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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

We must enquire the way...

Once a week I spend quality time at our local archives, exploring resources and learning my way around building research from some of the experts who work there. I have not yet acquired their nonchalance at handling (carefully) yellowed parchment-thin 150 year old maps, crumbling leather-bound assessment roll books, or foggy photos of ancestors. Occasionally I am overcome with resonance.

Yesterday  I had such a moment. We were searching for information about a property based on a client inquiry, and had occasion to examine a township map dated 1869. Reverentially. Breathless. Then the voice began. Intoning, in that familiar unique way, known now through just a few captured recordings, the names...

"Bush land scrub land-
              Cashel Township and Wollaston
Elzevir McClure and Dungannon
green lands of Westlemkoon Lake...

Hershel Monteagle and Faraday
lakeland rockland and hill country..."

This is country that most people know only through the poetry of Al Purdy. Some of us may see the names on a map as we make a visit north along Highway 62. The country becomes more real somehow, in the presence of these old maps showing the old colonization roads, the lot lines and concessions such a source of  pride and hope for those who homesteaded those places, places now littered with  broken farms and broken dreams.

Now I must go read 'The Country North of Belleville' yet again.
And so must you.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Market Day

This fine Greek Revival building still stands in downtown Trenton. Over the years it has housed the police station and market building, with awning roofs around its perimeter to shelter the produce stalls of visiting farmers. Today it is home to the Trent Port Museum, with a fine little theatre on the second floor.

The market square was just down the street from 134 Front Street, home to Al Purdy and his mother Eleanor in the 1920's and 30's. Al shares his very earliest memories of  an experience when he briefly lost track of his mother.

"I was about three years old.....
..A farmer and his wife were passing by in their horse-drawn wagon, on the way to market with a load of farm produce. They heard me bawling, stopped, and tried to find my mother. But she wasn't in sight or sound. Speculating that my mother might have gone to market herself, they took me onto their wagon. We clopped off to market while the farm-wife tried to comfort me with soothing words. But I was not to be comforted so easily.
The market was jammed with people. Farm wagons piled with bright orange pumpkins, yellow onions and brown potatoes were backed up at the market square. Puppies in cages awaited buyers. Chickens squawked in other cages...."

Purdy describes sheer terror. And the way it stays with one, always threatening to return.

Passage quoted above is from Al's autobiography 'Reaching for the Beaufort Sea' published by the very fine Harbour Publishing in 1993. (pages 12-13)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Joe Barr

 I've talked about this before. How many lovely urban natural spaces along waterways are in actual fact reclaimed abandoned -and in many cases contaminated - former industrial areas.

This is true of the lovely area west of the mouth of the Trent River, in today's Trenton. An open parkland and playing fields and a library with the country's best view inhabit an area I believe to have been at or near the site of the former city dump.

 Morning and It's Summer, Reaching for the Beaufort Sea, and the novel Splinter in the Heart take us to such unlovely places in the Trenton of Al Purdy's youth.

These scenes inhabit the autobiographical work and they trickle like run-off into some fine poetry.

These early industrial towns cast off people like they disposed of scrap metal and domestic rubbish. No nanny state to bind folks of limited capacity into sheltered workshops. Wolfensberger's thoughts on  the'dignity of risk' would not be thought up for many decades. Still, the simple life of Joe Barr "the town idiot", resident of the town dump, was painted with a touch of nobility by Purdy, who described a meeting between young Patrick Cameron, hero of the autobiographical Splinter in the Heart. Patrick speculates on the kitchen middens of ancient Sumer and Babylon, in a passage which echoes his musings in the Ameliasburgh poetry.

Quinte West's beautiful library

Patrick rescues Joe Barr from his tormentors (for once) and in return is taken to Joe's hovel in the midst of the dump, and given the gift of a ruined teddy bear and a glimpse into the intelligence and humanity of this cast-off human. A beautiful passage. Recommend it.

"In a grey town of seven-week days
during an eternal childhood
where I was so miserable sometimes
at being me that I roamed lonely
over the reeking town garbage dump
unable to talk to anyone...

Old Joe went there too
happy as a young dog
pushing the garbage with his stick
grinning like a split orange
telling himself stories all day
the doors of his prison opening
into rooms he couldn't remember..."

From 'Joe Barr', first published in Wild Grape Wine (1976), reprinted in Beyond Remembering (2000),
page 177

Then and now

As a student of (social) history I spend a  lot of time in 'the way things used to be'. I love those Then and Now books featuring photos of locales from earlier times, matched with contemporary views. Lincoln Then and Now, about my husband's home town, is a favourite in our household. This site features a sample.

 I regularly wander into the historic public domain post cards of Trenton Ontario residing in the Quinte West Public Library digital collection. Returning outdoors after a research visit closes the gap in the years - the old days, the Al Purdy days, today telescope together.

