February 26, 2015 in Celebration of Canadian Poetry

Week 9 – Anne Szumigalski presented by David Waltner-Toews

As a member of the Saskatoon Poets’ Group in the mid-1970s, what I remember most about Anne Szumigalski was her presence. We would sit down in a circle and read our poetry aloud to each other. I remember especially the times at Terry and Carolyn Heath’s on Clarence Avenue, a house in which my wife and I later lived, and in which my son was born. I remember Carolyn’s sharp, perceptive comments, but I remember Anne’s more gentle criticism, as if just by being there she called into question any humbug and pretence I might parade out. This was something new for me, and dangerous – to share works in progress and invite criticism from my peers. It was exactly what I needed.

As both an aspiring poet and a veterinary student, I confess I was terrified. I was an interloper. Anne, by her large presence and quiet voice, was both a comforting and an unsettling presence. Maybe it is because I have never quite figured out how to respond to large people. Like a large cat sitting comfortably in the corner, she gave off the unmistakable scent of that “terrible longing, that inconsolable desire for another wilder life where stealth and cunning are everything.” She was like an invasive but somehow appropriate species from the small hedgerows and lanes of the UK, nesting and taking root (she would call me on the mixing of metaphors) under the open-mouthed, arid skies of the prairies. I think it not an accident that the collections that bracketed those years for me were That Inescapable Animal (1974), and The Earth is One Body (1979). She was – and is for me still – both an inescapable animal, and the voice of the earth itself.

In When Earth Leaps Up, the 2006 posthumous collection, which Mark Abley so carefully (and ably) gathered, Anne’s voice haunted me again. Reading her words, I am suddenly with her, eight years old, walking in the woods. She understands everything, the “whole truth”, but by the time she arrives home she has “forgotten how this works.” Isn’t that the pain of every poet? If not to remember, then to recreate the moment, hoping that the explanation of the universe will emerge from that re-creation? Reading her poems, I understand. I really do, and am filled at once with despair, and with leaping joy.

Anne Howard Davis was born in 1922 in Great Britain. She married Jan Szumigalski in 1946, and moved to Canada in 1951, settling in Saskatchewan, where she raised a family, wrote poetry, and mentored young writers. She published more than twenty books of poetry, memoir and reflection. She was awarded the Saskatchewan Order of Merit in 1989; her collection, Voice, with paintings by Marie Elyse St George, won the Governor General’s Award for poetry in 1995. She died in 1999. In 2006, Brick Books published a posthumous collection, When Earth Leaps Up, edited by Mark Abley.

For more on Anne Szumigalski see the University of Saskatchewan website.

A veterinarian and epidemiologist, David Waltner-Toews is founding president of Veterinarians without Borders/ Vétérinaires sans Frontières – Canada, and the author of 17 books of fiction, poetry and nonfiction. His most recent nonfiction books include The Origin of Feces (ECW, 2013), Food Sex and Salmonella (Greystone, 2008) and The Chickens Fight Back (Greystone, 2007). The Origin of Feces was enthusiastically reviewed globally has been translated into Japanese and French. His most recent fiction, a murder mystery (Fear of Landing, Poisoned Pen, 2008), was named by Publishers Weekly as one of the top ten mysteries published in the US that year. His most recent poetry collections were The Impossible Uprooting (M&S, 1995) and The Fat Lady Struck Dumb (Brick, 2000). More information is available at his website.

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