Brewster, Elizabeth (Winifred) 1922-
BREWSTER, Elizabeth (Winifred) 1922-
Born August 26, 1922, in Chipman, New Brunswick, Canada; daughter of Frederick John and Ethel (Day) Brewster. Education: University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, B.A., 1946; Radcliff College, A.M., 1947; attended King's College, London, 1949-50; University of Toronto, B.L.S., 1953; Indiana University, Ph.D., 1962.
Home—910 Ninth Street East, Apt. 206, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan S7H 0N1, Canada. Office—Department of English, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan S7N 0W0, Canada.
Cataloger, Carleton University Library, Ottawa, Ontario, 1953-57, and Indiana University Library, Bloomington, 1957-58; University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia, member of English department, 1960-61; Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick, reference librarian, 1961-65; New Brunswick Legislative Library, Fredericton, cataloger, 1965-68; University of Alberta, Edmonton, cataloger of rare books in university library, 1968-70, visiting assistant professor of English, 1970-71; University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, assistant professor, 1972-75, associate professor, 1975-80, professor of English, 1980-90, professor emeritus, 1990—.
Pratt Gold Medal and prize, King's College, London, 1953; Senior Artists awards, Canada Council, 1971-72, 1976, 1978-79, and 1985-86; President's Medal, University of Western Ontario, 1979, for poetry; Litt.D., University of New Brunswick, 1982; Canadian Broadcasting Corporation award for poetry, 1990, for poem sequence Wheel of Change; Pat Lowther Award shortlist, 1991, for Spring Again; Lifetime Excellence in the Arts Award, Saskatchewan Arts Board, 1995; Governor General's award for poetry shortlist, 1996, for Footnotes to the Book of Job; Saskatchewan Book Award for poetry, 2003, for Jacob's Dream.
East Coast, Ryerson (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1951.
Lillooet, Ryerson (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1954.
Roads and Other Poems, Ryerson (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1957.
(With others) Five New Brunswick Poets, edited by Fred Cogswell, Fiddlehead (Fredericton, New Brunswick), 1962.
Passage of Summer: Selected Poems, Ryerson (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1969.
Sunrise North, Clarke, Irwin (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1972.
In Search of Eros, Clarke, Irwin (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1974.
Sometimes I Think of Moving, Oberon (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), 1977.
The Way Home, Oberon (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), 1982.
Digging In, Oberon (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), 1982.
Selected Poems of Elizabeth Brewster, 1944-1984, two volumes, Oberon (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), 1985.
Entertaining Angels, Oberon (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), 1988.
Spring Again: Poems, Oberon (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), 1990.
Wheel of Change, Oberon (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), 1993.
Footnotes to the Book of Job, Oberon (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), 1995.
Garden of Sculpture, Oberon (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), 1998.
Burning Bush, Oberon (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), 2000.
Jacob's Dream, Oberon (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), 2002.
Collected Poems of Elizabeth Brewster, Oberon (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), volume 1, 2003, volume 2, 2004.
The Sisters: A Novel, Oberon (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), 1974.
It's Easy to Fall on the Ice: Ten Stories, Oberon (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), 1977.
Junction (novel), Black Moss (Windsor, Ontario, Canada), 1982.
A House Full of Women (short stories), Oberon (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), 1983.
Visitations (short stories), Oberon (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), 1987.
The Invention of Truth (memoir), Oberon (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), 1991.
Away from Home, Oberon (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), 1995.
Contributor to periodicals, including Canadian Forum, Canadian Literature, Dalhousie Review, and Fiddlehead.
Canadian poet and novelist Elizabeth Brewster writes, as she herself has often noted, to better understand herself, her world, and those around her. Brewster's "genius for understatement" is, according to Contemporary Women Poets contributor John Robert Colombo, among the several qualities that make her verse "like a wine which improves with age; its taste mellows in memory." Brewster was one of the few Canadian women poets publishing during the 1940s and 1950s; her accomplishments helped pave the way for young women poets of the following generations.
Colombo suggested that Brewster's two-volume Selected Poems, published in 1985, features some of her best work, and asserted that over the course of her career, the poet "has found a way to turn fancies and musings into meaningful subjects for poems, and she has mastered the casual aside." In 2003, Brewster published the first volume of Collected Poems of Elizabeth Brewster, which contains much of her earliest work. Graeme Voyer of Prairie Fire Review of Books noted that the collection "is replete with gems and represents Canadian poetry at its finest."
In 1990's Spring Again Poems, Brewster's work "allows the reader to overhear the inner conversations that produce her poems," according to Anne Rayner of Canadian Literature. Much of the volume is a personal response to Ezra Pound's Cantos, and it has a distinctly journalistic, personal flavor. L. Maingon, writing in Canadian Materials, described the tension in the poems as Brewster's "playing [of] her feminine reality against the chaos of Pound's … masculine world." In this volume, Rayner noted, Brewster explores the relationship between "sources of myth" and "twentieth-century Canadian prairie reality": "I cannot make it new," Brewster exclaims, "but I can make it Canadian."
Wheel of Change, published in 1993, in honor of Brewster's seventieth birthday, is a book of poems divided into sections in which each she meditates "on her life in [Canada] over the past fifty years," stated Ian Dempsey in Canadian Materials. While Dempsey noted that Brewster seeks "intellectual insight … in [her] mild, elegiac meditations" he also added that "she never achieves ecstasy, only wonder." The title sequence of poems, "Wheels of Change," did win Brewster the CBC award for poetry in 1990.
In her 1991 memoir, The Invention of Truth, Brewster changes gears and offers her readers a text that is part fact, part imagination, part poetry, and part fiction. It is composed, according to Virginia Beaton's Books in Canada review, of "poems, some family photos, journal excerpts, and dreams," and it is largely "about memory, and the way truth changes over a lifetime." In Brewster's own words, reported by Barbara Pell in Canadian Literature, the book is a "sidelong autobiography" that explores family, friends, and Brewster's belief "that art elevates 'deliberate ordinariness … to the level of myth.'"
Brewster remains well known and well respected for her poetry and her prose. According to Maingon, Brewster is not merely another talented writer; she is considered by the critic to be "one of Canada's major poets."
I have often used material from my own life in poems, short stories, and a semiautobiographical novel, The Sisters. Also I have had to provide, from time to time, the stark, impersonal summary of information required in biographical dictionaries: birth date, parents' names, education, positions held, awards, publications. I take it that what is required here is something fuller than the summary, something more strictly factual, less intimate than the semifiction piece or the confessional poem. How shall I proceed? Perhaps in as dry and factual a manner as that employed by one of my favourite fictional characters, Robinson Crusoe, an "I was born.…"
Well, then, I was born August 26, 1922, in Chipman, New Brunswick, Canada, in a room in my grandmother's house. The village doctor arrived after I was born; I had already been delivered by my grandmother and my mother's cousin Maggie. I was the youngest of five children born to Frederick John and Ethel May (Day) Brewster. My mother was over forty when I was born, my father not quite forty-five. My father, at the time I was born, was in Saint John, watching by what was to be the deathbed of my other grandmother, the one for whom I was named. Maybe some awareness of the shadow of death came into my mind even in infancy. I was told that I was a very frail and tiny child, that my mother doubted if she would manage to keep me alive. My sister Eleanor (four years old when I was born) tells me that I cried constantly. She herself, I think, was grieved that she was no longer the baby of the family.
