Lament for the Dorsets
Lament for the Dorsets
Al Purdy 1968
“Lament for the Dorsets,” from Al Purdy’s 1968 collection, Wild Grape Wine, is a quintessentially Canadian poem from Canada’s superstar-poet of the 1960s. “Lament for the Dorsets” appeared at a stage in Purdy’s career in which he had matured in both vision and technique. The poem is informed by Purdy’s experience during the summer of 1965, during which he wrote poems in a tent in an Inuit village on Baffin Island, located in Canada’s Northwest Territories. The Dorsets of the poem’s title are a people who are distant ancestors of contemporary Inuits. The name derives from Cape Dorset, situated on the southwest coast of Baffin Island. Dorset civilization was spread over an extensive area of northern Canada and is thought to have existed for approximately two thousand years. While the Dorset people became extinct in the fourteenth century, a remnant of their culture has been preserved in the tiny tools and artifacts they left behind.
Although Purdy is a prolific poet who has published more than 600 poems, “Lament for the Dorsets” is one of the few known to Americans— if indeed Purdy is known at all to Americans—because it was included in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (1986). “Lament for the Dorsets” is an elegy for a unique civilization that died out because it was unable to survive in changing conditions or because it was pushed out by a more technologically sophisticated people (the Thule). The poem, however, is not just a lament. It is also a paean to the permanence of art and the importance
of the artist to the life of a people. Purdy shows that a tiny carving of an ivory swan is what enables the Dorsets to live beyond their graves until their civilization is discovered some 600 years later.
One would be hard put to find a more prolific poet than Al Purdy. As of 1989, Purdy had thirty-seven books of verse, one novel, an autobiography, a memoir, several edited collections, and two books of correspondence—one with critic and scholar George Woodcock and the other with barfly-poet Charles Bukowski. Purdy is also one of Canada’s most eminent poets: his numerous awards and prizes include the Order of Canada (1987). Though hardly known in the United States, four of his poems are included in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry.
Born December 30, 1918, Purdy was raised by his mother, his father having died when Alfred was two. Purdy went to college and served as a non-combatant in the air force during World War II. His many jobs and avocations include riding the rails, running a taxi business, and five years making mattresses. At age thirteen, he began writing poetry and published his first poems in The Enchanted Echo (1944), a volume he paid for and later referred to as “crap.” By the 1960s, with the help of the Canadian government’s support for artists, Purdy began writing full time, supplementing his income with reading, speaking, and teaching engagements. Up until 1962, Purdy said his style was derivative, but he asserts that with Poems for All the Annettes he had abandoned traditional rhythm and stanza forms for ones demanded by the poem being written. Other critics have disagreed as to when Purdy broke through to his own style: some say it was with The Crafte So Longe to Lerne (1959). Others say it was The Cariboo Horses (1965), for which he won the Governor-General’s award.
Purdy’s style is singular: “I believe that when a poet fixes on one style or method he severely limits his present and future development. By the same token I dislike the traditional forms. But I use rhyme, metre, and (occasionally) standard forms when a poem seems to call for it.” In subject matter, Purdy is firmly Canadian and also a poet of underdogs—be they workers, prisoners, or Eskimos. He is also a poet more of the immanent than the transcendental, of earthly more than fantastic worlds. Finally, in reception, Purdy’s independence has made him one of Canada’s most respected and most popular poets: a nonacademic respected by the academy and a popular poet whose poetry shuns pop. Purdy is the consummate autodidact and individual, and in this sense is a poet not only of and for Canada but for the United States.
(Eskimos extinct in the 14th century A.D.)
Animal bones and some mossy tent rings
scrapers and spearheads
carved ivory swans
all that remains of the Dorset giants
who drove the Vikings back to their long ships
talked to spirits of earth and water 5
—a picture of terrifying old men
so large they broke the backs of bears
so small they lurk behind bone rafters
in the brain of modern hunters
among good thoughts and warm things
and come out at night 10
to spit on the stars
The big men with clever fingers
who had no dogs and hauled their sleds
over the frozen northern oceans
awkward giants 15
killers of seals
they couldn’t compete with little men
who came from the west with dogs
Or else in a warm climatic cycle 20
the seals went back to cold waters
and the puzzled Dorsets scratched their heads
with hairy thumbs around 1350 A.D.
—couldn’t figure it out
went around saying to each other 25
‘What’s wrong? What happened?
Where are the seals gone?’
Twentieth century people 30
executives of neon death
warmakers with things that explode
—they have never imagined us in their future
how could we imagine them in the past 35
squatting among the moving glaciers
six hundred years ago
with glowing lamps?
As remote or nearly
as the trilobites and swamps 40
when coal became
or the last great reptile hissed
at a mammal the size of a mouse
that squeaked and fled
Did they ever realize at all 45
what was happening to them?
