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Alden Nowlan: Collected Poems

Review by Richard Stevenson

Alden Nowlan: Collected Poems
Ed. Brian Bartlett
Goose Lane editions, 2017, 661 pp., $55.00 hardcover

I was a grad student in Creative Writing at UBC the year Alden Nowlan died ( 1993). My fellow students and I had gathered in a Buchanan Tower classroom for what must have been one of his final readings, sponsored by the English Department. I remember my first impressions: what a bear of a man! Shambling walk, huge head… ! Then he read.

The poems were immediately accessible, poignant, often ironic, but completely lacking any self-satisfied smug or cold, distant, analytical tone. They weren’t smarmy or macho, or academic, and didn’t deal with male violence, abuse, poverty, or any of a host of the working class trials and tribulations the poet had experienced in his own tragically short life in any self-aggrandizing or pompous, judgmental fashion. Nor did he feel any compunction to steer his meditations over the sheer joy of being alive or responsive to the beauty of nature in any facile, glib, sentimental fashion. Nowlan wasn’t over-reaching in his search for a deeper meaning: he’d just record – in the manner of William Carlos Williams’ dictum of “no ideas but in things,” the raw data, the often overlooked image, and let the reader reach his own conclusions.

As a child growing up in Hants County, Nova Scotia, Alden Nowlan had lived in extreme poverty. His father never had a full-time job, and sunk into a funk of alcoholism, abuse and violence, eventually forcing Alden to take up residence with his aunts and grandparents, initially. He grew up in a house with no electricity, no plumbing, proper insulation, or heat. He never went past grade four!

Eventually, he lied about his lack of a grade twelve education, and by dint or sheer wit and prodigious reading – often thanks to the ministrations or the women in his family, and long treks to the library, got himself a job as a proof reader for a small town paper in Hartland, New Brunswick at age nineteen, whereupon his life began to change, come under his control.

He subsequently worked for the Saint John, New Brunswick paper, The Telegraph Journal, as a general factotum, reporter, and editor, and in his last years – from 1968 to 1993! (imagine such government largesse now!) as a writer-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.

He may have started with only a grade four education, but he must have quickly outstripped all of his fellow students’ breadth of knowledge and academic skills. The model autodidact. He ended up writing poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and plays. (The bibliography lists 35 publications.) Not bad for guy who died at fifty, and only started to take writing seriously at twenty-five.

In the first three chapbooks –The Rose and the Puritan (1958), A Darkness in the Earth (1959), and Wind in a Rocky Country (1960), he presented his bona fides and perfected his skill at accentual-syllabic verse, rhyme, free verse, and set forms; later, as with many early modernists, gradually shifted, primarily, to free verse, perfecting his use of vernacular or near vernacular diction, the use of various personae, and lyric, narrative, and dramatic poems.

But enough summary narrative. The fact that Alden Nowlan became one of our finest and most revered poets is now abundantly clear with this summary volume.

While Nolan may have been a little naïve about the post-modern theory of line breaks (phonological phrases in place of feet; hanging indents to indicate drop of pitch, variable spacing to indicate duration of pauses in lieu of conventional punctuation, juxtaposition of variable fonts to indicate voicings, etc.), his line breaks were not without purpose, if occasionally idiosyncratic, and generally provide the reader with an accurate score of how to read the poems. He was also no stranger to lexical or syntactic ambiguity, and often the turning of the line would reveal a shift in his intended meaning or open up a poem to multiple interpretations.

In short, Alden Nowlan’s poems only seem simple. What he dismisses in pyrotechnics he more than makes up for in mellifluous phrasing and moral complexity. His imagery is pellucid and precise, as befits a former journalist intent on reaching a wide range of readers.

