When news leaked out late last year that a new book of "unpublished" Dorothy Livesay poems was in the works, people in the literary community were greatly excited, for Livesay had often commented on her sheaves of unpublished verse. But there was also the suspicion that the poetry would be inferior since Livesay was known to write poems almost in the same way that she breathed. Surely, one thought, these resurrected works would be mostly those that Livesay herself had rejected or those her many publishers had culled. Yet Archive for our Times is a large, rich, and robust collection that repays endless dipping or that can be read straight through as a literary life. Of course, readers will find some poems that they feel Livesay might have refined-places where there are awkward turns of phrase or a weak ending-but on the whole, this is a fine collection that augments The Collected Poems of 1973 and the later The Self-Completing Tree (1986).
For the launch of the book, Arsenal Pulp Press sponsored a series of readings across the country with well-known poets. In Vancouver, I was fortunate to hear Miriam Waddington, George Bowering, Kate Braid, and others recite the "new" Livesay poems, and it was fascinating to observe that they all chose different sets as their favourite. There is no doubt that future anthologists will need to consult this tome for their choices of her poems.
Archive for our Times is also a handsomely designed volume. It includes a foreword by Miriam Waddington, an introductory poem by P.K. Page, an afterword by Di Brandt, and an editorial postscript by Dean J. Irvine. The idea of also offering an index which explains briefly the provenance of each poem is a fine editorial decision, for it allows the poems to sit cleanly on the page without the messiness of an editorial apparatus. The poems can be read as poems, and not as artefacts.
In his comments, Irvine explains that the reason why Livesay left such an unusually rich archive of unpublished works was that she was in the habit of writing poems and then putting them away, gradually building up a reserve. Over the years, she continued to add to this reserve and select from it when she was publishing a new book. About this practice, Livesay herself commented that in the years leading up to the 1960s, there were not many places for poets to publish; this meant that for every poem she published, there were many more that remained as a kind of hidden ground. For her later retrospectives, Livesay returned frequently to her archive. Even after the 1960s when Canada developed its broad network of small and larger publishing houses, Livesay continued to write more than she published; Irvine estimates that Archive contains only about one-quarter of the total collection.
Irvine has grouped the poems chronologically, giving a section to each of the decades, beginning with the 1920s and working up to the 1980s. The latest is from 1983, leaving nothing from then until Livesay's death in December 1996. Irvine has also had the happy idea of prefacing each decade with a photograph of Livesay from the period; the book thereby offers both new and old readers a path through her life as a poet.
The most astonishing feature of the earliest poems in the 1920s is Livesay's sure handling of the new modernist idiom. Occasionally, one hears a phrase that might belong to Carman-"the earth awaits/Returning mysteries"-but the impact of imagism, with its emphasis on "things", is everywhere felt. Perhaps this should come as no surprise, since Livesay published her first chapbook, Green Pitcher, in 1928, but these fine modernist poems from the 1920s remind us that not everything in modernism began with Ross or with A.J.M. Smith and Frank Scott in the McGill Fortnightly Review. When I asked Frank Scott why he had not included Livesay in New Provinces of 1930, the first anthology of Canadian modernist poetry, he spread his hands and said: "We simply didn't know her work at the time."
Because Livesay is often thought of as a "celebratory" poet-one who celebrates her own imaginative vitality-it is fascinating to observe how she situates herself from the earliest period within a dynamic of darkness and light. This dynamic can sometimes be overlooked, especially in the poems from the 1930s and 1940s, in which she affirms the sacredness of the class struggle. For example, "Broadcast from Berlin" asserts,
Eagles and mystic symbols have no place
When men in every land together know
(As one together, understand)
The hammer's swing, the sickle's harvesting.
Taken out of context, this political credo may well appear thin and naive; yet Livesay takes care to position her belief in ordinary working people within a vision of humanity that never is, but is always to be. Thus, after the war, when it is once again business as usual, she can describe herself as being "tipsy with the reeling times,/ The tractor twist of war", and one watches her struggle to reaffirm her yea-saying.
Moreover, Livesay's affirmation of humanity's potential is generally included within a still larger frame, for she ties it to the seasonal cycles, the world continually renewing itself through a miraculous life force. Whenever the struggle seems lost, she turns for renewed vision to the natural world and its continuous revitalization. As she says in "In Praise of Evening", such an affirmation involves
The will to be rooted, but like a tree waving
Sifting the air through boughs and branches
Leaning to lover, urgent with blossom.
Here, the darkness of the earth gives rise to the branches, while the branches extend themselves to lover and blossom. Instead of any linear expression of faith, the poems embrace the contradictions so as to give rise to something old yet new. Indeed, one is reminded that Livesay obtained her diploma from the Sorbonne in 1932 for her thesis on "Symbolism and the Metaphysical Tradition in Modern English Poetry". It is this metaphysical tradition, the yoking together of opposites to affirm the continual creation of the new, that is so attractive in her work.
Although much of Livesay's poetry is celebratory, some of her finest poems also develop the potential ironies involved when the poet takes her own world-creating personality too seriously. "Africa", for example, begins:
From the twentieth of November
At the turn of the moon's tide
I entered the dark continent:
It was blazing with light.
Yet, if the reader imagines that light comes so easily from darkness, then the ending will come as a complete surprise:
From the twentieth of November
I entered the resplendent sunlight
Deceptive as gold.
Here, we are reminded how light can be anything but light-as deceptive as Yeats' woman with the golden hair or Blake's golden cage.
While there is a tendency to search for the unifying image of Dorothy Livesay in this collection (one to which I have succumbed), it should also be recalled that Livesay changed many times over her long writing life. As she delighted in telling students when she came to read: "The woman I am/is not what you see". Indeed, the short poem, "Where is It?", from the 1920s puckishly declares that Dorothy is not one but many people, and that readers will be misled if they look for only one personality: "Warning! I, like the pepper-pot/Live each day on a different shelf."
Since the volume appears to have developed from Irvine's PhD work, one would have expected it to be error-free. While there are not a great many mistakes, there are more than one would expect in materials that have been worked over by a doctoral candidate and that has had the editorial expertise of a reputable publishing house. There is really no reason to have the famous baroque composer, Telemann, appear as Telleman. And it is disconcerting to find in "Man on Grouse Mountain" that the watcher "stamps he feet", or in "Ceremonial Journey" that "Your read the alphabet of blotted lakes". There is also the matter of the accent acute being used for the accent grave several times when the final "-ed" of an adjective is to be sounded. These sorts of errors make one wonder about similar errors in transcription. Still, they are easily corrected and they should not prevent one from praising Livesay for writing the poems, Irvine for editing them, and Arsenal Pulp Press for producing a volume of 284 pages that is a pleasure to hold in the hand.
Ronald B. Hatch is an Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of British Columbia and the Director of Ronsdale Press.