Brewster, Elizabeth (Winifred)

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BREWSTER, Elizabeth (Winifred)


Nationality: Canadian. Born: Chipman, New Brunswick, 26 August 1922. Education: Sussex High School, New Brunswick, graduated 1942; University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, B.A. 1946; Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts, A.M. 1947; King's College, London, 1949–50; University of Toronto (Pratt Gold Medal and prize, 1953), B.L.S. 1953; Indiana University, Bloomington, Ph.D.1962. Career: Cataloguer, Carleton University Library, Ottawa, 1953–57, and Indiana University Library, 1957–58; member of the English Department, Victoria University, British Columbia, 1960–61; reference librarian, Mount Allison University Library, Sackville, New Brunswick, 1961–65; cataloguer, New Brunswick Legislative Library, Fredericton, 1965–68, and University of Alberta Library, Edmonton, 1968–70; visiting assistant professor of English, University of Alberta, 1970–71; assistant professor, 1972–75, associate professor, 1975–80, professor of English, 1980–90, and since 1990 professor emeritus, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon. Awards: Canada Council award, 1971, 1976, 1978, 1985; President's Medal, University of Western Ontario, 1980; Lifetime award, excellence in the arts, Saskatchewan Arts Board, 1995. Litt.D.: University of New Brunswick, 1982. Address: Department of English, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan S7N 0W0, Canada.

Publications

Poetry

East Coast. Toronto, Ryerson Press, 1951.

Lillooet. Toronto, Ryerson Press, 1954.

Roads and Other Poems. Toronto, Ryerson Press, 1957.

Five New Brunswick Poets, with others, edited by Fred Cogswell. Fredericton, New Brunswick, Fiddlehead, 1962.

Passage of Summer: Selected Poems. Toronto, Ryerson Press, 1969.

Sunrise North. Toronto, Clarke Irwin, 1972.

In Search of Eros. Toronto, Clarke Irwin, 1974.

Sometimes I Think of Moving. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1977.

The Way Home. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1982.

Digging In. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1982.

Selected Poems of Elizabeth Brewster, 1944–1984. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 2 vols., 1985.

Entertaining Angels. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1988.

Spring Again. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1990.

Wheel of Change. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1993.

Footnotes to the Book of Job. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1995.

Garden of Sculpture. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1998.

Novels

The Sisters. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1974.

Junction. Windsor, Ontario, Black Moss Press, 1982.

Short Stories

It's Easy to Fall on the Ice. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1977.

A House Full of Women. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1983.

Visitations. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1987.

Other

The Invention of Truth (Stories and Essays). Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1991.

Away from Home (Stories and Essays). Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1995.

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Critical Studies: "The Poetry of Elizabeth Brewster" by Desmond Pacey, in Ariel (Calgary, Alberta), July 1973; "Next Time from a Different Country" by Robert Gibbs, in Canadian Literature (Vancouver), autumn 1974; "Speeding towards Strange Destinations: A Conversation with Elizabeth Brewster" by Paul Denham, in Essays on Canadian Writing (Downsview, Ontario), summer-fall 1980; "Cadence, Texture and Shapeliness" by J.R. Struthers, in Journal of Canadian Fiction (Montreal), 31–32, 1981; "Poems-Elizabeth Brewster," in Canadian Literature (Vancouver), 151, 1996.

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"I have written poems principally to come to a better understanding of myself, my world, and other people," explains Elizabeth Brewster. Her work dramatizes, again in her own words, "the struggle to lead a human rational life in a world which is increasingly inhuman and irrational."

This credo applies particularly to Brewster's Passage of Summer: Selected Poems, which brings together the best work of the writer's earlier collections. Her poems are seen to be sometimes slight, often sentimental, yet ever honest and celebratory, especially of the small things and the little moments and meanings of life. Brewster has been described as a "quiet" poet, and it is true that she prefers the gentle shade to the fierce sun, ironic reflections to strong statements. Often her poems are moving without being at all memorable. Her imagination is more fanciful than imaginative. Yet her work is like a wine that improves with age; its taste mellows in memory.

The critic Morris Wolfe has written, "One has to read a fair bit of Elizabeth Brewster's poetry to realize just how good she is." The opportunity to do so was finally offered with the publication of her Selected Poems, 1944–1984, which showcases her finest work. Over the years, it has become apparent, she has found a way to turn fancies and musings into meaningful subjects for poems. At the same time she has mastered the art of the casual aside: "Why do I feel guilty/that I am sometimes bored?" and "Love is never deserved,/is mostly imagination anyway." She has nourished a genius for understatement, and a pleasant wit has taken flower in her garden.

Entertaining Angels offers further evidence of the strength and individuality of Brewster's achievement. This is a likable collection with many strong moments. Indeed, she writes about this fact in the poem "Cloud Formations":

   Some time, I think,
   the perfect arrangement
   of words will come
   (though, even as I write the word,
   I doubt if I would like perfection)
   some time there will be
   the moment of illumination
   (but aren't all moments
   moments of illumination?)

The poem discusses her own background in poetry: the eight-year-old in the attic, writing like Shelley; the ten-year-old copying poems in the scribbler; the twelve-year-old composing "my little poems/as letters to myself & written conversations." In the poem "Blue Chair" Brewster finds a homey approach to refer to the wear and tear of the years:

   I like my blue chair, though I can see
   spots which will soon be,
   though they aren't yet,
   shabby.

Throughout the collection there are references to aunts as great storytellers and also to the ghost stories of the Maritimes, the region where Brewster was born and raised, the region she left behind when she moved west to the Prairie Provinces. Perhaps she did not really leave the region behind, for its ghosts flit through a number of her poems written on the prairie. In "The Ungrateful Dead Man," for instance, she describes ghosts as "slipping out of the room/to haunt elsewhere." Ghosts haunt people more than they do places, and the poet herself is among the people they haunt.

It is fair to say that Brewster has succeeded in her resolve to understand herself as well as to write poems that remain in the mind and mellow in the memory.

—John Robert Colombo

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Brewster, Elizabeth (Winifred)

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