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Barbara Myers on Gwendolyn MacEwen’s “The Mirage”

(How Poems Work, November 2004)
Gwendolyn MacEwen was one of the most remarkable Canadian poets of her generation. Never associated with any particular school of writing, she arrived upon the poetry scene in Toronto in the early 1960s, reading her uniquely original work in the coffee houses of the day, such as The Bohemian Embassy. Throughout her writing life of approximately 25 years she published seven collections of poetry, two novels, plays, and stories for children, and won the Governor General’s award for poetry twice: first for _The Shadow Maker_ in 1969 and (posthumously) for _Afterworlds_, in 1988. She died in 1987.
MacEwen published her collection _The T. E. Lawrence Poems_ in 1982, attributing her first fascination with Lawrence to “sepiatone photographs … of blurred riders on camels riding to the left into some uncharted desert just beyond the door” pointed out to her in a hotel in Tiberias, Israel, in 1962. Some say she felt herself to be a twin in spirit to Lawrence. “The Mirage” is from this volume. Although all these poems are written in Lawrence’s voice, and this one–with its opening line: “This is the desert, as I promised you”–at first appears to be as well, the voice seems to waver as we read on … like a mirage. The desert may stand for existence, the mirage for–what? Our attempts to assign meaning on behalf of the “marvelous vessels”? The easy conversational tone rests securely on a well-honed framework: five quatrains, each stanza’s first and third lines in iambic pentameter, shorter lines woven around them….

Gwendolyn MacEwen was one of the most remarkable Canadian poets of her generation. Never associated with any particular school of writing, she arrived upon the poetry scene in Toronto in the early 1960s, reading her uniquely original work in the coffee houses of the day, such as The Bohemian Embassy. Throughout her writing life of approximately 25 years she published seven collections of poetry, two novels, plays, and stories for children, and won the Governor General’s award for poetry twice: first for _The Shadow Maker_ in 1969 and (posthumously) for [_Afterworlds_], in 1988. She died in 1987.
MacEwen published her collection _The T. E. Lawrence Poems_ in 1982, attributing her first fascination with Lawrence to “sepiatone photographs … of blurred riders on camels riding to the left into some uncharted desert just beyond the door” pointed out to her in a hotel in Tiberias, Israel, in 1962. Some say she felt herself to be a twin in spirit to Lawrence. “The Mirage” is from this volume. Although all these poems are written in Lawrence’s voice, and this one–with its opening line: “This is the desert, as I promised you”–at first appears to be as well, the voice seems to waver as we read on … like a mirage. The desert may stand for existence, the mirage for–what? Our attempts to assign meaning on behalf of the “marvelous vessels”? The easy conversational tone rests securely on a well-honed framework: five quatrains, each stanza’s first and third lines in iambic pentameter, shorter lines woven around them…


Gwendolyn MacEwen was one of the most remarkable Canadian poets of her generation. Never associated with any particular school of writing, she arrived upon the poetry scene in Toronto in the early 1960s, reading her uniquely original work in the coffee houses of the day, such as The Bohemian Embassy. Throughout her writing life of approximately 25 years she published seven collections of poetry, two novels, plays, and stories for children, and won the Governor General’s award for poetry twice: first for _The Shadow Maker_ in 1969 and (posthumously) for [_Afterworlds_], in 1988. She died in 1987.
MacEwen published her collection _The T. E. Lawrence Poems_ in 1982, attributing her first fascination with Lawrence to “sepiatone photographs … of blurred riders on camels riding to the left into some uncharted desert just beyond the door” pointed out to her in a hotel in Tiberias, Israel, in 1962. Some say she felt herself to be a twin in spirit to Lawrence. “The Mirage” is from this volume. Although all these poems are written in Lawrence’s voice, and this one–with its opening line: “This is the desert, as I promised you”–at first appears to be as well, the voice seems to waver as we read on … like a mirage. The desert may stand for existence, the mirage for–what? Our attempts to assign meaning on behalf of the “marvelous vessels”? The easy conversational tone rests securely on a well-honed framework: five quatrains, each stanza’s first and third lines in iambic pentameter, shorter lines woven around them.
The voice becomes menacing in the second line–“There are no landmarks”–then taunting: “Did you ever know where you were going?” Lawrence was troubled and uncomfortable with his public persona of hero and leader of Arabic peoples. Does the speaker, MacEwen as Lawrence, address the mirage: “Am I as invisible to you / As you always were to me, fellow traveller?” Or does the mirage address Lawrence/MacEwen? Reassurance of a kind: “You are not here for nothing.” But don’t for a moment think it’s going to be easy to see, to ride “the waves of invisible seas / In marvelous vessels which are always / arriving or departing.”
Like its subject, the poem–for all its straightforward diction–wavers, elusive. In the last two stanzas, the seer/prophet/mirage draws itself to its full metaphoric height: “I have come to uncover the famous secrets�”–and all the rest is mystery. The mirage needs “tons of yellow space”. And beware, beware: “I am the living center of your sight; I draw for you / this thin and dangerous horizon.” Lines Coleridge might have been proud to write, of magic and mystery “holy and enchanted.” (“Kubla Khan”)
MacEwen was interested in language as the basis of myth. She said that in her poetry she was concerned with “finding the relationships between the ‘real’ world and that other world that consists of dream, fantasy, and myth.” For her, myth, metaphor and symbol were “as much part of my language as the alphabet I use.” This powerful poem inhabits the desert and the mirage, inspiring in us terror and pity for its emptiness and illusion, and, by extension, for that emptiness of spirit every human being has experienced.
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[_Note_]: MacEwen’s views on her poetry from an interview with Jan Bartley, published in [_ECW’s Biographical Guide to Canadian Poets_], Toronto, 1993.

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