somewhere else . . . from far unlanguaged precincts / soundlessly hollowing past us," like the "museum spectres" of "Butterfly Bones," which tell us cryptically of the fierce life of butterflies.4  This phenomenon cannot be comprehended or even approached merely by naming it:

My tongue, palate, lips, teeth, life's breath,
pronounce "comet", call off
as told
how many million miles away
I with the naked eye still-standing see
you, it —
of quite another orbit.

This moment is not, for the poet, at all like "the morning day / when Adam names the animals"5 — that Edenic day in which thing and word, being and name, are one — but a dark night whose revelations are slipping from the mind and the tongue.

     The utterance of the word in "Kahoutek" is as puzzling as that of the boulder in "Stone's Secret."  The stone is "otter-smooth," offering no resistance to the water except itself, all excrescences, all hieroglyphs worn off, cryptic under the river's ice.  Like Thoreau, looking into the stream of Time and seeing its bottom pebbly with stars, Avison looks at the boulder in the water and sees the heavens starry with stones:

out there, inaccessible
to grammar's language the
stones curve vastnesses,
cold or candescent
in the perceived
processional of space.   (21)

The four questions which she asks about the "stones out there" each express some perception or some truth, but the stone's secret remains hidden by the "dark river" of space.

     In the last stanza, however, there is a radical shift from cosmic speculation to divine restoration:

Word has arrived that
peace will brim up, will come
"like a river and the
glory . . . like a flowing stream."
Some of all people will
wondering wait
until this very stone

There are two specific Biblical allusions in this stanza.  The first is the quotation from the apocalyptic prophecy in chapters 65 and 66 of Isaiah; the reference here is to the restored Jerusalem:

. . . Thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the Gentiles like a flowing stream . . . . (66:12)

The prophecy echoes Isaiah's earlier vision of the Peaceable Kingdom (chapter 11) and is part of another such vision in which the prophet celebrates the peace of a renewed earthly paradise.6  The allusion in the last two lines of the poem is to the entry of Christ into Jerusalem, accompanied by the praises of his followers:  "Blessed be the King that cometh in the name of the Lord:   peace in heaven, and glory in the highest."  Some of the Pharisees, attempting to persuade Christ to rebuke his followers for this blasphemy, are themselves rebuked by Christ:  "I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out" (Luke 19:37-40).  Peace is apocalyptic, the characteristic state of the Kingdom of God, of the New Jerusalem; but if it means silencing man's praise of God, it becomes an unnatural resistance to the communication of the Word itself / himself.

    This and other ironies inform the poem.   "Peace," in the first stanza, is the stasis of winter and stone:   "black river-water / stilled," "frozen hills," "the still unbreathed / blizzards aloft."  The "out there" holds a different kind of peace, certainly not static, replying in a kind of code to our "made mathematics" but beyond words, a massive astronomical celebration of something — the secret of "the stones out there" — communicated only in the last stanza.  The "Word" that has arrived is the prophecy of Isaiah and the logos of St. John.  The restoration of Jerusalem begins again with Christ's Messianic appearance at the gates of the Holy City.  The recognition of this is cause for hosannas; Avison's enigmatic "So" expresses the detection of the secret (so this is it — ), a comment on the manner in which the Peaceable Kingdom will arrive, and a transition to her final observation on the doubters.

    When will "this very stone" utter? and what?   Like any hieroglyph, it communicates through its visual structure as well as its spatial context.  The black water shapes the stone; but on a cosmic scale the stones/stars shape violet-black space, both part of a Heraclitean flux illegible and unheard until revelation comes.  The winter river is as unmistakably local and Canadian as the otter or as ice, but when stone and stars are united in one image of the dark river (a negative of the Milky Way), this cosmic river becomes the Messianic Kingdom.   As the hieroglyphic stone sounds, the transformation of world into Word may be heard in the shifts from "otter" to "out there" and, finally, "utters," so that the last sound in the poem echoes and transforms the first, affirming the close relation of created thing to creating word.

