Jay Macpherson's Welcoming Disaster: a Reconsideration
by W.J. Keith
Welcoming Disaster (1974) is a decidedly enigmatic text. Appearing seventeen years after Jay Macpherson's earlier major publication, The Boatman, it can be interpreted as either a continuation of or a departure from the mode and mood of its predecessor. Both are clearly mythic, "archetypal" but the myth of The Boatman is hermetic, unifying, "impersonal" in the approved modernist sense. Welcoming Disaster, on the other hand, despite numerous literary and even subliterary allusions, is anthropological and psychological in its emphases, and reveals hints (like The Waste Land, we might add) of a palpable if subtly personal trauma.
Yet readers turning to literary-critical commentaries for elucidation of this dense-packed work are likely to find themselves more confused than enlightened. George Woodcock is at pains to stress the similarities between the two books. He sees them, indeed, as complementing each other: "They are narratives of journeys into spiritual day and night, disguised, no doubt, by all the devices of privacy, but nonetheless derived from true inner experiences" (17). Margaret Atwood's focus seems to be very different, drawing atten tion to the contrasts between the two: "If The Boatman is 'classical,' . . . then Welcoming Disaster is, by the same lights, 'romantic': more personal, more convoluted, darker and more grotesque, its rhythms more complex" (410). The dichotomy is discernible in some of the other critical commentaries. In one reading, Eve, Noah, Eurynome, Endymion, and all the other great figures of Classical and Judeo-Christian myth that parade through The Boatman are oddly replaced in the later book by, of all things, a bourgeois duo of young girl and teddybear; in another, the common patterns of human spiritual experience are played out on different levels of significance.
More recently, matters have become even more puzzling or, in current cant, "problematic" so far as Welcoming Disaster is concerned. There now appears to be profound disagreement not only about its relation to The Boatman but even about the basic character and meaning of the book itself. Lorraine Weir, in the most detailed analysis, paints an unequivocally dark picture. This is poetry of failure and despair. The "underworld journey of redemption . . . fails" (196).1 "Fertility is not restored, the underworld is not left behind" (203). "Macpherson's vision becomes inescapably a tragic one" (209). This interpretation stands in marked contrast to that of, for example, Suniti Namjoshi a decade earlier. For her, Welcoming Disaster illustrates a necessity "to hit bottom and then to make the journey up . . ." (55); "after a descent into the underworld . . . it is possible to return to the ordinary world of everyday life" (56); "placed side by side, The Boatman and Welcoming Disaster reveal that the distance between the mythopoeic and the familiar is less great than might be supposed" (58). In a review in Poetry (Chicago), David Bromwich had been even more positive; the book, he reports, "moves from consolation to guilt to terror and finally to a deepened consolation" (236).
Clearly, these extremes are irreconcilable without notable concessions on both sides. Can there be a middle ground? I think there is, and I take my cue from a brief but shrewd review of Welcoming Disaster by Michael Hornyansky that appeared in the University of Toronto Quarterly For Hornyansky this descent into an underworld is "idiosyncratic" and the tone of the whole ambivalent. The two concluding sections, "Recognitions" and "Shadows Flee," he claims, suggest "a lightsome resolution, but the brief epilogue . . . leaves matters darkling, possibly in the light of common day. I'm reporting what's there and something of what it's like; I wouldn't dare to discuss Meaning, not yet" (335-336). Now that subsequent attempts at uncovering Meaning have proven contradictory, it may be worthwhile to reconsider some basic issues. Following Hornyansky's hint, I have come to believe that Welcoming Disaster is beautifully balanced between sombre and redemptive readings. I have trouble with both extremes of the spectrum. I cannot follow Namjoshi, for instance, when she argues for a "journey up with a fully regained or 'half-regained Eurydice' " (55); Weir fails to convince me when she asserts, with what seems to me selective quotation and reference, that the ending is wholly bleak. If I spend more time countering Weir, it is because her reading is more detailed, more recent, and probably more influential. I shall concentrate on what earlier commentators have often mentioned but rarely discussed in any detail: the tonal variety that is so envigorating if complicating a part of the book's effect. Here, then, is another report, incorporating and extending Hornyansky's, on "what's there."
* * *
We should begin with the title, which itself hints at a balance. Weir's interpretation is seriously weakened by her failure to account satisfactorily for the first word: she can only refer obliquely to "the bitterly ironic welcoming of disaster" (204) without establishing any clear grounds for either the bitterness or the irony. As a title, it surely suggests a startling paradox, an unexpected revelation. Any reading of the text is likely to seem lopsided if we do not strive to maintain the tonal equilibrium that the title proclaims.