Some old hunter with one lame leg
a bear had chewed
sitting in a caribou skin tent
—the last Dorset? 50
Let’s say his name was Kudluk
carving 2-inch ivory swans
for a dead grand-daughter
taking them out of his mind
the places in his mind 55
where pictures are
He selects a sharp stone tool
to gouge a parallel pattern of lines
on both sides of the swan
holding it with his left hand 60
bearing down and transmitting
his body’s weight
from brain to arm and right hand
and one of his thoughts
turns to ivory 65
The carving is laid aside
in beginning darkness
at the end of hunger
after a while wind
blows down the tent and snow 70
begins to cover him
After 600 years
the ivory thought
is still warm
The first stanza, or section, is actually one sentence describing what the Dorsets have left behind. Purdy first refers to traces of the civilization discovered by archaeologists. In several sites in Greenland, Baffin Island, Newfoundland, and the extreme north of Quebec, digs have uncovered bones, carvings, and small tools of the people now known as the Dorsets, a group that lived from around 1000 b.c.e. to 1350 c.e. Tent rings, a fairly common sight in Canada’s Arctic north, are circles of stones that once weighted down the sides of tents. Next, the poet refers to Inuit stories about the Dorset culture that have been passed down through generations. The “long ships” Purdy mentions were the warships of the feared Scandinavian warriors who attacked the coasts of Europe and the British Isles, who were known for their cruelty, and who often settled in the areas they conquered. According to legend, when the Vikings attempted to invade Greenland in the tenth century, they were driven back to their ships by Dorset ferocity. In addition to exalting their ancestors’ courage, Inuit stories describe the Dorsets as hunters who were unusually strong and gigantic enough to kill bears. Purdy also poeticizes that the Dorsets were “small enough” to hide in (or influence) the thoughts of present-day Inuit hunters. Purdy compares these minds to rooms with bone rafters.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Dorsets was that they pulled their own sleds instead of using dogs to perform the task. The “little men who came from the west” were the Thule (pronounced two-le), a later Inuit group that used dogs and a possessed a higher level of technology than did the Dorsets. While it might have been the Thule who forced the extinction of the Dorsets, it could have also been that the Dorsets starved because of climate conditions that forced a change in seal migration.
Purdy believes that Dorsets could scarcely have imagined inhabitants of the twentieth century: people who kill not with harpoon or spear, but with high-tech armaments; and a culture whose urban lifestyle and tenets of mass production and consumption (advertised in neon by corporate executives) results in the death of nature. Purdy also points out that modern people would have had similar
- A recording titled Al Purdy was released in 1971 by the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
trouble fathoming Dorset culture if not for the presence of artifacts. “Glowing lamps” refers to small blubber lamps found at Dorset digs that, by Inuit accounts, hunters kept under their clothing to keep them warm while they waited at breathing holes for seals.
Here, Purdy is simply remarking that although Dorset civilization vanished 600 years ago, it might as well have become extinct millions of years earlier like the dinosaurs and the small sea creatures known as trilobites. In a sense, then, the past is a single time—a time of loss. The dinosaur and small mammal confrontation thus resembles the showdown between the Dorsets and Vikings described earlier.
The poet now speculates on the causes behind the Dorsets’ extinction, and he questions whether they were cognizant of their impending demise. Purdy imagines the last Dorset as a hunter handicapped with a lame leg after being mauled by a bear.
In his imagination, Purdy is now shooting a close-up of this last Dorset, deciding even to name him, probably to make the image more vivid. Kudluk is carving an ivory swan, a symbol of rebirth, for his dead granddaughter. Purdy compares the mind to a room from which the artist pulls out pictures to use as the guide for his sculpture.
Purdy describes Kudluk carving and transforming the thought of a swan into an ivory figure. The pattern of parallel lines, a kind of exoskeleton, is a common feature of Dorset sculpture. Purdy hints at the mystery of how images in the mind become objects in space with his description of the carving and his phrase “one of his thoughts turns to ivory.”
This last section of the poem describes Kudluk’s death after he finishes his sculptures. The lines “in beginning darkness / at the end of hunger” could refer to the time of day after the evening meal, but they could also signify the onset of death, with its freedom from everyday drives such as hunger. Kudluk likely froze to death, as he was unable to escape the snowstorm because of his lame leg. Purdy contrasts this image with his portrayal of the sculpture, or “ivory thought,” as “still warm.” Six hundred years after it was created, the ivory swan is, in a sense, still alive because it can be seen. And although he has died, a piece of Kudluk lives on in his sculpture. That a dying man was sculpting a symbol of rebirth seems sadly ironic, yet it has its intended effect on a larger scale than Kudluk could have ever imagined: the discovery of the sculpture helps bring the entire Dorset culture back to life.
Alienation and Loneliness
Kudluk is isolated from the rest of his culture, because all of the other Dorsets are either dead or have left in search of seals. He is also alienated from his environment; due to his lame leg, he can no longer hunt or escape from the ravages of weather. People would say that Kudluk’s is a hostile, or unfriendly, environment or an indifferent nature. Both of these descriptions personify nature as a being with emotional responses. With the mention of Kudluk’s granddaughter, Purdy points out a more personal instance of loss. This makes Kudluk thrice alienated and lonely: from society, from nature, and from family. Furthermore, Kudluk is waiting for death, which some think of as ultimate alienation and loneliness.
