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Stuffing the World in at Your Eyes:
Margaret Avison and the Poetics of Seeing and Believing
Margaret Avison is in her eighties and still producing vital verse that is recognized and lauded; she won the Griffin Poetry Prize as well as the Griffin Prize for her 2002 collection, Concrete and Wild Carrot. The Griffin jury citation declared her “a national treasure.” The publication of her collected poems in three volumes, over 700 pages of verse in all, will most certainly benefit scholars and devotees of Avison’s work. It serves to keep in print her eight volumes of poetry and also adds a collection of new poems, Too Towards Tomorrow. But I would not recommend that the first time or casual reader who has heard the Avison name pronounced with reverence in Canada begin reading here. The collected poems of another major Canadian poet, and contemporary of Avison, Al Purdy, is under 400 pages. Published in 1986, it was culled from 12 volumes of his verse. But the editors of Always Now wanted to contain “definitively all the published poems up to 2002.” Only a very few, eleven poems, were removed by Avison. Clearly a more rigorous selection process was entailed in compiling the Purdy collected.
Avison’s poetry is devoutly Christian in theme. This might cause any agnostic reader to approach three such thick volumes with trepidation. Indeed the question of the agnostic reader is addressed in a citation on the back of volume three, by the novelist, Elizabeth Hay: “… how is an unbeliever to approach not just parts of the work but all of the work of a poet who believes, through and through, in a personal God? I listen to her infinite sympathy for the natural world, her sensitivity to the physical weather of the soul, her razor-sharp vision which moves like a hawk’s and a sighted mole’s, her wry debates with herself, her ornery, unfashionable courage, her poetic genius for placing words in such a way that I feel as if I’m meeting them for the first time.” But I find that the whole question may be moot — when was this ever a problem for me reading the poetry of Rumi, though I am not a Sufi, or Wang Wei though I am not a Buddhist? The problem I encountered as an agnostic reading Avison was not with her vision, not with Avison as seer, but with the many poems in these volumes where she assumes the role of devout reader and interpreter of Christian scripture. It’s the mediated poems that seem predictable in the thoughts expressed, that are somewhat dry exegesis rather than living response.
There are religious poets writing in Canada I read and admire, major ones like Tim Lilburn and Pier Giorgio Di Cicco, but they rarely write scriptural poems, they read their scripture directly, in Lilburn primarily through landscape and nature, and in Di Cicco through the human heart. You get God even in the postmodern world of Anne Carson but, as you might expect, with a dose of irony, witness the title of her early New Directions collection, Glass, Irony and God.
Let me make it clear though that when grounded in perception, in the particular, Avison’s approach is anything but staid. Here are the words, muscular and alive, of a “stevedore of the spirit”:
blurges through rain and all
man tinfoil, man sheetlead
shines, angled all awry,
a hoaxing hallelujah.
(“The Local and the Lakefront” From Elsewhere, AN Volume 1, p.38)
But there are no hoaxing hallelujahs in the homilies, in the glosses, and paraphrases of scripture in many poems like the ones below. These are closer to catechism than to revelation:
Let the one you show me
ask you, for me,
you, all but lost in
the one in three
(“… Person or A Hymn on and to the Holy Ghost”, The Dumbfounding, AN Volume 1, p.192)
Bless us, Lord of heaven,
Bless us, Mary’s child,
And keep our courage high with You
Through steep and storm and wild.
(“Psalm 80:1 _ ‘Thou that dwellest between the cherubim, shine forth!” sunblue, AN Volume 2, p.86)
This circuit celebrates the father of Lights
Who glorifies this Son and all that He
In glory sows
(“The Circuit (Phil. 2:5-11)”, sunblue, AN Volume 2, p.61)
Now His power is here —
Though awhile our earth
Thrives from holy fear:
The real utters forth.
