Sunday, October 14, 2007

Gwendolyn MacEwen

In my spare hours in TO I read Gwendolyn MacEwen's The T.E. Lawrence Poems, from cover to cover. Suitable, perhaps, to be reading a Toronto poet in TO. While I made my escape by moving six hours down the highway, she did so by traveling and feeding her imagination on more exotic sources. Much of her work draws on ancient Egyptian and other mythologies; this collection, which some consider her best, is a fragmented narrative of the life of Lawrence of Arabia. Long have I admired this poet's brilliance. Her two-volume selected is one of my treasured possessions. She was, for better or for worse (better for her poetry, I like to believe), a poet who lived on the edge: she dropped out of high school at 18 to write, lived by her considerable wits and never looked back at (or forward to) any sort of academic career. Unfortunately, despite her substantial contribution to Canadian letters -- which was recognized through many awards including the GG, inclusions in major anthologies, etc. -- she died alone, poor, of alcohol related causes in downtown Toronto at the age of 46. (Need I editorialize? In Japan, an artist of her stature would have been named a National Treasure.) Below is perhaps my favourite poem in the TE Lawrence collection; because a Google search turned up nothing, I transcribed it here (only approximating, within the limits of my html encoding, the formatting of the lines).

Only God lives there in the seductive Nothing
That implodes into pure light. English makes Him
an ugly monosyllable, but Allah breathes
A fiery music from His tongue, ignites the sands,
invents a terrible love that is
The very name of pain.

The desert preserves Him
as the prophets found Him, massive and alone.
They went there, into that awful Zero
to interpret Him,
for Himself to know, for He said: Help me,
I am the One who is alone, not you. Tell Me who I am.

Camels lean into the desert, lost in some thought
so profound it can only be guessed. When
Will God invent man? When
will the great dream end?
My skin crawls with a horrible beauty in this
Nothingness, this Everything –

I fall to my knees in the deep white sand, and my head
implodes into pure light.

-- Gwendolyn MacEwen, from The T.E. Lawrence Poems

For those who don't know her, here's a small sampling of other poems. If you have only time for one, try Dark Pines Under Water. I won't say any more; just try it.

1 comment:

Pris said...

Her writing truly is beautiful, Brian. Thanks for guiding me to her. What a loss to die at that age.