Chapter 13
“ A Little North of Where the Cities Are”:
the Poetics of Al Purdy’s Architecture

by D.M.R. Bentley


 

On September 5, 1964, John Glassco (1909-81) wrote to congratulate his fellow Canadian poet Al Purdy (1918-2000) on the award of the University of Western Ontario President’s Medal for the best poem published in 1963 to “The Country North of Belleville.” “Reading it for the first time I felt it was something I’d like to have written but couldn’t and never would,” wrote Glassco; its

landscape and mood came through to me as no other poem has done for a long time. Perhaps I just like decrepitude, desertion, the encroachments of woods and weeds, lost fences and savage stubborn farming; but no, it’s not just that, it’s the perfection of its form after all, the deep breath and the sigh which make it move and which one keeps hearing in alternation all through. (qtd. in Purdy, Yours, Al 76)

Although doubtless pleased by these remarks, Purdy professed himself unable to share Glassco’s attraction to “decayed things,” whether human or non-human: “all that sort of thing is a danger…. You could get like [A.E.] Houseman or [Robinson] Jeffers…. I’d like … to say I still have some vitality and lust for life remaining – and yet paradoxically appreciate ruined things. The best of both – ” (77). For Purdy, as for Glassco, “decayed” and “ruined things” have their attractions, but formal skill and emotional balance are required if the poems in which they appear are not to be sentimentally nostalgic or merely bathetic. This aesthetic attitude has implications for Canadian architecture as well as Canadian poetry that are given added force by the fact that in English Canada Purdy has been elevated to near bardic stature. What, then, do the architexts of the writer who has been dubbed the “most,” the “first,” and the “last Canadian poet”1 have to say about the poetics of architecture in late twentieth-century Canada?

I

As evidence of his appreciation of “ruined things,” Purdy directed Glassco to “Remains of an Indian Village” (1962), a poem that anticipates “The Country North of Belleville” in treating of “decay” in lines such as “everything fades / and wavers into something else” and “the villages of the brown people / toppling and returning – / What moves and lives / occupying the same space” (Beyond Remembering 52).2 “Remains of an Indian Village” may be “a complex gesture of historical recuperation as well as an attempt at explanation analogous to other postcolonial poems in which an individual encounters remnants of the cultures that existed in America prior to the arrival of Europeans” (Solecki 161), but it is much less effective than Purdy’s masterpiece for at least two reasons: it lacks the formal perfection of which Glassco had written and it fails to convey a felt connection between the poet and the unspecified “villages” of its unspecified “brown people.” Its final line – “I hear their broken consonants …” (53) – seems as unlikely as it is vague (“broken consonants”?). By comparison (and like the poem as a whole), the final lines of “The Country North of Belleville” are precisely sited and powerfully affective:

sometime
we may go back there
                                  to the country of our defeat
Wollaston Elzevir and Dungannon
and Weslemkoon lake land
where the high township of Cashel
                                 McLure and Marmora once were –
But it’s been a long time since
and we must enquire the way
              of strangers –
(Beyond Remembering 80-81)

The “Envoi” with which Stephen Leacock concludes Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912) is scarcely if at all more effective than these lines in expressing the emotion that lies near the heart of much of the best twentieth-century Canadian writing about small towns: a deeply felt longing that is known to be unfulfillable because its object no longer exists.

    “The Country North of Belleville” is also remarkable for its use of what John Hollander calls “graphic prosody” (277) to make visible on the page the emergence and disappearance of order in the landscape of eastern Ontario. Observe (the operative word) how the alternation of indented and unindented lines in the following passage reflects first the creation of “room” (indeed, Heideggerian “Raum”)3 by the settler and then its reclamation through decay and by wild

And where the farms are
                 it’s as if a man stuck
both thumbs in the stony earth and pulled

                                    it apart
                                    to make room
enough between the trees
for a wife
                 and maybe some cows and
                 room for some
of the more easily kept illusions –
And where the farms have gone back
to forest
                 are only soft outlines
                 shadowy differences –
Old fences drift vaguely among the trees
                 a pile of moss-covered stones
gathered for some ghost purpose
has lost meaning under the meaningless sky …
(Beyond Remembering 79)

As was the case in “Remains of an Indian Village” but much more effectively, place-making is here understood as participating in a sequence of construction and destruction whose earlier phases can be discerned and imagined through a combination of material remnants and historical empathy. To the very extent that both “The Country North of Belleville” and “Remains of an Indian Village” look from the present to the past, both reject the presentism of much of Purdy’s earlier work as an inadequate response to the Canadian landscape and opt instead for a conception of place as consisting of layers whose human creators are to some extent apprehendable through their remnants.

    Even while he was capitalizing on the success and subject matter of “The Country North of Belleville,” Purdy followed “Remains of an Indian Village” with other poetic attempts to make a connection across time with Canada’s Native peoples. The most anthologized of these is “Lament for the Dorsets” (1968), a piece that owes part of its inspiration to Purdy’s sojourn in the Arctic in the summer of 1965 and, more broadly, to the notion, popular among Canadian writers of European descent in the nineteen sixties, that by virtue of occupying the same landscape Canada’s Native peoples are their spiritual ancestors and kin.”4 “In some sense I think of them / as still here in the circle / the small brown men,” runs a passage about the extinct Dorsets that brings an echo of “Remains of an Indian” to yet another poem in the totemic spirit, “Tent Rings” (1967):

To enter these tent rings
is mingling with the past
being in two places
having visions
hearing voices
sounding in your head
almost like madness
summoned by wizard angakoka
a thousand-year-old spell
relayed and handed down
a legacy
from dead to the living …
(Beyond Remembering 108)

Proceeding to entertain the possibility of “rectangular / even octagonal” stones “having the shape of canvas tents / that came from white traders” Purdy concludes the poem by speculating that “some visitor / in the far future / (probably non-human)” will not know whether the stones “belonged to the Innuit … or white men / who were also visitors / and thought to be human” (108).

    After the lame extraterrestialism of “Tent Rings,” it is something of a relief to turn back to “Lament for the Dorsets,” where it is not a circle of stones that were used “long ago / to hold down the skirts / of caribou skin tents” but “some carved ivory swans” that prompt the poet to imagine “the last Dorset” “sitting in a caribou-skin tent” turning “one of his thoughts / … to ivory” in the hours before “wind / blows down the tent and snow / begins to cover him” (Beyond Remembering 107, 160-62). Unlike the final lines of “Tent Rings,” the conclusion of “Lament for the Dorsets” eschews trite speculation in favour of artistic consolation (“After 600 years / the ivory thought / is still warm”), but the poem is elsewhere flawed by passages that verge on mawkishness (“Let’s say his name was Kudluk / and watch him sitting there / carving 2-inch ivory swans / for a dead grand-daughter”) and that succumb to primitive stereotypes (“the puzzled Dorsets scratched their heads / with hairy thumbs around 1350 – couldn’t figure it out / went around saying to each other / plaintively / ‘What’s wrong? What happened? / Where are the seals gone?’ / And died”) (Beyond Remembering 160-61). In short, both poems bespeak a perhaps inevitable failure on Purdy’s part to make convincing poetic connection with the past of Canada’s Native peoples and both contain a lesson in this regard that Canadian architects as well as poets of European descent would do well to heed: however well-intentioned, cross-cultural connexity courts bathos, condescension, and inauthenticity. The round lower level of the Arctic Science (or Igloolik) Research Centre in Igloolik, Nunavut (formerly the Northwest Territories) was no doubt intended by Papineau, Gérin-Lajoie, Le Blanc, Edwards PGL as a homage to the igloo but it disappears beneath a modernistic second storey that could scarcely be more alien to the northern terrain and culture than the flying-saucer that it resembles.5 To borrow John Ruskin’s acerbic comment on a similar excrescence, it “terrifies the landscape … around [it]” (Poetry of Architecture 213n). At least the free and open-ended verse of “Tent Circles” and “Lament for the Dorsets” is formalistically consonant with the terrain in which the poems are located.6