(“Paraphrase of Ephesians 2: 1-6”, No Time, AN Volume 2, p.200)
Does holding firmly to the Christian faith require old cosmology? In “A Prayer Answered by Prayer” (The Dumbfounding, AN Volume 1, p.203) the question seems to be asked rhetorically and then answered with an image from the flat earth paradigm: “On a flat earth, solid/ I stand ‘upright.’ Though the upright is qualified, a concession perhaps to earth as round, it seems that the universe is a “skied nowhere” and only “Christ makes real.” The metanarrative resisted by postmodernists is embraced in the biblical one. There is a whole story, the truth, albeit not a human, but a divine one.
“My plain daylight/ is a plainness/ of particular beauty’ is how she describes her own style (“The Typographer’s Ornate Symbol at the End of a Chapter or a Story,” From Elsewhere, AN Volume 1, p.40) But this only describes one side of her style, and it’s the meditative and often mediated side of her writing. In her scriptural poems there is little struggle; Avison goes for the plainness and sweetness of George Herbert. (Unlike Donne, where there is a dramatic struggle with God and faith.) There is a direct allusion to Herbert in a poem where you might not expect it: “Intra-Political” subtitled “An exercise in Political Astronomy.” The solution to the problem described in the poem: fragmentation of modern life where we are “boxed, bottled, barreled/ in rows’, consumers in a consumer society, is resolved at the communion table:
(George Herbert — and he makes it plain —
Guest at this same transfiguring board
Did sit and eat.)
(Winter Sun, AN Volume 1, pp.97-100).
The reference here includes direct quotation, as the line in italics is from Herbert’s poem “Love,’ a religious poem about divine love where there’s an erotic conceit, a double entendre working throughout in the communion image ending on eating love’s “meat.” There are no such erotic tensions in Avison’s poetry.
At best there is playful humour in poems like “R.I.P.” The title of course is an abbreviation, the ‘rest in peace ‘ or ‘requiem in pace’ etched on gravestones. “The floor of heaven is really/ Diamond congoleum,” the first lines seem to assert the reality of heaven in concrete and accessible terms. The image of heaven with a tiled floor is surprising. The metaphor is paradoxical: “diamond congoleum,” this pairing yokes rarefied diamond, a gemstone and the hardest known mineral, with homely congoleum, a manufactured synthetic flooring (linoleum falls into this category.)
If this is a poem about the after life, it doesn’t lose sight of the graveyard. It is not the fine and private place of Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” but still “a rather private place” and one where nonetheless there seems to be a form of community possible, where one or two “play” at joss-sticks, dominoes, or piano. Unlike Marvell, the images are chaste. That the piano has “too-loose keys/ but on the whole a lovely tone” recalls the wonderful humanity of “The world still needs piano-tuners.” (“The World Still Needs,” Winter Sun, AN Volume 1, p.79)
There’s a riddling quality to the closing lines and a probing of what is essentially a metaphysical question, the ‘to be’ of after death.
These one or two are never
Any particular one or two
The One or Two
Which it is
(Winter Sun, AN Volume 1, p.118)
The move away from the particular here to the capitalized One or Two is a move away from the body to the spirit. The one or two of God and Son I think is meant here. There’s a marvelous sense of undercutting irony in “sufficient exaltation.” This is the religious sense that you might find in a poem by Emily Dickinson, an elliptical and transformative way of seeing.
Avison’s plainness of style can be found mostly in the social, political poems and in the overtly religious poems. But where the poems celebrate the particular beauty of the world the style moves from the wash of watercolour to the layering of oil paint. The language acquires density of texture, and a kind of sprung rhythm reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins. It is in the poems of seeing and listening to the natural world, one distinct from the Romantic convention of nature poetry in that the nature she celebrates is one in collage with the urban landscape, that I find the inspired and inspiring vision of the mystic poet. ‘Nobody stuffs the world in at your eyes’ she claims in ‘Snow’ (Winter Sun, AN, Volume 1, p.69) but she does exactly that, she thickens vision, makes it palpable. In part this is achieved through the heavy use of kennings creating thickness in the nouns. She does not use the word cricket, but the kenning ‘insect-sing’ that captures all that we perceive of them in the dark; as such crickets are more than named, they are evoked in all their existential music, ‘a cappella!’ (The etymology of this word, ‘a cappella,’ Italian for singing from the chapel, that is, in church style and without musical instruments, gives the image a religious resonance.)
