to Issue Features]
Catalogue in an Italian-Canadian Garden: Homage as Montage
by Carmelo Militano
doubt these days there are many poets, writers, teachers, ranch-hands, or gardeners,
and anyone in between who think Robert Kroetsch is not an important and sophisticated
poet, nor someone who has made a significant contribution to Canadian letters
as a writing mentor, teacher of literature, and booster of Western Canadian culture.
Kroetsch would be the first to point out an over abundance of self-consciousness
kills good writing.
it is Kroetsch’s playful awareness of literary tradition, (and his own ironic
self awareness) where poetry and culture sit in relation to the over-all hard
facts of prairie life in terms of history, geography, labour, climate, in short,
the difficult business of farming, how all of this can stack up and sit in opposition
to the creating of a literature or poetics that honors rural prairie life and
worse, there are those who see themselves as cosmopolitan and urbane and dismiss
the rural voice as unsophisticated and finally there are those who accept or adopt
the literary traditions of high culture and view prairie poetry as the expression
of a backward hayseed hinterland. Best to ignore a place that is dull and mundane,
so the thinking goes, and let us instead consider the big universal themes of
love, death, sex, and existence.
the wonder is how Kroetsch is able to confront these difficulties and attitudes.
Seed Catalogue makes absence a presence: ‘How do you grow a poet?’
in such unfertile soil. The question is part of the poetic answer; the complete
answer, of course, is the poem Seed Catalogue.
the wonder of Seed Catalogue is how in answering this question Kroetsch
incorporates, to name just a few of his images and themes, the cold and blankness
of winter, the serendipity and vagaries of farm life and its quirky accidents
(falling off a horse), the painful symmetries of family and European history,
and his adolescent sexual awakening. In other words, the answer is a hash or stew
of anecdote, memory, landscape, desire, and remembered childhood rich in comical
the answer also includes ‘found’ rhymes and jokes, suggestive metaphors,
and the skillful positioning of McKenzie seed catalogue plant descriptions to
create a panoramic view of prairie life. The answer includes the understanding,
as we shall see, that you grow a poet by mixing memory with desire, to paraphrase
T.S.Eliot, the poet/priest of high culture and modernism.
with an invocation
no memory then
no song (shit
can the poet say if there is nothing to evoke, no memory, or even know what to
say? How is a poet supposed to write a poem if there is neither ‘meditation’
nor a written representation (or example) to either react against or for the poet’s
rural experience or to suggest how the poet’s experience can be collected
and valued in a poem.
answer is in the next stanza; it is grounded (down to earth?) in a series of remembered
comical erotic adolescent scenes filled with typical prairie details and language:
‘a school barn’, ‘Hastings’ slough’ and she was
wearing ‘so much underwear’, (after all winter in Western Canada is
cold) it was impossible to get close to her and past her ‘CCM skates.’
you also answer the question ‘How do you grow a poet’ by suggesting
the work on the land, the shaping of a field, the defining of boundaries with
‘barbed wire,’ ‘staples,’ ‘claw hammer,’ and
‘fencepost’ all the hammering and shaping parallels the making of
a poem. The land a blank page on which Kroetsch’s ancestors wrote their
also is urgent about the need to write what we have not written about; he sees
the importance and necessity of (re) imagining the past, ‘the home place,’
and making it real. There is also the importance of knowing where to look for
history; in Seed Catalogue the writer Rudy Wiebe is considered a significant
guide to where to look for the past.
Freddie, who did not have enough money to buy a pound of coffee, is an example
of using the imagination to create the real.
morning at breakfast
he drank a cup of hot water
with cream and sugar in
as a young boy finds this curious and asks why.
Freddie, a gentle man answers, “Don’t you understand anything?”
don’t you see the importance and power of the imagination in the act of
creating, and in this case, imagining ‘real’ coffee. In short, it
is necessary for us to imagine the real, oddly, to construct the real.
at the same time Kroetsch understands poetry has limits. Poetry cannot construct
a landscape, that is, “break up that space with huge design and, like the
fiction of the Russian steppes, build a giant artifact.” Nor can poetry
create or be a substitute for friendship and camaraderie between Purdy and Kroetsch
in the same way, say, a serious round of drinking and reciting poetry can be important
to two poets: “ No song can do that” writes Kroetsch. Seed Catalogue’s
attitude towards itself as a poem and poetry is playful; on the one hand it affirms
the need and value of poetry in creating the real, and indirectly identity, and
at the same time it challenges the value of poetry and its abilities to transform
or reflect experience. The poem, like the poet, plays with itself.
you may ask what in the world does all this poetic complexity have to do with
an Italian-Canadian living in a large urban prairie city.
