Sunday, July 15, 2007

ralph gustafson: the bard of the eastern townships

Selected Poems from 15 Canadian Poets x3
by Ralph Gustafson, edited by Gary Geddes

The Newspaper

That photo of the little Jew in the cap,
Back to the gun held by the Nazi
With splay feet aware of the camera,
The little boy his hands in the air,
I turn over, I don't want to see it.
As a member of the human race. I am
Civilized. I am happy. I flap the
Newspaper with the picture over
So that when it is picked up to be taken
Down cellar to be put with the trash
I won't see it. I am sensitive.
The little boy is dead. He went
Through death. The cap is his best one.
He has brown eyes. He does not
Understand. Putting your hands
Up in front of a carbine prevents
The bullet. He is with the others.
Some of them he knows, so
It is all right. I turn
The paper over, the picture face

In the poem above, Gustafson illustrates a keen eye for the satiric. He uses his poem to illustrate his disgust with those who turn away from tragedy and attempt to deny its existence. This so-called "sensitive" individual would rather shut his eyes to an atrocity than do anything to help. He is "civilized;" the death is okay because the Jewish boy didn't die alone. Gustafson makes clear in this poem that those who turned a blind eye to the holocaust helped to perpetrate it. In "State of Affairs," Gustafson is troubled by the cost of progress -- this, he writes, has become "a world of small boys with legs off." There must be sacrifice so that there might be progress -- in the end, the price is not worth the results. In another poem, "I Think of All Soft Limbs," Gustafson fears that "the trouble here is too / Much death for compassion." Contemporary society finds itself overwhelmed and desensitized by violence. Where we find our humanity, then, is in art -- in "At the Cafe at Night," he writes:
Let us refer to those two at the cafe
Sitting outside in the night, the electric
Bulb bare, the street past the chairs
Empty, they tolerate one another
Only because of Van Gogh's paint.
It is art that creates our relationships between people and therefore shapes our humanity.

But Ralph Gustafson also wrote of his home in Canada, where he saw unlimited possibilities for the future. While Europe was mired in horror and sadness, "here, all is a beginning." Canada represents promise, possibility, and chance in "In the Yukon." In Canada, the natural supercedes the physical, and the country celebrates the ceremony of the natural world. For Gustafson, this ends up as the ideal in comparison with Europe, where "kings [are] crowned / With weights of gold," but "you can't move." Where Europe is restrictive, Canada is freeing and open.

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