Monday, May 09, 2005

a note on Stephen Brockwell’s Glengarry poems

Stephen Brockwell, raised in Montreal by parents that included a Glengarry mother (a MacRae) (Brockwell is an Ottawa resident but self-proclaimed "Montreal poet"), writes poems that are highly crafted and intelligent, and explore issues that often include the county, but are larger than the county. No pining for the far-flung Glens in any of this, or vague presumptions of the "Scottish heart," but real poems based on living and observation. Far more conservative in form than Cornwall raised poet Don McKay, the first of Brockwell’s three collections of poems, The Wire in Fences (1987), is a whole collection built from the summers he spent in Glengarry county growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, to an area his mother not only retired to, but numerous of his family still reside. As the back cover of The Wire in Fences reads: "Stephen Brockwell was born in Montreal and grew up in St. Louis de Terrebonne and Baie D’Urfe, Quebec, spending summers and frequent visits at his parents’ farm in Eastern Ontario." In poems with such titles as "Old Hay in a Barn," "The Cats at the Back Door," "The Mower against Deerflies" and "Last Drive in an ‘81 Pontiac," Brockwell explores the place without having to name it, giving it voice in print where it had been there all along.


(1907 - 1983)

"What’s come will again. Anyhow,
although my damn hip’s almost shot,
I dust with a damp cloth
and in the domes of water beads
scattered on the coffee table,
see a white moth reflected,
wings pinching the air over my sweater.

For lunch,
beer and fish & chips on a tray.
There’s rust under the tray’s painted flowers.

A drop of brew for my throat,
as much water for the flowers.
Earth sticks to my fingertips.

I wish I could walk to the bush without a cane.
I could see snow settle on the cedars,
rabbits with high ears.

– Stephen Brockwell, The Wire in Fences

Unlike most poets who have dealt with the county Glen, Brockwell’s consideration reads far more personal; less about the history and more about simply being alive in that place, and understanding the people who live there; who have always lived there. Another good example of Brockwell’s vision of the county is the poem "The Mower on Bones," also from The Wire in Fences, but which first appeared in the anthology Poets 88, edited by Bob Hilderly and Ken Norris:


There was something caught in the blade’s steel teeth –
I hadn’t finished the first swath
before, with a snap of the blade, the shear-
pin sprang from the flywheel. A gear
clacked when I slapped the stick shift into stop.
I reversed in the hip-high crop
of hay so that the broken mower would lie flat
where the field was freshly cut.
I had expected silence when I choked
the motor off. But bullfrogs croaked
with their piston-throats in a nearby pond,
groundhogs chuckled under the ground,
and crows and grackles in the elm tops screeched
through the gaps in the drill-bit beaks,
all so loud I heard nothing when my boot,
stepping down, crushed a bone. My foot
rocked on its arches as my heel angled
under me. I became tangled
among so many scattered bones, I fell
toward the mower, where a skull
hung by its sockets on the mower blade’s
rusty teeth. Wide-eyed, I lay
staring at the jawless skull. In the seams
where the skull-sections met like streams,
small insects wandered toward a socket;
in the dim light they would pick it
clean, crawling around the wall of the eye
until the rim was white and dry.

I stood up to look at the other bones
but the ground was covered in stones
too. The only carcass parts I could find
were the skull, two joints from the spine,
the jaw, and two lower legs with hair still
clinging above the hooves. When will
I ever see that again: a jaw five years
from the skull and two legs as far
apart? I can’t explain it. Anyway,
I tried to kick the skull away
but only teeth flaked like plaster to the ground.
I went down on my knees to pound
the sockets off the mower’s teeth by hand
and the whole skull flew off to land
near the fence, and that’s where I left them all.
I thought, bones are bones and the skull
is at the fence; bones are bones, they should stick
together. So with a good kick,
or two, they were. And I also kicked a stone
to clear the field before driving home.