Shown above is an interesting downtown intersection, two streets opening on an angle from Dundas, the main street. The historic photo is labelled Ridgeway and Murphy Streets. On today's map the streets show as King and Murphy. On the extreme right in the photo is a tiny part of the two storey oriel window dignifying the corner of the Gilbert House hotel.

The image shot yesterday shows the same peculiar intersection. The shiny government building at the extreme right of the photo replaces the old hotel.

In the poem 'Lament', from Sundance at Dusk (1976) Al tells the story of the once-powerful men like his grandfather Ridley Purdy who worked the ancient log-drives, reduced to sitting in the hotel lobby demonstrating their prowess at the spittoons of the Gilbert House. In the old days where there was still somewhere for old men to be mighty at something.

"The Gilbert House has leather chairs in the lobby
and maybe half a dozen very old men
dozed there taking pot shots at the rubber tree
which died slowly and dust settled on them slowly
until Spang went the spittoon singing you're dead."

(in Beyond Remembering, page 274)

The Gilbert House

Al in Toronto...and my study

Voice of the Land
 I'm still processing the events of February 26, the night of the Purdy A-frame project fund-raising gala at Koerner Hall. Exquisitely orchestrated and performed, generations of poets, and other artists celebrating our man Al...planning for the future.

Before the show, we visited Al's statue in Queen's Park.  Our man from Ameliasburgh sits in deep thought, pen ready to hand in its pocket protector, tactfully ignoring the foolishness going on nearby in the red sandstone legislature.

At dinner later in the Duke of York pub, I noticed some young folk talking poetry. Encouraging, I thought. Turned to delight later when those "young folk" turned out to be writers Moez Surani, Gillian Savigny and Leigh Kotsilidis, on stage as part of the tribute.

I am writing an article for a local magazine about schools, teachers, and students who keep the poetry and the poet alive, in Al's old neighbourhoods. I want to call it Voice of the Young. The big screen welcoming us into Koerner featured a woodcut by Centennial High School's own Amanda L. Later, two of my photos popped up in the montage.
exquisite Koerner Hall
Ameliasburgh was never far away. Earlier in the week, Jean Baird asked me to bring Al's Harris Tweed jacket with us. George Bowering...or as it turned out, George Goodwin...cut a fine figure in it. Provided one didn't approach too closely.  The A-frame's unique scent permeated the coat...and my car... for days.

John Reeves photos - 'my' Al, second from right
On this stage (from our third row seats)  we enjoyed...such a show. Words fail. My wonderful new/old  friend Katherine Sedgewick did a fine job of capturing the experience of our evening among the rumpled in her post in the delightful Meanwhile, at the Manse.

The silent auction was outstanding. The work involved with organizing it - and the entire event - leaves me awestruck. How do people do that?

The work of preserving the A-frame for future writers goes is always needed. The event's silent auction offered a vast array of artistically and emotionally appealing items: signed first editions, artwork, and John Reeves photos. My favourite, the photo of Al walking along the evocative old Valley Road near Grove cemetery where lay his inspiration, and now his 'mortal remains,' made it home with me.

Al wandered here searching for Owen Roblin. I do that whenever I visit. The photo was overlooked by many not recognizing the significance, or wanting a more 'in your face' Al portrait. Resonance? You bet.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Fixer

Buried in shrubbery, as obscured perhaps as his reputation and his place in history, is this monument to Sir Mackenzie Bowell, who served as Prime Minister from 1894 to his resignation in 1986. An ardent Orangeman in a time where battles were all fought along religious lines, he fell on his sword during the (unsolvable then as now) question of Catholic Schools.

Al Purdy turned his poet's attention to frogs, heron and frozen apples, so why not politicians from those fractious Victorian days? He did have an eye for the foibles of humankind.

Small wonder thatAl wrote a poem about this sometime Prime Minister, Victorian Belleville's sort of public figure. 'The Statue in Belleville', published in 'Sundance at Dusk', memorialized 'our' Prime Minister.You can hear the gossip at the market or the pool hall in his words:

Topley photo, Library and Archives Canada
" The little man stands where soldiers drill
sometimes people forget but birds remember
to stop at "The Fixer" the man you went to 
if you weren't a Catholic for a job
or favour of some kind or other"...

The poem recounts the story of cabinet ministers ("a nest of traitors" Bowell called them) calling at the prime minister's house to demand his resignation after his unpopulardecision on  the Manitoba Schools Question, and describes his trip "to church and at Bridge Street United for being a sonuvabitch/forgave himself quite readily".
Bridge Street United Church, Belleville

This isn't one of Purdy's well-known poems, but I like it. Al's love of history and a good story led him here. And in how many poems do you find the word 'sonuvabitch'?

Sir Mackenzie Bowell's home, 194 William Street
And here, for your enjoyment, some local Purdy-poem-about-Bowell pilgrimage sites.

