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Alden Nowlan & Illness:
Canadian Masters Series: Volume One


by edited by Shane Neilson
96 pages,
ISBN: 097358470X


Post Your Opinion
The Charm of the Souvenir
by Robert Moore

Alden Nowlan & Illness, edited by Shane Neilson, is the inaugural volume in the Canadian Masters Series published by Frog Hollow Press. Established in 2001, Frog Hollow Press is a "private press", a category of publisher defined on its website as free "from outside control or interference" being "essentially the work of one person, the proprietor, who prints to please himself." In light of this, the usual rules of engagement between reviewer and text aren't likely to obtain. That is, it would be churlish to hoist this volume for any failure to be anything other than the expression of a narrow range of esoteric interests. And what are those interests? Well, on the level of form-i.e., with regard to the book as a material object-the interest was manifestly in creating a tome showcasing the bookmaker's art. Unlike its conventional perfectly-bound cousins from Canada's small presses (Gaspereau Press being a notable exception), this letterpressed and hand-bound book is very much made rather than produced. To appreciate this book you need to hold it your hands, feel its mass, savour its odd but pleasing combination of looseness and structural integrity. Moreover, if you're any sort of aficionado of bibliopegy, you'll want to know that it was made on a Vandercook 15-21 press, set in Minion 11-point type, that its endpapers are French Marble reproductions, that the copper-coloured fabric over its hardboard covers is Japanese silk bookcloth and that its binding is Coptic variation.
You might also be interested in knowing that, despite the press's determination to keep its prices as "affordable as possible (keeping in mind that they are hand-crafted)," one of the only 150 copies printed for general release can be yours for-wait for it!-125 dollars. Now for that kind of scratch you could probably purchase every book of poetry Alden Nowlan ever published, and even have enough left over to order an advance copy of Nowlan's Between Tears and Laughter: Selected Poems, slated to be the first of the new World Poets series by Britain's Bloodaxe Books. Apart from its highly estimable package, then, what else do you get for such a sizeable investment?
At the heart of the book's ninety-six pages-sandwiched between, at the front end, a foreword, an introduction, and a brief essay on the late Fred Cogswell (originally tapped to write an essay for the volume) and, at the back end, an afterword by Robert Gibbs-are twenty-one of Nowlan's poems. And not just any poems. Taking up slightly more than a third of the book and arranged roughly in the order they would have been published, these are his "illness poems" which amount to a deliberate exercise in bibliotherapy. Thus, Greg Cook, friend of the late poet and author of the recent biography on him, One Heart, One Way, ends his foreword "On Good Medicine" as follows: "My old friend is good for your health. Drink this cup of him, Dr. Neilson says." For his part, the good doctor Neilson-like Cook, also a Maritime poet-ends his introduction with a similar insistence on the analeptic properties of the poetry: "[These poems] are a remarkable and more powerful brand of medicine than I could ever practice." Indeed, it's Neilson's custom in his medical practice to prescribe Nowlan's poetry to his patients, to those facing or about to face the mortal trials Nowlan himself underwent and later made into poetry: "I provide copies of Nowlan's poems to certain patients who seem like they might be receptive to poetry. By providing the context of the poems-that Nowlan the poet survived his illness, that he lived to write these same poems I'm handing out-I believe I'm giving patients hope in facing their own health catastrophes." The most important benefit of this particular genre of poetry is to provide, as Rafael Campo (quoted by Neilson) says, "a nonjudgemental space to explore and accept death as one possible ending to the patient's life story."
The biographical episode around which the book coheres is Nowlan's famous brush with an death from the cancer which threatened him in 1966 at the age of thirty-three. Following the discovery of a thyroid cancer which was left undiagnosed for six months, Nowlan suffered through three harrowing operations, any one of which might easily have ended his life. Six weeks after he entered St. Joseph's Hospital in Saint John, a much-different Nowlan emerged to live, write, and achieve great things for another seventeen years (he died in 1983). The removal of the thyroid gland, lymph glands, a good part of the larynx and jugular vein, together with damage to the muscles of the neck and shoulder permanently altered his appearance. The loss of part of the jugular in particular resulted in the distinctive swelling of his face, a swelling which never quite subsided. Physical damage and partial disfigurement apart, this near-death experience, as is generally acknowledged by Nowlan's critics and biographers, wrought significant and salubrious changes in Nowlan's art.
In terms of Nowlan's development as a poet, after 1966 Nowlan's poetry took what Neilson characterizes as a "revolutionary" turn. According to Neilson, prior to his illness-the equivalent for Nowlan of a transfiguring passage through the underworld-Nowlan spoke as a poet almost exclusively in the third person, especially on the subject of death. Before his near-death experience, "illness and dying are always occurring to [Nowlan's] protagonists, never to himself." After his six-week sojourn among the shades, however, Nowlan eschews his former detachments and resolves to address both subjects in the first person. According to Neilson, the poems gathered in Alden Nowlan & Illness are the poems which make manifest Nowlan's transformation "from being a poet of sympathy to one of empathy." Hence the logic of the book's epigraph, in which Nowlan declares, "I think it is blasphemy to write poems about pain not experienced."
As Neilson attests in an agreeable, even chatty, introduction imbricating his own story with Nowlan's, the latter's poetry was crucial to his own introduction to the "'art' of medicine." One of the first lectures he attended at Dalhousie Medical School began with consideration of an overhead projection Nowlan's "Aunt Jane", a poem which anyone about to take up the subject of euthanasia would certainly profit from reading (the Aunt Jane of the poem "was dead at ninety, buried at a hundred"). As related by Neilson, his education as a doctor essentially began here. Through Nowlan, Neilson's past (the world of rural of rural New Brunswick, a world akin to that which Nowlan returns to again and again in his poetry and prose) is given voice, and his future-as both doctor and poet-is given direction; just as Nowlan came into his own and found his future direction through medicine, so too does Neilson.
I don't mean to doubt the sincerity of Neilson's epiphany or diminish its potential instructiveness as testimonial when I say that what concerns me when it comes to estimating the worth of the work collected here is the larger realist assumption gripping this anthology-one valorized in the epigraph from Nowlan-that facts are facts, experiences are experiences, history is history. What determines right of inclusion in this anthology is almost purely an instrumental value, an instrumentality vouchsafed by biography. The principle of selection is, therefore, only incidentally the worth of the poems as poems. The result probably may very well make for good medicine for some, but for anyone interested in reading the best of what Nowlan was capable of as a poet, Alden Nowlan & Illness is neither representative of Nowlan's best work, nor even, I would argue, an especially medicative read. The limitations of the approach Neilson has taken is, oddly enough, illustrated in one of the poems he includes.
The second poem in the book, "After the First Frost", was originally published in A Darkness in the Earth (1958) and treats the subject of death in the manner Neilson describes as empathetic as opposed to sympathetic. The subject of the poem is an old woman who, as constructed by Nowlan, is at once a personification of death and, putatively at least, a figure from the speaker's disadvantaged rural past. Over the course of this relatively brief lyric, the speaker looks through the old woman in the present to her daughter and a common past; a girl he remembers "as a legion of whispers." Through the daughter, and at greatest remove, there's a "simple baby", presumably a hydrocephalic, whose head "grew/ enormous and huge" over the course of three summers until he died in a sort of grotesque pieta. Here's how the poem opens:
After the first frost