My father had at one point been a fairly prosperous merchant, but had gone bankrupt, suffered a breakdown in health, and at the time I was born was unemployed. Later, he worked as a store clerk for a time, and during the Depression of the thirties tried unsuccessfully to farm. We nearly starved, but at least I spent some of my childhood in a beautiful physical setting on the shores of the Washademoak Lake. I have written about that period in my novel The Sisters, where the Washademoak is called Moss Lake.
Both my parents were kind and gentle people, and I was devoted—almost too devoted—to both of them. My mother was the stricter of the two, with a strong religious sense. My father could be lively and amusing, but was given to depression and melancholy. His mind was more restless and unorthodox than my mother's. He was fond of books, especially the novels of Charles Dickens, and used to recite the poems on which he grew up, Gray's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard," Tennyson's "May Queen" or "Lady Clara Vere de Vere," fragments from Walter Scott or Byron or Longfellow or Whittier. (Whittier, he said, was a distant relative, by way of the Greenleaf family.)
My brothers, Percy and Cyril, were teenagers when I was born, and were too far removed from me to be much of an influence. The elder of the two, Percy, went suddenly deaf when he was around sixteen. One of my more frequently anthologized poems, "Jamie," is about him. He was my favourite of the two, probably because he played with me more often, getting down on the floor with me when I was three or four to make castles out of blocks, or carrying me around on his shoulders when he went for a walk. Cyril, my other brother, sometimes took me for rides on the handlebars of his bicycle. Marion, the elder of my two sisters—"the pretty one," as they said—was eleven years older than I, a lively girl, though given, like my father, to fits of depression and with an unpredictable temper. Most of the time she made rather a pet of me; but she could become impatient, especially with what she called my cowardice, for I was rather a timid child. I remember her disgust with me (I was around four years old at the time) when she swung me—I thought—too high on a swing, and I howled to be let down. The swing could never have gone too high for her. I was fond of her, though somewhat wary of her, and followed her around admiringly. Although she was not academically inclined, she was, like my father, fond of poetry, and used to write little verses. Perhaps I caught the notion of writing poetry from her.
With my sister Eleanor, the sister nearest me in age, I had a more troubled relationship. As she told me later, she resented me when I was a baby; very naturally, for the fact that I was such a frail child meant that she was somewhat neglected by my mother. However, we played fairly happily together for a few years, until I was eight and she was twelve. Then she began to withdraw from me, thinking that she was grown-up and I was still a baby. I felt this withdrawal as a rejection, and was very unhappy about it. However, I was discovering books and writing, and consoled myself with paper and pencil.
I can't remember a time when I couldn't read. I do remember getting blocks with letters and numbers on them the Christmas I was three years old; and I seem to remember my brother Percy helping me to make simple words with them—CAT, MAT. Around this time I was also given a book of Bible stories, with an alphabet and some simple readings in front and a group of illustrated Bible stories in the back. It may have been my first real reader. Eleanor's old primer from the first grade was still around the house, and I read it and some other school textbooks. We had Grimm's fairy tales, with black-and-white illustrations, and I coloured them with beet juice.
Because I was a delicate child—and perhaps because she herself was somewhat overprotective—my mother had not wanted to send me to school when I was six. Although I had learned to read without much help, she wasn't sure that I had learned to spell; and I recall standing by her rug frames while she was hooking a rug with one eye and "hearing my spelling" with the other. She also tried to teach me the addition and multiplication tables, for which I did not have an affinity.
It was not until I was eight and we had moved to the Washademoak that I began to attend the one-room school there. Although I could read fluently by this time, and had read some grown-up novels (including Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, for the sake of little Pearl), I had not learned to write, could print only awkwardly, and had no notion of arithmetic. The little Hammtown School had, at that time, only nine students, running from the first to the eighth grade, taught by a young woman who was in charge of her first school. During the four years I attended it there were five successive teachers, only one of whom had any previous experience. They were mostly kind people, and, if they did not teach much, did no harm. During January and February, the little school was too cold for classes, and I buried myself in books at home. They were usually books from an earlier time, novels by Scott, Dickens, Charles Kingsley, Mrs. Ewing. My father gave me Robert Burns's poems for my tenth birthday, and I still have the copy, marked by my struggles with the dialect. I read my way doggedly through my mother's Bible, partly as a religious exercise, partly (I think) to prove my stamina; but much of it I enjoyed for its poetry, going back often to job, and Ruth, and Ecclesiastes, and the Psalms, as well as favourite passages from the New Testament Epistles. I also read most of Shakespeare, and especially read and reread A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest, As You Like It, and King Lear, all of which seemed related to fairy tales. I think that early reading of Shakespeare was the deepest source of my addiction to poetry.
Pastoral TraditionReading As You Like It reminds me
how I read it as a child, and thought
it could take place in the bush somewhere
beyond the cow pasture
where there were deer and chipmunks
and the fern-tasting blueberries grew.But Orlando never came wandering
past with poems to stick on trees,
and I never saw Rosalind sitting
on the hog fence of the pasture
making witty conversation
with melancholy Jaques,
There were no dukes eating picnic lunches,
or courtiers to sing to them,
and not even Touchstone
on a day's jaunt from the city
gingerly avoiding the
dried pats of cowdung.But "What is poetical?" Audrey asked.
"Is it honest?"'
Touchstone said no,
(From In Search of Eros)
I began writing diaries, fiction, amid poetry at more or less the same time, when I was a child of nine or ten. I had read a novel in diary form, a "dear diary" novel, and thought I should keep a diary too. But nothing happened. What was I to do? I filled out the entries with poems. I wrote a long, rambling fiction, a fantasy about two children, a boy and a girl, who wandered away from home into an enchanted forest, where they encountered a princess who lived in a castle and sang to the accompaniment of a harp. I could not imagine what song the princess sang. I asked my sister Marion to write one for me, but she wrote instead a song for fairies dancing in a round. I had to write the princess's song myself, and invent another episode in which the children saw the fairies dancing. Much later I wrote a small poem about this story.
