Saturday, August 11, 2007

Margaret Avison (1918-2007)

In a review article about The Dumbfounding (in Canadian Literature 38), Lawrence M. Jones makes reference to an unpublished essay that Margaret Avison composed about her relationship with Christ and its effect upon her work. Looking back on her early poetry, she announced "how grievously I cut off his way by honouring the artist" during her "long willful detour into darkness." Readers of Miss Avison's work will know that such a confession does not lead to her abandoning poetic care and plunging into artless canticles of devotional verse. She is not compulsively looking for security, as Germaine Greer would put it. Of all our poets, Margaret Avison is the most artfully daring. In the same article she speaks of the progress of her personal belief from the "will to be good," to "getting to be where Christ's suffering goes, terribly on."

Like the "metaphysical" poets, Miss Avison plays on paradox, and like theirs, her belief, religious or artistic, depends on the paradox not being that at all. She does not abandon the artist—she just does not any longer honour him. Honouring an artist is for non-reading people or poetry commissars to do; or if the artist is Christ himself, for church ministers to do. Honouring a prophet in his own country is to kill prophecy. There is no honour in that.
George Bowering, "Avison's Imitation of Christ the Artist," A Way With Words (Ottawa ON: Oberon Press, 1982)

It may have been just a blip on the television news last night, but poet Margaret Avison, two-time winner of the Governor-Generals' Award for Poetry and recent winner of the Griffin Prize, died last week at the age of 89 in Toronto. The author of numerous poetry collections over the years, and still publishing well into her eighties, Toronto poet Margaret Avison's work was admired greatly by a wide range of writers, readers and academics alike, from George Bowering to Margaret Atwood to Gary Geddes, and was even recently featured by Pam Brown in an issue of the Australian online journal Jacket magazine (being only the second Canadian feature in Jacket, after George Bowering).


Nobody stuffs the world in at your eyes.
The optic heart must venture: a jail-break
And re-creation. Sedges and wild rice
Chase rivery pewter. The astonished cinders quake
With rhizomes. All ways through the electric air
Trundle candy-bright disks; they are desolate
Toys if the soul's gates seal, and cannot bear,
Must shudder under, creation's unseen freight.
But soft, there is snow's legend: colour of mourning
Along the yellow Yangtze where the wheel
Spins an indifferent stasis that's death's warning.
Asters of tumbled quietness reveal
Their petals. Suffering this starry blur
The rest may ring your change, sad listener. (Selected Poems)

Her most recent collections were Concrete and Wild Carrot (London ON: Brick Books, 2002), which won the Griffin Prize, Momentary Dark: New Poems (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2006), and the three-volume Always Now: The Collected Poems (2003-5). As editor Geddes wrote of Avison in his 15 Canadian Poets x 3 (Oxford University Press, 2001):
Margaret Avison was born in Galt, Ontario, and educated at the University of Toronto. She has been a librarian, a secretary, a research worker, a lecturer in English literature, and a social worker at a mission in downtown Toronto. She is one of the finest but least prolific poets in Canada. During the early forties and fifties she contributed to Sid Corman's Origin, along with Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, and Robert Creeley. Apart from giving occasional readings and participating in a writers' workshop at the University of British Columbia, she has remained at the edges of the literary arena in Canada. Avison is an enthusiastic supporter of other writers and has translated a number of poems from the Hungarian, which appear in The Plough and the Pen: Writings from Hungary, 1930-1956 (1963), edited by Ilona Duczynska and Karl Polanyi. Sunblue appeared in 1978, Winter Sun/the Dumfounding: Poems 1940-1966 in 1982, No Time in 1989, Selected Poems in 1991, and Not Yet But Still in 1997. Her work has been discussed widely in journals and is now the subject of several critical studies, including Ernest Redekop, Margaret Avision (1970), David Mazoff, Waiting for the Sun (1989), David Kent, Margaret Avison and Her Works (1989), and David Kent (ed.), Lighting Up the Terrain (1987).
For the judges citation for her Griffin Prize win, one of the judges wrote:
If beauty, as Alfred North Whitehead defines it, is 'a quality which finds its exemplification in actual occasions,' and if beauty is more completely exemplified in 'imperfection and discord' than in the 'perfection of harmony,' then Margaret Avison's Concrete and Wild Carrot is an occasion of beauty. Avison's poetry is also alive in its sublimity and its humility: 'wonder, readiness, simplicity' ― the gifts of perception Avison attributes to her Christian faith ― imbue every poem in this book with a rare spirit of disorderly love. Margaret Avison is a national treasure. For many decades she has forged a way to write, against the grain, some of the most humane, sweet and profound poetry of our time.

Whoever longs for spring to come,
be stayed by winter's hamper-hued
but choicest—russet apples.

Though it still feel iron hard
its seeds are black, its juices sweet.

Aroma? in the seeds?
There is a fragrance of the one-day flower;
later, a tang of fruit; sharper in peel.

Where else is the aroma hid?
and how much more of good
sense, anticipated,
or understood. (Not Yet But Still)

As she wrote of her own work (from the University of Toronto website), Avison said:
(NOT Prescriptive) Initiate a poem only under compulsion. Hear the meaning, writing with a fix on the focus. Monitor the voice of the piece. If the focus lingers, overnight e.g., add or cut to clarify or simplify or complete the statement of the focus. After time has elapsed, reread vigorously, and revise--learned late from not doing it enough.
And too, I will let the last word be hers, from her Momentary Dark: New Poems:



Stocky, sturdy, the sun-
seasoned old man
craned his neck at the spectator's
hole in the boards
on yet another construction site.
He had not budged when I
glanced back.


"After a full day's work
home for more coping: he is
so ill, and failing;
then it would vex us both
if the livestock weren’t
seen to. My, what you can
do when it's called for!"


Expecting a baby, the woman
figures, with her friend,
how to adapt the apartment
to a family of four.
Her little boy, who's been playing
under the window, suddenly
shouts, "I know
BABY!" his body
eerily remembering. He lies
on the carpet, half-
lifts his head.
Vaguely waving his arms
he pumps with his legs. Then runs
to his mother, and
nuzzles as though
for a final time.

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