So why write about the loneliness of a Dorset? For one, it is a superhuman exercise in memory, far more difficult than an attempt to remember someone recently dead, whether stranger, friend, or family member. But there is something else as well. Perhaps if Purdy can empathize, or at least sympathize, with Kudluk, then he might better understand his own loneliness or that of present-day society. It’s possible to imagine Purdy sitting alone in a tent—as was the case in 1965—on Baffin Island in Canada’s Northwest Territories, unable to speak the native language of the Inuit around him and in an environment where food and companions were less than bountiful. And this isolation might only be an extreme form of that which Purdy feels regularly—as a poet, a traveler to unknown places, and as a resident of a rather isolated part of Ontario. Perhaps this was how Purdy came to think about Kudluk and empathize with him. It could also be that Purdy thinks Kudluk’s situation bears resemblance to the isolation of contemporary apartment dwellers who barely know their neighbors. Purdy might be making the point that loneliness and alienation are nothing new; they are widespread conditions that once haunted the tenth-century Dorset and now afflict contemporary urbanites.
Although Dorset carvings of various types of animals have been recovered from archeological digs, the swan is special because of the amount of symbolism surrounding it. Among some peoples, perhaps even the forebears of Dorsets, the swan was the virgin female impregnated by a hunter represented by earth or water who gave birth to the human race. Hence, the swan is a birth symbol— one that might be employed to bring a dead person back to life. Another story explains that babies were born from the marriage of earth and water and were brought to their care givers by swans. Conversely, the figure of the swan also pertains to death, most notably in the well-known expression “swan song,” which means the end or last appearance of something. This expression derives from the baseless notion that swans sing before they die. The idea of singing swans and the legend that the birth of Apollo, the Greek god of poetry, was heralded by flying swans seem to have led to swans representing poets and poetry. Thus, Shakespeare was called the Swan of Avon; Homer, the Swan of Meander; and Virgil, the Swan of Mantua. Kudluk carving a swan (to help him stay alive while attempting to bring his granddaughter back to life) is analogous to Purdy writing, or “giving birth” to, a poem that helps keep the Dorsets alive in contemporary memory. Kudluk’s final act of carving a swan also serves as the swan song of the Dorset people.
Artists and Society
Artists keep themselves “alive” through art, while also keeping society “alive” by stimulating
Topics for Further Study
- Do a research project on the Dorsets using both visual and textual elements. Include maps on migrations and settlements and describe objects they made.
- Compile separate lists of possible reasons for the extinction of plants, animals, and people. Correlate similarities and differences between the lists.
- In a research report, explain how Dorset art differs from later Eskimo art of the Thule and Inuit.
it to think new thoughts and reexamine old ones. One of the artist’s roles is to refresh society. Paradoxically, a predominant way an artist does this is through examination of death, a major theme in all of the arts. Purdy appears to say that artists—those who keep people “alive” by speaking about death— are to be contrasted with “executives of neon death” and “warmakers with things that explode.” And as art makes the Dorsets “live” even after the artists have died, the desire for raw materials and weapons results in the death of people and nature even as neon executives and arms dealers live comfortably from the profits of death and destruction.
In 1969, a year after the publication of Wild Grape Wine, which contained “Lament for the Dorsets,” Purdy described his writing methods this way: “My technique, I suppose, takes a bit from [William Carlos] Williams, a bit from [Charles] Olson; for instance, I agree for the most part with using the contemporary, the modern, idiom. On the other hand, if I were writing a certain kind of poem I might avoid colloquialisms, idiosyncrasies, slang, and so on. It just depends; it all has to do with the poem. No, I pay no attention to the breathing bit; and I never compose on a typewriter, as Olson is supposed to do. Most of the time when I’m writing I don’t think of how to write the thing at all, consciously; sometimes I do. When I wrote a poem about hockey players, I deliberately put in swift rhythms to simulate the players going down the ice. And there are times, whatever rhythm you get in there seem accidental; though I don’t suppose it is, because a poet writes a lot of poems. I’m concerned with techniques, yes, but I don’t consciously spend so much time thinking of them as Williams and Olson do.” While Purdy does not use the term “free verse” to describe his poetry, the label has been applied to his work. Free verse is really not verse at all, because verse is metrical. Nor is free verse usually rhymed or arranged in regular stanzas. But while Purdy’s poem eschews meter, rhyme, and regular stanzas, line breaks become a preoccupation. Purdy banishes commas and periods, and instead uses line breaks to signal pauses and capital letters to indicate new sentences. Only in two places does Purdy make use of run-on lines where, for example, the end of a sentence is ignored, or the subjects of sentences appear early, that is, in the sentence before. Thus, in the following lines, “The carving is laid aside / in beginning darkness / at the end of hunger / after a while wind / blows down the tent and snow / begins to cover him,” Purdy’s arrangement hurries the sentence to convey the speed of death and extinction.
To signal the beginning of a sentence, Purdy uses capital letters, but to make clear to the reader that this is not prose, he flushes all but a few lines at the left margin. So why the tension between prose and poetry? Perhaps to show that despite the absence of the traditional (outdated) signs of poetry, this piece of writing is still a highly wrought object, perhaps as complex in formation as Kudluk’s two-inch ivory swan.