    When Glassco replied to Purdy’s comments on the dangers of indulgence in the “sadness of decayed” and “ruined things,” he agreed with his friend’s misgivings and pointed him towards a poet who may have helped to guide Purdy back to the subject-matter that he had already begun to make his own because it already was his own: the settled landscape and settler culture of eastern Ontario. “You’re right about this attraction for decay going too far,” wrote Glassco on September 18, 1964: “[o]ne could end up all misty-eyed fondling a farmer’s old boot…. By the way, I think the emotional value of ruined things was first grasped by Wordswords [sic] in poems like ‘Michael’ (the part about the unfinished sheepfold …) and … ‘Hart-Leap Well’: for me, it’s still a spring of the purest and best romanticism, something that Irving [Layton], Arthur [Smith], Frank [Scott], [A.M.] Klein and almost all our contemporaries have passed up” (qtd. in Purdy, Yours, Al 80). Here, over thirty years after the arrival of literary Modernism in Canada, is a compelling declaration of faith in Romanticism and a sharply focused commendation of Wordsworth that could well have prompted Purdy to (re)visit the passages mentioned by Glassco, especially when it is remembered that, far from being the unlettered and spontaneous autochthon of his public persona, he was a voracious reader and, indeed, collector of books who revelled in his knowledge of literature and history.7

    The passage in “Michael” to which Glassco refers occurs after the narrator has heard the sad “story” attached to “a straggling heap of unhewn stones” that he has noticed beside “Green-head Ghyll,” a brook near Wordsworth’s cottage at Grasmere (2: 80-81, 94). The remnants of a “Sheep-fold” on which the poem’s eponymous shepherd laboured for seven years, it was left “unfinished when he died” and constitutes the only material evidence of the existence of Michael and his wife Isabel:

The[ir] Cottage which was named the EVENING STAR
Is gone – the ploughshare has been through the ground
On which it stood; great changes have been wrought
In all the neighbourhood: – yet the oak is left
That grew beside their door; and the remains
Of the unfinished Sheep-fold may be seen
Beside the boisterous brook of Green-head Ghyll.

(2: 94)

“[C]hanges” caused by human actions and by the passage of time have obliterated the cottage and reduced the sheepfold to a “straggling heap” of stones, but the oak still stands and the brook continues to flow. In the second poem to which Glassco refers, “Hart-leap Well,” the narrator also comes upon a ruin and learns its story, though now the ruin is of a “‘pleasure-house’” built by a knight and the story a testament to aristocratic callousness (2: 254). In one respect, however, the lesson of “Hart-leap Well” is the same as that of “Michael”: the “‘pleasure-house is dust’” and “‘Nature, in due course of time, once more / Shall … put on her beauty and her bloom’” where it stood. Meanwhile, “‘She leaves … objects to a slow decay, / That what we are, and have been, may be known.’”

    Of course, neither of Wordsworth’s two poems is merely a lesson in what decays and what endures. Among many other things, “Michael” is a tragic tale of misplaced affection (the shepherd places his love for his land over his love for his son) and “Hart-leap Well” is a condemnation of blood-sports (its closing lines counsel readers “‘Never to blend … pleasure or … pride / With sorrow of the meanest thing that feels’”). Over and above their more obvious and specific themes, both poems invite ruins to be seen as triggers to stories of human efforts, guided or misguided, to transform a portion of a bleak landscape into a place of dwelling, and both invite remnants of built structures to be understood symbolically as tokens of human effort that are disappearing and, as important, enduring. If “Michael” and “Hart-leap Well” did help to shape Purdy’s attitude to ruins and remnants, it was probably as much through their bitter-sweet complexities of emotion as through their subject-matter. In Pressed on Sand (1955), Purdy had written in Yeatsian and Eliotic tones of “find[ing] a story in every rock / Along the Fraser” and of writing “about the Indian dock / At Rupert, [and] the dreamlike murmuring / Of lonesome waterclosets in a deserted hotel” – “The minutiae and trivia that people think / Is unimportant” (11-12). In “Detail,” which was published four years after his correspondence with Glassco and in the same volume as “Lament for the Dorsets” (Wild Grape Wine [1968]), he is inspired by an abandoned and “ruined stone house” with “an old apple tree” on “the road / To Trenton,” Ontario to write a poem celebrating the beauty and tenacity of the tree’s “small bitter apples”:

all winter long
             … the apples clung
in spite of hurricane winds
sometimes with caps of snow
little golden bells
            ·         ·         ·
For some reason I must remember
and think of the leafless tree
and its fermented fruit
one week late in January
when the wind blew down the sun
and earth shook like a cold room
no one could live in
with zero weather
soundless golden bells
alone in the storm

(Beyond Remembering 135-36)

Despite Purdy’s disclaimer that he “make[s] no parable” of the apples (a gesture that Solecki sees as reminiscent of Robert Frost [99]), the poem does exactly that, using the apples as an emblem of stoical tenacity in a hostile environment. Long after the departure and probably the death of the “farmer,” the house that he built, the tree that he planted, and the “wild and wormy” apples that it “bears … every year” exist as reminders, for those who wish to look, of Ontario’s early settlers and their values.

    Of crucial importance to Purdy’s development as a poet and as a historiographer of Canadian settler culture was his own settlement in 1957 in Ameliasburg, Ontario. It was then and there, in a small village not far from his place of birth (near Woolner) that Purdy and his wife Eurithe began to build the A-frame house whose construction figures in several of his poems and, as Solecki has observed with some bewilderment (136), coincided with his maturity as a poet. “In building the cottage he began the remaking or reimagining of himself, the record of which is the body of work of the next decade,” argues Solecki, adding:

That Purdy himself recognized the A-frame as particularly significant seems evident from his unpublished description of the cottage during a 1970 CBC radio broadcast titled Al Purdy’s Ontario: “And the house itself – a drum for the north wind, a kind of knot in time, tho maybe also a yes. The feeling of being here so briefly, that a step backward or forward would make us disappear. The A-frame house we built like a wooden cobweb against the sky.” (136-37, and see 145-46)

At once an affirmation of being, a connection to the environment, an assertion of permanence, and a manifestation of creative power, Purdy’s construction of an A-frame was much more than the erection and furnishing of a house: it was a Heideggerean act of place-creation by a poet ready “to take the measure of architecture, the structure of dwelling” (Poetry, Language, Thought 227, and see Solecki 136). As he would recall in his 1993 memoir Reaching for the Beaufort Sea, “I thought the projected house was something marvellous, a factual dream of solidity. I think, therefore I am: I think a house and ergo the house am?” (159, and see 160).8

    The taking of measure that would lead to “The Country North of Belleville” was neither a quick nor an easy process for Purdy: “One Rural Winter” in the same keynote volume as his masterpiece (The Cariboo Horses [1965]) dramatizes a sense of entrapment and apprehension followed by reluctant acceptance: “I’m lost beyond even the remote boundaries / of Ameliasburg…. I’m even afraid to go outside / in order to experience the rich rural experience / that is part of our common Canadian heritage…. But the place is warm and comfortable …” (Beyond Remembering 75-76). Such lines as “I might catch my foot in a lateral moraine or something / and be trapped forever / in Ameliasburg Township” and “the house door / drags me into the hall / and the door knob / is a handle / I hold onto the sky with” (75-76, 77) are as close as Purdy would come to expressing the “tone of deep terror in regard to nature” and the resulting “garrison mentality” (830) that Northrop Frye was contemporaneously projecting onto Canadian literature in his “Conclusion” to the Literary History of Canada (1965), an essay that Purdy would later regard with justified skepticism.9 (Unlike the Margaret Atwood of The Circle Game [1966], The Journals of Susanna Moodie [1972], Survival [1972] and other works of the late ’sixties and early ’seventies, Purdy merely flirted with Frye’s vision of Canadian nature as terrifying and settler society as paranoiac:10 “all Atwood’s books have … [a] consistent and distinctive tone” he wrote in 1971, and “I disagree with most of [her] viewpoints wholeheartedly” [Starting from Ameliasburg 240, 243].)