O.K., let me say it outright: no Canadian poet I’ve read shows as much compassion for the lot of the common man; no poet is as self-effacing. His poems sneak up on you. They may begin in some prosaic, everyday circumstance – the poet/patient overhearing a nurse tell her husband she’s working late and that he should pick up a can of tomatoes from the grocery for dinner in “Working Late,” for instance. He first swings the camera eye back to describe his ill-filling hospital gown ( and who hasn’t experienced the indignity of buttocks protruding from the back-tied, inaccessible back of the smock?!), the absurd-looking bonnet. Then he zeros in for the kill, as it were:

Such an ordinary message for her to send.
Such an extraordinary thing for me to hear.

It is not hard for me to believe
that great matters are being discussed today;
I know the world will go on,
whatever happens to me.

So if she had told him she was leaving him,
and had cried because of this
or for any other reason,
I would not have been surprised.
That would have fitted in.

But tinned tomatoes!
I’m reminded of how infinitesimal a part
I play on the universe,
of how minute is my share of reality.

Not a spectacular poem, this one, but notice how close to sentimentality – feeling sorry for himself, seemingly, he gets, then how he veers away from himself to consider what else the nurse might have said and the extraordinary turn that leads to the ultimate epiphany. Notice that he also gets away with the bald statement of analysis at the end. Shouldn’t work, coming out and announcing the theme – rather like Dorothy’s pronouncement in The Wizard of Oz to the effect that if we can’t find what we’re looking for in our own back yard, we aren’t likely to find it at all. (I’m paraphrasing. )

Not a trite observation, but one that dares a big abstract noun at the end that resonates with what has gone before in a way that leaves the reader pondering his or her own petty concerns in light of a bigger picture.

This sneak-up strategy is especially effective in my favourite Alden Nowlan poem, “He Sits Down on the Floor of a School for the Retarded” (p. 626).

The patients have been promised that they will be getting a big surprise, and “a child in a man’s body” excitedly asks the poet if he, "a writer of magazine articles,” and the accompanying band, Ryan’s Fancy, are the big surprise. Another patient cries, and the poet has to tell him a little white lie: his favorite detective from TV hadn’t come with them but sends his love.

Then comes an awkward moment, the moment a young woman cries to be held. The poet drapes an arm around her, to which she responds, “tighter.” The poet is embarrassed and briefly muses on “someone in authority” crashing in on the scene, imagining him as a sex pervert. Here’s how the poem ends:

“Hold me,” she says again. What does it matter
What anybody thinks? I put my other arm around her,
rest my chin in her hair, thinking of children,
real children, and of how they say it, “Hold me,”
and of a patient in a geriatric ward
I once heard crying out to his mother, dead
for half century, “I’m frightened! Hold me!”
and of a boy-soldier screaming it on the beach
at Dieppe, of Nelson in Hardy’s arms,
of Frieda gripping Lawrence’s ankle
until he sailed off in his Ship of Death.

It’s what we all want, in the end,
to be held, merely to be held,
to be kissed (not necessarily with the lips,
for every touching is a kind of kiss).

Yes, it’s what we all want, in the end,
not to be worshipped, not to be admired,
not to be famous, not to be feared,
not even to be loved, but simply to be held.

She hugs me now, this retarded woman, and I hug her.
We are brother and sister, father and daughter,
mother and son, husband and wife.
We are lovers. We are two human beings
huddled together for a little while by the fire
in the Ice Age, two hundred thousand years ago.

The word retarded may be a little outré these days, but the harshness of the term merely serves to underline the universal power of Nowlan’s observation of fearing judgment and we should probably allow the poet his mickey here.

Editor Brian Bartlett has done a marvellous job in editing this collection and provides an excellent introduction and sumptuous notes at the end.

This book is a work of love and rigorous scholarship; nonetheless, it shouldn’t be considered a daunting purchase at twice the price and belongs snugly on every would-be poet’s and every lover of poetry’s shelf. It’s that good, that essential.

Richard Stevenson is retired from teaching at Lethbridge College. He writes from Nanaimo, B.C. His most recent collection is A Gaggle of Geese: Haiku, Senryu, Tanka, kyoka and Zappai (2017)

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #24