History and Survival

On Thursday March 31, 2005, the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Vancouver hosted a panel called After Survival: Where is Canadian Poetry? The five panelists — Barbara Nickel, Chris Patton, Ross Leckie, Stephanie Bolster, and Eric Miller — were asked whether Margaret Atwood’s seminal study, Survival, had enabled or constrained Canadian literature’s sense of itself. Each poet used Survival to consider recent developments in Canadian poetry in English. Is survival still our leitmotif? Is there a distinctly Canadian poetry? What does it mean that these questions still preoccupy us?

Starting in September, NPR will serialize their papers at a rate of one or two per month. Zach Wells has generously agreed to round out the feature with a trenchant response to the series.

The novelist Douglas Glover, an expatriate Canadian living in Upstate New York, once remarked that history is something that began in the eighteenth century and ended a few weeks ago. When he writes fiction, Glover is interested in historicizing history itself. A retrospective glance at Margaret Atwood’s Survival involves the same sort of procedure. As I stand here, I perceive two options before me. Either I should focus on one poet, or I ought to adopt a more comprehensive view. I have decided to follow the latter path, not merely entertaining but welcoming the superficiality implied. I’ll look with necessary brevity at several poets whom I admire, in light of their dealings with history and survival. These themes converge in the relationship of history to natural history.

The first writer who engages my attention is Robert Bringhurst. This polymath wrote a poem entitled “For the bones of Joseph Mengele, disinterred June 1985″.

Master of Auschwitz, angel of death,
murderer, deep in Brazil they are breaking
your bones – or somebody’s bones…

Speak! They are saying. Speak! Speak!
If you don’t speak we will open and read you!
Something you too might have said in your time.
Are these bones guilty? They say. And the bones
are already talking. The bones, with guns
to their heads, are already saying, Yes!
Yes! It is true, we are guilty!

Butcher, baker, lampshade and candlestick
maker: yes, it is true. But the bones? The bones,
earth, metal, teeth, the body?
These are not guilty. The minds of the dead
are not to be found in the bones of the dead.
The minds of the dead are not anywhere to be found,
outside the minds of the living.

This poem both conforms to and refutes the general tendency of Atwood’s book. The assumption governing the poem is that each successive human generation on earth is, to the extent that fate permits it to be, the judge of what survives. This is the human, not the Canadian, condition. Such continuity as exists is predicated on a choice to perpetuate the past. The incorporation of nursery rhyme echoes – butcher, baker, candlestick maker – may emphasize the mnemonic frailty of culture, as it is passed on from parent to child. Bringhurst questions the literalism of some judges. They seize on husks and relics with vindictive and scientifically accurate zeal. But the atrocious events of which a human skeleton is the usual remainder are elusive. What strikes me as Canadian about Bringhurst’s poem – although he was born in California – is its willingness to give history its due, yet to acknowledge how much of what we consider “human” lies forever outside history, in the realm of nature. In Bringhurst, a Lucretian nature will survive. Each of our bodies belongs to nature. Human history is real, but its survival is moot, patchy, a matter of making it generation from generation, a process always tenuous and vulnerable to the phantasm of ethical and technological superiority.

In my opinion, Anne Carson is more of a lyric prose writer than a poet, an heir to the Romantic essayists. Whether what she composes is prose or poetry, Carson reads history as a woman – the way Harold Bloom describes Virginia Woolf making the act of reading itself a form of feminism. Carson vivifies numerous characters of history, male and female, inhuman and human, bringing them into the present moment, often assimilating them to an idealized version of the writer’s self, who is female. Perhaps Carson’s marginality is Canadian – she identifies with Emily Bronte, for example, whose status geographically and sexually, relative to orthodox nineteenth-century English literature, is Canadian by proxy, snow-beset and liminal and offering more room for imagination than for society. Denis Donoghue calls Wuthering Heights a collision of the Gothic with the domestic mode. A collision of this kind features in many of Carson’s poems. Of Canadians, Carson symptomatically chooses as comrade the remote yet intimately demanding Glenn Gould. Carson’s sheer ambitiousness, sometimes effective, sometimes less so, betokens more than survival – it is omnivorous, a will to assimilate world literature to the experiences of one woman. Yet the unease that arises in Carson’s writing when she espouses, under the guidance of Marion Woodman’s Jungian self-help books, a variant of Goethe’s adjuration to Stirb und werde, “Die and become,” has a Canadian intonation. As Atwood insists, Canadian writers are convinced of death, but less persuaded of redemptive metamorphosis. Nevertheless, Carson confidently appoints herself judge of what survives in her own love: she celebrates Homer or Beckett as she pleases, as those writers happen to please her.