    The apocalyptic truth is less secretive in "Then," another in a series of seven poems on Christmas.  The poem begins with a reference to the leopard and kid of Isaiah 11:6 and concludes with an allusion to Isaiah's prophecy of the coming of the Messiah (11:10).  For Avison, the Peaceable Kingdom is a "wholely pure" and "unimaginable" conjunction of fierceness, gentleness, "storm and salt and largeness," of light, music and poignancy, caught up in an "all-things-upgathering bliss."  But this "Then" is a here and now of Incarnation and release from captivity:

in the strange peace of the outcast
on manger hay
lies a real baby:

                    all-cherishing the unsourced,
                    the never fully celebrated
                    well-spring of That Day. (98)7

And "Then" is also the eschatological moment outside time when space ceases to be the "dark river" of "Stone's Secret" and becomes a "fair blue" — both day and starlight — and the place outside space where

. . . one cascading meadowlark
an all-where will not deafen . . . ;

when and where all prophesies are fulfilled.

    These four poems express familiar aspects of Avison's thought:   the "in-here/out-there" polarity found in many of the poems of Winter Sun, and the Messianic, eschatological transformation of the world and the self found in The Dumbfounding. The latter idea pervades the many poems on Christian themes in this volume.  Forty of the ninety poems of Sunblue are explicitly devotional, including the Christmas poems and fourteen poems which are imaginative exegeses of Biblical texts.  All express a profoundly personal response to Christ, often in images of Incarnation, Communion, Passion and Resurrection.

    The other fifty poems, although not devotional in this sense, nevertheless portray implicitly an elemental cosmos created, perceived and expressed by the shaping word of the poet — a word which, for Avison, always imitates the original Word.  The dynamic energy that drives her world, as the imaginative force of the Virgin of Chartres drove the medieval world recalled by Henry Adams, is the Word — with all its creative, redemptive, transforming, linguistic and literary overtones.   For her, therefore, the single most important chapter in the Bible is the first chapter of the Gospel of St. John:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him;
and without him was not any thing made that was made.
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
And the light shineth in darkness;
and the darkness comprehended it not.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light,
that all men through him might believe. . . .
That was the true Light, which lighteth every man
that cometh into the world.
He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew
him not. . . .
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,
(and we beheld his glory the glory as of the only begotten
of the Father,) full of grace and truth.  (1:1-7, 9-10,14)

The centrality of this passage, with its doctrines of creation, incarnation and redemption and its images Word, Light and darkness, becomes clear in the forty-fifth poem of Sunblue, "The Bible to be Believed," placed at the centre of the anthology:

The word read by the living Word
sculptured its shaper's form.
What happens, means . . . .(56)

Like the relation of stone to water in "Stone's Secret," the relation of the word (Old Testament) to the Word (Christ, logos) is mutually creative:  both are sculptor, both are sculpture.  The word is prophetic:  Moses, Isaiah, Samuel, Abraham and Isaac, Abel and also Cain, all figure prominently in Avison's imagination and, in one poem or another, as types of Christ.  The word is emblematic:   "Grapes, bread, and fragrant oil" are the elements of communion, devotion and anointing.  Prophetic and emblematic, it is transformed into the Word resisting the Temptation with Biblical texts incarnate in himself (Matthew 4, Luke 4), resisting the "dry bone" of death (Ezekiel 37) and the final entombment in stone itself, so that out of "final silencing" arises "the living Word."

    Avison works here, as in many of her poems, through a paradoxical transformation of elemental images.  Bible is word, becomes Word, which in turn shapes word; language becomes flesh and living stone, sculpted by "heart's sword" and "ritual knife," which also hew out of the entombing stone the one "crevice-gate" of hope.  Prophecy is fulfilled always in the Now.

    The reading of the New Testament and especially of Christ as the fulfilment of the Old Testament is, of course, an ancient and orthodox approach to the Bible.  Avison is in this typological tradition, but expresses the in terpenetration of Old and New, past and present, physical and spiritual, in some strikingly original language.  Thus, in "For the Murderous:  The Beginning of Time," both Cain and Abel prefigure the Last Supper and the Father's sacrifice of the Son: Cain by offering grain and grapes, Abel by offering the lamb:

In time the paschal lamb
before the slaying did
what has made new the wine
and broken bread. (49)

Because the images are deceptively simple and familiar, we need to remind ourselves that the paschal lamb is slaughtered and eaten on the eve of the first day of the Passover, which in turn celebrates both the saving of the first-born of Israel and the slaying of the first-born of Egypt.  For Avison, redemption may arise even from the murder of one's brother, from the slaying of the innocent.  Christ, embodying the lamb of Abel and the wine and bread of Cain, reconciles murderer and victim, but does not erase the origins of his sacrifice.

