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The Farmer-Fisher Bard: A Look at Charles Bruce
by Carmine Starnino

Fifty-two years ago, the Governor-General's Award for Poetry was given to a collection that took as its subject a twenty-mile stretch of Nova Scotia called Chedabucto Bay. The poet, a newspaperman named Charles Bruce, spent his boyhood along the north shore of that bay, and the book, called The Mulgrave Road, conveyed the maritime details of those early experiences in clear, direct, metrical verse¨verse Bruce endorsed as "simple and stirring and understandable without drifting into banality, using the concrete terms of life." Not exactly the credo of a trend-watcher, and indeed that sort of throwback thinking, uttered during Canada's modernist heyday, conferred on Bruce's career a certain fustiness. One reviewer, unhappy with The Mulgrave Road's "local color," complained that it comprised "trite universals which meet on the fair-weather ground of inadequate and uninspired words" and another groused that the poetry "reaches into the backwaters which the busy world has bypassed." Bruce had fans, of course. Frye praised the collection as "consistently successful" and A.J.M. Smith included his poems in his Oxford Book of Canadian Verse, as did Ralph Gustafson in his own Penguin Book of Canadian Verse. But Bruce's small-scale, regional lyricism kept him to one side of the country's poetical developments, and the fact that he dedicated himself to this outsiderism¨proudly regarding his poems as an alternative to the "whole academic approach to poetry" which he called "an irritant"¨certainly didn't help. After his death in 1971, Bruce drifted famelessly out of mind, and nowadays dropping his name into a literary conversation will fetch you a blank look. Andy Wainwright has made a yeoman's effort of championing him, penning a literary biography and editing, with Leslie Choyce, a volume of his selected poems (both out of print). But aside from an essay in the autumn 1979 issue of The Dalhousie Review, Bruce's poetry has attracted zero scholarship, and he now survives¨barely¨as a regional curiosity. I certainly had no clue of his existence until my friend Michael Harris picked up The Mulgrave Road (for ten cents!) during a Saturday morning visit to a Westmount estate sale. He invited me over to his home that afternoon. He was excited, and this, called "Biography," is what he read to me:

His speckled pastures dipped to meet the beach
Where the old fish huts stood. At his front door
A man could stand and see the whole wide reach
Of blue Atlantic. But he stayed ashore.

He stayed ashore and plowed, and drilled his rows,
And planned his hours and finished what he planned.
And made his profits: colts and calves and ewes
And buildings and piled stone and harrowed land.

He was a careful man, a trifle cold
To meet and talk to. There were some who thought
His hand was a bit grasping, when he sold;
A little slow to open when he bought.

But no one said it that way. When you heard
His habits mentioned, there would be a pause.
And then the soft explanatory word.
They said he was dry-footed. And he was.

Hearing these lines, I was struck by their plain-talking directness¨so plain, in fact, they hardly seemed poetry at all. I've since read "Biography" dozens of times, and always I marvel at the resourcefulness Bruce brought to its simplicity of parts (the second stanza, for instance, is held together by a deft, end-stopping repetition of "and"). The poem seems to me perfectly played. It knows from the start where it's headed, joins the right details to the right diction, and has them stop at the right time, on the right clean note. It's hard not to consider the poem's clarity, concision and higher artlessness as a happy carry-over from the "clear and crisp copy" of Bruce's newspaper writing. But however much we may appreciate the efficiency of stanza and rhyme¨the thousand tiny adjustments carried out to snugly bed the yarn-spinning, cracker-barrel voice inside a tightly organized structure¨we will misunderstand the poem, I believe, if we miss the fact that running through the voice, keeping warm just under its flinty surface, is a suggestion of suspicion. Add up "a trifle cold," "a bit grasping," "a little slow" and you realize that the speaker is hintingly delivering his distrust of dry-footedness. Chedabucto Bay was home to both farmers and fishermen, and the territory's tension between its earth-reekers and its sea-workers (explored elsewhere in The Mulgrave Road) gives the poem its larger theatre. All this is enough, in my opinion, to make "Biography" a contemporary classic. With its spontaneity of speech ("But he stayed ashore. // He stayed ashore and plowedÓ"), its pithy phrasings ("There were some who thought / His hand was a bit grasping"), its abrupt surprises ("But no one said it that way") and its gossipy, slightly insinuating tinctures ("When you heard /His habits mentioned, there would be a pause. /And then the soft explanatory word.") the poem tries to capture the gradient of a particular life by capturing the inflections of a particular vernacular. The lovely effect of that effort¨the sound of a human voice working inside the sound of a poem¨calls up Heaney. Heaney, like Bruce, is also a practitioner of the homespun tone. But the poet I'm reminded of most by this casual, somewhat countrified accent is the poet in whose work Heaney himself first heard it: Frost. Here's another example:

