||Exemplars Of Possibility
by A.F. Moritz
Recently there's been a lusty debate over whether Canadian poetry's landscape-writing tradition isolates poets from contemporary influences. In his review of John Donlan's 1999 book Green Man, Paul Vermeersch complained of "the bulk of tired pastorales that have been giving Canadian poetry the reputation of being dull, folksy, and behind the times for the past 30 years or so." Although Vermeersch qualified his remarks to avoid ruling nature poems permanently out of bounds, there remains an implication, sometimes directly stated in other critiques of Canadian nature poetry, that the entire subject-matter inevitably tends to an antique tone and style. Here are two excellent and serious poets, Vermeersch and Donlan, who at a certain point disagree over the basic material a poem can address. Will the invocation of nature inevitably drive potential hearers away from poetry, and if so, what should a poet do who regards the subject matter as central and necessary? From the standpoint of someone worried that nature poetry is automatically self-marginalized given today's urban context, the excellent descriptive metaphors of Donlan could appear as "descriptions of the banal" (to use another Vermeersch phrase) and therefore unhelpful in poetry's quest for continuing relevance
The champions of nature-meditation poetry have not been shy to counter-attack in books of poems such as Jan Zwicky's Robinson's Crossing (2004), Tim Lilburn's Kill-site (2003), and books of essays such as Don McKay's Vis a Vis (2001). Often the rhetorical mode of this attack is simply a quiet confidence: the continued practice of nature poetry tacitly asserts its importance. Too often, however, it is thematised in one of two ways. McKay's book specifically promotes communion with nature as the most necessary activity of our time, a source of restoration for human culture against the forces of materialism and industrialism. In other words, the most valid culture must, in a seeming paradox, marginalize itself vis a vis today's omnipresent popular culture: only the marginal can be central. The art of verse, Octavio Paz's a-historical "other voice", is the ever-resurrected expression of the perpetual possibility of a new beginning, the one which Hopkins articulated in "God's Grandeur": "nature is never spent; / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things." This freshness inheres in nature, and for humankind, in our joining with nature properly.
In other cases, the nature poet's lines imply a debate against objectors who would not only turn away from nature but argue aggressively against it as a subject of poetry. In Kill-site, Lilburn redoubles this sense of debate by reflecting upon his own earlier book and the responses it provoked in "A Gloss on To the River":
The only way is impoverishment. Don't repeat
this to anyone. Everything
is poor, moving in a slow light from itself. Further
in, a dark. This
is home and song. The names of things
are hidden and alone. Everything is sheared off,
of wealth that doesn't imagine itself that way, the
of desire. Desire, the plumed thing.
You could hear something if you could migrate
In his remarkable new book, In The Scaffolding, Eric Miller is aware of all sides of this debate. He takes that last line of Lilburn's seriously and is also very sensitive to the complaints against nature poetry, which, at their strongest, lead to anxieties in nature poets about the allegedly insuperable irrelevance of their subject and style. Miller attempts to address this dilemma.
Thus, his first poem's title-"Late in the Season Yet Another Defense of Nature Writing"-might seem at first to put the poem squarely within the debate over poets' relation to landscape. In fact, it is also situated within larger debates over the underlying deathliness of human culture and the difficulty of penetrating this with any word or idea that does not go along with the pre-established, deathly drift. It is a philosophical song about Miller's perception that the procession of nature from spring to winter and "death", if truly grasped, in fact contradicts the human tendency to see death, fearfully, mournfully, at the end of everything. "Let there be no elegy for what is not dead but freed," he says. And again, darting from lyricism to satirical mockery, "These dead will outlive that mortal unseasonable song of yours / even as you lower yourself into a casket . . . "
This introduces a note that he will stress and vary frequently. For instance, he returns to it in a poem late in the book, a major credal statement, "No Memory of Pleasure Imprisons":
Someone envious said: you're in jail. And I asked:
can song-can a singer
imprison? No. For every time
the voice of the singer merges with memory's voice
that time is now, is now and wide open
moistly like the mouth that first sang, that
sings still . . .
