To tell the truth, most of my writing time is spent working on essays. They make up my books Out of the Interior, Tom Thomson’s Shack, and The Wolves at Evelyn. These aren’t the kind of essays we were all made to sweat out back in high school, mind you. These are the kind I spent twenty years teaching myself how to write.
This page collects some of my shorter pieces, which are important for background to my books.
“Up Against the Wall” honours the Canadian poet P.K. Page.
“First Words”, originally published in Event magazine, laid the foundation for all of my writing since 1985.
Up Against the Wall, or, Learning to Live Without a Map
When presented with an impenetrable wall, there are many possible approaches, short of retreat in the fog: you can scale the wall with crampons and ropes, ever mindful of boiling oil; you can paint over the wall, then walk into the painting; you can adjust your imagination so that the wall is no longer there. P.K. Page taught me how to do the latter. Her teaching career spanned a few months in the early winter of 1978 in a second year Creative Writing workshop at the University of Victoria. The impact of two of her incidental statements from that time changed my life.
Firstly, P.K. put me in my place. At that time when I was first beginning to consider that to become a poet might not be a promethean presumption I would force myself to sleep no more than six hours a night in order to have the time to read. And read I did, about thirty pounds of books a night — enough to stuff a queen-sized pillow case to bursting. I was not selective, but tried to read everything, and at breakneck speed, too: Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Wordsworth, Pound, Hemingway, Beowulf, Bergson, Euripides, Rilke, Kant, Rimbaud, and a thousand others, fifty versions of Snow White, and whole shelves full of musty anthropological journals that made me sneeze as I read between the scurrying book lice. I added each book like a butterfly pinned and mounted in a glass case. It was an honest attempt at international travel, but it had a crippling flaw: I understood hardly a word I read. I was barely conscious after all. During that time I wrote a very mythic poem in which the trout in a stream became trout, stream, and poem all at the same time. I had written myself into a mental country I did not recognize. I wanted a map. I was surrounded by bush. “What is reality?” I asked Derk Wynand that day. Poor guy. About all he could do to that question was raise his eyebrows and look troubled. “I’m serious,” I said. “I know,” he answered. “But I don’t know what it is.” Then he added in what tried to be a reassuring voice, “Keep looking.” I recognize that country pretty well now, but there still aren’t any maps. I know now that they would just get in the way, but back then, by the time the February rains hit town the whole attempt at absorbing world literature and philosophy left me feeling like I was standing at the bottom of a seamless stone wall three hundred metres high and vanishing into fog. That rock wouldn’t budge and there was no way to get over it. That’s where P.K. stepped in. I was writing sprawling mythic poems, bright in imagery and for the most part totally incomprehensible. “Harold,” she said. “You have to understand: no poet ever wrote a poem by working hard, but by being incredibly lazy. Poets sit around doing nothing for a long, long time. They are very irresponsible. Then a poem might come.” I left town for a week, went to the mountains, and went fishing. The poems came.
Secondly, P.K. showed me what my place was. In the midst of all my dread seriousness she introduced me to the poems of Lorca and Rosenblatt, bright, sunny, and musical, all painted in clear, bold colours in direct sunlight. It has become a kind of oracular cliché that no-one can teach anyone else to write and that the most that young writers can hope for is a benevolent mentorship, yet it’s not mentorship that P.K. gave me. She gave me a glimpse of wisdom that only revealed itself to me years later. Trying to define wisdom would be like trying to define reality (oh no), yet P.K.’s words do, I believe, spring from it: “Anyone who can write a poem,” she said. “can also paint a picture. The two arts come from the same source.” To me at that time, with only a rudimentary sense of form, music, and imagery, this contention seemed not only foreign but peculiar as well. I took it as a statement of personal philosophy, applicable to P.K.’s gifts, but inapplicable to my own. Well, two decades have come and gone. Whenever I find myself caught by the temptations of philosophies and grand systems, lose my path in their gridworks and find myself standing below that massive granite wall or in a blinding, plutonium sunlight as the sun reflects equally off every droplet of fog, I remember P.K. If laziness doesn’t get me out of there, then drawing does. For someone caught up with words to a rather extreme degree, to give words all up and intuitively follow the same designs through the world without their latitudes and longitudes is a delicious and healing luxury. It is like coming home. It is like sweeping the light clear of obstructions.
