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Saturday, March 23, 2013

Al at the Beach

The beaches of Lake Ontario in Prince Edward county have long been a summer playground. Incredible natural beauty, a rare topography, fresh air and healthy outdoor recreation, family picnics and holidays...and amour. Two baymouth sandbars, across the entrances of West and East Lake (once called Sandbanks and Outlet beaches, respectively, a great deal easier to explain than today's provincially amalgamated Sandbanks Provincial Park.

Photos of well-dressed ladies perched on the sand-dunes in buttontop boots, high collared white blouses and wide hats never fail to amuse. On excursions, or resident at respectable resorts like Lakeshore Lodge, they enjoyed (somewhat formally) the area in late 1800's and early c.20.

once the road to the dunes, now a protected panne

Photos from the 1930's, 40's and 50's show an increasing number of less formally attired folk enjoying sand and waves. Because there were no roads, auto traffic accessed the Outlet Beach (as folk who grew up around here called it) by driving between the dunes and out onto the hard-packed sand. Towels tucked in car windows provided change rooms, nature provided other amenities.

In 1957, the provincial goverment took over the beach we locals called the Outlet, and land along the Outlet River leading from East Lake to Lake Ontario (where until now most of the picnicking, dancing, and tower-diving occurred at a privately run resort - most recently known as Martin's). They built a road inshore of the dunes at that beach - today's park road.

overlooking West Lake
Later, in the way that governments have of 'acquiring' private land and expanding provincial parks (I admit to being firmly on the fence, beneficiary as I am of several weeks of off-season camping and nature each year) the rich farmland was converted to campground and recreational space. Much of the land is being planted back into trees.

The story can be found in this  post on my heritage architecture (and themes related) blog.
mouth of the Outlet River, firmly closed

But our interest settles on the beaches of the 1940's, when a feckless, pre-Eurithe Al Purdy did what all the boys did...took girls to the beach. A local guy with the extra appeal of an RCAF uniform, and an old if unreliable Whippet or Ford for transportation, Al  squired the occasional local girl to the beach, for the same reasons fellows have made those pilgrimages forever...the healthy outdoor recreation, of course.

Here are Al's accounts of two such hopeful adventures. He did not emerge the stuff of romantic fiction in either case. His candour about his ineptitude is charming.

"Shirley and I drove to the sand banks near Picton a couple of days later, with the ostensible purpose of swimming. I ran the car out of gas along the way and had to walk to a service station for more, at considerable loss of dignity....For the first time in my slightly retarded life I was on the verge of contact with another mind and body...And I blew it."

the beach the way I like it

And on another occasion, with another date:

"We went swimming later at the sand banks near Picton (scene of my earlier embarrassment with Shirley).I continued my seduction attempts very seriously. Same result, no dice.

In the bright moonlight, parked on the romantic sandy shore of Lake Ontario. Acting Sergeant A. Purdy: "Dear (whatever-the-hell-her-name-was), Let's drive farther down the beach where it's quiet (read, darker).Okay?" "Okay".

The Ford wouldn't move. Migawd, what's happening? Wheels are spinning around in the wet sand. I give it the gun, they spin some more. We were mired in the sand, permanently, or at least an hour of permanence. I had parked the car where the small and harmless waves made sleepy soothing noises which I thought might be romantically helpful.

Someone in another moonlit vehicle knew the girl, so I ditched her with them. Then called a farmer with tractor for hire nearby to haul me out of the sand. When I paid for the service, my girl was long gone... "

Embarrassing. Cringe-making. Most of us can identify with Al's candid seduction-gone-terribly-wrong stories. Next time you're on "the Outlet beach", elbow to elbow with sun-bathers, think back to those days when folks drove out and parked there, in the moonlight. Hearts full of love...and hope.

(excerpts from Reaching from the Beaufort Sea, pages 84,88)
(archival shot courtesy Prince Edward County Library and Archives)

Saturday, March 16, 2013

no I do not love you

at Amelasburgh library, thanks Eurithe
Al was a man's man, it's said, and it's obvious in the person he reveals so completely in the autobiography 'Reaching for the Beaufort Sea'. A muscular poet, with pugnacious poems. I have heard him referred to as misogynist. He was a man of his times - with Ridley Purdy as a boyhood model.

Then there's that sensitive man creeping in. I appreciate his respectful correspondence with many women writers, his self-deprecating observations.

Of Eurithe, the emotional centre for his long writing life, not enough can ever be said. Grudgingly, it almost seems, he acknowledges her constancy, her practicality, her strength, her wisdom. But he was in awe of it, I do believe. She admits with a smile that  he hated it when she was right.

I won't ask. Only she knows. And that's enough. That doughty intelligent woman to whom so much of Canada's best poetry was dedicated.