The next clue to be examined is the design, presumably Macpherson's, reproduced on the opening page of the text of Welcoming Disaster in Poems Twice Told but appearing on the cover of the original publication. For Weir, this illustration represents "an ark . . . between the jaws of Leviathan or Jonah's whale" (196). This is accurate enough, though it points ironically to a balance which I would accept but which Weir 's interpretation does not entertain. Leviathan, after all, is traditionally hostile, even if Macpherson her self describes him positively as "God's creature" in The Boatman ("Whale," 45);2 the biblical "great fish," however, saves Jonah (1.17). Weir might argue, I suppose, that the implied descent remains at this stage uncertain, its fatality only discernible (according to her reading) in the course of experiencing the poem.3 Be that as it may, I find Bromwich's description of the emblem far more detailed and satisfying:
Bromwich might well have added that the disarmingly faux-naif style, with the whimsical eye of the sea-creature set to one side and its stylized form presented in what seems more like a wineglass than a devouring beast, adds to the complexity of the effect. Similar mixed responses will be evoked by many of the accompanying illustrations later in the book, and their tonal impact upon any inter pretation of the text cannot be ignored. I submit that this initial drawing is compatible with my impression of deftly achieved balance.
Most ambitious traditional poems begin with an invocation to a muse. The first section of Welcoming Disaster, by contrast, is entitled "Invocations" in the plural, and the opening poem refers to all the Muses:
This comic reference to a kind of muses' trades-union is hardly an appropriate opening for a solemn volume, though it does raise the disturbing possibility, albeit at a farcical remove, of a breach (lock out?) between poets and the sources of their inspiration. This is not, however, an unusual Macpherson device. Readers of The Boatman will be reminded of the equally flippant opening poem to the initial "Poor Child" section of that book, "Ordinary People in the Last Days." In both cases, the subject is potentially serious, but it is treated with a conspicuously light touch that borders on the frivo lous. This parallel strengthens the case of those who see palpable connections between Welcoming Disaster and the earlier book. Weir, interestingly enough, ignores the main body of this poem, though she quotes the "PS." at the conclusion of her analysis:
Weir's comment is: " post scriptum, after the end of words" (207). Yet, as it is positioned within the sequence as a whole, this is the beginning of words. Moreover, the tone is equivocal. The reference to literal breathing follows wittily upon a consideration of the Muses of Inspiration, but for all their gloomy implications these lines reveal a dark mordant humour, eliciting a less negative response than Weir's. All in all, this seems an odd prelude to unequivocal disaster.
Hornyansky offers another useful clue when he remarks: "It takes a while to see . . . that the poems in part one are . . . parallel invocations" (335). Indeed they are. From the Classical Muses we move, following in Milton's footsteps, to the sacred Muse of "Lost Books & Dead Letters," and then, by means of an echo of Psalm 137 ("If I forget thee, O Jerusalem. . .") to a personal source of memory in "Hampstead Ponds" Jay Macpherson's autobiographical equivalent, it would seem, to the springs of Helicon. Later poems deal with related topics oracles (associated with "ever-prattling waters" now "sunk and gone"  and so subtly linked with "Hampstead Ponds"), a comet bringing only "news of nothingness" (64), and, via Matthew Arnold's "Scholar Gypsy," a "spark from heaven" that fails to descend just as the waters fail to "rise" (64).
At this point, Weir appears to be on firm ground; certainly, the word "lost" becomes important and echoes resonantly throughout the book. But Macpherson's irrepressible word-play also continues (in, for example, the punning title "The Oracle Declines" ), and a mood of loss and despair is no sooner established than it is tonally countered in the unexpected "Movie-Going" (65). "Welcome, darkness," the poem begins, with a deliberate echo of the book's ambivalent title, and we now realize that the "disaster," like the "darkness" and "silence" here, can paradoxically be both willed and desired. The experience of horror-movies, after all, is a deliberate choice both fostered and controlled; patrons of any sophistication at all are aware of accepting a suspension of disbelief. In "Movie-Going," elements from the more serious poems are repeated in a new context. Arnold's "inviolable shade" (64) may approach and then depart, but "[s]ome approach" (65) from the supernatural will be guaranteed by the horror-films. The windowpane that "holds the darkness out" in the previous poem (65) alluding to Wuthering Heights and, I suspect, to the seventh poem in Tennyson's in Memoriam waits here for "Angel guide or demon love" (65) another effect of balance. The "Angel guide" recalls the prefatory poem to The Boatman ("No Man's Nightingale," ) where an angel protects the poet-sleeper; here the "demon love" provides a Gothic-Romantic counterbalance but one that is enjoyed, revelled in and known to be illusory if also recognized as psychologically powerful. Once again, tone needs to be interpreted as well as meaning. The "otherwor[l]dly tones" (65) specified here are deliberately exaggerated and melodramatic, the effect culminating in the last line with the loved clichés of "Coffin-lid, then skinny hand" (65).
