Lorna Crozier, one of the most original poets alive, has written a narrative sequence inspired by the novel As for Me and My House, by the late Sinclair Ross. Mrs. Bentley, the enigmatic narrator of Ross's novel, was the first literary character Crozier had encountered who inhabited the landscape where the poet was born, the Saskatchewan prairie in its years of drought and dust. She makes Mrs. Bentley the narrator of her own vision of the prairie in the Depression, a sequence that is both a gloss on the original and a new creation of enhanced depth and radiance.
The development of major poetic talents is often from lyric to dramatic verse. In A Saving Grace, Crozier is moving in that direction, without loss of lyric intensity. She always was a story-teller and within the present context can even hint, in "Sins of Omission", at a grim little tale while setting down a list. Narration without benefit of syntax.
More vividly than Ross's story the poem sings into existence the grim landscapes and lamplit interiors of the prairie, dust, wind, horses, enormous sky, coulees, and the furtive muttering of neighbours. Philip Bentley is a small-town preacher and failed artist; Mrs. Bentley plays her piano and longs for some human warmth, even if she has to invent it; Paul, a young school-teacher, is the peripheral male, a word-man. In these characters Ross distributed some of his own gifts. The Bentleys' longing for a son, in Crozier's version, expresses itself in the wife's fantasies, especially in her feverish vision of her husband's infidelity with Judith West. Sex in a kitchen chair-it's a pleasantly familiar Crozier obsession.
The poet has drawn on the memories of her mother and her aunt for some of the most powerful stories. And in the last poem, where the narrator comes clear about nearly everything except her name (Mrs. B. does not have a first name), we read:
I could have lied-
I lied. There, I've said it,
but the most improbable is not
invention. The years and years of drought:
Joe Lawson's wife, the dead baby in the well,
The Chinaman who opened his door each
to a woman's hunger. Everyone said
the grass would never grow again,
the sloughs never fill
and no one would come to love
this place. Even now as I write,
so long after, my pen makes
tracks across the dust.
In only a couple of poems does winter make itself felt, that savage winter landscape, a blankness that calls out to be filled with human and spiritual images. For the most part the landscape is baked in hot summer, the long summer (as it may seem) of remembered childhood. Ross made more of formal civilization than Crozier does, the organ and the piano, the drawings, the etymologies of Paul. For Crozier, more aptly as it may seem, the frail civilization is represented by echoes and quotations from the King James version of the Bible:
O where are our fishes,
Ye daughters of Jerusalem,
where are our pies, our mouths
plundered by berries,
where are our loaves of bread?
And at a further remove this civilization is figured forth in Lorna Crozier's wonderful eloquence and wit, and by the warmth and fullness of her female sensibility, sharply perceptive yet inclusive and accepting. Like Sinclair Ross, she does not live in this landscape; he headed for warmer climes, she for the green luxuriance of Victoria, B.C. The dust bowl is a visionary place to remember and imagine, perhaps to revisit in summer.
The publisher has made a pretty little book to contain this mighty vision, clothing it in the colours of nostalgia. Ross's novel is called a "beloved classic", a cozy description indeed, and the poem itself is "remarkable, vibrant, richly textured."
I suppose it's all those things, though I've never known exactly what "vibrant" means. I just want to say that a pretty little book is exactly what this splendid creation is not. In "Two Eternal Things", Philip jokes that he will paint a thistle against a rock.
Two eternal things
in this God-forsaken place:
rock-what the drought
thistle-what the grasshoppers
will not eat.
Call it Hope, I say.
Despair, he replies.
The whole enterprise raises an interesting question. Does the original author retain poetic copyright as he does film and television and other secondary rights? It seems that, say, a television series based on characters invented by Ross would have to do more than make warm acknowledgement in the credits. Cash would have to change hands.
And here, unfortunately, is our answer. No-one is going to sue for poetic rights, for the depressingly simple reason that there's no money in them, or very little at most. Lorna Crozier's poem does great honour to Ross, and may also send its readers to bookshops to look for and buy As for Me and My House. As for me, I could not find my old copy of the novel in my house and could not find it in bookshops either. I had to go to the library.
I met and talked with Sinclair Ross some time in the 1950s. I have largely forgotten what we talked about, but I do remember that he was a man filled with self-doubt. I think he would have been encouraged by the quality of Lorna Crozier's attention. A saving grace indeed.
Kildare Dobbs's most recent book is Smiles & Chukkers & Other Vanities (Little Brown).