Margaret Avison, Poet

J.H. (Hans) Kouwenberg is editor of Channels and minister at Calvin Presbyterian Church in Abbotsford, British Columbia.

It has been nearly thirty years since a friend at Carleton University introduced me to the poetry of Margaret Avison, twice a winner of the Governor General's prize for the best in Canadian poetry, a committed Christian, who attends Knox Presbyterian Church on Spadina Street in Toronto, Ontario. My friend's name was Lawrence Jones. He was a graduate student in English language and literature and had just written an article on her recent Christian poetry called "A Core of Brilliance" which had been published in the then relatively new and upcoming periodical Canadian Literature (Autumn, 1968), 50-57. Unfortunately, my friend died in an auto accident a year later, on a trip to England. But the introduction he gave me has kept me reading, re-reading and enjoying Avison's poetry ever since.

Although her poetry had been published in periodicals and anthologized since 1943, her first award-winning collection of challenging poems, Winter Sun, was published in 1960.

I see much of Avison's work as urban poetry. Avison has worked at coming to terms with living in a large city. She has lived in the city of Toronto for a good chunk of her adult life. Scenes of Toronto — if you've been there before — often come to the reader's eye as one reads many of these poems. As in the poem, "All Fool's Eve," rooming-houses, balconies, the women, the men and the children of the streets come to mind. But, of course, Avison doesn't just describe the scene; she wonders at the "chill" of "The Sticks-&-Stones, this City"; she notices that it "Lies funeral bare." And we are left to wonder, is it the winter that makes the city so cold? Or is there something else at work? "Doors slam." Only occasionally, "Lights snap, [and] restore/ The night's right prose."

Other poems challenge the reader intellectually. Avison's is an urbanized, "educated imagination." Take the poem, "Dispersed Titles," for instance, largely about the achievement of Tycho Brahe, a Dane who lived from 1546 to 1601 and who was once regarded as the world's most practical astronomer. You might have to look up his name and work to get some idea of what Avison is talking about, unless you were already aware of him. But seeking out what she means is worth the search. Avison has an interest in many things. This is poetry for people who read more than Harlequin romances! Here in this poem, as in many of her poems, there are thoughtful and intriguing word choices, sentences that carry their thrust for many lines before they are completed, and an abundance of interesting literary and historical allusion.

Her second volume, The Dumbfounding, first published in 1966 by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York (and reprinted, along with Winter Sun, by McClelland and Stewart Ltd. in 1982), was titled after a poem by that name which reflects on the incarnation of Christ. The poetry in this volume revealed a deep Christian faith which had not been evident in her earlier work. Here are expositions of her own discoveries that God is present not only in the "blue-green, moist" "slope-field" of life — "a tangled shining" — but also in the "sour air/of a morning-after rooming house hall-bedroom," as in the poem "Searching and Sounding"; and, here are meditations on biblical Scriptures, such as "Ps. 19." Here are also meditations on Bunyan and his favourite verse in the Bible: "For Tinkers Who Travel on Foot." There are also a number of poems in this volume which have no explicit "spiritual" reference.

Perhaps it is true that literary critics have not found the Christian poems in this book to be as intellectually satisfying as the ones which Avison had published before — I have not come across much commentary on them. It is likely that some commentators have shied away from Avison's explicit expressions of faith. Hence, many of these poems may not be as familiar with the general public. They aren't anthologized as much as others. But there is much here on which to whet the heart and mind and soul. Personally, I have found these, as many of her other poems, to be helpful exercises for spiritual meditation. Above all, Avison is an attentive soul. She pays attention to what is going on round about her and within. She pays attention to what God is doing in her life and may be doing in the lives of others. Reading her poetry helps me pay attention to my own sense of attentiveness to God, to nature, to the "worlds" in which I live, to the Holy Scriptures, to other people, and to myself.

In 1978, Avison issued a further collection of poems, entitled sunblue, published by an obscure publisher — Lancelot Press, from Hantsport, Nova Scotia — which included a series of descriptive, reflective "sketches" and more of her explicitly Christian poetry — if you take poetry that mentions some aspect of faith, the Bible, or the life of Christ to be what defines "Christian" poetry. I don't think, by the way, that we should be so narrow in our view. If God has made the world and all that is in it and declared it to be "good" we can surely call many things "Christian"! C.D. Mazoff, a Jewish Christian, has written an illuminating commentary on Avison's poetics, theology and rhetoric in his book, entitled Waiting for the Son (Cormorant Books, 1989).

1989 saw another Governor General award-winning volume, No Time, also published by Lancelot Press. It is an austere, kind of "black-and-white" book. These are the colours, too, of the cover. Many, although not all, of the poems are about loss, mortality, the death of loved ones, aging and grief in contrast to the restoration, renewal and resurrection that I find in many of the sunblue poems. The titles of these two volumes are completely opposite. It is a somber book. And, yet, these poems are not without Christ. The Lord is still the one we may turn to in our grief. Note for example, in poem IV of "The Jo Poems" — an extended series of poems about the loss of Avison's friend from university days, Josephine Grimshaw — we read:

    My Lord, in horrible need I
    turn to the Book, and see
    sin and death, life in thee
    only, and cannot see,
    O living Word, I cannot see to see.

    I love this friend we've lost.

This is a book for grievers. These are poems in the style of Rabbi Earl A. Grollman's book for grievers, Living When A Loved One Has Died, (Beacon Press, 1977, 1987 2nd edition). There are no easy answers. There never are. There ought only be accurate statements and, perhaps, careful reflections about loss and grief. Maybe, after a long period of bereavement, after one has walked through some of "the valley of the shadow," can there be some adjustment and hope. But Avison's hope isn't cheap, false hope; it is hope grounded in the pain and companionship of one who also suffered and died before he rose again. One poem that struggles to understand hope in this way is "Heavy-hearted Hope." All those who know something of the losses we suffer and the friendship of the One "in whose hands are the issues of life and death" (Ps. 68:20 KJV) will be spiritually rewarded by reading this volume.

