by Al Purdy, edited by Gary Geddes
from A Handful of Earth, for Rene Levesque
Go back a little:
in which children were born
in which we loved and hated
in which we built a place to stand on
and now must tear it down?
-- and here I ask all the oldest questions
the reasons for being alive
the way to spend this gift and thank the giver
but there is no way
I say to him now: my place is here
whether Cote des Neiges Avenue Christophe Colomb
Yonge Street Toronto Halifax or Vancouver
this place is where I stand
where all my mistakes were made
when I grew awkwardly and knew what I was
and that is Canadian or Canadien
it doesn't matter which to me
I have no other place to go
If ever there was a poet who could be trusted to stand up for Canada, to paint images of Canada how she is and how her people truly talk, to not cloak Canadian vistas in classical imagery of ancient Greece and Rome and England -- if ever there was a Canadian Poet, capital-C capital-P, that poet would be Al Purdy. For Purdy, art is rooted deeply in place and people and voice, and those three things are meant to be represented as truthfully and as accurately as a poet's hand can render. In the poem above, Purdy begs for the country not to be dismantled by selfish whims, because for him there is no other place on earth where he is himself. He is rooted in the landscape of this country in such a way that without it, he would cease to exist.
The importance of place comes through in all of Purdy's poems, perhaps most notably in "The Country North of Belleville," which is Purdy's elegy for the land he grew up in. (One thing I've noted: in Canadian literature, it seems to me that only male writers are nostalgic for the colonial period. It's almost as though there is a cultural memory for the women that reminds them of the impediments to their own craft had they existed in that time period. Just an observation). For Purdy, this land is "country of defeat," a place that can be neither farmed nor mined successfully. People make a go of the land in fits and starts, but the successes and failures conflate one another so regularly that watching the cycle of the land it becomes difficult to tell when the good times are happening. The real tragedy, though, for Purdy, is that "this is a land where the young / leave quickly / unwilling to know what their fathers know / or to think the words their mothers do not say." There is not future here for the younger generation, and the land will be abandoned, or is in the process of being abandoned, over time. If we wish to return to this place, "we must enquire the way / of strangers" because the cultural memory is lost as the children step back from the land. We lose not only farmers, but the act of farming.
In "Cariboo Horses," Purdy tackles the idea that that which is Canadian is fundamentally inferior. Our horses, he points out, may seem like "only horses," of nondescript Canadian stock, but they are the "lost relatives" of the horses who dragged stone for the pyramids and traversed Africa and Asia. The foreign horses may seem more glamorous, but our horses share that line through htme memory of the species. Likewise, we may be "only Canadians," be we share the promise of ever race of humans to walk before us, and we need to work to create and shape a mythology of our own. Our history should move us more than the stories of foreign shores, because our history is all we have to fall back on.