The last poem in this first section, "Substitutions," introduces us to the central figure in the sequence: Tedward or Tadwit, the Wool worth's bear. He comes, as both Hornyansky (335) and Atwood note, as a surprise he is a figure who, in the latter's words, "only Macpherson could get away with" (410). Tedward is, as it were, a gift of the muses, an answer to the poet's prayer, recovered from the recesses of memory. He is a substitute for "Him not there" (68), clearly an absentee god in the first instance, but also suggesting other protective figures like "father" and "lover," as Rosemary Sullivan has pointed out (498). There is, I would submit, a central balance within the book between the seriously imaginative and the humorously fanciful. He is simultaneously "the arche- / typal ted" and "Friendly Tedward," just as, in the next section, he is specifically described as both "doll and god" (70). We all remember how desperately important the toy-companions of our childhood were; at the same time, we look back at them with the realization that they were temporary, insufficient, and had to be discarded. The point is made eloquently in what is almost but not quite the last poem in the volume, appropriately entitled "The End":
Like the adult poet, we read the created situation in double terms on one level, it is an equivalent of A.A. Milne's Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh; on another, it is an image of profound psychological relationship which opens up a world of archetypal myth and symbolic journey. As we read, we would be well advised to keep both levels in mind, and in balance.
Space obviously prevents me from offering a detailed analysis of all the sections that make up the book. What I shall attempt to indicate, however, is the way in which the tonal balance is maintained throughout. Welcoming Disaster needs to be read with an unusual flexibility on the part of the reader, who must be prepared to respond to learned literary and mythic allusion, to unravel complex psychological patterns, and, above all, to recognize the drastic shifts of tone that are the book's most original feature. Thus in "The Way Down" (and we are surely invited here to recall the well-known Heraclitean axiom, "the way up and the way down are the same"), individual poems treat such large subjects as eschatology ("First & Last Things") and the threatening supernatural ("Some Ghosts & Some Ghouls") but at a linguistic level the tone is less exalted. In the opening poem, the Muses evoked in the previous section are ordered to "stand easy" (69), as if they were other ranks on parade, and the narrator insists that "no high art's intended" (it is, of course, but that is part of the joke). The poem is entitled "A Joint Epistle" and the project is to "compose a letter / Him-wards who left you." "Him-wards" certainly does not suggest "high art" and a reference on the same page to "Tadwitness" (reminding us, by the way, that "Tadwit" implies "only a little wit") is a similar example of verbal exuberance and high spirits that modifies the seriousness of the symbolic descent. Similarly, in "First & Last Things," Inanna lays out the "rebirth suit" of Dumuzi or Tammuz (70), and only the most innocent or humourless of readers would not momentarily think of him in his birthday-suit.
"Some Ghosts & Some Ghouls," which sounds potentially threatening, is immediately followed by a witty reversal in "Lady Haunts Ghosts," while this in turn is followed by one of the most serious poems in the sequence, "Words Failing." Here there is justification for Weir's emphasis on failing verbal inspiration, and for Woodcock's assumption that the volume "bore the marks of some cataclysmic crisis of faith" (17), especially in the final lines where the narrator pleads:
The dark night of the soul implied here the Christian promise as merely something "in a story" is indeed chilling. Once again, however, the mood is not allowed to remain unchallenged. In the next poem, "Transaction," the situation is duly reversed, and "we" not only haunt the words/ghosts but also "[g]ripe like back taxes" (74). The potential for horror or despair is once more dissolved into verbal comedy.
The whole of this section is written in a common metrical form, a result of the narrator's finding "a fell , fierce , fearsome / Yen to write sapphics" (69). This yen is never explained. The sapphics in question are defined in the rhymed "Notes & Acknowledgements" at the end of the book as "impure" and derived from a hymn-tune named after F.F. Flemming (96, and cf. Weir 213). But sapphics are generally regarded as less effective in English than in Greek or Latin; they tend to become a challenge to metrical dexterity rather than an appropriate form for extended verse. And so it proves here. One can share Macpherson's delight in manipulating syntax and syllables to suit this unusually artificial metre, though occasionally (as in the final stanza of "A Joint Epistle") the form defeats her. At the same time, if one accepts my emphasis on a balance between the serious and the comic, between high art and the fanciful, sapphics become an apt metric for the poet's purpose. They bring into the English a classical flavour, a sense of metrical otherness, and may be considered suitable, in their somewhat bizarre extravagance, for the blend of the psychologically crucial and the whimsically childlike that is attained here.
