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Purdy, Al.

Edited by Russell Brown. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, c1986. 396pp, cloth, $29.95, ISBN 0-7710-7215-5. CIP

Grades 10 and up
Reviewed by Tony Cosier

Volume 15 Number 3
1987 May

This is a substantially presented collection. Though it does not include every one of the thousand or so poems that Purdy has written, it contains a bundle of characteristic work. Following a chronological arrangement over forty years of publication, we see clearly the development of an identifiable voice.

Purdy is a poet of dualities. Each lyric is "like a blossoming thistle." Studying a workman's faith soaring to heaven as he works on a church spire, Purdy concludes that the man may fall. "Victoria, B.C." begins in "a depressed blue mood" and ends with "even the ground is cheered up." This dual vision is in keeping with Purdy's image of himself as a poet. Poetry, he lets on, is essentially tomfoolery, but it is the thing he does best. Whether dealing with his own domestic frustrations, the injustices of society, or the recurring mysteries of nature, Purdy is eager to probe to the sensitive heart of issues, yet he is always ready to retreat into crudity or frivolity. "Trees at the Arctic Circle" in the sixties; "The Horsemen of Agawa" in the seventies; "Red Fox on Highway 500" in the eighties; poem after poem seems the work of a sensitive man who is uncomfortable with his own sensitivity. "The Darkness" illustrates Purdy's method of exploring a pragmatic moment in complex perspectives. First, he establishes the moment and the scale: he presents himself chasing a porcupine through the dark with a flashlight. As he thinks on the creature and starts to feel affection for it, he learns to view the animal as symbolic of "all the lost and doomed animals" of history. Looking at a distant star, he notes that by being able to observe the light across billions of miles he touches the far edges of the cosmos. He himself, like the comical porcupine, is "of little importance/and conversely of great importance."

Consistent with this paradoxical scope is the poet's sense of place. Purdy spins through nomadic excursions north toward Baffin Island, south to Cuba, west to Vancouver Island, east to Newfoundland, yet always returns home So his cottage on Roblin Lake. It is from this pragmatic perch that he spins out the threads of his imagination, thinking of Arctic names as "mileposts of old passage." revising the myths of Helen and Menelaus, tracing the peregrinations of D.H. Lawrence and Charles Darwin, always (as he puts it in "Tourist Itinerary") "following a road map in the mind."

Purdy, in his preface, highlights deftly and convincingly his attitude inward his work. In prose that is tighter, more fluid, more confident than the poems that follow, he acknowledges the little elves, the guests in his head that link his subconscious to his conscious and make him write.

Dennis Lee's afterword reviews Purdy's career from his early Georgian rhymings through his modernist development in the fifties on to the mature voice of his most recent volumes. Lee maintains that Purdy's most current work is the best he has done, and the selections in the volume bear this out. In short, we have here a book that covers accurately the best work of a poet who has contributed substantially to Canadian poetry for a long time and is still going strong.

Tony Cosier, Confederation H.S., Nepean, Ont.
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