Poems New & Selected

by Douglas Lochhead,Edited by David Creelman
202 pages,
ISBN: 0864923449

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Douglas Lochhead, Hidden in the Maritimes
by W. J. Keith

Ask even a dedicated reader of Canadian poetry to name the leading practitioners of the art over the last forty years, and the chances are that the name of Douglas Lochhead will be absent from the list. The main reason for this unfortunate state of affairs probably lies in the fact that he is not represented in the standard anthologies. Similarly, literary critics have, for the most part, passed him by. Yet another factor is, no doubt, the quietness of his poetic voice. He does not clamour for attention. He is not blustery and self-assertive like Layton, nor conspicuously distinctive like Purdy, nor intriguingly enigmatic like Atwood. Above all¨and this is unfortunate for his literary reputation¨his remarkable stylistic qualities only reveal themselves gradually. Yet for those who persevere and become accustomed to his intonations, his personal poetic wave-length, Lochhead's subdued but profound meditations on life, love, and landscape prove deeply satisfying.
In making these remarks, I am probably reflecting a Toronto-centred view of Canadian writing and publishing. Lochhead is, to be sure, a known name in the Maritimes, and the Fredericton-based Goose Lane Editions have laboured valiantly in the last dozen years to make his poetry better known. But the fact remains that his literary profile in the rest of Canada is disappointingly¨and undeservedly¨low. All the more reason, then, to welcome Weathers, a selection from Lochhead's work produced since the late eighties, as the most recent of his productions, one that will provide any reader wanting to make his acquaintance with a rich sampling of his most mature work.
According to "For the Maritime Record", which appears to be an autobiographical poem (and is included in Weathers), Lochhead, born in Guelph, Ontario, was "rushed in at two months" to be christened in Fredericton, New Brunswick. The circumstance seems so appropriate, so providential, that one is almost tempted to regard the event as a mythic happening. Be that as it may, his best work emanates from an intensely local Maritime matrix, as so many of his book-titles indicate: High Marsh Road, Upper Cape Poems, Dykelands, Homage to Henry Alline (a late-eighteenth-century hymn-writer and "saddle-bag preacher in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick"), Breakfast at Mel's (a well-known restaurant in Sackville), and a 2000 publication not represented here (presumably for publishing reasons), Cape EnragT: poems on a raised beach.
There are, of course, some readers who will snort "regionalism" at this point, and pass on quickly to the latest fashionable product of rootless cosmopolitanism. But they will be wrong, hopelessly wrong. The Tantramar Marshes and the areas immediately surrounding them, where we encounter Lochhead walking, watching, and thinking (virtually always alone), are the places where he succeeds in becoming himself, both psychologically and poetically. We might even go so far as to say that he found himself only when he found his matching landscape. His poetry is full of historical sites, seashores, dykes, isolated barns, old cemeteries, local birds and flowers, but at its centre is a human being constantly in search, brooding purposefully on what it means to be human.
It was only when, in 1975, he left his position as founding librarian of Massey College in Toronto to become Davidson Professor of Canadian Studies at Mount Allison University and moved to Sackville, New Brunswick, that his achievement as a poet truly blossomed. His collected poems, The Full Furnace, were published in that year. The title sounds as if it ought to be a culmination, but it is now clear that, accomplished and endearing as many of the poems are (especially "Millwood Road Poems", first published in 1970 and significantly about a specific Toronto location), he had not yet discovered his unique and inimitable style.
The poems that eventually made up High Marsh Road (1980) were apparently written in 1976, and this book marks the beginning of Lochhead's major phase. Its special quality is conveyed immediately by its cover (I consider it one of the most attractive and elegant books of verse ever published in Canada). It consists of a photograph of Lochhead, taken from the back, as he walks resolutely on to the Tantramar Marshes. Toy-like barns are visible on the horizon, while the middle distance shows reeds and low trees edging what appears to be a small creek. Otherwise, there is only marsh-grass and a solitary Canada goose, so motionless and "placed" that it might even be a decoy. All this provides the perfect entrTe to Lochhead's text, which consists of a diary-style collection of short poems, rarely more than six lines in length, one for every day between 1 September and 31 December. They are laconic, unassertive, sparse, "minimalist"; no word is wasted. And they are deeply moving. A single example must suffice: "I realize it has been a life of/corners for me. once or twice have/ I realized this. rare as joy. the/first step, you guessed it, simplify."
