Friday, August 18, 2006

Andrew Suknaski's Wood Mountain Poems, 30th Anniversary Edition

Homestead, 1914 (Sec. 32, TP4, RG2, W3RD, Sask.)

I returning

for the third spring in a row now
i return to visit father in his yorkton shack
the first time i returned to see him
he was a bit spooked
seeing me after eleven years –
a bindertwine held up his pants then
that year he was still a fairly tough little beggar
and we shouted to the storm fighting
to see who would carry my flightbag across the cn tracks
me crying: for chrissake father
lemme carry the damn thing the
train’s already too close!

now in his 83rd year father fails
is merely 110 pounds now and cries while
telling me of a growing pain after the fall
from a cn freightcar
in the yard where he works unofficially as a cleanup man
tells of how the boss that day
slipped a crisp 20 into his pocket and said:
you vill be okay meester shoonatzki
dont tell anyvon about dis
commeh bek in coopleh veek time . . .

father says his left testicle has shriveled
to the size of a shelled walnut
says there’s simply no fucking way
he’ll see another doctor – says:
the last von trried to shine a penlight up myne ass
no von everr look up myne asshole
an neverr vill

while we walk through the spring blizzard to the depot
i note how he is bent even more now
and i think: . . . they will have to break is back
to lay im flat when he dies

in the depot
father guards my bag while i buy two white owl cigars
and return to give him one
and then embrace saying goodbye
and i watch him walk away from me
finally disappearing in the snowflake eddy near a pine
on the street corner
and then remember how he stood beneath a single lightbulb
hanging from a frayed cord in his shack
remember how he said
myne life now moveh to end vit speed of

Thirty years after it was originally published, comes Saskatchewan poet Andrew Suknaski's first trade poetry collection Wood Mountain Poems (Regina SK: Hagios Press, 2006), with a new introduction by Tim Lilburn, launched a couple of weeks ago at the Saskatchewan Festival of Words in Moose Jaw. Originally edited by Al Purdy, who had seen Suknaski's work and included it in the first Storm Warning anthology (1971), Wood Mountain Poems has long been considered one of the most important prairie poets over the past few decades, yet Suknaski's work has predominantly been out of print for years now, and Suknaski too, out of commission, living in a group home in Moose Jaw. An important book in the prairies, the back cover writes that "As fresh and relevant as when first published, Wood Mountain Poems is one of the first books from Canadian prairie literature to examine the division and shared experience between European settlers and Aboriginal peoples. In these poems we gain insight into the lives of historical figures such as Sitting Bull, Crowfoot and Gabriel Dumont." Even Ottawa writer and editor Armand Garnet Ruffo told me recently that it was Wood Mountain Poems and the cover image of Sitting Bull that gave him permission to write his own poems, about his own native heritage. As Lilburn writes in his introduction:
The first publication of Wood Mountain Poems in 1976 marked a beginning in the de-colonization of the West Canadian literary imagination — many have remarked on this; we were emboldened to think our own stories were worth telling, our own talk worth writing down. The book appears now an act of courage that made much possible: whole careers, a literature. Ginsberg called Whitman the old courage-giver; the same could be said of Suknaski in Wood Mountain Poems. Whitman's example gave Ginsberg a range of formational permissions — on volume; line lengths; the pilings of words; themes; on gayness; suppleness of association; on routine transgression: because of Wood Mountain Poems, a door opened in Western Canadian poetry to bar talk, tall farmer tales, and a spirit of bricolage in making. We'll build our own way of writing, we said to ourselves, up from our kitchen tables — and so we did.

Suknaski's ferality is also Whitmanic: his work attends to no pattern; instruction in the great cultural paradigms has not transfixed him; he's heard other things and followed them. He camped out on his own. Genius often comes from the margins; the understanding of one's land, the reading of one's place in one's locale, comes from the margins. Saskatchewan's two universities have contributed astonishingly little to the development of a regional literature, even less to the European settler task of mixing what Europe knew with what was on the plains in order to become "of" this place. Far more of spiritual and political benefit has come from Wood Mountain Poems and from the paintings of such "primitives" as Jan Wyers of Windthorst and W.C. McCargar of Balgonie. The roughness of Suknaski makes his poems, to my ear, seem even more elementally us than either Who Has Seen the Wind or Wolf Willow.
I've been doing my own Suknaski work over the past six years, editing a new edition of selected poems, scheduled for next spring with Chaudiere Books, There is No Mountain: Selected Poems of Andrew Suknaski (which should be one of the few trade books of his to include any of his visual works, hopefully up to about forty pages of), as well as a collection of essays forthcoming with Guernica Editions, Andrew Suknaski: Essays on His Works [see the long piece I wrote on Suknaski for the collection up at]. Through the process of going through as much Suknaski as I could find, I even accidentally put together the collection Nebulous medicine: the essays, statements and reviews of Andrew Suknaski (forthcoming, tba). If there are any pieces out there I might have missed, or pieces yet to be written on his works, please let me know.

Hopefully the stores will be filled with this new edition. Otherwise, check out Hagios Press c/o Box 33024, Cathedral P.O., Regina Saskatchewan S4T 7X2, ph: (306) 352 6944 or email them at

1 comment:

jhave said...

Hi Rob,

i just wanted to say thanks for writing on Susknaski (i read this and yr piece)'s a wonderful revelation to discover his work, and yr words provide a sympathetic informative vehicle that places it in context without rendering it sterile...