I hear her voice again, and again her
voice is in me and it is I who
bear her within me, as I
change, she changes, yet all seems
unaltered . . .
The poet rejects the notion that his self-dedication to someone lost immures him. (He has just ended the previous poem, "Styx:, with a startling vision of a murre, a type of auk, "borne upward . . . / making fog lucidity-and death, more vivid life.") His memorial self-dedication, and his song, are the human forms of the bird's permanent now.
"No Memory of Pleasure Imprisons" then extends this assertion to an attack against determinism, and even rejects the idea that the best science seeks or implies deterministic, exhaustive explanations:
Then Charles Darwin was no singer
of strict necessity, his theme was
to necessity there is
an over-plus, even beyond sexual beauty . . .
Or sexuality beyond mating, procreation,
creation there lies another
beauty. Memory carries her voice . . .
Similarly, in "Holotype (Specimen on which the description of a new species is based)", Miller makes Linneaus blithely reject the notion that his taxonomy somehow "secured" the swift which he classified in 1735, alienating us from it in a dead vision of rigidity. On the contrary, he and we come to a discovery and thinking-through of the world every moment, in every encounter:
is the world forever, every specimen
of everything is representative, and day (the first
daily like June 1735 . . .
Did I not demonstrate...
the new, singular, simple, successful shock
we crave with every intake . . .?
The word "every" rings richly through the centre of "Holotype" to include all and to profess the character and permanence of each, but most important is the fact that this is possible because of the understanding that freshness is permanently inherent in nature, and in all our surroundings, if we will experience them freshly.
Miller's poetic and ethical project of restoring freshness through a renovated relation with nature runs up against the mystery of evil, which he makes another prominent part of his book's thematics. He knows that fresh experiencing is often impossible to us due to our faults and evil tendencies and actions. In keeping with the book's naturalistic emphasis, he does not say "sin". Nevertheless, there is a poem ("Night Park") excoriating "Lust" and exhorting its transformation into "some more wayward and more genial manifestation of desire." In "Lagoon", a poem of great tonal deftness, the poetic speaker looks with wry sorrow and pity at a heron, in which he clearly sees himself: "Melancholy is as real as arthritis . . . "
The book is full of hints of the speaker's memories of his own unfruitful behaviours and the unruliness of his emotions, and one of its major dramas is its fight against the tendency of such memories to become bitter and determinant. To take one sample of this among several, he writes in "Bushtits" of these little, nondescript birds visiting his yard:
These birds, these thoughts, come as
candidly as though the tree, the mind
has never known humiliation
or its own hunched, dim mendacity
And he goes on to assert an undogmatic recuperation available within the course of life. Human crimes are cancelled neither by death and its erasure, nor by a transcendent intervention:
. . . it's not oblivion, but setting aside
that redeems our hellish heads,
and forgiveness need not come-
just this grey, slim teeming.
While the book avoids and rejects any such concept as "transcendence", nevertheless at certain points it goes beyond assertions such as those found in "Bushtits" to suggest evidence-never a theory or doctrine-of something that indwells yet goes beyond. For example, in the final two lines of "The Outcrop",
someone else steers in the stern. You wield your
at what seems your will, though there is a guide
even in your solitude.
Yet he refrains from stating a hope to see his pilot face to face, and even plants the possible suggestion that the guide is "your solitude".
In its energetic and innovative beauty, the poetry of In the Scaffolding is worthy of the important issues it addresses. Perhaps a reader might feel that Miller's discoveries of an immanent sufficiency and a forgiveness-like renewal in nature and experience are merely asserted. But in my view, the poetry gives the substantiation of a deeply explored and poetically reconstituted life. Miller does not convince by argument requiring assent, but by example embodied in the word, adding to the reader's world the voice of one man who has found the resolutions here described. Thus, these remain for the reader a permanent, inspiriting image, not something to be imitated and acquired as such, but an exemplar of possibility itself. ò
A.F. Moritz's many collections of poetry, include Night Street Repairs (2004, House of Anansi Press).