    This complexity within simplicity is characteristic of another poem celebrating the Passion, "The Circuit (Phil. 2. 5-11)."  The fact that the title includes a specific reference to St. Paul's Letter to the Philippians may obscure the equally important reference to Psalm 19:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
and the firmament sheweth his handiwork . . . .
Their line is gone out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun,
which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race.
His going forth is from the end of the heaven,
and his circuit unto the ends of it:
and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.  (19:1, 4-6)

The Psalmist describes the signs of the glory of God; St. Paul, on the other hand, describes the degradation of Christ in the Incarnation, followed by his exaltation to lordship over heaven and earth, "to the glory of God the Father."8

     The phrase connecting the letter to the psalm is "the glory of God."  The title itself embodies both allusions and the connection between them; it is also the first example of word-play in a poem filled with puns and paradoxes.  Note the first part of the poem:

The circuit of the Son
in glory falling
not short
and without any clutching after
His Being-in-Light,
but stripping, putting on
the altar-animal form
and livery of Man (55)

The Son/sun, declaring "the glory of God," falls in his arcing circuit to the ends of heaven, but does not fall short of that glory, though he fall at birth, from the cross, in death and into hell.  Nor is the circuit itself "short"; the divine plan cannot be short-circuited.  The reduction of Christ at Incarnation is both a "stripping" and a "putting-on"; he becomes both lamb and slave, and lines 7-8 suggest not only that man is in servitude, but that he is also a sacrificial animal.  Christ, in turn, serves men "under orders" — the orders given to a slave by slaves, but also the orders of the Father.  The image of clothing is completed near the end of the second section in Christ's putting on the cerements of the grave:

(then all was silent,
cloth-cased and closed in a hole) —

The most problematical word in the poem is the verb "to prise":

trusting the silent Glory
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  . . . . . .
to prise, till touching with unflickering Breath
He prises even us free . . . .

Its current sense, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is "to value or esteem highly, to think much of."  It may mean "to seize, take, capture; to seize as forfeited, to confiscate"; it may also mean "to raise or move by force of leverage; to force up; esp. to force open in this way."  Because the first two usages demand the transitive verb, the third is the most appropriate in this context:  God "prys" us free of our bondage, our servitude. The spelling and sound, however, also suggest the other two connotations:  God values us highly; God seizes us, and in this seizure, gives us our freedom — a concept as paradoxical as Donne's conclusion to Holy Sonnet XIV ("Batter my heart, three person'd God"):

Take me to You, imprison me, for I,
Except You enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me.

    Avison's love for paradox informs "Sestina" (43-44), whose imagistic and linguistic density makes it one of her most complex poems.  Like all sestinas, it has six six-line stanzas and a three-line envoy.  Six end-words appear in each of the stanzas in a different order; three of these are used to end the lines of the envoy, and the other three appear within these lines.9

    Like "Circuit," this poem is, in one sense, an exegesis of a passage from the Bible, in this case 1 Samuel 12-14.  Israel, preferring a king (Saul) to a prophet (Samuel) has been conquered by the Philistines, who, in trying to make rebellion impossible, have imposed a prohibition against the smithing of either tools or weapons.  Saul, in an effort to gain divine aid, imposes an oath of fasting on the Israelites, with a penalty of death for any oath-breaker.  His son Jonathan, absent from the camp at the time, makes an heroic sortie into the Philistine camp, together with his armour-bearer.  Together they kill about twenty men, filling the enemy with a fear greatly augmented by an earthquake.  The Philistines flee, and Jonathan, understandably hungry after the battle, picks up a honeycomb on a stick and eats it; his eyes shine as a result.  The Israelites, accompanied on the battlefield by the Ark of the Covenant, are victorious in the ensuing battle.  Faint with hunger, they slaughter the sheep, oxen and calves of their enemies and eat them, together with the blood.  Saul, hearing of this wholesale breaking of the oath, insists that he will put his son to death, despite Jonathan's innocence of the oath.  The people prevent him from carrying out his threat:  "Shall Jonathan die, who hath wrought this great salvation in Israel?  God forbid:  as the Lord liveth, there shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground; for he hath wrought with God this day.  So the people rescued Jonathan, that he died not" (1 Samuel 14:45).

