Thursday, February 26, 2009

Canuck Book 7 - Selected Poems by Alden Nowlan

I thought I'd never read another poetry book all the way through, cover to cover, in order.

This one was a little bit easier than the last (Al Purdy's Selected). I still can't say I greatly enjoy reading a poetry book from cover to cover but I had an easier time getting through this one. It's just hard not to fall back on old habits and start to jump around from poem to poem chasing whatever caught my eye.

I first started to look at Alden Nowlan after hearing NQ Arbuckle's "Part Of A Poem By Alden Nowlan called Ypres: 1915" on the Zombie's website (http://badtemperedzombie.blogspot.com/) last Remembrance Day. I'm sure I read some of his stuff back in university but I never really got into it.

Reading his Selected Poems, I wonder what I missed back then. His poems are beautiful, haunting, honest and alive in all the best ways. While Nowlan was a self-taught poet like Al Purdy, his poems are darker, simpler affairs. There is a clarity and an honesty to these poems that had me scribbling notes in the margins and jamming pieces of paper into the spine to mark each new revelation. I almost drove my sister crazy one drive up north stopping the music to highlight another gem I'd found in this book.

Nowlan came from a poor family in Nova Scotia and this background informs all of his poetry. He doesn't suffer fools. He can be harsh when dealing with hypocrisy, especially the hypocrisy of attitudes towards the poor. Every aspiring social worker should have to memorize his "The Social Worker's Poem" before going out to work with people.

There is a lot of tenderness and even humour to be found here, as well. Overall, there is a great sense of humanity in this book, warts and all. Through Nowlan's poems, you see a world that is harsh and beautiful, cruel and joyful and you feel better for experiencing it.

In reality, you have to read his whole poems to get understand how great his work is. His poems spool out like stories and deserve to be read as such. That said, I can't resist offering up a few choice lines:

"The worst way to die / is as a prisoner, at the hands / of a pitiless human enemy. / Next to the worst / is death of natural causes. / There are no pacifists / in the cancer ward."

- For Yukio Mishima

"My family was poor. / Not disadvantaged - curse / that word of the sniffling / middle classes, suggesting / as it does that there's / nothing worse than / not being like them."

- What Colour Is Manitoba?


And one of his shorter poems:

An Exchange of Gifts

As long as you read this poem
I will be writing it.
I am writing it here and now
before your eyes,
although you can't see me.
Perhaps you'll dismiss this
as a verbal trick,
the joke is you're wrong;
the real trick
is your pretending
this is something
fixed and solid,
external to us both.
I tell you better:
I will keep on
writing this poem for you
even after I'm dead.

72 comments:

Barbara Bruederlin said...

What I love most about the Alden Nowlan poems I have read (and admittedly those have been far too few in number) is the way he tells a story. He gives accessible a good name!

Thanks for the lovely review. I am asking for this book for the next gift-buying occasion.

Daibhin said...

That poem just took my breath away.

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