Post Your Opinion
Gwendolyn MacEwen 1941-1987
by Mary Di Michele

"You held out the light"
It was John Keats and "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" that ignited my first interest in poetry. Read it aloud and even a child can summon the Muse. And it was John Keats who coined the phrase "negative capability," the ability of the poet to enter, to entertain, her subject. Gwendolyn MacEwen lived in fiery subjection to that Muse. She was an old soul. She had spiritual depth enough to become the other, to become T.E. Lawrence, in that poetic tour de force she wrote about his life. To speak the languages of those she loved: Arabic., Greek.
I used to believe that poets were born and not made. I think I was half right: poets are not made or born, they become. Gwendolyn MacEwen had been becoming for a long time. But not knowing what I was. hoping. I went to buy myself some writing time at the University of Windsor. During a writing workshop there, the instructor, Joyce Carol Oates, pointed out an affinity in my struggling attempts at poetry with MacEwen. "You come from Toronto, you should get to know her," Joyce said. In high school, the first Canadian poetry book I read was A Breakfast for Barbarians. It hadn't even occurred to me to dream that I might "get to know her."
Oates spoke of the marvellous intensity of the poet, MacEwen, of the mesmerizing cadence of her voice, and of a poem, a simple lyric, yet so striking, about lighting a cigarette. It can be found in The Shadow-Maker, the collection for which Gwen won the Governor General's award in 1969. Last May I read "You Held Out the Light" to an audience in Chile and felt again its breathless power. The love affair is with language itself, with poetry, the Muse. La belle dame sans merci for Gwen was un homme:
You held out the light to light my cigarette
But when I leaned down to the
It singed my eyebrows and may hair;
Now it is always the same - no matter where
We meet, you burn me.
I must always stop and rub my
And brat the living fire from my hair.
That is Gwendolyn MacEwen, the fireeater, on fire. The kind of intensity that doesn't make it easy to survive in a society that finds delight in a whiter wash, true love in the scramble for a Pepsi in the rain.
She was generous to new and younger poets. I did get to know her, the Gwen of Gwendolyn MacEwen. I remember her joking about applying for a job at the local Woolworth's. She was broke again. Then a job as writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto bailed her out. The reward for her brilliant talent was a hand-to-mouth existence. She did not relish being writer-in-residence although it beat Woolworth's by a mile. After her previous stint at the University of Western Ontario, which left her emotionally exhausted, she told me how little the position had to do with being a writer. "They should have hung the sign PSYCHIATRIST on my office door," she said.
The last time I saw Gwen, I was eating dinner with Kim Maltman and Roo Borson at Kensington Kitchen on the patio roof. August last year, shortly before I left for Regina. Gwen was looking around the room for someone and came over to speak to us. She was warm and funny and vulnerable. She wouldn't join us for dinner although the person she was waiting for didn't show up. She walked away into the darkness and I never saw her again.
From Gwendolyn MacEwen I learned that all poems are written in Braille. This is from A Breakfast for Barbarians:
I should read all things like braille in this season
with my fingers I should read them
lest I go blind in both eyes reading with
that other eye the final hieroglyph
The "eyes," the writer and the reader, are blind, both blind. They grope in the dark, in the space that is not consciousness, but hieroglyphs for consciousness, the collective un. Towards the poem, the shining.
Gwendolyn MacEwen is not dead. But Gwen is, poor Gwen: I was lucky enough to get to know her. What writers do is a kind of transubstantiation. They transmute flesh into the shape of words:
with legs and arms I make alphabets
like In those children's books
where people bend into letters and signs,
yet I do not mad the tong cabbala of my bones
truthfully; I need only to move
to alter the design
That is the conundrum for the kind of poet Gwen was, a poet of mystic intensity. In the text is Protean power, transformation. But her own life, her own body, is auxiliary, "a spacesuit," fugitive, "easy vessel of my death" ("Blue" from Afterworlds).
I remember running into her one afternoon about six years ago. My daughter was a baby. Gwen was forty and regretting that she had no child. But how, with life so precarious, financially. for a poet -- even a poet of her stature? With her former husband, Nikos, "who makes it all possible" (from the dedication to Magic Animals) gone from her life? "But who will love Gwendolyn MacEwen?" she asked.
The cover of her last collection, Afterworlds, is a photograph taken by her father, titled "Vigil," of the four MacEwen children on the shoreline of an expanse of water. On the inside of the book, where the photo is reproduced again, we are told that the silhouette of the child seated on the far right is Gwendolyn MacEwen. She is cropped out of the cover photo.
"Nothing remembers its name because! It has become its name." What was fragile and precocious was Gwen, the girl, Gwen, the woman. Gwendolyn MacEwen is indomitable. From that "place of bruised silences/ Where you thought you could be excellent and immortal" she has emerged fully transformed, with her "words/ Careening into the beautiful darkness."

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us