    Out of this story, Avison creates a complex and witty parable of sacrifice, resurrection and redemption, moving freely among three times and three stories:  the Jonathan story, twentieth-century urban civilization, and the appearance of Christ to his disciples after the Resurrection (Luke 24:42).  The paradoxes of the story are expressed by the metamorphoses of the images and especially by the permutations of the end-words:  honey, fast, see, blood, hostile and arc. They form the following pattern:


stanza 1

stanza 2

stanza 3

stanza 4



honey (and
the Law of God)

honey- / combing metropolis

honey ("lover")


fast (noun)

fast (adjective: "tight")

fast / with a buck

fast (adverb)


see. . .


see (Johnathan's name)

see (the armour-bearer)


friends' faces hostile

(Saul) not

holy. . .  as if hostile

us all hostile


blood (of Philistines)

blood (of cattle,
of Philistines,
of royalty)

my carbon generation's blood

blood (of movie-hero)


arc (sun's)

holy ark
(of the covenant)

arc-/ lamp

arc-/ hitecture
in celluloid



stanza 5

stanza 6

envoy: end of the line / envoy: internal


honey / of words

wild honey




fast (adjective: "watertight" ark; "true" story

fast (verb)

break fast




see / their land
out ("remain with to the end")

see ("see" and "understand")


hostile /

Fortune and
time are hostile

Who . . . dares
be not hostile?


blood (of the Israelites)

blood (shed
in war)

Son's blood



(Noah's ) ark for paired progenitors

arc (nuclear
bomb / arc-lamp,
of graph)

dawning arc (sunrise / Son rising)

Avison has not chosen these end-words at random. Each represents for her a critical image, action or concept in the story, significant to each of the three major contexts within the poem. Honey is the honey which Jonathan eats in unconscious defiance of the oath imposed by his father and which becomes, for him and the people, a sign and precedent superior to the law of Saul; it is also Metaphor for the power of the Ark of the Covenant, recalling to mind Psalm 19:10 and 119:103; it metamorphoses into "honey-combing," defining the spatial nature of the modern city and, by implication, ourselves; it changes again into a colloquial "honey" (lover), as part of a film scenario; it becomes a metaphor for the lies of politicians, generals and public-relations men; as "wild honey" it is a sign of John the Baptist and therefore of the prophetic anticipation of the Messiah in the past and the present; finally, with the fish, it becomes a physical sign of the Resurrection of Christ.

    In the same way the other end-words shift, change and slide into various meanings indicated in the chart above.  The combining motif is the verb "to see," as the "astigmatic" I of the poem moves through levels of perception toward revelation at the end.  "Eyes keen, because you licked sticky wood-honey, / Jonathan?" ask the poet.  The unarmed Israelites "quail to see" the Philistines.  Jonathan's "wild breakfast" helps him to "see," to understand the true power of a people chosen and armed by God; the poet, looking at Jonathan, sees his name:

. . . in the sacred carolescence an arc-
lamp bright through my carbon generation's blood.

Thus Jonathan's eating of the honey (like the poet's reading of the Word) becomes a sacred conversion of food into energy, as carbon terminals are converted into light in an arc-lamp; and the significance of his act sheds light through all the intervening generations of man.  In the third stanza, we ourselves become Israelites and Philistines, ensconced on our honeycombed urban cliffs, afraid of "the holy" that "licks at us all as if hostile."

    In the fourth stanza, the light of the arc-lamp reduces heroism to maudlin sentimentalism in B-movie "arc-/hitecture."  In the fifth, the poet describes our understanding, our seeing, as no better than that of the Israelites who rejected the prophet in favour of the king.  Both stanzas describe blindness of a kind:  in the fourth, the arc-lamp becomes a perversion of the sun's (later Son's) arc, seducing us with false visions; in the fifth, we refuse to hear or see the possibility of nuclear destruction or the possibilities of redemption in catastrophe:

                             We do not see
the mercy in the flood story about the ark
for paired progenitors, though it still hold fast.

