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Glen Downie

Oakville (Ont.), Mosaic Press, 1990. 69pp, paper, $9.95
ISBN 0-88962-454-2. CIP

Reviewed by L. Maingon.

Volume 19 Number 4
1991 September

Heartland is the third book of poetry Glen Downie has brought out. His first two books, The Blessing (Dollarpoems, 1986) and An X-Ray of Longing (Polestar Press, 1987}, consist mainly of the analysis of experiences of general loneliness in a fragmented world. In Heartland Downie tries to bring the reader closer to his fragmented experi­ences. This collection focuses princi­pally on personal recollections of his Manitoba childhood and subsequent relations with siblings.

As in the previous collection, Downie's poetry relies to a great extent on parallels with Zen. In fact, occasional poems try to imitate haiku. I stress the tentative nature of these pieces because the Zen parallels and the attendant claims to be seeking a life integrated in nature are not convincing. They form a veneer over an alienated, and alienating, experience in which Downie seems to revel.

Two fundamental tenets of Zen are that "everything exists in relation to other things" and "the self and the rest of the universe are not separate entities but a functioning whole." One can hardly pretend to Zen ecological wholeness when Downie vents his alienation in verses like "The land is what speaks/ and will not be spoken to" or 'The land ignores us all/ and goes on breathing/ eons in and out." In Zen, the land cannot be separated from the perceiver, it is he. Thus, as in any ecological consciousness, there is no separateness.

The second part of the proposed aspiration of this vision collapses in the latter verses. Whereas ecologists such as McKibben stridently urge us to realize the irreversible extent of our depradations, Downie adopts the yuppie myth of nature's independence or distinct existence. There is conse­quently no sense of ecological unity of the parts. On an earth that is dying through global warming, it is nonsensi­cal to pretend that nature may repair forever. This only furthers the blindness of Western mechanistic assumptions. Even a poet is responsible to facts.

There is therefore none of the wholeness or real ecological conscious­ness that Downie's supporters have claimed for him. There is only a kind of prolonged egocentric alienation respect­ably yuppified. There is talk of "living with nature instead of exercising dominion over it," but no substantial change in the mentality that has brought about our ecological demise.

Heartland is divided into four parts of somewhat unequal poetry. The first, "Common Ground," describes incidents of Downie's involvement in a northern Manitoba wilderness centre for delin­quent adolescents. In spite of efforts to present a relation to nature, it is a world in which man jars against a landscape marred by a sense of frustrated control of his environment and companions. The second part, "Homeground," is an exploration of a family environment, with some good reflections on meanings of life. The third, "High Ground," is a very shaky collection of poems, like "Mining Town," based on incidental insights while mountain hiking with a brother. Although well staged the insights suffer from the particular blindness that I described above and leave the reader uncertain of nature's status and therefore of the speaker's relation to it. Occasional poems like "Evening Sky" catch the otherness of wilderness time. The closing section, "New Ground," is less pretentious. It articulates the narrator's own, and I quote, "need for mastery," much more clearly.

Heartland has moments of poetic brilliance, as in "Black Cat Moving among the Dandelions." It also has the ability to bring poetry to daily experi­ence. The problem the reader faces is that the collection is disjointed and the poet seems unable to maintain or build the poetic pressure amidst a contradic­tory presentation of the experience of fragmentation. As a result, although it is well printed and presented, the collection cannot "heal," as it purports to in an introductory quotation.

L. Maingon, University of Western Ontario, London, Ont.
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