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Monday, May 27, 2013

..."a lousy carpenter and a worse writer..."

log house near East Lake
 As a student of architectural history, I am especially drawn to Al Purdy's meditations on the  homes built by UEL arrivals in the early Ten Towns, the townships surveyed for the refugees.

Many readers of Al Purdy observe: "wow, a poem that talks about hockey." Me, I'm pleased to read a poem that mentions the ill-advised demolition of a Regency cottage (Place of Fire), or Vitruvius, the ancient Roman who codified building practices.
Poems by a guy who relates construction techniques of the bronze age Colchis people on the Black Sea to orioles nesting on Roblin Lake..
West Lake, PEC - surely a former log dwelling

In 'In Search of Owen Roblin' Purdy recounts the days after the A-frame was built (or begun), when his spirits were flagging and his attention turned to the settlement nearby, the village of Ameliasburgh, once Roblin's Mill (earlier Way's Mill but that's another story indeed).

Not surprisingly, Al, the failure at school who became a voracious and omnivorous reader, a formidable autodidact and a compulsive book collector, made a study of the history of building in the area. Starting with the early pioneers, with whom he now had a bond, he describes the first, second and third homes which tell the settlement story in the township, and across the county of Prince Edward.

American inspired Georgian at the Carrying Place

"-Late 19th-century houses in the village
more scattered thru the countryside
many of these old places being
a silent kind of triumph in survival
their owners celebrated with wood and stone
a dozen panes of glass for each window
where glass had been so scarce in the beginning..."

a stone Regency cottage near Consecon

  "Usually they were "second houses"
  the first having been log construction
  long gone back into earth...

my childhood home with some pretty fine gingerbread

And then there were the "third houses"
some with white gingerbread woodwork
complicated as catacombs of the bone brain
a pattern of wood curlicues entangled with time
Blindly staring at the melodious silent gingerbread
I realized that here was the exact spot
where a 19th-century man
worked an hour longer than he had to 
because he got interested and forgot everything else
-that lost 19th-century hour
is still visible at one corner of the house..."

the architecturally significant Dr. File house in A'burgh

The good doctor's across-the-street neighbour
- amply bracketed Italianate
This red-brick Gothic farmhouse (before 1874) in  Ameliasburgh, with its rare and beautiful Chinoiserie glass, once housed the village's physician, Dr. File. Could the gingerbread (bargeboard) be the inspiration for Purdy's musings on woodcarvers?  Stokes and Cruikshank describe a second house in the village with fine bargeboard. I wonder if it has gone the way of so many of the village's significant early buildings?

Thursday, May 16, 2013

'May 23, 1980'

Al's lilacs overpowering my little car

"I'd been driving all day
arrived home about 6 p.m.
got something to eat and slept an hour
then I went outside 
and you know
- the whole world smells of lilacs
the whole damn world."

('May 23, 1980' in The Stone Bird, 1981)

violets, or 'Johnny Jump-ups'

Narcissi near the point

And to complete the circle, here's a link to a lovely post by my lovely friend Katherine, on 'Meanwhile, at the Manse' expanding on this poem, its story, and the world overcome by lilacs.

Katherine mentions, as shall I, a benefit premiere of the indy Canadian film The Shape of Rex on June 7 at 7PM at the Royal Cinema on College Street in Toronto. ACTRA-nominated Vivien Douglas and the film's co-directors will be in attendance.

Admission is $15, Brian Johnson is hosting and showing his short film about Al Purdy. And the best part of a great arts story? Proceeds of the film and after-party go toward the A-frame restoration.
Woodpile redux

Today I visited the A-frame, to see what changes spring had brought.  And changes there were...the violets, narcissi, tulips, cherry trees, forsythia that had no doubt lightened Eurithe's heart each lovely. But then I remembered lilacs (not hard to forget, there were banks everywhere) and something someone had told me, that lilacs were Al's favourite flower. Imagine.

Gibson Road forsythia

In March, when I interviewed some Trenton High School students for an article I'm writing, Nolan told me there are always flowers in Al's poems. Since then, I have paid close attention.

Re-Place of Fire

 For some time now I have been intending to "illustrate" Al's poem, 'Place of Fire'. Al begins by talking of smokestacks, then about the fireplace and chimney at the A-frame.

"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 this to toast marshmallows?"

"gathering ingredients for a poem"

 I can almost hear this last line delivered in Al's querulous tone.

Well, Al. Feast your eyes on this. Today when I visited the A-frame, Lawence and his colleague were doing some much needed work on that smokestack of yours. In fact, it had been reduced pretty much to a stack of stones in the yard.

But the future looks bright ahead.
Now you boys put those back where they belong!
 And just because I love these lines:

"Of course what I'm actually doing, or seeming to,
is telling anyone reading this how to write a poem:
so build your fireplace, raise your stone tower,
fall in love, live a life, smell a flower,
throw a football, date a blonde, dig a grave
-in fact, do any damn thing, but act quickly!
Go ahead. You've got the kit.

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

Anyone for marshmallows?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A Man of Letters

I am still thinking about my March visit to the amazing Al Purdy Library at Trenton High School.
Teachers Eric Lorenzen and Brent Jewell, and Teacher-Librarian Mary Anne Ricard made me so welcome.

I am writing up the story of that visit and interviews with THS students, and a trip to the A-frame with students from Belleville's Centennial Secondary School, for the summer issue of County and Quinte Living magazine.

