South of North – Images of Canada
Richard Outram, with drawings by Thoreau MacDonald
Edited by Anne Corkett and Rosemary Kilbourn
Reviewed by Ingrid Ruthig
In 2004, a year before he died, Richard Outram gave a manuscript of 115 unpublished poems to Anne Corkett and Rosemary Kilbourn. According to their introduction to the book which resulted, South of North — Images of Canada, the collection was “written in three months in response to a request from the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto to provide a text for a song cycle commissioned from the composer Srul Irving Glick, in celebration of the Club’s ninetieth anniversary in 1998. Of the 54 poems presented to him, Glick chose eight, setting them for baritone/mezzo-soprano and piano. The songs were performed entitled South of North: In Honour of Thoreau MacDonald 1901-1989.”
During the twentieth century, artist Thoreau MacDonald was considered Canada’s foremost book illustrator. Son of Group of Seven (as well as Arts and Letters Club) member J.E.H. MacDonald, Thoreau’s passion for nature and philosophy of simplicity (along with the limitations imposed by colour blindness) greatly influenced his art. His linocuts and wood engravings are spare, black and white studies of the rural, Canadian setting. MacDonald once wrote of his work it “is best to eliminate the unnecessary and accentuate the essentials …they represent more the spirit and feeling of the place and time than outer appearance.”
Outram, a keen admirer of MacDonald, hoped to bring together the images and the poems they inspired. Corkett and Kilbourn took up the task, carefully ordering then assembling the collection, with Outram’s assistance. He lived to see the preliminary draft. Published this past fall by The Porcupine’s Quill, the text and images are meticulously set, and the result is a book of understated elegance.
In response to MacDonald’s art, Outram focused on “the essentials” to construct poems that are resplendent with that “spirit and feeling of the place and time”, and even though most are physically compact on the page, none lacks impact. Each contributes to a sense of the whole, the poems together shaping a patchwork quilt of observation, image, and emotion. Each also resonates with a measure of the isolation inherent in a rural life, where the elements, seasons, and solitude dominate.
The study “Farmhouse Bedroom” illustrates this, as well as demonstrating a precision and simplicity that carry enormous weight:
dawn on the hoar
strictures of Egypt
ferns and lianas
of lush jungle.
A woman deftly
a chipped white
watches her gauze
breath in the dark
Outram’s admirable determination to work language deliberately and to its fullest never waned; words rarely laze about. Here, “midwinter iron / dawn on the hoar” evokes a cold, sombre mood; then the startling, almost piquant, string of “tracefires”, “strictures”, “Egypt”, “geometries”, “ferns”, “lianas”, and “lush jungle” conjures a dynamic image of frost on glass. The scene that follows — that of a woman combing her hair — lulls the reader with its ordinariness, until the jolt of “watches her gauze / breath in the dark / mirror darken, vanish”. Breath disappearing into air suggests the harsh realities of winter and pioneer life, and of the ever-tenuous nature of existence itself. Even single words do double-duty, such as the reinforcing of “dark” and “darken.” And “gauze” is an unexpected thus potent adjective, a subtle echo of life’s thin substance (of death, spirit, or a metaphoric mummification even?), as well as a remarkable aural and visual tease — for a moment, we might think we read the word ‘gaze’, an illusion made possible by its proximity to “watch.” This is the richness and delight to be found in Outram’s poetry.
The wordsmith’s toolbox is comprised of the sounds of language and the images they create (or recreate from the world around us). These poems easily engage, largely due to their musical qualities, a relaxed aural playfulness that is not as overt in other Outram collections. One example is “May in the Caledon Hills”:
Stepping a moment into the soft night,
last thing before bed, dazzled at first
from lamplight still bright on the page;
and the pulsed relentless deafening throb
of frog sound swelled from the black pond
makes even the nearby green stars quiver.
Another is “Attendant in Manitoba”, an alchemy of sight and sound:
With a terrible steel screech the buzz-saw sun
rips through the blazing July mid-afternoon.