    Between “One Rural Winter” and “The Country North of Belleville” in The Cariboo Horses is “Roblin’s Mills,” the first of Purdy’s poems to make use of a building from the settlement stage of Ontario history as what Pierre Nora calls a “lieu de mémoire,” a material “vestige” that represents the past and serves as a stimulus to historical imagination (see Nora, “Introduction” 9 and Bentley Mnemographia 1: xvii-xxi). In a letter of June 30, 1959, to Earle Birney, Purdy reveals his knowledge of the mill’s history and reveals also that he already regards it as representative of a people and a culture:

[Ameliasburg] used to have the honest name of Roblin’s Mills for an old small-time capitalist here. He died at 97 just after the turn of the century and his sons rapidly dissipated his substance. There is a fine old five storied mill in the village with walls two feet or so thick which I’ve explored betimes and searched out history. Built in 1842 succeeding another mill. Will Roblin (grandson) rented the mill before 1st war; got dissatisfied with his earning and demanded more. Miller refused and mill closed, village declined all to hell as a result. Interesting little capsule portrait of life and death of a village which I’ve explored etc. (Place used to be 500 pop., now 200 or less.) (Yours, Al 52)

With “etc” Purdy characteristically steps away from his expression of interest in order to avoid the appearance of sentimentality, but the very need for such a gesture indicates that he has entered psychologically as well as physically into the mill. For his Marxian correspondent, he emphasizes the economic history of the structure, but in the poetic flourishes of “fine old five storied” and “explored betimes” is the evidence that, to paraphrase Heidegger, he has placed himself towards it and already begun to write the poetry of dwelling in Ameliasburg.

    In contrast to Purdy’s most authologised Ontario architext, “Wilderness Gothic” (1968), “Roblin’s Mills” does not treat of an act of architectural refurbishment (“sheathing … [a] church spire / with new metal”) and it does not describe an architectural structure from a distance (“Across Roblin Lake, two shores away”) (Beyond Remembering 158). Quite the opposite: it is set in the aftermath of an act of architectural destruction and in the interior of its victim:

The mill was torn down last year
and stone’s internal grey light
gives way to new green
a shading of surface colour
like the greenest apple of several…
(Beyond Remembering 77)

In ensuing lines, the reduction of the mill to the vestige of a vestige prompts thoughts of discontinuity and disappearance: “The spate of Marthas and Tabithas / incessant Hirams and Josephs / is stemmed in the valley graveyard…. And the spring rain takes their bodies / a little deeper down each year …” (77). Morbid as these speculations are, they prompt the surreal thought – “maybe the earliest settlers / some stern Martha and speechless Joseph / … meet and mingle / 1,000 feet down” – that prepares the way for the poem’s affirmation of human connectiveness both within and across generations.

    In his letter to Birney, Purdy mentions “search[ing] out history.” In the poem, archival recovery in the form of a brief but detailed account of the mill’s closure after it was “rented in 1914 to a man named Taylor” who “knew his business” provides the factual basis for the imaginative leap from past to present that follows:

        … the lighting alters
            here and now changes
to then and you can see
            how a bald man stood
sturdily indignant
            and spat on the floor
and stamped away so hard the flour
dust floated out from his clothes
like a white ghostly nimbus
around the red scorn
and the mill closed down –
(Beyond Remembering 78)

 

By initiating the shift from “now” to “then” with an alteration of light, Purdy makes credible the ensuing perceptual act, which becomes vivid with the image of the “bald man” – Taylor – standing “sturdily indignant,” spitting on the floor, and stamping away. The vignette remains highly visualizable in the remaining lines not merely because of a succession of images (the floating “flour / dust” and the “red scorn” on Taylor’s face), but also because of a continuing emphasis on visual effects, one of which – “the dust float[ing] out from [Taylor’s] clothes” – is referred to the Gothic and the Christian supernatural. The repeated “fl” sound in “floor,” “flour,” and “floated” gives unity to the lines and may even enhance their visual and kinetic components by association with such words as “flare,” “flame,” and “flicker.”11

    Like many of Purdy’s finest poems, “Roblin’s Mills” has a three part structure corresponding to the “turn,” “counter-turn,” and “stand” of the classical ode. In this instance, the “stand” consists of a return to a “here and now” that are saturated with a felt awareness of the “then”:

                        Those old ones
you can hear them on a rural party line
sometimes
              when the copper wires
sing before the number is dialed and
then your own words stall some distance
from the house you said them in
              lost in the 4th concession
              or dimension or whatever
              what happened still happens
              a lump in your throat
              an adam’s apple half
              a mile down the road
              permits their voices
               to join living voices
              and float by
              on the party line sometimes
              and you hang up then
              so long now –
(Beyond Remembering 78)

 

A subtle interweaving of past and present is achieved in these lines as words beginning with “th” – “Those,” “them,” “then,” “their,” and, of course, “the” – gather up the “old ones” and bring them forward until the repetition and rhyme of “voices” and the colloquial and oxymoronic “so long now” make poetic the connection that has been forged by fancy. “[L]ost in the 4th concession / or dimension or whatever” is a typical Purdean retreat from sentimentality and, in this instance, like “etc” in the letter to Birney, its presence merely confirms that the elegiac tone of the poem is the result of a deeply felt sense of connection and loss. (Nowhere does the poem so much as intimate that Roblin’s Mill (see i) was “torn down” very carefully, in order that it could be rebuilt in Black Creek Pioneer Village in the Toronto suburb of Emery, where it now stands in all its refurbished glory.)12

    In the decade following the publication of “Roblin’s Mill” in The Cariboo Horses, Purdy made three major return visits to the mill in his poetry, first in the slightly longer poem of the same title in Wild Grape Wine, then in the poetic sequence entitled In Search of Owen Roblin (1974), and finally in “Inside the Mill” in Sundance at Dusk (1976). “Roblin’s Mills [II],” as it has come to be known, begins by setting the closure of the mill in its wider economic context (“The wheels stopped … and the wind-high ships / that sailed from Rednersville [on the Bay of Quinte]13… are delayed”), and it returns several lines later to the absence that was once the interior of the building and is now, the deictic “here,” the site of the poem and a “lieu de mémoire”:

The mill space is empty
even stones are gone
where hands were shaken
and walls enclosed laughter
saved up and brought here
from the hot fields
where all stories
are rolled into one …
(Beyond Remembering 156)

Adding to the poignancy of this and ensuing meditations on the “vanished” face-to-face community for which the absent building was an economic and social centre is the present state of Ameliasburg as a “rotting village” bypassed by a busy “highway” (the 401) (156-57). Where there were once “bright human sounds” the “bees dance now”: a space transformed by human effort into a node of human vitality is reverting to its natural state, a process that Atwood might regard as salutary but Purdy experiences as a source of sadness.

