||At Home In The Landscape
by Linda Leith
WHEN SHARON BUTALA married a rancher and moved from Saskatoon to a remote ranch in southwestern Saskatchewan, her friends and her family were convinced she was making a terrible mistake.
This was in 1976. Butala was 36 years old, and she was leaving behind her independent life, her house, her job, her circle of close women friends, her
mother, her sisters and their families, and her only child, the teenaged son from her first marriage who stayed in Saskatoon to finish school. And she was in fact changing her life even more radically than she realized at the time. This moving book tells her story.
Her new life began bravely. Butala planned to finish her masters thesis while on the ranch. She bought Supplies with an eye to becoming the artist she wanted to be. But these plans came to naught. What she hadn`t counted on -- could not have known -- was the effect that the landscape would have on her. She began to admit that if she`d really
understood what she was getting into she`d never have done it.
She did it for love. For love of a man called Peter Butala, first of all. And for love of a kind of life: a life in nature. Visiting the ranch for the first time one May when Peter and his men were rounding tip the cattle for the spring move, she spent the entire day perched on the corral watching the men work -- in the middle, she joked afterwards, of a Roy Rogers movie. But though she made light of it, she was actually "stirred so deeply that everything in my old life -- friends, job, family, politics -- paled beside it."
Used to a hectic, tense, and competitive
existence, she was drawn to this slower, more beautiful world, to the tall green grass and wildflowers on the riverbank, "the clarity, the veracity of the light ... the splash of the shallow brown river running by below the corrals, the click of the cattle`s hooves, the cowboy ululations of the men."
It was not smooth going. With Peter gone sometimes for days at a time, loneliness took its toll. Butala was sensitive to slights and criticism from some quarters. By the time she had discarded her almost-finished thesis and abandoned hope of becoming an artist, she was devastated. She took to going for long, solitary walks, and she started keeping a journal in which she jotted down what she was seeing and learning. As her distress deepened, this journal turned into a record of a spiritual crisis. "I feel invisible here and dead, she wrote in 1980.
Slowly, over a period of years, she recreated herself as a writer. She started with 50 pages of a novel that she never finished. A short writing course in the nearest town followed. Her novel Country of the Heart was short-listed for what was then called the W. H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award; next came a series of other novels, a collection of short stories, Fever, that won the 1992 Authors Award for Fiction, and now this compelling account of her own spiritual and artistic journey.
The pace is unhurried. Like the cowboys with their unassuming and casual skills with the animals they guide over the Prairie, Butala in The Perfection of the Morning is taking us on a long walk across sometimes difficult territory, through mud and dust and blizzards. It makes for an extraordinary picture, this journey into nature, as the figures at times are practically indistinguishable from the landscape.
On the way, Butala writes unsentimentally and without mystification about experiences of nature that we might, for lack of a better word, call mystical; with a nice disregard for various
orthodoxies, she questions the kinds of lives that both urban and rural women lead; she explores her sense of kinship with, and her admiration for, the aboriginal peoples of the area; and she nimbly links socio-economic and ecological changes in southwestern Saskatchewan with her powerful, disturbing dreams and her own metamorphosis. As a writer, Butala is now at home in this landscape. She has learned humility, and she has learned to trust herself. Her insights are hard-won, her voice honest and true. She is a wonderful guide.
To discover what she has learned about nature, she says, we don`t need to scale Mount Everest or go white-water rafting on the Colorado or take up skydiving. "We need only go for walks." The Perfection of the Morning is a beautiful portrait of the artist as a middle-aged woman on the unbroken Prairie.
A BOW TO THE
by Phyllis Webb
THE HOLY FOREST by Robin Blaser Coach Home, 394 pages, $24.95 paper (ISBN 0 88910 435 2)
JACK SPICER said it: "Prose invents -- poetry discloses." Invention suggests the fictive, and structural upset; disclosure truth, the real, ellipses. Disclosure and movement, of thought, feeling, and language, are at the heart of Robin Blaser`s poetry. "A slow writer," it was said in a biographical note (1975), "who is never given more than a few poems a year, he has been building a single book since 1960. When it is complete, it will be called The Holy Forest."
And here it is, a wondrous gift for those readers willing to offer their most alert attention to this poet`s darting intelligence and subtle musicality. Too much work! some will say, too
much dead-white-male high culture, too precious, too many birds and flowers. But they`ll miss a rare opportunity to follow a tough-minded, ruthlessly observed struggle for personal and poetic authenticity that has nothing to do with confessional poetry and much to do with the existential engagement of an Outsider with history and culture in the midst of "a metaphysical washout."
They`ll also miss a lot of fun -- a whole sequence is titled "The Truth Is Laughter," found poems by this seeker of chance happenings. And great stories -- the narrative drift is everywhere, witnessing. And, of course, dazzling technical performances.
The beauty of a collected works is that one can study the process of maturation, and, as Jack Spicer also said, "There is really no single poem." The serial poem "Image Nations, which I`ve been reading with fascination for years, can now be seen in its entirety (SO far). Blaser has said that these ,`very noisy poems" appear from time to time like "squawking birds." Now all 25 of them are squawking, or making like an operatic recitative (an early model for the prose poem?). From the relative simplicity of "Image Nation I," about a cat giving birth, and perhaps the birth of language, to the increasing technical and intellectual complexity and dense textures of the final ones, we attend the development of a major artist.
Number 24 in Exody gives us bits and pieces of the poet`s personal and family history ("oh, pshaw," it begins) interlaced with aspects of American history and politics as it all comes to life and grief in the metaphysical washout:
now, the players tumble like spiky weeds -- over Craters
of the Moon -- they collapse into their
own Will -- stretch
out in technology -- do not recognize
themselves -forgive themselves, unaware and repetitious
-- the "I" cannot exist there -- it was glass in an impossible
body -- my lyric voice loose in it -- tattoos of an absolute
language -- old song -
here, plagues galore weave among us
-- aids, racism, homophobia, displacement and poverty,
christianism with its political plans....
As so often happens with a long prose poem, disclosure begins to step out with invention and the plot thickens, "counterpoints of monads becoming nomads." Such poems appear spectacularly like "sculptured thought" in the most recent work taken from Exody, which comes before the closing cycle, "Earlier, 1956-58, the Boston Poems." In "Image Nation 25" the poet takes a magnifying glass to a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, looking Lip from the phantasmagoria to imagine "mortality," "evolutionary love." In the intensely moving "Even on Sunday," the theme of the homosexual as Outsider in a "normed" society finds its fulfilment through meditations on various texts invited into the poem (Blaser does this in many poems) because "God, self, history, and book are, Mark C. Taylor tells us, bound / in an intricate relationship in which each mirrors the other --" ("Image Nation 2 5"). As I flip back again through The Holy Forest to the earlier, more lyrical poems, I notice how often this elegant poet enters his poems breezily, conversationally, with a "Hi!" or "Okay" or "Have you got a toy-box?" launching us into situations that are mobile and slithery, requiring an attentiveness to what is concealed by all the activity. This sense of movement is reflected in most of the book titles: The Moth Poem, Les Chimeres, Charms, Streams, Syntax, Pell Mell, and Exody. What
Robert CreeIey in his perceptive foreword calls "the complexly layered song" of Blaser`s oeuvre is found everywhere, even in the occasional frivolous or glib poem, but complicating with the passage of years. I was disappointed to find that the projected sequence, "Great Companions," had not expanded beyond the two splendid creations that appeared in Pell Mell -one a translation of a Pindaric "Hymn," the other a tribute to Robert Duncan, the third member of that early San Francisco trio that included Spicer and Blaser. Blaser is the only one left. They shared a profound sense of poetic vocation, influenced, irritated, valued, and promoted each other and the new poetics they were developing with, notably, Creeley, Charles Olson, and Denise Levertov. Robin Blaser first truly, and memorably, entered my consciousness when I heard him read at a Vancouver coffeehouse -- he`d moved to Vancouver in the mid-`60s. "The Moth Poem" most impressed me, a serial poem with its aleatoric moth in the piano, a salute to John Cage, perhaps, a humble how to the numinous, to the spirit of pure gift, to disclosure:
the moth in the piano will play on frightened wings brush the wired interior of that machine I said `master`
by Cbriswpher Moore
LAMENT FOR A NOTION: THE LIFE
AND DEATH OF CANADA`S
by Scott Reid
Arsenal Pulp, $18,95 paper
ISBN 0 88978 269 5)
THE ALLUSION to George Grant in the title of Scott Reids vigorously argued case against official bilingualism is a timely touch. William Christians recent biography confirms that Grant genuinely lamented the death of an English- Canadian national Community. Reid, however, is out to bury, not just lament, bilingualism in Canada. He thinks official bilingualism has all been massively wasteful and Positively unjust.