P.K. has not been my only guide in literature, of course, yet in all my years in the Interior of British Columbia, a little removed from literary society and often glimpsing it only out of the corner of my eye as it goes by the orchards and forests with trumpets and red velvet capes, with psaltery music and jugglers throwing oranges, and leather-gloved women carrying proud, fierce hawks on their wrists, along with the faith of a few distant poets the company of artists and the imagery, inquisitiveness, and inclusiveness of visual art have sustained me. 1996
First Words, reprinted from Event
On those rare occasions when he speaks German, a language he abandoned forty years ago, my father becomes cultured, measured and articulate. Learned on the farms of the Okanagan in the 1950’s, his English is limited to what that colonial land had managed to express. It is a language of rough jokes, a simplified vocabulary, and few if any tools for cultural expression. This is my first English. Artistic and philosophic vocabularies can be developed from it, but to do so they must approach dialect. It seems unreasonable to expect that words can remain forever constant, forestalling all the disparate needs of language by focusing creativity into emotion and imagery. At the moment, to those who live here in this Edwardian twilight, art is the emotional response to landscape. In any way to build upon this response means to express the most complex thoughts in the most simple, even stunted, vocabulary. Even Plato became so frustrated with sanctioned poetry that he created an entirely new art, philosophy, out of words and chatter, that playful banter with Socrates under the olives.
Even the farmers I live and work among survive not by their orchard work, but by words: everyone is always stoppin in on everyone else and interrupting their work: leaning against ladders or pickups, stepping in for coffee. It keeps you sane in a place and occupation that neither allows nor accepts other forms of mental expression. Everyone resents the time lost, everyone inflicts it on everyone else, and everyone longs for it: laughter, the sharing of opinion, concern and insight, and gossip. It takes the place of art and journalism: a system of continual renewal and re-evaluation, in which everone is working to place themselves in an ever-changing context. Before action comes words — commerce between people. In my opinion, the differences from the revolutions of socratic thouht are slight and reflect only the organizational differences between Greek and English in general: while Greek is structured around expressions of what are to us nonexistent comparison and dissimilarity, English delights in cumulative re-statements of terms.
The fruit industry in which I work has lived under regulation, control, and subsidy for fifty-five years, and has boomed and foundered again and again because of it. Apples are a colonial, hence cheap, product, for export, now run out of its traditional markets by the new colonies of the Third World, but without anything long-standing or more sophisticated being built up to take over. Without a sophisticated system of art and philosophy a colonial, import-export mentatlity has remained our only matrix. The Edwardians came here to produce from contact with the land a surplus for sale on a distant market. The end weas to gain enough money (a foreign product) to ensure both continued participation in a distant culture and contact with the soil. With my poetry I am their heir: I remain here, and send my poems out in the mail. But as I’ve learned from gossiping on the farms, an intelectual life depends upon the commerce our langauge can provide and develop between people. Their mustultimatly be a speech, a means of philosophic or artistic expression, that will be as alien to someone, say, from
Vancouver, as the work of any poet from Vancouver is, sadly, to just about everyone here. As it stands now we export a Harrowsmith image of the land — recognizable and of use to foreigners: tourist art, for people moving past at great speed. A new language is not something easily exported: people are not interested in folk culture, but in ideas of folk culture — that is, they are interested in their own culture and the windows it can provide into the world. It is difficult to recognize the unfamiliar.
Ultimately, this country must develop dialects, and from them independent traditions of thought — which start with language. And we must give up the crippling notion of export, in which all our wealth is sent away — sold; the colonial notion that finds justification and worth only through the acceptance of our products on a distant stage, instead of seeing them as the expressions of our mental commerce amongst ourselves, for ourselves. Art must come out of our coffee breaks and our fear of the mountains from which we can’t part, or it is our signature on our notice of eviction. Simply by having written words we cannot return to the land except through words, which have removed us from it. Thus, to remain here and to develop from our history, we must make new words. At the moment, our language is idle.