    The principal focal point of “Roblin’s Mills [II]” is not the mill itself but the nearby “millpond.” Figured near the beginning of the poem as “an unreflecting eye / … look[ing] inward / like an idiot child,” the pond later becomes a “black crystal” with the magical if not mystical property of “hold[ing] and contain[ing]” the past life of the community –

the substance of shadows
manner and custom
              of the inarticulate
departures and morning rumours
gestures and almost touchings
announcements and arrivals
gossip of someone’s marriage
when a girl or tired farm woman
whose body suddenly blushes
beneath a faded house dress
with white expressionless face
turns to her awkward husband
to remind him of something else
The black millpond
                                holds them
movings and reachings and fragments
the gear and tackle of living
under the water eye
all things laid aside
                                discarded
                                          forgotten
but they had their being once
and left a place to stand on
(Beyond Remembering 157)

 

“Roblin Mills [II]” is very much a poem about disintegration and disappearance, but in these its final lines it becomes triumphantly a poem about conjuration and the (re)membering in the mind’s eye of a vanished settler culture. The vignette that follows from “gossip of someone’s marriage” is a brilliantly subtle and suggestive rendition of the woman’s physiological reaction and tactical evasion. The figure of “the gear and tackle” effectively links the “millpond” to the absent but still imaginatively present mill, and the unequivocal affirmation of the final lines themselves is given force by their rhythmic regularity and by the chiasmic resonances between “had” and “stand” and “once” and “place.” Little wonder that Purdy’s friend Margaret Laurence (1926-87) used these final lines as an epigraph for The Diviners (1974), her novel about personal and cultural ancestors and inheritances.

    Purdy’s most extensive treatment of Roblin’s Mills, In Search of Owen Roblin, was published in the same year as Laurence’s novel and has much in common with it, including the use of photographs as windows onto the past and the absence of stringent editing that is all-too-typical of works by Canadian writers who have achieved “star” status.14“Fuck being objective,” he said of In Search of Owen Roblin in an ominously foreboding letter of February 11, 1973 to Laurence; “[p]erhaps like a novelist in this instance, I wanta get everything about me into [it], obviously ego, eh? If I inhabit those goddam early settlers then they are me and I am them” (Yours, Al 214-15). Quite direly in need of editorial assistance are the opening verse paragraphs of the poetic sequence, where a photograph album is first “a cage of ancestors” from which “people literally [!] fling themselves / out … into your eyes,” then a “mirror” in which you “see … yourself a temporal transvestite,” and finally “a cardboard graveyard” in which the poet manages to envisage “a quicksilver image of [him]self” (Beyond Remembering 238-39). Readers who are capable of persevering will find things to admire in In Search of Owen Roblin, not least “Roblins Mills [II],” which provides the sequence with a ringing conclusion. As good an assessment as any of the sequence came from Purdy himself when objectivity was not trumped by ego: “I think it doesn’t come off completely, tho perhaps partially” (Yours, Al 251); it is “somewhat and largely flawed, perhaps because I flit around in time from myself to [Owen] Roblin and my grandfather and the U[nited] E[mpire] L[oyalists]” (Purdy-Woodcock Letters 123).

    Despite its often “prosy” self-indulgence, In Search of Owen Roblin has very considerable architextual interest as a poetic “compendium”15 of information and insight into the settlement and growth of Ontario. Incorporating and reworking portions of “Elegy for a Grandfather” (1956), Purdy moves towards the distant past by vividly recalling his grandfather, Ridley Neville Purdy, who arrived in Canada in 1858 at the age of eighteen and worked in lumber camps at the time of the construction of the “colonization roads” in the area between Lake Ontario and the Ottawa River, which is to say, the area to the north of the landscape described in “The Country North of Belleville” (Beyond Remembering 240). Not only is Purdy’s “250 … pound” grandfather an almost larger-than-life ancestor but, as a migrant and a participant in the process of destruction and construction that is settlement, he is also a precursor of the poet and his wife in their “move … to Roblin Lake / Prince Edward County in 1957” and in their use of their “last hard-earned buck to buy second-hand lumber / to build a second-hand house” (240, 244).

    With the past and present thus juxtaposed and linked, Purdy interweaves the building of his “A-frame” – “a house so flagrantly noticeable / it seemed an act of despair”– with the emergence of his “interest” in the houses of Ameliasburg as the creations of a settler culture and with the final stage in what has here been termed an architectural narrative (see Chapter 2: Logs to Riches):

… Late 19th-century houses in the village
more scattered thru the countryside
many of these old places being
a silent kind of triumph in survival
their owners celebrated with wood and stone
a dozen panes of glass for each window
where glass had been so scarce in the beginning
sign and signal the green waves of forest
surrounding would not wash over them again
Usually they were “second houses”
the first having been log construction
long gone back into earth
And then there were the “third houses”
some with white gingerbread woodwork
complicated as catacombs of the bone brain
a pattern of wood curlicues entangled with time…
(Beyond Remembering 245)

With the word “survival” Atwood’s 1972 study of that name enters the poem, but its pop-psych thesis that Canadians are a nation of victims and losers16 is quickly dispelled by the emphasis on “celebrat[ion],” advancement, and creativeness that follows. Here, as in Survival, the “gods” may favour “pain and defeat,” but they also “allow … brief content” and reward human tenacity and artistry, a realization to which Purdy comes gradually, first by “sawing boards” and “pounding nails” until his A-frame house is at least “a place to camp” and then by recognizing “the melodious silent gingerbread” on an Ameliasburg house as the result of a “19th-century man / work[ing] an hour longer than he had to / because he got interested and forgot everything else” (246-47). The fact that Purdy uses the same word – “interested” – to describe the absorption of the Victorian carpenter as well as his own turn towards Victorian architecture is merely a verbal signal of the sympathetic relationship between the poet and figures in the past that his imaginative response to their creations makes possible.

    With the architecture of Ameliasburg now providing a bridge between the poet and the village’s past and a paucity of money now restricting his interests to his immediate surroundings, the stage is set for his “discover[y]” of the building that will provide a focal point for the sequence as it once did for the community: “the old ruined grist mill / built by Owen Roblin in 1842 / four storeys high with a wrecked mill wheel / cumbered by stones and time” (246). Inside “the gaunt skull-like stone remnants” of the mill, Purdy begins the historical enquiry into the identity of Owen Roblin that provides him with “a small opening / in[to] the past,” a means of travelling further back in time than the late nineteenth century. From “read[ing] books,” “explor[ing] a graveyard near the millpond,” and “question[ing] every old man in the village,” he learns that Roblin (1803-1903) “owned six houses and built an octagonal one” and imagines that he dreamed of a “potash works and … sawmill”(247). The village, he discovers, “gradually / grew round” Roblin’s “gristmill,” which he envisages as having “once loomed over its surroundings / like a lord’s castle” (247, 248, and see Chapter 4: Rising and Spreading Villages). Less a type of himself than a model of constructive and entrepreneurial success and a means of escaping from the reality of his own creative and financial “despair and failure,” Owen Roblin nevertheless resembles Purdy’s grandfather in providing a goad to historical “curiosity,” food for the imagination, and, eventually, material for poetry (247, 248).

    Nor does that “curiosity” stall in the early nineteenth century. In what are unfortunately some of the most prosaic sections of the poem, Purdy pursues his search for origins by seeking out “books about the beginning of things in the County / settlement here during the 18th century” when “Citizens of the United States / who remained loyal to Britain / or those proclaiming themselves neutral … landed at Adolphustown” and began the laborious process of settlement (248-49). Like that of Purdy’s grandfather, Purdy himself, and Owen Roblin, the history of the Loyalists as it is envisaged in In Search of Owen Roblin is one of migration and construction, emplacement and place-creation. After a survey of the settlements that were founded in and around Prince Edward County after the first Loyalists arrived in 1784, Purdy focuses on the initial stage of the architectural narrative with a quotation adapted from the chapter on “The Origin of the Dwelling House” in the second book of Vetruvius (39) that is as clumsily introduced as the account that it supposedly enhances is banal:

land was allotted and tools supplied
and under the high green ceiling of the forest
they cut down trees and built log houses
I’ve just been reading about that early log construction
It seems that about 30 years before Christ
a Roman architect and military engineer
named Vetruvius described the method of log building
used by the Colchis people
on the south shore of the Black Sea
“They layed timbers flat on the ground
one trunk to the left
and one to the right, spaced
one trunk length apart.
The spaces left
because of the thickness
of the material are filled
with wood chips and mud – ”
(250)

Matters do not improve with the passage to which these lines give rise, a description of birds – or, as Purdy has it, “modern carpenters” – building their nests in Ameliasburg “two thousand years after the Colchis people.” The best that can be said of such lines as the following is that they contain some glimmers of environmental awareness:

Of course the method of architecture
varies from crib construction to circular
tho in one sense all is crib construction
with marsh builders at the lake edge
and forest builders in chosen trees
Nothing is wasted
no debris littering the floor plan
and the builders go about their work
to the strains of continual music
(250)

A further reference to “the Colchis people” provides a segue back to the Loyalists and more versified history. Not until the appearance of the text of the original “Roblin’s Mills” (1965) three pages later does the poem again rise to the level of poetry.

