Al Purdy produced thirty-nine books of poetry and spent a great deal of time based at an A-frame cottage near Trenton in Eastern Ontario. In my childhood and teens, I also spent time in that part of Ontario; I also recall inconclusive forays into the Ontario woods by my family when I was a child. Sometimes those forays involved dreams of hand-built homesteads. All of this makes me feel a kind of closeness and sympathy to Purdy as a poet. Those may be mostly misplaced feelings – but I still have that specific fondness for Purdy.
I want to explore this a little bit. At least half of the population of Ontario does not reside in or near the city of Toronto. And most of them don’t want to. There is something about these facts that is important about understanding Al Purdy, Canadian poetry and Canadian culture. Al Purdy does not represent Toronto. At the Quinte Hotel is not a Toronto poem. There are perspectives in the province that are not tied to the Bloor-Danforth subway line.
Purdy is one of Canada’s best-recognized poets and I’m guessing a meeting with him at his cottage would have been both startling and memorable. On CBC’s website they say,
During the first forty-odd years of his life, Al Purdy wrote a lot of bad poetry. Where others would have quit, Purdy persevered until he found his own distinctive voice. And what he said startled people. His unconventional works poeticized barroom brawls, hockey players and homemade beer. Al Purdy’s work forced Canadians to re-evaluate their understanding of poetry and themselves.
There are far worse conclusions to reach regarding the scribbling that a person can produce in a lifetime. I think of Al Purdy the same way I think of the Group of Seven painters – these folks appeared at a time when Canadians were deciding to have a distinctly Canadian voice….and they were some of the strongest identifiable Canadian voices.
Of course, now in 2017 there are plenty of people who would happily dismiss Purdy (or other Canadian cultural icons such as the Group of Seven) as inconsistent with current political and cultural preferences. Not me. I’m not in a hurry to separate myself from the cultural voices of our recent past. I don’t mind listening to the wisdom and experience of the past – even if I don’t always agree with it. And I will listen in on Al Purdy as he listens to himself….
Listening to Myself
see myself staggering through deep snow
lugging blocks of wood yesterday
an old man
almost falling from bodily weakness
— look down on myself from above
then front and both sides
white hair — wrinkled face and hands
it’s really not very surprising
that love spoken by my voice
should be when I am listening
yet there it is
a foolish old man with brain on fire
stumbling through the snow
— the loss of love
that comes to mean more
than the love itself
and how explain that?
— a still pool in the forest
that has ceased to reflect anything
except the past
— remains a sort of half-love
that is akin to kindness
and I am angry remembering
remembering the song of flesh
to flesh and bone to bone
the loss is better
Forty Creek, a distiller in Niagara, produces a brandy that they’ve called Small Cask VSOP; the plastic bottle also carries the term “Niagara Bench”, which seems to indicate the sloping bench-lands, limestone and soils of the Niagara region. There isn’t a lot of information to find on the internet regarding this brandy. It may be one of the few burnt wine producers that I can make a day-trip to explore. And Forty Cask may be one of Ontario’s (perhaps boldly, Canada’s) earliest voices to interpret the distilled spirit known as brandy (ah, another day for ruminations on the Canadian interpretation of whiskey known as rye).
As to the product, I am disappointed in the plastic container. Superficial as it is, it seems less special to buy booze in plastic. It also seems both harmful to the environment and lacking in commitment. I’d sooner have a proper glass bottle and a clear statement by Forty Creek that this product is here to stay. The brandy itself is not the most aromatic I’ve encountered. I sense that Forty Creek have attempted to be close to the French with this brandy. The scent carries impressions of mushroom and woodiness – Niagara’s soil seems to be very present. But I also catch hints of maple. I am not put off by the brandy, but I’m also not sensing the complexity I’d like to. Perhaps grape selection is a factor here.
As regards taste – a bit like bone-to-bone blank verse poetry of Al Purdy and the stark landscapes of Group of Seven paintings, this brandy is immediately present with relatively few allusion or referential subtext. This Small Cask VSOP is a Canadian canvas; it is the companionship of a cigar puffing Al Purdy (do a search for an iconic wild-haired Al Purdy wearing a white shirt and questionable sunglasses along with a cigar clamped in the corner of his mouth..for the life of me, Purdy recalls to mind the Mr. Horsepower logo that is equally searchable).
And as time passes, Forty Creek it is a canvas upon which complexity, subtlety and development is not just possible, but eminently called for. You cannot build without a foundation. You cannot gain muscle without the bones to support it.
My serving recommendation is: with a modest amount of water from a nicely contoured highball glass – even accompanied by a pipe or cigar; and who cares if things are a little out of place in that bit of space you’ve carved out for yourself.
If you want to choose a title, you won’t go wrong with Rooms for Rent in the Outer Planets. It has much of the “good stuff” that you need to dig into.
Photo: Some Ontario brandy consumed in St. Thomas Ontario, circa 2017.
Revision History Notes: All content on http://www.ericadriaans.com is subject to edit and revision. Whenever possible, dates of revisions will be note. Original post 02/01/2016. Updated 09/27/2017.