If even Plato could turn away from poetry to make it new, and if the colonial Greeks coudl phrase the most complex philosophies and cosmologies into language so simple you would never have believed it could hold them, and so gave us the gospels, we can do the same thing right here, right now: whenever a convention is set up, it means there is an empty field somewhere, or an old city in ruins, where you can look up and see the stars. If you whisper even one word there, all the others come, and the whole world comes alive — a field of heavy-sseeded grasses surging in a cobalt wind, or a crowd pushing in a sagging door shouting for a glass of beer. The world is always willing to embrace us. 1985.
Poetry and Magic, from The Salmon Bay Review
I used to believe that poetry’s old roots in magic have now only secular life. To be honest, I did come to poetry through Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Wyatt, Graves, Stevens, Purdy, Skelton, Pound, and a thousand others, but I also came to poetry by pruning fruit trees when I was a boy and becoming the trees and the air: in short, I came to poetry from the things of this earth—mountain, tree, leaf, and river—and from an almost hallucinogenic sense of their presence. In the last two years these old sources of poetry have become increasingly important to me and the literary context of poetry has receded into the shadows, like the background noise of the stars. These remarks are probably very cryptic, so I will try to explain.
The whole process of waking into poetry has been like staring at space through a telescope: just as there is a singularity behind all time, where matter, space, and time are one magical substance, deep within words there is poetry, containing all forms of speech—vision, trance, song, history, psychological treatise, political exhortation, metaphysical tract, doctoral dissertation, fiction, journalism, and so on. I have lived among and worked intimately with some very old words—stone, fire, rain, bird, for example—and know them now as magical incantations to bring to life—to control—the powers of the earth, and know the poetic trance—a suspension of disbelief, form and dissimilarity sensed and shared, all of language contained within each word in potential—as the form of the world.
These are beliefs that come out of my experiences of the farm and life on the farm, lived intensely closely to things, from long attention to myth, the image, the long poem, and the process of creation, and from ten years of literary isolation in the mountains. For twenty years I have worked with images. In my long poems I have taken a crowbar to their dense singularities and have watched the particles inside, like a physicist observing the trails of quarks in a cloud chamber. There are some consequences to this type of poetry and it might help to list them. As you will see, they all have a literary component, which they all transform by registering it in the world. First, metaphor is real. Correspondingly, simile, image, tone, and verbal colouring, and the correspondences they draw, are equally real. Second, the world and language are the same thing, perceived differently—the pattern of trees across a slope, or of stones in a field of bunchgrass, are at the same time both the pattern of the mind, and nouns and verbs in a sentence, sung. Third, just as the patterns of ants in an anthill when put together form, not within the individual ants but as the entire colony, the pattern of a thinking, conscious mind, so do the patterns of birds, or clouds, in the sky, form a pattern of thought, modified only by the incursions of civilization, or language. Fourth, poetry is magic. What it speaks of is true, and it gives us visions of time present, past, and eternal, and poems are doorways into those times. In other words, in my poems as in my life consciousness lives within images, which are points of transferal between the power of the earth and human speech, and within things. I am the field of their correspondence. This is not an allegory. It is an attempt to say, as honestly as possible, that as soon as I accepted my poems, the visions within them, the earth they painted, and the often overwhelming, confusing and at times mystical circumstances of their generation, in short accepted those parts of my consciousness subdued and dismissed for so long—imagination, intuition, empathy, power, myth—as exactly those parts that are who I am and which give me strength, there has been no going back to the level of language where words and images are not shamanic and incantatory.
I think in the end the relationship between magic and poetry hangs upon an issue of perspective. Whereas in the past, except for rare, brief moments of creation, I looked at poetry from outside, I now look at it from within. It has re-wired my entire mind. I can’t step outside any more. The poetic trance and what it can shape has become such a common experience with me that now I look at the world and the non-poetic prose traditions that sustain our culture in its present form through poetry and in terms of poetry.