    The ascent is temporary, however, for although the fifteen pages that follow “Roblin’s Mills” continue to forge connections between past and present and provide some further information about the Loyalists, Owen Roblin, and other historical figures, they are repeatedly marred by unnecessary process statements, awkward personal interjections, and unconvincing attempts at connections such as: “First my grandfather, then Owen Roblin … Then I went still farther back / trying to enter the minds and bodies / of the first settlers and pioneers here”; “nothing came easy to them / and dammit nothing is easy to me / Anyhow I feel related to them / by more than blood and just space they occupied / as if I too had hacked at monster trees”; and “I can visualize many of them / and grappling hooks of the imagination / backed by names and dates and records / produce words and sounds to reproduce them / Here are two people …” (255, 256, 264). But there are a few honourable exceptions to the awfulness of the latter part of the poem. One of these is the unifying use of the “snake” or “zigzag” fences of the Ameliasburg area as a figure for the “back and forth” movement between characters and from past to present that gives the poem its overall rhythm (256, 260). Another is a poignant vignette of one of the “two people” reeled in by Purdy’s “grappling hooks,” a village idiot and drunk named Jo who works in the mill and drowns in the millpond (264-66).17 The third and most interesting for the present study is a passage in which Purdy rises to a challenge similar to one that he had posed to Glassco in 1964: to write a poem on what Glassco had described as the “old bathtub shapes” of decrepit cars in a car cemetery, “sinking into the ground, like the first stone fences,” and – this is Purdy’s suggestion of how he might do it – “[d]ripping with old fenders, magnetoes, kidneys and grey weathered human guts” (Yours, Al 76, 77).

    Purdy regarded the section on the Ameliasburg “garbage dump” in In Search of Owen Roblin as “probably the best part” of the sequence (Yours, Al 214) and included it under the title “Gateway” in his Collected Poems of 1986, an anthology of the poems that he “like[d] best” (xviii). The reasons are not far to seek. Framed by references to Ameliasburg that proclaim the sense of ownership and elation that come with being at home – “I claim this snake-fence village / of A-burg as part of myself … myself a man from another time / walking thru the 19th-century village / with a kind of jubilation” (Beyond Remembering 259, 260) – the section is free of the ponderous historiography and melodramatic posturing that do so much damage in the surrounding pages. Set in April when the melt unhides the hidden contents of the garbage dump, it is a catalogue of discarded items that begins in disgust at the “sleazy treasure chest of litter / and malodorous last year valuables” that has come into view but soon becomes a fascinated celebration of the revealed and revealing evidence of the lives of the village’s present and past inhabitants:

the A-burg kitchen midden is exposed
bright labels faded out in tin cans
pop bottles half submerged in dead leaves
broken glass jars from housewives’ kitchens
a bulging bosomed dressmaker’s dummy
blurred past its fake human shape
a cracked plow motionless in the black unplowed field
that constitutes the shoreless subterranean world …
(259)

As the catalogue of discarded and damaged items becomes the archaeological dig intimated by the word “midden” and confirmed by the “cracked plow” it also becomes more imaginative and whimsical:

a worn catcher’s mitt and broken bat
baby carriage shattered past repair
farther down milk churns and old harness
under the earth a rusted flintlock rifle
some horseshoes
maybe a lost green corroded coin
minted in one of the lost Thirteen Colonies
or a Queen Victoria shilling flung here
by a disgusted loser in the non-stop
poker game at the A-burg hotel
even a cracked and useless school blackboard
unstuffed teddy bears and fractured dolls
once even the complete skeleton of a dog
and I suppose there must be other dogs here
farm dogs town dogs sleep dogs lap dogs
dogs that say up yours with every snooty bark …
(259-60)

Accumulation is the governing principle of these and ensuing lines and repetition their unifying device. As syllables (such as “at” and “co”) and words (such as “cracked” and “lost”) echo one another they underscore the connection between the immediate and distant past that the imagination has worked with the spring run-off to uncover. Waste and transience are very much evident in the lines, but so too are preservation and endurance. Perhaps the key word is the deictic “here,” for more than anything else it is the poet’s sense of his place and its history that permits him to descend what he later (and awkwardly) calls “the swift / slow elevator of time” until he can credibly go no further and must return from the “subterranean world” to the chilly light of common day:

… if I didn’t know better
maybe a mammoth’s tusk or lizard’s forearm
[lie] deep down beyond the morning light
that comes bending its way around
this hill a bright flexible shaft of steel
and sees nothing but itself on water …
(260)

    With the re-entry of the millpond comes a return to the history of the mill and the revelation that the first mill on the site was not Roblin’s but a “wooden grist mill” built in 1829 by one John Way (261). The many lines of versified history that follow contain little of architextual interest, though they do contain an account of the growth of Ameliasburg that recalls the early nineteenth-century observations and speculations about the growth of villages that were canvassed in Chapter 4: Rising and Spreading Villages. Despite the existence of Way’s mill, it is to Roblin’s that Purdy assigns seminal status. “[W]hen Owen Roblin built the mill” in 1842, he writes, “everything seemed to happen at once / Elijah Sprague and his carriage factory … a tailor shop and bakery … / bank, hotel, pool room and town hall / with a village lockup in the basement … an ashery where lye was leached / from hardwood ashes to make soap / a one-room schoolhouse … (262). Yet more versified history takes the village through to the early twentieth century before yielding up some of the sequence’s most orotund fatuities (for, example, “names and dates say little / lists of things are only aids to memory” and, worse. “thru the marketplace of Athens and Rome / the model citizens and much-respected men / all have their counterparts in antiquity / as well as fools and idiots / But no judgment on the past can be made / obviously good and evil are relative …” [263]).

    With the vignette of Jib, the sequence begins to regain strength. One reason for this is the re-introduction of Ridley Neville Purdy and the incorporation of some of the finest lines of Purdy’s second “Elegy for a Grandfather” (1968). Another is the emergence of a new and engaging self-reflectiveness with respect to memory and history. With a quotation from Robert Browning’s “Memorabilia” – “And did you once see Shelley plain?”18 – as a point of departure, Purdy wonders whether he has ever caught “a glimpse / of the real” Ridley Neville Purdy and Owen Roblin. The resulting meditations contain some of the most thoughtful and moving passages in the sequence, such as this on his grandfather:

… perhaps all I see is what’s around him
his background in pioneer Canada
the way the world looked when he was alive
I see the selective things I remember
nostalgic things that appeal to me
And yet, perhaps it is really so
that I have somehow become his memory
and my survival is the only trace of his own …
(268-69)

And these on Owen Roblin:

In search of Owen Roblin
I discovered a whole era
that was really a backward extension of myself
built lines of communication across two centuries
recovered my own past my own people
a long misty chain stretched thru time …
                ·                 ·                 ·
For it wasn’t Owen Roblin I was looking for
but myself thru him always myself …
I am the sum total of all I know …
(270-71)

Not only is the allusion to Tennyson’s “Ulysses” in the last line pompous in itself, but it is also the prelude to a rising crescendo of pomposities that includes references to “Doctor Freud and Doctor Jung,” a quotation from John Donne (“‘I am a piece of the main’”), and a climactic flourish whose pretentiousness is in no way diminished by Purdy’s characterization of himself as “a monster of egotism” several lines earlier:

I contain others as they contain me
in the medieval sense I am Everyman
and as Ulysses said of himself in the Cyclops’ cave
                                                           “I am Nobody”
and a lover
(271-72)

An admirer of Purdy can only be thankful that In Search of Owen Roblin ends, not with these “troubling[ly]” “self-assertive … self-satisfying” (Solecki 156), and bathetic lines, but with the entire text of “Roblin Mills [II].”

