Misplaced Persons

71 pages,
ISBN: 1871471567

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Once a Canadian
by Norman Ravvin

Canadian readers are quick to lay claim to writers from abroad who set down roots in Canada, but they are far more unreliable in their affection for Canadian authors who establish their careers and home abroad, even if their work continues to address their native land. Jack Winter, a native of Moose Jaw who writes passionate poems about his Montreal childhood, is one such wandering literary son. Though a previous collection of poetry appeared in Canada in 1973, and though Winter wrote numerous plays for CBC Radio and Toronto Workshop Productions, he has made his home in England since 1976, and effectively removed himself from the cultural atmosphere that influenced his early work. Yet many of the poems in his recent collection, Misplaced Persons, confront Canadian experience in ways that are reminiscent of other well-known writers, while they convey the poet's own original way of viewing his birth-place from afar.
Like Norman Levine, Winter is a mapper of the mundane, a poet of dailiness. Both writers have a keen eye for the emotional impact of foreign streets, of casual meetings with strangers, and of the ever-present influence of faded childhood memories. Just as Levine's narrator meditates on Ottawa from the seaside cottages of St. Ives in Cornwall, Winter recalls his mother's domestic chores in a variety of Montreal flats:

Seven Thirty Eight Bloomfield Avenue
Apartment Five Montreal Quebec
And the cupboard leaks. Who knows
What drips thorough the walls
Or if it's pipes or just the sweat
Of an old flat standing up. Every day

Of all my days my mother fought the dust . . . .

Alongside such domestic portraits are equally striking recollections of the workaday world of the poet's grandfather, the

bow-fronted mahogany-countered retail outlet and wholesale
harbour for beached landsleute and immigrant
uncles . . . .

Winter uses these portraits of the Montreal of his childhood to conjure even more distant forebears, whom he calls "Album Ancestors", and who take shape as enigmatic inquisitors interrogating the poet: "Sepia dark, flash-powdered bright, flowing, photogenic," they demand, "Who in our world are you?" Winter also dwells on his parents' life in Canada in order to meditate on their deaths, treating this subject both solemnly and with irony in a suite of poems entitled "Kaddish". Here, he manages to do something provocative and original with the traditional prayer of mourning, which has been put to eloquent and surprising use by writers as varied as Allen Ginsberg, Saul Bellow, André Schwarz-Bart, and A. M. Klein.
In "Mother's Kaddish", Winter includes a headnote that provides the reader with an English version of the Kaddish, translated in a distinctly modern idiom; "Father's Kaddish", on the other hand, is introduced by a concise and suggestive description of the role of the Kaddish in daily Jewish life. It is the latter poem that most strikingly appropriates the long, chanting line of the Aramaic original for its own purposes:

Revolution, prohibition, abdication, great depression
whispered past him in bylines
Preferring a commission to a wage, a handshake to a
contract, an open road to any, a good car to all,
Of the thirties Nash, the forties Chevrolet, not a flake
Beyond the incubus of the final Pontiac, jeopardised by
lapsed reflexes . . . .

Here, the secular symbols of the New World-the thirties Nash, the final Pontiac -become the most appropriate cues for a son's commemoration of his father, and the litany of a man's modest characteristics are cleverly made to echo the awe-inspiring attributes of the divine listed in the Kaddish.
It is the son's reflection on the life and death of his father that Winter's poems investigate to finest effect. His willingness to address the most difficult and intimate aspects of a parent's last days remind the reader of Philip Roth's recent memoir, Patrimony, and of Un Zoo la Nuit, Jean-Claude Lauzon's 1987 film recording a son's final days with his father:

Turning him in his bath, I tore my father's parchment skin
Just there where arm and shoulder seam so resembled mine.

The pressure of a soapy thumb had been enough to part
him like a pomegranate filigreed with juice . . . .

He regarded his shoulder as though another's. He read the tracery
I'd composed.

The writer in "Parchment Skin" is alternately bitter, distanced, and unnerved as he struggles to account for himself during his father's last months. But Winter's language is direct, and manages to strike a difficult balance between the lyric and the prosaic as he searches for words appropriate to his sense of loss.
Winter works in two other modes in Misplaced Persons, which are not quite as satisfying as his poems centred on family memories. In one of these he speaks about broad currents of European history by meditating on museum artifacts, on mythic personalities like Bertrand Russell, and on the scars left on the European landscape by the armies of Napoleon, the Nazis, and Serbian nationalists. Misplaced Persons concludes with three curious prose pieces, which read like soliloquies drawn from a larger work. These narratives don't have the impact of Winter's poems, although they do reveal the playwright's talent for capturing the idiom and tone of a character's voice. They suggest as well how deeply the English way with words has caught his ear during his years abroad. In his 1973 collection, The Island, it was the voice of "proper Canadians" Winter most wanted to capture:

I'm only joking.
In any case it's not my problem.
I'm a Canadian.

Norman Ravvin's novel Café des Westerns won the Alberta Culture New Fiction Award. His short stories and non-fiction have appeared in magazines and on CBC Radio.


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