Wevill, David (Anthony)

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WEVILL, David (Anthony)

Nationality: Canadian. Born: Yokohama, Japan, 15 March 1935. Education: Trinity College School, Port Hope, Ontario; Fisher Park High School, Ottawa; Caius College, Cambridge, B.A. 1957. Family: Married Assia Gutman in 1960. Career: Lecturer in English, University of Mandalay, Burma, 1958–60; fellow, National Translation Center, Austin, Texas, after 1968. Member of the Department of English, University of Texas, Austin. Awards: Eric Gregory award, 1963; Richard Hillary memorial prize, 1965; Arts Council triennial prize, 1965, and bursary, 1965, 1966 (Great Britain); Guggenheim fellowship, 1981–82; Canada Council grant, 1989. Address: Department of English, University of Texas, Austin, Texas 78712, U.S.A.



Penguin Modern Poets 4, with David Holbrook and Christopher Middleton. London, Penguin, 1963.

Birth of a Shark. London, Macmillan, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1964.

A Christ of the Ice-Floes. London, Macmillan, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1966.

Firebreak. London, Macmillan, 1971.

Where the Arrow Falls. London, Macmillan, 1973; New York, St. Martin's Press, 1974.

Other Names for the Heart: New and Selected Poems, 1964–1984. Toronto, Exile, 1985.

Figure of Eight. Toronto, Exile, 1987; Plymouth, Devon, Shearsman. 1988.

Child Eating Snow. Toronto, Exile, 1994.


Casual Ties. Austin, Texas, Curbstone, 1983.

Translator, with Edwin Morgan, Sándor Weöres and Ferenc Juhász: Selected Poems. London, Penguin, 1970.


Critical Study: "David Wevill's A Christ of the Ice-Floes: Vision of the Elemental World" by Anthony Saroop, in Pluck 1 (Edmonton, Alberta), 1967.

David Wevill comments:

I have tried to create complete poems, not just passing observations. So far I think I have succeeded only in a few poems. I do not know what direction a poem will take until it is finished. The theme therefore is unconscious. I have been much taken with Spanish poetry: Lorca, Neruda, Machado, Paz. They have a terseness that I admire and am only just perhaps starting to achieve. I do not use any particular verse form; the poem takes its own form. I cannot point to any particular influences; these have been many, as much, say, from prose and painting as from other poetry. Landscape is in my poetry, not as nature, but in the North American or Spanish sense as something "out there."

*  *  *

David Wevill took the title for his collection Where the Arrow Falls from a North American Indian legend that told the story of three brothers who shot arrows into the air on the promise that they would build their kingdoms on the spots where the projectiles landed. Two of the three brothers were successful in finding their arrows. The third never found his arrow, and he spent his entire life traveling and searching for the elusive key to his dreams. Throughout Wevill's poetry the metaphor, indeed the motif, of the search becomes the keynote. In some poems he searches for solace from his sadness, for answers to the questions that perplex and haunt him, while in others he searches for the three lost women of his life: a mother, a wife, and a lover. Only in his volume Figure of Eight does he come to the conclusion that the circuitous search is neither linear nor temporal but circular; the goal is the search itself. In the final section of Figure of Eight, in the poem "Full Moon Story," as the wanderer's story and experience wind back upon themselves like a Möbius strip, Wevill comes to the realization that

		The world seen through glass
only resembles the world we
cut so easily...
...Somewhere at the heart of it all
someone suffers, writhes, hangs limp
and comes to life in a dream
I can't imagine.

The overwhelming sense of suffering that pervades Wevill's poetry seems to be the hard-won and bitterly endured process of the pain of purification, the result of which is a spiritual stillness. It is an almost oriental sense of equilibrium or calm in which the individual finds himself and his own existence in tune with a world that, ultimately, cannot share his subjective agony. Simply put, the search in Wevill's work is the process of rising above one's own subjectivity. In "The Text," which concludes Other Names for the Heart: New and Selected Poems, 1964–1984, he writes,

He touches the tip of the cigarette to the circle,
and the circle burns, expands. Its black edge eats
the words he had written, eats into the text of
the sun, the beginning of his day, and stops for no
reason at the O of Odysseus, whose journey is not
yet complete, and therefore not fully begun: as
one must know the end before he begins: the stillness
in the movement of the heart.