When it comes to waste, Reid is frequently persuasive. He seems to have spent a Substantial part of his life in training for the auditor general`s job, for a lot of this book is a dogged chase through the fine print of spending reports and budget statements. He gleefully waves aloft the Usual trophies, such as the Saskatchewan Community with one minority- language family that must have three bilingual staff in its post office.
If these are the usual inefficiencies of large organizations, Reid makes the most of them. He is more disturbing about a deeper wastefulness. It`s surely true, as Reid alleges, that much reckless, pointless spending on bilingualism has been inspired less by the belief that it is a good thing in itself than by the hope that spending the money might appease separatists -- who simply use the wastefulness as a fresh argument against the federal system. Since Supporters of the great bicultural consensus usually think it impolite to say things
like this, Reid`s out-of-right-field attack is useful and timely.
Reid is also thought -provoking on what he calls the limits of language policy. When social conditions are dictating the decline or rise of a linguistic community, he argues, government action is unlikely to reverse the trend. As a result, linguistic minorities across the country have been assimilating rapidly to the languages of their neighhours. Reid goes on to argue that French only has a future throughout Quebec and in a few adjacent communities, while it is English that has a future elsewhere in Canada. Resistance by governments is futile, he concludes.
But to sustain his belief that government language-action is always ineffective, Reid has to argue that Quebec`s language laws have played little part in the recent advance of French within Quebec -- even as he condemns the federal government for tolerating Quebec`s actions. And he must virtually deny the existence of places like Sudbury, Ontario, and Moncton, New Brunswick, which provide everything from hospital treatment to video rentals in both languages despite being a long way from the Quebec border. Official bilingualism is surely an important factor sustaining minority success in places like that, but they don`t fit Reid`s simple dichotomy. Neither rates a mention in Lament for a Notion.
Similarly, Reid ignores or minimizes the way Canadians discovered language-learning as a cultural asset during the years of official bilingualism. Many Canadians have striven to learn the other language, adopted a new openness to the other culture, or worked for immersion school programs. Reid hasn`t noticed, except to wring his hands over a bilingual "elite" threatening to dominate the unilingual proles. For him, bilingualism is always a bore and a chore and a plot by Pierre Trudeau.
Reid believes that his own proposal
minimal linguistic action by government, minimal interaction of French and English in Canada -- is the only one compatible with "justice." He makes much of justice, in fact. He plays skilfully on resentment of "asymmetrical bilingualism," which translates as promoting French outside Quebec and hobbling English within. He even brings up the spectre of governments forcing us, at vast expense, to confront bilingual cereal boxes in the privacy of our kitchens.
Reid`s notion of justice is a familiar one: justice is whatever the marketplace provides; injustice is whatever government does. He holds this view so rigorously that he even advocates a wealthbased education policy, endorsing a voucher system in which everyone would get the same amount to spend on education, and extra-cost services would be available to those willing to buy them. Wealthy minorities -- the English of Westmount come to mind -- could buy linguistic privileges, while the
market would force assimilation on less favoured ones. From this blinkered notion of justice come,,; Reid`s blindness to the social and cultural benefits of bilingualism policies in Canada.
In his acknowledgements, Reid mentions that Lament for a Notion began as background papers Submitted to Tom Flanagan. Presumably this is code for -,I study commissioned by the Reform Party and its former research director. Look for Reid`s ideas to turn LIP ill the House of Commons.