When he died in 1995, Ralph Gustafson had lived through almost the whole of the twentieth century. He had published more than two dozen books of poetry, a collection of essays, and a book of short stories. He had compiled and edited two early and influential collections of Canadian writing, the Anthology of Canadian Poetry in 1942 and The Penguin Book of Canadian Verse in 1958. He had won the Governor General's Award for Poetry in 1974 and the QSPELL A.M.Klein Poetry Prize in 1993. He was co-founder and lifetime member of the League of Canadian Poets. He had had three previous volumes of his "selected poems" published: one in 1972, chosen by Gustafson himself; a second in 1983, chosen by Don Coles; and a third in 1984, chosen by John Walsh and published in the States. He had also had three volumes of his collected poems published by Sono Nis Press, in 1987 and 1994. However, when I checked two of the most popular CanLit anthologies, the one edited by Robert Lecker and Jack David in 1988, and the other by Russell Brown, Donna Bennett and Nathalie Cooke in 1990, I noted with some surprise that Gustafson is not represented in either volume. An interesting addendum: in the admittedly small sample of poetry-lovers and poetry-writers I polled informally, all knew Gustafson's reputation but few knew his work.
Gustafson's poetry can be dense, idiosyncratic, enigmatic, often with allusions to classical mythology and the traditional monuments of western culture¨in other words, some of his work reads more easily in company with the poetry of high modernism than with that of the early twenty-first century. What P.J.M. Robertson in 1989 called Gustafson's image as "a rather bookish aesthete with a quirky sense of humour" is still in evidence in this collection; but, and significantly, even more evident is "another Gustafson," the one whom Robertson praised as a poet of nature, and above all a poet of Canada-as-home. This "other" Gustafson is also, as perhaps all fine poets always must be, a philosopher of the particular.
But there's something about a "Selected Poems"¨anybody's selected poems¨that solicits a particular kind of care and attention. Gustafson's slender final volume solicits both extra loudly. The link between poet and word is both more inescapable and more poignant in a collection like this one, posthumously published but put together by the poet himself in the last year of his life. The effects of such self-selection are complex.
Whiteman says in his introduction that the choice and ordering of these poems "attends to a Óprocession of Ralph's own devising,Ówith connections drawn at levels beyond the order of composition: connections of theme, of music, and of private circumstance." True, there are felicitous orderings¨groupings of poems that speak back to one another across a shared concern with the significance of the insignificant, for instance, or with problems of existential doubt, or with the lessons of home, "the local heart," after worldwide wanderings. But I found myself not always content to trust this "devising," since it ignores chronology and thereby deprives the reader of any ready opportunity to recognize Gustafson's development in style and thought. Moreover, this ordering seems at times to include poems which make you wonder if the game is worth the candle, so much do they feel like sheer hard work. In one of his early poems Gustafson writes, "Excelling the starry splendour of this night, /What link and lash that bind my bones/I think of now amazed whose hinge/Was even in seed articulate"; he tells death to "Come cranking, then to him, test-tube, text, /Within your claw. No man that's sneezed/But will from all thy groans and gravings/Pluck the paradox!" This kind of writing requires inordinate effort and attention. Is the later Gustafson kinder, less tortuous? Well, sometimes. Though here are some lines from a 1992 poem: "The uses of detraction are a Bible/Diminished, the worm, that knotted in the soil/Thrives, that, buried, duplicates,/Limbless, eats dust." This is still too "knotted" to be fair to the reader¨still not quite realized.
However, such carping aside, there are some stunning poems here. Gustafson is surprisingly diverse in his abilities to stun. Take, for instance, the pared-down syntactical simplicity of "The Newspaper":
The little boy is dead. He went
Through death. The cap is his best one.
He has brown eyes. He does not
Understand. Putting your hands
Up in front of a carbine prevents
The bullet. He is with the others,
Some of them he knows, so
It is all right. I turn
The paper over, the picture face
This is about that famous photo of a little Jewish boy arrested in front of a Nazi soldier. Gustafson manages to convey through the short, simple sentences both the child's unsophisticated smallness and the reader's awareness of and inability to face unspeakable adult bestiality, or to make adult connections between a cap and a death, eyes and understanding.