Fairy TaleI had a story that I told
Myself when I was nine years old,
Two children, walking in a wood,
Lost themselves one day for good
From home, and bed, and food.They wandered here, they wandered there,
Through the sweet midsummer air;
And dragons made of fire
Passed them by with flaming wings
And stupid, sidelong stare.And fairy princesses sang songs
To moonbeam harps, and merry gongs
Rang for a dinner, where bright throngs
Sat eating air and drinking dew
Front thimble cups and plates of new
Green leaves, It was no dream, but true.And they were there forevermore:
The homeward path, the schoolhouse door
Vanished from thought forevermore.Only the lake's dark motion came
Dimly to them in a dream
Sometimes, they went again.
(From Five New Brunswick Poets)
I wrote other things: attempts at plays, fragmentary sermons, even a newspaper (though nothing happened). Two poems from Passage of Summer recall this Washademoak period:
Make-BelieveThe child, playing all day in the summer fields,
Was an Indian lying in a teepee with roof of timothy
And floor of vetch and clover; the smell of grass
Was sweet and hot and tickly in her nose.
Or, dressed in a straw hat and a blue sash,
She was the young Victoria in a portrait
Painted in childhood, princess blonde and good.
The Lake was the Sweet Thames, or it might be
Deerslayer's Lake, where Hutter had his home.
The growth of bush where blueberries darkly grew,
Spicy with ferns, was a woodchopper's forest
Where Hop-My-Thumb might wander;
And a deserted house in lonely fields
With broken windows and its walls unpainted
Was the bewitched tower where the lady slumbered
Through mouldering years, waiting a brown-eyed prince.
In dewy pastures steeds—not horses—whinied;
Cows were bucolic in their patient ease;
And in the dim barn, smelling of hay and manure,
The barnyard cat with wizard yellow eyes,
Peering for mice, was lithe and gluttonous,
Cunning as any cat in ancient story.
(From Passage of Summer)
Poem to My SisterDo you remember the houseboat that came and anchored
Out in the midst of the lake, one day in summer?
One of the boys rowed us out. We climbed on board,
And the skipper, old John Brown, showed us around.
"Just like a house," we said, and saw his kitchen,With mugs and pancake flour stored on the shelf,
And his tidy bedroom with his bunk and books.And always after that we envied him—
I did at least—able to drop his anchor
Out there on the Lake and look across the water
At ordinary householders on shore.
It must have been like living on an island
In a world separate as a rounded shell,
Water lapped him to sleep and dawn awoke him.
The fibrous yellow lilies floated near,
And trees along the shore cast green reflections.
The daytime sun was lazy on the ripples,
And in the evening all the farmhouse lights
Glinted like warmer stars fallen from the skies.
Perhaps those houses seemed enchanted too
To one who watched their lights shine on the water
And wondered who had lit the yellow lamps
Or stood beside the windows looking out.
(From Passage of Summer)
In 1934, when I was twelve, we left the Washademoak, and spent the next four years at or near Chipman. Chipman I've also written about in The Sisters, my long narrative poem Lillooet, my short story "Visiting Aunt Alix," and some of my poems, such as those about my great-aunt Rebecca.
This was the most painful period of my growing up, and probably the most painful period for my parents, too. It was harsh enough as I narrated it in The Sisters, but harsher still as we lived through it.
We lived for the first year or so in an old dilapidated house outside of town, called the Pest House because a group of people had been quartered there in the distant past with some disease. It was a long distance to school; I had not good shoes or overshoes; somehow I dropped out of school for three years. If I had been ambitious, no doubt I would have found a way to go, but I didn't. Of course I went on reading. I remember sitting with my feet in the oven of the old wood stove to keep them warm, while I read A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. My father tried to make a little money selling magazine subscriptions. My mother helped a number of housewives with their spring cleaning, or her nieces with the birth of their babies. I went along on these excursions, helped out with a little dishwashing, read any books on the premises. Sometimes the pickings were slim: Cousin Myrtle had only the Bible, the collected poems of Tennyson, and Eatons' Catalogue. Cousin Remona had the Books of Knowledge, which I brought out one by one from the frigid, unheated parlor where they were kept. But Isaac Baird's family had a whole array of books: that's where I first read Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre and Boswell's Life of Johnson and Journey to the Hebrides. Frank Baird (was he Isaac's brother or uncle?) had been Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada and the author of historical novels. One of Isaac's sisters had married the president of the University of New Brunswick. The idea of university first entered my mind then, especially when a Baird grandson with a scholarship visited. I told my mother that I would like to go back to school, though by this time I was fifteen. So we moved into town—on the wrong side of the tracks, of course, but town all the same—in what was nicknamed Rabbit Town. "Bridge" recreates something of the uncertainty of my early teens:
BridgeI remember walking the bridge across the river
one evening in spring with my mother
when I was thirteen.
We took turns carrying a suitcase
which had in it just about all we owned,
and we were not sure with which relatives
we might spend the night.
It was a high, clear evening,
with the new moon out and all the stars,
and we stopped halfway over the bridge
to look down into the quiet water
so still and so deep.I thought my mother,
who liked beautiful things,
was only admiring the stars
but now I know
she must have been thinking
how peaceful it would be
far below the bridge.
(From Sunrise North)
The onset of adolescence, during the period when I was twelve to fifteen, had brought on a great flood of verse. I had my first publication when I was twelve, a poem in the Saint John Telegraph. My father had sent the poem off without my permission. I was angry with him, but pleased to see myself in print. School temporarily halted the flow of verse, while I caught up with arithmetic and history and geography.
In 1938 we moved to Sussex, King's County. Sussex also serves as a background in The Sisters, as the town of Milton, and is the background of the title story of my collection A House Full of Women. A pleasant, idyllic rural small town, it was somewhat changed in 1939, when war revitalized the army camp which had been there in the first Great War. The beginning of the Second World War coincided with my entry into high school. In the Sussex High School I was lucky enough to have several good teachers, especially Nane MacNeill and Ethel Singer. Miss MacNeill lent me books of poetry and books about poetry and, eventually, was the person most responsible for persuading me to apply for a scholarship to university. Miss Singer nagged me into writing an essay for a Provincial contest run by the Press Club, which I won. I was helped also by my friend and rival, Phyllis King, who was in my class in school. Phyllis and I were both omnivorous readers, reading books aloud to each other. We borrowed books from the small village library (upstairs over the fire station) and my father also brought me home books from the army camp, where he worked in the army canteen. One of the enthusiasms I've kept from that time is for Katherine Mansfield, especially for her poetic stories of childhood, and I like to think that I learned something from her technique.
One person I met during this high school period was P. K. Page. I sent some poems to a contest of the New Brunswick Authors Association in Saint John. Pat, a young poet herself, was one of the judges. She wrote to me, and a visit to Saint John was arranged. I used this visit, very much changed, as the basis of my short story "Essence of Marigold." Pat was my "first acquaintance with poets," and her work has always been important to me.
I graduated from high school in 1942, and that autumn entered the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. I had a small entrance scholarship, but could probably not have managed to go to university if my parents had not moved to Fredericton, where my father worked in the army canteen and my mother cooked doughnuts for the soldiers.