Cleaning fish is a job you would balk at;
But nothing is mean with gulls hovering down,
Sun brighter than life on glistening eelgrass,
The bay crawling again in a quickening southwest wind.

There was always a time after the wash barrels were empty,
After hand-barrows were lugged up the beach to the hut,
And herring lay behind handwrought staves, clean with salt ű

Time to lie on warm stone and listen
While the sting went out of crooked fingers and thighs ceased to ache;
Time to hear men's voices, coming quietly through a colored cloth of sound
Woven in the slap of water on fluent gravel.

Their talk was slow and quiet, of fish and men
And fields back on the hill with fences down,
Hay to be made through long hot days with never a splash on the oilskins,
Or the lift of water awake under half-inch pine.

Like Frost, Bruce's aesthetic is that of the spoken cadence. The above¨taken from "Words Are Not Enough"¨has that supple, pellucid feel we like to think of as a trait of a "natural" voice. Bruce evokes this by using, as in "Biography, a large number of one- and two-syllable words (in fact I think of this as the same speaker, now giving us the other side of the story) and by straightforwardly sinking his details into the conversational texture of his lines. Note, especially, the laid-back fluency with which Bruce strikes off his phrases: "Cleaning fish is a job you would balk at," "Sun brighter than life on glistening eelgrass," "fields back on the hill with fences down" or "a colored cloth of sound/Woven in the slap of water on fluent gravel" with the finely judged double meaning of "fluent" (and doesn't the image look forward to Heaney's "Bluebottles /Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell"?) This sort of poetry¨alert, unfussy, brisk, convincingly thrown¨is nearly impossible to find before Bruce. In his Dalhousie essay, Richard C. Davis argues for Charles G.D. Roberts as Bruce's turn-of-the-century tutelary spirit. There is, to be sure, a shared bucolic imagery and setting, but there's nothing in Roberts that could have helped Bruce forge poems so dependent on the acoustics of a speaking voice. Roberts' best descriptive lines ("A brown, sad-coloured hillside, where the soil/Fresh from the frequent harrow, deep and fine, /Lies bareÓ") can't compete with the observational intensity of "Hay to be made through long hot days with never a splash on the oilskins, / Or the lift of water awake under half-inch pine." The ear that arrived at "awake" is what I'm celebrating here; how that word brings an impulsiveness to Bruce's description, surprising the line with its colloquial bite. The Mulgrave Road thus introduced to Canadian poetry one of the most convincing examples of what Tom Paulin calls the "vernacular imagination." The poems welcome a specific region of the country into the personifying range of their lyric consciousness, converting geographical space to vocal property. It's a major achievement, and Bruce's most valuable contribution to our literature. Listen to the ending of "Nova Scotia Fish Hut" where we can, again, catch Bruce at work charting Chedabucto Bay's linguistic self-definition:

Wait if you like: someone will come to find
A handline or a gutting-knife, or stow
A coiled net in the loft. Or just to smoke
And loaf; and swap tomorrow in slow talk;
And knock his pipe out on a killick-rock
Someone left lying sixty years ago.