“Insect — or poem — waits for the fix, the frill/ precision can effect, brilliant with danger.” (“Butterfly Bones: Sonnet against Sonnets,” Winter Sun, AN Volume 1, p.71) These lines illustrate the complexity of her style, controlled, concrete and precise. But the image itself is a daring oxymoron as the invertebrate fragility of the butterfly is coupled with the rigid structure of bones in the title. This is the other side of her “plainness.” In the complex and organic world of her seeing, Avison is an extraordinary poet. There are images in language of such music that they stay with you, the sunrise in “Night’s End” is rendered as “Slow flambeaux” (No Time, AN, Volume 2, p. 167).
There are many nature poets but there are very few who embrace in their vision the urban landscape, a world she takes in and describes with “visual amplitude.” In “End of a Day or I as a Blurry” there’s irony in the blurry I, she identifies herself organically one with the city: “I as a blurry groundhog bundling home” and what she sees and describes is “autumn storied:”
Underfoot is leafstain and gleam of wet;
At the curb, crisp weed
Thistled and russeted;
Then there’s the streetlight level;
Then window loftlights, yellower;
Above these, barely, tiers
Of gloaming branches,
A sheet of paraffin-pale wind,
Then torn cloud-thatch and
The disappearing clear.
(sunblue, AN Volume 2, p.23)
There’s a richness of seeing here, even the invisible wind is made visible as ‘paraffin-pale.” In a poem on the opposite page the wind is seen through the objects it moves and that move with it: “the stormy sunlit evening children/ whirl with the grit/ and the candy-wrapper gusts.” (“The Seven Birds (College Street and Bathurst),” sunblue, AN Volume 2, p.22) And that seeing is grounded in a particularity of place, a street corner you can visit in Toronto.
In these poems the grandeur of God is manifest as the wind is seen, through what it engenders, what it moves. The writing is quick, alive. But in the scripture-based, believing poems as I described earlier, poems that offer homilies on scripture, we are offered confirmation and assurance, the familiar rather than the defamiliarizing and radical seeing of her more direct responses to the world. These scriptural poems are less accessible to the non-believer, and to this once believer they merely delineate what I was taught once and believed. Another example of the poet reading and expounding:
Us, the walking dead,
He has made alive;
By the Saviour, God,
Lifts us in his love.
(“Paraphrase of Ephesians 2:1-6,” No Time, AN Volume 2, p.200)
Looking closer at the rhymes I realize however that God rhymes with dead, but if there is ironic tension in this poem or a complicating of the meaning of the verses, I’m missing it. The other rhyme (also slant) is alive/love and can also be read according to conventional belief: we are alive because of His love, because the Son of God died for us. This is Gospel.
It seems to me that in moments of engagement with the world Avison recognizes where ideas or theories are outmatched by experience. Her work is more interesting and engaging there. The poem that perhaps best illustrates these two sides of Avison’s style is “The Jo Poems,” an elegy on the death in 1967 of her friend, Josephine Grimshaw. Not until much later was this poem written and then published in No Time in 1989. The poem was difficult for her to write as she acknowledges in the preface “So Many years Later” to this sequence. There is little of the personal in Avison. Her high school teacher, whom she recalls in the foreword to these collected poems (AN Volume 1, page 14), insisted that she not use the first person in her writing for the next ten years, perhaps taught her too well. And it reflects on her fear many years later of writing “therapeutically” about her friend.