Just as monasteries were once the repositories of culture in Europe, literature has sustained poetry for generations now. What literature does with poetry, however, and the poetry it is possible to write within the critical/fictional universe of literature, is not the sole definition of poetry. Literature is only one context for poetry, one that has proven extremely popular in a culture quite alienated from both the earth and poetry, the language of our lives on the earth. I do not propose that my vision of magic, of an earth woven of speech, and consciousness woven of the earth, recreating and reforming the moment of primal time, is the entire poetic universe, nor that it is the only viable metaphysic. I do pray, however, that more and more of us will step away from our subjugation and celebrate our craft on its own terms, and for each other. People will hear.
A German Trickster in Canada: Introduction to Peyote
An idea becomes a man, who becomes a dream, which becomes a history, which becomes a shamanic journey, which becomes a landscape, and it’s all a joke, told so many times that truth vanishes and the joke is spat out with a tender vehemence and a coyote laughs, passing effortlessly between the lands of the living and the dead. Welcome to the world of Stefan Schütz, the world of a dark clown, brimming with rage, wisdom, and a mocking tenderness, in which “the clown is at the centre of the ceremony.” The clown is the hallucinogenic drug mescal, derived from the peyote cactus, but also Coyote the trickster, Windigo the glutton, an Indian cynically milking the whites in Calgary, a big joke played on anthropologists, the Creator creating the world on a dancing floor, and an unseen German author travelling through — and mocking — his dreams. They are all bound by an impulse towards the destruction of control and expectations. The clown opens people to revelation; the real revelation is the clown itself.
In his article “Artist and Community” (1985), Schütz remarked, “Every attraction to the world, towards hope and action, that is if we’re to come to terms with it, is based on the assumption that a person is at the centre of it, the sun around which everything turns and warps. Wishful thinking that has nothing to do with the real world. That a person is free from restraint. Or: that only a community creates the freedom for an individual and his or her needs.” Set in a metaphorical derelict’s shack at Banff, in the heart of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, Peyotè is a manifestation of this troubled relationship between an individual and his or her context. When Schütz wrote “Artist and Community” he had not yet conceived of his radio drama Peyotè and its explorations of the limiting yet self-supporting images Native Americans and Whites often have of each other. He was delineating the relationship between East and West Germany in the latter years of the Cold War. A theatrical prodigy, direct heir, through the great postmodernist playwright Heiner Müller, of the deliberately shocking propaganda theatre of Bertolt Brecht and a master of the Theatre of the Absurd, in 1985 Schütz had only recently crossed the Iron Curtain. He was feeling his way into a new life in the West, where he was applying the same relentless skills of observation to his new life that he had before to the excesses of the Stasi, the East German State Police, and the stultifying apparatus of official Communist society. Make no mistake, though. For Schütz the struggle was not against Communism, but against a cynical and manipulative world view: East Germany struggling against the echoes of its National Socialist manifestation by setting up a Communist state using its own thugs and its own violent tactics; West Germany struggling against them by adapting passively to the capitalist conquerors who supplanted it in that zone of occupation. Looking to the larger context, Schütz was unwilling to choose between these two responses to the tragedy of history. Ten years later, in Peyotè, we see Schütz still trying to work out the consequences of sitting on the fence.