Against a background of increasing tension between French Quebec and the rest of mostly English Canada, Al Purdy penned “Lament of the Dorsets” (1968). This poem can be said to lament a time when Inuits flourished throughout Canada, a time when neither France nor England—nor their Quebecois and Canadian offspring—had any knowledge or claim to what they both, in the 1960s, thought of as their land. In June of 1960 Jean Lesage became the Liberal Party’s premier of Quebec, a primarily French province within the dominant English nation of Canada. Under the motto, “If faut que ça change!” (“Things must change!”), the Quebec Liberal party began to bring their various factions together into a united province. Meanwhile, Quebec’s newfound urban prosperity created a high-salaried, secular bureaucracy that undermined the dominance of Catholicism’s advocacy of nonmaterialist values—arguments that many Québécois began to see as an endorsement of poverty for the poor and riches for the rich. Catholicism came under attack especially in education. By 1964, Quebec had newly created a centralized provincial, nonreligious education system with secondary schools and a network of junior colleges (a system that, by 1966, led the other provinces to also take charge of their province’s education). Not only was education nationalized, but the provincial government also nationalized, or, more accurately, provincialized, Quebec’s formerly private hydroelectric industry. Voters showed their overwhelming acceptance. Quebec’s “Quiet Revolution” was approved by the rest of Canada as well, since, it seemed, Quebec was becoming a “real” province like all of the other already consolidated provinces of Canada. But what the rest of Canada thought was modernization and Canadianization, was predominately Quebec’s growing nationalism, a prelude to what would become calls for separation from its adopted English parent, the rest of Canada.
By 1963, one Québécois in six believed in separation. Some were even willing to use bombs in the name of “Québec libre” (“Independent Quebec”). The new Quebec would be symbolized by a world’s fair, Montreal’s Expo ‘67, a show that seemed as if it would never make the stage. When it did, Quebec became Canada’s star province, an entity to be reckoned with. After France’s President Charles de Gaulle proclaimed, “Vive Montréal! Vive le Québec! Vive le Québec libre!” Quebec would soon become emboldened enough to claim that henceforth the State of Quebec would be an equal to the rest of Canada. By the end of 1967, a movement to unite the separatist factions into a single independence movement, a Mouvement Souveraineté-Association, would be undertaken.
At the same time Quebec was consolidating itself in terms of Canada, the nation of Canada, with its twenty-year, postwar prosperity, was consolidating itself in terms of other nations, especially the United States. Federal income doubled between 1957 and 1967. Thousands of artists and actors, playwrights and poets lived off the bounty
Compare & Contrast
- 1961: 22,998 people are living in the Northwest Territories of Canada, home to the Inuit Eskimos.
- 1996: 64,402 people living in the Northwest Territories of Canada.
- 1968: The Parti Québécois for an independent Quebec is founded with René Levesque as its leader.
- 1995: A referendum held in the province of Quebec concerning independence is defeated by one percentage point.
- 1968: The Inuit Eskimos live scattered across the Northwest Territories of Canada.
April, 1999: The Inuits begin living in and mostly governing the new Canadian Territory of Nunavut (“Our Land”). The Territory, the result of an agreement signed in 1993 between Inuits and the Canadian government, designates 2.2 million square miles of what was mostly the Keewatin District as Inuit land, with its capital to be established at Iqaluit (formerly Frobisher Bay) on Baffin Island.
of the state. Universities were the beneficiaries of government monies. National health insurance became a reality. Personal income also soared, enabling Canadians to vacation around the world. Youth proclaimed national pride and their distinction from the youth of the United States by the very visible maple-leaf patch—a replica of Canada’s new national flag—sewn to their backpacks. Cities that during the early postwar years had pushed ever-higher with the international style of concrete and steel, and suburbs that had sprawled ever farther with asphalt and cement, began to conserve older Canadian styles, sites, and structures. Dominated groups like native peoples and women also increasingly demanded, and got some share of, inclusion into Canadian prosperity. Student and worker demands even met with sympathy. Universities included student input in management and in creation of academic programs. Between 1964 and 1968, virtually all provincial and federal employees won rights to bargain and strike. Not only did human groups become forces to be reckoned with in an increasingly multicultural Canada, but so too the “rights” of nature in an increasingly environmentally conscious Canada. Native peoples found themselves in the difficult position of being embraced by the new forces of inclusion and environmentalism and, at the same time, attacked for their traditional livelihoods of hunting and trapping.
While the demands of women, native peoples, blacks, and nature were voiced, and to some extent met, Quebec’s voice for nationhood was still the loudest and rowdiest, a voice that in 1970 would be put down by Canadian martial law. The rest of Canada could not ignore Quebec. Perhaps the greatest symbol of Quebec’s rising power in Canadian politics was the election of bilingual prime minister Pierre Trudeau in 1968. Trudeau attempted to get the Quebecois to help rule Canada rather than separate from it. The cornerstone of his administration was the Official Languages Act, which established the equality of French and English and encouraged a move to make the officials and agencies of the central government bilingual. Canada would become one of the few prosperous countries of the West that would think of itself as a bilingual, multicultural society, even if Quebec did not cease from its demands to be independent.
