Pacific Rim Review of Books

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One Muddy Hand

reviewed by Allan Brown

One Muddy Hand: Selected Poems. Earle Birney, edited by Sam Soleki. Harbour Publishing, 2006.

I first encountered Earle’s poetry at a reading he gave in 1953 and have read/listened to it off and on in one form or another for the last 54 years. This well-produced volume (the title is taken from the 1986 self-elegy “Ave atque vale”) provides a chance to review some familiar texts and recount some of the changes they incorporate.

Earle thought of both the writing and reading of poetry as on-going activities, almost as a kind of continuous aesthetic teasing, touch and separation; “the art,” as he put it in the Prefece to Selected Poems 1944-1966 “of indefinitely delayed communication, infinite ambiguity.” As he also asserted in the CBC Massey Lectures: “Living art, like anything else, stays alive only by changing” (The Creative Writer, 1966).

One Muddy Hand presents 123 poems, composed between 1926 and 1987. Eighty-three of these are taken from the popular 1977 selection Ghost in the Wheels, and a substantial thirty from Last Makings (1991). For readers familiar with the shape and heft of the earlier volumes, One Muddy Hand has the feel of two books in one — a kind of double-layered poemcake, as Earle might have put it. Sam Solecki has added ten other pieces (the trimmings for the cake) from various stages of Earle’s writing; the earliest, “North of Superior,” is available in the Selected Poems , the latest is the rambunctious “In Purdy’s Ameliasburg (first visit),” from rag & bone shop (1971).

The new volume presents six prose selections from The Creative Writer and The Cow Jumped over the Moon (1972), as “Earle Birney on Poetry.” Earle’s general comments on art are always worth reading, especially the two “Why Poetry?” excerpts from The Creative Writer; but, it seems to me, his defence/ explication of “David” (from Cow) is hardly of much interest any more. The space would be better used to reprint another general piece, such as the aesthetically precise yet bouncingly controversial “Preface” to Selected Poems.

A few of the early pieces omitted from Ghost are returned to us here — such as the vividly observed “Slug in Woods,” composed at Crescent Beach, BC, in 1928, along with the tautly urbanized “Anglosaxon Street,” with its memorably mocking evocation of 1942 Toronto from its “Dawndrizzle” to its “mornstar and worldview.” By an interesting coincidence, 1942 was the year when Ralph Gustafson’s first Anthology of Canadian Poetry (English) appeared, introducing Earle’s work with “Slug,” and maintaining the “greentipped” creature in each of the sequent, much read editions of The Penguin Book of Canadian Verse.

Earle’s scholarly interest in Old English morphology is well known, along that Dawndrizzled street and many others; what is less well known is the appearance of the similarly shaped term “manplot” in the earliest version of “Vancouver Lights,” through the mid 1940s and 1960s, where we :

fashioned stars
to our size, rulered with manplot the velvet chaos
and signalled Aldebaran
(from The Strait of Anian, 1948).

The simpler form we are now familiar with (“to our size and signalled Aldebaran”) was established after Selected Poems and maintained for the work’s many reprintings.

Thirty-six years and some 3,000 miles away from the Lights of Vancouver — in Toronto in 1977 — he continued his percipient movings in time, places, the play of his childhood, and his various adult fates into the arboreal word-world of “Fall by Fury.”

He at once simplifies and complicates his text over the next decade or so, clambering through the stanzas as he had through the branches. He may add that quite practical item, a saw, from the scene when he “rose / through a world of web / severing dropping black treebones (1977 version) to the apparently more careful movements:

through a world of web with swede-saw
the black treebones
(Last Makings).

Some changes are simple, as he watches himself first “hide in salal to watch the fox” in 1977, and then with a change of vegetation, “in the sumac to watch / the little fox” in 1991. He may also subtract more complexly from the yet vital scene (as with that “manplot”), filling and re-filling it, in shifting places and devolving personal time:

in Sri Lanka and before in my sixties
up the yellow spines of the Olgas. . .
at fifty-eight in cloud on the ribs
of Huayna Picchu. . . at thirty
inching down chalk on Lulworth cliffs (1971);

and then with a few deft gestures, a tightening here, a loosening there, he continues to exit and enter himself yet again

in Sri Lanka
and before in my sixties
up the yellow spines of Australia’s Olgas
at fifty-eight in the cloudy Andes on the ribs
of Huayna Picchu at thirty
inching down English chalk on Lalworth cliffs
(One Muddy Hand).

After a brief glimpse at Vancouver’s once velvety illumination and a more extended clamber through some of these Furious stanzas, it will be convenient to close (or perhaps to open again?) with a few words from the Salish Chief Sk-wath-kw-tlath-kyootl whom we meet in the third episode of The Damnation of Vancouver (1952/1957). The Muddy version is covnvenient in its simplicity. The text combines seventeen parts of the Chief’s dialogue, excluding some exchanges with other characters.

A bit of this material appeared in issue 38 of Contemporary Verse, summer 1952, where the early recollections of the Chief (here called Headman) include the striking “loon-laughter” of women, which later becomes a more obvious “squirrel-chatter.” The rather abstract “invisible dust” of rocks (Trial of a City and Other Verse) is later simplified — or, as Earle put it, “re-vamped” — to “souls” in the Selected Poems. Sometimes though, the alterations may achieve too much, as the openly suggestive “one who drew frog-talk from cockle-shells” of 1952 is identified as “A shaman” in 1957 and onward.

So which of these changes and chances work best? All of them, of course, that Earle made, as well as those we can keep making for him.

Allan Brown lives in Powell River. His reviews have appeared in various Canadian journals and newspapers since 1976.