The account of Jane Marchant's arrival in Fredericton, as told in The Sisters, is similar to my own:
My parents and I moved to Fredericton in August. My father went first, to rent a house. My mother and I stopped for a few days in Lillooet, visiting Cousin May. I was rather disappointed that, as we weren't there on a Sunday, we didn't see Mr. Cranshaw.
My father met us at the station with a taxi driven by a fat, dour taxi-driver named Guy. Guy and my father later became close friends, so that for years afterward I came to associate arrivals and departures with him.
The train arrived in Devon, across the river from Fredericton. Guy drove us across the Devon bridge into the small, quiet city, with its church spires and clustered wooden houses and squat, ornate legislative building. It was a bright, hot August afternoon, but the summer had been moist and lawns and trees were still green, even though drooping a little. The house my father had rented was a small grey frame house on Charlotte Street with a picket fence and an old-fashioned flower garden that had run wild. We had the downstairs. The upstairs was rented to a young couple, a truck-driver and his wife.
My father had bought a wood stove and a kitchen table and chairs, but otherwise we had no furniture. There had been none to move; in Milton we had lived at old Mrs. Patterson's and used her furniture. For a night or so we slept on mattresses on the floor. Then my mother and father went off to a shop that sold second-hand furniture, my mother carrying her worn old navy-blue purse with the money, as she and my father agreed that she was the better bargainer.
They came back pleased and beaming, with the purse somewhat thinner, and the next day their purchases were delivered: two bedsteads, a kitchen cot, a bureau and a chest of drawers (made by hand), a dining table and chairs and a buffet, The dining-room furniture was heavy and Victorian, and somehow had a happy look of having belonged to us for years. Something was wrong with the catch on one of the doors of the buffet, so it always had to be closed with a bit of paper; but my mother was delighted with it, and polished it vigorously. Later a rocking chair and an arm chair were added, battered but comfortable, and a new sofa with a cretonne flounce. We used the same room as living-room and dining-room. In the evening I did my studying there, at the dining-room table or on the sofa, while my mother read or sewed in the armchair. But that is to look ahead, to the time when I had started classes.
My father, as he had hoped, got a job working nights in a canteen at the military camp. We were settled in.
All three of us took walks around the campus and looked at the buildings. If I had had any experience of other campuses I might have been disappointed; but to me, and to my parents, it looked imposing. It was certainly bigger than Milton High School. Besides, the view over the town and the river was beautiful, and all the more beautiful when September came and the leaves began to change colour.
I wandered all over the town, reading the epitaphs in the little graveyard on Carleton Street, near which we lived, peering into the cathedral, crossing the Devon bridge, visiting the parks and the Green, prowling around the Market outside the Town Hall on a Saturday morning. I had a sense of freedom and anonymity. Nobody in town knew me yet, except maybe the young couple upstairs, who weren't paying much attention to anybody but themselves.
I loved Fredericton and the university. Fredericton of that time was a gentle, elm-shaded small city of only about eight thousand people. The university itself was small and intimate, probably smaller even than a few years earlier, because of the War. Although there was no formal course in creative writing, several members of the faculty were writers: Edward McCourt, who later published a number of admirable novels; Desmond Pacey, chiefly a literary historian, but also a writer of short stories; and A. G. Bailey, a talented poet who was the chief faculty adviser of our small poetry society and the person most responsible for the founding of the little magazine—The Fiddlehead—which we started and which still survives. One of my classmates, Donald Gammon, was the first editor; a few years later Fred Cogswell took it over. Fred arrived on the campus in 1945 as a returning veteran, after the conclusion of the War. He is now well known in Canada as a poet, translator, and editor.
Fredericton served as part of the setting for The Sisters and (under the name of Georgetown) as the principal background of Junction, my time-travel novel. It also is present in some of my poems and short stories. The title story of Visitations is set at the university.
In 1946 I graduated from the University of New Brunswick. I received a travelling scholarship from the Canadian Federation of University Women, and in September of that year entered Radcliffe College, Harvard, from which I received a master's degree in June 1947. This was the first time I had ever been away from Canada—or, for that matter, from New Brunswick—and some of the time I was violently homesick, though I also enjoyed the stimulation of a large university community. I was impressed by some of my professors—F. 0. Matthiessen, Walter Bate—but was more impressed by visits of T. S. Eliot and Robert Frost. I was too busy to do much writing of poetry myself, though I had some poems accepted by Poetry magazine.
I returned to Canada that summer, and in the autumn of 1947 took a teaching position in Hatfield Hall, a small private school in Cobourg, Ontario. Hatfield Hall was the model for the school in my short story "A Perfect Setting." However, I did not stay there long. Three weeks after I arrived I fell off a horse—I can't really say I was thrown—and was shipped back to my parents' home in Fredericton with a broken back. I was in a cast for eight months, but in January 1948 started to work in the library at the University of New Brunswick, and worked there until August.
In September 1948 I went to Bloomington, Indiana, where I was enrolled in the graduate school at Indiana University, taking courses towards a Ph.D. in English and doing some teaching of freshmen. I enjoyed Bloomington and intended to stay there until I received the degree but was tempted by the opportunity to apply for a Beaverbrook overseas scholarship to the University of London. Bloomington is the setting for one of my stories, "Her First Apartment."
I spent the academic year 1949-50 at King's College, London. Several of my poems and three short stories—"Strangers," "Voyage Home," and "A Question of Style"—make use of this setting and time frame. It was a mixed experience. In some ways I fell in love with the England of the time—still a period of postwar shortages and a certain gallantry of spirit in enduring them. English theatre was good and cheap. I loved the little bookshops, the early English spring, the Times crosswords. However, I was disappointed that the experience was not very useful to me academically. I could not work toward a degree except to obtain a second master's degree; and this did not seem to be worthwhile. I did attend some classes, especially one on critical theory run by Geoffrey Bullough, which was also attended by my compatriot and contemporary, Norman Levine, later known for his short stories and novels. I also spent time in the British Museum Reading Room, reading around in the background of one of my favourite poets, George Crabbe, and his contemporaries of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. One of these contemporaries and friends was an Anglo-Irish Quaker writer, Mary Shackleton Leadbeater, whose personality interested me, and I spent a week or two in Dublin reading her unpublished diary. I met some of Mary Leadbeater's distant Shackleton relatives, descendants of her brother, and thought of using them as models for fictional characters, but never did. Perhaps I shall yet.
