Peter Van Toorn's Mountain Tea, which appeared in 1984 (he has published nothing since) is one of those books to which the epithet sui generis needs to be applied, for it can be compared to nothing else but what is similarly incomparable¨this is to say, books without precedent or sequel, too individual, too much themselves, to beget succession (like Smart's Jubilate Agno, for example) yet seeding the imagination with possibility and a sense of lexical euphoria. In Canada I think of A.M. Klein's The Rocking Horse and Other Poems, James Reaney's A Suit of Nettles, Leonard Cohen's The Spice-Box of Earth, Michael Harris' Grace and Eric Ormsby's Araby as the only poetic productions that are, to put it paradoxically, equally unique¨books that live wholly in their language and their mythos and are inseparable from them. But Mountain Tea is a towering poetic range that we have unaccountably forgotten is there, one of the major features in our literary landscape that doesn't show up on the maps. I believe it is fair to say that Canadian poetry will not come of age until it is ready to rediscover and rehabilitate the work of Peter van Toorn, as if in confirmation of the hope articulated in van Toorn's signature poem, "In Guildenstern County":
In guildenstern county
where there's hardly any wind
to go by
you can smell the poem in a thing for miles
when wind wins.
handsdown, right out of nowhere: given
good grass out front,
bad brush behind.
Regrettably, at the present moment, there doesn't seem to be much in the way of good grass out front (whether green or gold), as the last stanza of the poem, cancelling expectancy or perhaps merely acknowledging the reality principle, also intimates:
In guildenstern county you can smell the lie
In rosencrantz, you can buy it.
I call "In Guildenstern County" van Toorn's signature poem because there, in his typically feisty and lupercalian language, he assembles his principal themes in one complex structure of resonant affirmation: the vast, partially unsettled country of Canada which, despite its rawness and inhospitality to the spirit, stands as a potential analogue of the poet's imagination; the wind of freedom blowing intermittently through its people "like a blues harp"; and the solitary traveller diving into the precambrian realm of possibility and "surfacing in talk of: beaver, narwhal and heavy trucking." Van Toorn's solitary traveller is a medley of apposite personae, each doing his thing: Hamlet meditating on betrayal on his voyage to England, Arnold's scholar-gypsy waiting for the light from heaven, Valentine living in the wilderness and prepared to make a virtue of necessity, knowing that home-keeping youth have ever homely wits, Jonah lost in Wawa, Ontario, running from Blake's Nobodaddy and hunting for good sex. The poem, both autobiographical and representative, balancing bitter poignancy with deprecating and at times outrageous humour, as if to mitigate dispossession, is the story of a poet on the lam searching for his Muse:
An him go fo goofy babes,
strappin' straw suanabone blondiesÓ
glubby for Šem.
Watch'm pack a tan & buick smile.
Alpha, beta, betcha dollar
balls that broad in his Nehru collar.
And indeed, on further reflection, almost any poem in the collection gives evidence of a superb talent at the height of its powers. Mountain Tea is the work of what we might call a natural poet, at one with the concrete world around him, and yet at the same time the most rigorous of verbal disciplinarians. Van Toorn is the poet of the hundredth draft, crafting and polishing incessantly to create his proprietary effect of lines drumming across and down the page in an impetuous syllabic race to the temporary haven of closure, like his Mountain Fox "with a peppering of claws on the crust" of the snow-stiff grass. What we get is a poetry that is both impeccable and footloose, absolutely precise in its diction and metrics but explosive in its impact. In fact, he reminds me of his own Mountain Maple, who is "a cross between man and grass, and/grow[s] in the thought of him from the ground up." And also of his shimmery Dragonfly, "much more truly quotable,/more strictly independent and severe," than practically any other poet in the country.
Another, and yet related, aspect of van Toorn's performance, which makes him something of an anomaly in the context of Canadian verse, is the almost complete absence of the personal pronoun. The confessional streak so dear to his fellows and one of the chief hallmarks of our national poetry is scarcely to be found anywhere in his work. Van Toorn works by indirections, like a wizard shopping in Diagon Alley. Revelations of self are anathema to him as if he knew that the anecdotal infatuation and its compulsion to render private experience public were a sign either of nonage or dotage. Rather he has made an investment of self in the very language he deploys so that, even though he stays clear of mere avowal and revelation, it is virtually impossible not to recognize a Van Toorn "product" should you come across it on the bookshelf and turn the pages absent-mindedly. Before you know it you are larruped into awareness by a poem¨if I may cite¨that just jeeps up, 500 turkeys on each hubcap for traction. You awaken to a poetry that takes constant issue with the bland pro-formas of standard lexical exchange and puts the devil in the bar code. In short, you have made the acquaintance of Peter van Toorn, a.k.a. Bojo Harang, coming through the sticky pines, all blugy'n bulgy, riggin dat slapstuff, who gives us poems that are full of poetry, not of the poet. In a way, van Toorn, who was born in Holland, reminds me of his contemporary and approximate landsman, the Flemish painter Leo Copers, whose work is a unified congeries of unexpected materials collected with a pica-like appetite from the entire natural and artifactual creation. See for example Coper's notable 1997 Untitled installation which consists of six vases, red wine, gold rope and thread, and a used boning knife, or his 1991 Untitled redoubte print made from a pair of gloves, human blood, cardboard, fibreglass, velvet and copperleaf.
The republication of Mountain Tea by VThicule Press in the Fall of 2003, almost twenty years after it was allowed to fall into oblivion, will be an important event in the cultural life of our country. As suggested above, it is the reader more than the poet who is the beneficiary of the occasion. To apply the political lingo of the province of Quebec, where van Toorn has spent much of his adult life, our "poetic nation" will not achieve its independence as a viable and sovereign entity until it satisfies a number of winning conditions, of which one of the most salient is the belated recognition of the bare handful of truly distinguished poets it has improbably nourished. Of these, Peter van Toorn is one of the most eminent. ˛