Dove Legend

by Richard Outram
173 pages,
ISBN: 0889842213

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A Light Blaze in Rare Air: Richard Outram
by Jeffrey Donaldson

Dove Legend is a pungent pot pourri for Outram readers. It binds together the shorter poem cycles, festive holiday broadsheets, occasional verses and love poems, and a number of highly disguised and thus revealing autobiographical pieces, all written over the past ten years (roughly since Outram's retirement from stage production at the CBC). In a sense, these are only the decade's leftovers. In the same span, we have been treated to a series of book-length poetry cycles, Hiram and Jenny, Mogul Recollected, and Benedict Abroad. A reader of Dove Legend cannot help but think of the book's relationship to all the other work Outram has published in these same years, if not to his career in general. In short, to come across this ample inventory is to find yourself wondering, as others have before, why Outram isn't better known than he is.
Peter Sanger opens his introduction to the work of Richard Outram with the comment that "This essay should not be possible or necessary." English departments in Canada should blush to acknowledge that up until now there have been no extended studies, books, or doctoral theses written on the poet whom Alberto Manguel has described as "one of the finest poets in the English language," a poet whose prodigious career now spans four decades. The mind scrambles for an equivalent critical omission. Sanger himself writes that "a comparable situation would have been one in which a reviewer of Auden's City Without Walls in 1969, had no choice but to read him as an unknown."
What does sell in English studies today? (One should hasten to propose that the readership outside the university is a good deal more sophisticated than inside; all the more reason to focus on the weak link in the chain). The rustle of cultural and political debate and the process of a people's cultural evolution are our worthy preoccupations. It seems all the more ironic then that a poet of Outram's stature and range, with his divergent cultural engagements, his historical and political savvy, and his unique evocation of an indigenous rural Canadian dramatis personae should so egregiously have escaped the attention of our readers and critics. Outram even obligingly stayed clear of the academy, a fact which ought to have set him abreast of Milton Acorn as most-favoured among our self-loathing academics. Mind you, a critic would have to answer for the troubling detriments to Outram's reputation: his formal virtuosity, his exotic mastery of the language, his dazzling metaphoric sleights-of-hand, his brisk idiomatic twang, his street smarts, his surprising bawdy wink, his untrappable and exacting spiritual vision. These attributes evidently will win you neither a spot on a university course syllabus nor the front table at Chapters.
Then there is the agonized matter of Outram's difficulty. Any reader of Outram will quickly acknowledge that the poems invite and reward careful attention; they hope-as what poem does not-to be read, reread, sorted through, puzzled, daydreamed over, and studied. It appears that there are more readers outside the academy equal to the task than in. You wouldn't on a first reflection think that the poems' impressive wager would disqualify them from scholarly exegesis; indeed one could almost imagine an academic industry based on how the poems inspire strong readings (the likes of which has not been seen since the critical wagons circled around Wallace Stevens's metaphysics in the 70s and 80s). One can easily go too far in the characterization: Outram's effervescent-and often erotic-word-wit and his dramatic impersonations offer immediate gratification for anyone favouring the pleasure side of the poet's instruct-and-delight imperative. The fact that Outram is a challenging poet should only bring the more shame to any academic apologist. It seems nowadays that the only people who have an innate right to difficulty, or resistance to easy paraphrase, are the critics themselves. Wallace Stevens said that a poet must resist the intelligence almost successfully; he didn't say the critic should, nor, as they seem inclined, should they resist those who do. As for difficulty, there are those in Canada whom we prize for their elusiveness (Anne Carson for one comes to mind), yet they have the readership and commentary they deserve. You have to wonder too what, in Canada, would have become of a poet like Britain's Geoffrey Hill, Cambridge and Boston College guru at whose feet those readers with a taste for mystic prophecy and historical erudition have listened for years.
Where, then, could this absent literary and academic commentary begin its work? One suggestion might be the way Outram's worlds embody a human-centred spirituality, a marriage of the secular and sacred, dramatized in ready-to-hand historical scenes and circumstances. Outram's vision points to nothing like a dogmatic religious principle, nor to a god who is seen to be out there, but to the god in us, a god manifest in our every creative act and potential. Consider the exemplary Ned Gladson-a character in Hiram and Jenny-perennial sitter on porches in the rural Maritimes, who oversees the rise and fall of each ordinary day:

A wizened little old bugger, but
Ned Gladson as tough as they come,
in his seventies now, can still read
the fine print on the Castoria label
without glasses. Got all his own teeth.
Can pee six feet: when Silk, wistful,
asked him how come, said, "Massage."

Could still haul lobster pots all day,
if he chose, which he don't, no more.
Sits on his porch, mornings, make sure
that the sun comes up. Naps, most noons.
Then back on the porch, bolt upright
see that she sets proper. Important,
somebody got to, he says, or else.
And nobody going to argue, not with Ned;
Besides which, he may be right; who knows?

Offered, one warm night, to arm wrestle
the Prophet Isaiah; two out of three.
But the prophet backed down, saying,
"... the whole head is sick, and the whole
heart faint." Gladson just spat, got on
with the job, waxing the cuticle moon.

The farcical Ned holds court over a small-town maritime community that for all its secular spit is no less apocalyptic in its imaginative reach. Outram has Gladson invite or challenge the prophet Isaiah to an arm wrestle: "two out of three" captures just the right note of audacity and a no-doubt well advised hedging of his bet. There is something otherworldly, and yet no-nonsense and casual about his dare. >From our perspective, either Ned is mad and hallucinating, or we must re-evaluate the nature of the reality we visit. Outram's unique brand of unapologetic magic realism toys with our uncertainty as to whether we inhabit here a wholly metaphoric and symbolic world, or just a place where a guy is off his rocker. In the present scene, Isaiah knows too much about the shortcomings of Ned's fallen world-for see how his prophecy still stands-to be duped by the trickster's bid for apotheosis. Refused, Ned just spits and gets on with the job, "waxing the cuticle moon." Whatever prophets choose not to wrestle with us, the imagination has to get on with its work-since we are here nonetheless-getting the moon to rise to its proper place somehow. I love that sense that someone has to do it, that Ned's sad ubiety notwithstanding, the moon wouldn't be the moon if he didn't watch over it. Our secular world, as everywhere in Outram, both suffers a refusal-it not being what it isn't-and yet stubbornly insists on the audacity of its spiritual gambit, its peculiar divinity. Ned has as much right to it as the poem itself that ever so subtly crosses the line where real and unreal meet. It is Isaiah, after all, who backs down.

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