Total Pageviews

Monday, April 29, 2013

Cabbagetown and Beyond

Simpson house, named not for the farmer, but the architect
The Riverdale Zoo (1894-1974) was, mercifully, replaced by the more natural surroundings of the Glen Rouge Toronto Zoo. The conditions in the old zoo were less than ideal for animals in cramped dark cages.

 Perhaps they pined for their forgotten homes, or pondered their life in captivity for a crime they had not committed. Al visited them at night, while the zooman slept. His poem 'In Cabbagetown' conjures their sadness...and his.

"On cool nights I would creep
from the Cabbagetown house
on Sackville Street to Riverdale
Zoo with hard-beating heart
entering the monkey cage at 2
a.m. with an orange-bitten moon
over one shoulder...
 Al visits the zoo animals. The caged primates tell him of Africa, the mountain lion from "the high dry country of Colorado at cloud-hung Nimpkish Lake" puzzles over city inanities, the elephant who has never known home begs the poet: "tell me of India."

Inevitably, the spell is broken.

"at Toronto Crematorium Brown and Mackenzie slept"...
"The zooman woke in policeman blue
pointing his sixgun finger at me
"Get Out Get Out" and I
fled back to bed on Sackville Street
in Colorado and Nimpskish lake
\and a wind-sung skein of moon
on the Forbidden Plateau lulled me to sleep
in India And Africa dreaming of
what I can't forget
dreams I have never known -

'In Cabbagetown' was published in 1984 in 'Piling Blood', 10 years after the zoo was demolished.
The Riverdale Farm which replaced it, with its replica farmhouse, barn  and outbuildings, and domestic animal paddocks, is a lovely spot for city children to visit the country for a bit. Wonder if the spot still spawns poetry?

It's under threat by city politicians with condos in their eyes, but a determined local campaign is underway.

Cabbagetown redux

lawn ornament at 435 Sackville
Just back from a week of Toronto wandering, camera still cooling off after hundreds of shots of that city's wonderful architecture, feet weary from pursuing the many stories it tells.

Visited a few spots that link together the lines of Al's poem 'In Cabbagetown'.

 I think Al Purdy would laugh at how neatened up everything is, compared to his days at "the Cabbagetown house on Sackville Street," immortalized in the poem.

Al's place - from which he escapes to the zoo
The Cabbagetown Preservation Association is clearly a force to be reckoned with. They appear to be behind the area's Heritage Conservation District designation, the naming of 55+ public lanes after notable people and historic events associated with the area, lawn signage marking homes of Cabbagetown personages, and the 'Cabbagetown People' display in Riverdale Park. These markers make a ramble through the gentrified area an informative pursuit.

east of Sackville, south off Salisbury
Al Purdy Lane - entirely too neat
Cabbagetown People in Riverdale Park - Al's on the reverse

Cabbagetown Person #27

Interestingly while I was in Toronto, I was reading 'Cabbagetown', Hugh Garner's classic novel about the depression, written in 1950. Of Cabbagetown's borders Garner, who "lived in it when it was a slum" says this:
" was situated in the east-central part of the city, its boundaries being Parliament Street in the west, Gerrard Street on the north, the Don River on the east and Queen Street on the south."  Enter, the revisionist historians and the social housing folk.

Today, the natty Cabbagetown Heritage Conservation District street signs delineate a Cabbagetown bordered by Parliament, Gerrard to the south, the Don Valley and Rosedale Valley Rd. to the north. "Movin' on up', like The Jeffersons' TV theme optimistically celebrated. I'm not making this stuff up.

Do I hear a derisive snort from our 13-years gone friend Al?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Last Picture in the World

Recently I had occasion to type the poem, The Last Picture in the World, several times,  in different fonts, colours, sizes.

A friend was making a gift of the poem printed beside a lovely woodcut produced by an art student. Perhaps one day it will be available as a broadside, so for now, I won't share the image. Just you wait.

