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That Old Drunk’s Place:
ed. Howard White and Emma Skagen's Beyond Forgetting: Celebrating 100 Years of Al Purdy

ed. Howard White and Emma Skagen, Beyond Forgetting: Celebrating 100 Years of Al Purdy
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2018.

When I was in my early 20s, I took a day trip from my hometown of Belleville, ON to Ameliasburg, where Al Purdy once lived on Roblin Lake in his now-famous A-frame. He built the cabin with his wife, Eurithe, as James Arthur writes in “Al Purdy’s House,” “by hand / with no experience of carpentry / using salvaged lumber and whatever materials you (Purdy) could find.” Unable to find the house, I stopped to ask a local man who was leaning against his pickup, smoking a cigarette. Flicking the butt over his shoulder, he replied, “Why the fuck would you want to get to that old drunk’s place?”

Born in Wooler, ON in 1908 and living through the Great Depression, World War II and severe financial hardship, Alfred Wellington Purdy become one of the country’s most beloved, if not most celebrated, poets. He published 33 books of poetry, two of which―The Cariboo Horses (1965) and The Collected Poems of Al Purdy (1986)―won the Governor General’s Literary Award, while his A-frame is now the site of a coveted writer’s residency.

Broken into five sections―“Encounters,” “Wildness,” “Inspiration,” “Legacy” and “Elegies”―the anthology forms a kind of narrative, helping to create an overview of Purdy’s character through tribute poems by around 60 poets. In the opening chapter, “Encounters,” for example, we discover works by poets who seem to have known Purdy either directly, as in Katherine L. Gordon’s “Interview at Eden Mills” in which “Al’s ‘ordinary’” always has “the undertow of the extraordinary,” or indirectly, like Doug Paisley, who in “While You Were Out,” “… saw (Purdy’s) tombstone in the cemetery…. (his) leather coat behind a door.”

In “Wildness,” however, we meet a darker Purdy, one who “look(s) into (his) golden beer / and talk(s) about suicide,” (“Problem,” Milton Acorn), whose empty beer bottles pile up beneath the snow “along every back road in Canada,” (“Purdy’s Crocuses,” Tom Wayman).

In “Inspiration,” the poets loosen up; works here are irreverent, sometimes funny, sometimes dark, as in “The Sharing Economy” in which “the Paying Guest” finds:

“… a bed down there among
the learning experiences
and automatic functions,
Decor objects from HomeSense’s
Blunt Force Trauma Collection.”

In “Legacies,” poets mourn not just the loss of Purdy’s influence even as they celebrate its longevity, but also a man whose “skepticism made him question / formal complaints betimes / as if they compromised / his blue collar style,” (“The Statue of Al Purdy,” Sid Marty), and who if he were to be reincarnated would return “as something gaunt and big / a tree perhaps, like Thompson’s pine.”

It is in “Elegies,” however, that we see the most poignant―and perhaps most personal―traces of grief for a man whose appeal was partly due to the fact that, as a working class “man’s man,”―a sort of Canadian Bukowski―he bucked the idea of what it meant to be a poet in the twentieth century. If you are able to read Susan Musgrave’s “Each Life Is a Language No One Knows” without getting a lump in your throat, have yourself checked for signs of psychopathy, because no one with even the faintest trace of empathy should be able to do so without tearing up.

Truthfully, you’ll get more out of Beyond Forgetting if you’re a fan―or at least familiar―with Purdy and his work. And even if you’re not, there is still a selection of moving, curiously intimate poems for most poetic tastes, making this the perfect one-on-one introduction to the personality behind one of Canada’s most famous poetic legacies.

Lori Fox is a writer and journalist based in Yukon. You can find her on Twitter at @Fox_E_Lori.

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