George Woodcock, scholar and poet of Canadian letters, classifies Purdy under the category “Canadian Modernist” and goes on to call him “the most vigorous of all traveller poets, who has given us Canada in verse, from east to west, from the Great Lakes to the Arctic, and not content with that, has added Europe and Asia and Africa.” Woodcock classes Poems for All the Annettes (1962), The Cariboo Horses (1965), and Wild Grape Wine (1968) as Purdy’s most important collections. In the 1960s, Purdy was also one of Canada’s most popular readers on college campuses and one of the country’s best-known poets. But despite this popularity, Woodcock goes on to describe him as “one of the most fluent and idiosyncratic of Canadian poets, extraordinarily open to impressions, and perhaps more able than any of his contemporaries to set into verse the historical and geographical complexities that make Canada.”
In a review of Wild Grape Wine in Poetry, the dean of Canadian literature, Margaret Atwood, called the volume a “satisfying” book and adds: “These poems go beyond Purdy’s interest in people and incidents to the process of human life within the larger process of nature; they create, not a personality and a speaking voice ... but a landscape with figures, both alive and dead. It’s this Purdy ... a lonely, defiant, almost anonymous man, dwarfed by rocks, trees, and time but making a commitment, finally, to his own place ... where grim ancestors reach up from the ground to claim him.”
In an article in Canadian Literature, George Bowering describes Wild Grape Wine as having smaller “‘books’ of poems wherein the poet may be seen alighting in some corner of the land or elsewhere, and joining detailed observations to lyrical reflections in order to provide longer looks at the places and people that make up our land and imaginations.” If this is generally true of Wild Grape Wine, it is exactly fitting for “Lament for the Dorsets,” which displays most eloquently, Woodcock’s description of Purdy’s voice as “idiosyncratic,” Atwood’s description as “anonymous,” and Bowering’s as “detailed and “lyrical.”
Jhan Hochman’s articles appear in Democracy and Nature, Genre, ISLE, and Mosaic. He is the author of Green Cultural Studies: Nature in Film, Novel, and Theory (1998), and he holds a Ph.D in English and an M.A. in Cinema Studies. In the following essay, Hochman discusses ancient Dorset culture and finds a corollary with the contemporary separatist movement in the Canadian province of Quebec.
Purdy is a poet of place. Most often that place is Canada—Canada as a separate entity, one with its own particularities and heritage. As former colonies of England and France have broken away from the “mother country,” they have attempted to find their own voice in the language of the country that once utterly dominated them. If Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, and Whitman, were voices of a distinctly American literature, Purdy is one of the voices of a specifically Canadian literature, one that has taken longer to find its proper key. Dennis Lee, the critic who wrote about Purdy’s poetry in the afterword to The Collected Poems ofAl Purdy (1986) characterizes Purdy this way:
He has been one of the giants of the recurrent process in which, language by language and country by country over the last sixty years, the hinterlands of empire have broken through to universal resonance by learning to speak locally. Purdy has claimed, and in many ways created, an indigenous imaginative patrimony in English Canada. There have been many Canadian writers whose excellence is unmistakable, but in his rootedness, his largeness, and his impulse to forge a native idiom for the imagination, Purdy is one of a distinct breed: the heroic founders, who give their people a voice as they go about their own necessities.
Before Lee, George Bowering called Purdy “the world’s most Canadian poet.” It is from these remarks and my own experience reading Purdy that I developed a thesis about “Lament for the Dorsets,” a poem included in the volume, Wild Grape Wine (1968). My thesis is that whatever else can be said about “Lament,” (for instance, that it is an impassioned call for the preservation of Inuit people and their culture), the poem serves as a political poem to keep the province of mostly French Quebec from separating from the rest of mostly English Canada. At the same time “Lament for the Dorsets” served as a national agglutinative, it also worked as an international wedge asserting Canadian individuality as it acted more and more on the world stage, a wedge especially intent on prying a space between Canada and its southern neighbor, the United States, the country whose shadow it no longer wanted to be. These two movements, the uniting of Canada and the assertion of Canadian individuality, happened at about the same time, the mid-1960s. During this same time, Purdy summered on Baffin Island, one of the lands of the Dorsets, and important finds of artifacts from Dorset archaeological sites had recently been discovered.
But how could a poem about Dorsets both bind and delineate Canada? To answer this is to begin
What Do I Read Next?
- During the 1970s, Purdy wrote idiosyncratic, impressionistic travel essays and anecdotal portraits of people and places that were published in Maclean’s and Weekend and were eventually collected in No Other Country, (1977).
- In 1968 Purdy wrote The New Romans: Candid Canadian Opinions of the U.S., a polemical anthology written as a critique of the United States and in support of Canadian nationalism which Purdy supported in the 1960s.
- A seminal work in African-American literature is W. E. B. Dubois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1969), a series of essays on what it means to be a black American.
- A cross-cultural narrative anthropology, T. C. McLuhan’s The Way of the Earth (1994) explores the ancient beliefs and narratives of the native peoples of Australia, Japan, Greece, Africa, South America, and North America.
