Once, on a flight to London my luggage ended up in Munich. Two days later, it was delivered to my door by the airline company. Those two sorry suitcases sitting in the foyer seemed embarrassed at having gotten themselves lost. They needn’t have been. Getting to where you expect to get to is predictable. Getting lost is poetry.
When contemplating my master’s degree thesis I started out on a journey to find Margaret Lawrence and instead found Eli Mandel. I’d heard that Margaret Lawrence was up at Banff and was scheduled to give a public reading. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. Synchronicity. John and I made a weekend of it, camped at Two Jack Lake and the evening of the event got rid of our smoke smell as best we could and made our way into Banff and up the hill to the School.
I was thrilled by the presence of Margaret Lawrence and the one and only time I heard her read. Next up was Eli Mandel; the mind boggles now to think that those two were on the same roster. I had taken a CanLit survey course and was vaguely familiar with his work. I thought and still think his poem Houdini a timeless classic. I can’t remember what he read that evening but obviously was impressed because it led to a total revision of my thesis subject.
I went home, consulted my supervisor, settled down to work and cranked out about a hundred pages about the various mythological metaphors and allusions in Eli’s poetry. But, once again, fate intervened. The man himself came to U of C as chair of Canadian Studies. What are the odds of that – your thesis subject arriving at your university as a guest instructor? If nothing else, it gave me confidence in my choice.
I attended his lectures and came to admire the man, his unassuming yet powerful presence, and his great intellect. Our many discussions gave me a deeper insight into his poetry resulting in my detection of an underlying preoccupation in the work which, I argued in the thesis, was the very foundation of prairie literature, the attempt to organize space. Such an approach to Eli’s work was different as most literary critics at the time tended to think of him as an intellectual poet. The exploration of space in his poetry revealed an emotional element and allowed a case connecting the work to the prairie and to prairie literature. I threw out that first hundred pages about mythology, started over and never looked back.
The journey that started out in the direction of Margaret Lawrence and ended with Eli Mandel and prairie literature, while lengthy, was fairly painless. Sometimes, however, the powers that be have to get tough with us to make us see the light. This happened with my last book of poetry, North. I had a clear vision of what I wanted the book to be and duly set out on a real journey north with the idea of writing a series of poems along the way. I remember one about the Sangudo general store and one about eating lunch beside some old railway ties, that sort of thing – descriptive, nostalgic, written in traditional form. John drove while I sat beside him working on my laptop as we motored up Highways 32 and 43 into the Peace Country. Things were going well. I had, perhaps, a dozen good poems. For the nonpoets, that might not seem much, but believe me it is. Then I LOST THEM! Somehow, by some mistaken flick of the finger on the wrong key, I managed to delete my file. Being naive, at the time, as to the perverse nature of computers, I had not bothered to back up material. I was so upset, not to mention disgusted, that I turned my back on the manuscript, put it away in a box under the bed and decided to forget about it. I didn’t recognize it at the time but God had entered my life. He didn’t want me to write that book.
Several years later in clearing out boxes I found the material. Of course, by now everything had changed, including me. I came back to the book with an entirely different vision of what I wanted it to be – a combination of history and memory, the two forces that shape individuals. The new book is not a pastoral about the wonders of the north and the boreal forest. Rather, it’s a book about desperation, loneliness, a harsh unfriendly land, stunted hopes and dreams, a narrative about the immigrants who came in desperate circumstances and met challenges they had not known existed.
In my first attempt, I determined to write about perfect straight elms or mighty oaks. In my second attempt, the work dictated to me what it would be – stunted spruce, twisted aspen, gnarled cottonwood of the boreal forest. The first attempt would have been just another book, derivative, predictable. The second, I believe, is poetry.
*Chet Baker album, 1989