Despite all the industry, the poem lost none of its spell for me. Al loved the great blue heron. So do we. It's a talisman for us, always appearing as reassurance at very tough times.

the point at the A-frame
 Today is Purdy Day. We lost Al 13 years ago today. It's also Sunday, and it was (somewhat) warm and undeniably sunny. Someone dear to me really needed to get out of his office, so we visited the A-frame, hiked the conservation area around the millpond, visited the graveyard in Ameliasburgh.

We parked at the library and walked to the A-frame, the route Al would have done on his explorations of the village in the early A-frame years.

As we rounded the corner of the house on our way to the point (how many people do you know who would build a point, when they couldn't afford to buy one of their own?), a great blue heron (very great) rose up from the point in high dudgeon and left us speechless.

Deep breath.

That you, Al?

"A hunched grey shape
framed by leaves
with lake water behind
standing on our
little point of land
like a small monk in a green monastery
almost sculpture
except that it's alive
brooding immobile permanent
for half an hour
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 New Poems, 1999 - in Beyond Remembering, 2000)

April 21, 2000

"On a green island in Ontario...built a house and found the woman..."
Today is Al Purdy Day.
In 2009 the League of Canadian Poets proclaimed it.
It is the day on which, in 2000, Al's "body left his body" and entered into the Al Purdy legend (although he was doing a decent job of entering that legend while still very much alive). The league of poets suggests you recognize this day: barbeque red meat, read, write, drink... and make poetic history by donating to the A-frame trust.

Appropriately, the A-Frame Residency program, that longed-for writer-in-residence idea made reality for the A-frame, has just announced its call for applications. Here's the link . Good a way as one can possibly think of  to celebrate Purdy day!

This portal to Harbour Publishing provides all the links and background you could possibly want about the day, the man, the poetry, the next steps.

We celebrated Purdy Day all day. Visited the graveyard. Sat in the sun on the A-frame deck. Listened to Al read some stuff on cassette. Read some poems. Wanted to revisit the poem that provided the lines for Al's gravestone, so I reread 'Her Gates Both East and West'.

"This is where I came to
when my body left its body
and my spirit stayed
in its spirit home."

We all know those lines so well. The other lines in Her Gates Both East and West, not so well. I read it aloud, and the pictures Al painted took me to many places we'd been also. Nice to compare notes.
"In the Alberta prairie badlands camped by the vanished Bearpaw sea..."

Nice to see our country in your poem. Robert Wiersema, in a Quill and Quire review of Beyond Remembering, stated that the poem is "probably the finest poem about Canada one is likely to read." Not much argument, I'm guessing.

"the freight train a black caterpillar climbing,climbing,climbing..."

"I suppose it's like a kid growing up
to see the parts of your own country
like a jigsaw that suddenly comes together
and turns into a complete picture
and you've touched nearly all the parts...

The millenium really makes little difference
except as a kind of unsubtle reminder of 
the puzzle that is yourself and always changing
the country that you wandered like a stranger
but stranger no longer
yourself become undeniable to yourself
wearing the lakes and rivers towns and cities
a country that no man can comprehend..."

"Camped by the South Saskatchewan"...
"the Rocky Mountains fold themselves upward/giants rising slowly"...
"Beside the seething Fundy waters my friend sleeps..."
Actually, Al. The millenium, if by that you mean the year 2000 (the mathematically challenged among us still struggle with that concept) made a great deal of difference to many of us. Lost you.

Snippets of Al's wonderful poem reduced to captions to say thanks for giving us our country. For naming these places for us. For making us more Canadian somehow, and damned proud of it. Miss ya Al.

"walked four miles in the rain (you blamed me for)
to l'Anse aux Meadows..."

(Her Gates Both East and West, published in New Poems, 1999)

"and if by chance we are not alone
some traveller on another planet
may catch a glimpse of us sometimes
looking outward into the night sky."

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Voice of the Young

Tomorrow I will spend the day at the A-frame with students from Centennial Secondary School. They come each year to tidy the property and the house in preparation for Purdy Day on April 21 - and because a home needs attention once in a while. They also read, and write and connect with that Al Purdy who lived and wrote and created a literary family here. Al comes 'off the bookshelf' through these activities planned by insightful and creative teachers.