The Flood, like the enslavement of the Israelites by the Philistines, is a story about divine justice, symbolized in the poem by the Ark of the Covenant, containing the stone tables of the Law.  But the Flood has its rainbow, emblem of a convenant of mercy, and in this poem Jonathan's breaking of a law is a figure for the triumph of Grace over Law in the Son's rising.

    The sixth stanza presents the generation of the 'sixties, afraid, like the Israelites, of the enemy; sensing a light whose solar intensity could only come from nuclear fusion, threatening man with a modern fiery version of the Floods — a "Flame Deluge," in Walter M. Miller's words10 — lighting up the sky or projecting "the arc / down, on the graph' of history, of fortune and time.  Some, identifying themselves with John the Baptist (and with Jonathan), eating wild locusts and honey, face apocalypse alone; exiles, perhaps, and perhaps heroes.  They may be one answer to the question put by the envoy:

Who dares any longer break fast, dares not be hostile?

Another answer, certainly, is implied in the last two lines:

The Son's blood clears a dawning arc — oh see
Him with aghast disciples, sharing the fish, the honey.

The dawning of this Son/sun has been anticipated in the eyes of Jonathan, brightened by his eating of the honey, an act defying neither his father and king nor the Law of the Ark of the Covenant, but superseding both.  As Jonathan's followers find their strength in meat and blood rather than in an arbitrary oath, so the disciples of Christ, sharing his fish and honey, see and understand the physical signs of resurrection, old astigmatism cleared, eyes made keen by the Son's blood arcing down and by his rising.

    This is necessarily an incomplete reading of the poem, but it indicates a devotional act like that of the poet in Donne's "Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward."  As Louis Martz has pointed out, this devotion is a meditative process involving memory, understanding and will.11   In "Sestina," the meditation takes place in the poet-speaker, as she casts her astigmatic eye over "the printed Word," recalling and attempting to understand this complex story, transforming it, as Donne the Passion, from isolated historical incident to an act in the continuing present.  The process ends in enlightenment and in a challenge to the will to transform the self, to be like Jonathan, like the Son.  Although the Passion is introduced only in the last two lines, the whole poem moves toward the setting and rising of the Son, from contemplation of the printed Word to communion with the living Word.

    Despite its uniqueness among Avison's poems, "Sestina" exemplifies her method:  the introduction of an apparently simple theme, followed by linguistic and imagistic variations, sometimes pyrotechnical, which, in turn, resolve themselves into a simple, unified image — much as Donne, in "Good Friday, 1613.  Riding Westward," begins with the paradox of the body's dislocation from the soul and ends with the promise of penance and the reunion of self and of self with Christ.

    The three poems of "Light" (59-61), similarly, begin with elemental man and elemental light, then move on to the contemplation of shadow and darkness, the fallen world and the redemptive possibilities of the Light.  In "Light (I)," the process of creation and resurrection, with its echoes of Ezekiel's valley of dry bones (chapter 37), is consummated only when we transcend our "own-shaped" shadows by looking "on Light."  In the second poem, the poet contemplates various images of light and darkness:  the shadow seen from the wing window of an airplane, the chiaroscuro of space, tree shadows, hill shadow, shadows of city buildings, and, most importantly, "self-shadow":

High up, between
the last clouds and the airless
light/dark, any shadow is
— apart from facing sunlessness —
self, upon

The observer and the thing observed become one, as subject and ground, but the speaker, noting "self-shadow on / stone, cement, brick" looks beyond "to the sunblue."

    That image expands in the third poem, where it becomes the "source of light . . . high / above the plane."  In this poem, shadows disappear (except for the image of "the foxed spread snowy land") in the reflections from frozen lakes below.  The shadows, however, remain in the mind, which recalls, but does not see, an impure, poisoned earth of "factory and fall-out and run-off effluvia."  Despite this memory, there is hope:

Interpreters and spoilers since the four
rivers flowed out of Eden,
men have nonetheless
learned that the Pure can bless
on earth and from on high

From one point of view, "any shadow is . . . self, upon / self"; from a higher point of view, one may begin to understand the beatitude:  "Blessed are the pure in heart:  for they shall see God" (Matthew 5:8), relating this purity to the images of "impasse- / crumpled hope" in the first poem and "sunblue" in the second.