I returned to Fredericton in the summer of 1950, shortly after the beginning of the Korean War. The next year was unsettled and unhappy. Unable to get a suitable academic position, I filled time by taking a business school course in typing and shorthand. For a short time 1 worked at a stopgap job typing in a lawyer's office. In the autumn of 1951 I moved to Kingston, Ontario, where I worked at Queen's University, part-time in the Queen's Quarterly office, part-time for the Government Documents section of the university library. It was very shortly after my move to Kingston that my first tiny chapbook of poetry, East Coast, was published by Ryerson Press. Although it did not attract much attention at first, the fact that it was eventually reviewed very favourably by Northrop Frye was cheering to me. I needed cheering, as I was still suffering from the previous year's depression and felt that I was in a dead-end situation. My story "Comfort Me with Apples" reflects in part my feelings of the time. My depression gradually diminished, however. Both the people I worked for were interesting to me. George Herbert Clarke, the editor of Queen's Quarterly, was a minor poet and something of a character. Douglas Fisher, in charge of government documents at the university library, later became active in national politics and as a journalist. The Fishers were my closest friends in Kingston. I later regretted not having become better acquainted with George Whalley, poet and Coleridgean critic.
I decided that, since I was working in a library, I should have a library degree, and spent the academic year 1952-53 in the University of Toronto Library School, where I obtained my B.L.S. in 1953. 1 also received the E. J. Pratt Award for poetry from the University of Toronto for selections from my poem Lillooet, which I had written in Kingston but which was not published by the Ryerson Press until 1954. Pratt was a poet whose work I liked, and I was pleased to receive an award with his name attached to it.
From 1953 to 1957 1 worked in the library of Carleton University, Ottawa. Although Ottawa is the national capital, it did not at that time have much of a writing community. However, I did make several acquaintanceships with poets in Ottawa. The first was with George Johnston, a witty poet who later acquired a reputation as a translator of several of the sagas, including The Saga of Gisli and The Faroe Islanders' Saga. George and his wife Jeanne became my closest friends in Ottawa. The second friendship was with the poet Jay Macpherson. Jay did not actually live in Ottawa at that time, but had formerly lived there and returned in vacations to visit her mother. Jay introduced me to Daryl Hine, then a very young poet, on a visit to Ottawa. Another acquaintanceship was with Peter Dale Scott, then living in Ottawa with his wife Maylie, with whom I worked in the Carleton University library.
A large conference of Canadian writers in Kingston in the summer of 1955, organized by Frank Scott, was the scene of my first meeting with a number of Canadian poets: Earle Birney, Irving Layton, Dorothy Livesay, Louis Dudek, Raymond Souster, James Reaney, Frank Scott himself, Phyllis Webb. Livesay, Scott, and Souster have all appeared in my poetry or had poems addressed to them.
Of importance to my writing was a psychoanalysis that I went through during this period. The psychoanalyst was Marta Wassermann, widow of the Austrian novelist Jakob Wassermann. She had formerly written novels under her maiden name of Marta Karlweis. She had been analyzed by Carl Jung, and I suppose could be called a Jungian analyst, though I don't think she belonged exclusively to any school. Something of my relationship with her, though fictionalized, appears in my short story "Understanding Eva." She helped me to get rid of a writer's block that had been preventing me from writing poems, largely by getting me in touch with my dreams. She encouraged me to draw the details of dreams, but I wrote them as poems instead. An interest in dream, myth, and archetype has continued with me ever since. Two dream poems written during this period:
Dream LandscapeWhat is this dark landscape of my dreams,
These mazy paths where it is always hard walking,
In country lanes or on some city side street,
A dark alley lined by crowded tenements?
What are the scuffles in the dark, the muted violence?
What are the bridges that are so hard to cross?
What are the rooms I walk through, the empty corridors
Hollowly echoing to uncertain feet,
The unfurnished apartments always to be let,
The dining rooms where meals are never served?What are these crowds gathered to see a play—
Comedy or tragedy, nobody knows which—
Where the blonde and beautiful heroine weeps and smiles?
Or are they waiting for a symphony to begin
While the instruments tune up but never play?And what is the name of this grey, restless sea
By which I walk, escaped from crowds and houses?How beautiful and perilous the path
Along the rocky coast, watching the gulls dip
From a patch of lonely sky, watching the spray
Tossed high by the wind against the waiting rocks.
What are these rocks? What is this tossing spray?
(From Passage of Summer)
DreamI dreamed that I was buried live.
My spirit took a spade
And dug the earth where deep
My body had been laid.If I arrived in time
I knew I had a spark
Would light my fainting life,
Even in that dark.But when my spade had struck
The coffin, I was dead,
Body and silent heart.
Only my severed headCut from my naked neck,
Still lived, and faintly spoke
With senseless, twittering tongue.
Its eyes, with clouded look,
Stared at me and implored
My help by deed or word.
(From Passage of Summer)
In 1957 I returned to Bloomington, Indiana, where I worked for a year in the university library, and then went back to the graduate school to pick up my work for a Ph.D. My dissertation was on George Crabbe. My third small book of poems, Roads, was published in 1957, and I continued to write poetry. A young poet from India, A. K. Ramanujan, was in the graduate school at the same time, and we had lively discussions and comparisons of each other's poetry. A group of poems, "Nine Poems for Raman," written at this time, was not published until my 1982 volume Digging In. The title poem of my 1974 volume In Search of Eros was also written at this time. It is a long poem on the "Cupid and Psyche" story. Unfortunately, I discarded parts of it, so that it remains only in fragments.
I came back to Canada in 1960, accepting a teaching position in the Department of English, Victoria University, Victoria. My father had died in 1959; my mother came out to Victoria from New Brunswick to live with me. We stayed there for only a year. In 1961 I took a position in the Mount Allison University Library, in Sackville, New Brunswick, and we moved to Sackville. I had by this time completed the work for my Ph.D., though I did not receive the degree until 1962. My mother died in May 1962; I received my degree in June. My story-essay "Collage," in Visitations, is about my father, and "Victorian Interlude," published in the little magazine Event, is about my mother, and appears in my prose collection The Invention of Truth.
Sackville is a beautiful little town with a view of the Tantramar Marshes. Mount Allison is a small liberal arts college. It has (or had) a lively arts community. The artist Alex Colville was one of my neighbours. Michael Collie of the English department wrote poetry, and so did William Aide, although Bill Aide is better known as a musician. It was a town of characters, such as Miss Ella Smith of the local bookstore, who had been in Spain at the time of the Spanish Civil War and managed to get into trouble with both sides. "August Afternoon" gives some of the atmosphere of Sackville:
August AfternoonSummer is almost over now. The fountain
Still sprays its untired coolness on the grass,
And grass is lush, and clover what it was,
And ducks still move like squadrons in formation,
Stepping downward to the water's brink. They paddle
As young as ever on the waves. And yet
One's lame now. Something's happened to his foot.
Ducks and ourselves are not as lit as fiddles.Fall's not in air; frost has not hit the leaves;
But the marsh smells of blackberries and hay.
The goldenrod waves thick; the jewel weed
Winds its small orange horn powdered with red.