To say that Schütz is the heir of Brecht is not to drop names or engage in a propaganda exercise, because in a very real sense the dichotomy he expresses between violence and Utopia, between East and West, between Capitalism and Communism, between men and women, between dissidence and acquiescence, is still the struggle in which Brecht was engaged in the ’20s and the ’30s, when Fascists and Communists slugged it out in the streets, each as violent, idealistic, and cynical as the next. Here is the great story of Europe in the twentieth century, still working its way out through Schütz’s words. On his move to the West, Schütz found himself suddenly neutralized, without an easily delineated audience and without a clear aim for his dissent. Instead of writing the cynical, brash, aggressive plays of Utopia which had become his trademark, he saw the tragedy that was blocking human energy and keeping the battle from resolution: the fact that we were battling at all. It is a true tragic flaw, and there seems no escape from it. Schütz expressed it in Brechtian/Müllerian slogans: “HOW CAN THE REALITY OF APPEARANCE AND SUPERFICIALITY BE KEPT IN CHECK IF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY THEMSELVES PUSH INTO THE VERY CORE OF THE WORLD TO PROBE THE PRIMAL COMPONENTS OF LIFE?” and, in reference to feminism, “WITH THE DISCUSSSION THAT WILL ENSUE BETWEEN TWO WORLD VIEWS BEGINS THE REAL TRAGEDY OF MANKIND.” He undercut the latter of these slogans very tellingly, contextualizing his characteristic leeriness of even his own ideas, by adding: “FroM the perspective of a man’s thoughTs. ” Clowning, which Schütz had used to escape the Regime in such plays as Der Hahn and Stasch, came to his rescue. The human perspective, the perspective of the clown, with his amoral, slapstick violence, who belittles in order to open the door to creativity and life, would, in confrontation between the Middle-European intellectual and dissident Schütz and the Native American culture of the Canadian Rockies, however degraded it was by confrontation with European dreams and technology, provide him with the distance he needed to break free from his stalemate. If Schütz had become a tragic figure — the combination of East and West and a man tied to the horror of his cultures cognitive and material technologies and distrustful even of his language —he now had an Other again, so like him in temperament and experience and yet so different as well. The Other provided him with a first chance to step outside of his relativism and gain a focused perspective on his own thought processes, to root out from them the oppressions and distortions and lies. Schütz was dreaming of an escape from complacency but, with his background in the day-to-day realities of the Warsaw Pact and Cold War Eastern Europe, it seems he doubted very much the chances of his success: “Appearance and superficiality have entered into that unwholesome pact, which is so predisposed to stimulate every kind of movement, thought, and life, that we assume we are dealing with our own movements, thoughts, lives and THE FREEDOM WE ARE LOOKING FOR.”
Two years in Alberta in the early ’90s proved very fruitful for Schütz, and gave him two works. The first is a novel, Schnitters Mall, a scathing indictment of western consumer culture set in a Dantean version of the West Edmonton Mall. All statements in Schnitters Mall are clichés, spoken by characters who are nothing but the roles they play. It is a rollicking send-up which continually devours its own language. By 1985, Schütz saw himself as a prisoner of a male dictatorship, with the slogan “FREEDOM THROUGH MONEY” over the main gate. “This alienation and dislocation from reality is latent in all systems of power,” he wrote, noting further that it underlies both Communism and Capitalism. Grounding this observation in citizenship, he wrote the ground rules of a purified dissent, “People are neither free nor enslaved. They are in process. Like all material things, they sprang from movement. To make people aware of that again can be one of the tasks of art.”
The second of Schütz’s Canadian works is Peyotè, a radio drama recording his confrontation with images of an older spiritual world of shamans and spirit quests, hallucinogenic visions and travel to the land of the dead. Schütz ratchets up the journey motif a characteristic notch, though. Journeys to the land of the dead are traditionally undertaken by shamans, but even though a shaman’s is the only voice present for the duration of Peyotè, there is no shaman in it, only the voice and stereotypes of one, within the words written by a German writer at a writing desk in Germany, using all the stereotypes adhering to Banff to negate each other and to break down his pride so he can see through to a new purity. Caught up in the momentum, he breaks that down as well. The whole western confrontation with the old cultures of the New World is laid bare here and little, whether characters, stories, images, or even perceptions, is not brought down to a degraded dance around objects, sometimes creative, as with the creator sprinkling semen in the primal joke of the dance of creation, sometimes destructive, as in the old Indian guide’s lust for the traveller’s watch and wallet. Ultimately, physicality is the ruin of this world. The societal and perceptual chain Brecht was trying to break in the Weimar Republic so that a truly free brotherhood of workers could step out from control, ideas seized upon and manipulated even more successfully by the Nazis, is also Schütz’s work. In a sense this was also Nietzsche’s work, not beyond Good and Evil, as Nietzsche envisioned it, but a century farther along the road: beyond the individual and the state, beyond life and death. The shaman here, or at least the world-weary, degraded, mumbling, taunting clown of one, is addicted to peyote just as the invisible writer is addicted to time and wealth and his precious self-contained intellect. The shaman longs for the writer’s physicality, just as the writer longs for dissolution in a trance. In the end, the shaman is undone by his own subtlety. The cynic, the fool, the puppy, the blind man who never speaks and whom we never see, whom we only intimate and yet who orchestrates the whole production, is ascendant in his stupid, blundering, physical shell. And yet, as in all good tragedy, the process of battling a tragic flaw — in this case all of received history and especially its tradition of Utopia — is redemptive, even while it exudes shame and a sense of irretrievable loss.