- Rudolph Arnheim’s Visual Thinking (1969) investigates the interaction between the senses and thought, a text that therefore must deal with the connection between psychology, philosophy, the arts, and the sciences.
with what is known about the Dorsets. These Paleo-Eskimos named after Cape Dorset on the southern coast of Baffin Island might just be the people most likely to be called the original Canadians. As Pre-Dorset peoples moved for thousands of years across Alaska and the Yukon of Arctic Canada, a distinctive culture began to congeal somewhere near eastern Victoria Island, above Alberta and Saskatchewan. Classical Dorset culture is thought to have flourished from about 1000 b.c.e. to 1300 c.e. in a vast area as far west as the west side of Victoria Island, as far north as Parry Channel and Greenland, as far east as Labrador and Newfoundland, and as far south as Payne Lake on the Un-gava Peninsula of northern Quebec. Dorset sites have been discovered nowhere else but in areas between these mostly Canadian locales and were especially prevalent in the heart of the Canadian Northwest Territories, in the Foxe Basin, bordered on the north by Baffin Island. Not only were Dorsets spread out throughout most of Arctic Canada, but their culture was remarkably similar from site to site, indicating a great deal of travel and commerce among different bands or large family groups. And while Indians were spread all over North America, Eskimos, of which Dorsets are surely members, inhabited only the Arctic regions, and especially the Northwest Territories of Canada. This would make the Inuit the native people, and the Dorsets the paleo-natives of Canada, a once “united” Canada unbroken by province borders and linguistic barriers.
Another reason for calling the Dorsets the “first Canadians” is that Dorset civilization is the earliest civilization for which there is a well-preserved fossil record. While Dorset skeletons have been found on Mansel Island off the west coast of Quebec and in Northern Quebec near Sugluk on the Hudson Strait, no skeletons have been found for Pre-Dorsets, thought to have lived from around 4000 to 2000 b.c.e. Dorset skeletons show them not only to be the first skeletons of Quebec, but the first of Canada, near-contemporaries of Ancient Egyptians and Greeks. The point to be extracted here is that Quebec is not only part of Canada, but a crucial part.
Egyptian civilization is known for its mummies and monumental constructions, and Greece for its monuments and literature, but Dorsets are known by their miniature objects, tiny precision tools, and magical art objects. So tiny were the metal and ivory tools and household objects of Dorset households, that all could be easily packed into a small backpack when pulling up stakes to move to new hunting grounds. And this despite the legends of Dorsets being that race of giants spoken of in Inuit legend and in Purdy’s “Lament.” In these miniatures—that are visible outside the museums
“... Canada likes to think of itself as a country that does not flourish by conquering peoples and nature but by living small in a large land.”
of Canada in the color plates of Robert McGhee’s Ancient People of the Arctic—can be seen Canada’s retort to monumental cultures and civilizations that lived large, such as Greece, Rome, Britain, and the United States. Unlike these, Canada likes to think of itself as a country that does not flourish by conquering peoples and nature but by living small in a large land. Legend even has it that not only did Dorsets spread out without conquering other peoples, but that they also successfully defended their homelands on the southeast coast of Greenland from invading Norseman. This would make them not only the first Greenlanders and Canadians, but brave defenders of their culture and homeland—a Canada that could have become Scandinavian instead of French and British.
Another characteristic of Dorset culture is its remarkable ability to have survived for so long in such a frozen area without certain tools used by peoples that lived even before Dorsets. While most Eskimos used dogs to pull their sleds, Dorsets pulled the sleds themselves. They also appear not to have used bows and arrows, hand-drills, or kayaks—devices that predated them and would probably have allowed them to kill more animals. No one knows why, nor whether it was by choice or ignorance. This, then, is another way Dorsets lived small: using simple technology that exploited nature to a lesser degree. While small artifacts and simple technology do not distinguish Canada from other nations, Canada does have one of the best environmental records of modern societies.
Despite two thousand years of Dorset civilization, it eventually disappeared from a change of climate, in turn leading to the disappearance, as Purdy suggests, of their food supply and/or from being overpowered by the Thule, the immediate Eskimo ancestors of the Inuit who had the bows and arrows, kayaks, drills, and dog-pulled sleds that the Dorsets lacked or renounced, and that, archaeologists believe, led to the Thule takeover of northern areas of Canada. While this might be a lesson for Canadians wanting to live small, it is not so much what the Dorsets did not have as what they did—that culture of miniatures—that has made such a lasting impression on Canadians, especially Purdy. The most Canadian of poets laments the loss of the Dorsets for they seem like just the symbol that could heal the split between Quebec and Canada and distinguish Canada as a country with a unique heritage, ethnic make-up, and way of life. Purdy unearths the Dorsets in his own swan song, one less to do with swans singing about death and extinction than about the swan as a symbol of rebirth, not just in terms of Kudluk’s dead granddaughter, but of Canada. Dorset magical art objects can speak to Canadians about the value of living small, staying together, and using art to spread its ideas and vision well beyond the grave. And “Lament for the Dorsets” is itself a kind of Dorset miniature, a small sculpture in language functioning to return the Dorsets to memory, and, by so doing, return Canada to unity.