Cling to this sunshine, pile the summer day
Close pressed for winter under mind's dark eaves.
(From Passage of Summer)
I stayed in Sackville for four years, from 1961 to 1965. During this period I was vainly attempting to get a larger collection of poems published. Except for a few poems in magazines, my only publication during this time was a group of poems in the anthology Five New Brunswick Poets, published by Fiddlehead. Alden Nowlan, one of the five poets, had recently married and moved to Saint John. He wrote me a warm and enthusiastic letter about my work. Later I visited the Nowlans in Saint John, and formed an enduring friendship with Alden and Claudine. My poem "For Alden," in my Selected Poems (1985), is a tribute to that friendship.
In 1965 I moved to Fredericton, where I worked for three years as associate librarian in the Legislative Library. I used the background of the Legislative Library in the title story of It's Easy to Fall on the Ice. I wrote both poems and stories at this time; but it was not until I had left Fredericton in 1968 that a substantial collection of poems was accepted for publication. This was Passage of Summer, published in 1969 by Ryerson Press. I might not have persevered in trying to get the book published if it had not been for the nagging of Dorothy Livesay, then writer-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick, and my old professor, Desmond Pacey, who wrapped the parcel up to send to publishers.
I moved to Edmonton, Alberta, in the autumn of 1968, to work in the university library. Edmonton had quite a lively literary community at that time. Margaret Atwood, near the beginning of her literary career, arrived around the same time as I did. I was already acquainted with her poetry, and knew that she was a former student of Jay Macpherson. Dorothy Livesay had moved from Fredericton to Edmonton. Henry Kreisel, whose novels The Rich Man and The Betrayal I had read before with admiration, was vice-president academic at the university. Wilfred and Sheila Watson were a lively writing couple. Rudy Wiebe had already begun his writing career, though his most impressive novels were yet to come. Later, the poets Stephen Scobie and Douglas Barbour arrived on the scene.
I worked in the library for two years, but decided in 1970 that I wanted more time for writing. I was then working on the novel that eventually became The Sisters as well as on a new collection of poetry. I had thought of taking a year off entirely, but Margaret Atwood, who was leaving at that time, suggested that I might teach the section of creative writing in poetry that she had been teaching the previous academic year. I had not been happy teaching in Victoria ten years earlier, but I enjoyed this experience. Margaret also influenced the choice and arrangement of poems in my next book, Sunrise North, though this did not appear until 1972, and suggested the title. She enjoyed fortune-telling at this time, palm reading, Tarot pack, and horoscope. I still have a horoscope she drew for me at that time, though I don't know how to read it. Perhaps the fact that she foretold that my later life would be happier and more prosperous than the early part, and that I would have more fame, fortune, love, and friendship in the later part of my life, helped me to face the future cheerfully. One rather comic poem I wrote at this time was "Tea Leaf Reading" (in Sunrise North) about a visit we paid to a woman who told fortunes in the tea leaves. I have always admired Margaret's work, wrote reviews of several of her books of poetry. Even though she was a much younger writer than I, I felt that I learned something from her about arrangements of poems and arrangements of lines.
Poem for a Young SorceressThe witch is young.
Her uncoiled hairslides down her back.
Her gaze is clear,her forehead smooth,
her smile discreet,
her manner guarded,
distant-sweet.The spirit who
obeys her spell
I think is tricky
Ariel.She reads my palm
I listen with
half-mocking hope,but wonder
what her fate will be
who smiles and tells
my fate to me.
(From In Search of Eros)
I had joined the League of Canadian Poets in 1968, when it was a very new organization. Among other things, the League encouraged poetry reading tours by its members. The first I took part in was a series of joint readings in autumn 1971 with Frank Scott and Douglas Barbour. Scott's witty and humane poems had always attracted me. Later I wrote an essay on his work, "The 'I' of the Observer."
Earlier that year, in the spring of 1971, I received a senior arts award from the Canada Council which freed me during the academic year 1971-72 to work on my writing. I spent the rest of 1971 in Edmonton, but went to Ottawa for the first four months of 1972. One writer whom I saw a good deal of at that time was Joy Kogawa. Joy had not yet written her novel Obasan, but was working toward it. Both of us were very much interested in dreams at that time and kept dream journals. We were also interested in the I Ching, and I wrote a poetic sequence, "Consulting the I Ching," which was published in my collection In Search of Eros.
I renewed my acquaintance with my old friends the Johnstons at this time, and also with Frank Scott, now retired from McGill but sometimes coming to Ottawa to lecture on constitutional law.
Before I left Ottawa, my poetry collection Sunrise North was published by Clarke, Irwin. Most of these poems were written in Edmonton. However, one, "Block of Silence," dated back to 1950, and had been intended to be the title poem of my first little book, East Coast. "I Thought of You" is also an earlier poem. A number of poems, though written during the Edmonton period, deal with past experiences, sometimes of childhood or adolescence ("Family Quarrel," "Blueflag," "Inheritance," "Bridge," "Cold Tea"), sometimes of other periods ("Voyage Home," "Poems for Psychoanalysis"). I thought of these memory poems as mostly antinostalgic, an attempt to explore some of the pain of the past.
I returned to Edmonton from Ottawa in late April 1972, immediately after the publication of Sunrise North. In Toronto, on my way back to Edmonton, I received a telephone call from the head of the English department at the University of Saskatchewan about a position in the department. I came to Saskatoon in May to be interviewed for the position, and moved to Saskatoon the end of August. I have lived in Saskatoon, except for brief absences, ever since. When I came, I thought that I might stay for a year or so, and then (in my usual restless way) move elsewhere. However, I continued to teach in the university until 1990, and have stayed on in Saskatoon after my retirement, though I have spent some of the winter in Victoria.
When one lives in the same place, years and experiences tend to run together. I have lived a quiet, rather dull life, teaching, writing, having books published, sometimes taking a year off.
Has teaching helped or hindered my writing? I'm not entirely sure myself of the answer. Contact with young minds ought, perhaps, to have helped. I taught chiefly courses in Canadian poetry and fiction which kept me in touch with the writing being done by other Canadians. A university environment does provide communication with civilized minds. There were also disadvantages. I found teaching a demanding profession which doesn't provide much free time during the academic year, whether for writing or for the sort of vagrant, quirky reading that aids poetry. I tended to do my writing either in summer vacations or in the years I took off. I had grants from the Canada Council in 1976, 1978-79, and 1985-86 that enabled me to take time off. I also had sabbaticals in 1980-81 and 1988-89.
I had two books published in 1974, my novel The Sisters and a book of poems, In Search of Eros. I had worked on The Sisters for a number of years and it had gone through several revisions. Many of the poems in In Search of Eros had been written during my 1972 period in Ottawa; others had been written in Saskatoon; the title poem dates back to Indiana days.