     Again, as in the other devotional poems, understanding for the poet comes slowly and with difficulty.  The first datum is a landscape of toys; this metamorphoses into a landscape of breathing, speculating beings — ourselves — caught in our solipsistic shadows, but hearing "from elsewhere" the possibility of true life, moving beyond shadow to renewed Eden.  In the last stanza of the third poem, however, there is a sudden (and characteristic) shift from the images of deceptive light and apparent purity to absolute Purity and, by implication, absolute Light, so that the final datum expresses neither uncertainty nor loss, but the ineradicabilityof hope.

    The elemental light of these poems recurs throughout the anthology, in the devotional poems and in the others, often in images of the sun and of water.  In "Released Flow" (24), for example, light, sun and water are again united in the single image sunblue.  In this landscape of sugaring-time, "the spiced air is ocean-deep," the sun turns the melting waters one and off, "squirrels flip and play / through sunsplash . . . ."  In the final lines of the poem —

Sunblue and bud and shoot wait to unlatch
all lookings-forth, at the implicit touch

— the "blue" of the first image is clearly sky, but also sun, ocean, air, light and colour — thing and quality — a much more complex image than either of its two elemental components.

    Avison is continually yoking such images together.  In "Thaws," for example, the

Swepth of suncoursing sky
steeps us in
salmon-stream. . . . (9)

The portmanteau word suggests "sweep" and "depth"; "steeps" suggests the quiet assimilation of tea leaves in water, as in the opening lines of "Thirst":

In the steeped evening
deer stand, not yet
beyond the rim of here. . . . (31)

In "March," the elements of spring become sacramental:

Though all seems melt and rush
earth-loaf, sky-wine,. . .
all soaked in sunwash . . . . (26)

Light as sky and ocean appears again in "The Seven Birds (College Street at Bathurst):  SKETCH":

Storm-heaped west, wash-soaked with
dayspill.  Light's combers
broken, suds-streaming
                      darkwards and stormwards. . . . (18)

Sometimes earth becomes seafloor as in "SKETCH:  Overcast Monday" (11), or sea surface broken by the "sea-wake of / fresh-turned loam" ("Into the Vineyard:  a Vision" 67).  It may hold a vast aquifer, "a whole underground sea under the prairies," welling upward in the rains of April ("Highway in April 27").

    This kind of imagistic interpenetration runs through "Let Be," in which an invisible mountain shoulders its way into a landscape defined by specific empirical perceptions:

Behind the rainmurk
is, I persuade myself,
a mountain shouldering
near enough one might mark
— but for the rain — the treeline
from the implausible plateau of this
Parisgreen cow pasture
watered by a
meander (old river now a
ditch brimming over into
frog-marsh), this side of
the massive roots
of light, of rain, of
mountain-range. (28)

The searching, creating imagination of the poet works hesitatingly, doubtingly, toward the mountain:  past an impenetrable curtain of rain one "might" see the treeline, she persuades herself — but the cow pasture, itself an "implausible" locus for the optic heart, is watered by a river which has not seen mountains for geological ages.  The flat world is irresistibly here; but the true landscape takes the form given to it by the imagination.  The "rainmurk" does more for the freeing of this imagination than sfumato did for that of the eighteenth-century lover of sublime associations; it makes the invisible mountain possible.

     The flat world is defined by random noise much more imprecise the invisible mountain:

Let there be
splashings, shouts,
dogs gnawing, oarlocks,
or people'a random opinions
on a battery radio,
or the precise other inevitable
alternative — as will be plain —
to give ballast in daylight
to the unseen mountain's
no-sounding soundness.

This is a night world, or at least a world dimly seen; the random sounds of this flat landscape will act as ballast, keeping mountain upright and afloat in an ocean of air.   Whatever the mountain, it is paradoxical:  unseen, but present; silent and floating above a seafloor whose depth it does not know; yet it is both heard and solid.