    Purdy’s last substantial treatment of Roblin’s Mill was published only two years after In Search of Owen Roblin but it is very much in keeping with its antecedents in being set in the interior of the structure and in using it as a gateway to the past. Consisting of four seven-line stanzas whose rectangularity may have been intended to mimic the “building” and “doorway” that they describe, “Inside the Mill” makes such careful use of “light” both as a word and as the basis of seeing that it could almost be described as a study in vision. In the second line of the first stanza, the movement from “sunlight” to “moonlight” inducts the reader into a realm where ghosts walk, intangibles become real, and revelatory insight is possible:

It’s a building where men are still working
thru sunlight and starlight and moonlight
despite the black holes plunging down
on their way to the roots of the earth
no danger exists for them
transparent as shadows they labour
in their manufacture of light
(Beyond Remembering 208)


In the third line of the second stanza, the word “lightened” incorporates the supernatural “light” and effects of the first stanza as a source, not of fear or excitement as would be the case in a ghost story, but as a source of relief, tranquility, and revelation:

I’ve gone there lonely sometimes
the way I felt as a boy
and something lightened inside me
– old hands sift the dust that was flour
and the lumbering wagons returning
afloat in their pillar of shadows
as the great wheel turns the world.

Assisted by the echo of the pillars of cloud and fire in Exodus 13.21, these lines attach a near-mystical quality to the process of transforming grain into a staple of human life.

    With the help now of strong echoes of T.S Eliot’s Four Quartets,19 that same quality is carried forward into the two remaining stanzas of “Inside the Mill.” The first of these is heavily reminiscent of In Search of Owen Roblin in its concentration on “backward and forward” movement in time, but it is freshened by the mixed but effective figure of the back-and-forth movement of “a gate in the sea of your mind.” The second is an almost apocalyptic vision of the absent mill and its ghostly labourers:

When the mill was torn down I went back there
birds fumed into air at the place
a red sun beat hot in the stillness
they moved there transparent as morning
one illusion balancing another
as the dream holds the real in proportion
and the howl of our hearts to a sigh
(Beyond Remembering 208-09)

“The backward look on ruined things I have eschewed,” Glassco had written in September 1964;“I just look at them now, sigh and turn away” (qtd. in Yours, Al 80). With “Inside the Mill,” Purdy seems to have arrived at a similar position, creating in the process what Solecki calls “almost a Canadian topos in which elegy is simultaneously a record of loss and a resistance both to historical amnesia and the implicit devaluation of the past” (72, and see Solecki’s deeply insightful surrounding analysis of the poem’s rhythms and diction).20

    Certainly “Inside the Mill” is Purdy’s last substantial poem about a ruin, though not his final poetic look at Canadian architecture. In the decade between the publication of Sundance at Dusk and his death in 2000, he spent more and more time away from Ameliasburg either traveling or at his winter home on Vancouver Island, but in two poems – “Place of Fire” (1976) and “An Arrogance” (1990) – he again found subject-matter in the construction of his A-frame house. Ostensibly occasioned by the building of a fireplace and chimney for the house, “Place of Fire” displays Purdy’s characteristic weaknesses and mannerisms one after another. First comes metaphorical overkill (“There are smokestacks hundreds / of feet high, disciplined phallic / chimneys penetrating the helpless sky / in ritual rape…”), then literary name-dropping (“W.Yeats and R. Jeffers kept building towers as well, / so they could write great poems about it”), and, finally, laboured informality (“so build your fireplace, raise your stonetower … – in fact, do any damn thing, but act quickly! / Go ahead. You’ve got the kit”) (Beyond Remembering 293-94). Nevertheless, the resonantly Heideggerean analogy that the poem draws between building and writing as activities is skilfully handled and engaging, especially for its figuration of poetry as an art of incorporation in which materials from diverse structures and sources are put to new uses:21

Ingredients: limestone from an 1840 Regency cottage
(I told Bill Knox he was nuts to tear it down);
historic stone from the Roblin gristmill site;
anonymous stone from Norris Whitney’s barnyard;
and some pickup loads from Point Anne quarry.
                ·                 ·                 ·
… you must agree it’s quite the hard way
to gather ingredients for a poem….
(293)

Like the new fireplace and chimney, “Place of Fire” consists of materials that are drawn from other works and times as well as those that are quarried from the natural world: besides the towers of Yeats and Jeffers, W.H Auden’s “In Praise of Limestone” is subsequently evoked, as is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Defense of Poetry.” Of course, literary knowledge – the ability to recognize allusions – is essential to a full understanding of the poem and knowledge of the poem is essential to a full understanding of the fireplace and chimney that it describes. In Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912), plans are initially made to use the stone from “the little … church” that is demolished “to make way for the newer Evidence” for the construction of “a Sunday School.” When this fails to materialize, the plan becomes to use the stone to build “a wall that should stand as a token.” When this plan is also abandoned, the stone is “sold to a building contractor, and, like so much else in life, … forgotten” (58). “Place of Fire” is irritatingly mannered in parts, but it is also a successful act of architextual resistance to amnesia and an assurance that Purdy’s fireplace and chimney will “stand as a token.”

    When “An Arrogance” was published in The Woman on the Shore in 1990 Purdy was in his early seventies and, as several other poems in the volume attest, deeply conscious of his own physical deterioration and mortality. The arrogance to which the poem’s title refers lies in the building of a house, an undertaking that is imagined in the opening lines as the creation of “a kind of bump” that “change[s] the contour / of earth itself,” “abstract[s] a portion of the sky,” and “place[s] personal boundaries / on nothingness” (Beyond Remembering 467). After a brief consideration of the sublimity of the concept of “nothingness” (“it’s like contemplating eternity or infinity / the mind can’t cope”) and a characteristic disavowal of high seriousness (“no buck-toothed intellectual caveman / in the pause after inventing a skin tent / would tolerate such semantic bullshit”), the poem retrieves its architectural theme, incorporating as it does so allusions to In Search of Owen Roblin and “The Country North of Belleville”:

                        Just the same
when my wife and I built this A-frame
with a pile of second-hand lumber
and used concrete blocks from Belleville
and barn-boards from the country north of –
that’s what we did
                           fenced in the sky
I mean: the sheer grandeur of it!
(it was me what did it God)
a peg on which to hang the ego
while birds and small animals
apply for new road maps …
(468)

Whereas in “Place of Fire” building is seen as analogous to writing, here it is merely referred to Purdy’s literary accomplishments and envisaged primarily as a self-realizing activity that sets humans apart from other animals and gives man (the operative word for the parenthetical interjection) the arrogance to proclaim his constructive powers to God.