Carson’s poem about the origins of justice strikes me as a symptomatically Canadian companion to Bringhurst’s piece about Joseph Mengele’s remains:

God’s Justice

In the beginning there were days set aside for various tasks.
On the day He was to create justice
God got involved in making a dragonfly

and lost track of time.
It was about two inches long
with turquoise dots down its back like Lauren Bacall.

God watched it bend its tiny wire elbows
as it set about cleaning the transparent case of its head …

Inside the case

which was glassy black like the windows of a downtown bank
God could see the machinery humming
and He watched the hum

travel all the way down turquoise dots to the end of the tail
and breathe off as light.

Here at first God seems incapable of justice, a prime requisite for history-making. He gets distracted. Yet the Latin for “dragonfly” helps to resolve certain obscurities of the poem. A dragonfly is libella, “little weigh scales.” So there is justice of a sort – the dragonfly moves with fine equilibrium through the air. Something unsettling occurs in this poem, however. The image of the bank brings in associations of debits and credits, of life as a bank balance, of nature as a kind of gorgeous capitalism. The idiom of this poem by Carson may owe something to Ted Hughes, especially his book Crow and his interesting essay, in Winter Pollen, about the development of Leonard Baskin’s graphic art. Hughes emphasizes the importance, for Baskin, of the dragonfly image, as a hieroglyph of how to live sanely in a world that has witnessed such events as the Holocaust. It is arguable that Carson has been engaged in a protracted agon with Ted Hughes. But Carson’s vision of nature here may unconsciously confirm Robertson Davies’s judgement: “I see Canada as a country torn between a very northern, rather extraordinary, mystical spirit which it fears and its desire to present itself to the world as a Scotch banker.” Carson’s dragonfly, glamorous though it may be, reconciles the mystic and the banker in a way that disturbs me somewhat in its endorsement of a naturalized capitalist model: the dragonfly hums, just like a busy financial institution with opaque windows. But there’s no doubt that Carson’s lovely and solvent creature will survive. It is no victim, even though its predatory instinct is quite occluded, in contradistinction to the animal and human instances that Atwood assembled in Survival.

Eric Ormsby is an Islamist at McGill University. Some of his verse rediscovers and animates Arabic poets of the past, such as Mutanabbi. Elsewhere he limns rich pictures of his family’s Floridian past. Whatever his topic, he is disposed to subside consciously, if the oxymoron is permitted, into the significations of etymology. Etymology is a model of history in itself. Yet his choice in the poem “Origins” is to render etymology organic:

I wanted to go down to where the roots begin,
to find words nested in their almond skin,
the seed-curls of their birth, their sprigs of origin.

At night the dead set words upon my tongue,
drew back their coverings, laid bare the long
sheaths of their roots where the earth still clung.

I wanted to draw their words from the mouths of the dead,
I wanted to strip the coins from their heavy eyes,
I wanted the rosy breath to gladden their skins.

Plant imagery – seed-curls, sprigs, root-sheaths – combines with a sense of the dead as traditionally imagined, with coins on their eyes. As in Bringhurst’s case, the history of words becomes a natural history. For good reason, death is called our debt to nature. Here words, like plants, take up and metabolize the dead, forgiving the debt so to speak. Word origins offer one model of history. How a word’s significations will alter over time is unpredictable. This descent with modification through time pleasingly combines arbitrariness with order, an order only retrospectively apparent. For Ormsby, the history of words is a difficult study, vegetative and necromantic. Human culture exists in a matrix close to the natural. Words never achieve abstraction. Ormsby’s world is one in which, for all the richness of diction, the corporeal is never remote. This bodiliness isn’t dissipated by adherence to form-pentameter here-but enriched by it. Plants have form, and are natural.

In Carson, the personal and historical hunger for justice, though never fully satisfied, is compensated in part by aesthetic rewards, a remainder or super-plus specially celebrated by human beings. For Bringhurst, the longing to redress historical crimes is honourable, but it should not overlook how much of the human always belongs to a realm outside of historical verdicts, or forget the enormities of the present in the labour of documenting past horrors. What have these poets, these poems to do with Atwood’s understanding of history? They confirm a Canadian bias toward nature, even when history is the nominal subject. Bringhurst and Ormsby differently emphasize the frailty of culture, its material evanescence. Is this the garrison mentality? Perhaps it is the proposal that there is no garrison, no safety, for anyone. Contrastingly, Anne Carson discovers culture in nature – evading, as an aesthete well may, the predatory attributes of the dragonfly and the economic implications of her imagery. Yet this evasion is not a survivor’s ploy. On the contrary, it bespeaks one kind of confidence, the confidence that a wealthy society such as Canada’s can sometimes, by sheer historical good luck, bestow on some of its citizens.

Eric Miller’s book of lyrical essays The Reservoir has just been published by Ekstasis Editions. His second book of poetry In the Scaffolding was shortlisted for the 2006 ReLit Award. He teaches at the University of Victoria.