Wevill's sense of sadness, which earlier critics had described as "intense personal responses intellectualized," has become more carefully delineated in his later volumes. The responses have become less intellectual and more philosophical so that the persona of the poems is a man who is in search of questions and answers, not only cerebrally but also emotionally. The reader, however, must not look for pragmatic interpretations and solutions to the problems the poems confront. Instead, the beauty and the strength of Wevill's work, as in Leonard Cohen's poetry, lies in its elusiveness, in the poet's desire to make the ethereal understandable. In the title poem "Other Names for the Heart" Wevill writes passionately about an attempted suicide of the composer Robert Schumann:

and sometimes, when the light is good
we move as music, we compose ourselves
in patterns of exact time
and dance as blood, the piano
silent, the melody in ourselves.
But it takes the courage of gods
and we are human. It requires
what our eyes must refuse to see
to see ourselves...
what they rescued was a question answered.

"The stillness in the movement of the heart" appears to be the answer not only to the question of Schumann but also to the question Wevill has asked of his own life.

In one of Wevill's earliest and most enigmatic poems, the title poem from A Christ of the Ice-Floes, the persona finds himself in a "halfway season," perhaps on the verge of confronting his own suffering, and remakes "himself in the image of March," a naive and innocent young man who discovers that the world is a place of changes that neither need nor offer any justification. Like Peter Redgrove, his contemporary and associate in Philip Hobsbaum's Group workshop of the early 1960s, Wevill began as a poet concerned with entropy and energy, with effects more than the causes. "Birth of a Shark," Wevill's early masterpiece from his book by the same title, focuses on the raw energy and instinctual curiosity of a young shark that confronts a group of swimmers. It is a poem that owes more to E.J. Pratt's "The Shark" than to Redgrove's earliest work:

What had become of the young shark?
It was time for the ocean to move on,
Somehow, sheathed in the warm current
He'd lost his youthful bite, and fell
Shuddering among the feelers of kelp
And dragging weeds. His belly touched sand,
The shark ran aground on his own shadow.

Unlike his British counterparts in the Group, Wevill's early poetry was less concerned with the minute details of nature (what some critics have called "The Group Poem") and more interested in emotional responses to place, landscape, season, and element. This difference may be attributable to the fact that Wevill was and still is a Canadian, both in nationality and in poetic outlook, and, like many of his Canadian contemporaries, such as Gwendolyn MacEwen, the narration of the external world gradually metamorphoses itself in his canon into a critical examination of the internal needs and struggles of the individual. The leap between the naturalistic work of his first two volumes and the more philosophical speculations of those of the 1980s is not so great considering that it was made via the route of dream, mythology, and primitive spiritualism in Firebreak and Where the Arrow Falls.

In "The Story of Colours," from Other Names for the Heart, Wevill analyzes his position in the world and makes an effort to come to terms with his losses:

		The philosopher on his walk
comes upon them, looks away and
passes on. And he is the one
who will suffer the memory of what he has seen
forever, his passion, compassion,
life, lived in praise of light, light's heart
broken in him by this accident. The eyes
are telltales only. They have not the power
to bring summer down from the hills,
to heal what grows cold. The days
wander like torches lost in the dark. They
waver, shine brilliantly, and almost lose heart.

The Wevill of the later poetry, however, does not lose heart; in fact, he finds it. His later poems are tender, domestic at times, less searching, and more accepting, with a kind of Iberian resignation that dwells on the border between solace and grief. His dead, he realizes in "Figure of Eight," are dead, and his life must continue. The searcher becomes the survivor, and the survivor becomes the sage among the shadows:

The light has hands and turns itself
so slowly from frown to smile
the day latening toward the coast
in sunlight on a clear road with the tape-deck playing
the light back to you
the evening raga sung
in the raw voice of the sea
the three descending notes repeating
naming you again
asking you to return. And you are gone.
En la bendita soledad, tu sombra.
In the blessed solitude, your shadow also.

—Bruce Meyer