Selected Poems

by Margaret Avison,
192 pages,
ISBN: 0195408594

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The Ciphering Heart
by Bruce Whiteman

MARGARET AVISON has a unique reputation in Canadian poetry. Though she will turn 74 this year, she has been slow to publish, and Selected Poems is only her fifth book. Four of her poems appeared at the end of A. J. M. Smith's Book of Canadian Poetry ( 1943), but she withdrew from the Ryerson Press anthology Unit of Five (1944 - it would have been "Unit of Six" if she had been included) because she did not feet that her work was good enough, and her first collection, Winter Sun, did not come out until 1960. Two of her four books have won the Governor General's Award, however, and she is widely regarded as one of the greatest of our poets: George Bowering has called her "the most artfully daring" of Canadian poets, and Tom Marshall once wrote that "with Purdy, she is probably the most important EnglishCanadian poet."

Selected Poems includes a generous selection from Winter Sun, The Dumbfounding, sunblue, and No Time, as well as three early uncollected poems (two of them from the Smith anthology) and nine new ones. The breadth of change in her work is remarkable, from an early poem like the well-known "Snow":

Nobody stuffs the world in at your eyes.

The optic heart must venture: a jail-


And re-creation. Sedges and wild rice

Chase rivery pewter.

The astonished

cinders quake

With rhizomes. [...]

to the recent "Letter to David Solway":

Piano in the woods,

in the house in pathless woods:

had it always been there?

so the woods grew thin there

with timbers for surround,

roof; floor instead of ground?[.]

This evolution of tone has gone hand in hand with the shift of content brought about by Avison's conversion to Christianity. From the beginning her poetry has been imbued with metaphysical concerns, and investigated experience within a broadly religious context; but sunblue marks a turn to a conventional Christian viewpoint, and the verse seems to me to lose some of its vigour and inventiveness.

Avison's most anthologized pieces "Snow," "The Swimmer's Moment," "Butterfly Bones; Or Sonnet Against Sonnets," "Unspeakable," and a few others - are all here, though one or two fine pieces, oddly enough, are omitted (e.g. "Searching and Sounding," which Bowering called her "greatest statement about the artist and his making of art"). Though worked out of a now largely discarded aesthetic and use of language, these are wonderful poems all the same and deserve their fame. "The Swimmer's Moment," for one, records so essential and authentic a metaphysical dilemma in so rich yet unelaborate a language as to be almost perfect:

For everyone

The swimmers moment at the whirlpool


But many at that moment will not say

"This is the whirlpool, then."

By their refusal they are saved

From the black pit, and also from


The deadly rapids, and emerging in

The mysterious, and more ample,

further waters.

And so their bland-blank faces turn

and turn

Pale, and forever on the rim of suction

They will not recognize.

Of those who dare the knowledge

Many are whirled into the ominous centre

That, gaping vertical, seals up

For them an eternal boon of privacy,

So that we rum away from their defeat

With a despair, not for their deaths,

but for

Ourselves, who cannot penetrate their


Nor even guess at the anonymous breadth

Where one or two have won:

(The silver reaches of the estuary).

Not all of Avison's work is so fine, and often the poems are infuriatingly obscure or use a diction that overreaches itself or is old-fashioned. But the best of Selected Poems is truly remarkable, and should be read by everyone interested in Canadian poetry. "The ancient, the new, / confused in speech," as she says in "Words,"

breathe on, involving

heart-warmed lungs, the reflexes

of uvula, shaping tongue, teeth, lips,

ink, eyes, and de-

ciphering heart.


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