SMB is buried in Belleville Cemetery

Al ends the poem philosophically:
" But maybe I left out part of this story
because if evil is penalized and good rewarded
there'd still at Old Home Week be hardly any people
Which is to say Belleville is a mid-size town
with mid-size people medium virtue among us
you know there are comparatively few heroes
except The Fixer - he's the best I can do
and some of us feel we couldn't do any better
times bein what they are and so if you don't mind
let's raise a cheer"

('The Statue in Belleville', Sundance at Dusk (1976)

Belleville Armouries
I wasn't sure about the local connection in the line "where soldiers drill". I made an assumption about the local Armouries, but after careful examination of the property outside and in (the latter during cadet shooting team practice, all in the pursuit of 'art'), I found no statue. My historian friend says there are no statues in Belleville...and come to think of it, she's right. I wonder if that line refers to the location of the monument at the top of this blog-post - roughly the spot where the local militia drilled, in the early 1800's, near Mrs. Simpson's famous log tavern?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Random passage

Nice of Random House to publish a link to this blog in their online magazine Hazlitt.  Poetry and Piss-takes by Emily M. Keeler, is their on-the-ground coverage of the February 6 Purdy Show.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013


 We're overdue a hearth-warming at the Al and Eurithe Purdy A-frame. These days the inside of the A-frame is colder than out, despite its still warm beating heart.

Tomorrow at Koerner Hall, we'll be celebrating what made the A-frame a crucible  for Canadian literature and Canadian identity...and thinking ahead to the day when this hearth is warm again, and the A-frame is full of poets and poetry.
And because the local is as present as Al in his work, a few thoughts on chimneys...

"Ours is twenty feet. And still climbing.
Ingredients: limestone from an 1840 Regency cottage
(I told Bill Knox he was nuts to tear it down);
historic stone from the Roblin gristmill site;
anonymous stone from Norris Whitney's barnyard
and some pickup loads from Point Anne quarry.
-All of this to toast marshmallows?

But you'll have to admit the ritual significance
of not being above working with your hands?
You don't admit it? Okay, I guess you're right.
But you must agree it's the hard way
to gather ingredients for a poem?"

(lines from Place of Fire, in 'Sundance at Dusk' (1976)

And because I'm always looking for local connections, next time you look at this post, I will provide a few explanatory links.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Purdy in the Star

There's a nice piece about the A-frame, by Tim Alamenciak in today's paper.

the other battle of Bunker Hill

L: British Chemical,  seen from Mount Pelion
For years I've been fascinated by the story of the Trenton munitions plant explosion of 1918. I am astonished at how few people know of it. The event has been well recounted in a local history by John Melady entitled 'Explosion-Trenton Disaster' published in 1980 by Mika Publishing of Belleville.

The British Chemical Company comprised 255 acres, with 204 buildings, 5 plants manufacturing T.N.T., Sulphuric Acid, Nitric Acid, Gun Cotton and Smokeless Powder...a demonic presence tolerated so close to the town ('protected' by the shaley hillock called Bunker Hill) due to the exigencies of World War I.

Bunker Hill today - taken from Evergreen Cemetery, north of town
Al Purdy was born in 1918. He begins his autobiography 'In Search of the Beaufort Sea' with  his early experience of the event:
"The unborn child of Mrs. Eleanor Louisa Purdy rested comfortably inside his mother, in timeless calm and measureless peace - then all hell broke loose. People scurried back and forth frantically, the noise a little muffled by insulation. There was a kind of electric hum of tension pervading things outside. Loud noises; breaking glass; men shouting and women screaming." (RBS, page 11)

Purdy sets his autobiographical novel 'A Splinter in the Heart' a few years earlier in time, so that the plant and the explosion become characters in Patrick Cameron's coming of age story. Accompanying Patrick on one of his long-distance runs through old Trenton is like entering some of the archival photos I have been finding. Mirrors within mirrors - linking the historical Trenton with the town which appears in Purdy's poetry and prose, with the Trenton whose streets I wander today with my camera.

At dinner-time on Thanksgiving night, 1918,  fire began in the nitrator buildings of the British Chemical Company on Bunker Hill and throughout the night explosions occurred. Panic spread and an exodus from the town took place.  By morning it was all over and damage assessment began. The town looked like it had been bombed, according to Melady. The plant was a blackened empty wasteland. Remarkably, due in part to some local heroism, no lives were lost.

In 'Splinter in the Heart' Purdy's character Patrick is caught up in the events of the night, helping to evacuate elderly neighbours, struggling to reach his girl-friend's home north of the city. He takes you there, to the horror of the night:
"This was what they had feared, imagined, or even thought they had known. British Chemical would blow the town off the face of the earth. T.N.T., the three-headed monster, was the end of the world."
(A Splinter in the Heart, 1990)

(The archival photos above are thanks to Trenton Public Library and research librarian Robert Amesse)