I let the poems tell me. As in the wonderful 'The Horseman of Agawa' account of their meeting with ancient  first nations rock paintings on the edge of mighty Superior:

"I just watch my wife's face
she is quiet as she generally is because I do most of the talking
it is forty years old and has felt the pain of children
the pettiness of day-to-day living and getting thousands of meals
but standing on the rock face of Lake Superior
it is not lessened in any way
with a stillness of depth that reaches where I can't follow..."

Love. Not stated, but recorded. For Eurithe, On the Intelligence of Women, The Horseman of Agawa, The Double Shadow, Necropsy of Love, so many others.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Hollywood Joe

Few people know that humble Trenton, Ontario is famous for more than Al Purdy. The wonderful local history 'The Movie Years' by Peggy Dymond Leavey (1989) recounts the small town's flirtation with film between 1917 and 1934. The fast life of Hollywood stars with fur coats and big cars seems incongruous, but it happened. Briefly. The pinnacle was the filming of one of the well-known "Carry On" series of silent films. Then the 'talkies' and new film technology relegated the longest operating Canadian film studio to its small place in history.

In' Morning and Its Summer'(1983), Purdy mentions "the town idiot", whose dignity he discovers and shares in the moving poem Joe Barr (Wild Grape Wine, 1968). Joe pops up again in the memoir , a lovely little book which includes autobiography, history, personal photos and selected poems inspired by Al's growing-up in 1920's Trenton. Of Joe he writes:

"I have seen him when he wasn't aware of being watched, with an odd gentle look on his face, as if he were thinking of something he couldn't say, for which he couldn't find words. ..Of course he knew there was something wrong with him, but never found out why the world was such a cruel place. 

When they made a movie in Trenton in the 1920's, called Carry on Sergeant, Joe hung around doing odd jobs for the moviemakers."

On my workroom wall

A Purdy poem of which I am very fond  is On My Workroom Wall, first published in 'Naked with Summer in your Mouth' in 1994. It's like Al is showing the reader around his writing shed, and as we do when we share those things which amuse and inspire us, revealing himself. It's a wonderful meditation on inspiration, and how to hold onto people and moments of grace. On his wall he gathers around him Gabrielle Roy, Margaret Laurence, Harold Ballard ("his cane spanking the world in geriatric rage"), "Acorn of course", Tiff Findley, Atwood, Eurithe and many dead poets.

I can't quote it all, and it would lose a great deal
if I cut out just my favourite bits.

Try to find a moment today to reread it. Here's an invitation to the conversation:

"I have gathered them all together
like a casual group of strangers
at this meeting place under my roof
who will never meet again
their only relationship supplied by me
who told them to come here
to wait and be silent on my wall
while I contemplate
not their nature but my own

and know as much about myself
by proxy as from looking deep
into the mirror of what I am"

Each time I visit the now-empty shed, I have to remind myself that much of the writing of this prolific and important Canadian poet was created in this tiny reclaimed structure, modified by the hand of the poet and his good woman.

And when I read Al's work, my feelings mirror what he felt of his inspiration, D.H.Lawrence: "Two original Lawrence letters/both so alive he can't be dead..."

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

work experience

 Al Purdy's autobiography 'Reaching for Beaufort Sea' is quite the most candid 'story of myself' that I have ever read. Al records in detail (and recycles in poems and other prose) not just the shenanigans (bar fights, drunk tank visits, bootlegging), but the mistakes, the doubts and fears, the depressions, the unflattering things that most of us don't want to face - for he had a poet's soul.
The former Bata shoe plant - modernist style

Al recounts his early rootlessness and later desperate poverty in works which feature two local 'landmarks'. This is their little story, should you travel past.

"During my schoolboy summers, and after I quit school,there were odd jobs - picking apples, making boxes for apples, farm work, almost anything. When the Bata Shoe Company built their shoe factory, they took me on as a machine operator. I was a terrible workman and never did learn how to make shoes. I left after only five or six weeks." (Reaching for the Beaufort Sea, p.45)

former Jay Sprague canning factory, Mountainview
The Bata Shoe plant (still standing in Batawa, north of Trenton) was the creation of Czech immigrant Charles Bata, who arrived in Canada in 1939 as events in Europe threatened the family's shoe making business. The Bata shoe factory, opened in this lovely modernist building (above) in the 1940's, was developed as the centre of a company town. The company owned the village and provided accommodation and social supports to its workers, many of them immigrants from Czechoslovakia. The company closed in the 1980's because of the familiar 'off-shore' pressures, but the name lives on in philanthropic works and the astonishing Bata shoe museum in Toronto.

After moving to Ameliasburgh in 1957, Al and Eurithe had some pretty difficult years. At one point, they did what many local folks did - worked at the local canning factory - in those days when Prince Edward County was famous for its canned produce, and its many canneries. The factory pictured above canned green beans until just recently, when the operation moved to Belleville. It was owned by the family who ran the original cannery where Al and Eurithe would have worked, just a short distance away in the village (thanks to Terry Sprague, local naturalist for helping me get the story straight).