A similar juxtaposition of seemingly contradictory emotions that can ultimately be recognized as an achieved balance occurs in two of the emblem illustrations that grace the text at this point. Both involve images of the Ouroboros, the snake with its tail in its mouth, a consumer/consumed image and traditionally a symbol of eternity. One, illustrating "Palladia and Others" (78), appears to be Macpherson's own design; the other, introducing the third section, "The Dark Side" (81), reproduces, as Weir helpfully informs us, "a rubbing of the Susanna Jayne gravestone erected at Marblehead, Massachusetts" (205). In both cases, however, the Ouroboros figures are genial, whimsical beasts who seem to be enjoying their situation: certainly no atmosphere of horror is evoked. Furthermore, the Jayne gravestone's "grinning skeleton" (Weir's description) is jaunty rather than terrifying, its angelic cherubs and demonic bats at the top and bottom corners equally quaint and charming. Interestingly, the skeleton holds up the sun and the moon (or day and night) in its hands: a possibly significant image of balance and continuity. Weir senses the tonal ambiguity here and writes: "though we may be tempted to assimilate this grim reaper to the whimsical skeletons in the closet of the 'Karloff Poem' . . . immediately following it, 'In the Cellar' . . . serves as a warning to the contrary" (206). But one wonders: why should the tone of the second poem cancel out the earlier impression? We should not forget that these are all individual poems, effective in their own right, that also combine into a larger artistic sequence. I question whether we are justified in assuming that a later poem replaces an earlier one. Thus the moving poems in the "O Earth Return" section of The Boatman are not overturned and rendered null by their parody counterparts in "The Plowman in Darkness." Rather, such contrasting poems juxtapose (or balance) one effect with another; they may be seen as playing tonal variations on a more ambitious and complex design. The illustrations play a similar part in the total effect of Welcoming Disaster.
Positive and negative images abound in this and the ensuing section. References to "[w]olfman, vampire" intersperse with assertions that "the lost ones shall be found" (82). Similarly, the "monster love" conjures up aspects not only of Frankenstein but also of Cupid in the Psyche story, as Namjoshi has demonstrated (58). Orion is the star invoked at this stage in the book; he is the winter king because his constellation sets in winter, yet, we are told,
The essential ambivalence of the book as a whole could hardly be better established than in these lines. The dead return, as the next poem indicates, but balance once more they bring winter with them. In "Recognitions" (plural again, like the multiple "Invocations"), an emblem of the tree of life is balanced by images of bodies, presumably mother and child, in a grave, and Tedward / Tadwit / Tammuz is sent on a solitary journey to the underworld. This scene, the child's determined yet traumatic burying of the doll, is genuinely eerie, but it is by no means unprecedented in literary representations. Variants of it occur, for instance, in D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers and, interestingly, in Carl Jung's memoirs, but the scene closest to Macpherson's is a brief sentence early in Dickens's Bleak House (70) where the solitary Esther Summerson, while still a child, buries her doll-companion before embarking on her "progress." Yet, as one might expect from the Orion reference in the previous section, Tedward, after his descent, is transformed (one remembers the stories of Berenice and Pope's Belinda) into the Bear constellation Ursa Minor, I think, though Sullivan refers to Ursa Major (498). Once again, the way down miraculously becomes the way up. Tedward is even fancifully seen as harrowing Hell in one poem ("Gathering In," not mentioned by Weir), which ends with an allusion to John 18.9, "Angel, let not one be lost" (89), thus transforming the emphasis on "loss" that, as I indicated earlier, has characterized the whole work.
A similar balance can be found in the concluding parts of the book. What is effectively the final section is entitled "Shadows Flee" which sounds positive enough. It begins with "Umbrella Poem," and although Weir is forced by her thesis to interpret the image as "unstable," a "dubious proposition" (204), its immediate association is surely with some sort of protection from flood. "What Falada Said" makes specific reference to the "Goosegirl" story by the Brothers Grimm, and "Visiting" to the equivalent Bluebeard story ("Fletcher's Fowl" in Grimm); both these traditional tales, it should be noted, contain images of horror but ultimately end satis factorily. To be sure, as Weir argues, "the winds and storms of 'What Falada Said,' . . . 'Visiting,'. . . 'Set-Ups,'. . . and 'Playing'. . . blow with considerable force" (205), but I see no necessity to stress these aspects at the expense of others, since the emphasis would seem to go against Macpherson's practice.
