The Porcupine's Quill - April 25, 2006 - 20 Comments
Always Now: The Collected Poems (Vol. 3) by Margaret Avison
Reviewed by Anne Burke
Margaret Avison has outlasted many of her contemporaries and she is deserving of rediscovery. The reappraisal of the Canadian modernist movement gives Avison a foothold on The Re-Making of Modern Poetry in Canada. Indeed, for some revisionists, she was a “major” figure. Avison’s poems are an antidote to the notion that an aesthetic of hard, abstract, learned verse was an implicitly masculinist-modernist contribution. She wrote none of the soft, effusive, personal verse, supposedly written by women and Romantics. While Avison was born in 1918, the appeal of her poetry is clear, from her beginnings with John Sutherland’s First Statement Press, in 1947, to virtual canonization in the Oxford anthologies, to Cid Corman’s The Gist of Origin, in 1975, and remarkable staying power, in Writing the Terrain, edited by Robert Stamp in 2004.
For those readers unfamiliar with Avison’s contribution to poetry, she is a Canadian high modernist, metaphysical, and concrete poet. A.J.M. Smith, who adopted her as a model of cosmopolitan poetry, was a proponent of Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century (1912) by H.J.C. Grierson because the author was the supervisor of Smith’s dissertation at Edinburgh. Smith’s praise was reserved for Avison’s “Eclectic Detachment”; like their Canadian counterparts, the American New Critics and European Metaphysical Poets elevated the use of irony, paradox, metaphysical conceit, and intense religious experience as ideal poetry for a generation.
In Always Now, Avison follows the liturgical calendar cycle from the birth of Christ, to the crucifixion on Good Friday, and resurrection at Easter. Throughout, she plays with the inconsistencies of place and paradoxical simultaneity of time. The poems in Not Yet But Still are arranged according to themes of “Looking Out,” “Being Out,” and “Now.” What matters are: the “Who,” the when of “High Days,” and the Why of “For the Fun of It.” Compare the shifting perspectives of “Looking Out,” whether of “Old Woman at a Winter Window” or “Beyond Weather or From a Train Window.” Nature’s rule is mitigated by art, especially “Artless Art.” Art incapacitates passion. Experience should be reinterpreted through meditation and contemplation. The proscenium arch is replaced by a window frame. Our perspectives should be multi-faceted, like the lowly fly.
Avison’s religious conversion happened in 1963, after she had seemingly lost faith in Winter Sun. Her reading of The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James, helped to frame her “On the Road to Damascus” gut-wrenching experience of encountering the Divine. She pays tribute to the apostle Paul in “A Basis” for his missionary zeal, based on his “short fuse” (40). Her language is sourced from “Leviticus” in the poem “Pouring.” She believes “Our God endures” (49). She praises Santa Lucia for her martyrdom. Fashion is irrelevant because “Adam and Eve went naked in the full light” (56). In “Astonishing Reversal,” she indicates: “In holiness alone / is freedom” (68). She recreates the burning bush for Moses and his “solitary death” (70). Passages from Genesis 22:13, John 3:16, and Revelation 4 are subjects for her muse. The interplay of Biblical sources is notable, such as the Book of Job, which is “no utopia,” used to satirize book reviewing (and critical interference in God’s plan) from various points of view in “Job: Word and Action.”
This is the final volume in the series, following Volume One, “From Elsewhere, Winter Sun, The Dumbfounding, and Translations” (2003) and Volume Two, “sunblue, No Time” (2004). The list of magazines and anthologies (in chronological order) in which Avison was published (as well as a translation of The Optic Eye, and her book publishers) has been revised and expanded from that printed in earlier volumes, but it is not complete. According to editors Stan Dragland and Joan Eichner, in “A Note on the Text,” “the book contains definitively all of the published poems up to 2002 that Margaret Avison wishes to preserve” (11). A variorum edition is, inevitably, in the offering, if only to examine more closely the corrections she has made, as well as the few poems she chose to remove.
The contents of the present volume were culled from Not Yet but Still (Lancelot Press, 1997), Not Yet But Still (Brick Books, 1997), and Concrete and Wild Carrot (Brick Books, 2002), with the addition of Too Towards Tomorrow: New Poems (which appears to have no publishing history). The question remains: how “new” are the new poems? That question will be difficult to answer, without a proper bibliographical workup, since the listing for “Margaret Avison” in The Annotated Bibliography of Canada’s Major Authors Series, volume 6, edited by Robert Lecker and Jack David (ECW Press, 1983) concludes with the publication, as a single volume, of Winter Sun / The Dumbfounding: Poems 1940-66 (McClelland and Stewart, 1982).
Another question arise about the wisdom of republishing both Not Yet But Still and Concrete and Wild Carrot, except in regard to inclusivity, since the Brick editions are still in print. Avison’s written correspondence with Corman about projectivist poetry is relevant to the latter imprint. She accepted the doctrine that there are inherent and systematic analogies between the human mind and the external world; between the natural and spiritual worlds. The “concrete” alludes to or signifies the actual of this world, man-made, an urban landscape, contrasted with “wild carrots,” also known as Queen Anne’s lace, the origin of the cultivated carrot. It is a widely naturalized Eurasian weed, an acrid ill-flavoured root.
Avison’s poetry is both prized and misunderstood for the abstractions, ideas and traditional imagery. Nature is a colourful ribbon running throughout and, more often than not, is a counterpoise to the abstractions. She also wrote short stories, book reviews and essays. Her Pascal Lectures at the University of Waterloo were published as A Kind of Perseverance, in 1994, but are out of print.
1. cited by Wanda Campbell, “Moonlight and Morning: Women’s Early Contribution to Canadian Modernism,” in The Canadian Modernists Meet, edited by Dean Irvine (University of Ottawa Press, 2005) (p. 79). She alludes to the quintessential text of The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada, (1967, revised edition, 1968) edited by Louis Dudek and Michael Gnarowski, as “masculinist.”