am, of course, referring to myself (a slippery concept Kroetsch would argue by
the way) and I think it is useful to see Seed Catalogue not only as seriocomic
long poem about Kroetsch search for a way to write about his specific past. Seed
Catalogue can also be understood as a kind of aesthetic manifesto; its aesthetic
values strive to broaden the net by which we define culture, experience, and ultimately
ourselves. The asethetetics of High Culture and modernism tend to be very particular
about what is let in as art and even sometimes what it lets out as art. Kroetsch’s
writing suggests, as we say in Italian, “tutto fa brodo,” “everything
makes a soup,” that is, everything can be included in a poem the high, low,
and everything in between. Kroetsch makes it clear that the culture of the prairies
is rich in imagination, character, and incident. The place were you live, the
stories of people and places, the voices and jokes, the food you ate, the arguments
over money, the weather endured, the lost Old World, language, the relentless
beat of spiking down track, your memories, scraps of your parent’s memories,
the growing literally of a garden, the smell of crushed grapes in the fall, all
of this and more was/is valid.
this is a very liberating attitude or perspective especially if you are starting
out as a writer and believed, like I did, that books were written in places rich
in literary tradition like London, New York, or Paris. Writers were sophisticated
people who had a gift and power other mere mortals simply did not possess. How
they acquired this gift was a mystery. They lived in homes with original art on
the wall bought cheap at the beginning of some famous artist’s career and
worked in book-lined studies. I imagined their apartments where hardcover books
lay causally about on the edges of big soft brown couches. At parties the women
were tall and angular with acidic tongues; the men looked rumpled and were intelligent.
Whenever someone spoke, out fell a profound insight or a bon mot. How could I,
from a rural Italian family who came from a small obscure village in Southern
Italy to a large urban prairie city, ever hope to become part of the witty, sophisticated,
and progressive world of Art and Literature?
mother worked in a clothing factory sewing zippers onto bulky green winter coats.
My father worked as a section man for the railway cleaning snow off switches in
the winter and replacing ties and rail in the summer. Indeed, ‘how do you
grow a poet?’ It seemed impossible.
But Kroetsch’s pointed a way
out. It was okay to write about neglected rural Southern Italy life. Hell, poets
grow best when neglected.
Catalogue quietly and urgently stated it was also okay (and therefore I was free)
to write about and use agricultural themes and images, in my case rural Calabria
and the family garden.
And the writing did not have to restrict itself to a
maudlin tragic view, a kind of dark Catholicism that characterized early Italian-Canadian
literature where characters found themselves cast out of the Eden of their homeland
and adrift in the bewildering landscape of a large modern urban city. The clash
of generation––between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters––was
portrayed in the literature as another bitter layer of disappointment to be endured
in a foreign country. Kroetsch’s poetry, on the other hand, was full of
wit, puns, bits of lyric, history, personal memory, guffaws, roars, and a sly
cold eye on the truth and an almost hyper self-awareness.
voice in Seed Catalogue and the long poem The Sad Phoenician is a clever
mix of rural perspective and sophisticated cultural knowledge. The voice in both
poems manages to glue together the attitudes and experiences of the rural sly
prairie farmer (or ‘contandi’) to the outlook, experience, and book knowledge
of the city intellectual. In both poems Kroetsch addressed, directly and indirectly,
my own conflicts and confusions about the writing life: What to write about? How
do I presume to write? Does anyone in the capital care to know about a past rural
Southern Italian culture? Working with your arms, hands, and back is real work
compared to reading, thinking, and writing is it not?
was only to hear much later about the successful American writer Philip Roth who
quipped in an interview how he was surprised so many people were interested in
reading about Jewish-American life.
the poems addressed these conflicts and opposites I was trying to reconcile: the
rural Calabrian traditions and culture of my parents versus my university education
and my acceptance of English speaking Canadian culture. Intellectual work versus
physical work, rejected Calabria versus embraced Tuscany, the internationally
known art cities of Rome and Florence versus the obscure unknown villages of my
parents, Cosoleto and Aquarro, the here and now of Canada, versus remembered and
imagined Southern Italy.
large lost garden plots of Italy compared to the small garden in the backyard
beside the garage.
response was simple; break away from the long shadow of tradition and start or
write your own tradition. Too much reverence for the past creates paralysis in
a writer especially at the beginning of his writing career.
of what I have just said is old news. The aesthetic vision articulated in Seed
Catalogue is more or less the norm and accepted, especially the value and
importance of the prairie voice. Walk into any bookstore and the evidence is all
there. There is a cornucopia of writers, poets, artists, photographers, many published
( planted?) by local presses, banishing the absence, rejecting the neglect. Or
to quote William Blake: “ What is real now was once only imagined.”
radical reworking of the long poem – some would say myth making –
is no longer radical although still fresh.
I would say there is still an absence and the absence will always sit in the very
heart of the literary enterprise. The rejection, the fear of failure, neglect,
and ultimately the confrontation with nothingness; out of such an un-fertile mix
somehow you can still grow a poet and imagine the real.
when I finally sat down to write about my agrarian rural Italian family - I agree
with Bob on this point, writers are slow learners – this is one of the poems
that is a raised fist against nothingness and time. It is from my book The
Fate of Olives although I should add the book is primarily prose and uses
poems as a kind of connective tissue to hold the various prose pieces together.
Militano is a Winnipeg poet, writer, and essayist. He has published three poetry
colections and a prose work The Fate of Olives which was short-listed
for two different literary awards. His latest work is Weather Reports
( Olive Press) a collection of erotic and near erotic poems.