"Eurithe and I both worked at Jay Sprague's Mountainview canning factory in 1958. She peeled tomatoes. I operated a machine which capped the 28-ounce cans."  (RBS, p. 173)

Funny all those links. Pedestrian and poetic.

Monday, March 11, 2013


Today I was listening to Al Purdy read some of his work from The Collected Poems (Audio Encore cassette). Broke me up when he prefaced one of the readings with a description of his "long but inglorious" World War II military career. Immersed as I have been in his work lately, doing a line by line study, winkling out local connections for a future Purdy literary tour, it took no time to locate his accounts of the military life in Reaching for the Beaufort Sea, and poems like About Being a Member of our Armed Forces.

The bucolic countryside of the Quinte region has been home to no less than three military bases in recent history  - two exist today. During World War II, the Commonwealth Air Training Plan brought thousands of Canadian, American and British trainee fly-boys to the area. Astonishing to look back; in Reaching for the Beaufort Sea, Purdy describes the nearby Trenton air base: "1941-42 was a boring and highly dramatic time at Trenton Air Base....high excitement for officers and sergeant pilots. The Commonwealth Air Training Plan was coming into full effect then. Camouflaged Lancaster bombers lounged on the tarmac; British Mosquitoes, Fairey Battle fighter-bombers lunged and swooped...Yellow Harvard trainers climbed like vivid moths in the sun".

Camp Picton operated until the 1960's as a military base. Many evocative World War II era buildings still stand, home to a few industries. The location has been used in several films - it's a good stand-in for POW or internment camps.

Al's friend Earle Birney wrote a great send-up of the military life in Turvey, published 1949. I remember studying the novel in a Canlit course in the '80's.George Woodcock in the introduction describes Turvey's buoyancy thus: "it ends showing Turvey as the natural man triumphant, having survived all the numbering and testing and regimenting and bullying and discipline and short-arm inspecting" (oops)"to emerge in the end as irrepressibly his own self as Sancho Panza at the end..."

Sounds like Al may have taken some pages from Birney's training manual.

all photos from former Camp Picton

Of his time at Picton, Purdy writes: "Anyway, as the Picton NCO in charge of things, I used to go to Belleville sometimes, flanked by two or three of the American guard boys.We drank some beer....One one occasion we 'picked up' three girls on the street...The name of my girl was Eurithe Mary Jane Parkhurst." And that turned out to have been the best outcome of Al Purdy's military career.

Earlier in the account he wrote: "Then Picton. The army barracks there had previously been headquarters for the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment (which is Angus Mowat's and Farley's 'Hasty P's)" - of which my uncle Elmo was a proud member. "Promoted to the temporary rank of sergeant, I was the NCO in charge of a hundred or so candidates for air crew..."

Long story short, Purdy ended up "demoted and demoted and demoted to the point where I finally saluted civilians" (About Being a Member of our Armed Forces")

How did he put it? "Long but inglorious?" But what amazing times to have lived through.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

the last picture show

Herons are a portent bird for me. At some of the most difficult times in my life, their appearance has brought comfort and a sense that all would be well. Two herons (the season's first) flew over high above the highway I travelled this morning.  I was reminded of my visit last week with some creative writing students at Trenton High School. One of them shared his feelings about this poem, which I had forgotten.

In one of the last poems he wrote, Al Purdy reveals, in such a simple fashion, that the heron was special to him too:

"A hunched grey shape
framed by leaves
with lake water behind
standing on our
little point of land...

...a blue heron
and it occurs to me
that if I were to die at this moment
that picture would accompany me
wherever I am going
for part of the way"

From 'The Last Picture in the World', New Poems (1999)

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

saying the names II

The Old Hastings settlement road

"Bush land scrub land-
                 Cashel Township and Wollaston
Elzevir McLure and Dungannon
green lands of Weslemkoon Lake
where a man might have some
           opinion of what beauty
is and none deny him
                                  for miles-"

Weslemkoon Lake

Despite the souless 'efficiencies' of the provincial government in the late 1990's, which combined townships and buried identities in paperwork, the original township names - and their stories - endure, tributes to the settlers who saw this land as their last hope...and they were right.

saying the names

Travelled to Upper Hastings County yesterday.

As I passed through familiar hamlets, I took their photos.

As I did that, I heard Al Purdy's voice, saying their names.

These names were raised from the geographical to the literary when Al wrote 'My Grandfather's Country' (To Paris Never Again, 1997)

And I ask myself:

Is the poem more real to me because of these physical signs...touchstones?

Or are these places more real for all of us because of Al Purdy's poems?

