My first reading of Charles Bruce, in the eighties, awakened aesthetic delight, the pleasure of discovering an accomplished artist, a master of metre and rhythm whose plangent music, quiet and sure-footed, was equal to his vision of the human moving in and with the flow of time. Other responses followed: deep gratitude...and the simmering of something close to rage. Gratitude arose from finding in Bruce a strand of a usable tradition, a rendering in poetry of the seasons and cycles, the codes and customs of a landscape and culture not that foreign from my own¨that of his farmer-fishers of Chedabucto Bay. The rage was inextricably bound up with that sense of validation: why had Bruce been absent from the schoolbooks, the university anthologies and courses, the sacred scroll of Significant Canadian Poets? Why was literary criticism in Canada so damnably myopic, so given to affixing the label "regional" to writers with the subtlety and depth of discrimination of a Charles Bruce and eliminating them from consideration in critical discourse? When would this literary culture come to judge literary art first and foremost on the grounds of art, not geography or geopolitics?
For Bruce, as for Pratt, the sea is a manifestation of time. Unlike Pratt, Bruce is drawn to explore the coalescence of the quotidian and the cosmic. Not for him the epic clash of brute forces, but the "musing mind" of the man fishing for herring, the woman at the spindle. With Alistair MacLeod, who also holds in one thought the long sweep of time and tradition and the evanescent now, Bruce affirms for Atlantic poets that "the thing we knew/ Was true as Jason; and the thousand keels/ At Aulis; or the loom of Hiram's fleet/ Off Tyre, with peacocks..."
Harry Bruce once recalled his father as the artist at work: Charles often got home from his day job exhausted, slept on a chesterfield after supper, then woke up, fetched a pad of copy paper and, lying on the chesterfield again, wrote his poetry and fiction with a big, soft-leaded newspaperman's pencil.
I love to think of the iron strength of Bruce's poems arising in that setting. It's a study in poetic creation amidst domestic ritual to picture Bruce there, post-nap, as he came up with language like "killick-rock," "thuttering door," and "the gripped jolt of oars," and as he created his fiercely felt images as well as¨what's perhaps more surprising in re-reading him¨ his many reflections upon the act of reflecting itself. Bruce's poems speak of "the mind's long room," "the tiered textures of the brain," and how "the wakened mind shall turn /An oilskin to the dictatorial rain." (That unlikely adjective for rain was chosen in the aftershadow of World War II, when nations had learned all too much about dictators.) I also love to imagine that it was while lying on the family chesterfield that Bruce wrote "The Independent", an eight-line reductio ad absurdum of proud self-sufficiency, and "The Other Shore", a parable-like poem that shows how even while the foreign becomes familiar the familiar becomes foreign.
As oilskins to the dictatorial rain, Bruce's poems are protective, warming, and durable.