My first real Saskatoon book is Sometimes I Think of Moving, a collection of poems published in 1977. Most of these poems were recent poems, although there were a handful of earlier date, such as "Lady with a Creative Imagination," "Where I Come From," "Woman on a Bus," "Elegy for Jean," "The Green Grass Grows All Around." One sequence, "Scenes from Abandoned Novel," was based on notebook scribblings from my time in Sackville, back in the sixties. Other poems connect with childhood or youth. But the present is also there in the book, a coming to terms with the new place in the Saskatoon poems. My first book of short stories, It's Easy to Fall on the Ice, was also published in 1977. Some of these stories were written in Saskatoon, some at an earlier period. None was set in Saskatoon. In prose, at any rate, I have always found it easier to deal with the past than the present. And I still felt unsure, I think, about the voices of prairie people in dialogue.
I had no books published between 1977 and 1982. However, I had quite a bit of periodical publication; and in 1980 I won the President's Medal and Award from the University of Western Ontario for the best Canadian magazine poem of 1979, a poem called "The Hoop," published in Fiddlehead (later reprinted in The Way Home). My novel Junction, though not published until 1982, was begun in the summer of 1978, during a lengthy visit to Fredericton. It began as a short story suggested by a dream, was expanded to a novella, and eventually was completed as a novel. A time-travel novel, set in 1948 and 1910 (the year of Halley's Comet), it was concerned (among other themes) with the theme of war and its effects and with the yearning of people to change their pasts, to have a second chance.
Some travel experiences entered into poems of this period and later, especially from several visits to Australia and New Zealand. I was interested in the parallels and contrasts between the writings of (especially) New Zealanders and Canadians. Mansfield, of course, was an early favourite; but I was also interested in the work of Janet Frame, of C. K. Stead (whom I met), of James K. Baxter, Maurice Gee, and Fiona Kidman, among others. Poems on Mansfield appear in The Way Home, in the group of "new poems" in my Selected Poems (1985), and in Spring Again (1990). Stead and Baxter were influences on the group of unrhymed sonnets among the "new poems" of the Selected Poems.
Travel is both a subject and a major metaphor in my work, which is often concerned with quest. This can be seen in a number of my titles: Roads, in Search of Eros, Sometimes I Think of Moving, The Way Home, Junction, Digging In. Another major metaphor is the seasonal cycle: Passage of Summer, Sunrise North, Spring Again. Gardens and houses recur. Ancestral voices are important: parents, grandparents, literary ancestors. Poetry itself is a subject, and also the nature of fiction.
The title of A House Full of Women suggests the strong interest in women's lives present especially in my fiction, but also in my poetry. Visitations (1987) is also mainly fiction, but includes one frankly autobiographical piece, "Collage," about my father's life.
Most of my books of poems from the seventies and eighties include poetic sequences; but the two most recent, Entertaining Angels (1988) and Spring Again (1990), are especially dominated by sequences. The title sequence of Entertaining Angels is mainly addressed to my sister Eleanor in her serious illness, though it is also a poem about words, working its way through the alphabet. "H. D. Analyzes Sigmund Freud" is a tribute to one of the women poets who impresses me. (I often like to write letter poems, especially to the dead.) In Spring Again, "Garden Cantos," "Nausicaa Cantos," and "Ordering Verses" form a major part of the book. "Ordering Verses" is in part a response to the Salman Rushdie affair.
My most recent poetic sequence, "Wheel of Change," won an award in January 1991 in a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation literary competition. It is a group of thirteen poems, largely concerned with the problems of Canadian unity (or disunity).
Decline and FallEmpires rise and fall. I suppose Aurelius's
was already on its long long decline
as he battled barbarians and whatever disease
killed him in army camp.When I was a child in the thirties,
the British Empire also
must have begun its descent,
though the trappings were still there,
even in the one-room schoolhouse
in New Brunswick back woods
where Blanche Corcoran and I
stood in front of the wall maps
pointing out to each other
the pink British countriesand we studied British history
with all its kings and battles
and Canadian history with a picture of General Wolfe
dying a hero's deathand drew the Union Jack in colour
carefully in our scribblers.The holidays were half British:
Victoria Day, King George's birthday,the embattled Orange Twelfth of July
with a local farmer
as King William on a white horse.I had never been outside of New Brunswick.
Quebec was far and picturesque,
and people there spoke another language.
Louis Hemon wrote about it,
and Gilbert Parker.
Ontario was where Uncle Cecil went
when he was angry with his brothers.Saskatchewan was far and flat.
Someone sent me a post card of wheat fields
under a harvest moon.
I kept it for months, maybe years,
on a shelf in my room.Alberta was home on the rangeand then there were mountains.That was Canada.Newfoundland was not Canada.
It was out there in the Atlantic (but part of the Empire, of course).And India was Empire too, with maharajahs,
and Australia and New Zealand,
and South Africa, where my father remembered
older men going to fight,
and there were strange words
like kopje and veldt.Somewhere on the other side of the water
was London, which was the heart,
a great dark blob on the map,
and Paris, another heartwhere the blood came from
that had poured into those
blank spaces on our map
and made them
still pink."Civis Roman us sum."Europe packed up and carried
in trunks and boxes
aboard vessels tossed on the Atlantic:
Shakespeare's plays, a Wedgwood tea set,
the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius,
Molière, Racine, a Latin Grammar,
ABC, Mother Goose.Shadow of the Roman Empire
behind those later Empires, French or British."Thine, O Roman, remember …"Grandmother said we had Dutch blood,
Cousin Pierce said French Huguenot.
And of course all those Scots and English,
including Puritan William Brewster.Roman? It's always possible.
QuestDo you find a country
By constitutional amendments?
By expert legal opinions
on the meaning of certain words and phrases?
Will a Canada clause give us
our missing identity?I think of Psyche searching
for her lost love,
the love she lost
because she insisted on seeing
what he looked like;because her sisters
made her doubt his nature,
suspect him of being a monster
instead of the beautiful
god of love.
The LandThe land is not ours.
It will never belong to us—
English or French or Chinese or Ukrainian
or even Cree or Algonquin.It owns itself.
Our cities cannot subdue it,
though they may spoil it.It is a green idea of itself.
It is a white snow
in which our footsteps
vanish without trace.Our arguments, the words
we use to bruise each other,
diminish into snowy silence,
inaudible, invisible.Wolfe and Montcalm,
Montcalm and Wolfe
are buried long ago
under the land's
our ten premiers and Mulroney,
News commentators on television, waving
the flags of the provinces,
our white banner
with its dying maple leaf
blood redthey too …
I retired from teaching in June 1990. Retirement may have given me more leisure for writing; yet it also warns me that time may be short, that it might be foolish to aim at Paradise Lost or a four-volume novel. In the last dozen years or so, many of my relatives, close friends, colleagues, or casual acquaintances have died. That fact is reflected in poems or stories over the years. The time has come to sum up; if I have something I want especially to say, I must say it now. Or perhaps I should just have fun with writing.
