Poetry Review by David Eso

Alden Nowlan, Collected Poems (Fredericton: Goose Lane, 2017). Hardcover, 681 pp., $55.

Collected PoemsCollected Poems offers the chance to reexamine the significant artistic contributions of Alden Nowlan (1933–83). The volume draws on fifteen collections that span from 1958 to 1985, from chapbooks to new-and-selected editions. Gathering them together into one sizable tome pays appropriate if overdue tribute. It places Nowlan alongside Irving Layton, Al Purdy, and Phyllis Webb, similarly “collectable” poets from Canadian literature’s explosive decades in the late twentieth-century. However, his peers saw collected editions prepared within their lifetimes. The gap between Nowlan’s memorial and his memorialization via Goose Lane’s collected testifies to the sad fact that this poet’s stature has lessened over the intervening decades. Brian Bartlett’s fine editorial work should help restore the unduly neglected legacy of a poet notable for his impressive range (and sometimes synthesis) of styles and themes.

Many associate Nowlan with deftly captured “local colour,” with the working-class Maritime profiles and sketches that have helped make him an enduring staple of arts and letters in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. This characterization pertains particularly to his early work, which often portrays economic harshness vis-a-vis emotional restraint in the poet’s impoverished, formative community of Hants County (N.S.). Consider how “Beginning,” from Under the Ice (1961), opens: “From that they found most lovely, most abhorred / my parents made me: I was born like sound / stroked from the fiddle to become the ward / of tunes played on the bear-trap and the hound.” These lines hold close to poetic heritage, via regular rhymes, and to a local/regional setting where traditional music harmonizes with howls and moans. “Language” provides a handy pronunciation-guide for readers listening for the poems’ original voicings:

…I catch myself talking
like everybody else from the northeast shore
of Cobequid Bay in Nova Scotia.

Tongue held close
to the floor of the mouth,
far back from the teeth,
breath shallow and slow.

A useful language
for exhausted men
saving their breath
for the next struggle.

My people say:
a man fights
for whatever he gets.

Pronounce it like an Irishman
just back from Armageddon.

Yet Maritime voices and settings absorb national and trans-national concerns. In “We Were Younger Then,” Nowlan recalls meeting with the not-yet Right Honorable John Diefenbaker in Hartland (N.B.) circa 1952: during “that drooping decade / before the century got its second wind.” The Hartland Observeroffices, where Nowlan began his journalistic career, become The Clarion’s basement in the poem. The nineteen-year-old newspaperman searches back issues “within arm’s reach of greatness”: “Here is Lincoln born / in Ontario, Andrew Jackson come / from Saskatchewan. He will free us / from them, too, and all such / most admirable oppressors.” His poems often overleap regional/national levels, with those dedicated to the author’s associates (Elizabeth Brewster, Peter Pacey, Al and Marilee Pittman, or Raymond and Sharon Fraser) complemented by pieces dedicated to international writers (D. H. Lawrence or Yukio Mishima) as well as translations of Tudor Arghezi’s Romanian verses.

Beyond the local, regional, national, and trans-national levels so studiously represented in Collected Poems lie the un-locatable realms of the artist’s imagination. Expansive, fabulist, and visionary poems reverse the “ultimate indignity” of small-town life that Nowlan depicts elsewhere, whereby one suffers “loneliness without privacy” (“Scratchings”). Through the poet’s writing room cum imaginative sanctuary, he communes with historical figures, spirits, and non-human animals. The speaker of “In Praise of the Great Bull Walrus” joins “the walrus people,” enjoys “lying on the rocks with them.” In contrast to Robert Kroetsch’s contemporaneous poem “How I Joined the Seal Herd,” the speaker here does not attempt to transform into or exchange “cosmic secrets” with marine creatures. Rather, he merely offers friendly greetings. “‘How yuh doin’ you big old walrus?’” “‘Me? I’m doing great.’” The trans-species encounter imagined here is remarkable for its casual familiarity, whereas Kroetsch’s poem is sexually charged and mystically presumptuous. Nowlan concludes: “How good it is to share / the earth with such / creatures / and how unthinkable it would have been / to have missed all this / by not being born: / a happy thought, that, / for not being born is / the only tragedy / that we can imagine / but need never fear.” Goodness, sharing, un-thinkable non-existence; happiness, imagination, tragedy, fear. These lines combine the alienating, unshakable sense of terror they would seemingly deny (but reference anyhow) with an emboldened, childlike sense of wonder and belonging.

In “Siege,” the poet defends the sovereignty of his prodigal imagination—a “crumbling castle”—from an unspecified enemy: “I hold the stairs / to the bells / whose laughter / reinforces me; by night he infiltrates / but, being inhuman, is / not fully aware how / powerless I am.” Skirmishes recur throughout Nowlan’s writing. Workers battle wilderness; desire and decorum clash; empires rise and (moreover) fall; the author composes in conflict with multiple selves: former, future, or conjured. “In any [such] hunt” Nowlan sides “with the quarry” (“A Night Hawk Fell with a Sound Like a Shudder”). But weapons appear as religious symbols too; they provide illuminating spectacle. In “The Magic Man,” a performer:

…makes a fist
and out of his hand
there flashes
a great flaming sword!

It’s all done
with props, he
explains—the liar.

If this magician’s trick is no trick at all, one wonders about the proximity of Nowlan’s artistic confabulations to his experience of a world potentially limited by geography and class but broadened by his wide reading and inspired wit.

—David Eso

As in The Malahat Review, 202, Spring 2018