– Stephen Brockwell, The Wire in Fences

Even as a Montrealer living in Ottawa when The Wire in Fences first appeared, it’s too bad that the county never discovered it. Brockwell’s writing is all about precision. As part of his inclusion in the anthology Sounds New (1990), this is what Stephen Brockwell wrote as his statement on those early poems:

"I try to write poems that convey a reconciliation of idea and emotion that comes from a detailed observation of the external and internal world. For instance, a geometric object is seen as a representation of both scientific and human fecundity. Reflections of human experience are implied by the treatment of farm animals. An attempt is made to transcribe the events of a dream without interpretation while preserving the latent emotional content of the dream. The foregoing statements are, however, annoyingly precise. They are afterthoughts, the observations of words created by a process that is seldom described as it is performed. Although I often compile pages of notes for a poem before actually writing, a fortunate association between words is as likely to catalyse the poem as are those months of research and note collection. I pursue a logical process toward an illogical event: the writing of the first word. I hope that my writing also embodies a small part of that contradiction."

Brockwell’s sense of rural is a thread that continues, thirteen years later, in his second collection, Cometology (2001), if only in a couple of the poems, such as "Farm Animals," "The Sow," and the piece "Birch Messages," that begins:

To print this message on birch bark,
I walk east of Ottawa, in a forest
thick with cedars. Among fallen leaves,
half frozen in a pool, lies a racoon,
mouth open. Preserved in snow,
its tracks lead to a stand of silver
birch. A wild dog stalks
behind the birches,
revealing only fragments:
matted fur, a gaping jaw.
I fillet bark from a birch,
take this note.
I hear the dog breathe; its shape
spans trees, hunger in the hollow
fragments of its body. Snow falls,
covers my footprints; the racoon’s
tracks are a memory.

– Stephen Brockwell, Cometology

His third collection, Fruitfly Geographic (2004), extends the thread, even as he writes on other subjects and ideas, still held to that notion in the poem "Increase Macdonald," writing on the temperament of the Scots, which he knows so well from his own mother, in this fragment from the poem, starting:

To say that Increase Macdonald’s mother
fretted over her son’s uncertain future
would be in keeping with the understated
character of her Scottish ancestors.
She silently grieved in her sleep. She wept
in the bath quietly.

– Stephen Brockwell, Fruitfly Geographic

More recently, he has returned fully to the concerns first shown in The Wire in Fences, again exploring the plainspeak of the rural Glengarrian against his own formal considerations in a project titled "Bill McGillivray’s Cap And Other Poems." In these, he has taken what he wrote of in his first collection and made it more personal, more about the individual voice of the subject than about the distance made by a third-person narrator:

Bill McGillivray’s Cap

I may not yet be fifty but the field
underneath this cap’s not growing taller.
I can’t imagine going to the barn
without it. Someone would have to sneak
into the shed and steal it from the nail
it’s hung on since Dad brought it home for me
from Chicago before I’d forget to
put it on or take it off. If it weren’t there?
I’d stand as dumb as a November field.
I’ve had this John Deere cap for twenty years.
It wasn’t the last thing he brought me home.
It was the only thing he brought me home.

As Brockwell writes of home, what is it about this place that keeps us, returning, again and again, both in body and text? Or, body as text? What is it that keeps him returning, or Don McKay? In the film Garden State, Zack Braff’s character, returned home for the first time in over a dozen years, says, "That’s what family really is. A group of people who miss the same imaginary place." Wondering, if home really exists; if it ever had. In the introduction to the anthology Solo: Writers on Pilgrimage (2004), Katherine Govier writes:

"Even if she had reached the ancient homestead, would she not have found, like the rest of us, that our mark is overgrown?"

In an essay on "Baler Twine: Thoughts on Ravens, Home & Nature Poetry," in the collection Vis a Vis: Fieldnotes on Poetry & Wilderness (2001), Don McKay wrote:

"Home, we may say, is the action of the inner life finding outer form; it is the settling of self into the world."

What does that mean for a writer who has lived and written from various points around the country. What does that mean for a writer who is always returning to his Raisin River, and his "Williamstown autumn."

(taken from a longer essay in progress, "writing and reading Glengarry county")


John MacDonald said...

Interesting notes. Thanks for writing this.

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