Too often, our understanding of our literary history gets mixed up in debates about the canon, about who was great and who was merely good. In the process, we risk overlooking the fact that the greats didn’t spring out of nowhere; they needed literary friends, drinking buddies, sympathetic publishers, rivals, lovers…. They needed writers like Tom Marshall (1938–1993), the poet, novelist (Adele at the End of the Day), and critic (Harsh and Lovely Land: The Major Canadian Poets and the Making of a Canadian Tradition). Marshall spent his life writing his life, mythologizing his Kingston, his Wolfe Island, his family’s deep Ontario roots. To understand the full scope of our heritage, we need volumes like The Essential Tom Marshall. Marshall was an important part of the literary ecology of his time and place, in Kingston, Ontario: a place where Helwig spent significant parts of his career and where Ondaatje was a graduate student in the 1960s. Kingston was also where, in the mid-1960s, Marshall helped Quarry Magazine branch out to include Quarry Press, which was not simply an influential small press, but a leading example, at the cusp of the explosion of regional publishing activity during the late 1960s and early 1970s. And to wannabe undergraduate poets like myself, at Queen’s in the late 1980s, Marshall, looking ruffled and aloof, fit the ideal of what poets were like: wholly reserved and totally serious.
And there is ample proof in this volume as to why we took Marshall seriously. Take for example “Astrology” from 1969, in which he writes the hard attitude of the poet: “I care more about this / arrangement of words than about you.” We responded to this man who needed to write, to find some kind of arrangement to help make sense of the whole. And it was Kingston, distilled to its most elemental, that became the locus of arrangement—particularly his touchstone, Macdonald Park. Appropriately, the volume opens with, “The park is like a wood,” transforming the urban space into a wild, sensual, even carnal place at the heart of the city. It is a tender place where “the / early moon bends, beckoning / our lips and bodies back.” And it is a place of “old men, perverts of several kinds, / grotesque women with floppy hats and sunglasses….” It is this quality of honesty, this willingness to spot the lovely and the ugly under the same canopy of trees that is Marshall’s greatest achievement as a poet. It is a quality that lingers after reading his memorial poem, “Words for HSKM (1910–1991),” where he writes, “Mother, in your darkness and light / I grew. Your love of music and reading. Your hatred of space and freedom.” It is an honesty and a commitment to his path that allows him to conclude the same poem, devastatingly, “Human mysteries persist, deepen. / There is no resolution. Only pain / familiar and defining, strengthening.” This is a commitment we writers need to pay attention to, and for which we owe an enduring debt of gratitude that can be best paid by reading this work.
Andrew Johnson is a Hamilton-based writer and editor.
This review original appeared in print in Arc 74.
THE LITERARY ECOLOGY OF CANADA’S PAST, PRESENT & FUTURE: READ ARC TODAY.