resting in the cool shadows,
the undisciplined lilac bushes
a green web around her,

old woman in brown stockings,
smelling of wintergreen
a clean burn in my nostrils,
sipping hot milk and ginger,
among the dead lilacs.
Though strictly speaking "After the First Frost" isn't one of what Neilson designates Nowlan's post-revolutionary empathetic poems (it was published eight years before the poet entered the hospital), given that the poem treats both illness and death one can appreciate why Neilson chose to include it. It's an accomplished poem, wonderfully compressed, marked by extraordinary flourishes of imagery. "After the First Frost", in fact, is one of the book's strongest "illness poems". Which brings us to the primary reservation I have with this book's overarching purpose and ostensible justification. Is "After the First Frost" less 'healthful' as a poem because the merely sympathetic Nowlan probably invented the slightly fantastic old woman, her hapless daughter, and the doomed child? Does it somehow have less authority because the pain of which it speaks wasn't "experienced" by the speaker directly? Is the sympathy it enacts apt to prove less a source of comfort and healing to anyone threatened with illness? Conversely, is "Night Fears"-a minor poem describing Nowlan's hospital experience in realistic fashion-better suited to bibliotherapy? Is it potentially more therapeutic because, as Neilson takes pains to describe in an adjoining note which runs four to five times the length of the poem itself, "The poem hints [more or less accurately] at two [actual] medical conditions"?
A recent commentary in The Times Literary Supplement noted, "The fashionable method for marketing poetry nowadays is to disguise it as therapy." Nowadays, the commentary goes on to note, readers of poetry appear to "care less about immortal verse than [they] do about [their] mortal souls." It's not my intention to decry this gentle and well-intentioned anthology's failure to resist fashion-the practical and therapeutic intentions of Alden Nowlan & Illness are entirely undisguised-but rather to underscore the fact that the quality of the poetry collected here is at best, a secondary consideration. This may be poetry for sick or dying readers (or readers interested in same) but it's also for readers one would have to define even more narrowly: readers unwilling or incapable of finding meaningful (or healthful) connections between their mortal preoccupations and "immortal verse"-poetry which somehow inscribes the soul in action by telling the world, as it were, slant. As a poet's guide to illness, it panders to the notion that poetry, to serve as an effective means to reconcile us to the inevitability of illness and death, needs to be grounded first and foremost in fact, in the life lived rather than imagined or radically remade in art.
In his foreword, Greg Cook characterizes this collection as a "souvenir anthology", which strikes me as entirely apt given the book's modest ambitions. Typically, the souvenir is a fetish for tourists, the ones who pass through, who rest but lightly on the ground; a materialization of place that, once detached from origin, tends to insist too strenuously on its authenticity. In its weakest incarnations, a souvenir is a dead and deadly thing, something the genuine traveller would regard not as an aid but as a sop to memory. The charm of the souvenir, however, even in its most vulgar incarnation, is its honesty: it is no more than the claims its surfaces are prepared to make. Alden Nowlan & Illness is no more than what it claims to be: a gathering of illness poems by a poet whose reputation continues to grow, in part, because of a medical subject with which that poet had some personal experience. And if such poetry has a place, it would be difficult to imagine a more congenial one than the richly-appointed souvenir anthology under review here.
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