No doubt, in recognition of the major impact of Avison's work, Oxford University Press subsequently issued a volume of Selected Poems, gathered from each one of the previous four volumes, in 1991. This volume also included some previously "uncollected" and more recent "new poems." The back cover blurb correctly describes her as "one of Canada's greatest poets" and suggests that "Avison is an introspective modern poet with roots in the 17th-century traditions of metaphysical and meditational poetry."

Now, another slim volume, with an intriguing title which suggests that Avison, like all Christian souls, lives between the times, between now and then, between the joy of partial fulfillment, yet looking for that final and full fulfillment, Not Yet But Still, has been published by Lancelot Press, (1997). There are poems here that are reminiscent of all poems in each of the volumes of her poetry.

She returns to some of the vignettes of her encounters with nature in Toronto, her city, especially in winter, that great Canadian challenge to every Canadian's sensibilities. In the first poem, "Old Woman At a Winter Window," we surely have a self-portrait, now a "old master" sketch, with the familiar "optic heart" at work, about which Ernest Redekop commented so well (Margaret Avison, 1970, 5-52). Avison's poetry evidences an ability to "see," as William Blake saw, "through" not just "with the eye."

    From squared-off quarters
    through a frosted pane
    I stare into the glittering
    quartz of the air, marbled
    with tiny streamers from
    valiant chimneys down the valley.

At first glance, from her circumscribed, limited space she sees the wider expanse of a typical Toronto winter scene. She begins by simply staring. What else can you do on a winter day? The air is almost tangible, congealed like quartz. But, wait, there is more there than simply meets the eye:

    It is as if we pit ourselves
    against congealing it.

There is a battle going on. There is something precarious about the little spaces which we inhabit. Do we not see that we are "pit" "against" the onslaught of an illusion. It's a "fearful" experience if you think about it, winter ice is also a signal of "another space" which may beckon to a greater, more "glorious amplitude" than the little spaces we occupy.

    We claim these square ceiling and walls
    and floor from the immensity
    as all that have for us,
    meaning, against the encroaching ice,
    the ice that somehow signals another space, a fearful
    glorious amplitude.

Ordinary scenes encountered while walking in the vicinity of the university become moments for meditation and spiritual attention. In many of her poems Avison simply tells a story with attention to some meaning behind the surface of what goes on. In the poem "from Now-On?" Avison asks herself some questions about what it means when a parent's car comes to the college to collect "a son who believed / he had left home?" "Is it his last year?" "Where are his companions / to gather and conspire/falsely about reunions?" "For him, is this disruption? / 'An end and no beginning' / now his life's caption?" Has "the future closed down / with the slammed trunk?" Are there affectionate, prodigal thoughts about "the long-lost home town?" Chiding herself for "the vague inattention of a too / long life, out walking by that college" she wonders how many spring terms she herself has seen the cars load without noticing, without thinking. She is too hard on herself. She is attentive enough to make many moments meaningful moments of contemplation.

In this volume there are also many poems that meditate on the Scriptures, e.g., "Tell Them Everything That I Command You; Do Not Omit A Word" (Jer. 26:2b) and poems about the Christian Year. There are poems about the sick, e.g., "Thought In a Sick-Room" and about the loss of loved ones, e.g., "When Their Little Girl Had Just Died." There is a poem about words, e.g. "asap, etc." There is a poem about "Making A Living" and one about "Air and Blood."

Surprisingly, perhaps for someone who has largely been considered to be an all-too-serious, "introspective" poet, there are a number of poems which Avison has placed under a section title: "For the Fun of It." But these are not hilarious knee-slapping joke-poems which you might expect under such a title; they are whimsical little smiles that come upon observing life's lighter moments. Avison is not without a good sense of humour as only a peek at some of her recent pictures will show you or an encounter with her will tell.

The book concludes with an extended thirteen-page series of reflections on the biblical book of Job which are written "in the guise of a book review" — with its own sense of humour and — "which [the back cover blurb tells us] wrestles with questions we all ask and none answer."

Much of Margaret Avison's poetry is accessible to the average reader. A spiritual person who is willing to meditate on her meditations will be blessed.

    Sultry Day

    It smells like glue.
    The bus windows give on
    carsheds and
    abandoned storefronts.
    We do keep breathing
    though this vile air.

    Pressures are drawing in

    Soon there will rise
    a sulphur and violet sky.
    It will convulse in
    fire and water.

    Then, with the soiled old world
    hosed clean, the blue
    windows of light will be
    clear, the air
    cedar-tip sweet.

    Margaret Avison

From Not Yet But Still which was published in 1997 by Lancelot Press, Hantsport, NB. The rights are now held by Brick Books, London, ON. Printed by permission.


    "…do not omit a word" (Jeremiah 26:2b)

    Truth speaks
    all things into being.
    No word more, but
    not one left unspoken.
    Truth carves, incises,
    to the bone,
    and between bone and marrow.
    No wonder
    we want none of him.
    The wonder is
    truth loves;
    died of it, once.

    Truth lives.
    Acting on what is spoken,
    not a syllable extra,
    nothing omitted,
    brings into being
    just what is prophesied.
    That is the test —
    not of what has been spoken
    but for the hearer,
    his act.

      – Margaret Avison

From Not Yet But Still which was published in 1997 by Lancelot Press, Hantsport, NB. The rights are now held by Brick Books, London, ON. Printed by permission.