Source: Jhan Hochman, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1999.
Bruce Meyer is the director of the creative writing program at the University of Toronto. He has taught at several Canadian universities and is the author of three collections of poetry. In the following essay, Meyer explains how, in “Lament for the Dorsets,” Purdy “seeks to connect past to present through both artifact and imagination.”
The poetry of Al Purdy can easily be compared to the records of an archaeologist who is in search of a past. Many of his finest poems, such as those written about his home in the small hamlet of Ameliasburgh, Ontario, examine the ways in which the past is buried beneath the layers of living. By digging down, by examining artifacts, shards, and pieces of the puzzle that are left to the present, Purdy is able to construct, at least imaginatively, an experience that connects the past to the present. This may not seem to be such an important matter. After all, few poets would deny that one of his or her key roles is that of chronicler or historiographer—either of the past or of the present time. But given the context of his poetry, that of both map-maker and myth-maker within the Canadian imagination, Purdy’s works are a fundamental means by which the past can be connected to the present, a creative ideal designed to counteract any claim that Canada is a place without a history or a broad context of time. “Lament for the Dorsets,” a poem that examines the anomaly of presence within absence, is key to Purdy’s canon because it seeks to connect past to present through both artifact and imagination.
Like the majority of Purdy’s poems, “Lament for the Dorsets” is written in free verse in a voice that at times sounds broad and ambling. In much of his poetry, Purdy appears as a storyteller/observer and as a guide who is sifting through the remains of past worlds or through the observations of this world and who attempts to use storytelling as a means of threading his way through a labyrinth of images and suppositions. For Purdy, the story is what breathes life into inanimate objects such as the “animal bones” and “mossy tent rings,” the garbage and remnants that bespeak life and vitality, even in the face of extinction, time, and entropy. What makes these shards—these remains—human is that they are, poetically, connected to real or imagined human beings. For Purdy, the signs of life are proof not only of the presence of past lives that continue to articulate their hopes, dreams, and visions, but of the presence of a vitality with which the reader can identify.
The imagining of “Kudluk,” the carver and last of the Dorsets, operates on several levels. On the first level, Kudluk is an attempt by the poem’s persona, the storyteller of the present, to put a human face on the inanimate “ivory swans,” the artifacts that are all that remain of the Dorsets. What Purdy is doing is creating a subtle parallel between himself, the modern storyteller, and the ancient sculptor of the “ivory swans”: both are creating not only artifacts of thought, perception, and belief, but also testaments of how time is borne by human beings and how life is contained in objects of memory such as carvings or poems. When Kudluk carves the “ivory swans” “for a dead grand-daughter,” he is himself filling the absence and the grief with the power of his imagination. Like his imaginary predecessor, Purdy is filling a perceived void with an act of the imagination that reminds us of a human presence, so that the carving and the poem “Lament for the Dorsets” are literally identical objects as records of life. In this regard, Purdy seems to be saying that the power of the human imagination not only serves to remedy grief and loss but to fill voids, so that the carver and the poet/storyteller both serve the same function: “taking them out of his mind / where pictures are” so that “After 600 years / the ivory thought / is still warm.” Here, Purdy is raising one of the great, continual claims
“‘Lament for the Dorsets,’ a poem that examines the anomaly of presence within absence, is key to Purdy’s canon because it seeks to connect past to present through both artifact and imagination.”
for poetry, a claim made by such poets as Shakespeare (in “Sonnet 18”): that poetry can animate the inanimate and provide a bridge between presence and absence and life and death. In a literature where such notable Canadian critics as Northrop Frye have charged poets with the responsibility of creating not only a poetry but a living mythology, Purdy seems to have made an important contribution, because one of the key purposes of mythology is to make us believe that life continues even in death.
“Lament for the Dorsets” also makes an important, yet equally subtle, comment on the nature of mythology, not just as a vehicle for life and consciousness, but as a structure in itself. Like such mythographers as Ovid in The Metamorphoses, Homer in The Iliad or The Odyssey, or Virgil in The Aeneid, Purdy enlists the assistance of factual history that he links with his powers of the imagination to give the imaginary aspects of the poem, especially the character of Kudluk, more credence and plausibility. Hence, “Lament for the Dorsets” opens with a history lesson. Purdy explains that these “Dorset giants” “drove the Vikings back to their long ships,” and then, “around 1350 a.d.,” suddenly vanished “And died.” The suggestion is that either climatic changes that drove off the seals or the invasion of smaller, much more adaptable “little men” who “came from the west with dogs” caused the downfall of the Dorsets. What Purdy is establishing with this information is a “set-up” for a parallel structure where he links the plight of the Dorsets to the predicament of modern man in the twentieth century. One must remember that mythologies are never written for the past; they are directed at the readers of the present, and Purdy sounds a warning to “Twentieth century people” that they must stop destroying their environment and stop warring with their neighbors if they are to survive. As World War I poet Wilfred Owen suggested in his famous statement about war poetry, “the poetry is in the pity,” likewise Purdy has created a situation in “Lament for the Dorsets” that raises, in a rather rhetorical fashion, pity by comparison. In this case, the factual history of the Dorsets and even the touchingly pitiable tale of the imaginary Kudluk are serving only as exemplum in the argument. Rather than attack the issue of modern man’s indifference to their own situation, Purdy has created a parallel example in the form of a story that distracts the reader from any direct charges that the poet is leveling against contemporary society and habits. But the lines “Did they ever realize at all / what was happening to them?” are not addressed to the Dorsets (after all, they are dead) as much as they are to the modern reader. What the reader is supposed to perceive in the poem is the concept that our world is just as fragile and perishable as that of those swan carvers, and that our size, our power, and our importance are little more than hubris toward our own tragedy if we fail to recognize our own situation.
