Kildare Dobbs has long been known as one of Canada's pre-eminent prose writers. Essayist, travel writer, journalist, and editor, he has won the Governor General's Award and his work figures in various anthologies, including The Norton Reader. Now, at the age of seventy-four, he appears in an entirely new light: with a single book he has established himself as an outstanding poet deserving the careful attention of all readers of contemporary Canadian poetry.
The preface to The Eleventh Hour briefly recounts a career within a career, the life of the private, mainly unpublished, poet within that of the robust and very public prose writer. He describes his earliest efforts as a young poet in Ireland almost sixty years ago, his writing while serving in the Royal Navy in the Second World War, and the encouragement he received from John Betjeman, whom, at times, he resembles in his mischievous and ribald sense of humour. Dobbs emigrated to Canada in 1952, published and broadcast poems at long intervals, but on the whole disappeared as a poet.
The Eleventh Hour is not a "Collected Poems", a summary, even valedictory, statement about a life in verse, such as poets in their later years often produce. Though substantial, the book is meant to bring together "poems that result from a continuing impulse in later life". There is throughout the book a very productive tension, reflected even in the title and subtitle, between the poet's sense of imminent mortality and a hunger for life's possibilities.
The volume opens with a remarkable "Invocation":
Come to me, you that in long silence I lost
Who sang to me in the orchards and hayfields
of the country of innocence, who changed me
with incurable wounds of intimation.
It was you I listened for in the voices
of children, of lovers, and did not know you.
You were the nightingale in the olive grove,
the larksong falling from sky over sand dunes
and the blackbird in the gardens of summer.
O come to me once more out of the shadows
in the majesty and flame of your singing.
This probing of the rag and bone shop of the heart is accomplished with extraordinary delicacy, with a pure lyricism which puts me in mind not only of Yeats but of Sacheverell Sitwell and Peter Levi, British poets whose eloquence and vulnerability in describing matters of the spirit Kildare Dobbs seems to share. I would hazard the opinion that the first four lines of this passage are as good as anything one is likely to find in recent poetry.
Dobbs's work is quietly allusive, and one of his successes as a craftsman is to use material from the cultural tradition to sharpen his rendering of some present experience. He writes in "Apollo":
I saw in my dream a woman at the turn
of the stairs above me, and with her a man:
the woman was my dark love who died in youth,
the man a shining stranger. I remember
he was a musician. He looked straight at me.
The glance of a god cannot be mistaken.
The glance of the god like the wound of intimation becomes poetry; it is the acute presence of memory within the lived moment.
It is interesting how Dobbs can approach such a subject as his own looming death, capturing its pang without venturing on self-pity. He writes in "Thanksgiving":
I am afraid of this Indian summer:
this gentle light has the finality of
a sunrise seen while smoking the last cigarette
before the bullet in the neck. The condemned
are treated with tender consideration
which only tends to fearful premonition.
The hand trembles accepting this late garland
in the untrustworthy sunlight of the fall.
There have been omens, old men saying goodbye,
a book falling, a black dog on the sidewalk,
a sudden chill where no wind stirred in the leaves.
I take this happiness for a parting gift.
The serious poems in this collection are neatly balanced by many others that are amusing or even hilarious, among them "Forgotten":
What I remember about the woman is
her big Dutch feet with which she could field
thread needles, open beer bottles, play the harp
or tug at your zipper under the table.
Hands busy with phone and notebook she would
wringing in agitation those clever feet;
sometimes, disguised as a pioneer granny
in print flounces, she would stuff the feet into
huge cowboy boots and trample on her lovers.
Or, in "Public Appeal", he assumes the persona of the frustrated adulterer:
I call upon the striking electricians
who keep the municipal library closed
to consider their brother and well-wisher-
not that I use the place, but her husband does.
Anything that takes the good man's mind off
is bad and positively not to be brooked.
He'll be hanging round the house next and, who
may try catching up on his domestic chores.
Back to work brothers, lights on, open the doors!
Perhaps, the worst thing that could be said about this book is that a few very funny pieces are actually a bit harsh. Some of the more satirical poems are written on sexual themes, and he is successful in evoking a male perspective on disappointment or betrayal in love. His "Dracula Verses", on the other hand, seems not altogether just to its subjects and distracts somewhat from the volume's otherwise fair-minded approach to difficult questions.
Dobbs writes almost always in an eleven-syllable line, and this allows him a formal solidity without the excessive predictability of iambics. The volume, as a whole, reflects a degree of technical assurance that is deeply impressive. The Eleventh Hour is the real debut of one of the most gifted Canadian poets of a generation that is already falling silent. He writes: "In my own mind, poetry is the most important writing I do, the centre of my work and imagination. And at last I feel ready to publish it." We are lucky to have this book, and can only hope that there is more to follow.
Richard Greene is an assistant professor of English at the University of Toronto. His Republic of Solitude: Poems 1984-1994 was published by Breakwater Press.