My brother’s middle school English teacher edited an anthology of contemporary Canadian poetry meant for use in schools called Mirrors. It had a purple cover with a kaleidoscopic image. My mum bought a copy, got the teacher to sign it for my brother. “With all good wishes to Ian.” I don’t think Ian touched it. But I did. I read it over and over.
In the complex social morality of middle class childhood in the 1970s, I liked to think of myself as a bad kid, a rebel, a subverter. Rules — most of them — did not make sense to me, and as adults had devised them adults deserved the misbehaviour that proved the rules wrong or hollow or ineffectual. There was a competition between children and adults. Adults thought they had control. They thought they were winning. It was up to us to show them they were not.
In grade four, I skipped my tennis lessons — yeah, little asshole — and broke into the school with two of my friends. The school was our everyday hangout. We played cages there—a game played with a handful of people, a soccer ball and a baseball cage—and 500 and football and kick the can. We climbed on top of the portable. We climbed the school itself. It was ours, up and down, fence to ducked-under fence.
The library, on the ground floor, had recently put in new plexiglass windows, and it was clear, looking at them up close, that all you had to do get them open was cut the putty off a small square of plexiglass. Then you could reach your arm through and open the latch, and presto, you’d be in. So I ran home and got my rusty utility knife (fork, spoon, scissors, saw, etc.) and off the putty came.
We chucked a few books around the library, because why not?
We jumped on the high jump pit from the top of the stairs to where it lay at the bottom.
We plucked thermoses out of the Lost and Found and lined them up at the end of the hall then hurled dodge ball balls at them, shouting, “Bowling for dollars!”
We taped the door latch down so the whole neighbourhood could come in and out all day. Until we went in at night —yeah, little idiots — and were caught.
Part of what appealed to me about Mirrors was precisely what was meant to appeal to its target audience, students four or five years older than me — it was not yer grand-ma’s poetry. It wasn’t pious. It didn’t rhyme. (Actually, some of it did. I wrote this from memory before re-reading.) It said things like, “legalize marawanna now” (bill bissett) and proposed sending school administrators off into space (Raymond Souster, I think).
The poems were, with their home-made beer and their swift kicks in the pants, unassailably modern.
The swift kick in the pants came in a poem called “Model Parents” by Eloi de Grandmont (I thought it was by Louis Dudek, but no), in a line that went something like, “and then there are those who give their children a swift kick in the pants and a father’s blessing on New Year’s day”). I loved that. The cavalier attitude.
The homemade beer was an Al Purdy poem. The speaker describes a likable domestic mayhem in which kids run yelling through the house, fall into the homemade beer under the kitchen table and “emerge with one end malted” and the speaker’s wife threatens him with a knife and he bares his chest and says, “Go ahead” and she says she wouldn’t want to go to jail for killing someone like him. It’s an apology in the end, the poem. “p.s. I was wrong,” is the last line. The whole poem’s a kind of masculine bluster — twenty lines of look how masculine I am, I am so right, I am justified, you are a woman and irrational, and one line of actually, no, sorry, you were right and I was wrong — and its rightness lies in that, too, that proportion of bluster to apology.
I don’t love these poems now, not in the same way I did then. Then I loved their sauciness, their nose-thumbing, their humour. The language they used. And something more than that, too — that rightness of proportion in Purdy’s apology said something about being a man and being a woman in that time.
I don’t love them in the same way, but they’re the way I came to poetry. And I’m grateful.
The lesson was the same lesson poets have learned over and over — that when you use the language we regularly and unthinkingly use in regular life in poetry there can be an extra potent pow of relevancy to the poem. Maybe this is only because there has also ever been a tradition of writing poetry in language not of the everyday. The everyday then feels fresh and amazing. Also, there’s something pleasingly kick-ass in everyday language doing the work of poetry so well. It’s harder, I think, than, I don’t know, lambency.
For a long time I was apologetic about my poetry, as if it weren’t really poetry. Heck, I still am. I fear that it’s dated, too like the poems in Mirrors, too colloquial, too jokey. But I go back to Mirrors, and though, damn, a lot of it’s sexist, there’s still a lot to like.
From memory I can tell you there was a section of poems about growing up (“Down Swift Years”) and another about people and another about cities — something about “dissonance”? no, wait, maybe that’s a line from “The Lonely Land,” another favourite, “this is the beauty of dissonance/of strength broken by/strength and/still strong,” maybe “The Beauty of Dissonance” was the title of the poems-about-nature section. There was another section of poems about poetry, and poems about, um, alienation or something.
Here are fragments I remember, though my line breaks are probably off:
“Black hair, big smile, that’s Jeannette.”
“and the pine trees lean one way…
…loon calls to its mate and the ragged tones
stagger and fall…
this is the beauty of dissonance, of
strength broken by strength
and still strong”
—A.J.M. Smith, “The Lonely Land”
“there used to be someone
to whom I could say do you love me
and be sure that the answer was yes.
there used to be someone
I could telephone in the lateness of nightness
and when the operator asked
do you accept the charges
I knew that the answer would always be yes
but now there is no one
never some someone…”
—Earl Birney, “Daybreak: Lake Opal, High Rockies”
“with excessive moderation I yodelled
get your ass out of my beer”
—Al Purdy, “Homemade Beer”
“I think of them as noisy flowers
that bloom for a few days in August and then
[die], except for the few I press in a letter
and send whispering home to you”
—Al Purdy, “Arctic Rhododendrons”
I know when I open the book I will remember other lines that I’d forgot I remembered and will regret I didn’t do better at showing off. I know that I will have got a lot of things wrong in those remembered lines. (Yes — wild duck, not loon, for one. Also, “Arctic Rhododendrons” is not in Mirrors.)
I went looking for a forty-years later analogue to Mirrors. I found Gary Geddes’ 70 Canadian Poets, but though it includes recent poetry, it doesn’t include only recent poetry. I thought that was a gap needing to be filled, but then remembered Open Field: 30 Contemporary Canadian Poets, from 2006, edited by Sina Queyras. Open Field puts Mirrors in the shade. But ten years old already. Wow.
Couple weeks ago there was a fundraiser here in Vancouver for the Al Purdy A-Frame (restoring and funding Al’s homemade house for the use of writers), a buncha poets reading one of their own poems, one of Purdy’s. I tried over beer to explain what I’ve written about here, and failed, but that’s neither here nor there. I opened up Liz’s big book of Purdy poems and read, like, two poems and one was “The Last of the Dorsets” and is the same as my “The Birds Fall Down” (grandfather, granddaughter, art-making, memory) and the other was, hm, maybe the beginning of Owen Roblin or one of those about looking at a picture of forebears and it used an image like the four women locked in place as if by struts in my main street antique shop photo poem. Al Purdy, Mirrors, they’re embedded in my brain even more than I realized. It’s kind of scary, but also the way brains work, and I guess the way poetry works across brains, across generations.
Anne Fleming’s poemw (Pedlar Press, 2016) is her fourth book and her first of poetry. Other books are Gay Dwarves of America, Anomaly, and Pool-Hopping and Other Stories. For more information about these books, please visit her website. She teaches creative writing at UBC’s Okanagan Campus and divides her time between Kelowna and Vancouver.