In form, Peyotè echoes the peyote rituals of the Native American Church, the spiritual movement that has swept North America since the decay of most traditional Native American spiritual traditions. In the same way that western spirituality is centred on the idea of the self and its ability to maintain itself in the face of negation and the passing of time, the rites of the Native American Church are centred on the hallucinogenic drug mescal, derived from the peyote cactus. A traditional session at the church involves ingesting several of the tiny cactuses and then waiting in the dark for the visions to come. Their stages roughly parallel the stages of this book, from well-being and a sense of consciousness and intellectual power, to nausea, to distortions of vision, then a vague play of light and images with the eyes closed, then a flush of kaleidoscopic images accompanied by faintness and tremors in the hands, and, finally, vivid visual effects when the initiate looks at bright light. An overdose leads to nausea, an inability to breathe, convulsions, and distortions of the sense of the physical body. The return from the trip is sudden, not gradual, and is accompanied by the feeling that the regained world is a dream. Many initiates have felt that they have been attending their own funerals, seeing their own bodies brought into the ceremonial tipi in the place of breakfast. All these components have their place in Schütz’s part-peyote, part-creative vision, as does the belief of repeat mescal users that they are able to transfer their psyche into the bodies of other people, to watch themselves from there, and the more general beliefs that peyote is not a plaything, that if you play with it it will turn around and play with you, that peyote is a wise old man, that peyote is a direct link to God. What Schütz adds to this list is the identification of this journey with colonialism, both historical and ongoing, his own shocking version of clowning, the western creative impulse itself, and the aggressive, rapacious, and destructive drive of the western mind towards deeper and deeper understanding. Preventing any escape into transcendent rapture, Schütz links this drive to the drug peyote. The noble savage, the transcendent hallucination, the wise writer, the enraptured tourist: all these motifs of contemporary life are negated by Peyotè.
Schütz is not playing a role. He doesn’t place much stock in good people and good works. He would rather have people and societies in the act of transformation, and he will get such transformation wherever he can. For many years he lived in Hanover, where he had a view of Weiße Kreuz Platz, a square where drugs are dealt, “drunks lie on the grass, and people are shot to death in Café Metropol. For a writer, that’s a very stimulating environment!” He has remarked that it is in evil, in breakdown and destruction, that he finds the greatest good. So it is in Peyotè, with its devastating and fertile confluences of creativity, innocence, manipulation, and ignorance. As in Schnitters Mall, the language pours through clichés, and delights in the way they put an unsettling edge to an otherwise formal diction.This is stand-up humour at its best. If a truth emerges in all this envisioning of a trickster at work it is that the desire to maintain the individual self is a tragic flaw as great as Oedipus’ incestuous desire or Macbeth’s cynical lust. A quest for physical transcendence becomes a grotesque dance with death, which is the eroticized and shocking creation of the world. But the one man in this story does not speak, except by inference, until he grows in assurance and all visions cease. The audience is left with silence. And the need to act.
Stefan Schütz was born to a theatrical family in 1944 and started his career working for the Berliner Ensemble and the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, working for many years with Heiner Müller. He published 18 plays, much to the aggravation of the Stasi, before he moved to the West in 1981. In 1985 he received West Germany’s highest literary prize, the Alfred Döblin Prize, for his prose work “Medusa,” a radical reckoning with late-Stalinist Communism, which, he noted, he couldn’t have written without the attentions of the Stasi. Peyotè was first performed in 1996, by DeutschlandRadio Berlin.