What I have written here is the skeleton of a life. Anyone who wants to put flesh on the skeleton should take a look at some of my other poems and stories, at my novel The Sisters, and at the volume of prose pieces, The Invention of Truth, that Oberon published in autumn 1991.
Elizabeth Brewster contributed the following update to CA in 2004:
I recently (August, 2004) celebrated my eighty-second birthday. Life since I wrote the earlier biography has seemed fairly quiet. I continue to live in Saskatoon, though in 1992 I moved from my little house to an apartment in a condominium. I usually spend two months in the winter in Victoria, B.C., where I have a nephew and some friends, including one of my earliest influences, P. K. Page. I have also managed to visit New Brunswick frequently and keep up with old friends there.
During this period Oberon Press has published several volumes of my poetry: Wheel of Change, Footnotes to the Book of Job, Garden of Sculpture, Burning Bush, and Jacob's Dream. They have published volume one of my Collected Poems in 2003, and published the second volume in 2004. Two volumes of autobiography have appeared, Invention of Truth and Away from Home.
Wheel of Change was a transitional book, coming fairly soon after my retirement from teaching. It included the "Wheel of Change" poems, which had previously won an award from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It also included a sequence, "Poems for Seven Decades," which was based on both personal and public events of my seventy years. This was one of the periods when Canada was threatened with breaking up, and some of my poems reflect that national anxiety.
An interest in looking back on the past and understanding it is also behind the two autobiographical volumes Invention of Truth and Away from Home. Away from Home filled in gaps in the earlier volume, with accounts of life "away from home" at Radcliffe College, Indiana University, and King's College, London.
Footnotes to the Book of Job was something of a turning point, in poetry and in life. The title sequence might in some ways be said to go back to an early childhood interest in the Bible. One of the first books I read as a child, if not the first, was an illustrated book of Bible stories with an alphabet at the front, and I was an early devoted—if not devout—reader of the Bible in the King James translation. When I wrote this sequence, I consulted several other translations, including one by the Jewish Publication Society with notes that interested me. I also looked at Jung's Answer to Job, which I had read earlier. Footnotes to the Book of Job was nominated for the Governor General's Award in 1996.
My next three books of poems, Garden of Sculpture, Burning Bush, and Jacob's Dream, continued my interest in Biblical stories. This paralleled a growing interest in Judaism, to which I was formally converted in 2001. (I do not tend to make decisions rapidly.)
Garden of Sculpture includes a group of poems based on stories from Genesis. The title sequence was the result of a tour of Israel, Jordan, and Sinai. There are a number of family poems, perhaps as the result of the death of the last of my siblings, my sister Eleanor, the family member nearest me in age.
Burning Bush includes poems based on Genesis and Exodus, as well as more general poems and a sequence of dream poems.
One of my early influences, P. K. Page, is still present in some of these poems; for instance in the use of the glosa, which I learned from her.
Jacob's Dream, which received the Saskatchewan Book Award for poetry in 2003, includes some poems on aging, as well as a sequence of poems, "Amidah," based loosely on the Amidah—the Standing Prayer, a central part of the Jewish liturgy.
I still continue to write new poems. When my poet-friend, Anne Szumigalski, died five years ago, I inherited a small group of local poets from her. Because they are younger and more energetic than I am, they nudge me to continue writing to keep up with them.
Some of these new poems reflect my continued interest in Judaism. A poem, "Partial Answer," is as clear an answer to the question "Why?" as I might have found in prose.
Partial AnswerWhen people ask "Why?" "How?" "When?"
I grope for an answer.
Why become Jewish
if you're born Anglo?
Aren't there easier possibilities:
Quakers? Unitarians? Buddhists even?I might say there was the time
I discovered my almost-namesake,
almost-contemporary survivor of Auschwitz
and felt a thrill of kinship.I might say, I put my hands
on the Wall in Jerusalem,
encountered rocks and the Rock
in the Sinai desert.I might say, there was that moment
when all the multifarious realities
merged into one,
in that triumphant repeated "Ehad, ehad, ehad!"
a moment I hold on to
when realities jangle and collide.
I might say, there were the times
I was asked "Are you Jewish?"
and was uncertain how to answer.It isn't, I might say,
exactly like joining a church.
A religion, yes,
but also a family, a tribe:a family with many stories
(some of which I grew up with,
some I learn daily)with its own language, customs,
festivals, days of mourning,
joys and heartbreaks,its quarrels, arguments, battles,
its mixture of good and not-so-good.These ancestors were always partly mine:
Abraham and Sarah, Boaz and Ruth the Moabite
(who said "your people, my people"),
and David, who wrote his poems
in danger and dark valleys,
and Job, who argued with his friends and God.It's a family that's part of the larger
human family, or the family of living creatures,
of even rocks and treesbut with its own special place,
its special history,
its covenant, its promise.
Other poems reflect the passage of time and the limitations of age. "To Paris Never Again" is partly a tribute to Al Purdy (who used that title) and a nostalgic recollection of my own former travels. Journey, or pilgrimage, as fact or metaphor, has been one of my lifelong sources of inspiration.
To Paris Never Again
In October of 2004 I visited Fredericton, New Brunswick for a few days. Two old friends from my university days, Donald Gammon, the first editor of the Fiddlehead, which I helped to found, and Fred Cogswell, a later editor for many years, had died recently. I spent time with Frances Gammon and other old friends and with two of my nieces. I walked by the Saint John River in beautiful autumn weather and recalled the past. An old friend from Ottawa days, poet George Johnston, had also died in August. I could not help but be aware of my own mortality.
Nevertheless, I plan towards my next book of poems, which I think of calling Bright Centre, after a painting by P. K. Page. Sometime, also, I want to write more prose, perhaps another volume of essays or memoirs. I know that my time and energy are limited, but I have a ninety-year-old friend, Martha Blum, who is still writing fiction. For a few writers, I remind myself, their last work is their best.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Women Poets, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1997.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 60: Canadian Writers since 1960, Second Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1987.
Ariel, July, 1973.
Books in Canada, May, 1992, p. 50; February, 1994, p. 45.
Canadian Book Review Annual, 1995, p. 44.
Canadian Forum, January, 1997, p. 46.
Canadian Literature, autumn, 1974; winter, 1992, pp. 137-39; spring, 1993, pp. 157-58.
Canadian Materials, November, 1990, pp. 291-92; March-April, 1994, pp. 42-43.
Essays on Canadian Writing, summer-fall, 1980.
Canadian Poets Web site,http://www.poets.ca/ (October 19, 2004).
Prairie Fire Review of Books Online,http://www.prairiefire.mb.ca/ (October 18, 2004).
Saskatchewan Arts Board Web site,http://www.artsboard.sk.ca/ (October 19, 2004).