The old collie dog, flat as a pelt in the shifting
lilac shade of the shed, being dreamed, twitches…”
Occasionally, it seems this intense joy of language might threaten the writer’s control. In “Solitary”, the lush assonance of “…the sudden unmuffled rumble / of winter thunder sometimes heard / in the white gloom of a snowstorm…” while entirely evocative, could risk undermining our patience. Yet, it’s that quality of focus that also reclaims our attention a moment later: “He’d stand forever as if distracted, / watching the old marmalade tom / washing in brittle spring sunlight.”
Many of the poems are sketches capturing quiet moments. The inherent simplicity is unexpected for anyone familiar with the deep layering typical of Outram’s work; the reader assumes that far more must lie beneath the surface, that what cannot immediately be seen exists. Weightier pieces are certainly present, and don’t disappoint; “Questions of Barns”, “Legend”, “Love”, “‘Threescore miles and ten’”, and “Bay of Fundy Event” (below):
In the Minas
in tight formation
rise and fall,
swerve and veer,
returned as one
else we restive
come to under-
The poem’s centred form — one that Outram utilized frequently — allowed him to recreate what he saw while encapsulating what he perceived: “something / else we restive / vagrants never / come to under- / stand.”
It must be mentioned that throughout his career Outram collaborated with his wife, the artist Barbara Howard, who died in 2002. The work of each augmented that of the other’s. Stemming from the same creative expression, the visual and the literary came together in the many books and broadsheets of their Gauntlet Press imprint. In South of North, MacDonald’s drawings, the spark for several of the poems, play a similar role to Howard’s, providing a visual counterpoint and often-representational complement. Nuances of meaning or place are further revealed and enhanced when teamed with the pauses afforded by an image. The poem “Love” — “That strand of barbed wire is threaded deep into the maple; / well, the gnarled trunk has grown through the years around it…” — is paired with a winter scene, an extended perspective of an adult and child dwarfed by tall bare trees, telephone poles, and wood rail fences. Children’s books feed both eye and ear in this way, and here, our adult senses are able to rediscover the pleasure. The cover seems to reinforce this notion with a design that is reminiscent of those of the early twentieth century.
The title, too, is a nod to past times. If you speak of direction, ‘South’ and ‘north’ are relative terms. Yet, if you speak of place or setting, Canada’s persona as a wilderness of ‘North’ endures, even though most of its inhabitants now cluster in urban centres along its southern border. The collection encompasses the Canadian landscape, from Southern Ontario to the Arctic, from the Bay of Fundy to Vancouver Island. But it’s largely the landscape of a rural Ontario that Outram captures, and this is where echoes of the past (itself a ‘country’ apart) surface, in poems such as “Scrub Country”:
Sometimes, winding along the back dirt roads
with no poles, with snake fences straggled now
and again; concession lines where the corduroy
heaves each spring in the low swamp stretches,
you can glance down a deep, wavering, narrow
lane and catch, at dusk, a single, small, orange-
yellow, distant, low to the ground window, still
lit by a coal oil lamp’s soft light within. Home.
Outram deliberately — though not completely — set aside allusion and a thickly layered poetic narrative, to fine-tune his efforts to the aural and visual, and in so doing, offers up a simplicity that is surprisingly rich and resonant. More so in this posthumous collection than before, he embodies the artist as well as the wordsmith, painting with language his experience of a world he treasured, while never failing to aim for and reach deeper, earthier places. In “Near Queensborough” the “landscape is left / fenceless, unpastured, for miles on end; / it has yet to recover from man’s first / lumbering, several generations past, / when the last of the pine went…” but “lichens, with all the time in the world, / continue to spread their intricate rings / from a vanished original centre out / to the rumoured ends of the earth.”
Even in their own lifetimes, both Outram and MacDonald resisted comparison with their peers. As gathered in South of North, their work remains, granting us the spirit and feeling of place, regardless of label or definition. It continues to spread its intricate rings in all directions.