Esther McIlveen writes a column, "Here's Life," for the Richmond News in Richmond, B.C.
My husband and I were newly married and out to change the world of the underprivileged in Toronto when Margaret Avison entered our lives in the late '60s and worked with us for three years. Margaret, who is one of the most achieved poets in Canada, has won the Governor General's Medal twice; once in 1960 for Winter Sun and again in 1989 for No Time.
Many consider Margaret to be a poet's poet and primarily a metaphysical poet. The Australian poet, Keith Harrison, claimed she was an accomplished poet like Gerard Manley Hopkins. "Avison is everywhere a religious poet, in that all her work is a celebration of the Created world." Ernest Redekop wrote, "The contemporaneity of Christ underlies her religious poems which expresses visions of rebirth as they draw on the tradition of Donne, Herbert and Hopkins." Ray Daniels says of her writing, "it's a revelation of intense struggle and unrelenting pressures."
Margaret hobnobbed with Raymond Souster and Leonard Cohen; achieved her master's degree in Old Norse Icelandic and was a writer in residence for Western and York universities. She was as shy as she was brilliant. She used to "write down in school" so she wouldn't get higher marks than her peers.
We referred to her as the poet of mirth, because of the twinkle in her eyes and her playful words, "I am coming closer like a sneeze." "Wintry wind is sounding tonight like all earth was a jet-plane and my bedroom left behind in the slipstream."
Shortly after Margaret joined us, she presented this poem:
- Remember the snooty curmudgeon
who went off in high dudgeon?
And the fellow who saved up enough
to follow him off, in a huff?
(A last one, all polish and spit
went off too, in a snit!)
(Are those the three
in a sieve afloat?
Or who put to sea
in a pea-green boat?)
WELL (says the rueful riff), that is one way of doing it…
But praise and peace be with you
who go by the chart
that gathers all of us with you in
close of His heart!
I love the family called McIlveen
who are never "off" but always, in Him, "in",
draw nearer wherever they are
even now as they go
they are drawing the rest of us nearer.
And that (tap the bongoes, strum at the
the way of doing it!
We were much younger than Margaret, but she made us feel that our simple lives helped to "harmonize her discords!"
- "The very first contacts with the work you are doing seemed very meaningful in a way that seemed a real prompting for me. You know how busily I scattered static on the lives — and I feel that you kept a clear prayer for a clear line, through the dim time, so that this chance could be given me afresh. I go about with a feeling of a new secret delight in the days ahead."
At the time we were working at Evangel Hall, an inner city mission run by Knox Presbyterian Church on Spadina in Toronto, with about 100 single men, a dozen teenagers and a group of women.
The area, with its bleak physical appearance and confused moral climate, attracted many social cripples. Here weak intelligence, poor health, low social and economic status and disorganized personalities found a measure of acceptance.
We had chosen to live in the inner city much to the consternation of our families. Margaret, however, felt comfortable in the area, linked up with us and we began to see these people through her compassionate eyes.
- In affluent days the coats we wear
in "the slums" are often fur.
Anything somebody who died
once wore, or somebody grew wide.
And most used shoes
are shaped for the first person's toes.
Yet a change is as good as a rest
And no holes or leaks in shoes
is considered blesst.
When one of our men, Roy, cut his wrists, he said of his action, "I tried to cut off my callouses." Margaret quoted a Spanish philosopher who said that the worst horror was watching a knife pass into your flesh — your forearm, he said — and feeling, being able to feel, nothing.
This episode made Margaret recall her spiritual awakening.
- "The knowledge of deadness in the emotional nature was my first clue to need, when I saw the aliveness God had given the witnesses he put in my way. The marvel of the force of live feeling was the first continuing astonishment that followed on believing, not "religious feeling" but an awakened emotional nature altogether — new awareness, anger as well as joyfulness, etc., all day, in every contact and circumstance to have a real emotional tone present again — it was "newness," for since the age of ten I'd forgotten what this was like, it seemed."
Margaret loved and understood the characters at the Mission. She identified with their poverty, mental illness and aloneness. For one of the Mission's windows, Margaret wanted to write, "You don't have to go it alone." She wrote a story about John who was in advanced stages of schizophrenia, called, "27 pairs of worn out shoes" (which is the only thing they found after John moved from his rooming house). She tried to brighten their lives by introducing them to special events such as viewing William Kurelek's art.
Through a difficult period she encouraged us, "Silly me — if I were ruling the universe I'd float you like a tulip petal on pools of beautiful rich, quiet for awhile. And I say that as though the true Ruler won't do much more with much more caring! It's just plain hard for me to learn I'm not to be Mrs. Fixit. Let's be lucky together that I don't get a chance!"
Margaret lived with her mother who was elderly and blind. She wrote us, "Mother found, for the first time [she had been in the Psalms in Braille and just moved to John's Gospel] the Braille of the name Jesus Christ. She said when her fingers traced it and she knew what the symbols were, a queer lovely warmth shone out all through her."
Margaret and her mother spent a New Year's Eve with us when our children were small. Mabel Avison wrote a note, "The little communion service was such an inspiring way to begin the New Year."
Years later, our twins had the joy of studying her poems, "Snow" and "The Dumbfounding" at Hillside Secondary in West Vancouver, B.C. When the teacher tried to pronounce Avison, they proudly corrected him!
We know something of her struggle in becoming a follower of Christ when she bargained with God, "You can have everything except my writing." Much later she threw her Bible across the room and exclaimed, "Alright then, damn it, You can have my writing too."
Margaret Avison's life has been like a effulgent rainbow arching over brilliant and illiterate minds and the poorest of the poor.