    “An Arrogance” is not ultimately about construction and self-realization, however; the poet’s Wordsworthian “wanderings” in his “rural domain” have revealed the existence of “a kind of bump” under rather than above the horizon: “a hole in the earth … an old house foundation with maybe / rotting timbers old bricks rusty tin cans” (468). Both an architectural ruin and a memento mori, the grave-like “hole” is more than an antidote to arrogance: it is a leveling assault on even the most grandiose attempts at permanence that leaves the poet achingly aware not only of his own mortality, but also of his existential aloneness in a vast and probably finite universe:

               that’s what awaits us
it happens to pyramids and mud shanties
and all I can do about it
my small passion for permanence
is to stand outside at night
(conceding probability to the “Big Bang”)
in the full rush and flow of worlds
dancing the firefly dance of the universe
stand on my local planet and
neighbourhood galaxy
beside my crumbling little house
inside my treacherous disappearing body
while the dear world vanishes
and say weakly
                                    I don’t like it
                                    I don’t like it
        – to no one who could possibly be listening
(468)

This is not a “sigh,” but an anguished and moving expression of misery and frailty that is as emotionally candid as it is free from posturing. “[W]hile the dear world vanishes”: this is the heartfelt regret of a lover made almost unbearable in its pathos by an intensifying use of spondee (“déar wórld”) and falling rhythm (“vánishes”). It is Purdy at his best in miniature and in extremis.

    Two years before the publication of In Search of Owen Roblin, Dennis Lee paid Heideggerian homage to Purdy in an article that infuriated the poet by likening him to Walt Whitman (see Yours, Al 200-06), but may well have encouraged him to pursue what Lee calls his “search of dwelling places in the space and time we inhabit” (“Running and Dwelling” 14). “Purdy locates our dwelling in time and space; he places us,” Lee asserts:

To th[e] extent that he has embodied the tensions of our dwelling here in the musculature and movement of his poems … [he] has … opened room for us to dwell. We can comment at length, some day, on the quality of the workmanship and the suitability to our climate of what he has built. But what we need to notice at the beginning is that we did not have poetry before that opened our dwelling here; and now we do. (16)

Setting aside the specious claim that Purdy was the first Canadian writer whose “poetry” (in Heidegger’s exact words) is “what really lets us dwell” because “poetic creation … is a kind of building” (Poetry, Language, Thought 215), this passage suggests that Lee had reservations about Purdy’s work on two counts: its technical merit and its appropriateness to the Canadian (cultural) environment. Insofar as it has revealed the unevenness of the Purdy oeuvre, the preceding commentary, though by no means lengthy, has to an extent provided an answer to the first of Lee’s reservations. The second remains to be addressed, however, and warrants consideration here for its own sake and because it returns the discussion to the question posed at its onset: what do Purdy’s architexts have to say about the poetics of Canadian architecture in the late twentieth century?

    Foundational if not always central to Purdy’s aesthetic was the social Romanticism that he imbibed early in his writing career through the work of Rudyard Kipling, G.K Chesterton, Bliss Carman, and other late Victorian writers.22 It was this that made him receptive later in his career to the poetry of Wordsworth and Glassco and, at the same time, hostile to Whitman. It was this that made him at the very least ambivalent to poetry in the High Modern tradition of T.S Eliot, to the “aesthetic modern” mode of A.J.M. Smith,23 and, of course, to the detached and joyless manner of Margaret Atwood. And it was this that made him receptive to the place and community-oriented work of the American poet Charles Olson and, by the same token, impatient with the egotistical rantings of Irving Layton.24 Given these roots and predilections, there is nothing surprising about the fact that Purdy’s work pays only scant and grudging attention to subjects such as the city, technology, alienation, and the new, and exhibits instead a preference for rural and semi-rural subjects, a receptiveness to intense emotions and experiences, an affection for things that are disappearing or have disappeared, and a saddened and sometimes nostalgic sense that, though much abides, even more has been taken away. As ruin, absence, and imaginary, Roblin’s Mill became a focal point for Purdy because it answered perfectly to his Romantic conservative and, indeed conservationist aesthetic: it inspired because it already embodied his poetry of architecture.25

    So too did another structure: the A-frame house that Purdy and his wife built among the disappearing and abiding buildings of Loyalist and post-Loyalist Ontario. At first blush, the Scandinavian associations and the snow-shedding aspects of the Purdy house might suggest not only that its design was chosen for its “suitability to our climate,” but also that its form is in this way equivalent to the form of Purdy’s poems, which by Lee’s logic, should somehow reflect the Canadian geist. An argument for the Canadianness of what Purdy “built” on the basis of the nordicity of the form that he chose for his house would be hard to sustain, however, for as Chad Randl has shown in A-frame (2004) that form is by no means found only in northern countries, but, on the contrary, appears in ancient Japan, medieval England, the south Pacific, and various other parts of the world (15-29). Moreover (and as Randl has again shown), its geometric shape and relative inexpensiveness made the A-frame appealing to Modern architects such as Albert Reider and Ernst May who were seeking innovative responses to the housing shortage that followed the First World War and, more germane, it enjoyed a huge vogue in the United States in the nineteen fifties, when the prosperity generated by the peace dividend of the Second World War created a demand for vacation homes (47-126). Purdy’s A-frame house was a product of this vogue, and there is every likelihood that it was based on one or other of the American designs or sets of working drawings such as those of the Douglas Fir Plywood Association (i, ii) that were widely available in the late ’fifties (see Randl 77-107, 178-95). Indeed, Purdy would later recall that he and his wife found the “architect’s plans” for their A-frame in “House Beautiful magazine” and, after much “pondering, lucubration and cogitation,” enlarged the dimensions of the structure (“a small A-frame … with adjoining kitchen and bath”) to “thirty feet long … seventeen feet wide” and “eighteen feet high” at the peak with a “twelve-foot square kitchen-bathroom … [on] one side” (Reaching for the Beaufort Sea 158-59).

    In the end, then, it is not so much the seeming northerness of Purdy’s A-frame that is telling but its debts of concept and, very likely, plan to cosmopolitan and, more specifically, American sources. The literary equivalents of these are, of course, the debts of manner and form to William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, and other American poets of the low Modern tradition that Purdy accumulated in the course of developing his mature style in the late ’fifties and early ’sixties. As he reluctantly, even defensively, admitted in a 1969 interview with Gary Geddes, the “technique” in which he was by then at home “takes a bit from Williams [and] a bit from Olson” in its use of “contemporary, … modern idiom” and the “open-endedness” that he had embraced as “both device and philosophy … owes something to Olson’s ‘in the field bit’” (68, 70). In other words, he had heeded Olson’s advice and example to poets in “Projective Verse” (1950) and in his own poetry to immerse themselves in immediate experience and locale and to render their processes in open forms and oral rhythms.26 The correspondence between Purdy’s poetical and philosophical openness and the open interior spaces and gable ends that provide part of the appeal of the A-frame form provides a further link between his poetic and architectural practices. Facing south and north, open both inwardly and to its environment, and built, it will be recalled, of nails, lumber, and stones that were by turns new, second hand, and historically resonant, Purdy’s A-frame corresponds in enough ways to his poetry to qualify as its architectural equivalent and commentary. As such, it is a testament not only to “the suitability to our climate” of what Al Purdy “built,” but also to the complex mixture of forces at work in that climate, shaping, changing, configuring, destroying, and possibly even determining its features.