In making this translation, I have sought to bring Schütz’s inventive mix of devastating humour, colloquial and formal dictions, cliché and proverb, lyricism and cynicism forward into Canadian terms. At times I was able to translate directly his German expressions, at times I was able to make appropriate Canadian substitutions, and occasionally I was able to insert Canadian expressions into points where the sense of language and the possibilities of Canadian English made them inevitable. At all times, I have remained faithful to Schütz’s intent, and the translation has his blessing. There are two guiding principles behind this work. The first is to translate it into a living, speaking voice, one that brings all the comic energy of the German alive for an English-speaking audience. The second is that translations are not made of words but of the intent of the words and, most importantly, of their contexts. I have held to that. I wish to thank Horst Martin for all the work he did on this project, from introducing it to me in the first place, to correcting my translation and keeping me from straying from Schütz’s text into my own enthusiasms. Thanks also go to my publisher, Ron Hatch, for believing in this project in a difficult publishing climate, and to Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz, for her encouragement and enthusiasm when I needed it the most, and for generously sharing her library. This book has been a labour of many. I hope its publication will help that work to grow, because it brings to Canada a most valuable gift: an outside view, against which we can measure and challenge ourselves.
June 22, 2001
108 Mile Ranch, B.C.
Pun Intended: Introduction to Free Will
“The clown is the center of the ceremony”
Stefan Schütz, Peyote
This book began in 1975, when I drove off the farm to Victoria in a 1957 Ford Sedan with four colours of paint and a bullet hole in the back window. Who knows where the bullet hole had come from. I bought that old beater off my brother for $150. He used the money to buy himself a Honda 450, with a roll bar and lots of chrome. He was into Easy Rider. I was off to play Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, on the strength of a passion for the absurdist theatre of Ionesco. I thought it best not to ask about the bullet. Slipping the blue toque off my long golden hair and clearing my head of Leonard Cohen’s “Songs of Love and Hate”, which were rolling around in there like a piece of gravel in a hubcap, I thumped around a minimalist set for six weeks, speaking spells, making magic, and acting that I was acting. Fifteen years later, I woke up with a start in the middle of the night, sweating, repeating lines from the play, but this time voicing them as they cried to be voiced — singing, laughing them out, teasing, calling, taunting. The dreams, if they were dreams, continued for years. I was no longer acting.
The result is this book. Shakespeare rattles around in it, as he does in my head, with his fools and lovers, his cross-dressers, his heroes who aren’t heroes, his tragedies that aren’t tragedies, his comedies that often have more in common with Monty Python and La Cage aux Folles than with high art. Ionesco is never far behind. The whole avalanche of poetry that has come down off the mountain of Purgatory with surrealists skiing madly before it, absurdist playwrights digging up somnambulist lyricists, and visual poets and sound poets tramping in with their dogs and their barrels of brandy, end up tumbling into the après-ski chalet of this book, where Puck tends bar. Here, though, their stunt acts and special effects, a world of hallucinatory dreams and silent-movie utopias, are brought back to the world of reason, and bed it.
Puck is a fairy, a trickster, the one who stands outside of all stories and causes them to take place, capriciously. He is also a trick himself, a piece of sleight-of-hand. Shakespeare-Houdini, that master of mirrors and disguise, set up his sonnets as Chinese boxes. The only escape from them is the point at which physical and spiritual love cross. In the same spirit of pulling rabbits — or himself — out of hats, Shakespeare set up his plays as mazes of mirrors, out of which there is only one avenue of escape: theatre — a thing as light as air. Rapacious, driven, compulsive, unpredictable, impulsive, vital, frightening, transient, sexually ambiguous, and dangerous, Puck is the creative imagination itself. The card huckster that is Puck has his own mirrors, too: Lear, who mocks himself; the sinister but smiling Iago; the indecisive Hamlet, who plays his own fools. They differ from Puck only because the space created for them forces their energy into different straight jackets, as our different bodies do to our own souls. United by an urge to live, and to live freely, these characters fight their fate — Will Shakespeare, who penned them in. By pulling the rug of tragedy out from under their feet, he is forcing them, the actors who play them, and any of the others of us who let them pound the boards in our minds, to think for ourselves, and to free him, Will, from death. The plays are great, complex, incantatory and alchemical engines. God help us all.