Six simple, iambically clean lines fitted with unspectacular data. All in all, a modest moment. Bruce's best poems, however, are composed entirely of such modest moments, with each of them, like this one, thriving inside their ordinary, workaday music. Consider that "Wait if you like." It seems like an ordinary phrase, no? But with it the Robertsian legacy of ritualized, hallowed eloquence is brought up short. With it¨and with hundreds of instances like it in The Mulgrave Road¨Bruce unsublimes Canadian pastoral poetry into something rougher, accidental-seeming and homemade in its effects. True, Roberts had also sought to scuff the world into a commonplace color, but he was unable finally to stay away from richer, more artificial pigments. Roberts' landscapes always have a poeticized pageantry to them: "From fence to fence a perfumed breath exhales / O'er the bright pallor of the well-loved fields," "I hear the low wind wash the softening snow," "Skirting the sunbright uplands stretches a riband of meadow, /Shorn of the labouring grass." Now compare those lines to the impromptu naturalness of "Wait if you like"¨captured, as Frost would put it, fresh from talk. The phrase feels direct and unpretending, not well-groomed and official, as does the rest of the voice that immediately presses ahead with the task of cataloguing such humble objects as "handline", "gutting-knife", "coiled net", "pipe". Notice, as well, the assonantal terseness and monosyllabic muscularity of Bruce's vocabulary: stow/smoke/talk/knock/rock or knife/net/loft/loaf/left. It's one thing to pretend to not be above such mundane details, as Roberts did, but it's quite another to determinedly level your diction to meet those details. In other words, unlike Roberts, there's nothing prissy about Bruce. And if the lines seem merely a matter-of-fact staking out of a scene, one should keep in mind that it is matter-of-fact in a way that was, then, remarkable. It is matter-of-fact in the way that opts for vernacular genuineness over refined perfectionism. It is matter-of-fact in the way that rejects smooth, Tennysonian tunes and favours the square-shouldered taciturn timbre found in the speech rhythms of the men Bruce knew¨a kinetic lilt you can hear in "Eastern Shore":

He stands and walks as if his knees were tensed
To a pitching dory. When he looks far off
You think of trawl-kegs rolling in the trough
Of swaying waves. He wears a cap against
The sun on water, but his face is brown
As an old mainsail, from the eyebrows down.

We are now very far from Pauline Johnson's "And like a spirit, swathed in some soft veil, / Steals twilight and its shadows o'er the swale" or Marjorie Pickthall's "Thoughts sweet as flowers / Linger for hours". There is a masculine severity to the above stanza. This is poetry as a form of tough talk, poetry with a certain man's man technical prowess (even the rhyming of "off" with "trough" has a kind of hard-bitten satisfaction to it). The splendid use of "tensed"¨with the raw embodying energy that verb brings to the image¨is the result of a pledge between physical sensation and vocal stress, between the world as lived and the language as spoken. This was a pledge largely missing in Canadian poetry, which could manufacture sonorously stylized reports on the local and the particular, but was unable to touch off a run of sounds (as in "trawl-kegs rolling in the trough / Of swaying waves") that could themselves comprise a persuasive expression of viscerality. And it's with that pledge that Bruce nudged the Canadian pastoral lyric as it had been practiced by the Confederation crew¨ Charles G.D. Roberts, Bliss Carman, Duncan Campbell Scott, Archibald Lampman¨into an entirely new region of realness. Compare Duncan Campbell Scott's "Sometimes a titan wind, slumberous and hushed, /Takes the dark grove within his swinging power" to Bruce's "The wind goes washing through high trees / Remotely, with a sound of seas." The successful tactility of Bruce's image is secured not merely with his eye but his ear. All of Bruce's descriptions are similarly countersunk in sound. Take the ending to "Tidehead": "Enough to have seenű / The marsh a moist blotter, / And the slick wet green / Of eelgrass at low water." Bruce's auditory imagination flexes itself here in the subtlest ways, generating a small, sensuous wind that blows a wetness into the words. While Bruce's oeuvre includes many portraits of farmers and fisherman, the standard touchstones of his verse¨ rocks, cliffsides, hills, shores, beaches, wind, and tides¨are as mesmerically drawn as the characters who live and work among them. His idiom, in other words, implicates itself in the landscape's heavy, tangible turnings; the poems in The Mulgrave Road can thus be understood as another representation of the densities of sea, sand, and soil:

Back Road Farm

This house is built within a sheltering
Sweep of the hills. You will not find the sea
From attic windows; and the seasons bring
No lift and change of tide, here in the lee
Of the land's high windbreak, where the buffeting
Onshore wind is tripped on the mountain's knee.
No mist of blowing salt is flung to sting
The trusting flesh. You will not find the sea.

This property is private. Drifting rain
Beats on its shingles and its native stone;
The wind of August on its leaning grain
Is dark with shadow, and the leaves are blown
To a soft thunder. But the hills remain;
Their strength is certain and their purpose known.
Only at night, in the stillness, low and plain
You can hear the far deep rumor of sea on stone.

Now, think: It's 1951 and Canada's poetical air is thick with hermeticism, proto-philosophical poses, metaphysical wit, and mythologizing. Who else is writing poems like "Back Road Farm"¨poems with such a gruff, low-colloquial burr? Irving Layton? Leonard Cohen? F.R. Scott maybe? How about A.J.M. Smith, P.K. Page, Ann Wilkinson? Superb poets, all of them, but each was consumed by what Heaney once called "mind-stuff," for whom a topic as parochial as a farmhouse would have needed a little elucidatory brightening, some extra attention-holding airbrushing. Bruce's poems, however, embodied no large-scale aesthetic theory, refused to serve as a subset of a political ideology, didn't give voice to the unconscious, weren't premised on any hidden-away allusions, had no esoteric range of reference, and wanted nothing to do with obscurity. Bruce instead believed in writing poetry where "expression is disciplined by sticking to a person's own observation of the way a spike-tooth harrow scrawls across a field." Indifferent to the schools and counterschools of modernism's two great campaigns (the embrace of the urban, the urbane, and the ironic or the plunge into the chthonic, the subconscious and the vatic) Bruce's poems display the practical, no-nonsense thinking of man who remained, at heart, a Chedabucto Bay boy, loyal to tribe and dialect. "Keats' famous phrase about truth and beauty is merely a quotable clichT," Bruce once wrote, "There is no such thing as abstract truth or abstract beautyÓthere are simply acts, words, people, scenes that strike you with conviction or recognition." The poems in The Mulgrave Road¨and the "acts, words, people, scenes" they turn on¨may seem too low-key in intention to be interested in staking great claims. Nonetheless when reintroduced into their historical context, these same poems (poems, as one reviewer put it, "unscarred by fad or oddity") assume a certain exciting delinquency. In order to appreciate Bruce's literary daring in concentrating on common things, one needs to appreciate that his two working principles¨that poems should sound like talk and to evoke is better than to say¨did more than bring a tremendous believability of tone to his lines: they defied modernism's withdrawal from a living, immediate, vernacular audience.

What happens in the creation of poetry is that the poet realizes a set of circumstances, involving all sorts of things¨people, building, landscapes, events¨which cause in him a certain excitement. He doesn't say ŠThese things make me feel so-and-so.' He tries to re-create imaginatively and suggestively that set of circumstances, in the hope that through his exactitudeÓ he can create something like the same excitement in someone else. That seems to me to be the whole end and method of poetry whether traditional or modern in form."