Notes

  1. These are the judgments of, respectively, George Bowering in Al Purdy (1970), Dennis Lee in “Running and Dwelling: Homage to Al Purdy” 16, and Sam Solecki in his book-length essay on Purdy. [back]
  2. In “The Country North of Belleville,” Purdy figures the decay and disappearance of farms as a submergence:

                    And where the farms have gone back
                    to forest
                                    are only soft outlines
                                    shadowy differences –
                    Old fences drift vaguely among the trees
                                    a pile of moss-covered stones
                    gathered for some ghost purpose
                    has lost meaning under the meaningless sky
                                    – they are like cities under water
                    and the undulating waves of time
                                    are laid on them –
    (Beyond Remembering 80)
                                                                                       [back]
  3. See Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought 154 for “Raum [as] … a place cleared or free for settlement and lodging” and my The Gay] Grey Moose 209-12 for further discussion of the visual aspects of “The Country North of Belleville.” [back]
  4. A classical statement of this view is “The Pride (1968) by John Newlove (1938-2003), where “we” collectively “seize on” the Native peoples of the prairie, “become them … become our true forbears, moulded / by the same wind or rain, / and in this land we / are their people, / come back again” (91, 93). [back]
  5. The Centre is also rendered unsuitable by the cost of heating it. During the mid-’nineties it fell into disuse except during the summer. For admiring accounts of the functionality and construction of igloos see Gontran de Poncis, Kabloonka 63-65, 221-22, and elsewhere, and Lisa Rochon, Up North 29-31. [back]
  6. See my The Gay] Grey Moose 15-116 for discussions of the ecological relationship between form and landscape in Canadian poetry. [back]
  7. If the passage in “The Country North of Belleville” in which a ploughman “shades his eyes to watch for the same / red patch mixed with gold / that appears on the same spot in the hills year after year” (Beyond Remembering 80) was intended to evoke a Wordsworthian “spot … of time” (Prelude [1850] 12:208), then Wordsworth was already a presence in Purdy’s thinking about the past by September 1964. My own sense that Purdy was an avid collector and reader of poetry and history comes from several discussions with him when he was writer-in-residence at the University of Western Ontario in 1977-78. [back]
  8. In “Abstract Plans” in the October 1948 issue of Canadian Forum, Purdy anticipates the construction of a “cottage” near “water” in terms that not only echo Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” (see Solecki 223), but also anticipate the lines in “The Country North of Belleville” that supply the title of the present chapter: “We shall build our cottage where running water gleams, / And plant the ground with roses and sow the day with dreams. / I will shape the windows to watch the road go by, / With one to catch the starlight and parallel the sky…. And we shall live forever (a little episode) / A little past the river, a little down the road.”[back]
  9. In “Streetlights on the St. Lawrence” (1974) Purdy draws heavily on Frye’s notion of the river as an enormous whale that swallows Jonah-like immigrants, but in his subsequent review of the three-volume edition of the Literary History of Canada (1977) he expresses reservation about the explanatory power of the figure (see Starting from Ameliasburg 79, 265). [back]
  10. For a discussion of the paranoiac aspects of Frye’s “Conclusion” and Atwood’s Journals of Susanna Moodie, see Chapter 12: The Music of Rhyme. [back]
  11. See my forthcoming “Unremembered and Learning Much: the Poems of LAC Alfred W. Purdy” for a discussion of his likely exposure during the nineteen forties to what is variously called echoism, phonaesthesia, and sound symbolism – the theory that certain vowel and consonant clusters are associated with and evocative of certain qualities and movements – for example, “fl” of and with small relatively quiet movement on account of its presence in such words as “flutter,” “flicker,” and “flash.”[back]
  12. In Black Creek Pioneer Village, the village guide, Roblin’s Mills is dated 1842. Like the other buildings in the Village, it has been “restored and refurbished to the 1860s” ([2]).[back]
  13. Among other things, Rednersville, which was founded in 1798, boasts a store that was founded in 1845 and is still functioning. [back]
  14. In letters of September 6 and 26, 1974, Purdy lays responsibility for In Search of Owen Roblin at the door of Robert Weaver, who “in some sense conceived the idea” as a “‘poem-for-voices’” to be broadcast on the CBC. “The original plan was that it should be a verse history of Roblin Lake, sort of, which when I came to write it seemed very confusing,” Purdy told Woodcock, “[s]o when the end product arrived Weaver was a bit non-plussed. He said … ‘How much research did you do on this?’ (I had read eight or ten books only, and had a vision of the dozens I hadn’t read and perhaps should have – ) So when the thing was published, Bob was kinda stuck with it” (Purdy-Woodcock Letters 123, 125). [back]
  15. Both quoted terms are from a letter to Purdy by his fellow Canadian poet George Johnston (1913-2004) (Yours, Al 359). [back]
  16. The “victim positions” and “basic game[s]” proposed as characteristic of Canada and Canadian literature in Survival (see 33-42 and passim) are derived without acknowledgment from Eric Berne’s Games People Play: the Psychology of Human Relationships (1964), a seminal as well as enormously popular work of transactional analysis by its founder.[back]
  17. As “Jib at Roblin’s Mills” the vignette is one of only two sections of In Search of Owen Roblin included in Purdy’s Collected Poems of 1986, the other being the garbage dump section discussed in ensuing paragraphs above. [back]
  18. In the original, the line reads “Ah, did you….” (Browning 195). [back]
  19. Compare, for example, “When you cross the doorway you feel them / when you cross the places they’ve been … it’s voyaging backward and forward” (Purdy, Beyond Remembering 278) with “When the last of earth left to discover / Is that which was at the beginning … When the tongues of fire are in-folded” (Eliot, Collected Poems 222-23). [back]
  20. In Al Purdy: “a Sensitive Man,” the 1988 documentary directed by Donald Winkler, Atwood describes Purdy’s poetry as “very elegiac” and as “geographical archaelogy,” observing that “digging something up [that] has to do with the past” is central to his work. [back]
  21. In Reaching for the Beaufort Sea, Purdy describes the materials used for the construction of his A-frame as “a pile of used lumber, concrete blocks, studdings, beaverboard and the like” from “[a] large building complex [that] was … being torn down in Belleville” (157).
  22. [back]
  23. The influence of the three writers mentioned is glaringly apparent in Purdy’s first volume of verse, The Enchanted Echo (1944); see especially, “Tamerlane the Limper” (Kipling), “The Age of Machines” (Chesterton and Kipling), and “Summons to Vagabonds” and “Votaries of April” (Carman). “On Bliss Carman” in the proceedings of the conference on Carman that was held at the University of Ottawa in 1989 and Purdy’s later memoir Reaching for the Beaufort Sea (1993) contain frank acknowledgments of the impact of Carman (and, therefore, Carman’s collaborator Richard Hovey) on his early poems. From Purdy’s recollection that he was thirteen when he encountered the work of the two poets and from the poetry that resulted from the encounter, it would appear that they entered his life like descending testicles and generated similar pains and yearnings (see Reaching for the Beaufort Sea 38-46 and 284-90).[back]
  24. For “aesthetic modernism,” see Brian Trehearne’s Aestheticism and the Canadian Modernists. After Smith died in 1980, I approached Purdy to write a piece about him for a special number of Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews. He tried, but abandoned the task, saying “I can see, or think I do, major faults in Smith’s poems. And an issue devoted to a dead poet is not the place to be critical. Don’t you agree. I would probably criticize Smith for what he wasn’t rather than for what he was. And that doesn’t seem right to me…. I liked Smith, and I’m sorry he’s gone” (Letter). [back]
  25. See Yours, Al 385-86 for a letter of October 1984 to Layton in which, among other things, Purdy describes him as “too full of shit to be quite human.” Purdy was fond of telling the story of how, much to the annoyance of Olson’s acolytes, he described him as merely having a good reading voice (see Yours, Al 103, 370, and elsewhere). [back]
  26. See my The Gay] Grey Moose 273-77 for a discussion of the affinity between conservationism and the strain of conservatism that might be called green Tory.
  27. [back]
  28. In each case, Purdy follows his admission of the impact of Williams and Olson on him by stressing reluctance to reject poetic form. In a letter to Purdy of August 7, 1992, Sam Solecki wisely stresses that he is not attempting to detect the influence of “Williams, Pound, Olson and others in Purdy’s work and then makes the astute observation that “[t]here’s … [an] affinity of Williams and Olson trying to use [the towns] of Paterson and Gloucester in roughly the same way you relate to Ameliasburg” (Yours, Al 482). [back]

 

Works Cited