The "epilogue" begins with a sad little poem called "Old Age of the Teddy-Bear" in which Tedward is seen as degenerating into matting, / bare patches" (95). There is a genuine pathos and sense of loss here but are we to gather from this that the previous burial was imagined only, or even that the Tammuz-figure has in some way returned? No critic, so far as I am aware, has commented on this possibility. However we interpret this poem, it is clear that the bear must ultimately be discarded, but the ambiguity is rich and typical of Macpherson. Weir skirts the issue, but makes much of the muted sense of loss in "The End," the second "Epilogue" poem, which she describes as communicating "despair" (207). But it is also typical of Macpherson's playful irony that the poem entitled "The End" is not the end. We turn the page and encounter the jocularly rhymed "Notes & Acknowledgements" in which we are specifically assured that "Panic's needless" (96). With reference to Murnau's Nosferatu, "movie" is impudently rhymed with "groovy" (a slang term that became popular at about the time that Welcoming Disaster first appeared), and Tedward is described wittily hardly in a mood of despair as "glum chum." And the text ends, depending on whether one reads the original printing or the revised version in Poems Twice Told with "our vessel's floated" or "our boat's re-floated." Weir recognizes the tone here as "lighthearted" but has to assert that it is "deceptively" so (205). Yet it is only deceptive, I suggest, if an exaggeratedly pessimistic reading is imposed upon the book as a whole.
The final image of all is the emblematic drawing created, as Weir says, "by David Blostein according to Macpherson's design" (203). Weir, of course, interprets it negatively: "Ted is depicted in the arms of a child whose face is covered by that of her familiar, and whose body is bounded by the same dark circle as that of the stellar emblem" (203; this last reference is back to a picture of the bear constellations shining against a dark sky ). This is accurate in description but misses the tonal effect. Tedward in this drawing is presented as anything but a "glum chum," and, furthermore, shows no signs of matting or bare patches; instead he is perky, neat, and full of life. The child herself is portrayed in terms of the simplest possible design without any suggestion of emotional response. We end, in fact, with a charming image of a small girl and her teddy-bear an image which both contains and is contained by the poetic myth/story it illustrates.
* * *
Of course, Tedward has to be abandoned: the narrator must grow (and grow up). The bear is clearly, on one level, "Surrogate" for the maturing child, who must come to terms with the human facts of mortality and absence. On him ("doll and god," and no less one than the other) the poet attaches the cosmic patterns associated with numerous characters from Christian and earlier myth Tammuz, Orpheus, Adonis, Christ, and many more and along with these reference is made to their demonic "horror-movie" counterparts: Bluebeard, Frankenstein's monster, Dracula, etc. The poet has lost Tedward, and fears the imminent loss of her inspiration, as most poets surely do; but she cannot be said to have lost the imaginative creativity without which the poem could not have come into existence. It is true that "The End" hints at the emptying of the word-hoard. Tedward as "finder of lost direction" and "tearspring-diviner" is now absent "a blank, a thing, as dumb as its stuffing" (95). And if the introduction of biographical criticism is considered permissible, Weir could point to the fact that Macpherson has not yet broken her poetic silence that has existed since the publication of this book in 1974. But Welcoming Disaster remains, a triumphant creative monument to the supposed loss of inspiration, the kind of achieved paradox that lies behind the composition of Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality" and Coleridge's "Dejection: An Ode." The empty is filled, the dumb has been articulated and disaster is therefore to be welcomed.
Unless otherwise specified,
references to Weir will be to "Jay Macpherson and Her Works."[back]
All references to
Macpherson's poetry are quoted from Poems Twice Told. [back]
Elsewhere she describes the
cover illustrations as presenting "the circle of hell from which there is no
emergence but in the act of writing" ("Hermeneutics" 69). I am
uncertain how such a message can be derived from an illustration. [back]
Macpherson: Poems Twice Told," in her Second Words:
Darkness, Penetrating Life" (rev, of Welcoming Disaster
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House.
Ed. Norman Page. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.
Macpherson, Jay. The Boatman. Toronto: Oxford U P, 1957.
______. Poems Twice
Told: The Boatman and Welcoming Disaster. Toronto:
______. Welcoming Disaster. Toronto: Saannes, 1974.
Namjoshi, Suniti."In the
Whale's Belly: Jay Macpherson's Poetry." Canadian
Rosemary."Macpherson, Jay." The Oxford Companion to Canadian
Macpherson and Her Works." Canadian Writers and Their
______."Toward a Feminist
Hermeneutics: Jay Macpherson's Welcoming Disaster."
George."Introduction" to Canadian Writers and Their