Or take a quite different kind of elegiac tone, in the poem "Of Green Steps and Laundry". Here Gustafson describes the sort of moment whose significance at the time is quite hidden from those involved, banging a nail into a step, or hanging out shirts and sheets on the laundry line:
And neither she
Nor the man pounding the clear air fixing
The slanted green step with another nail,
Will be aware of the importance, twenty
Years later thought of by him who drove
In nails and by her who saw to the laundry,
Who thought little of cardinals and clothespins who now,
Remembering, loves life, loves life.
This tribute to the loves of ordinary domesticity and domestic ordinariness turns loss into gain by reading the spring morning of long ago as a quasi-Wordsworthian 'spot of time.'
Gustafson has been praised for his vision of the Canadian wilderness as a place of new green grandeur to rival the thickness of European history. "In the Yukon", a much anthologized poem from a 1960 collection, opens, "In Europe, you can't move without going down into history. / Here, all is a beginning."A few lines further on:
At night, the northern lights played, great over
Without tapestry and coronations, kings crowned
With weights of gold.
Robertson has eloquently asked, "Where else in poetry do we find northern wilderness and historied pageantry so satisfyingly, so magically compared?" He maintains that Gustafson achieves the sense, rare in CanLit, of "belonging in all this northern space, rather than being overwhelmed or terror-struck by it." But for all that, Gustafson's vision is only paradoxically comforting. Even in the inhabited world of "Wednesday at North Hatley", after the loveliness of "It snows on this place/And a gentleness obtains," after the comfort of "the house/achieves its warmth," the man who must walk in the snow experiences beauty, yes, but also something darker:
The wind has fallen, and where
The lake awaits, the road
Is his. Softly the snow
Falls. Chance is against him.
But softly the snow falls.
Gustafson is the master of such play with line formation, such shifts of verbal emphasis. The antepenultimate line confirms the man's sense of power, the penultimate line spells the warnings, but the last line leaves him surrounded and enclosed by the deceptively lovely softness of the snow.
Ultimately there is a tenacious and complex grace to Gustafson's vision. The 1984 poem "Hearing the Woodthrush in the Evening" captures this precisely. Again, the language is spare and clear. The poet hears the thrush "through the screen door in the early night," and what is so glorious about it is just the gift of it, unasked, and repeated. "I listen and the wonder is not /Of one song, wealth is about me,/The truth that even as the heart / Responds richness comes, such as /Music that is loved and heard again /Provides and love provides." So much is this constantly-renewed song "grace of itself" that "we can hardly take it." The poem concludes:
There! again. In the falling night ű
The passing song coming through
The kitchen-screen where I stand ű
Repeated though I had not asked.
In the same way, the poet suggests, being in love or remorse or some other tyrannical "happening" has its own authority and tenacity. It is typical of Gustafson to juxtapose these happenings of different types and desirabilities; it is in the nature of the woodthrush's song to remind him of the poignancy of our lack of control, and of the ultimate and extraordinary beauty of the world.
It is of course significant that the four extracts from his long 1982 poem "Gradations of Grandeur" with which Gustafson had chosen to conclude this last collection are subtitled "Life is earnest", "Comedy¨that's the thing", "Epiphanies are got to", and "The moment is all". Here is Gustafsonian philosophy and poetics in a nutshell. Finally we will tell "that which we do. Only/The praise of love, the humour gained, / The permanence of temporary gods." And so one of the conclusions I reach about this volume is that, in the editorial choices Gustafson made, opportunities are created for felicitous movements of thought. But at other times the private will of the poet seems too insistent, and the generous and impartial voice of the poetry is not quite loud enough. Such are the benefits and hazards, I suspect, of self-selection. Gustafson, after all, says in the introductory Author's Note, "I hardly know, or want to know, what I have selectedÓ. My intention was that I meant to delight." And, though not uniformly, delight is certainly on offer here. "Conditional joy. That's about it." This comment of Gustafson's on the state of the universe in his 1992 poem, "Much is required for an adequate answer Ó," is also in the end my response to this collection of his poetry. It may not sound like the "much" required. But try it: Gustafson's conditional joy is, after all, a lot worth having. ˛
Deborah Bowen teaches in too many areas in the English Department at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, ON, and reads Canadian poetry to keep herself grounded.