Coy and austere: Margaret Avison’s Books of Revelation

You can measure the success of Margaret Avison’s career by the major awards accorded to nearly half of her books: two Governor General’s Awards and a Griffin Poetry Prize. If you put little stock in awards (fair enough), then the better measure may be the list of anthologies (an appendix to this volume of Always Now) in which her work has appeared, particularly before the release of Winter Sun in 1960. She was first anthologized by A.J.M. Smith in The Book of Canadian Poetry: A Critical and Historical Anthology (1943). Her poems appeared in anthologies published by both First Statement and Contact, edited by John Sutherland, Louis Dudek, and Irving Layton. Earle Birney, Bliss Carman, Ralph Gustafson, and Eli Mandel all selected her work for Canadian poetry anthologies, and Denise Levertov pursued Avison’s second book, The Dumbfounding (1966), for Norton (a point Avison records when giving “Thanks” here). In other words, before Avison had published her first monograph, she was recognized as a representative Canadian poet by some of the enduring names in Canadian poetry, and after Winter Sun that reputation spread.

This third volume of The Porcupine’s Quill’s three-volume collected poems addresses the recent years of Avison’s career, collecting the last decade’s worth of poems. As a single volume, it has an interesting unity that seems to free it from any fog of reputation. Faith has always been an important component of Avison’s poems, and, if anything, it’s an even stronger component here. In Where the Words Come From: Canadian Poets in Conversation (Nightwood 2002), Sally Ito asks Avison “how [her] feelings about poetry […have] changed since […her] twenties.” Her answer covers: youthful “lyric flow” giving way to the influence of Melville and T.S. Eliot; a rather modernist alienation from earlier Canadian poets; the attraction of experiment sparked by encounters with modern American poetry and with bp Nichol; and, most recently, a fascination with lexis and “a more deliberate style.” This is relatively conventional ground so summarized; it parallels the flow of 20th century poetry in this country, and it suggests that Avison embraced the current. More distinctive, more Avisonian, is her assertion that “new surges of vitality came with new Christian faith,” and that “poetry lost its status as [her] first priority.” Avison continues to negotiate that shift in priority and the negotiation provides the most useful insight into her more recent works. I would say ‘most recent,’ but the octogenarian has just released her second new book in four years: Momentary Dark (M&S, 2006).

Always Now is a rather appropriate title for a poet whose productivity seems to defy time. There’s a nice ambiguity in the title’s paradox. On a macroscopic plane, the title invokes the infinite moment or perpetual present of divine vision, the position outside of time that only god occupies and from which all of mortal time is visible at once. On the microscopic plane, there is the new age guru-speak of “living in the moment” meaning to live fully. Somewhere in between, Avison suggests, is a kind of awareness of your living moment that can conceive patterns usually only visible from outside the limits of time. This matters because the title comes from “What John Saw (Revelation 4),” framing the collection in apocalypse–the end of time. The poem begins with black holes: “those in-and-out plosions, focused, / remote … but nonetheless in time.” The powerful natural phenomena here submit to a power beyond nature: the divine fiat “‘Let it be so.'” They exist within time. This order, nature within a divine creation, reverses in the poem’s conclusion where the natural world is not so much contained by, as central to, an understanding of the divine. “Though I do not yet see, / even in mind, being / not yet out of time.” That final line is amusingly bittersweet; to be out of time here means death, yoking the metaphysics of the poem to a common idiom. More subtly, it divides knowing from seeing, or intuiting by faith from verifying by observation; the speaker can articulate this secret as a poetic vision without being able to actually “see” it the way John sees through prophetic vision. The poem presents a glimpse of the knowledge that death, according to faith, reveals.

Avison takes revelation as her central trope, in both a religious and a more generic sense, and with a particularly metapoetic resonance. The implications of art revealing meaning in the world are fairly concentrated in “Present from Ted,” a poem about painting and a gift full of hidden images: “The paper was not pretty… / But, painting it– / as I was told to, with only / clear water, “Behold!” / my whole being sang out….” The ‘painter’ creates nothing; her (his?) medium is only “clear water”–a kind of baptism for the page. Painting, art, reveals what was already there. The pictures that emerge from the invisible-ink book are only black and white “outlines” but: “In the analogy, there are / glorious colours… / patterns that keep / emerging, always / more to anticipate. / For that, there is no other process.” The Biblical “Behold!” above reinforces the target of this analogy. Experience as a kind of prophesy enters the equation in the final lines; unlike a creator (or The Creator), this ‘painter,’ “the delighted holder of the paintbrush,” is not contained in his work. As a trope, revelation defines artistic creation against divine creation, establishing its subordinate position as an art capable only of revealing outlines and dependent on the superior making–the world–for its colours and patterns. The explicitly religious conclusion to “Other Oceans” makes the same connection:

one artist who, in one
impulse once called out, from surging
waters and fires and molten
our earth, our little lives,
maintains, Himself, the
no longer appearing

No surprise, with those disappearing structures, that this section of “Other Oceans” begins by invoking the “Post-modern.”