Death is the test. Even Rimbaud turned back to religion facing his own mortality. For those who believe all along, solace is possible. But facing the death of her friend Avison finds herself: “out where theory is/ challenged by the existence/ of persons.” And there is a rare moment when her faith in the Word seems shaken, when out of her very contained grief for a moment she staggers: “O living Word, I cannot see to see.” But this occurs in a moment of seeing, of experience and not reading scripture. There’s a button-down self in Avison; faith leavens her seeing of the world, but also levels her participation in it:
Myself, in the odd march
Of these developments, very
Up and down in emotions. And
Evasive, looking not quite at
(“The Jo Poems,” No Time, AN Volume 2, p.124)
Before the death of her friend, the family’s loss, she is self-contained. And I admire the honesty here and the control, but when it approaches breaking down a few lines later with “Fear. Panic fear,” an incredibly slack line, a kind of shorthand for emotion, I feel I am being told something that is not shown. If there is a breakdown here, it is deflected, healed or staunched (a bleeding wound image is needed here) perhaps through the lines of prayer that follow: “‘Help us/ in this thine agony/ again.’” In a sense you don’t have to face personal agony if Christ has already faced it for you. Yours will always seem small in comparison. This deflects pain, takes the believer out of her personal world of suffering and into the mythic one — — out of real time and into ‘No Time.’ The prayers of consolation are rehearsed and familiar.
However the language comes alive when she simply looks out the window:
Lake blue through
One dead Lombardy
Brooms up among
(bottle-green ditch and
The day lifts up
(from full-blossomed loveliness)
our railroad sadness,
I find this vision of regeneration in nature more persuasive as poetry. It’s a conventional trope but the language is utterly fresh, and so more moving for a non-believer than prayer or scriptural references like the following:
Josephine, sorely beloved of God,
that day instead of trying to
tell, I found you dying.
Out in an almost capsized ship, the Lord
‘rebuked’ the storm.
The storm that swamped your life
somehow, surely, too, he
unshakeable, came perhaps
when you lay still…
In this and other poems when Avison writes from scripture, the poems are closer to exegesis; there is no struggle between what is written and what is lived and the agnostic reader is left out as if sitting through a sermon in a church service of a faith familiar, but not espoused.
However Avison, the seer, is always surprising. No reader will fall asleep when the divine is perceived so actively within the world as in “The Hid, Here”. The immediacy of place is conveyed in the title, “here,” and the mystery is “hid” not ‘hidden,’ the usual and more passive form of the verb hide. The imagery in this poem is startling, at once homely and cosmic:
The Milky Way
End over end like a football
Lobs, towards that still
That is hid within bud and Nest-stuff and bright air
(No Time, AN Volume 2, p. 139)
The enormous compression between the tenor and the vehicle in the metaphor is on the order of a metaphysical conceit; the galactic size of the Milky Way in a pigskin ball you can catch in your hand.
In nature she values seeing over reading, and even though years of watching sparrows is not enough for her to have observed how the bird “walks,” nevertheless she resists going to books for what she needs to know:
I do not want to face the fact that
Loving watching you, over
Ranges of long time, I
Learn so little — yet too much
To ‘look you up.’
(“Seeing So Little,” No Time, AN Volume 2, p.159)
The title phrase, seeing so little, seems ironic, seeing so little and yet trusting it enough not to need more than what can be seen.
There is a glorying in perception in Avison that mocks conventional meaning; in the poem, “Making Senses,” conventional sentence structure is abandoned;
singing by combers
sizzling by horseless
sour at stoneboat
Sweet by wicker
plastic and chrome
at late sunlevel
(No Time, AN Volume 2, p.206)
The period at the end of the poem signals the stop but there is no verb that is not a gerund in the whole. And the poem is thick with nouns as kennings.
Witness the tenderness, the quirky music in “A Small Music on a Spring Morning” where the poet laments that party balloons have been put out in the trash when they are still “blue and white live:”
Having balloons about on an
overcast morning is
celebration. O in the grey
nothing distracts from the bobbling
lightsomeness of a drift of
all-alone trembling to be touched
(No Time, AN Volume 2, p. 220)
The party’s not over for the poet, for her seeing the balloons is celebration enough. It recalls “sufficient exultation,” the much that can be made of little when seeing itself is so richly rewarded.