Bruce wrote the above in 1953 in a letter to Frye (he was replying to Frye's favourable review of The Mulgrave Road). The philosophy summed up in this passage¨poetry as a Larkinesque transference of emotional heat from poet to reader¨seems a clear expression of Bruce's artistry and that artistry's quarrel with the intellectualism of the times. It was, of course, a losing battle. In his influential 1961 survey Creative Writing in Canada, Desmond Pacey¨in sentences that probably flung Bruce from whatever small bluff of attention he was still clinging to¨advised readers that Bruce was "a pleasant if not particularly forceful poet" whose "chief talents are for the description of natural scenery in a rather austere, stripped style and for a sort of gentle, relaxed introspectiveness." At a time when poets were celebrated for their bold contemporary thinking, Bruce cut an odd figure; old-fangled in his hayseed simplicities, a tad vieux jeu in his pretensions. The fact that his poems drew sustenance from the lore and legend of community kept him marginal in a period dominated by big-game theorizing; however it was exactly that backward movement toward early sources and certainties that allowed Bruce to bring to Canadian poetry an improved meshing of language and place. As with Whitman, Twain, Kipling, Hemingway, and Bellow, Bruce was committed to a plain-minded language that appealed directly to the ear ("what's hard to say is hard to read") and that exploited the non-poetic poetic persuasiveness of common speech. I believe, though, that The Mulgrave Road was a book chanced into being: a case of ambition discovered rather than ambition assumed. What began as a modest gambit (to recreate "the trenchant bite/Of cold salt water") found itself playing for far more serious stakes. Its surface rusticity made The Mulgrave Road easy for critics like Pacey to set aside, but by building poems that gathered such a rich aural harvest of basic emotion, simple detail and accurate perception¨and doing so by using "concrete nouns and moving verbs to recreate the things that woke the feeling"¨Bruce helped change Canadian poetry's fundamental intuition of the beautiful, and the rhythm embodying its sense of the beautiful.

Today, with writing like "Congo bongos throb to voodoo hoodoo; tom-toms for pow-wows go boom, boom" getting all the attention, Bruce's poetry may again seem like an unambitious venture of voice. The satisfaction of reading him, however, comes from confronting many of the fundamentals we tend to forget about poetry¨most importantly that it's never contrived by committee, hype, or movement. Independence, for Bruce, was the one true ethic of creativity. He showed little reverence for the poetry community: its self-conscious careerist sense of the poetic enterprise, its strived-for principles of fame (when Bruce did voice his opinions about his contemporaries, he could be scathing. He declared Klein's "Portrait of the Poet As Landscape" to be "as clinically revelatory as the successive colored cut-outs in an old-fashioned ŠDoctor's Book'" and charged that Layton's poems were "Lead coinage with fancy design.") In these situations¨dusting off a long-shelved career in order to put it back into general view¨there's a tendency to make angry claims for the neglected talent. I regret the circumstances that kept me from learning of him sooner, but I don't see Bruce as a victim. He kept to the margins for so long the canon simply inherited his self-scripted disappearance. Also, Bruce didn't get a chance to write the poems he wanted to write¨energetic, emotionally persuasive, with a rich relationship to the vernacular¨ until The Mulgrave Road. What began with the mannered melodiousness of Wild Apples (1927), found its way, four books and two decades later, to utterances of alliterative solidity and hard consonants, where "shouted sound from granite-throated hills" is given back "harsh and high, and wild with meaning" (which is itself a smaller narrative of Canadian poetry's own journey and how it discovered one of its greatest destinies in Bruce). But by the time The Mulgrave Road came about, Bruce was like Hugh Currie from his own unpublished novel, Currie Head, who "could handle a two-master, cut a sail, caulk a seam, clean and salt fish, knit and mend nets, and even make a spoked cartwheel, the trickiest job known to one-horse farming" but sadly "had come to his highest proficiency just when the value of these skills was beginning to go out with the slowly turning tide." It's time, I think, for that tide to turn back to Bruce. ˛

Please click on The Virtual Chapbook at: "www.vehiculepress.com" for a selection of Charles Bruce's poems.


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