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Concerning Al Purdy

photo: library.utoronto.ca

I’ve been feeling nostalgic lately, particularly for the literature I used to read more, the literary events I used to frequent, the literary talk in which I used to participate much more often. University was a fertile ground, and on being out of it now for ten-plus years, I can say that I’m almost having to start that garden from scratch. Almost.

Unable to contain myself any longer today I leapt from the supper table and went to pull from my shelves my favourite book of poetry: Beyond Remembering: The collected poems of Al Purdy. I’ve seen and heard Purdy read twice, and what I remember most was laughing, and wanting to kiss his cheek, and thinking him a dirty old but very sweet man. I remember him half blind at the time, too. His poetry, his writing in general, is frank and honest, unafraid, humorous, thoughtful, observant, beautiful. Read his own preface to BR and you’ll know just what a man he was. I wish I could have really known him. He was what they call “a character,” and his personality comes out very much in his writing.

It’s still my great pleasure to have heard him, to own a signed book (The Cariboo Horses, a lovely find, unfortunately not signed to me. My own signed copies disappeared along with my first husband), and to have one day spoken (rather breathlessly and incredulously but after all I live in Purdy Country) to his wife when she phoned Chapters where I worked at the time, looking for a copy of her late husband’s book.

Poetry is a very personal and intimate thing, so of course Purdy’s musings aren’t for everyone. But he is nevertheless a Canadian icon, perhaps mostly because of his observant studies of the country’s landscape, politics, and people. Landscape is always a big theme in Canadian writing.

I remember in particular two poems: “At the Quinte Hotel” (located in Trenton, the next town over from Belleville, here) and especially, one of my favourites, “Concerning Ms. Atwood.”

Purdy and Atwood had a very special relationship, one that makes me laugh and cry at the same time. One of her signed books to him was dedicated: “To Awful Al from Perfect Peggy.” Her foreword to his collected poems was lovely: “Listen to the voice,” she writes, “and watch the hands at work: just hands, a bit grubby too, not doing anything remarkable, and you can’t see how it’s done, but suddenly, where a second ago there was only a broken vase, there’s a fistful of flowers.”

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