I first met Milton Acorn in the early sixties when I was a freshman at McGill, just arrived in Montreal from a small town in the Laurentians and beginning to discover that there were poets in the world beside the three Williams and a few others who colonized the high school curriculum. There were even Canadian poets, I learned, apart from John MacRae.
One of these was Milton Acorn who made up for his absence from anthology and reading circuit by running a small coffee house in the student ghetto with Bryan McCarthy, now starting to make his reputation, and Joe Sage, a grizzled veteran of life's wars. I don't remember what they called the place, only that it consisted of one claustrophobic ground-floor filled with smoke, wannabe poets, the smell of mimeograph fluid and chipped cups of devastatingly bad coffee. Living quarters were upstairs. Sage seemed to be the organizing figure with McCarthy gliding about from table to table like a mystical compFre and Acorn providing the son et lumiFre. The place folded after maybe six months. Acorn left for more propitious climes. Joe Sage disappeared never to be seen again. And Bryan McCarthy palavered his way to local celebrity for Smoking the City and the central table at the CafT Bistro on Mountain Street, then simply faded out like a plume of marijuana smoke, or, for that matter, like most Montreal poets in the anarchic sixties.
But it is Milton Acorn I remember most vividly, giving his nightly oracular recitations, stomping up and down among the tables bellowing poems like I Shout Love in a voice that can only be described as megaphonic. On one unforgettable night, and for no apparent reason, as I sat shyly and inconspicuously in the smokiest corner, Acorn¨as burly a poet as they came¨suddenly grabbed me by the arm, dragged me upstairs to his shambles of a room, and flung me on the bed where I cringed in a paroxysm of terror. Then he took a sheaf of poems from his worktable and without any preamble began to read them aloud, pacing back and forth, pausing only to light a cigar. This went on for about half an hour. I was sixteen years old, still very much a rustic who thought a capachino was "a cup of Chino" and that poems were curious verbal artifacts written mainly by dead people. Milton Acorn scared the bejesus out of me but when I had realized I wasn't about to be raped or murdered, I was able to concentrate somewhat on the poetry, which I found at the time entirely incomprehensible. Eventually he let me go but not before I had experienced my first initiation into the raw problematics of the Muse, understanding nothing yet stunned to attention.
It didn't seem to matter whether or not I knew what was going on or could assimilate the poetry. He had the presence. Why he selected me on that evening as his victim and beneficiary I have never managed to figure out. Maybe he recognized a fellow hick who needed a bit of shaking up. As the years added up to our mutual cost we would meet every now and then at readings and suchlike events and always got on cordially, though I suspect that Milton had forgotten completely what had been for me a momentous rite of passage but for him merely one more in a multitude of turbulent encounters. Still, in some profound sense, Milton Acorn was my first poetic mentor, the first poet who introduced me to the Ojibway of the craft.
Five or six years ago I had a very strange dream involving my unwitting benefactor, which obviously hearkens back to that weird episode. We were sharing a room in a decrepit tenement in some nameless, gray, perpetually rainy city. Milton was asleep on the bottom bunk while I lay awake in the narrow cot above, staring at the ceiling. Suddenly I became aware that the rain had begun to seep into the room and that the water level was rising alarmingly. At that moment someone knocked at the door and announced that there was a telephone call for me. "Who is it?" I asked. The anonymous tenant replied, "It's Margaret Chatwood." "Oh," I said, "then I'd better get it." I sloshed through knee-deep water into the hall to where the small, black, old-fashioned telephone lay on an oval night table, picked up the receiver and said Hello. Silence. Hello again. Silence. It seemed like I waited an unconscionable time but could not elicit a single word from the non-chatty presence on the other end. Meanwhile the water continued to rise. Finally I decided this was going nowhere and hung up the receiver. I returned to the room where Milton was still asleep, climbed up to my bunk and proceeded to study the ceiling again, fascinated by the patterns in the wooden lathes and joists. Soon the water was lapping at my ears and nostrils. "Milton," I cried, "if we don't get out we're going to drown," and at that moment I woke up.
I have no idea what the dream was all about although the wood motif is obvious¨Chatwood, Acorn, the fact that Milton was a carpenter, the wooden ceiling¨and the obvious irony that Chatwood had absolutely nothing to say. Clearly I had identified with my dreammate in an important way and intuited that we were both in danger of going under in some sort of bleak, primeval and confined environment. Canada? Or did I unconsciously recall those wonderful lines from his On Speaking Ojibway which had somehow trickled into the dream but with an ominous change in valence?
Best speak in the woods beside a lake
getting in time with the watersounds.