     But what is "the precise other inevitable / alternative"?  Is it the alternative to random noise, perhaps the "all-creating stillness" of "Water and Worship"? or the brimming of the river of peace, as in "Stone's Secret"?  Perhaps the alternative is as "precise" and "inevitable" as the "Apex Animal," the horse in "Strong Yellow," terribly clear to the imagination but edging beyond words:

. . . one you'd call Whitey, maybe,
Though he was not, I say,
white . . .
. . . not a horse-shaped horse,
or sized.  It loomed.  Only the
narrow forehead part, the
eyes starting loose and appled,
and shoulder-streaming part. . . . (40)

Here the observer's problem is not so much the perception of a reality but its expression.  Avison is portraying boundaries between states of mind, as in "On Goodbye":

Distance, through this time I listen to
you, learning not-being, looking through for
an analogous point in vacancy,
with walls of you and me,
as boundaries, set, that that which is not may be.  (68)

The poet lives in a physical world which she can see and hear, but which is strangely incomplete.  It must be given substance by the poet, acting as creative logos:   "Let there be . . . ."  The imaginative landscape of mountain, like the "out there" of "Stone's Secret," seems inaccessible to language, but nevertheless demands the word.  It is an extension of the poet herself, expressing both desire and fulfilment — desire for the unattainable, the sublime, for life unbounded by the almost-closed river meander; fulfilment in the triumph of the imagination, of the impossible over the implausible.

    There is a similar tension in "Speleologist" between two levels of terrestrial space and between the outside and inside of the man in the booth.  The surface/cave dichotomy becomes the metaphor for person:

The seller of irrelevant sweets,
souvenirs, and tickets to the caves,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
                        is not a seller in a booth
                                  really, not a scientist, excavator, engineer,
                                  adventurer, enterpreneur [sic]
                                  amongst tourists, really —

he is the naked hiding poignant face
of an earthwork, himself, of centuries . . . . (84)

The seller is not a compendium of functions, not even an entrepreneur of entering, but himself, being, one who spies out the caves below him and within him, who knows the emptiness of space within the earth:

. . . all rock-webbed vaults,
                                arches, hollowness,
as if beyond the reach of light.

Like the "implausible plateau" of "Let Be," the visible landscape is far less important than the invisible.  Bored in his "board booth," half-asleep, the man sells things irrelevant to the world he really inhabits — the cave "there," below and within.  Avison creates this interior world as carefully as Robert Frost the desert places of the human heart.

    The speleologist, then, is the man who does not seem to enter the caves, the man in the booth, himself both cave and explorer of caves.  But the speleologist is also the poet, investigating levels of experience and language below the surface, and the reader, deciphering obscurity and discovering, ultimately, the cave within himself.

    The "inevitability" of the man's role as "the one to / spy out a place" underground is related, it seems to me, to the "inevitability" of the "precise other . . . alternative" of "Let Be."  The man in the booth is an alternative to the tourists, possibly as the discoverer of the caves, but certainly as the explorer of the imagination; he is also, in himself, the alternative to what he appears to be.  Like the swimmer of "The Swimmer's Moment," who plunges in to the "black pit" and the "deadly rapids," he may possibly find "the silver reaches of the estuary," but not in the September sunlight of his booth.12   Thus, in "Let Be," the "inevitable" alternative to the random noise of the flat landscape of the river may be the precise imagination itself, keeping a sound mountain upright, a mountain which, as Ararat might have appeared to Noah, seems to float on an unsoundable sea.

    Avison, to me, is most compelling when, like this cave-man, she reveals "the naked hiding poignant face" of her own soul and imagination, with all their tentative but impassioned questionings.  Seldom, even in the most explicitly devotional poems, does she fail to articulate the complexities of contemporary life by using words or phrases whose marrow has been sucked out by pulpit and hymnbook.   There is a toughness in her mind analogous to that of Donne, a sense of worship like that of Herbert, and an image-making power which might have sprung from both.   Like the seventeenth-century poets, she discovers unique images for spiritual and imaginative experience, mining all levels of life for hidden meanings, hidden identities.

