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Topic: Gwendolyn MacEwen

On Gwendolyn MacEwen's "A Breakfast for Barbarians"

MacEwen’s gift is her voice. In “A Breakfast for Barbarians”, she exposes the deep, insatiable appetite of the soul for its mysteries, cajoling us with confidence, humour and a Rabelaisian delight in the universe that few contemporaries can match. She takes risks, offering us a diverse menu of possibilities that brooks no demur resistance. She will have passion, she will have joy.
The poem with its mythic overtones opens with an echo of Mark Anthony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”–addressing the reader in the intimate, knowing and suggestive voice that is MacEwen’s hallmark, “my friends, my sweet barbarians”. With the authority of an oracle, she asserts the claim that underlies all of her poetry — “there is that hunger which is not for food”. And then the transformation begins as a third eye seizes the centre of appetite, as it seizes the poem itself–“an eye at the navel turns the appetite/round” — enacting the turning point with the pivot “round” isolated on the middle line of the opening stanza. The first meal of the day becomes a visionary sacrament, “the brain’s golden breakfast” with its heraldic companions — “eaten with beasts/with books on plates” — an aside resonant of bookplates, claiming an ownership of extravagant proportions. Immediately we know we are in the territory of the soul, the insatiable landscape of MacEwen hunger.

Barbara Myers on Gwendolyn MacEwen's "Dark Pines Under Water"

(How Poems Work, December 2004)
“Dark Pines Under Water” is a celebrated poem, one rich in symbolism and metaphor, often anthologized and justly so. What is this land that’s “like a mirror?” Is it Canada? It could be the earth itself–or a symbol for earthly life, the depths of human consciousness. A search on the Internet finds the poem claimed equally on a site about the boreal forest and one celebrating “Dreams, Wonders and Adventures Phantasmagorical.” …
MacEwen wrote these lines and published them in her award-winning collection, The Shadow-Maker in 1969, around the same time other Canadian writers (notably Margaret Atwood in Survival) were delving into Canadian consciousness and a national cultural identity. It’s possible that “this land” stands as much for Canada as for an individual persona….

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….