Our poets at rest: Gwendolyn MacEwen


Born: Toronto; September 1, 1941

Died: Toronto; November 29, 1987

Buried: Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto

Photo: Ross Belot

Gwendolyn MacEwen published her first poem at the age of 17 in The Canadian Forum, and put out her impressive debut collection, A Breakfast for Barbarians, in 1966, at the age of 25. She won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry three years later for her collection The Shadow Maker. She won the GG again, posthumously, for Afterworlds, in 1987. She wrote 26 books in all, including novels and plays. Her most ambitious work was perhaps The T.E. Lawrence Poems (1982). Rosemary Sullivan’s 1995 biography The Shadow Maker: The Life of Gwendolyn MacEwen itself won a Governor General’s Award.

Three poems by Gwendolyn MacEwen are the subject of essays in Arc’s online zine How Poems Work. Read these in our archives:

-Catherine Joyce on “Breakfast for Barbarians” (December, 2007)

-Barbara Myers on “Dark Pines Under Water” (December, 2004)

-Barbara Myers on “The Mirage” (November, 2004)

Arc editor Anita Lahey wrote a review of The Selected Gwendolyn MacEwen (Exile Editions, 2007) for Canadian Notes & Queries, issue 77.

Other links for Gwendolyn MacEwen

Canadian Poetry Online

The Canadian Encyclopedia

The Selected Gwendolyn MacEwen, Exile Editions

Ross Belot on his quest for MacEwen’s grave

Part One

So went on a quest today. Walked up to the Mount Pleasant Cemetery with my daughter Heather. Ran into a police parade for Remembrance Day, with police horses and bagpipers. Good start. I knew their office was closed but we went to the visitation centre and there was a receptionist there who helped us by looking up G MacEwen, and telling us to head to section 32, lot 1257. We found section 32 but no sign of lot numbers. And section 32 is ginormous (surprisingly, this is a word according to hotmail’s spell check). We walked around for a very long time, trying to systematically attack. But to no avail. I will try again. I have not given up. I’m close.

Part Two

Got a map from the cemetery office. Went to section 32. Wandered around. Couldn’t find it. Finally asked a groundskeeper, who had me hop aboard his little tractor thing. We drove through section 32 to the opposite side of where I had been. He gave me a bit of cemetery advice: “Whenever you are going into a cemetery take a good spade with you.” Which he did—and he made good use of it. We were looking for a flat stone, so many were covered in grass. He found it for me after checking through about a dozen or so and taking the grass off them to check the number. I shook his hand before he drove off.

There was a small white bench under a nearby tree. I sat there for a few minutes thinking of Gwendolyn MacEwen’s poetry and appreciating the surprise warmth, and the leaves still in full colour, in mid-November. It was two weeks before the anniversary of her death. Then I walked home.

Here is a photo of Mount Pleasant Cemetery the day of Ross’s quest:

Mount Pleasant Cemetery

One of Ross Belot’s favourite poems by Gwendoly MacEwen is “Manzini: Escape Artist” from A Breakfast for Barbarians. It begins:

now there are no bonds except the flesh; listen—

there was this boy, Manzini, stubborn with

gut stood with black tights and a turquoise

leaf across his sex

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