"the clearings join and fences no longer divide..."

"Highway 62
in red October
where the Canadian Shield hikes north
with southern birds gone now
thru towns named for an English novel
a battle in Scotland and Raleigh's dream of gold
-Ivanhoe    Bannockburn     El Dorado
with "Prepare to Meet Thy God" on granite billboards"...

Down in the Valley

the old Valley Road - "Purdy Lane"
Since I was a kid, I have been drawn to certain landscapes: hidden spots under escarpments, paths created by long-ago people and industry, benches beside ponds or watercourses, ruined foundations, evocative old graveyards with stories to tell, cedar thickets and stands of oak and pine, winding roads with those unruly ribbons of grass down the centre.

When I first ventured past the noisy dog at the top of Ameliasburgh village's Purdy Lane, I wasn't prepared to find all of those elements in one spot.

Al's stone is the black one beneath the green lilac bush

But I did, and I go back there often.

And when I visit this spot, I share it with the mortal remains (or the stone marking them) of Al Purdy.

Owen Roblin 1806-1903

Al Purdy made a thorough investigation of his new neighbourhood of Ameliasburgh when he and Eurithe became homesteaders on Roblin Lake.

I love his unsentimental justification for falling under the spell of history and land:

"And I got interested in the place
I mean what the hell else could I do
being a little too stupid to ever admit
I was a lousy carpenter and a worse writer?"

The bench above the creek and the old Mill pond,  the old Valley Road, as I suspect this is, was the site of Way's Mills, the first mill village in the area. Roblin's iconic mill which followed, itself long gone, was at the top of the limestone escarpment, where the village grew, and endures.

Al  writes about the early entrepreneur in his long poem In Search of Owen Roblin (1974). Reading it, you immerse yourself in the very history Al was making his own: the UEL settlement story, the early industrial saga, the people who made the village, and made it their home.

Grove Cemetery, Ameliasburgh
"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..."

I mentioned that I had obtained a photo with deep meaning for me, at the silent auction at the recent memorable Purdy event in Toronto. This is the image of Al that I have above my desk.

'my' John Reeves photo of Al 

Al, on my favourite bit of Prince Edward County. He's looking toward the gravestone of Owen Roblin. And thinking some of the same thoughts that I probably think when I'm in that place. He did a better job of getting them on paper.

This is from the auction catalogue of the Purdy gala, February 6 at Koerner Hall:
"In November 1965 photographer John Reeves made a visit to the A-frame. He was there to photograph Al for a magazine article. Only a few photos from that day have ever been published, including the one that appears on page 63 of The Al Purdy A-frame Anthology. At the request of Jean Baird, Reeves went through his archives and selected twelve photographs from the shoot. Al at Roblin Lake, at the gravesite of Owen Roblin, in front of the A-frame. Reeves was clearly on a mission."

Saturday, March 2, 2013


Al Purdy, it is widely believed, was not an academic.

In fact, we take a certain satisfaction from knowing that our beloved Canadian poet dropped out of school in Grade 10. His wide travels and a lifetime of reading and study yielded a fine alternative education.

The classically inspired red brick building here is Al's old school, Trenton High School.

To him, it may have felt as empty as it is now, sitting in a precariously abandoned condition in east Trenton.

 Yesterday I spent the day at the fine new THS (not shown), in the company of bright and engaged creative writing students, and their inspiring and enthusiastic teachers. These senior students talked about their adaptations of Al Purdy poetry -  into screenplays and a film, a character's photo album, short stories - and their feelings about Al's legacy.

 I will talk more about them in the summer issue of County and Quinte Living magazine.
"Best wishes to the people at Trenton High from Al Purdy".
THS was my own old school incidentally"
Al Purdy's earliest work appeared in Spotlight

In 2011, THS dedicated its fine new Al Purdy library to the school's most famous alumnus. The library project was spearheaded by physics teacher Eric Lorenzen and his equally dedicated and creative colleagues. Outside the busy and welcoming library is a showcase containing Purdy memorabilia.

"Al Purdy Reads" by Anne McDonald 2011

Issues of the school's yearbook from the 1930's containing Al's first published poems, certificates and a copy of Al's less than bragworthy report card, even boards and a brick from his childhood home at Front Street, are tucked carefully inside.

Art teacher Anne McDonald created this astonishing relief sculpture of a slovenly Al opening a book to reveal its rich and endless secrets.

Ms. McDonald was also behind the mobiles suspended from the library ceiling - drum-shaped Underwood typewriter keys, art projects that the six students recalled contributing to way back in Grade 9.

On the library wall is a quote from Al's poem 'What it Was', in The Cariboo Horses (1965), the very book which is enshrined in the display case outside. I wonder how many  future Canadian poets might sit in this very library, and identify with these same lines? Thank you young friends, for your insights.