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Earle Birney

Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1991. 121pp, paper, $14.95
ISBN 0-7710-1471-6. CIP

Grade 10 and up/ Ages 15 and up
Reviewed by Alan Thomas.

Volume 19 Number 6
1991 November

This final collection of poems from Earle Birney must serve as a memorial to a poet who has enjoyed extraordinary influence and reputation among those professionally engaged in Canadian literature and has also been a familiar name to the many high school readers of his long poem, "David," published in 1942 and much anthologized since.

Earle Birney put these last poems into the publishers' hands in 1985, when he was in his early eighties and still writing. He has subsequently suffered a stroke. The first section of the book comprises poems of memories of childhood and of travel, to which the editors have added some well-known poems of social comment; the second section comprises poems of love and affection written to Birney's close companion during the last two decades, Wailan Low. It is therefore an excellent short representation of both career and life.

The jaunty spirit of much Birney poetry, which makes him such an excellent poet-traveller, masks a tender heart. Tenderness suffuses the Wailan poems, and yet is controlled. Birney knew that he could be regarded as an old man in love — when he was sev­enty-two years of age his Wailan was twenty-seven — but he was not an old fool. He publicly displays his aware­ness of their age disparity and, in what is perhaps the most admirable and touching feature of these poems, looks forward without trace of self-pity to her continuing a full and happy life after he has gone.

The poetry throughout shows Birney's dedication to the various pleasures of language, recording, commenting, celebrating, turning words about — there is even a burst of concrete poetry — and this simple professional joy in the exercise of language seems to flow naturally with the stream of his life and be a counterpart to the honest decency with which he accepts and bestows love.

Alan Thomas, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ont.
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