Let vibrations of waves sing right through you
and always be alert for the next word
which will be yours but also the water's.
Or, since there is no arrogance in dreams, did I imagine we were like Dante, whom we both loved (though Acorn claimed in the title to a curious sonnet that he was "in hot pursuit of Chaucer"), exiles lost in a dark mysterious wood and¨in an access of wished-for affinity with a greatness we would never in the real world be able to approximate¨mi ritrovai per una selva oscura? But, oddly enough, the anxiety I experienced in the dream was chiefly (and perhaps vicariously) for Milton, who refused to awaken to the threat of oblivion.
It is for this reason that when I chanced upon Richard Lemm's fine biography, Milton Acorn: In Love and Anger, I seized upon it and read it through in one sitting more or less, the way Acorn inexplicably seized upon the terrified student and did not release him until he had finished his reading. For it was high time, I felt, that such a book was written about this craggy and inescapable figure, this voice crying in the Canadian wilderness¨a voice whose claims, rants, visionary accents, raucous timbre (that did not hide a certain elegiac plangency), patriarchal force and direct proletarian mode of address had been far too often neglected and at times even derided. It is true that Milton Acorn wrote a hit-and-miss kind of poetry: when he was off, he was embarrassing, but when he was on, the rightness of diction, phrase, line and cadence¨the words following the contour of his speaking voice¨and the importance of his subject revealed a master in his element. And this is what comes through in Lemm's painstaking and affectionate biography.
Lemm does exemplary justice (not just ice, as critical biographers are often wont to do) to his subject, offering in the first half or so of the book a detailed account of the poet's wanderings in the mazy urban thoroughfares of the Mainland cities, his various encounters with people whom he either mesmerized or alienated (Acorn, of course, was the arch-polarizer), his troubled relations with the official literary community in this country, and his unfortunate marriage to that ineffable pseudo-mystic Gwendolyn MacEwen¨a poet who possessed only a fraction of his natural talent and lyric vitality but was quickly adopted as the darling of the coteries, which could not have done much for the mismatch. What we get in effect is the chronicle of a poet who always seemed to be leaving, usually prematurely. But it is in the second part of the book where Lemm, liberated from the necessary but occasionally clogging minutiae every biographer has to domesticate in order to establish a professional context for his purposes, wings toward an extended peroration on Acorn's achievement and his renewed nuptials with the Island he had abandoned so many times, thus turning a faithful chronicle into a rich celebration of the nostos of the latter years.
Here the prose style, unfailingly competent, really begins to soar as Lemm warms to his theme and sympathetically observes the poet in his natural environment. He shows him moving among family, friends and neighbours and setting about consolidating his powerful, anti-colonial, Minago voice, the anger it could express so vigorously always tempered by love, in a series of poems that are now becoming a part of our landscape. "The figure in the landscape [that makes] the landscape," as the celebrated poem has it, is very much Milton Acorn:
His beard may be like a sprucetree upside down
Or scraggy from recent Indian mixture;
But whatever his eyecolour was a moment before;
Preoccupied with work, keen with observation,
Wild in a laugh or soft and genialÓ
As if knowing that the figure who to some very real extent made our landscape (at least in part) is in danger of disappearing in it, Lemm gets love and anger into his deposition too¨muted anger at the disregard the poet intermittently suffered until it was nearly too late but evident love for a generous spirit who spoke for the forgotten and the oppressed, for those who were also disregarded. The book works, finally, not so much as chronicle but as a kind of summoning, a bringing back to our regard of a poet who, as so often in the past, left before his time had come. Owing partly to Lemm's passion and eloquence and partly to Acorn's own increasingly vivid, revenant presence in these pages¨perhaps the same weird emanation of authoritative selfhood on which I remarked earlier¨we begin uncannily to feel, as we proceed toward the twin conclusions of the book and the life, as though we were inhabiting Acorn's own major poem, a sort of displaced confession entitled The Natural History of Elephants, where "Death is accorded no belief and old friends/are constantly expected."
Thanks to efforts like Lemm's and of the few lovers, readers and writers of genuine poetry who remain implausibly among us, we may still enjoy the company of a poet who became the virtuoso of departures but who was never properly appreciated for what he left behind: a bardic voice that continues to resound with the authentic tones of a possible country that may one day, however unlikely it may seem, come into veridical existence, a country whose first language will be Ojibway,
Words always steeped in memory
and hope that makes sure
by action that it's more than hope,
That's Ojibway, which you can speak in any language.
David Solway, a poet and education writer, has won QSPELL Awards for both poetry and prose.