Any combination of reason and unreason is absurd, of course. The city of this book is populated by clowns and fools. Punch, Coyote, Charlie Chaplin, Robin Goodfellow, Black Adder, Marcel Marceau, and the shriners on their scooters in small town parades, all take their turns behind the camera, directing a scene from the show. The tragedy is common to them all — Shakespeare and his audience trapped within the house of mirrors of their minds, finding escape by putting on masks of themselves. In each scene, the mind shows up in a different mirror, each poem a different glint of light cast off a forest leaf or a stream in moonlight. In irreverent reverence, every poem collected here circles around, fills, and ultimately retreats from silence, a finger on its lips. Randomness, and the ability of the mind to outrun its snapping jaws, to dance around it, daring it to do its worst, is all. Reason, in this universe, is not a prison.
This vision of Puck has roots in the old definition of infinity: if you were to lock 10,000 monkeys in a room with 10,000 typewriters, they would eventually write Hamlet. In this book, they do — and a lot of other plays besides: comedies, tragedies, romances, histories, gallows humour, the works. These lab chimps finally get their own say, free of surgical implants and double-blind controls. In their plays, though, as in Shakespeare’s own, the tragedies are not about tragic heroes. Instead, they detail the repercussions of tragedy upon people, how it constrains them, and how, by joy, delight and by playing roles they can be released from the cage of living alone in a vast, unknowable universe, where scientists wear identification badges and white coats and bring medications on steel trays. Hamlet is not Hamlet’s play, for instance, but Ophelia’s. Her play appears here, stripped of Shakespeare’s distorting lens that gave us Hamlet’s story instead. Iago’s play is here as well. So is Puck’s. And Desdemona’s. Here, too, are actors identifying with their parts until the two are indistinguishable. The stage becomes the audience, the audience the actors on the stage. A new sequence is added to Shakespeare’s sonnets, bringing them into the world of prime time sitcoms and cop shows. The major genres — and some minor ones — of western literature are put on stage, to do their vaudeville act, and Puck makes his magic, or reaches out his hook. In this universe, the subconscious mind will not be contained and takes equal stage with its conscious twin. I call that art. Shakespeare appears, dressed in the monstrous garb of free will. It is the choice he can offer. The magic is real. I have followed Puck’s lead and have picked it up.
Welcome to the show!
Preface to A Delicate Fire
Eight years ago I returned to the Interior to farm. Against the demands of words and family the farming has, however, grown ever more sporadic. If I have found a home here it is, surprisingly enough, in language.
Excepting only my (lenghty) Ptolomaic, Manichean and Poundian enthusiasms, this book spans eight years and five dsicreet, much-travelled, manuscripts. As I ahve come tos peak of our time from an oblique angle, from its edges trather than from its centre, much of this work has not fit easily into recognized aptterns. hopefully the overview provided by this volume can bring this work, so to speak, home. The arrangement and selection of the poems is Robin Skelton’s , not my own, and for the lucidity he has brought to the marriage of usch seemingly disparate materail I am, as always, in his debt.
When the old German city of Freiburg was bombed by the Americans in the Second World War, the only building spared was the cathedral — by accident rather than by design. Just as Freiburgers consider it a gift from the past, so have I found language. The old cosmologies inherent in it are our wealth. The earth itself is such a fragment, as are trees and speech. These poems try to convey some of this excitement.
When I first came back to farm, I thought peotry was pretty seious stuff, but I’ve come to think what seriousness it has is incidental. It is a game, and like the games of children it absorbs all, and often rises out of pieces of torn cardboard and discarded bottle caps. It is a celebration. Every poem is an integration, or reconciliation, or marriage, betwen elements that have in the struggles between darkness and light become separated from each other. So is this book. It is for my daughter, Anassa. At three years of age, she is my greatest teacher.
Keremeos, April 5, 1989