The lines painted on the library wall are from Purdy's poem 'What it Was," which describes his struggles and sense of alienation in a boarding school. No doubt they resonate with students every day.

student designed bookplate

The mobiles were designed by art teacher Anne McDonald, and created by students in 2011 as part of the preparation for the dedication of the library as The Al Purdy Library. They're meant to represent old Underwood typewriter keys. I especially love them as I recently read Al's correspondence with George Woodcock. The letters between the two writers are reproduced as written/typed. Al's letters reveal a particularly cantankerous key, which insists on typing above the line.

At the library opening,  Al's widow Eurithe unveiled a plaque, created by Campbell's Monuments (the significance of which will be appreciated by anyone who has read Al's childhood recollections in 'Morning and It's Summer'. The library contains a fine collection of signed Purdy works, all dignified by the lovely bookplate above, designed by one of Anne McDonald's gifted students, and inspired by 'The Last Picture in the World.'

Norris Whitney's Sheep

It's funny how place names lose their association with the individuals for whom they were originally named - usually with great fanfare, if it's a politician dignifying a bit of geography - in the day to day business of getting from A to B.

the defunct causeway to the old swing-bridge

To Quinte area folks, the name Whitney rolls off the tongue often as they go about their business: Sir James Whitney School, Norris Whitney Bridge. This fine span replacing the swing bridge which used to delay progress between Rossmore and Belleville is not 'the Bay Bridge' so much as 'The Norris Whitney Bridge', dedicated in 1982 to honour the MLA of the same name.
Norris Whitney also got his name on the road leading to Al and Eurithe Purdy's A-frame, though I wonder if the literary connection was ever made. Norris Whitney, Al suggests somewhere, acquired lots of marginal farmland in Ameliasburgh. Ran sheep, as they say. Just south of Al's street, Gibson Road, itself named after the farmer who sold Eurithe and Al their property, lies open farmland where once Norris Whitney's barn stood.

this is not Norris Whitney's barnyard, but it's close

turn left off Whitney onto Gibson Rd.

In the poem 'Place of Fire', Al discloses the source of the building materials for the massive stone fireplace at the A-frame. On the list, "anonymous stone from Norris Whitney's barnyard."

In the Prelude Poem in 'North of Summer' , written after his return from the enormously influential trip to Baffin Island,  Purdy creates this wonderful image:

On the country road these spring days
odd things happen
brown men in mukluks climb the snake fences
with Norris Whitney's sheep near Ameliasburg"

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

In Search of Roblin's Mills

Al Purdy's long poem 'In Search of Owen Roblin' relates the settlement history of the village of Ameliasburgh, Prince Edward County. The village, its history and inhabitants feature in dozens of Al's poems and prose works. The village once called Roblin's Mills, preceded by the lower village of Way's Mills, waxed then waned, in decline after the mill finally closed in 1900. In 1962 the iconic mill was demolished and reassembled at Black Creek Pioneer Village.

Roblins Mills (now Ameliasburgh), as Al Purdy knew it in the early days of the A-frame (1957 on) is a very different place today. The village which Purdy explored  looking for voices of those gone before, is itself changed, and much reduced, but with a glowing heart of volunteerism and heritage dedication and scholarship. And it's a destination for a growing number of Canlit  pilgrims.

Purdy tells the story of his archaeologist's search for places and times:
"In the midst of my own despair and failure
I wrote it all down on paper
everything I learned about Roblin's Mills
and the 19th-century village now called Ameliasburg
in a kind of fevered elation at knowing
the privilege of finding a small opening
in the past..." 

"When the house was half-built and the money ran out
Ameliasburgh village became the big city for me
I discovered the old ruined grist mill
built by Owen Roblin in 1842
four storeys high with a wrecked mill wheel
cumbered by stones and time
containing the legend of the Roblin family..."

Owen Roblin built this fine house across the street from his mill complex, and built a rare octagonal house for his son. Both are gone.

"In 1829 Owen took up land in Ameliasburg
ten years later traded lots with one John Way
to build his mill and stone house
then an octagonal one for his children's children
But the mill was torn down last year"...
Roblin octagonal house
photo courtesy PEC Library and Archives

Today it's difficult to find even the footprints of these lost structures.

All that remains of the once proud Roblins Mill
The plaque reads: "On this site in 1842 Owen Roblin (1806-1903), grandson of Phillip, U.E., erected a 5 storey flowing mill which became the focal point for the village of Roblins Mills. The mill was powered by water which came through a canal from Roblins Lake directly to the south. The water spilled 75 feet into the millpond which can be seen in the valley below. Using a 30 foot diameter overshot water wheel and three run of millstone, the mill had a daily capacity of 100 barrels. At one time the mill complex included a bakeshop, carding mill, saw mill and ost office. Operations ceased in 1920 after a long business decline. Idle for many years, it was dismantled in 1963 and rebuilt at Black Creek Pioneer Village near Toronto where it is operational during the summer. Directly across the road is (sic) the Roblin house also built about 1842." 

the curve where the mill complex once stood
The plaque was erected in June 1971 by the 7th Town Historical Society, which also published an outstanding local history '7th Town: Ameliasburgh Past and Present'.

the millpond below the escarpment, outlet of the mill creek

the spot across from the mill site, where Own Roblin's house
stood in 1842

As Purdy wrote in another evocative poem about looking for the past in its places:

"But it's been a long time since
and we must enquire the way
                of strangers - "                                                                                                                  
(The Country North of Belleville, The Cariboo Horses, 1965)

(All archival photos courtesy of Prince Edward County Library and Archives, thanks to Krista Richardson, archivist)