||A Light Blaze in Rare Air: Richard Outram
by Jeffrey Donaldson
Dove Legend is a pungent pot pourri for Outram readers. It binds
together the shorter poem cycles, festive holiday broadsheets,
occasional verses and love poems, and a number of highly disguised
and thus revealing autobiographical pieces, all written over the
past ten years (roughly since Outram's retirement from stage
production at the CBC). In a sense, these are only the decade's
leftovers. In the same span, we have been treated to a series of
book-length poetry cycles, Hiram and Jenny, Mogul Recollected, and
Benedict Abroad. A reader of Dove Legend cannot help but think of
the book's relationship to all the other work Outram has published
in these same years, if not to his career in general. In short, to
come across this ample inventory is to find yourself wondering, as
others have before, why Outram isn't better known than he is.
Peter Sanger opens his introduction to the work of Richard Outram
with the comment that "This essay should not be possible or
necessary." English departments in Canada should blush to
acknowledge that up until now there have been no extended studies,
books, or doctoral theses written on the poet whom Alberto Manguel
has described as "one of the finest poets in the English
language," a poet whose prodigious career now spans four
decades. The mind scrambles for an equivalent critical omission.
Sanger himself writes that "a comparable situation would have
been one in which a reviewer of Auden's City Without Walls in 1969,
had no choice but to read him as an unknown."
What does sell in English studies today? (One should hasten to
propose that the readership outside the university is a good deal
more sophisticated than inside; all the more reason to focus on the
weak link in the chain). The rustle of cultural and political
debate and the process of a people's cultural evolution are our
worthy preoccupations. It seems all the more ironic then that a
poet of Outram's stature and range, with his divergent cultural
engagements, his historical and political savvy, and his unique
evocation of an indigenous rural Canadian dramatis personae should
so egregiously have escaped the attention of our readers and critics.
Outram even obligingly stayed clear of the academy, a fact which
ought to have set him abreast of Milton Acorn as most-favoured among
our self-loathing academics. Mind you, a critic would have to answer
for the troubling detriments to Outram's reputation: his formal
virtuosity, his exotic mastery of the language, his dazzling
metaphoric sleights-of-hand, his brisk idiomatic twang, his street
smarts, his surprising bawdy wink, his untrappable and exacting
spiritual vision. These attributes evidently will win you neither
a spot on a university course syllabus nor the front table at
Then there is the agonized matter of Outram's difficulty. Any reader
of Outram will quickly acknowledge that the poems invite and reward
careful attention; they hope-as what poem does not-to be read,
reread, sorted through, puzzled, daydreamed over, and studied. It
appears that there are more readers outside the academy equal to
the task than in. You wouldn't on a first reflection think that the
poems' impressive wager would disqualify them from scholarly exegesis;
indeed one could almost imagine an academic industry based on how
the poems inspire strong readings (the likes of which has not been
seen since the critical wagons circled around Wallace Stevens's
metaphysics in the 70s and 80s). One can easily go too far in the
characterization: Outram's effervescent-and often erotic-word-wit
and his dramatic impersonations offer immediate gratification for
anyone favouring the pleasure side of the poet's instruct-and-delight
imperative. The fact that Outram is a challenging poet should only
bring the more shame to any academic apologist. It seems nowadays
that the only people who have an innate right to difficulty, or
resistance to easy paraphrase, are the critics themselves. Wallace
Stevens said that a poet must resist the intelligence almost
successfully; he didn't say the critic should, nor, as they seem
inclined, should they resist those who do. As for difficulty, there
are those in Canada whom we prize for their elusiveness (Anne Carson
for one comes to mind), yet they have the readership and commentary
they deserve. You have to wonder too what, in Canada, would have
become of a poet like Britain's Geoffrey Hill, Cambridge and Boston
College guru at whose feet those readers with a taste for mystic
prophecy and historical erudition have listened for years.
Where, then, could this absent literary and academic commentary
begin its work? One suggestion might be the way Outram's worlds
embody a human-centred spirituality, a marriage of the secular and
sacred, dramatized in ready-to-hand historical scenes and circumstances.
Outram's vision points to nothing like a dogmatic religious principle,
nor to a god who is seen to be out there, but to the god in us, a
god manifest in our every creative act and potential. Consider the
exemplary Ned Gladson-a character in Hiram and Jenny-perennial
sitter on porches in the rural Maritimes, who oversees the rise and
fall of each ordinary day:
A wizened little old bugger, but
Ned Gladson as tough as they come,
in his seventies now, can still read
the fine print on the Castoria label
without glasses. Got all his own teeth.
Can pee six feet: when Silk, wistful,
asked him how come, said, "Massage."
Could still haul lobster pots all day,
if he chose, which he don't, no more.
Sits on his porch, mornings, make sure
that the sun comes up. Naps, most noons.
Then back on the porch, bolt upright
see that she sets proper. Important,
somebody got to, he says, or else.
And nobody going to argue, not with Ned;
Besides which, he may be right; who knows?
Offered, one warm night, to arm wrestle
the Prophet Isaiah; two out of three.
But the prophet backed down, saying,
"... the whole head is sick, and the whole
heart faint." Gladson just spat, got on
with the job, waxing the cuticle moon.
The farcical Ned holds court over a small-town maritime community
that for all its secular spit is no less apocalyptic in its imaginative
reach. Outram has Gladson invite or challenge the prophet Isaiah
to an arm wrestle: "two out of three" captures just the
right note of audacity and a no-doubt well advised hedging of his
bet. There is something otherworldly, and yet no-nonsense and
casual about his dare. >From our perspective, either Ned is mad and
hallucinating, or we must re-evaluate the nature of the reality we
visit. Outram's unique brand of unapologetic magic realism toys
with our uncertainty as to whether we inhabit here a wholly metaphoric
and symbolic world, or just a place where a guy is off his rocker.
In the present scene, Isaiah knows too much about the shortcomings
of Ned's fallen world-for see how his prophecy still stands-to be
duped by the trickster's bid for apotheosis. Refused, Ned just spits
and gets on with the job, "waxing the cuticle moon."
Whatever prophets choose not to wrestle with us, the imagination
has to get on with its work-since we are here nonetheless-getting
the moon to rise to its proper place somehow. I love that sense
that someone has to do it, that Ned's sad ubiety notwithstanding,
the moon wouldn't be the moon if he didn't watch over it. Our secular
world, as everywhere in Outram, both suffers a refusal-it not being
what it isn't-and yet stubbornly insists on the audacity of its
spiritual gambit, its peculiar divinity. Ned has as much right to
it as the poem itself that ever so subtly crosses the line where
real and unreal meet. It is Isaiah, after all, who backs down.