That Avison is a religious poet does not mean she is a proselyte or sermonizer. Avison concieves of her “readers as completers of what the text began. [She addresses] them as co-creators, unknown but for sure out there, and exacting” as she says in the interview with Ito. Such a contemporary, reader-response theory of textual meaning would make the authority of sermon difficult if not hollow. As a lyric poet, Avison, for the most part, writes in a lyric poet’s subjective persona. Her faith infuses the poems because it is part of the persona, not because it is her perpetual subject. Among religious poets, she reminds me vaguely of Geoffrey Hill, once called “the greatest contemporary religious poet in English.” The connection has something to do with the way the poems approach religious subjects with an investigative intelligence rather than similar (or dissimilar) styles. Interrogating faith does more than define the speaking personae, though; the poems are suffused with question marks. They suggest, in the religious poems, that revelation comes only when asked, only to those who seek it out by asking the right questions. In this sense, Avison dramatizes rather than asserts the way experience supports faith. In “Seriously?,” for example, it is etymology that blends easily into mythology as Chaos, meaning “gape,” becomes an open maw that swallows the world–another instance of apocalypse: “Murky and ennui-ridden / is the malodorous midden / earth has become. But it soon will be gone / down–in a ‘yawn’!” The black humour here recurs as often as the language of apocalypse, and it satisfies an atheist’s cynicism without undermining the poem’s direct address to faith.

“Leading Questions” combines such questions with a reversal of apocalypse–addressing the significance of covering rather than uncovering in the punishment levied on Adam and Eve:

And what was the shame about?
And why did He need, then,
to ‘clothe the lilies’, who night-
ly met those unclad in Eden?
Had nakedness not meant freedom?
At evening, now forsaken
by our choice, was that to Him
as since to us, heartbreaking?

Imaginative rhetoric makes the second set of questions answer to the first. Shame takes away the freedom of innocent nakedness and is the punishment for ‘forsaking’ “Him” in Original Sin. The poem then answers the question of ‘His’ heartbreak by reinterpreting this mark of shame:

Yet He taught the Jews to weave
rich fabrics for the abode
He would live in, or above
in fire or (covering) cloud,
and long since He has promised to prepare
for us the robe He hopes His guests that Day will wear.

The covering of cloud recalls that interrupted “night-ly” above with its allegorical dimension of a cloak of darkness just as clothing becomes the mark of a new kind of inclusion. The apparent simplicity of the language and logic interprets the biblical story in terms of mercy and consolation. As a religious poet, Avison here leads via questioning, but, because she accesses emotions through reason, her first appeal is to an inclusive understanding rather than conversion.

The majority of the poems in this volume are free verse poems in the tradition of Eliot’s free verse–rhythmical, aware of the cadence and music of each line. Concrete and Wild Carrot, more often than Not Yet But Still, incorporates end-rhyme to support the music of the lines. It’s also worth mentioning, if only in passing, that Avison’s poems contain nearly as much respect for work, for labour, as they do for religion (see “Three Shore Breakfasts”).

At the 2003 Griffin Prize Short List Reading, Avison read a new poem called “Poetry Is”–new enough that it did not make the coda of new poems in this volume: first published in Arc Poetry Magazine 53 (Winter 2004), it did make Momentary Dark. These are the titles that try men’s souls. I can’t argue that, by longevity and accolade, Avison has earned the right, and there’s no question Avison’s definition of what “Poetry Is” bears little resemblance to more dreadful, immature, or sentimental poems with the same name. In hindsight, it was very much an Avison poem: somehow both coy and austere. That combination, and her tremulous, octogenarian voice, are more memorable than any of the particulars which Avison conjured. In the later poems, that voice and its particulars read like wisdom writing, like a record of examined experience that is a precious thing regardless of whether you share the faith on which the wisdom is founded.

Arc 56, Summer 2006

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