When the living word (not the scriptural) is all around her, she makes it felt in a charged and living language and “Suddenly utterance is everywhere:”
And the magnolia has
haloed high around itself a dome
an eloquent soundlessness
the birds can understand and
Re-voice for the wide world.
(“Knowing the New,” Not Yet But Still, AN Volume 3, p.28)
It seems to me that what the poet herself does for the world of nature in the city is a kind of re-voicing, a rejoicing in a poetic language as pure, as primal as birdsong.
What distinguishes her relation to the natural world from that to scripture is that here there is always an acknowledged tension:
With me, it’s tenseness
anticipation. But the listening
leaves are easy with it.
(“Responses” Concrete and Wild Carrot, AN Volume 3, p.137)
I recall a line from Christopher Dewdney positing that linoleum is as natural as grass, a truth with which I imagine Avison would agree. She is not a Romantic in her approach and depiction of nature. There is awe but there is no separation of the natural from the human:
From the back seat, barley fields and sky
jolt into: shacks, outbreaks of
garish little gas
stations wherein shine
those cabinets of pop.
(“The Fixed in a Flux,” Too Towards Tomorrow, New Poems, AN Volume 3, p.185)
If the intrusion of gas stations on the natural view of “barley fields and sky” is jolting (and this is in part because the view is from a moving vehicle), nevertheless, even in the garish, she sees an element of transcendental beauty as the pop dispensers “shine.” The seeing itself is “from the back seat” and so is a framed viewing; from “ a moving car — or train window”, it is a vision in passing. In another poem, “Christmas Approaches, Highway 401” even the bleakness of the highway, the desolation of “abandoned roadside shacks” has resplendency:
by day all lump and ache
is sown tonight with the beauty
of light and moving lights, light travelling, light
shining from beyond farthestness.
(sunblue, AN Volume 2, p.97)
The word ‘farthestness’ is a neologism, a noun made of the superlative adjective, farthest; there’s an awkwardness to this coining, a willingness to risk the ungainly to get at what she wants, to get at the abstract through the concrete. It is a radical writing; it aims for the root.
Even noise is celebrated, the deafening city din in “Cycle of Community” though the poem ends with the “calmer surge and flow” of evening that allows us to hear our connection to the natural world:
Before dark (sky and windows
Contemplating emptiness) we half-
Hear the foghorn and remember
The lake, and night.
(Concrete and Wild Carrot, AN Volume 3, p.157)
There’s a deep compassion in the writing, and social concern, but she’s not grim about it. In a poem about needing she plays with the language with wit and whimsy:
In part, who isn’t
miserly with his need —
or needled by it —
as though it were not there —
or, at best, genuinely free
to need yet never be
(“Needy” sunblue, AN Volume 2, p. 83)
The word need is played on and even found in the word ‘needled’, the sharpness of need there. And ‘debonair’ is a good and surprising word to use here; it puts on the Ritz in its denial of need. The use of full rhyme is part of the writing against the grain of contemporary poetics that characterizes her work. The surprised and surprising in vision and in language is the reward awaiting the attentive reader of Avison’s poetry. And so having read these three volumes I have indeed found Canada’s “national treasure,” a poet of deep humanity and transcendental vision.
Mary di Michele
Mary di Michele was born in Italy and raised in Canada. She is the author of one previous work of prose fiction, Under My Skin, a Harper’s Magazine Notable Book for 1994, and eight books of poetry, including Luminous Emergencies, which was short-listed for the Trillium Prize. She has won numerous awards including the Air Canada Writing Award and first prize for poetry in the C.B.C. literary competition. Her poetry has been translated into Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch and Chinese. She is a professor in the English Department of Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, where she teaches in the creative writing program. Her latest book, Tenor of Love, a novel, was published by Viking, Canada, and Simon & Schuster in the U.S.A. in January 2005.
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