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Remembering Tom Marshall
by Douglas Fetherling

SURVEYING the literary landscape of Kingston, Ontario, in a 1986 article in Cross-Canada Writers' Quarterly, the poet Tom Marshall ran through a long list of names, both historical and contemporary, before concluding that "if David Helwig, novelist, is the mind of Kingston, [then] Bronwen Wallace, poet, is the heart." Wallace would die in 1989 at a tragically early age, and David Helwig would later move to Montreal. That left Tom, who had lived in Kingston since his undergraduate days, to assume a third function in the city, that of its literary memory. When he himself died suddenly this spring (a heart attack at only 55), the old town was devastated. His death was frontpage news in the Kingston WhigStandard and merited an editorial as well - and well it should.

He was an unusual person to be thrust into any sort of leadership role. He enjoyed the company of writers in general but socially he kept to himself, living his entire adult life alone, latterly in a small house near Victoria Park, too far from downtown for anyone to drop by unexpectedly. His conversation tended to be jagged and nervous, full of quirks and unexpected angles. Yet he was a far better listener than many people knew. As is so often the case with such individuals, he was also an expertly close reader of texts.

In his last years, Tom enjoyed really enjoyed, with enthusiasm approaching gusto - the success he found as a novelist, particularly with Adele at the End of the Day (Macmillan, 1987). But for most people he remained the poet of sometimes devastating insight into the evil days on which the English-Canadian middle class has steadily fallen, decade after decade. Nice as these twin recognitions were, they doomed him to be underappreciated as a critic and editor.

Many still remember with affection his tenure as poetry editor of the Canadian Forum in the mid-1970s, when he helped a lot of people find a home there. Harsh and Lovely Land: The Major Canadian Poets & The Making of a Canadian Tradition (UBC, 1979) was an important summing-up of his own generation and how it dovetailed with the previous one. His last book was similar: Multiple Exposures, Promised Lands: Essays on Canadian Poetry and Fiction (Quarry, 1992). But the next-to-last one, Ghost Safari (Oberon, 1992), was a pastiche of poems, prose-pieces, and fragments, many of them about his writing friends from olden times and his own sense of where he stood in literary history. Reading it now, you can't mistake the note of finality.

Someone undertaking the kind of Kingston survey that Tom wrote in 1986 would come up with a very different result today. The period Tom chronicled was centred on Queen's University. Queen's is what had drawn Tom and Helwig and most of the long list of other writers who've since moved elsewhere - writers as diverse as Michael Ondaatje, Gail Fox, Stuart McKinnon, Don Bailey, and Allan Brown, to name only a handful.

In a few cases, today's generation of Kingston figures - fiction writers such as Janette Turner Hospital and Diane Schoemperlen; the poets Carolyn Smart, Judith Pond, and Eric Folsom; the essayists Amy Friedman and Wayne Grady; and the all-rounder Steven Heighton - may enjoy some university connection, but they're not academically rooted in the old way.

Local publishing is different too. Quarry Press, which Tom helped to found in the 1960s as the usual sort of poetry-chapbook operation, has become a vibrant, wide-ranging, and surprisingly large and entrepreneurial type of house. Tom, typically, bought some shares in the revivified company, to reconfirm his support.

Personally, I like to remember Tom as he was during the summer of 1969 in London, England, where he had come to oversee the sale of The Psychic Mariner, his now seldom-cited study of D. H. Lawrence's poetry. His friend Gwen MacEwen was there then too. So were Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee, and a number of other Canadians. He was surrounded by his friends yet quite outside the repressive Upper Canadian environment that, in his best poems, he wrote about with such between-the-lines precision. I never saw him more relaxed, not before and not afterwards.


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