The students identify with Al Purdy as a local boy, as a kid who struggled with school and small-town life. They see themselves in him - they become readers and some will become writers. They will all remember this day.

The quote at the top is from the poem 'What it Was'. It's on the wall of the Purdy Library at another great local school - Trenton High School (Al's old school). The old Underwood typewriter keys suspended from the ceiling are part of the decor designed by a THS teacher and created by students. Did they make a connection with Al Purdy? I would think so.

I will ask the young folks to talk to me about this Purdy.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Al Purdy goes to War

The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan put Trenton, Mountainview and Picton on the 1939 map. A creative and ambitious international project born of wartime shortages (the loss of too many young flyers over WWII Europe) the BCATP graduated more than 130,000 air crew from Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Canada.

BCATP gates at CFB Trenton, beside Highway 2

In 1959 these commemorative gates were installed to honour the country which had hosted the wartime training plan. In 2009 we attended the rededication. My 60's era ambivalence about things military vanished in the collective memory of a free world in peril, young men and women who answered the call to serve, the presence of so many dedicated military who do the same, daily.

We can travel back to those times anytime thanks to the faithful recorders of the war years. One such survivor was Alfred Wellington Purdy, who describes his dreams of high flight in 'Reaching for the Beaufort Sea'.

"That summer of '41 it was decided that I might make a pilot, navigator or gunner, given sufficient incentive and training. I took the air crew medical twice. Both times my blood pressure shot up nearly as high as an eagle can spit. I'd been excited about the idea of hobnobbing with Billy Bishop and the ghost of the Red Knight of Germany. Sadly the realization came to me: shit, now I'll never be able to slip the surly bonds of earth."

Earlier Al records meeting the poet John Gillespie McGee, who had written the poem 'High Flight', containing those stirring words. Purdy pronounced the poem "pretentious crap."

the checkered water tank towered over the base in 1939 as today
Bay of Quinte in background

water tank centre right, highway 2 in background

During WWII Trenton Air Base was a much smaller establishment. Photos courtesy of Quinte West Library and Archives.

The view at right is what Al Purdy would have enjoyed, when his old friend sergeant-pilot Harold Wannamaker took him up for a 'flip'.

"My maiden flight was in a two-motored plane...not a monster bomber like the Lancaster or Flying Fort. And while Harold was strapping a parachute on my back before takeoff, I noticed a mischievous look in his eyes. ...Then in the skies over Trenton Air Base, I discovered I was upside-down, quite suddenly, trying to keep my lunch in its proper place."

Sunday, April 7, 2013

A post for Sunday

King Street United Church, Trenton
Al's work is filled with allusions to his mother Eleanor...crediting, as we all so often forget to do, the enormous influence mothers have on our lives, our memories and our sense of who we are.

And the enormous guilt (intentionally or no) that the burden of their love piles on our shoulders. In Reaching for the Beaufort Sea, Al recalls his religious upbringing in a child's experience of divine omnipresence, and personal guilt...pretty well summing up what most of us glean about those mysteries from even the most well-intentioned Sunday School teacher.
Foresters'  Parade c.1920 courtesy Trenton Library&Archives

"There was a god in my world. He hung around unexpected places, backyards and street corners. He knew everything, saw everything, and was not responsible. At King Street United Church, He was presumed to be always in residence. Especially when the preacher invoked him with a chorus of Thee's and Thou's like stinging bees and cawing crows". (p.260)

Eleanor's overzealous Christianity, and Al's reasoned resistance to it figure in a number of Purdy's poems. 'Funeral,' an account of the funeral service for Al's mother, puts the reader firmly in the uncomfortable pew which Al, and many of us, occasionally inhabit.

King St. United Church & parsonage
"The preacher called beforehand
to make sure God
occupied a place in my heart
or somewhere nearby
I made a mistake
told him the truth
said I wasn't religious..."

Al paid the price for his honesty, and his unbelief, during an uncomfortable sermon directed at him:

"..pinned me to the chair
The United Church minister
kept hammering away
knowing I was a prisoner 
and couldn't escape..."

(Funeral, in A Handful of Earth, 1977)