In a final note of reversal, Purdy wonders aloud if the Dorsets ever imagined us in their future, the “apartment dwellers / executives of neon death / warmakers with things that explode / —they have never imagined us in their future / how could we imagine them in the past / squatting among the moving glaciers / six hundred years ago / with glowing lamps?” For Purdy, one of the challenges of “Lament of the Dorsets,” a challenge that he confronts time and time again in his canon, is the difficulty of making the past aware of the present and the present aware of the past. Like his Canadian contemporary, poet Eli Mandel, who declared that “the future is foretold in the past,” Purdy has taken up the theme of not only bridging time but of acting as a translator and mediator who enables worlds to communicate and who conveys a kind of wisdom from one era to another. The question then remains, what is the past? This is a central question in Canadian poetry and Canadian literature, especially in the writings of Purdy’s close contemporaries, such as novelists Margaret Laurence and Timothy Findley and poets such as Milton Acorn, Eli Mandel, George Bowering, and James Reaney. For those who emerged with Purdy as significant voices in Canadian literature during the second half of the twentieth century, the past is something we reconstruct from what is left behind—shards that are quite often indistinguishable from rubbish. What connects these pieces of a grand puzzle together is the imagination. Novelist Timothy Findley, in his brilliant work The Wars, tells his readers that the past is not simply a collection of photographs but the way we animate those still images through the power of our own imaginations. Likewise, in “Lament for the Dorsets,” Purdy seems to be telling his readers that the past is as much a creation of our ability to read our own lives and our own feelings into shards and remnants as it is the shards and remnants themselves, so that history is not only a creation of the past but a product of the present.
For Canadians living in the latter half of the twentieth century, the past is largely accessible only through the power of the imagination. Canada, it should be remembered, was not historically a result of great bloody battles or grandiose speeches, but a manifestation of gradual processes, bureaucratic documents, and unspeakably boring transformations that are hardly of note or interest. For Canadians to embrace their past, however, they must first grapple with a kind of absence where the time scale is more geological than recent and where the recognition of emptiness is an invitation to the imagination to find something living and breathing in a very large and seemingly empty terrain. “Lament for the Dorsets,” therefore, is a classic example of the Canadian imagination both at work and at play. Here the possibility of absence, extinction, and lonely death calls into question the contemporary situation in life. The message is that what can happen to the Dorsets can happen to those in the contemporary world; yet the poem is not a cry of despair or even a dismal resignation to doom. On the contrary, “Lament for the Dorsets” is a celebration of what is continuous in life, the “pictures” of our “minds,” the reality of experience that is fundamentally dear to us, and a record of the desire to shape it into a chronicle that will not only outlast us but speak for us and about us. After all, Purdy says, imagination is, at best, a two-way street, and in that respect, it is the avenue that eludes time, just as all good mythologies outlast their storytellers.
Source: Bruce Meyer, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1999.
Atwood, Margaret, review of Wild Grape Wine, Poetry, June 1969, pp. 202-07.
Bowering, George, “Purdy: Man and Poet,” Canadian Literature, winter 1978, pp. 24-35.
Geddes, Gary, “A. W. Purdy: An Interview,” Canadian Literature, summer 1969, pp. 66-72.
Giddings, J. Louis, Ancient Men of the Arctic, New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1967.
Klinck, Carl F., ed., Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English, 3 volumes, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976.
McGhee, Robert, Ancient People of the Arctic, Vancouver: UBC Press, 1996.
Purdy, Al, Collected Poems of Al Purdy, edited by Russell Brown, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1986.
Bandi, Hans-Georg, Eskimo Prehistory, University of Alaska Press, 1969.
Bandi begins with the first discoverers of America and discusses sites in Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. There is a great deal of information on the Dorsets.
Brown, Craig, ed., The Illustrated History of Canada, Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys Ltd., 1987.
Beginning with the meeting of Cartier with native peoples in Canada, the book proceeds with politics, society, and culture until 1987.
Ellman, Richard, and Robert O’Clair, eds., The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, second edition, New York: W.W. Norton, 1988.
This massive anthology begins with Walt Whitman and ends with Cathy Song (who was born in 1955). Short critical biographies precede every poet.
Maxwell, Moreau S., Prehistory of the Eastern Arctic, Orlando: Academic Press, 1985.
This volume describes the Arctic climate and topography and goes on to detail what is known about the people who once inhabited it, including the Dorset and Thule cultures.
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