    The stranger whom she encounters in "Neighbours?", for example, is

           . . . like a found
manganese nodule — concentrate
of mortal meaning on the
seafloor of the city's
daytime din.  (75)

The nodules to which she refers are currently the object of considerable scientific inquiry which has not yet resolved itself into firm conclusions about their origin.   The simile is thus exact in suggesting the stranger's strangeness, a quality suggested also by the nodule as a kind of objet trouvé, simply there, like the cave-man, the stone, the comet, the data given to the poet.  But the "mortal meaning" of this particular datum makes mere observation of the stranger

                       . . . an
indulgence, distancing
a self, an object.

True discovery has to be a Samaritan act of involvement with one's neighbour:

To mine the meaning of
a found identity
will be given only to
recovered innocence.

     Avison is always trying to pass the boundaries and break the barriers set by the Fall of Man, by the solipsism of individual preconceptions and perceptions, and by the treachery of language itself.  So she begins with an awareness of elemental reality — the elemental images defining body and soul, nature and spirit, man and God — and proceeds to construct a variety of new molecules combining the physical world which she perceives and the spiritual world which she is trying to enter.  The catalyst is the imagination.  The tool, vehicle, matter, process and product is language.  With infinite pains she moves toward the disciplined and effortless epiphany of a Richard Rolle, but for her the poetic process is less a mystical insight than an unceasing wrestling with whatever angel she encounters.   The making of a poem is a mining, hewing and sculpting of the word, for which the world will not sit still:

The outlines vanish.
The tentative image fails
Chalks smear, all the paint spills,
creation crumples and curls.  ("Creative Hour" 99)

But the artist goes on, creating an intensely honest book.  Avison works with recalcitrant materials.  Landscapes, things, people, self resist the imagination.   But she works with honed chisel on the basic matter of human experience — air, water, sun, light, seed, blood — and sculpts iconic meaning out of an infinitely complex world.  These icons can be understood if, for a moment, we cease resisting and lay aside our clutter, as she counsels us to do in "The Engineer and the Asparagus":

Put down the dental floss, the number ten iron,
the gear knob, the wire-clippers, the periscope and fins.
Just put down, for a minute, the obsolete
   stencil-stylus, the ink-pad-stamp, the farmyard
                                                          gaspump feed-line. (74)

The energy of the logos may then surprise even us:

Down tools.  And in
abashed intervals
let us abound
(straight up through the driveway concrete!)


  1. Margaret Avison, Sunblue (Hantsport, N.S., 1978), p. 94.  All further references to poems found in this volume are to this text.[back]

  2. Richard Rolle of Hampole, The Love of God, in Hope Emily Allen, ed., English Writings of Richard Rolle Hermit of Hampole (Oxford, 1931), quoted in Fernand Mosse, A Handbook of Middle English (Baltimore, 1952), p. 232.[back]

  3. Fred L. Whipple, "The Nature of Comets," in Readings from Scientific AmericanNew Frontiers in Astronomy, with introductions by Owen Gingerich (San Francisco, 1975), M.  The comet Kohoutek (as the name is usually spelled) was visible from about Christmas, 1973 through early spring of 1974.  Cf. p. 40.[back]

  4. Margaret Avison, Winter Sun (Toronto, 1960), p. 19.[back]

  5. "From Age to Age:  Found Poem," in Sunblue, p. 102.[back]

  6. Cf. Isaiah 65:25-66:2.  Cf. also the Jerusalem Bible, note a to Isaiah 66:1.[back]

  7. Note Isaiah 11:6-11, especially the following verses:

    The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard with the kid;
    and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together;
    and a little child shall lead them . . . .
    and it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall set his
    the second time to recover the remnant of his people. . . . (emphasis

  8. Note the Jerusalem translation of this passage.[back]

  9. The end-words appear in the following order: 123456 / 615243 / 364125 / 532614 / 451362 / 246531 and 531, with the other three end-words appearing within the envoy in the order 246.[back]

  10. Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz (New York, 1972) p. 51.[back]

  11. Cf. Louis L. Martz, The Poetry of Meditation (New Haven, 1954) pp. 43-56.[back]

  12. Margaret Avison, The Dumbfounding (New York, 1966), p. 37.[back]