Nine years later, Lochhead collaborated with the photographer Thaddeus Holownia (who took the photograph just mentioned) to produce a bulky but magnificent book of words and images entitled Dykelands. This is vintage Lochhead (as well as vintage Holownia), but unfortunately the intimate connection between text and photograph prevented the poems from being reproduced¨as they might otherwise have been¨in Weathers.
Which brings me, at long last, to the selection under review. Lochhead's previous "New and Selected Poems", Tiger in the Skull, covered his career from 1959 until 1985, including extracts from High Marsh Road, which is therefore not represented here. This might seem to be a pity, yet, of all Lochhead's poem-sequences with the possible exception of "Homage to Henry Alline" (of which more later), that book most demands to be read as a whole. As it is, any reader who is lucky enough to obtain a copy (it was reprinted by Goose Lane in 1996)¨and even luckier to possess Dykelands¨will, now that Weathers is available, be able to own what I take to be the "essential" Lochhead.
It would be a mistake to assume that I consider a relation to landscape to be the prime subject of Lochhead's verse¨still less that he belongs to a post-Wordsworthian mode committed to the comforts of "nature-poetry." The natural world is, to be sure, a solace to him, but this comes as the result of his full engagement with love and human interchange. (The full title of Breakfast at Mel's, be it noted, continues: "and other poems of love and places".) Lochhead's life, indeed, has not been without sadness and tragedy. In 1991, his wife Jean died after a prolonged and painful illness, and the privately-printed Black Festival, a tribute to her memory which appeared later in the same year, is here reprinted in full. It consists, characteristically, of a series of short poems, fifty-three in this case, that brilliantly convey the fact of grief and the anguish of waiting for a death that is at one and the same time dreaded yet desired as an end to suffering.
Lochhead's poetic credo is always (as we have seen in the poem from High Marsh Road) "simplify," and he is never simpler, nor more appealing, than here. I quote two instances¨the sixth poem: "yours is silence,/you are stone /lying somewhere"; and the thirty-seventh: "Joan, at least,/there is no suffering/around your/still body,/at least I hope/it is that way." The emotion is conveyed so directly that it may seem easy, obvious, couched in a language that we all use; yet only Lochhead can exercise the sublime selection and control that reveals it as poetry. This reprinting is especially welcome since Black Festival appeared in a limited edition of only a hundred copies, so most readers will encounter it here for the first time.
This, then, is an excellent selection of the variousness and the best of Lochhead's work. Yet there is one item that I cannot help regretting as fragmented and unsatisfactory. This is the extract from the long poem, "Homage to Henry Alline", that gave the title to Lochhead's volume published in 1992. The complete poem consists of thirty sections, the first fourteen of which had appeared, legitimately enough, as an extract from "a long poem in progress" in Upper Cape Poems. Here, inexplicably, only the first twelve poems are reprinted. Furthermore, the helpful¨indeed, necessary¨foreword, in which Lochhead summarizes the facts of Alline's life and explains that his poem contains three voices (that of a historian, Alline himself, and the poet) is omitted, and no indication is given that the poem does not appear in its entirety. As a whole, the poem is impressive; this mutilated version is virtually incoherent, and does Lochhead a grave disservice.
Having said that, I should add immediately that David Creelman, in addition to editing the book, contributes a highly polished and sensitive introduction that will be genuinely helpful for people approaching Lochhead's poetry for the first time. Moreover, with the exception of the Alline problem, I cannot think how a better selection of his later work could have been assembled. Best of all, there are ten new poems here, plus an intriguing extract from a longer work, showing Lochhead, though in his eightieth year, at the peak of his form. Most of the poems are celebratory, and this is generally true of all his work; as he writes in Breakfast at Mel's (though not in a poem reproduced here): "We are here to celebrate,/to celebrate just about everything." And Weathers is truly a cause for celebration. ˛

W. J. Keith is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Toronto. His full-length study of Hood, Canadian Odyssey: A Reading of Hugh Hood's The New Age/Le Nouveau siFcle, has recently been published by McGill Queen's University Press.

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